There is no Holy Scripture that declares categorically that “there shall be no compulsion in religion” but the Holy Koran.
Even though the Koran addresses the word “disbelief” more than 150 times, Muslims have never been given the authority to punish disbelievers.
The Koran says repeatedly in its verses that Muslims can only rebuke non-Muslims regarding religious matters. Because religious matters are never mentioned in the Holy Book as crimes to be dealt with via secular punishment, to what extent is blasphemy acceptable and punishable?
Blasphemy in Islam is a strange concept. The notion “blasphemy” stems from the old English word blasfemen, French blasfemer and Latin blasphemare, meaning “I harm”. Based on this meaning, rulers used laws to victimise non-members of the ruling group and their dissidents. Nation states that had a state religion used it frequently to serve the interests of the people in power.
The third Judaic book of Torah Leviticus 24:16 declares that those who speak blasphemy shall surely be put to death. In addition, the seven laws of Noah prohibit blasphemy. In Christianity, the Gospel of Mark 3:29 describes blaspheming the holy spirit as an unpardonable eternal sin.
Thomas Aquinas regarded blasphemy a major unforgiveable sin, more grave than murder. Meanwhile, blasphemy against God and the Church was a crime punishable by death in much of the Christian world.
The Koran and the authentic teachings of the Prophet Muhammad describe the practice of showing disrespect or mockery to God and His messenger as acts of ignorance, deliberate provocation or hatred.
Prior to his move to Medina, most people in Mecca opposed the Prophet as the Messenger of Allah; most of them opposed him, disgraced him, cursed or blasphemed him or even tried to kill him. Nonetheless, he preferred to exercise forgiveness and sought divine mercy for them.
Even in the case of those who leave Islam, the Prophet Muhammad validates the view that punishment for apostates doesn’t exist in Islam. Islam is the religion of peace. Islamic teachings thus never condone Muslims taking justice on religious matters into their own hands.
The Surah Ash Shuraah reads, “Those who avoid the greater crimes and shameful deeds, and, when they are angry even then forgive. “Any punishment for so-called blasphemy or apostasy is a matter between the Almighty and the person. Accordingly, the Koran repeatedly condemns those who create disorder and violence.
The teachings of Islam direct Muslims to treat others well no matter how they treat Muslims. The claim that Islam is the religion of peace is not derived from thin air but from the essence of the concept of “Islam” itself. The word Islam means surrender of all religious matters to the justice of the Almighty.
Muslims have thus experienced first-hand what blasphemy is. One of the most important cases was the accusation of blasphemy against the writer Salman Rushdie.
On Feb. 18, 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah, Rohullah Khomeini, issued a fatwa justifying and encouraging the murder of the writer of the novel “The Satanic Verses”.
Debate among Muslim scholars about this fatwa ended in undecided conclusions, but they agreed that ulema have mixed up religious matters with political affairs. Thus, the accusation of blasphemy in Islam might be rightly called a political movement and decision that uses religious justification and affirmation.
Such misleading actions happen anywhere in the world where Islam has been used to justify violent jihad.
The problem of anti-Islam is not about its religious teachings and practices. Rather, the issue here is about the incompetence of the ulema to deal with the perceived hedonism of modernity and the global capitalist economy. Most scholars on Islam are more focused on the technicalities of reading and reciting the Koran and the Hadith, but they are not ready for discourse or academic debate on Islamic theology.
The outcome is obvious in the way most ulema respond to current issues and lead followers with traditional and patriarchal authority. Studies of Islamic history and its teachings have barely achieved an open and transparent discourse based on intellect and fairness.
The tragedy is that some ulema feel and think they are more morally superior and bigger than life itself and so think they are obliged to tell people what’s right and wrong and who will go to heaven or hell.
To gain more followers, some ulema use sermons to scare people with condemnations of hell. Only a few preach with peaceful tones that embrace all people with care and compassion, such as Mustofa Bisri and Quraish Shihab.
Actually, Islamic teachings guide people toward better manners and social behaviour that upholds the dignity of humankind and social justice. All this is based on the imperative of Islamic teachings for peace, fairness and respect and never taking the law into our own hands. Justice is good but forgiving is best.
The world is now waiting to see just how civilised is the Islamic community in Indonesia.
Bagoes Wiryomartono is author of the book “Javanese Culture and the Meanings of Locality”.