In mid-July two Muslim men killed a tailor, Kanhaiya Lal, in Udaipur accusing him of disrespecting Prophet Muhammad; another man recently stabbed Salman Rushdie in the USA on similar griounds, and several others have issued calls to kill Nupur Sharma and more recently T Raja Singh for disrespecting the Prophet. A considerable number of Muslim youth can be seen on social media advocating the slogan “Gustakh-e-Rasool ki ek hi saza, Sar tan se juda” (Beheading is the only punishment for disrespecting the Prophet).
In such an environment, a young Muslim political thinker and research scholar, Tarique Anwar Champarni, from Bihar called me up and asked how on earth the followers of Muhammad who was sent to the world as mercy can give calls to kill non-Muslims. His question was logical. I wondered how Muslims can think of killing people when one of their most important guides after the Prophet, Hazrat Ali, ordered them before a battle, “do not attack those who have surrendered, do not injure the disabled and weak, do not assault the wounded, do not excite women and do not make them angry with rude behaviour even if they use harsh and insulting words against your commander and officers”.
He also told them “not to take initiative in fighting”.
Prophet Muhammad asked his followers not to attack those who had surrendered, were unarmed. or non-combatants. The Prophet had pardoned those who attacked him let alone those who were using derogatory language.
The question by Champarni made me curious. As a historian, I started looking for the historical roots of this narrative that if a non-Muslim uses derogatory language for the Prophet then he must be killed. I was amazed to know that the narrative of the death penalty for disrespecting the Prophet does not go beyond the 19th century. Right from Imam Abu Hanifa, the pioneer of the Hanafi school of thought that has the largest following among Muslims, especially in the subcontinent, almost every prominent jurist of the Hanafi School has categorically maintained that a person cannot be killed for disrespecting the Prophet.
During the 19th century, several new ideological movements tried to challenge the authority of the Hanafi school, of which Deobandi and Barelvi were two prominent subsects. Ahl-i-Hadith claimed to be closer to the textual form of Islam and blamed Hanafis for corrupting ‘original’ Islam with Indian cultural practices while Ahmadiyas charged Hanafis for deviating from the path of the Prophet.
In the 1920s, a pamphlet titled Rangila Rasul published by a publisher named Rajpal caused resentment among the Muslims. Qadiani Ahmadiyas, who were called heretics by other Muslims, saw it as a golden opportunity and mobilized Muslims against the publisher. They had put posters asking, “Will those professors of the Prophet’s love did not wake up even now”, thus directly attacking Deobandi and Barelvi Ulema who were not mobilizing people till that time.
Ahl-i-Hadith leadership also joined the bandwagon. Rajpal was later murdered by a young Muslim, Ilam Din, in 1929 who was hailed a hero by Qadiyanis and Muslim League leadership.
This was the first case where a politically motivated class excited the sentiments of the Muslim masses against the teachings of a majority of Islamic scholars. One of the most influential Deobandi jurists of that period Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi commented that though emotions could drive Muslims to believe that someone disrespecting the Prophet should be killed, religion did not permit that. He wrote:
“A feeling of dishonour ('bey-gharati') is natural when I think of Hanafi tradition on non-Muslim blasphemers i.e. they will not be killed for it. Then God puts in my heart the thought that Abu Hanifa (who prohibited the death penalty for non-Muslim offenders) has more honour/ghairat than us.”
Imam Abu Hanifa believed that disrespecting the Prophet was another form of not following Islam and since non-Muslims had every right to not follow Islam, they could not be forced to respect the Prophet.
In the 19th century, Ahl-i-Hadith was propagating an argument that the Hanafi position of no death for blasphemy was wrong. They quoted several Hadith to prove that people were killed for disrespecting the Prophet. Hanafi jurists took the charge seriously and in a rare event more than 450 Islamic Scholars from India and abroad signed a fatwa that categorically challenged the claims of the Ahl-i-Hadith group. They pointed out that the Hadith quoted were about repeat offenders and those too were not punished with death.
Death penalties, if awarded, were given for political consideration and not theological. The fatwa was signed by Ala Hazrat Ahmad Raza Khan, one of the most important figures of Barelvis, and Maulana Mahmood Hasan, one of the leading lights of Deobandi tradition along with almost all prominent jurists of the time.
Interestingly, the Hanafi position does not warrant any kind of punishment for non-habitual offenders.
Today, we see people who claim to be from the Hanafi school of thought raising the slogans of death for blasphemy. It is a well-established position among Islamic scholars that a Muslim forgives people, asks Allah to give wisdom to his opponents, and believes in the day of judgment. Frenzied mob violence has no place in Islam. No serious scholar has ever asked Muslims to kill unarmed humans.
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(Saquib Salim is a historian-writer)