Death Sentence for Blasphemy: Difference between Northern and Southern Muslims
By Abdulrazaq Hamzat
There can’t be much disagreement or argument over the fact that there exist a slight difference in the manner Muslims in northern part of Nigeria perceived Islam to the way their counterpart from the south perceived it.
There is this general perception that Muslims in the south seems to be more refined and moderate, while those in the north tends to be more radicalized. This manifest in the ways and manner both people react to situations.
According to Governor Isa Yuguda of Bauchi state while presenting the report of a committee setup by the Northern governors on insecurity and healing process, he asked: Why is there no conflict between Christians and Muslims in the south as it is found in the north?
According to the governor, contrary to the popular belief, Islam came to Nigeria from the southern part of the country and not from the north, adding that, Islam came to the south before coming to the north. Governor Yuguda noted that, the first sharia court was established in Iwo, Osun state, its there in history. He said.
The governor didn’t stop there, he went further to say that, Karem borno which many thought first received Islam in Nigeria only had Islam 1200 years ago, while Sokoto, the seat of the caliphate, And Sultan, the spiritual leader of Muslims in the country only came in contact with Islam over 200 years ago, but according to him, Islam came to Lagos much earlier than karem borno empire.
Governor Yuguda also added that, the first islamic university in Nigeria was established in the southwest, Ogun state to be precise, but he wondered why all the bloodbath in the northern region.
Substantiating his claim, Yuguda said, there are Muslims and Christians in the south west who live peacefully with each other, with each practicing their religion, adding that, in the southwest, you see a church on top of a building and then a mosque on the ground. They are leaving just as Allah has said we should live both in the Quran and Hadith.
The Bauchi state Governor then asked regarding the current insurgency in the north, are they reading a different Quran? I ask myself always, why is there no crisis there, why is there crisis in Northern Nigeria, Yugda asked.
The above submission from Governor Isa Yuguda indeed lay credence to the fact that, there seems to exist a slight difference in the way Muslims in the south perceive Islam to their counterpart in the north.
In the north for example, a perceived, even if not confirmed desecration of the Holy Quran could lead to riot where over 100 people could be killed. However, their southern counterpart on the other hand don’t act with such rashness, they critically evaluate at the situation, establish the facts and ensure a violent free correction.
This is not to generalize that all the people in the north believe in such violent reactions, many peaceful northerners don’t share in such believe and they actually detest it, but certainly, there exist a very large number of people that does believe in such violent reaction.
Also, it is worth to note that, not everyone in the south believe in such peaceful reaction to such situations, but they are a very small minority.
However, many have been asking, what is responsible for this slight difference since it is the same religion, with the same holy book as a source of guidance, the same Prophet Muhammed as the teacher and the same God as the ultimate.
• Why do some Muslims believe in violent reaction while others believe in peaceful reaction?
• Which of the two groups is following the tenate of Islam as taught in the holy book and by the Prophet of Allah?
To address the questions, one have to take a look at the historical background of how the south and northern part of the country embraced Islam as a choice of religion.
From the beginning, Islam is a religion which started with education.
The message of the religion was taught to people first in the family of Prophet Muhammed and subsequently to people in his area and then to the street.
People are not required to embrace Islam until they understand what the religion is all about. It is not a religion imposed by a superior authority, but rather, a religion preached to people and embraced after understanding.
According to the Prophet of God, Allah says in hadith Qudsi, “know me, before you serve me. For if you do not know me, how then can you serve me?”
So basically, it is wrong to be an ignorant Muslim. For ignorance is not an excuse in Islam. Prophet Muhammed (S.A.W) also said, seeking knowledge is mandatory on every Muslim, Male or Female.
According to the history of Islam in northern Nigeria which started as far back as 6th Century, Islam was spread in the north with the conversion of the kings and chiefs.
History have it that, In the north such as Kano, Borno and other places where Islam started with the conversion of their Kings and Chiefs, the superior authority used their power, wealth and influence to adopt Islam as the state religion. Unlike in the south where Islam started from the scratch and with the masses who had nothing.
The religion of Islam in the north grew from top to down within a short period after the conversion of the kings, while in the south, the religion gradually grew from down to up with massive education and considerable understanding by the masses themselves.
Among the mass southern Muslims, there is considerable understanding of Islam, even Christians in southwest understand Islam to some extent, and hardly can people be misled by any scholar or authority.
Southern Muslims question religious authorities,they don’t just accept whatever is said to them. Even if they do not understand Arabic, they read the translated version of the Quranic text and make their own meaning from the original text. In case they find it difficult to make meaning from a text, they approach clerics for explanation, meet different scholars on the same subject to establish the truth.
Even the unlettered one’s hold dear the basic principles of Islam. One of such principles is the sacredness of live.
From childhood, southern Muslims have been informally educated about basic principles of Islam which they know as constant. A Yoruba saying goes thus: ‘’ Ati kekere ni imole tin ko omo e ni esin’’ meaning, Muslims teach their children Islam from childhood.
Whatever they are told, they weigh it with the basic principle of Islam and their own previous knowledge. This is hardly the case in the north. Considering how Islam was introduced to the people, there was less room for much questioning, the masses mostly follow directives given by superior authorities without questions. When superior authorities says go, they go without truly understanding if their going was justified, and when they are told to come, they come without asking questions. This defining point shaped the current situation in northern Nigeria and explains the slight difference in the way both region perceive Islam.
The reaction to “Desecration” of the Quran and the name of the Holy Prophet is a major point of difference.
This thus calls for a brief discussion of the attitude of Muslims and Christians to this subject as a report on history of radicalization of Islam in Nigeria captures.
As captured in the report, both Christians and Muslims have different attitudes to their “Holy” books, the Bible and the Quran.
While the Christians are free in the ways they handle the Bible and can put it under their pillow for “protection” and on their dining table for use before meals, the Muslims hold their Qur’an in respect that borders on awe.
For example, the Qur’an cannot be put on the bed, especially on ones where love is made between couples. It should not be put on the floor, table or any place where anyone that has not performed ablution can have access to it. The tendency for Christians not to treat the Qur’an with the level of respect that Muslims accord it has been a source of problems, and a number of conflicts have been linked to this. Closely related to this is the extent of respect that should be given to the Prophet Mohammed.
Muslims are unequivocal in their demand for respect for the Prophet, while Christians are less inclined to giving the Prophet any special attention. While most Christians are willing to respect the sensitivity of Muslims by not desecrating the name, they do not have any special desire to accord the name any special respect. Saying the usual “Peace be unto him”
after the mention of his name, for example, is not what Christians are inclined to do.
While many Muslims are willing to accept this, they take seriously any conscious attempt to desecrate the name. Again, this has been at the center of violence in northern Nigeria.
While Muslims in the south also frown at any form of desecration of the Holy book an holy prophet, they believe such desecration should be peacefully corrected with education of the culprit. There hasn’t been any form of violent reaction to desecration in the south, though, they express their displeasure with such desecration and try to ensure it is corrected.
A focus group discussions undertaken show slight differences as to the manifestation of desecration as a cause of violent. While all those who took part in the discussions recognize it as a cause of problem, many of those who took part in the discussion in the South-West argue that it needs not be an issue that should lead to violence where lives be lost.
While some of the Muslim participafnts in these discussions claimed that they will be offended with any form of desecration of the Quran or that of the Holy Prophet, they also claim that they will not be violent over this. The position here contradicts with that expressed in the North where some of the participants argue that there are “legitimate” grounds to be violent over any issue of desecration.
This slight difference in reaction to same issue can be traced back to the origin of Islam in both region. While those in the north receive islamic do’s and don’ts from their ruler as a form of state law that should be strictly adhere to failure of which may be punished, those in the south learned about it on their own through islamic education.
Therefore, there is every tendency that those who learned through islamic education could have been properly exposed to the diverse nature of the law and its applications, while those who receive it as an order may have not.
The focus group discussion report established that, there are four types of desecration.
• “deliberate” desecration, where all sides seem to agree that the
name of the Holy Prophet or the Quran has been deliberately desecrated;
• “alleged” desecration, where a third party alleged that someone has
desecrated the name of the Quran or that of Prophet Mohammed;
• “perceived” desecration, where actions are seen, often wrongly, as a
desecrating the name of Prophet Mohammed or that of the Islamic Holy book; and
• “unintended” desecration where actions have been taken in ways that
unknowingly desecrated the religion.
One should be able to determine and react based on which of the above four desecration is involved.
In most of the conflicts involving Muslims and Christians, the origin has always been linked to alleged insensitivity of the latter to Islamic doctrine, including alleged desecration of the Qur’an and lack of respect to Prophet Mohammed.
In recent times, two conflicts between Christians and Muslims dominated national attention. The first was the crisis in Jos and it emerged when a lady who was allegedly dressed in a manner that exposed parts of her body, attempted to pass through a barricade mounted by Muslims during a Friday prayers. She was prevented from passing and was attacked.
In response, Christians foughtm back and the entire state went up in flames, requiring the intervention of the Federal Government to send in armed soldiers to quell riots that later spread across the entire state. But the crisis in Jos can only be understood against wider national politics. There were political crisis within Plateau State and tensions were rising between the major ethnic groups in the state.
The crisis was later to result in a state of emergency being declared in the state by the Federal Government.
The second conflict was the Kano conflict. In this case, an Ibo woman whose family had recently moved into a new house used the Arabic section of the manual of a transistor radio to clean up her child who had just excreted. In the meantime, a Hausa Muslim who had been invited into the house to assist in making some repairs saw this and presumed that the Arabic manual was the Qur’an. He drew the attention of other Muslims to the fact that the Ibo Christian family had desecrated the Qur’an. As the unsuspecting husband of the woman returned home from work, he was attacked and killed. This was to result in major conflict between the Christians and the Muslims in Kano.
Other violent conflicts have emerged as a result of alleged “ desecration” of the Holy Quran, two of which will be mentioned here.
In March 2007, a Christian teacher, Ms. Oluwatoyin Olusesin, who was invigilating an examination in Islamic Religion in Gandu, Gombe State, caught a student cheating in the examination hall. She then seized the item the student was using to cheat. After the end of the exam, the student informed other students that the teacher had desecrated the Qur’an and she was killed. Again in February 2006, another alleged desecration sparked riots when a school teacher seized a copy of the Qur’an in Bauchi from an inattentive student who was reading it during the lesson. This was seen as a desecration and in the ensuring riots more than 50 Christians were said to be killed.
But apart from all the above mentioned conflicts that have been discussed, there are some issues that are also important in underlining the perception of both Christians and Muslims. In most cases, where radicalization has resulted in violent conflicts in Nigeria, there seems to be two issues at the root of the problem.
These are provocation and irritation. The issue of provocation has emerged because the distinction between ethnicity and religion in the country is somewhat blurred.
Consequently, there have always been cases where Muslims, especially those from the Northern parts of the country, have claimed that they have been provoked by disparaging remarks made by Southerners (who are often Christians) against their ethnicity and their religion. This “double insult” on ethnicity and religion is something that Muslims in the North often claim to be sources of the great anger that often underline violence. In one of the focus group discussions in Northern Nigeria, one of the participants confirmed that he had physically assaulted a Christian Yoruba lady who passed a disparaging remark against his religion and his ethnicity.
On its part, the aspect of irritation has many dimensions, two of which are very important.
The first of these is the disturbance that often comes from loud-speakers of churches and mosques at moments of the day that constitute disturbances for non-adherents of the faith. For example, a major source of complaints for most Muslims is the all night loudspeaker usage of Christian churches claiming to be doing night vigils in residential areas, while Christians have complained at the ways mosques in the neighborhood wake people up with their loudspeakers for the daily 5 am prayers.
The second aspect of irritation comes as a result of traffic disturbances associated with the religious programmes. As mentioned earlier, this was at the centre of the religious conflict in Jos, when Muslims barricaded the road and prevented Christians from passing while praying on Friday. But it should also be pointed out that Christians have shown similar insensitivity. For example, the holding of church conventions on Lagos-Ibadan Expressway has been known to result in traffic delays sometimes lasting for several hours.
Again, two political issues have created religious conflict of serious proportion, but only one will be mentioned in this piece.
The crisis over the Miss World Beauty Pageant in May 2004. The crisis brought out all the complexities of national politics. Sometime in 2003, Nigeria was selected to host the Miss World Beauty Pageant. It was widely believed that the country won the bid because a Nigerian contestant, Agbani Darego, had won the competition the previous year.
But controversy began almost immediately after the announcement of Nigeria’s hosting of the competition. A protest came from within the country and it comprised mainly of those who saw the competition as a debasement of women. These people saw the exercise as promoting promiscuity as it offends female modesty and sexual morality.
But while objections to this remained contained, crisis erupted when a columnist with a national newspaper, This Day, Isioma Daniel, criticised Muslims who opposed the competition and argued that Prophet Mohamed would probably have loved to marry one of the contestants.
This was greeted with spontaneous riots across the country and a fatwa was pronounced on the writer who was forced to flee the country.
Despite two front-page apologies by the newspaper, riots continued for many days, resulting in the death of more than 100 people and the organizers of the competition had to move the venue to London.
The fatwa pronounced on Isioma turned out to be very controversial even among Muslim clerics and scholars both within and outside Nigeria. Within the country, there were those who argued that the fatwa declaration was inappropriate since Isioma is not a Muslim and that she and her newspaper had apologised for the article that caused offence.
Indeed, the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs accepted the apology and was not willing to endorse the fatwa. There were also those who argued that while Isioma not being a Muslim did not invalidate the fatwa, the apology that was tendered nullified it.
Outside Nigeria, reactions were mixed; an official of the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Sheikh Saad al-Salah, said that it would be inappropriate to kill a person who is not a Muslim and had apologised for her action.
However, regardless of the opinion on the matter, the Nigeria government said that it would not allow the fatwa to be carried out.
What is important to note here is the fact that, while Muslims in the south are against such fatwa considering the fact that the culprit had apologise for such desecration, many in the north are in support.
For the purpose of education, what is islamic true position on desecration of Quran or blasphemy?
According to sheikh Khalid Saifullah Khan, a person is naturally hurt whenever something he hold sacred is defiled or desecrated. Many consider it morally wrong to hurt the religious sensibilities of others, as it can disturb the peace and harmony of society, whilst others believe any form of censorship curtail necessary freedoms.
Of great concern is the subject of whether islam prescribes any punishment for blasphemy. Every true Muslim loves and regard the holy prophet more than any human being. A muslim may tolerate insults against his parents,relatives or friends, but he cannot endure anyone mocking the prophet.
But how exactly does Islam teach a Muslim to respond to insult against the prophet or for that matter, insult directed at God or anything sacred in Islam?
Unfortunately, some Muslims assert that death or other harsh measure are the only possible punishment for those who commit blasphemy.
However, this belief is mistaken and incorrect according to both the Quran and the sunnah of prophet Muhammed.
Islam enjoins fair treatment of all, including one’s enemies:
Let not a people’s enmity incite you to act otherwise than with justice. Be always just, that is nearer to righteouness. (Q 5:9).
Having said this, Islam doesn’t only condemn the blasphemy of God, it also protects the feelings of polytheists, by forbidding muslims from attacking their idols. On this point, the quran states:
And revile not those whom they call upon besides Allah, lest they, out of spite, revile Allah in their ignorance.(Q6:109).
In other words, Islam teaches Muslims to be sensitive to the sensibilities of others-no matter how strongly they disagree with them.
Sheikh Khalid Saifullah Khan stated that, we will examine the concept of blasphemy in light of true teaching of islam and also analyze the fallout of the incorrect interpretations of Quran verses by some Muslim scholars.
Although, islam regard blasphemy as heinous and offensive, but it doesn’t prescribe any worldly punishment for it, as this would seriously restric freedom of expression.
During this issue, Hadhrat mirza tahir Ahmad (1928-2003), the fourth Khalifa of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, writes in his book response to contemporary issues:
Blasphemy: islam goes one step further than other religion in granting man the freedom of speech and expression. Blasphemy is condemned on moral and ethical ground, no doubt, but no physical punishment is prescribe for blasphemy in islam despite the commonly held view in the contemporary world. He noted that, having studied the Quran extensively and repeatedly with deep concentration, I have failed to find a single verse which declares blasphemy to be a crime punishable by man.
According to Sheikh Tahir Ahmad, there has been no prophet upon whom derogatory words were not used. The Quran confirms that God sent a warner to every people and that each and everyone of the prophets has been the subject of mockery.
Yet, despite the fact that the quran confirms that all prophets have been subjected to attacks by others, there is no evidence that any of the offenders were ever ordered to be punished.
He noted further that, the Quran mentioned many blasphemous utterances by non-believers and hypocrites against Prophet Muhammed, but no sanctioning any physical punishment for the perpetrators:
Verily, those who annoy Allah and his messenger, Allah has cursed them in this world and in the hereafer, and has prepared for them a abasing punishment. And those who malign believing men and believing women for what they have not earned shall bear the guilt of calumny and a manifest sin. (Q33: 58-59).
It should be noted that, the abasing punishment of blaspheming God and his messenger rest with God alone and it is up to him whether he punishes such person in this world or hereafter.
The authority to punish blasphemers has not been delegated to anyone. Not even the prophet.
Prophet Muhammed was repeatedly mocked by the non-believers. The quran point out that his opponens claimed he was a madman (Q15:7) and that there is madness in him (Q23:71).
But the blasphemous statement did not stop there. Not only did they make personal attacks on the prophets, they also insulted the Quran, calling it a book of confused dreams. (Q16:25)
Despite the ill-treatment and disrespect shown to both the prophet and the quran, Allah instructed him not to retaliate, because God says:
We will, surely, suffice thee against those who mock(Q15:96). In other word, God is sufficient to deal wih those who commit blasphemy against him, the holy prophet or the holy book.
The quran further educate muslims on what they should do when blasphemy is committed against their religion. Allah says:
When you hear the sign of Allah being denied and mocked at, sit not with them until they engage in a talk other than that, for in that case you would be like them.(Q4:141).
With such beautiful guidance promoted in the quran, how can anyone contend that punishment of death for blasphemy is justified in Islam? Sheikh Tahir asked.
Clearly, the Quran doesn’t even remotely hint at the death sentence for those blaspheming against it or islam. But unfortunately, the behaviour of extremists groups claiming to be muslims and the introduction of the so-called sharia law in some so called muslim countries, has led the media to wrongly point fingers at the religion of islam in general.
The first suppose reason offered in favour of the death penalty for blasphemy is the idea of a person who uses derogatory words against the prophet becomes apostate and the punishment of apostate is death.
However, there are many problems with this view. First, it is not correct to contend that a disrespectful word is tantamount tom apostasy. The Quran records many derogatory utterances and act against the prophet and the quran, yet they were not killed for apostasy.
Moreover, even if blasphemy did equate to apostasy, it is a misconception that the quran prescribes the death penalty for an apostate. On the contrary, while the quran speaksm repeatedly of those who disbelieve after believing, it doesn’t for once state that they should be killed or punished. The Quran says:
And who so from among you turns back from his faith and dies while he is a disbeliever, it is they whose work shall be vain in this world and the next. (Q2:218)
Notice that, this verse doesn’t say that the disbeliver should be killed, rather, it is simply pointing out the fate of the one who dies while having gone back on his faith in idolation .
Another verse also states that: Surely, those who disbelieve after they have believed and then increase in disbelief, their repentance shall not be accepted, and these are they who have gone astray.
With the above, it clear that there is no a single place where islam prescribe death for blasphemy or even apostasy.
What usually causes some of these confusion or misconception is the fact that, during the time of the prophet, Muslims engaged in defensive war. And in most cases, some of these apostates usually convert to join the enemy soldiers against the prophet in war. So, if some of the apostates who revert are killed as enemy soldier, this cannot be said to be a punishment for apostasy. It can never be.
This is not to say only Muslims are radicals. Radical Christians too have zero-tolerance for those who hold on to traditional religion and there have been recorded cases of violence. Some recent examples of attacks by Christians are worth recording. In 2004, radical Christians in Anambra State set ablaze shrines of traditional worshippers, destroying many priceless artefacts. This led to social unrest that was only brought under control by the intervention of the police.
The latest case of Christian radicalisation against traditional religion was recorded in January 2009 in Obosiland in Idemili North Local Government area of Anambra State, where a certain Pastor Ephraim, the founder of the Prophetic Healing and Deliverance Ministry, went about destroying ancient shrines.
In conclusion, the slight difference in the reaction of Muslims in south to their counterpart in the north is due to different mode of understanding and historical origin of the religion in both region.
My advice is for us all as Muslims to dedicate more time and energy towards educating the public on the grey areas of our misunderstanding so as to avoid and lessen unreasonable violent reaction towards issues in the name of religion.
I will also advice Christians to desist from hateful and provocative comments capable of making a temperamental Muslim exhibit violent human error. Some people can easily walk away while their mother is insulted, but others may fight back with violence.
Continuous provocation, hate, abusive or insulting comments about other peoples religion is capable of turning the most peaceful person into violent reaction. While we must condemn the violence perpetrators, the inciter of such violence cannot be free from condemnation too.
Finally, let me conclude that, there is no a single violent call in the religion of Islam. Violence can only be found in human behavior.
It is the violence in human behavior that Islam is out to cure, this is why it teaches Muslims to be peaceful even in the face of provocation. Indeed, Islam is the most peaceful religion. It is a religion guided by knowledge, love, compassion and understanding.
And revile not those whom they call upon besides Allah, lest they, out of spite, revile Allah in their ignorance.(Q6:109).
Abdulrazaq Hamzat wrote this in 2014.