Maulana Wahiduddin Khan on the Blasphemy Controversy
Excerpts from his book Translated by Yoginder Sikand, NewAgeIslam.com
On 17th February 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie for having insulted the Prophet in his novel Satanic Verses. The ‘Islamic’ Government of Iran announced a reward of 2.6 million dollars for Rushdie’s would-be assassin if he were an Iranian, the sum being reduced to 1 million dollars if he were of some other nationality. Two days later, Rushdie issued an apology, saying, ‘Living in a world of many faiths, the experience has served to remind us that we must all be conscious of the sensibilities of others.’ Khomeini did not accept his apology, however, and, as quoted in the Times of India, insisted, ‘Even if Salman Rusdhie repents and becomes the most pious man, it is incumbent on every Muslim to employ everything he’s got, his life and wealth, to send him to hell.’
Soon after this, a number of Sunni ulema, too, came out in full support of Khomeini’s fatwa. They declared that Rushdie had engaged in the most extreme form of blasphemy, and that, therefore, he deserved nothing less than the death penalty.
Sullying the Image of Islam
Khomeini’s fatwa angered vast numbers of non-Muslims across the world. They protested against the fatwa, challenging the right of a citizen of one country to order the death of a person living in, and a citizen of, another country. They felt that the fatwa and the agitation that it spurred were a dangerous form of intimidation, a menacing danger to free speech. In short, they began to feel that the very presence of Islam in their societies was a threat to their lives and that Muslims were simply uncivilized people. It is ironical how, when Islam, properly understood, is a religion of peace, and when the Prophet Muhammad is referred to in the Quran as a mercy for all the worlds, the image of this religion has been made such that many non-Muslims feel it to be a threat to their lives.
Undoubtedly, Rushdie’s novel was absurd and scandalous, but the reaction of Shia and Sunni ulema and other Muslim leaders to it was certainly even more absurd. If Salman Rushdie had insulted the Prophet, it is also the case that Ayatollah Khomeini and his supporters among the Muslim ulema were guilty of insulting Islam. This is because their reaction, and the violent agitations that it triggered off, helped create an image of Islam as a barbaric and uncivilized religion. Rushdie wrote his novel in the name of secularism, while the Shia and Sunni ulema reacted to it in the name of Islam. If Rushdie gave a bad name to secularism, the Shia and Sunni ulema gave Islam a bad name throughout the world.
The Proper Way to React
The Quran advises the believers that if an iniquitous person approaches them with bad news, they must first investigate the matter carefully, lest they should unwittingly hurt others and later repent for their actions (49:6). Often, however, people react violently and aggressively as soon as they hear something provocative and rush into violent agitation. Such a response is not properly Islamic at all. The proper Islamic way to respond in such situations is, first, to seriously understand the matter and, then, to carefully think of how to react to it rather than responding emotionally. The more serious the matter is, the more seriously one must ponder on it before responding. This is explained in a hadith report, according to which the Prophet explained that not acting in a hurry is a sign of divine guidance, while hurriedly acting comes from the devil.
With the grace of God, I have always sought to react in this Islamically appropriate way to events that I have been confronted with. And so, when I read the news about Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, the first thing I did was to procure a copy of the book. Then, I read the entire book, which is 546 pages long. After that, I studied the issue in the light of shariah rules. Only after this did I begin writing my views on the controversy.
In contrast, the immediate reaction of Muslim leaders to the book, and the faulty manner in which they reacted to it, suggested that they did not read the book themselves, but, instead, and relying only on hearsay, they launched a massive agitation against it. Also, I do not think that any of them bothered to properly examine the shariah rules with regard to the case.
It appears to me that by not reacting in the manner that the Quran teaches us to (as explained above), these Muslim leaders clearly violated the divine commandments. Millions of Muslims around the world began angrily protesting against Rushdie. Their agitation proved that Muslims seem so eager to ‘dispatch others to hell’ that they have quite forgotten that they should first think of how they themselves can be made fit ‘to enter heaven’. They should remember that not a single person in this world is guaranteed a reserved place in paradise.
In accordance with the Quranic verse that I referred to above, it was incumbent on Muslim leaders to first seriously study the issue at hand, and then, keeping in mind all its numerous aspects, decide on an appropriate course of action. Instead, in an extremely irresponsible way, they reacted impulsively, and began issuing inflammatory statements without giving the matter any thought. This only worked to the advantage of Salman Rushdie, and the only ones to be damaged were Islam and the Muslims themselves. Had the Muslim leaders seriously studied the issue, they would have realised that while Rusdhie’s book was indeed scurrilous, it was also entirely unreadable. Even from the literary point of view, it was a total failure. Someone very rightly described it as a work ‘on a third rate theme, by a second rate author, on first rate paper.’
The fact of the matter is that had not Muslims reacted so angrily all over the world to it, the book would have died a natural death. It was only the mindless agitation the Muslims launched that gave it life, and which made vast numbers of people, who may otherwise have not cared to read it, purchase the book, although I doubt many of them would have been able to stand reading it from cover to cover.
Writing in the Time magazine, Margareta du Rietz very rightly pointed out, ‘Very few took note of the novel. Now, thanks to Khomeini, it is world famous.’ It was Khomeini’s fatwa calling for the death of Rushdie and the violent reaction of Muslims the world over calling for Rushdie’s murder that made this thoroughly unreadable book the number one bestseller in America. The publisher of the book even thanked Khomeini for being ‘its biggest salesman’. In a letter to the Times of India, a certain W.M.Shaikh rightly pointed out that while Rushdie’s novel was indeed insulting, Muslims should ignore the book and let it die a natural death, rather than violently agitate against it and its author, because this would only give it added publicity.
The fuqaha or Muslim jurisprudents have prescribed various rules with regard to blaspheming the Prophet, but this certainly does not mean that anytime any person feels that someone has insulted the Prophet, he can pick up a gun and shoot that person dead. In Islam, crimes are to be punished in accordance with the law, and only by the officially recognized courts. That is to say, the accused must be presented in court, and, after the legal proceedings are over, and if he is proven guilty, he must face the punishment that the court prescribes. If people begin to take the law into their own hands, by-passing the courts, this would be tantamount to disobedience of Islamic rules.
Further, it must be clearly understood that the issue of punishment for insulting the Prophet is not one that is so clear-cut and unconditional. It certainly does not mean that when a person is guilty of insulting the Prophet, he must necessarily be killed, and that a reward be given to his assassin. Such a thing has never happened in the whole of Muslim history. It is only the so-called Muslim leaders of today who have begun making such claims, because of which they are making a laughing stock of Islam throughout the world. In reality, this sort of response is disobedience of Islam, and not, as they claim, acting in accordance with it.
A regular columnist for NewAgeIslam.com, Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.