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Bismillah-ir-Rahman-ir-RahimI remember the furore about Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses”, and the apoplexy over the Danish newspaper cartoon depictions of the prophet Muhammad (ﷺ). When the Monty Python film “Life of Brian” was released it was shunned by the big broadcasting corporations and banned by borough councils around Britain. But is making it illegal to criticise religion the way to go?

It seems unlikely that those who don’t subscribe to a particular faith or ideology will hold it in as high regard as those that do. Surely you have to take the rough with the smooth. And what about Atheists? Isn’t their whole argument based on a criticism of the belief systems of others?

Should free speech be limited when it comes to organised religion? How do you decide where to draw the line in terms of which religions to include and what level of offense is too great? People are different, some power through life barely registering slights and criticisms while others feel the smallest measure of dissent acutely. One person’s insult will be another person’s forward thinking. Some genuinely have a different opinion while others just like to provoke. Wherever you draw the line, there will always be someone claiming their sensitivities haven’t been taken into account and claiming discrimination. There will always be a push for greater and greater censorship.

Perhaps we’re looking at the problem from the wrong perspective.

Instead of looking outwards and trying to shut down whatever we don’t like hearing, maybe we should be looking inwards and concentrating instead on how we deal personally with what we consider to be negative in the world around us. If we replaced condemnation with communication, it would soon become obvious who is genuine and who is merely stirring up controversy.

This week I read about the young Saudi journalist, Hamza Kashgari, 23, who is facing execution for his tweets about the prophet Muhammad (ﷺ). To mark the prophet’s birthday last week, he tweeted, “I have loved things about you and I have hated things about you and there is a lot I don’t understand about you.” He then added, “I will not pray for you.” His words sparked 30,000 responses. They’ve been interpreted as an insult to the prophet and he has been branded an infidel and an apostate, punishable under (man-made) Sharia law by death. Though he quickly apologised, the calls for his execution only multiplied.

I sat here and wondered about what is happening to the religion that I chose to live my life by. The very things that appealed to me about Islam:

  • it’s common sense,
  • encouragement to question and learn,
  •  the right to choose “there is no compulsion in Islam”,
  • ijtihad (individual reasoning instead of blind compliance),
  • sabr (patience),
  • social responsibility “enjoin what is good and forbid what is evil”,
  • the idea that Allah is in us all (closer than our jugular vein) and we need only listen to our conscience,
  • tolerance and compassion

seem to be absent in this case. It seems the more strongly people try to defend their beliefs, the further away they move from the basic tenets of their faith.

Hamza Kashgari’s tweet doesn’t offend me; I thought it was honest and simply put, almost poetic in its confessional nature. I thought it was very human. He typed his feelings and we don’t know the reasons for those. But where is the compassion? Is no-one interested in why a young man, a fellow “brother” in our faith, feels this way? Instead of offering support, we round on him for supposedly insulting someone whose feet haven’t trodden this earth for hundreds of years. Is this what we muslims do in the name of the Compassionate, the Merciful?

No-one is in a position to verify whether it has offended the prophet. He was human like us, not divine, and experienced his fair share of hardship at the hands of others. It’s natural for us, by turns, to be inspired by him, angered by him, bewildered by him, in awe of him, just as we might be by any other significant person in our lives, just as we are by Allah. These are human traits. Our relationship with God and our prophet is personal, and though it may be visible to others, no-one has the right to pass judgement on it. Even Muhammad (ﷺ) made mistakes.

All muslims lucky enough to live in a country that defends their right to freedom of expression need to stand up and protest loudly against this kind of treatment. There must be some in Saudi that feel sympathy for this young man, but progressive-liberal muslims living in conservative countries risk harsh punishments for speaking out. It is up to us to use our freedoms to benefit others and also to support emergent progressive-liberal nations. Islam is judged by the actions of those who call themselves muslim and unfortunately the ones who make the headlines are those with extreme views. Liberal muslims need to make more noise and become more active in defending their religion, like those in Canada recently who publicly and loudly condemned so called “Honour-Killing” following the Shafia trial.

Don’t let others tarnish Islam in your name

Aisha Ashraf is a writer and blogger who converted to Islam ten years ago. She still struggles to equate the faith she researched with the one she finds in the world, and continues in her efforts to improve her understanding.