From the geopolitical earthquake that was the response to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses to the recent case of Asia Bibi in Pakistan, conflict over blasphemous speech seems to be an intractable feature of the coexistence of Islamic and secular-liberal frames of value. Conflicts over speech and the sacred in some ways appear to embody not only the most frequent but also the most profound and complex clash of values between secular and Islamic frames of moral reference. The immediate juridical question of whether certain forms of speech that offend against the sacred ought to be permitted, tolerated, or punished obscures a series of deeper questions: What does speech do, and how? What kinds of entities have value? What kinds of entities have claims on the expressive behavior of humans? How can these claims and values be expressed across deep moral divides?

Islam and the Power of Speech

In the Islamic juridical tradition, speech is imbued with immense power. While propositional declarations of disbelief or rejection of basic aspects of Islamic creed might constitute apostasy in a straightforward sense, speech that takes the form of mockery (istihzā’), insult, or abuse of the Prophet (sabb al-nabī or shatm al-nabī) constituted a more grievous form of immediate and unrepentable apostasy.

Mockery or insult were described as a kind of “piercing attack” (ţa¢n) on or harm and injury (adhā) to the Prophet and Islam itself. Jurists in some of the legal schools (Mālikī and Ĥanbalī) treated this form of blasphemous speech as a kind of “strict liability” offense, in that the speaker’s state of mind or intent did not exonerate him. Ibn Ĥajar wrote in his Fatĥ al-bārī that “who blasphemes against the Prophet has committed clear slander against him and has thus become an infidel by the agreement of the jurists. Even if he repents, he does not escape the punishment of death, because the punishment for libel (qadhf) in this case is death and it is not avoided through repentance (tawbah).” Blasphemy is sometimes thus referred to as a graver form of apostasy: riddah mughallażah, a kind of “aggravated apostasy.” In some cases, jurists even held that an individual Muslim who killed a blasphemer was not legally liable for murder, because of the immediate harm to the honor of the Prophet and safety of the community (not entirely dissimilar from the “crime of passion” legal defenses common until recently in many Western jurisdictions).

Consider also the terms of the classical dhimmah contract, according to which non-Muslims enjoyed protection and limited religious freedom under Muslim political authority. When jurists considered what kinds of actions violated this covenant, essentially returning non-Muslims to a state of war with the Muslim community, speech-acts were among the most numerous. Ibn Qudāmah’s al-Mughnī lists the following acts as breaking the dhimmah contract: not paying jizyah; refusing to submit to a Muslim court; fighting Muslims; adultery with a Muslim woman; tempting a Muslim from his religion; brigandage; murder; spying; cooperating against Muslims; and saying something bad about God, His Book, His religion, or His Apostle (dhikr Allāh ta¢āla aw kitābih aw dīnih aw rasūlih bisū’). Al-Nawawī’s al-Majmū¢ lists six acts that violate the dhimmah contract: seducing Muslim women; tempting Muslims away from their religion and to another one; brigandage and murder; supporting the enemy; mentioning the book of God in a defamatory, hostile, or distorting way (ţa¢n wa ta¢rīf); and referring to the Prophet in an unfit manner, ascribing lies to him, or defaming him (bi mā lā yanbaghī wa takdhībuh wa shatmuh). According to al-Nawawī, some form of blasphemous speech constitutes one-third of the actions that negate the dhimmah contract.

Speech is quite literally the boundary between war and peace, the state of nature and civil society, ordinary and exceptional crime, and the sphere of law and the sphere of violence.

Speech is thus quite literally the boundary between war and peace, the state of nature and civil society, ordinary and exceptional crime, and the sphere of law and the sphere of violence. But why? Why is speech so dangerous that it amounts to a kind of war against Islam, thus warranting violence in return?

In the classical tradition, one of the densest treatments of the question of speech was Ibn Taymiyyah’s al-Śārim al-maslūl ¢alā shātim al-rasūl (The Unsheathed Sword against the Blasphemer of the Prophet). In addition to a lengthy discussion of proof-texts grounding the punishment for blasphemy, this text gives numerous explanations for treating speech as a mortal risk to religion and the Muslim community. It is helpful to distinguish between the ways in which speech violates the rights of the Prophet and the ways it violates the rights or interests of Muslims.

Scandalous speech about the Prophet is, in the first place, lying or slander about the Prophet. It thus ascribes shame, disgrace, or blemish to him. Such speech violates the Prophet’s own rights to dignity, honor, respect, and truthfulness. While it may have been his right or prerogative to forgive such insults and calumnies during his own lifetime (the Prophet’s treatment of mockery and slander against him was mixed), after his death, they become an absolute crime against him and religion. It is not the believers’ right to forgive but their obligation to punish.

But, since the religion of Islam rests quite literally on the esteem, honor, and dignity of the Prophet, and since the truth of Islam depends on belief in the Prophet’s truthfulness and trustworthiness (taśdīq), calumnious speech constitutes harm (đarar) to religion and corruption on Earth (fasād fī al-arđ). Islam, in this sense, is a kind of public good that all Muslims have an interest in preserving and magnifying. In addition, Muslims’ own religious feelings are also a kind of moral entity. Just as believing in and ascribing truth to the Prophet require a certain state of the heart—namely, aggrandizing (ta¢zīm), loving, honoring, and dignifying (ikrām) the Prophet—so do mockery of and injury to him necessarily produce anger, hurt, and injury in the hearts of believers. As with other violations of honor, such feelings require satisfaction and alleviation through punishment of the aggressor against the Prophet.

To summarize, classical Islamic approaches to speech imagine a number of distinct entities that are capable of being harmed by speech. The Prophet is presumed in Islam to have ongoing interests and rights (honor, respect, and attribution of truthfulness) that can be violated by speech. Religion itself is, if not an agent, a kind of public good on which all other goods and benefits depend. Muslims and the Muslim community have interests in preserving the esteem in which religion is held and also have feelings and affects related to their love for the Prophet and for Islam, all of which are entitled to protection.

Here we might also see why speech that mocks and ridicules (from The Satanic Verses to the Danish cartoons) often seems to provoke wider and more violent reaction than mere academic writing that argues against Islamic truth-claims. (Although many academics, novelists, and playwrights have also suffered consequences from publishing works deemed insulting to Islamic truth-claims. One need only recall the names Nasr Abu Zayd or Faraj Fūdah [Farag Foda]. Some of the most notorious Western “revisionist” historians of the Qur’an and early Islam have also, reportedly, received death threats.)1 Not only are insults, short quotes, or images easier to disseminate widely (think here also of things like flag burning or political gaffes), and not only do they inflame more easily a wider range of the public than a dense treatise on seventh-century Ĥijāzī linguistics, but there is an argument for the greater harm of mockery and insult. Arguably, symbols of power can survive criticism more easily than they can survive mockery, since mockery assaults the very notion that a figure or system of belief is worthy of respect, never mind deference or awe. Similarly, when a community is weak and vulnerable, arguably mockery and insult make it more vulnerable to assault, dehumanization, and intimidation. There may be some kind of rational basis for the observable phenomenon that insult and mockery (“trash talk”) often inflame the passions more than considered criticism.

Speech is thus not just propositional; rather, propositions asserted even in jest have a kind of immediate power to injure and a capacity to accumulate harmful effects. Just as accusations or lies can injure an innocent party even if they are later refuted (hence, punishment for slander [qadhf] is a ĥadd crime in Islam), lies against Islam or the Prophet are treated as a kind of “strict liability” offense2 because of the immediate harm to honor, prestige, and dignity. The social order relies both on certain shared beliefs and also on the esteem and majesty of its very foundation—Islam and its Prophet. Vituperative speech is not simply a violation of a taboo; left to spread unchecked, it has the power to do material damage to the greatest of social goods.

Speech, Harm, and Liberal Ethics

When we move to speech in a liberal, secular context, it is first important to note some possible shared understandings of what speech is and what it can do. Secular progressives have their own taboos—mostly obvious among them, racial epithets. The use of the N-word by non-blacks is, like slandering the Prophet, in effect, a kind of strict liability offense for which joking, irony, or even mere mention (as opposed to use) do not seem to provide an excuse or alibi. As with speech about the Prophet, this can sometimes be experienced as simply a taboo for which no reasons need be given. But these taboos rest on an awareness of the capacity of speech to injure, denigrate, and do actual harm, and on the difficulty of maintaining rules once they are systematically violated. The taboo nature of such words is evidenced by certain examples of controversy over the public use of words that merely sound like “that word.”3

After a long period of free speech fundamentalism among liberals, there is a reawakening of awareness about the material harm speech can cause.

Similarly, after a long period of free speech fundamentalism among liberals, there is a reawakening of awareness about the material harm speech can cause. Feminists and critical race theorists have long pointed to the actual harm hate speech can do to esteem and to social standing, questioning the (“mere”) speech versus (“actual”) harm distinction made in some liberal jurisprudence. Liberals have increasingly given their own account of hate speech as a kind of harm—for example, pointing to the interest all persons have in a well-ordered society in which they are not only promised, but can rely on, the enjoyment of respect and dignity in public.4

More apt, perhaps, is the increasing fear about propaganda and “fake news” and about the way in which a shared understanding about what counts as a fact appears completely undone in a country such as the United States. Just as a well-ordered Muslim society is said to rely upon a shared belief in the truthfulness and honor of the Prophet, so does a well-ordered democracy rely upon shared beliefs about the sources of knowledge and facts. A systematic assault on this shared public good by decades of right-wing talk radio, cable news, and social media has done possibly irreparable harm and damage to the very possibility of democracy.

Conservatives, of course, may share some assumptions about speech with Muslims. For many of them, social order rests on esteem for certain shared symbols from the past. Hence, they not only harbor the desire to protect symbols such as the American flag (or poppies in the U.K.5) but also feel panic about how far attempts to delegitimize racist symbols in the public sphere might go. If racists and slave-holders are not fit for public honor, what would stop the overturning of the founders themselves—Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and others? National unity is built not only on institutions and norms but on the esteem and even the glory of certain symbolic figures.

Secular Answers to Blasphemy

So, perhaps we should be skeptical of claims that clashes between Islamic and secular norms are generated by a complete failure to understand what speech means for Muslims, or to understand what it means to esteem, love, and emulate the Prophet in a particular way.6 But when it comes not to a general approach to speech and what it can do, but to the particular idea that religious values, symbols, or feelings have a special claim to respect or protection, there are some undeniable tensions between Islamic and liberal-secular commitments.

In my view, most secular philosophical approaches to the morality of speech about the sacred have three starting points. First, human beings have very strong interests in being free to express themselves, and legitimate expression can take the form of everything from earnest propositional speech to creative, even transgressive, speech. Second, the sacred is an object of human construction, and thus the fact that something is called “sacred” is insufficient to explain why all humans ought to respect it. Too many things would be beyond the reach of critique and even mockery. And third, respect is owed to persons (individually and collectively) but not to everything they value or venerate, even if others do not always uphold such a difference between those persons and their attachments or beliefs.

These three premises make it hard for some common arguments about speech and the sacred to fully persuade. In my view, the most common arguments for designating “blasphemy” as particularly blameworthy are (1) blasphemy transgresses a sacred boundary, (2) blasphemy disrespects what people regard as sacred, (3) blasphemy causes pain to sincere religious believers, (4) blasphemy endangers social peace, (5) blasphemy is hate speech, and (6) blasphemy disrupts social harmony.

With all of these arguments there are two core problems.7 Either they assume that religious entities are real or have special value, which is far too general and subjective to be endorsed outside of a specific religious ethical system, or they treat religion as simply a problem of public order, which seems to take the feelings of the religious seriously but in fact runs the risk of reducing the morality of speech to considerations of fear and prudence.

The core dilemma is that a liberal-secular ethics of speech is the search for norms that can be proposed as reciprocal standards in a diverse society. If we propose as a norm that “we should also respect whatever others hold as sacred,” this just seems far too restrictive of an important human activity: expression on a shared social world. Moreover, it would simply incentivize people to declare anything they value to be “sacred.” If we propose another norm, such as “avoid causing pain or distress in speech,” this also seems to condemn many instances of valuable speech (including on the part of the religious) and makes the subjective sensitivity of different persons or groups the sole criterion for the general morality of speech. If we say “respect for persons requires respect for what they love or attach themselves to,” then once again this provides us no principle for evaluating when speech might be warranted in criticizing (even mocking) values or attachments.

Of course, there may be many instances of speech that amounts to hate speech, intimidation, or “fighting words.” But this tells us less about the nature of the sacred and its value and more about the way in which socially situated communities are often distinguished by their identity-commitments. In my own view, what I think is most troubling about public speech that targets the Prophet or Islam with vituperation is less that it violates the rights of the Prophet and more that it assaults the good of an important moral relationship between Muslims and others in contemporary societies. But there are at least two caveats: first, it leaves us with the conclusion that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the blasphemous content of such speech (nothing about religious symbols per se that should always be exempt from mockery) and, second, we have to explain what kinds of social relationships we are obligated to care for in this way. Yes, I have an obligation not to make my Scientologist neighbor or student feel threatened, but does this mean I cannot mock L. Ron Hubbard or Tom Cruise?

Can There Be Any Moral Common Ground?

We all too often speak about the harms of speech either in abstract terms (“offending religious beliefs is wrong”) or in relation to what one is being mocked for (“one should not be mocked for this”). But what is missing here is the sense of relational duties that so many of us feel toward each other. The view that we can just say whatever we wish regardless of the company we keep is not virtuous honesty or moral heroism, but a kind of moral autism. The content of speech is just one element of its morality; the recipient or target of that speech is another.

While certain aspects of morality ought to apply without regard for the identity of other persons and any relationships I may have with them, many other aspects of morality are precisely relational. I care about specific persons and my relationship with them. This increases the costs to my own conscience—moral costs—when saying things I otherwise think are worth saying. There are lots of things I would normally say that I do not say to or around specific people. This may be because I am scared of them or scared of experiencing social awkwardness. Sometimes it is because I care about them and our relationship. They matter to me, and our relationship is a good worth sacrificing for. This is why we do not tell lies (or do tell lies) to certain people.

Could the morality of blasphemy, for those with secular commitments, be something like this? No—there is no abstract, relation-independent wrong in mocking someone else’s prophet, even to the extent that I think there is wrong in using speech like the N-word. Instead, given your awareness of the impact of such speech on others whom you might care about (even if you think it is wrong or silly for such speech to affect them in this way), the value you place on this relationship alters your moral judgment about such speech. The emotional world of someone about whom you care, or with whom you have a social relationship about which you care, matters to you when you speak.

Now, this is not a shortcut to merely condemning blasphemy. I may continue to judge my friends to be oversensitive, or my speech to be so important as to outweigh their emotional pain. And, of course, fellow citizens do not usually matter as much to me as people in my day-to-day life. Distant strangers matter still less. But, at the very least, this view encourages us to see conflicts over such speech not only as a conflict between the value of free speech and the value of sensitivity, but also in terms of social and political relationships that we have some obligation to care for.

Is this a moral perspective Muslims have any reason to accept, even as a basis for further debate or argument? Consider a few arguments.

Almost all jurists recognize a fundamental distinction between the majority and the minority condition. Juridical arguments about punishments for blasphemy as either apostasy (for Muslims) or violation of the dhimmah contract (for non-Muslims) all assume the existence of Islamic political authority in the service of a Muslim public sphere. Even Ibn Taymiyyah notes that when Muslims are not in power, they are obliged to adopt an ethics of patience in the face of such speech. In fact, the ethics of patience and forbearance are probably more quietist than what a liberal-secular political ethics would require. Nonetheless, the basic idea that there are multiple ways for Muslims to respond to speech is clearly within the Islamic juridical tradition.

But is the attitude only one of patience and forbearance in the face of an alien norm or value? Although free speech can impose costs on Muslims as minorities surrounded by others who are often racist and aggressive, free speech is neither alien to Islamic morality nor something Muslims have any less interest in than do others. Every aspect of Islamic political ethics—from da¢wa to demanding one’s rights and protesting injustice—requires a right to public speech. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that Muslims often (justifiably perhaps) wish to use speech in ways that offend or injure the feelings of others. Whether on issues of metaphysics, meta-ethics, gender, nationalism, historical injustice, or current affairs, Muslims often recognize that there are more important values than avoiding offense or injury: fidelity to conscience and conviction, bearing witness, and protesting injustice. Mockery and ridicule are often valuable forms of conscientious self-expression.

For Muslims, the moral basis of the public sphere in the minority condition is not based on the universal esteem of Islam or the Prophet. Rather, it is based on a kind of social contract built on the idea that persons and communities can claim rights to equal respect and justice.8 When classical jurists discussed the terms under which Muslims could reside safely in non-Muslim lands, the minimal conditions were a right to safety and a right to manifest religion. The assumption that their beliefs or attachments would never be criticized or ridiculed was clearly too unrealistic to be implied by “manifesting religion.” The modern liberal social contract may seek to go beyond this, but it will necessarily afford moral protection and recognition to only certain kinds of entities: persons, communities, and certain shared public goods. It is not a necessary condition of a covenant of security (¢aqd al-amān) that in addition to this, entities such as the Prophet, the Qur’an, and Islam itself are entitled to protection from disrespect or dishonor.

However, it must also be noted that the public sphere can be a space of argumentation, without being a space of guarantee. There is no reason that Muslim communities cannot remonstrate with others to be mindful of their sensibilities and attachments and to plead for respect and restraint in how others speak about the Prophet or Islam, just as conservative or traditionalist Muslims are frequently seen to be expressing their views about gender and sexuality while maintaining as much civility and respect for persons as possible. The liberal public sphere, ideally, should not be seen as a space of pleading for toleration and safety from a ruler or government but rather as a space in which free and equal citizens struggle to define the (sometimes informal and non-coercive) terms of mutual respect and fair cooperation.

Andrew F. March, Harvard University 

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