Friday, November 30, 2007

"Off with her Head!"

‘“Off with her head!” the Queen shouted at the top of her voice. Nobody moved.’ – Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.

Gillian Gibbons received a 15-day jail sentence and deportation from Sudan for allowing young students to name a teddy bear Muhammad, after a popular student. But after Friday prayers on November 30, protesters in Sudan took to the streets, demanding her execution by firing squad. Her supporters, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, find the allegation of blasphemy and the reaction of Sudanese protestors both ridiculous. According to the BBC, a great many Muslim scholars and laypersons have come forward saying there is no problem with a teddy bear named Muhammad. Many have noted that she had no intent to insult in any way, and wasn’t even using the name to represent the Prophet of Islam (saw). Further, it is not uncommon for Muslim children all over the world to name pets and toys after the Prophet (saw) or other key figures in Islamic history they admire. This fiasco begs the question of what Islam really says about blasphemy. Do the Sudanese have any ground to stand on, or are they just uneducated radicals? It turns out that Islam does take a very strong stance against blasphemy, but cultural misunderstandings, political climate, poor practice of ethics, and undue attention to intent have led to this horrible situation.

In the now defunct ‘Aalim Network, Dr. Liyakatali Takim explained the Shia position in regards to blasphemy. “Blasphemy, by definition, refers to uttering profane language, insulting or abusing … that which is sacred to religion.” This includes God, the Prophet (saw), and the Ahlulbayt (sa). He cites the fatwa of Ayatullah al-Khu’i on the punishment for blasphemy. “…it is incumbent (wajib) to kill one who insults … the Prophet when one hears the insults provided there is no danger to his self, reputation or wealth. Agha also extends this ruling to cover insults against the Imams and Bibi Fatima (as).” In the same discussion, Dr. Takim goes on to explain rulings regarding apostasy and how punishments are drastically different depending on if one is born Muslim, and what one’s intent had been.
Therefore the Sudanese protesters understand correctly that the punishment for blasphemy can be execution. However, according to Ayatullah al-Khu’i, female blasphemers are not to be executed and people must be given the opportunity to repent. If they do, no punishment should be delivered. But no blasphemy occurred in this case. Blasphemy requires an intention to insult or defame as well as knowledge, and there is no doubt that Ms. Gibbons had neither. Her actions are no more blasphemous than those of the students she taught who suggested the name in the first place, because she, being non-Muslim, unaware of the potential damaging interpretations of her actions, and having no bad intent, is no more culpable than they. Further, her words and actions since the incident undoubtedly would indicate repentance, even if one insisted on interpreting the incident as blasphemy. Ayatullah al-Khu’i’s ruling also seems to indicate that the wajib punishment is on condition of an ‘adl adult having witnessed the insults. It is not clear that that happened. It seems likely and unfortunate that politics are at play here and Ms. Gibbons is an unwitting victim.

It is extremely frustrating to watch Muslims react with unrestrained and unjustified anger time and time again. It seems the people explode under misguidance and frustration from oppression and difficulties that have little or nothing to do with the incidents at hand. These bad-mannered and inappropriate actions only further spread misunderstanding, hatred and oppression, harming the entire Ummah and the whole of humanity. The Prophet (saw) and Ahlulbayt (as) endured abuse repeatedly without harming the perpetrators or getting angry, because they always had in mind to preserve and further God’s gift of Islam to us all. “To control your anger is praiseworthy in the eyes of Allah, whether you control your anger by patience or politeness.” (Mustadrak 2, p. 87) Further, if nothing else, we should see the screaming need for us to take great effort in emphasizing proper education and demonstration of ethics and fiqh for ourselves and our children.

Don’t be the Queen, shouting “Off with her head!” The Queen is a disgraced, foolish tyrant for losing her own head and heart.

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