Prophetic Models, Islamic Jurisprudence, and the Question of Blasphemy

By: Matthew Anderson

July 17, 2017

Religious Freedom Research Project Summer 2017 Fellowship Reports

During the course of the nineteenth century, European and American scholars imported a variety of historical-critical methodologies from biblical studies into the emergent field of Islamic studies, academic approaches which in general prioritized questions of historicity. While this process empowered an incisive exploration of certain genres related to the Prophet Muhammad, namely sira and hadith literature, it also resulted in the comparative neglect of other central aspects of the tradition. For this and other factors, it is much more likely in the contemporary United States that one will have encountered or heard something about the various prophetic biographies (sira, pl. siyar) or primary hadith collections, rather than the shama‘il literature, which describe the Prophet’s “beautiful qualities,” or works of dala‘il, which emphasize his miraculous acts. Despite the tendency of Western scholarship to view the latter genres as ahistorical reflections of popular religiosity, these literatures have powerfully shaped the prophetic image throughout Islamic history, arguably in ways as fundamental as the influence of sira and hadith literature. Significantly, the figure portrayed in these alternative literatures will strike many Western readers as a stranger, attributing as it often does qualities of humility, generosity, patience, and benevolence to Islam’s prophet.

Despite the broad influence of this literature, it has been nonetheless surprising to discover the role it occupies in the treatise at the center of my doctoral research, al-Sayf al-maslul ‘ala man sabba al-rasul (“The drawn sword on the one who curses the Prophet”), authored by the prominent Shafi‘i jurist Taqi al-Din al-Subki (d.1355). Al-Subki’s is one of several works furnished by the Islamic tradition devoted to explicating various legal issues surrounding blasphemy against the Prophet (sabb al-rasul/al-nabi). Similar to the other great monotheistic faiths, speech or behavior deemed blasphemous could elicit uncompromising responses from the ruling polities of the medieval Islamic world, a posture partially reflected in the fearsome titles given to treatises examining the issue. The relevant literature advances a variety of arguments in support of the classical juristic position that the death penalty is usually the most appropriate consequence for those who publicly blaspheme, ridicule, or curse the Prophet. It is not necessarily the genre where one expects to find meditations on the compassion of Muhammad, a consideration which makes al-Subki’s treatment of repentance all the more intriguing.

It would be a mistake to imagine that there were no meaningful differences between medieval Muslim jurists about blasphemy and one of the more overt and sustained disagreements concerned whether the repentance of a Muslim blasphemer was legally efficacious. In general, the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence split evenly on this question, with the Maliki and Hanbali traditions usually denying that repentance has any legal effect in the present world, while the Shafi‘is and the Hanafis holding the opposing view. Squaring off against heavyweight jurists like the Maliki Qaḍi ‘Iyad ibn Musa al-Yahsubi (d.1149) and the Hanbali Taqi al-Din ibn Taymiyya (d.1328), al-Subki assembles a barrage of arguments from the Qur’an (e.g. 3:86-89, 8:38, 39:53), hadith, and Islamic legal philosophy in support of the Shafi‘i position that a repentant return to Islamic faith removes the death penalty. A close reading of al-Sayf al-maslul reveals, however, that al-Subki’s position is animated primarily by an ethical vision of the Prophet Muhammad which prioritizes his mercy, compassion, and forgiveness for the Muslim community. Among the examples that might be given, the following excerpts usefully illustrate al-Subki’s reasoning:

But we know from the Prophet, may the blessing of God be upon him, and his kindness (ra’fa), mercy (rahma), and compassion (shafaqa) that he never took revenge for himself, but only did so when the sanctities of God were violated, and then he took vengeance for God. And this blasphemer has violated the sanctities of God with his blasphemy of his prophets, so his killing is obligatory if he persists. If he turns back to Islam and repents, the right of God is satisfied. And we know that the Prophet, because of his kindness (ra’fa) and mercy (rahma) to his community, that he never took revenge for himself, so how is vengeance taken for his sake after his death? (al-Sayf al-maslul, 176-177)

A similar image of the Prophet surfaces in al-Subki’s concluding prayer at the end of the chapter:

O God, you know that this is the limit of my knowledge and understanding, and that I have not favored anyone in this matter, and did not emulate any jurist other than what I understood from your law and the pattern of your Prophet, and his ethics (akhlaq), noble character (mukarim), mercy (rahma), compassion (shafaqa), and sympathy (ra’fa). (al-Sayf al-maslul, 211)

The emphasis here on the mercy and compassion of the Prophet is unmistakable. As noted, al-Subki’s conception of the Prophet’s personality is hardly unprecedented within the classical tradition, and these traits were often emphasized within shama’il and dala’il literature. To take a prominent example, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d.1111) highlights the merciful dimensions of the Prophet’s character in book 20 of his influential Revival of the Religious Sciences, even noting occasions when he granted forgiveness to non-Muslims who had attempted to kill him. What distinguishes al-Subki’s argument as unique is that he applies these relatively abstract ethical characteristics to a sensitive legal question. Al-Subki’s vision of the Prophet as a merciful and compassionate figure is not simply a pious aid for devotional reflection, but appears to make a decisive impact on a controversial legal matter.

Needless to say, al-Subki’s image of the Prophet did not blunt every sharp edge of classical blasphemy law. It is notable that the jurist did not think these personality traits were relevant to non-Muslims accused of blasphemy. Nonetheless, to this reader, al-Subki’s approach does reflect something of the unpredictable dynamism of classical Islamic jurisprudence. More importantly, he casts additional light from an unexpected angle on the complexity of the figure at the heart of the Islamic tradition.

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