Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Maulana Azad show how to deal with hurt religious feelings
The Udaipur murder was a demonic act under the facade of religiosity. We no longer give up the intensity fueled by the faith that condones blood-curdling lynchings and merciless killings. It appears that intolerant elements have gone out of their way to challenge what has been deemed an unforgivable offence. Perceived profanity often leads to confrontations between communities, and Muslims are frequently implicated. Muslims consider blasphemy as an abominable act for which the culprit must give his life. This is a popular account but has virtually no Quranic validation and is not consistent with what the Prophet did during his lifetime.
Two highly respected intellectuals and religious scholars from India, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-1898) and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958) found that the punishment for blasphemy was not in accordance with the teachings of Islam. The thorny issue of blasphemy resurfaced repeatedly in 19th and 20th century India, and Sir Syed and Azad, known proponents of opposing political ideologies, attempted to acquaint Muslims with credible Islamic laws dealing with question. They urged Muslims not to get carried away by emotions. Instead, they said, a cogently argued retort to profanity-filled books or remarks would be more effective.
In 1861, a civil servant and orientalist, William Muir (1819-1905), wrote a long and despicable book, The Life of Muhammad and the History of Islam at the time of the Hegira. He analyzed the pre-Islamic history of Arabia, the Quranic revelations and the sayings of the Prophet and concluded that reforms could not take root in Muslim society. Long before Salman Rushdie, Muir spoke of the reported satanic influences on the Prophet. The publication of the book provoked strong protests. Sir Syed denounced the book for its intemperate language, countless historical errors and contradictions. However, he clarified that the Quran does not specify corporal punishment for such a deplorable act. One should not take revenge in the name of the Almighty or his messenger. Proponents of violent protest want Islam to be known as a religion synonymous with bigotry, intolerance and ignorance.
Sir Syed made a point of preparing an unbiased reply focusing on the sources cited by Muir. In 1870 he visited England to consult books, manuscripts and other references widely used by Muir. His scholarly rebuttal, based on research spanning eight years, went well beyond anger-filled polemics. Sir Syed cited several examples to underscore the Prophet’s compassionate vision and unwavering moral and social commitment to a humane society. He also had the reply translated into English. For Sir Syed, blasphemy calls for no loud and violent protest and demands nothing less than a rational retort. This means responding to books with books, to words with words. Banning or burning books offers no solution (“kitab ka jawab kitab hai kitab jalana nahi”).
Many prominent Islamic jurists have pointed out that after conquering Makkah, the Prophet gave full protection to those who believed in the trinity. Quoting Imam Abu Hanifa (702-772), a widely revered scholar of Islamic jurisprudence, the famous Islamic thinker Arafat Manzar claimed that in the Islamic State a Zimmi (protected non-Muslim) could live with polytheistic views and if he insulted the Prophet, assassination is not the punishment because kufr (denying the oneness of God) is a greater sin than writing or uttering something that defiles the Prophet.
Notably, defiling the Prophet in the Islamic State was considered sedition because Islam was the state religion. Speaking out against the state is sedition; thus insulting Islam or the Prophet was an anti-national activity. Muslim caliphs succeeding the Prophet imposed the death penalty for blasphemy. This was intended only for the Islamic States. The question of blasphemy must be regulated by the legal provisions of a country.
In 1873, Bombay was rocked by a violent clash between Muslims and Parsis, following the publication of a translation of a Persian book allegedly full of disparaging remarks about the Prophet. Sir Syed responded to the situation by writing an op-ed in his bilingual newspaper, the Aligarh Institute Gazette, and explained what has caused communalism in India. For him, the real cause of the communal clashes was the insane talk of one community against the other, and because mutual respect between religions was not firmly rooted in the country. Misperceptions and preconceived ideas about different religions could easily aggravate the situation. The tendency to hurt the beliefs of others is based on the feeling of religious superiority, which went against the fundamental tenets of the faith. If the book, filled with hatred and ridicule, is published, the offended community could either respond or seek a constitutional complaint by seeking government intervention. Sir Syed wrote: “Don’t try to solve the problem alone. Bad books aimed at denouncing or scorning other religions must not find their way; the government must enact strict laws, and these laws must be regulated by the provisions of the sedition laws.
When Swami Shraddhanand’s (1856-1926) book was published, Maulana Azad, who later became the country’s first education minister, vehemently insisted that Muslims should not try to punish guilty without seeking the remedies provided by the Constitution. Sir Syed and Azad’s sound opinions on blasphemy are invested with the potential to solve the controversial problem that frequently arises in countries where many Muslims live. In India, they are particularly important.
The writer is a professor of mass communication at Aligarh Muslim University