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Opinion: Religion And Blasphemy: A Critical Perspective By Toyyib Musa-Omoloja

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INTRODUCTION

On Thursday, 22nd May, 2022, a video that sparked outrage across Nigeria went viral on the social media. In the video, Deborah Samuel, a 200-Level student of Shehu Shagari College of Education (SSCOE) was gruesomely murdered by a mob who were said to be her coursemates, allegedly for blaspheming Prophet Muhammad (saw).

Expectedly, the incident has sparked outrage across the country. The Sokoto State government and the Sultan of Sokoto, His Eminence Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar III had both condemned in strong terms the barbaric act.

In a new twist, the attempt by the state government to arrest the perpetrators of the dastardly act has resulted in total breakdown of law and order necessitating the imposition of curfew in parts of the state by the government.

This occurrence which was not the first of its kind in the North necessitates the examination of blasphemy vis-a-vis religion and the health of the society.

RELIGION AND BLASPHEMY

Generally, religion is seen as a system of faith and worship. In a way, it depicts human relations to that which they considered holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine and worthy of special reverence.

Logically, this conception should manifest in one’s relationship or attitude towards that which is worshipped (God, gods or spirits) and by extension, in more humanistic or naturalistic forms of religion, it also includes one’s relationship with the broader human community or the natural world.

It is estimated that there are about 10, 000 distinct religions in the world, and about 84% of the world population belong to Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and one folk religion or the other.

Because of the unquenchable yearning of man to connect with something supremely outside of his contemplation; or perhaps the desire to have an object of worship and respect, and the need to have such focus of awe and reverence magnified and honoured, the concept of blasphemy crept into this interesting relationship between the worshipped and the devotees.

Blasphemy is regarded as an insult that shows contempt, disrespect or lack of reverence for a deity, sacred object or something considered inviolable. Thus, blasphemy is as old as religion itself.

THE UNCOMFORTABLE TRUTH ABOUT THE ABRAHAMIC FAITHS

The Abrahamic religions are those that worshipped the God of Abraham, and their hallmark is monotheism. The most prominent among them are Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Others with few adherents are : the Bahai faith, Druze, Samaritanism and Rastafarianism.

The Abrahamic faiths generally frown at blasphemy. In both Judaism and Christianity, the commonest punishment for blasphemy was capital punishment through stoning or hanging as shown in Leviticus 24: 13-16, 1 King 21: 8-13

13 Then the Lord said to Moses:
14 “Take the blasphemer outside the camp. All those who heard him are to lay their hands on his head, and the entire assembly is to stone him.
15 Say to the Israelites: ‘Anyone who curses their God(B) will be held responsible;
16 anyone who blasphemes(D) the name of the Lord is to be put to death.
The entire assembly must stone them. Whether foreigner or native-born, when they blaspheme the Name they are to be put to death.

Leviticus 24: 13-16

8 So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name, placed his seal on them, and sent them to the elders and nobles who lived in Naboth’s city with him.

9 In those letters she wrote:

“Proclaim a day of fasting and seat Naboth in a prominent place among the people.

10 But seat two scoundrels opposite him and have them bring charges that he has cursed both God and the king. Then take him out and stone him to death.”

11 So the elders and nobles who lived in Naboth’s city did as Jezebel directed in the letters she had written to them.

12 They proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth in a prominent place among the people.

13 Then two scoundrels came and sat opposite him and brought charges against Naboth before the people, saying, “Naboth has cursed both God and the king.” So they took him outside the city and stoned him to death.

1 King 21: 8-13

In Islam, even though there is not a single verse of the Qur’an that prescribes punishment for blasphemy, Islamic jurists have however differed in their opinions about the subject, hence the conflicting views about it.

Laid bare, there are certain texts in the scriptures of the Abrahamic religions, which, without supervision and guidance, may be misunderstood and misinterpreted by mischief makers or ignorant adherents to foment troubles or engage in behaviours that could be considered inimical to societal wellbeing.

BLASPHEMY -INDUCED EXTRA-JUDICIAL KILLINGS IN NIGERIA

The case of Deborah Samuel was not the first of its kind in Nigeria even though efforts should be made to ensure it remains the last in the country.

There have been several cases of murder committed in the past on the excuse that the victims committed blasphemy. For instance, Talle Mai Ruwa, a water seller in Sade village , Darazo Local Government Area of Bauchi State, on 30th March, 2021 was dragged out of the police station where he was being held, beaten to death and set ablaze by a local mob. Ruwa was said to have insulted Prophet Muhammad ( saw).

There were similar cases that date back to several years in the past.

BLASPHEMY LAWS

The tendency in man to protect his beliefs and belief system overtime has resulted in enactment of blasphemy laws. Such laws are meant to prohibit blasphemy.

As at 2019, Pew Research Centre posited that 40% (79 countries and territories out of the 198 studied around the world) had anti-blasphemy laws or policies while 11 % (twenty-two countries) had laws against apostasy which is the act of abandoning one’s faith. The analysis was based on the Centre’s ‘wider body of research on global restrictions related to religion.’

Even though those laws have been subject of condemnation by Human Rights Organisations and resolutions of the United Nations Human Rights Council, states have continued to justify their existence on the need to protect the religious beliefs of majority population as well as those of minorities.

As noted elsewhere in this intervention, blasphemy laws in Europe and in the West generally derive majorly from the Bible and they have been quite oppressive. A peep into 18th Century Europe, specifically in 1766, had displayed, the killing of Jean Francois de la Barre who was decapitated and burnt along with a copy of Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary for his ‘ monstrous , execrable blasphemies against God and the church’

Ironically, the situation has not been any different in Muslim- majority countries. In these countries, for the most part, blasphemy goes with death penalty.

However, most of the western world today are repealing their blasphemy laws, and in most cases too, such laws are being replaced with legislations against incitement to hate, discrimination and violence. But the same cannot be said of Muslim countries who still maintain blasphemy laws in theirs states, though there exist divergence in the form of prescribed punishments from state to state.

In Nigeria where the recent incident that motivated this write up occured, there are two parallel system of justice: the customary law system which derived from British common law, and the sharia legal system (operative in Northern Nigeria). The two systems criminalise blasphemy but prescribed different punishment.

Section 204 of Nigeria’s Criminal Code is entitled ‘insult to religions’ and it states that:

‘Any person who does an act which any class of persons consider as a public insult on their religion, with the intention that they should consider the act such an insult, and any person who does an unlawful act with the knowledge that any class of persons will consider it such an insult, is guilty of a misdemeanour, and is liable to imprisonment for two years.

But the sharia court system may treat blasphemy as deserving of several punishments, up to, and including execution.

THE TRUE POSITION OF ISLAM ON BLASPHEMY

There have been conflicting narratives on the punishment for blasphemy in Islam. This controversy is not helped by the differences of opinions among the juristic schools of thought in the religion. This divergence of perspectives, of course, has resulted in differences in the punishment prescribed for blasphemy in Muslim -majority countries.

It should, however, be noted that the major sources of legislation in Islam are the the Qur’an and the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (saw). Others are consensus of opinions among scholars (Ijma), and analogical deductions (Kiyas).

Among all the sources, the most potent and credible which is also immune to fallacy or any error of whatever form because of its divine nature is the Qur’an, and this is so because it is the direct revelation from God to the Holy Prophet (saw) over a period of 23 years.

Sunnah represents all the sayings and deeds of Prophet Muhammad (saw) including what he permitted, encouraged, discouraged or prohibited. Books of hadiths documenting all the aspects of the Prophet’s life were compiled after him.

Today, hadith science is an area of specialisation in Islamic Theology. As good as hadith is as a source of jurisprudence, it is not as credible and reliable as the Holy Qur’an. Thus, to ensure that hadith compilations are free from human errors, they are classified into three categories: Sohir, Hassan, Daef (Sound, Good and Weak narration)

Ijma is the consensus of scholars on an issue while Kiyas is analogical deductions, all derived from the Qur’an and Hadith. These two ( Kiyas and Ijma’) are deployed to deal with issues that were not expressly dealt with in the Qur’an or Sunnah.

The above explanation is necessary to explain clearly the sources of legislation in Islam and therefore know the weight and relevance of laws that may have outgrown their usefulness.

Scrutinising the most important source of legislation which is the Qur’an, there is not a single verse that prescribes punishment for blasphemy.

There were several account of slanderous remarks, blasphemies and insults against the Prophet that were recorded in the Holy Qur’an. He was severally called a sorcerer, liar and even a madman.

And they say : ” O you (Muhammad saw) to whom the Dhikr (the Qur’an) has been sent down! Verily, you are a madman. ” (Q 15: 6)

There are similar other verses.

Even the Qur’an itself was disparaged:

” And when it is said to them: What is it that your Lord has sent down ( unto Muhammad saw)?”

They say: ” Tales of the men old” (Q16: 24)

Infact, the Qur’an points out that Prophets and Messengers of Allah before Prophet Muhammad (saw) were persecuted, mocked, given bad names not only during their lifetimes but also after their demise.

” Alas for My servants! There comes not a Messenger to them but they mock at him” ( Q36: 31)

In all these, the admonition of Allah to His Prophet ( saw) was always to the effect that he should be patient and forbearing.

” Be patient over what they say and avoid them with gracious avoidance (Q 73: 10).

Similar others are: (Q50:39; Q20: 130; Q15: 97-98; Q6: 68; Q4: 140; Q7: 199)

In the traditions too (hadith), there are numerous instances where the Prophet (saw) rose above insults and blasphemies and even treated those who maligned him kindly.

When the Holy Prophet (saw) went to Taif to preach to the local people, they mocked and tortured him and his whole body was ripped red with blood. Allah (swt)sent His angel to ask him if he wished the whole village to be torn into pieces. That was an opportunity for him to say yes, to teach the recalcitrant folks and others some hard lessons that if anyone blasphemed against him, such could be destroyed or punished. But rather than opting for punishment, he prayed for them and said to the angel:

” Do not do such a thing! I hope Allah will raise people from their generation who would worship one God and would not associate any partner with Him.”

It is important to reference a particular hadith which extremists leverage on to perpetrate evils in the society. They usually cite the case of Ka’ab Al-Ashraf who was executed during the lifetime of the Prophet( saw). He was conspiring to wage war against the fledgling Muslim community.

But they cite this while ignoring to mention the fact that his execution was in connection to treason even though he was a satirist who wrote poems to ridicule the Prophet ( saw) and his companions.

Therefore, this was an apparent case of wrong deduction based on wrong premise. Apparently, the context for that judgement was ignored. ( Umdat al- Qari fi Sharh Sahih Al-Bukhari 34/413)

There is another text relating to a lady servant that was killed by a blind man for continuously disparaging the Prophet (saw) usually cited by extremists for their mob action or jungle justice. This evidence was also faulty as the referenced hadith was considered anomalous by scholars of science of hadith. It was considered anomalous because of problems in its chain of narration and the text itself. An anomalous hadith is one which is reported by a trustworthy person who contradicted the narration of a person more reliable than he is. Again, this hadith too owing to its questionable integrity cannot be used to legislate a general law in Islam.

SOLUTION TO JUNGLE JUSTICE.

Jungle justice otherwise known as mob justice is an illegal and unauthorised act of publicly subjecting an alleged criminal to excruciating pains, torture, beating and assault leading to death( sometimes) by a mob.

Apparently, Deborah Samuel was a victim of jungle justice, and there would have been many cases before her that may not have attracted nationwide attention like hers.

But jungle justice is antithetical to the wellbeing of a sane society. The following, therefore, are some of the ways to curb its prevalence in the society.

• Criminalsing jungle justice and ensuring the strengthening and enforcement of laws regulating such misdemeanour

• Intensive education and re-orientation for the people. In this case, a lot has to be done by Islamic authorities to ensure that extremist clerics are weeded out of the system.

It is not out of place if a body is set up to regulate their training including the curriculum of their education to ensure all shades of extremism are expunged from the training resources.

• Part of the factors fuelling mob justice by people is related to their loss of faith in the justice system in the country. This problem should be addressed by ensuring that justice is always done to both offender, victim and the society promptly when crimes are committed.

• Professionalising the security agencies and strengthening them to perform their functions effectively cannot be over- emphasised in our efforts to rid the country of the menace of jungle justice.

• Muslims should be educated to know that individuals have no right to administer justice on their own. They have to undergo the procedure laid down by the government. Even in Islamic jurisdictions where the sharia legal system is fully operational, people still have to go through the judicial process to get justice. It is both criminal and sinful to deviate from this civilised approach.

• People generally should also be sensitive about what others hold dear. Such sensitivity makes human interactions smooth and harmonious.

CONCLUSION

Killing people on flimsy excuses prevalent in Northern Nigeria is a symptom of a malfunctioning society that has been fed for too long with a diet of monstrous ignorance and excruciating poverty in all its grotesqueness.

The fact that a former Vice President who is also an aspirant for the presidency in the coming 2023 general elections on a major political party could not confidently condemn the heinous act spoke volumes. The former Vice President condemned the brutal killing but also quickly deleted the tweet when people from his part of the country threatened to reject him at the polls. This reality painted in bold relief the problems we are grappling with in the North specifically and in Nigeria generally.

The North has been pillaged and extorted by its elites for too long, and parts of the tools used in subjugating the people are ignorance, poverty and religious extremism. These combination cannot but be combustible.

It is hoped that the leadership in the North at all levels and strata of the society will wake up to the pathetic reality in their region and do the needful before it is too late. Education, deterrence, economic empowerment and positive modeling will, surely, begin to change the tide positively.

REFERENCES

https://www. alhakam.org/prophet-muhammad-response-to-blasphemy/

https://end -blasphemy-laws.org/countries/europe/

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blasphemy _law

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blasphemy _law_in_Nigeria

https:/en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki,/religion

https:/www.institutmontaigne.org/en/blog/blasphemy-france-and-europeright-or-offense.

https://library.oapen.org/handle/20.500.12657/37743

https://www.pewresearch.org/facttank/2022/01/25/four-in-ten-countries-and-territories-worldwide-had-blasphemy-laws-in-2019-2/

https://provide.ng/solutions-to-jungle-justice-in-nigeria/

https://www. vanguard ngr.com/2016/12/jungle-justice-disregard-rule-law/amp/

two unreferenced WhatsApp posts

Toyyib Musa-Omoloja writes from Akure, the Ondo State capital.

PS: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily that of the Publishers of Precision Online Newspaper.

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