Blasphemy Or The Right To Criticise

| Updated: 13 August, 2022 11:02 pm IST
Salman Rushdie


Doubt is not new or modern, doubt has been an ancient practice ever since humans started gazing at the stars, trying to figure out natural phenomena. Once religion became organised, trying to explain the natural phenomenons as the wrath of the gods, there were bound to be dissenters, sceptics and agnostics who felt that divinity didn’t need explanations, it could only be felt. The Abrahamic notion of monotheism (one true God) further restricted freethinking in the Mediterranean region of the Old World – Judaism, Christianity and eventually Islam, with their holy texts making it mandatory to kill, stone, ostracise, and harm apostates. It would be naivete to think there were never any sceptics, dissenters or doubters in the three dominant religions.

Islam’s own history starts with the Ridda Wars, known for those early tribals recently converted to Islam wanting to leave the umbrella of the newly victorious Medinan Muslims. Their brutal suppression is well documented in Muslim sources, scribes who eventually started writing down Islam’s holy text, history and conception – many decades after the death of the Prophet, eventually compiling the present form during the Ummayyad and Abbasid periods.

The human mind is capable of doubt, it is almost an instinct. Logic is never very far from even the most fervent believer. But once the incentives of being part of a faith-based community are clear (there is safety, security, and respect in numbers), many silence scepticism that may arise if hypocrisy, dual stance and facts are presented. Every Muslim child being brought up in a Muslim household as a good Muslim, early on, understands the lines he or she cannot cross. Be it logical, scientific questions like how did Adam and Eve’s sons start the human line without wives? Or curious questions like if the Islamic theology says that a male martyr will get 72 ‘hoors’ (virgins) in Heaven, does it apply to female martyrs as well?

Muslim children are often reprimanded, physically beaten, kicked or even isolated for some time (traditional subcontinental punishment for disobedience or rebellion) if they dare to ask questions about their folklore or legends – was the Prophet really 56 when he married 6-year-old Aisha? Or what happened to the Jews/Christians of Medina and Mecca? Or weren’t the Prophet’s own parents possibly pagan-Christians, Coptic Christians or even Jews considering the history of the region?

The internet/digital age has brought more questions than answers for the Islamic experts practising obscurantism, as the questions start getting difficult, demanding evidence. In the age of technology, fake news about communal riots; morphed pictures of Palestinians killed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and photoshopped images of perceived oppression of Muslims in India are circulated to uphold an anti-Hindu, anti-India, and Zionist conspiracy narrative. There is also a growing clamour in the Arab world, among European and North American Muslims and now gradually subcontinental Muslims too – where are the books criticising Islamic history and theology? Why is there no scholarship allowed to check the origins of Islam, its founder, the successive Caliphs and the subsequent ulema-state alliance which gave us man-made Sharia laws and built false narratives? Why aren’t the indigenous cultures which existed prior to the Islamic invasions and conquests being archaeologically sought and dug up? How can we be sure of the biographies of the Prophet, written decades and centuries after his death, confirming the Sira (sayings of the Prophet) and the Hadith, compiled much later for political purposes, seeing how truth is twisted even in the age of cameras, videos, recordings, and films?

Finally, the foremost questions asked by secular, liberal, and free societies of these Muslim expert apologists, defending Islamism/Wahhabism/Salafism are – why even after documented, recorded, still going on persecution of bloggers, writers, film-makers, cartoonists is Islam, its history, theology being shielded from criticism? Also, there are no incentives for going into areas taboo for any Muslim, non-Muslim, atheist or agnostic in academia or the literary world – the hounding of Taslima Nasreen, Salman Rushdie, and other modern heretic writers are proof. As this piece goes for publication, news of Salman Rushdie being stabbed in the neck by a Shia Muslim supportive of the Iranian regime, Hadi Matar, in New York is coming in. Everyone knows about the 34-year-old fatwa by Khomeini on Rushdie for writing ‘The Satanic Verses’. That even after living in the West, protected for decades for his right to freedom of expression, an Iranian origin 24-year-old Muslim Hadi Matar, not even born when the book was released, thought it right to attack him for being “insolent” towards the Prophet and the Quran speaks a lot of the culture of terror, fear, censorship, suppression within the Ummah.

The growing number of atheists, agnostics, and even those leading dual lives and coming out of the closet for their scepticism with ex-Muslim tags shows the increasing rumblings of doubt, and the struggle for freedom of expression, dissent getting louder by the day. In the Middle East, Europe/North America and even our very own Kerala State, there are various online forums where doubt and scepticism about Islam are being discussed and debated. More often than not it does end in tragedies, for example, the killing of apostates (Farook of Coimbatore), jailing or hacking bloggers for rationality (Saudi’s Raif Badawi and Bangladesh’s Avijit Roy), murdering secular Muslims for upholding the human rights of minorities (Salman Taseer of Pakistan for defending Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian on charges of blasphemy), the Charlie Hebdo murders, Samuel Patty’s beheading, and the list goes on.

This murderous streak throughout history has brought a lot of infamy for Islam, and practitioners of Sharia, as the Internet enables non-Muslims to make connections and find out about the Stoning of Soraya M, the execution of assaulted Rehana Djabari by the Iranian regime for killing her rapist, the notorious Evin prison, where women giving up hijab are tortured, Farrkanda from Kabul stoned to death by an Afghan mob and carried by women to the burial ground in defiance, Qandeel Baloch murdered by her brother for bringing (dishonour) to the family through her free lifestyle.

Why Indic Muslims have it best is because of the Samkhya and Caravaka traditions in Hinduism, which enable followers to explore other aspects of faith or non-faith. Combined with the Mutazalite traditions (reasoning over text) which flourished in 8-12th century Baghdad and Islamic Spain, Indic Muslims can develop Islamic theology and culture outside the constraints of fanatics, zealots and extremists from the schools of Deoband, Barelvi, Wahhabism, Salafism and Maududi.

Being sceptical is a right, expressing that doubt is oxygen for a healthy mind, and putting forth dissent is a highly evolved culture which Islamist thugs, their fanatics, their narrow-minded academics, and their followers will never aspire to. It is upto the civilised world to make space for blasphemy and remove all negative connotations attached to it.

Arshia Malik is a Delhi-based writer, blogger and social commentator)

(Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own)

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