Free Speech in the Quran, Traditions, and Sharia Law
By James M. Arlandson, PhD
Danish translation: Ytringsfrihed i Koranen, traditionen og sharia-loven
Source: Live as Free People, December 14, 2015
Published on July 7, 2018

This series on Islamic sharia law is written for educators, journalists, judges, lawyers, legislators, city council members, government bureaucrats, think tank fellows, TV and radio talk show hosts, and anyone else who occupies the “check points” in society. They initiate the national dialogue and even shape the flow of the conversation. They are the policy and decision makers.

They have heard the critics of sharia, but conclude the critics exaggerate. The critics may even be “Islamophobes.” And maybe they have been guilty of hyperbole, in some cases.

Yet these same intellectual elites may also have a private, gnawing feeling that the critics may be partially right. Can they be all wrong, all the time?

Online articles that defend sharia have sprung up. Their intent, among others, is to assuage the private anxieties of the policy and decision makers. So far, so good, for that is their political right.

One example is an editorial written by Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the Secretary General of the Jeddah-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation, (OIC) formerly Organization of the Islamic Conference, an international organization consisting of 57 member states.

He says sharia and Islam itself is compatible with freedom of religion and expression. The background of his editorial is that the OIC has worked to pass the U.N. Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18, a follow-up of the Durban Declaration, and coming under the General Assembly of the United Nations. This Resolution combats “negative stereotyping and stigmatization” of persons based on religion or belief (see below, for more discussion). [1]

So Professor Ihsanoglu writes about religious free speech, specifying the kind that Islam offers:

"The Islamic faith is based on tolerance and acceptance of other religions. It does not condone discrimination of human beings on the basis of caste, creed, colour or faith. It falls on all the OIC member states as a sacred duty to protect the lives and property of their non-Muslim citizens and to treat them without discrimination of any form. Those elements who seek to harm or threaten minority citizens must be subjected to law. Our strong stand condemning violence perpetrated against non-Muslims whether in Iraq, Egypt or Pakistan has been consistent."

No one has the right to insult another for their beliefs or to incite hatred and prejudice. That kind of behaviour is irresponsible and uncivilised.

We also cannot overlook the fact that the world is diverse. The Western perception on certain issues would differ from those held by others. We need to be sensitive and appreciative of this reality, more so when it comes to criticising or expressing views on issues related to religion and culture.

The publication of offensive cartoons of the Prophet six years ago that sparked outrage across the Muslim world, the publicity around the film Fitna and the more recent Qur’an burnings represent incidents of incitement to hatred that fuel an atmosphere of dangerous mutual suspicion. Freedom of expression has to be exercised with responsibility. At the same time, violent reactions to provocations are also irresponsible and uncivilised and we condemn them unequivocally. [2]

However, this extremely positive view of the sharia on free speech needs more nuance. Earlier in the professor’s editorial he calls anti-Islam and anti-Muslim attitudes “Islamophobia.” But what about legitimate criticism of sharia?

Maybe Islam needs to do some soul-searching.


Can Islam today abandon its anti-blasphemy laws that come from its origins, and allow freedom of religious speech, even unpleasant speech?

Can Muslims and non-Muslims criticize Islam and even Muhammad without fear of violence?

Here is the Table of Contents, with links:

Battle of Uhud, A.D. 625
Battle of the Trench, A.D. 627
Tabuk Campaign, A.D. 630

Critics Who Got Assassinated

1. Al-Nadr bin al-Harith and Uqba bin Abu Muayt
2. Asma bint Marwan
3. Kab bin al-Ashraf
4. Ibn Sunayna
5. A One-Eyed Bedouin
6. Abu Afak
7. A Slave Mother
8. A Jewish Woman
9. Abdullah bin Katal and a Singing Girl

Punishments for Muslims
Punishments for Non-Muslims
What Other Schools of Law Say

Reformist Islam
Traditional Islam




It is sometimes claimed that original Islam, when Muhammad moved up to Medina, was helpless and under siege, so it had to adopt stringent requirements just to survive. [3] But that claim needs some clarity and balance.

This section takes Quranic verses that restrict free speech, in their historical context. As Muhammad grows in military power, he suppresses freedom of conscience and speech, even threatening with death anyone who dared to criticize him.

For more detail on the growth of Islam’s military power than the brief outline offered here, see my study, The Mission of Muhammad and the Sword.

Battle of Uhud, A.D. 625

After the Meccans and Muslims fought the Battle of Uhud in March 625, named after a hill near Medina, Muhammad suffered a loss of prestige. The community did not crumble, but quickly recovered and grew, so the loss was not material.

In this verse about hearing hurtful words from the People of the Book (Jews, mostly, in Medina at this time) and polytheists (the Medinans who worshipped many gods), Muhammad has to take the path of humility.

"186 You [Muhammad] are sure to be tested through your possessions and persons; you are sure to hear much that is hurtful from those who were given the Scripture before you and from those who associate others with God [polytheists]. If you are steadfast and mindful of God, that is the best course." (Quran 3:186) [4]

The word “hurtful” has the semantic range of to hurt, suffer, damage, injure, or harm. “The word… signifies a slight evil… or anything causing a slight harm.” [5] Allah tells his prophet that he has to take the insults, not retaliate. Historically, Muhammad was momentarily too weak to retaliate against insults after the battle in 625.

But Allah reveals that if Muhammad is patient, he will find a great strength. And he did – strength enough to “take care” of his critics.

Battle of the Trench, A.D. 627

Muhammad’s power, though always growing in the two years between 625 and 627, increases exponentially in Medina. Verses in Chapter 33 of the Quran deals with the Battle of the Trench.

In fact, we observed in the previous post about the freedom of religion that Muhammad is so powerful that he lays seize to the Jewish strongholds in Medina, captures them, decapitates 600-900 adult male Jews of the Qurayzah tribe, enslaves its women and children, though he keeps a beautiful Jewess for himself, and confiscates all of their property, which is considerable (Quran 33:26-27). After this victory and confiscation, Muhammad is wealthier than ever. In his wealth and power he lays down more rules for his many wives (33:33-40).

Thus, it is in the context of Muhammad’s rising power and wealth, atrocity against the Jews, and new laws about marriage and the behavior of women that these verses were received:

"57 Those who insult God and His Messenger will be rejected by God in this world and the next – He has prepared a humiliating punishment for them – 58 and those who undeservedly insult believing men and women will bear the guilt of slander and obvious sin." (Quran 33:57-58) [6]

In the next passage, Muhammad advocates eternal damnation for merely annoying the prophet and his Muslims, the “believing men and women,” and for lying insults. Then the chapter continues with commands to Muhammad’s wives to wear veils so that the insults will stop.

But he also promises the insulting liars conquest and death (v. 61), which seems to echo the brutal action taken against the Jewish Qurayzah tribe.

"59 Prophet, tell your wives, your daughters, and women believers to make their outer garment hang low over them, so as to be recognized and not insulted: God is most forgiving, most merciful. 60 If the hypocrites, the sick of heart, and those who spread lies in the city [Medina] do not desist, We shall arouse you [Prophet] against them, and then they will only be your neighbors in this city for a short while. 61 They will be rejected wherever they are found, and then seized and killed [q-t-l]." (Quran 33:59-61) [7]

So, Muhammad lays down the law for all the Muslim women so that no false rumors can grow – they must wear veils. “Sick of heart” can be understood as excessive moral sickness, that is, sexual desire, so the women must cover up. [8] Regardless, the class of rumor-mongers, “those who spread lies,” is subjected to the harshest warning.

If they do not desist, they will not only be exiled, but also find no rest wherever they go. Then they will be “seized and killed,” as the Qurayza tribe was.

Tabuk Campaign, A.D. 630

Finally, in Chapter 9 of the Quran, Muhammad’s power is complete, especially in the last two-thirds of the chapter, which deals with the military campaign to Tabuk (in the far north of Saudi Arabia today) in late 630.

The hypocrites in Islam are the lukewarm Muslims who circle just outside of the fledgling religion, watching the fortunes of the community, whether they rise or fall. They do not follow the prophet at all times; indeed, they backed away from following him to Tabuk because of the expense, the harvest season, and the heat (Quran 9:81-83). They were “halfway” Muslims. Muhammad could not tolerate such wishy-washy behavior.

So it is in this context that Muhammad receives these verses about insults and mockery and jokes from hypocrites.

"61 There are others who insult the Prophet by saying, 'He will listen to anything.' Say [Muhammad], 'He listens for your own good… An agonizing torment awaits those who insult God’s Messenger'… 63 Do they not know that whoever opposes God and His Messenger will go to the Fire of Hell and stay there? That is the supreme disgrace." (Quran 9:61, 63) [9]

Thus, the hypocrites accuse Muhammad of listening to anything and everything, so he lacks wisdom and inspiration from Allah. But Allah gets the last laugh, for they will be thrown into the fires of hell.

Muhammad continues his denunciation of the hypocrites and their jokes:

"64 The hypocrites fear that a sura [chapter] will be revealed exposing what is in their hearts – say, 'Carry on with your jokes: God will bring about what you fear!' 65 yet if you were to question them, they would be sure to say, 'We were just chatting, just amusing ourselves.' Say, 'Were you making jokes about God, His Revelations [the Quran], and His Messenger?' 66 Do not try to justify yourselves; you have gone from belief to disbelief..." (Quran 9:64-66) [10]

Muhammad goes on to assert that the hypocrites are misleading a number of people. The hypocrites are worthy of the fires of hell (v. 68). They cannot hide behind “chatting and amusing themselves” because God, the Quran, and the Messenger cannot be trifled with.

According to Quran 9:73 and 123, Muhammad is permitted to wage war on them.

"73 Prophet, strive [j-h-d] against unbelievers and the hypocrites and be tough on them. Hell is their final home – an evil destination." (Quran 9:73) [11]

At first Muhammad is commanded only to strive (j-h-d or wage jihad) with the unbelievers and hypocrites. The word “jihad” can mean a violent struggle in certain contexts, but in others it can also mean merely an endeavor or effort, and the latter meaning is envisioned in v. 73.

However, tension between Muhammad and the hypocrites escalates. Now they have been declared unbelievers, and he has divine permission to wage a qital against them. Recall that this word means only fighting, warring, slaughtering, or killing. Quran 9:123 says:

"123 You who believe, fight [q-t-l] those of the disbelievers near you and let them find you standing firm: be aware that God is with those who are mindful of Him." (Quran 9:123)

The root of “near” is w-l-y, and there are many references to it in the Quran. For our purposes it can mean, depending on the context, “kindred” or “kinship” or close “friendship.” [12] This indicates that the hypocrites – now unbelievers – had once been near the Muslim community, but now they have turned away.

So Muhammad in Chapter 9 of the Quran goes from promising hell for the hypocrites for their mockery and disobedience and disrespect, to striving (jihad) with them and finally to waging war (qital) on them, in a short time.


What follows are the stories from the hadith (traditional reports of the deeds and words of Muhammad and other original Muslims outside of the Quran) and other sources that tell of the deaths of individuals who insulted Muhammad. The other sources are early biographer Ibn Ishaq (d. 767) and commentator and historian Tabari (d. 923). For more discussion of the hadith, see the article titled, What Is Sharia? in the series.

All of the following sources, hadith or otherwise, present a coherent picture of original Islam.

Critics Who Got Assassinated

1. Al-Nadr bin al-Harith and Uqba bin Abu Muayt

Before Muhammad’s hijrah or emigration from Mecca to Medina in 622, he used to sit in the assembly and invite the Meccans to Allah, citing the Quran and warning them of God’s punishment for mocking his prophets. Poet and story teller al-Nadr would then follow him and speak about heroes and kings of Persia, saying, “By God, Muhammad cannot tell a better story than I, and his talk is only of old fables which he has copied as I have.” [13]

Al-Nadr is referring to legends and opaque histories about Arabs of long ago and possibly to Bible stories about such figures as Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, which Muhammad told, but according to his own versions, which sometimes contradict the Biblical accounts. On other days al-Nadr would interrupt Muhammad until the prophet silenced him.

In reply to al-Nadr’s harassment, it is possible that Allah sent down these verses to Muhammad concerning him or certainly other mockers in Mecca:

"13 … [W]hen Our revelations are recited to him, he says, 'Ancient fables!' 14 No! Their hearts are encrusted with what they have done. 15 No! On that Day they will be screened off from their Lord, 16 they will burn in Hell, 17 and they will be told, 'This is what you call a lie.'" (Quran 83:13-17)

Muhammad did not take revenge on him – not yet – even though the verses in Chapter 83 promise a dismal eternal future for mockers. Muhammad’s revenge was not long coming. It was al-Nadr’s bad fortune to join Mecca’s army, riding north to protect their caravan, which Muhammad attacked at the Battle of Badr in AD 624. The story-telling polytheist was captured, and on Muhammad’s return journey back to Medina, Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law, at Muhammad’s order, beheaded him, instead of getting some possible ransom money. He was one of two prisoners who were executed and not allowed to be ransomed by their clans.

The other mocking poet was Uqba bin Abu Mayt, who harassed Muhammad while both lived in Mecca, and Muhammad did not have any military. Abu Mayt wrote derogatory verses about him (cf. Quran 83:13) and put camel intestines on Muhammad’s back while the messenger of Allah was praying. [14]

In reply Muhammad called on Allah three times to avenge him for Abu Mayt’s actions. “O Allah! Destroy (the pagans of) Quraish [major tribe in Mecca]; O Allah! Destroy Quraish; O Allah Destroy Quraish,” naming especially [several specific enemies and] Abu Mayt. [15] He was captured during the Battle of Badr in A.D. 624, and Muhammad ordered him to be executed. [16]

After the Battle of Badr, al-Nadr and Uqba bin Abu Mayt are killed. The chiefs of the Quraish tribe were also killed, thus fulfilling Muhammad’s cry for revenge.

"Then the apostle went forward until when he came out of the pass of al-Safra he halted on the sand hill between the pass and al-Naziya called Sayar at a tree there and divided the booty which God had granted to the Muslims equally. Then he marched until he reached Rauha when the Muslims met him congratulating him and the Muslims on the victory God had given him. Salama b. Salama – so Asim b. ‘Umar b. Qatada and Yazid b. Ruman told me – said, 'What are you congratulating us about? By God, we only met some bald old women like the sacrificial camels who are hobbled, and we slaughtered them!' The apostle smiled and said, 'But, nephew, those were the chiefs.' When the apostle was in al-Safra, al-Nadr was killed by Ali, as a learned Meccan told me. When he was in Irqul-Zabya, Uqba was killed. He had been captured by Abdullah b. Salima, one of the B[ani or tribe] al-‘Ajlan. When the apostle ordered him to be killed, Uqba said, 'But who will look after my children, O Muhammad?' 'Hell,' he said, and Asim b. Thabit b. Abul-Aqlah al-Ansari killed him according to what Abu ‘Ubayda b. Muhammad b. Ammar b. Yasir told me." [17]

2. Asma bint Marwan

Asma was a poetess who belonged to a tribe of Medinan pagans, and whose husband was named Yazid b. Zayd. She composed a poem blaming the Medinan pagans for obeying a stranger (Muhammad) and for not taking the initiative to attack him by surprise. When the Allah-inspired prophet heard what she had said, he asked, “Who will rid me of Marwan’s daughter?”

A member of her husband’s tribe volunteered and crept into her house that night. She had five children, and the youngest was sleeping at her breast. The assassin gently removed the child, drew his sword, and plunged it into her, killing her in her sleep. The following morning, the assassin defied anyone to take revenge. No one took him up on his challenge, not even her husband. In fact, Islam became powerful among his tribe. Previously, some members who had kept their conversion secret now became Muslims openly, “because they saw the power of Islam,” conjectures biographer Ibn Ishaq (d. 767).

"When the apostle heard what she had said, he said 'Who will rid me of Marwan’s daughter?' Umayr b. Adiy al-Khatmi who was with him heard him, and that very night he went to her house and killed her. In the morning he came to the apostle and told him what he had done and he said, 'You have helped God and His apostle, O Umayr!' When he asked if he would have to bear any evil consequences the apostle said, 'Two goats won’t butt their heads about her,' so Umayr went back to his people. Now there was a great commotion among B[ani or tribe] Khatma that day about the affair of Bint Marwan. She had five sons, and when Umayr went to them from the apostle he said, ‘I have killed Bint Marwan, O sons of Khatma, withstand me if you can; don’t keep me waiting.' That was the first day that Islam became powerful among B. Khatma, before that those who were Muslims concealed the fact. The first of them to accept Islam was Umayr b. ‘Adiy who was called 'the Reader,' and Abdullah b. Aus and Khuzayma b. Thabit. The day after Bint Marwan was killed, the men of B. Khatma became Muslims because they saw the power of Islam." [18]

3. Kab bin al-Ashraf

He had a mixed ancestry. His father came from a nomadic Arab, but his mother was a Jewess from the powerful al-Nadr tribe in Medina. He lived as a member of his mother’s tribe. He heard about the Muslim victory at the battle of Badr, and he was disgusted, for he thought Muhammad the newcomer to Medina was a trouble-maker and divisive. Kab had the gift of poetry, and after the Battle of Badr he traveled down to Mecca, apparently stopping by Badr, since it was near a major trade route to Mecca, witnessing the aftermath. Arriving in Mecca, he wrote a widely circulated poem, a hostile lament, over the dead of Mecca.

Pro-Muslim poets answered Kab’s poem with ones of their own, and that was enough for his hosts in Mecca to turn him out. He returned to Medina, writing some amatory verses about Muslim women, a mistake compounded on a mistake, given the tense climate in Medina and Muhammad’s victory at Badr. Angered by the poems and now able to strike back after the Battle of Badr, Muhammad had had enough. He asked, “Who would rid me of [Kab]?” Five Muslims volunteered, one of whom was Kab’s foster-brother named Abu Naila. They informed him, “O apostle of God [Muhammad], we shall have to tell lies.” He answered, “Say what you like, for you are free in the matter.” [19] The hadith collector and editor Bukhari (d. 870) records Muhammad’s permission to tell lies in war:

"Narrated Jabir: The Prophet said, 'Who is ready to kill Kab bin Ashraf (i.e. a Jew).' Muhammad bin Maslama replied, 'Do you like me to kill him?' The Prophet replied in the affirmative. Muhammad bin Maslama said, 'Then allow me to say what I like.' The Prophet replied, 'I do (i.e. allow you).'" [20]

As the murder was underway, Kab mounted a strong defense, so the swords of the five murderers were ineffective. Finally, one of the conspirators remembered his dagger, stabbed Kab in the belly, and then bore it down until it reached Kab’s genitals, killing him. The five made it back to Muhammad, but only after difficulty, since in the dark they had wounded one of their own. They saluted the prophet as he stood praying, and he came out to them. They told him that the mission was accomplished. He spat on their comrade’s wound, and they returned to their families.

Their attack on Kab sent shock waves into the Jewish community, so that “there was no Jew in Medina who did not fear for his life.” The five severed Kab’s head and brought it to Muhammad. [21]

4. Ibn Sunayna

It is on the heels of Kab’s assassination that Ibn Sunayna, a Jewish merchant, was assassinated. With the success of the five conspirators, Muhammad said, “Kill any Jew that falls into your power.” Shortly afterwards, Muhayyisa b. Masud leapt upon and killed Ibn Sunayna, with whom Muhayyisa had some social and business relations. However, Muhayyisa’s elder brother, not a Muslim at the time, beat the assassin, the younger brother, saying, “You enemy of God, did you kill him when much of the fat on your belly comes from his wealth?” Muhayyisa retorted that if Muhammad had ordered even the elder brother’s assassination, he would have carried it out.

The elder was impressed: “By God, a religion which can bring you to this is marvelous!” And he became a Muslim. That is, the elder brother implies that Muhammad must be a great leader and worthy of devotion if he commands such reverence and obedience from his followers.

Then Muhayyisa wrote a poem that celebrates such obedience. “I would smite his [the elder brother’s] neck with a sharp sword, / A blade as white as salt from polishing. / My downward stroke never misses its mark.” [22]

5. A One-Eyed Bedouin

In revenge for an ambush on some Muslim missionaries, Muhammad sent Amr bin Umayya and a companion to assassinate Abu Sufyan, a leader of the Meccans. Umayya failed in his attempt, and he had to flee under pursuit, hiding in a cave, murdering a man named Ibn Malik along the way.

As the pursuit was dying down, a tall, one-eyed, unnamed Bedouin entered the cave, driving some sheep. Umayya and the Bedouin introduced each other. After they settled down, the shepherd sang a simple two-line song in defiance of Muslims and Islam: “I won’t be a Muslim as long as I live, / Nor heed to their religion give.”

Unfortunately for this Bedouin, he was in the cave with a fanatic who said: “You will soon see!” The Bedouin fell asleep, snoring. Umayya recounts what he did: “... I went to him and killed him in the most dreadful way that anybody has ever been killed. I leaned over him, stuck the end of my bow into his good eye, and thrust it down until it came out of the back of his neck.”

He fled back to Muhammad, who said, “Well done!” The account ends: The prophet “prayed for me [Umayya] to be blessed.” [23]

6. Abu Afak

He was a centenarian elder of Medina and belonged to a group of clans who were associated with the god Manat (though another account has him as a Jew), wrote a derogatory poem about Muhammad, extolling the ancestors of his tribe who were strong enough to overthrow mountains and to resist submitting to an outsider (Muhammad) who divides two large Medinan tribes with religious commands like “permitted” and “forbidden.” That is, the poet is referring to Muhammad’s legal decrees about things that are forbidden (e.g. pork and alcohol) and permitted (e.g. other meats like beef and camel).

Before the Battle of Badr, Muhammad let him live. After the battle, the prophet queried, “Who will deal with this rascal for me?” That night, Salim b. Umayr “went forth and killed him.” One of the Muslims wrote a poem in reply: “A hanif [monotheist or Muslim] gave you a thrust in the night saying / ‘Take that Abu Afak in spite of your age!’” [24]

7. A Slave Mother

Next, according to hadith editor Abu Dawud (d. 875), a blind man had a slave-mother who used to abuse the prophet with her words. The man tried to stop her repeatedly, “but she did not give up the habit.”

"One night she began to slander the Prophet… and abuse him. So he [the blind man] took a dagger, placed it on her belly, pressed it, and killed her. A child who was between her legs was smeared with the blood that was there." [25]

The next morning Muhammad was informed of the murder, so he assembled the people and demanded to know who did it.

"When the morning came, the Prophet… was informed about it. He assembled the people and said: I adjure by Allah the man who has done this action and I adjure him by my right to him that he should stand up. Jumping over the necks of the people and trembling the man stood up. He sat before the Prophet… and said: Apostle of Allah! I am her master; she used to abuse you and disparage you. I forbade her, but she did not stop, and I rebuked her, but she did not abandon her habit. I have two sons like pearls from her, and she was my companion. Last night she began to abuse and disparage you. So I took a dagger, put it on her belly and pressed it till I killed her. Thereupon the Prophet… said: O be witness, no retaliation is payable for her blood." [26]

8. A Jewish Woman

Another case involves a Jewish woman who used to insult the messenger. She was strangled to death, and Muhammad did not require payment for her blood.

"Narrated Ali ibn Abu Talib: A Jewess used to abuse the Prophet… and disparage him. A man strangled her till she died. The Apostle of Allah… declared that no recompense was payable for her blood." [27]

9. Abdullah bin Katal and a Singing Girl

In 630, Muhammad conquered Mecca with 10,000 warriors. On the list of those excluded from amnesty after the conquest of Mecca was not only Abdullah b. Katal, collector of legal alms, who had killed his slave for incompetence, apostatized, and took the money back to Mecca, but also his two singing-girls who sang satirical verses about Muhammad, which Abdullah had composed. He was killed, even though he was clinging to the curtain of the Kabah shrine. [28] And one of the girls was also killed, but the other ran away until she asked for pardon from Muhammad, who forgave her. [29]

Before leaving this section, we should note two things.

First, here is a prediction of eternal damnation for anyone who insults Muhammad or Allah, which matches up with Quran 9:63 and 73.

"Narrated Ali: The Prophet said, ‘Do not tell a lie against me, for whoever tells a lie against me (intentionally) then he will surely enter Hell-fire.'" [30]

Second, Muhammad ordered poets of his own to attack with words his opponents and said that the archangel Gabriel would be with them. [31] So it boils down to who has the strongest military power to determine the moral rightness or wrongness of mocking people.

See Muhammad’s Dead Poets Society.


Legal scholars scoured the Quran and hadith – the two main sources of Islamic law – to come up with anti-blasphemy laws. For more information about sharia, see the article titled, What Is Sharia? in the series.

In English the most thorough discussion of insults and curtailed religious free speech is found in the manual drawn up by Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri (d. 1368): Reliance of the Traveler: A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law. [32] It summarizes rulings in the Shafi’i School of Law.

We focus on this manual, but for the other schools of law we rely on a Muslim scholar to summarize their views.

Punishments for Muslims

These eight verbal acts are equal to apostasy and subject Muslims to death.

(1) To speak words that imply unbelief such as “Allah is one of three” or “I am Allah.” A mitigating circumstance on such blasphemy is if a man’s tongue “runs away with” him or is intoxicated.

(2) Reviling Allah or his Messenger.

(3) Being sarcastic about “Allah’s name, His command, His interdiction, His promise, or His threat.”

(4) Denying any verse of the Quran or “anything which by scholarly consensus belongs to it, or to add a verse that does not belong to it.”

(5) Holding that “any of Allah’s messengers or prophets are liars, or to deny their being sent.”

(6) Reviling the religion of Islam.

(7) Being sarcastic about any ruling of the Sacred Law.

(8) Denying that Allah intended “the Prophet’s message . . . to be the religion followed by the entire world.” [33]

The Muslim blasphemer’s punishment follows these guidelines:

"When a person who has reached puberty and is sane voluntarily apostatizes from Islam, he deserves to be killed… In such a case, it is obligatory for the caliph (A: or his representative) to ask him to repent and return to Islam. If he does, it is accepted from him, but if he refuses, he is immediately killed… If he is a freeman, no one besides the caliph or his representative may kill him. If someone else kills him, the killer is disciplined (O: for arrogating the caliph’s prerogative and encroaching upon his rights, as this is one of his duties)… There is no indemnity for killing an apostate (O: or any expiation, since it is killing someone who deserves to die)… If he apostatizes from Islam and returns several times, it (O: i.e. his return to Islam, which occurs when he states the two Testifications of Faith (...)) is accepted from him, though he is disciplined." [34]

Punishments for Non-Muslims

Non-Muslims living under Islamic rule are not allowed to do the following:

(1) Commit adultery with a Muslim woman or marry her;

(2) Conceal spies of hostile forces;

(3) Lead a Muslim away from Islam;

(4) Mention something impermissible about Allah, the Prophet… or Islam. [35]

The second rule is reasonable. But the third and fourth rules stifle and restrict freedom of religious speech and religion.

According to the discretion of the caliph or his representative, the punishments for violating these rules are as follows: (1) death; (2) enslavement; (3) release without paying anything; and (4) ransoming in exchange for money. [36]

What Other Schools of Law Say

For the other schools of law besides Shafi’i, the translator of Abu Dawud’s hadith collection, Ahmad Hasan, informs us:

"It is unanimously agreed that if a Muslim abuses or insults the Prophet… he should be killed. There is a difference of opinion of killing a non-Muslim. According to al-Shafi, he should be killed. Abu Hanifah is of the opinion that he should not be killed… Malik maintains that he should be killed except that he embraces Islam." [37]

Hasan records his own opinion on the hadith, above, that shows a Jewish woman being killed.

"This [strangulation of the Jewish woman] shows that even if a Jew or any non-Muslim abuses the Prophet… he will be killed." [38]

That threat includes Christians, as well.


For our purposes, a reformist calls for the reform of Islam, while a traditionalist believes Islam, revealed in the Quran and presented in the authentic hadith, is fine the way it and defends it. Usually, religious leaders are selected in this section, but sometimes a Muslim who is in the public eye is included too.

Sometimes the categories blur together and are difficult to distinguish in modern Islam, as it goes through change or seeks to maintain the old laws.

Reformist Islam

In response to cartoons depicting Muhammad in an unfavorable way, violence around the globe erupted. The American Muslim, an organization desirous of explaining peaceful Islam to the world, put together a petition signed by over 150 Muslims, many of whom are scholars and leaders. The opening of the petition reads:

"We, the undersigned, unconditionally condemn any intimidation or threats of violence directed against any individual or group exercising the rights of freedom of religion and speech; even when that speech may be perceived as hurtful or reprehensible. We are concerned and saddened by the recent wave of vitriolic anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic sentiment that is being expressed across our nation. We are even more concerned and saddened by threats that have been made against individual writers, cartoonists, and others by a minority of Muslims. We see these as a greater offense against Islam than any cartoon, Qur’an burning, or other speech could ever be deemed." [39]

The words and tone are encouraging. What is discouraging is that the petition goes on to cite Islamic principles and values and references from the Quran. But they miss other verses and hadith that “the minority of Muslims” uses to justify their violence against infidels who engage in unpleasant speech. It would be a fuller and therefore a better petition if it had also said the undersigned renounce those verses and hadith and proclaim that the entire religion of Islam must leave them behind and reform.

United Nations non-binding Resolution 16/18, a follow up to the Durban Conference, and adopted without a vote in April 2011, appears to encourage free speech and open and respectful debate.

Parts of it read:

"…Expresses its concern that incidents of religious intolerance, discrimination and related violence, as well as of negative stereotyping of individuals on the basis of religion or belief, continue to rise around the world, and condemns, in this context, any advocacy of religious hatred against individuals that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, and urges States to take effective measures, as set forth in the present resolution, consistent with their obligations under international human rights law, to address and combat such incidents….
Recognizes that the open public debate of ideas, as well as interfaith and intercultural dialogue, at the local, national and international levels can be among the best protections against religious intolerance and can play a positive role in strengthening democracy and combating religious hatred, and convinced that a continuing dialogue on these issues can help overcome existing misperceptions….
Recognizing that the open, constructive and respectful debate of ideas, as well as interfaith and intercultural dialogue at the local, national and international levels, can play a positive role in combating religious hatred, incitement and violence." [40]

No one opposes open and respectful debate. But what is an incitement to religious violence? What if legitimate criticism of Islam or Muhammad incites fanatics to religious violence? What if unpleasant speech provokes the fanatics to go on a rampage and burn and kill innocent people?

Do the violent religious fanatics define what “incitement” is?

So far the first two examples are more focused or equally focused on criticism of Islam than free speech–even to criticize Islam.

An example of a reformist is Ahmed Mansour, who was a professor of Muslim history at Al-Azhar University, Cairo, Egypt. Now he resides in the USA and works hard at explaining a peaceful Islam. Interestingly, the website he runs as president rejects the hadith and says Allah spoke only through the Quran (Al-Azhar University is Sunni, which values the authentic hadith).

But what about the Quran? As we have seen above in the section on the Quran, it does not have many verses that punish legally and corporally any criticism of Islam or Muhammad, down here on earth, though the verses examined above are sufficient. For Mansour, though, according to his article about free speech, the hadith were manipulated to be the political tools of the Umayyads (A.D. 660-750) and the Abbassids (A. D. 750-1258), two authoritarian dynasties.

Not having a Conclusion, he writes his thesis in the Introduction:

"Freedom of opinion refers to man’s total freedom of creed and thinking, as well as his freedom of declaring and expressing his point of view peacefully without using a weapon. This definition of the concept of freedom of opinion is taken from verses of the Quran that are concerned with confirming the total freedom of opinion, and the application of Muhammad… of these verses in his time with people around him. The application of the prophet of the concept of freedom of opinion was mentioned by verses descended in Mecca and Madina. The total freedom of opinion is a principle that was assured by Islam since it emerged, and applied by Muhammad… and some of his successors (caliphs). Yet this freedom has been forbidden by force of sword during the Umayyads Califate (state). Then the Abbassids came with a theocratic concept of governing the state. That concept was settled by religious texts opposed [by the] Quran, but was connected to Muhammad… through hadith." [41]

Then Mansour strings many Quranic verses together and discusses Islamic history to prove his thesis.

Give him credit. At least he recognizes the hadith pose many problems, and he does not mince words. So it is understandable from his point of view that he would reject it. Apparently his theory is historicism (“a mode of thinking that assigns a central and basic significance to a specific context, such as historical period, geographical place and local culture.” [42] That is, the hadith have been tainted with politics and the absolute rule of the caliphate. However, what he fails to realize is that the authoritarian caliphs in Islamic history were following the institutional genetic code set by Muhammad himself.

See Part 3 of the series, which is about the mosque and state in early Islam.

Also, in his article his interpretation of some key verses in the Quran leaves out some unpleasant truths, like the ones discussed in the section on the Quran, above. Can he reject Quranic verses because they too have been influenced by seventh-century culture and therefore no longer apply today?

Maybe other Sunni Muslims can follow his lead about rejecting the hadith. But do they dare go through this intellectual upheaval, this extreme paradigm shift? No, for he was dismissed from Al-Azhar University for his liberal views. [43]

Traditional Islam

Normally, a declaration by Muslim intellectuals that advocates human rights would seemingly fit in the reformist category, above. However, the following declaration actually seeks to uphold traditional Islam, which severely restricts free speech.

Article Twenty-Two of the 1990 Islamic Cairo Declaration of Human Rights, written under the aegis of the United Nations, reads:

"(a) Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the sharia.
(b) Everyone shall have the right to advocate what is right, and propagate what is good, and warn against what is wrong and evil according to the norms of Islamic sharia.
(c) Information is a vital necessity to society. It may not be exploited or misused in such a way as may violate sanctities and the dignity of Prophets, undermine moral and ethical values or disintegrate, corrupt or harm society or weaken its faith.
(d) It is not permitted to excite nationalistic or doctrinal hatred or to do anything that may be an incitement to any form of racial discrimination." [44]

That list can be challenged on multiple fronts. Speech that is “not contrary to the principles of sharia” is not free speech. People can “propagate what is good,” but only in the “norms of Islamic sharia.”

Does this mean that Christianity must be prohibited in Saudi Arabia (as it is currently)? Do Coptic Christians have to suffer persecution and church destruction in Egypt because they preach a message not in accord with sharia “norms”?

Further, the words “violate” the “sanctities and dignity of the Prophets” or “weaken its faith” of society are ambiguous. But maybe not. It is clear that no criticism of Islam is allowed by the article.

Finally, what is “doctrinal hatred”? Criticism of Islamic teachings?

Next, the website Caliphate Online, which promotes “an alternative vision for the Muslim world,” says that free speech is a colonial tool and the Khalifah (caliphate) implements sharia, while the right to speak out is mainly delegated to their elected body, the Majlis ul-Ummah:

"Freedom of speech is a western concept that completely contradicts Islam. In reality there is no such thing as absolute free speech. What exists is speech within predefined limits that differ between nations.
Nowadays freedom of speech is used as a colonial tool in the Muslim world to support the propagation of western ideas and to suppress Islamic ideas. Increasingly this is happening within western societies also as anti-terror policies are used to clampdown on what are deemed as ‘extreme’ opinions.
Allah… the Creator and NOT human beings decides the limits on speech. We will be accountable for every word spoken on the Day of Judgement. If Allah… has ordered us to speak in certain circumstances such as accounting the rulers and speaking out against oppression then no government in the world can take away that right no matter how hard they try.
The Khilafah [caliphate] implements the law of Allah… on earth and contains a detailed system for accounting the government and speaking out against oppression. This right of speaking out is enshrined mainly within the Majlis ul-Ummah [elected House of Representatives, under the caliph], media and through forming political parties.
As Muslims we are in no need of any other system of life except the Islamic system, and no other source of legislation except the Qur’an and Sunnah of the Messenger… Therefore when we call for accountability in the Muslim world this should not be a call for introducing freedom of speech but a call for introducing the Islamic Sharia which enshrines the right to speech among many other rights." [45]

According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom 2012 Annual Report, Iran violates religious free speech laws:

"Iran: The government of Iran continues to engage in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused. Iran is a constitutional, theocratic republic that discriminates against its citizens on the basis of religion or belief. During the past year, religious freedom conditions continued to deteriorate, especially for religious minorities, most notably Baha‘is, as well as Christians and Sufi Muslims, and physical attacks, harassment, detention, arrests, and imprisonment intensified. Even the recognized non-Muslim religious minorities protected under Iran‘s constitution – Jews, Armenian and Assyrian Christians, and Zoroastrians – faced increasing discrimination, arrests, and imprisonment. Majority Shi‘a and minority Sunni Muslims, including clerics who dissent, were intimidated, harassed, and detained. Dissidents and human rights defenders were increasingly subject to abuse and several were sentenced to death and even executed for the capital crime of ―waging war against God.‖ Heightened anti-Semitism and repeated Holocaust denials by senior government officials have increased fear among Iran‘s Jewish community. Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, members of minority religious communities have fled Iran in significant numbers for fear of persecution." [46]

To wrap up this section on modern Islam, these examples in this section on modern Islam will soon appear outdated. But regardless of the particulars, they still reveal that Islam is going through a struggle, with traditionalist outnumbering and outweighing the reformists. And with good reason: the traditionalists have 1,400 years of the Quran, hadith, law, and history on their side. Islam is extremely conservative and loathe to reform.

So why would we in the West incorporate any part of sharia into our system while Islam goes through this internal struggle and the traditionalists are still going strong?


Many segments of Islamic society, not only the religious leaders, have not moved past old blasphemy laws, as it is presently interpreted from the Quran, hadith, and classical sharia. These laws are incompatible with any modern society that has free speech laws.

One positive step that can lead to reform is for Muslim leaders to start over on a new Declaration of Human Rights that does not reference sharia or the Quran. This outdated law and book contains too many excesses, and excess is never just. Society will never go backwards willingly; they may be coerced by laws that deny freedom of speech, but this is no victory for Islam.

This is how we know that parts of sharia are unjust – coercion of conscience and a denial of fundamental religious rights.

Therefore, the Western intellectual elites, who are the decision and policy makers, must understand that any law in sharia that denies freedom and promotes religious compulsion is unjust.

Thomas Jefferson’s idea is still valid today. “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my legs.” [47]

Suppression of freedom of speech, even the kind that criticizes the Islamic prophet, is no victory for life, liberty and the individual pursuit of happiness as he or she defines it, in the context of free speech, even unpleasant speech.

Some parts of religions are so egregious and out of bounds that they need to be rejected, not understood.

Rather, we should encourage Islam to reform and be updated; we should not bend to its demands, in the name of “understanding” and “multiculturalism.” It needs to bend towards us. That’s the fullest and best brand of “multiculturalism. [48] It’s a two-way street.

This article first appeared at Jihad Watch on August 2, 1012, but has been updated here.


[1] U.N Human Rights Council, Resolution 16/18, Apr 12, 2011; or one may go to UNHCR.

[2] Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, “Norway Attacks Reinforce Need for United Stand against Intolerance,”, August 17, 2011.

[3] Abdullah Saeed, “The Islamic Case for Religious Liberty,” First Things, November 2011 and Jamal Badawi, “Is Apostasy a Capital Crime?”, June 12, 2010, though Badawi seems unsure of this “under siege” justification in some cases.

[4] Unless otherwise noted, all translations of the Quran in this chapter are those of M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, The Quran 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford, 2010). The words in brackets are mine. If readers would like to see various translations of the Quran, they may go to the website and type in the references.

[5] Abdul Mannan Omar, ed., Dictionary of the Holy Qur’an, (Noor Foundation, 2003), p. 19. The root is aa-dh-aa, and the passages in the Quran where the word appears, besides the verses analyzed here, are as follows: 2:196, 222, 262, 263, 264; 3:111, 195; 4:16, 102; 6:34; 7:129; 14:12; 29:10; 33:48, 51, 53, 69; 61:5.

[6] In Quran 33:57-58, the word translated from aa-dh-aa is “insult.”

[7] “Medina” and “q-t-l” in brackets are added by me; “prophet” in brackets is added by the translator. Recall that the root q-t-l means only killing, fighting, slaughtering or armed conflict.

[8] Omar, Dictionary, 530-31. The root is m-r-d, and the verses in the Quran that speak of moral sickness or sickness of the heart are as follows: 2:10, 10; 5:52; 8:49; 9:125; 22:53; 24:50; 33:12, 32, 47:20, 29; 74:31.

[9] In Quran 9:61-63, the word translated from aa-dh-aa is “insult.” The word in brackets was added by me.

[10] The words in brackets are added by me.

[11] The brackets note is mine.

[12] For more verses about w-l-y, see Quran 3:68; 4:135; 8:72, 75; 33:6 (the prophet is nearer to Muslims than their selves); and 74:34-35.

[13] Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad, trans. A. Guillaume, (Oxford UP, 1955, 2004), 136. Reputable historians today consider Ibn Ishaq to be a good source of early Islam, though they may disagree on his chronology and miraculous elements.

[14] Bukhari, Helpers, 005.058.193. The hadith are searchable online at the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement, under the aegis of the University of Southern California.

[15] Idem, Jihad, 004.052.185.

[16] Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad, 308. Cf. Bukhari, Jihad, 004.052.185; Muslim, Jihad and Expeditions, 019.4422 and ibid. 019.4424.

[17] Ibn Ishaq 308.

[18] Ibid. 675-76, with slight mechanical adjustments. The bracketed comments are mine.

[19] Ibid. 364-69.

[20] Bukhari, Jihad, 004.052.271, the parenthetical comments are the translator’s; cf. ibid. 004.052.270.

[21] Abu Jafar Tabari, aaThe Foundation of the Community, vol. 7, trans. M. V. McDonald and annotated by W. Montgomery Watt (Albany: SUNYP, 1987), 94-98, hereafter cited as Tabari. Reputable historians today consider Tabari to be a good source of data on early Islam, though they may not agree on his chronology or the few miraculous elements. See also Bukhari, Military Expeditions, 005.059.369; and Muslim, Jihad and Expeditions, 019.4436.

[22] Ibn Ishaq, 369.

[23] Tabari 7.149-50 (cf. Ibn Ishaq 674-75).

[24] Ibn Ishaq, 675.

[25] Abu Dawud, Punishments, 038.4348.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid. 038.4349.

[28] Bukhari, Military Expeditions, 005.059.582.

[29] Idem, Jihad, 4.3044

[30] Idem, Knowledge, 1.106 (001.003.106).

[31] Idem, Military Expeditions, 5.4123-4124 (005.059.449; the two book versions of the hadith have been combined in the online version), and ibid. 5.4196 (005.059.509).

[32] Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveler: A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law. rev. ed., trans. Nuh Ha Mim Keller, Beltsville, Maryland: Amana, 1994).

[33] Ibid. 597-98. Those eight acts say that a Muslim has left Islam (apostatized).

[34] Ibid. 595-96. The comments label “O” are done by Sheikh Umar Barakat (d. post-1890); and the comments by “A” are done by Sheikh Abd al-Wakil Durubi (b. 1914).

[35] Ibid. 609

[36] Ibid.

[37] Amad Hasan, translator of Sunan Abu Dawud, vol. 3, note 3799.

[38] Ibid. note 3800.

[39]A Defense of Free Speech by American and Canadian Muslims,” Oct 26, 2010, the, with slight mechanical edits.

[40] U.N Human Rights Council, Resolution 16/18, Apr 12, 2011; or one may go to UNHCR. For a report about how Islamic leaders are using this Resolution against free speech, see Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute: “Nina Shea: White House to aid Islamic states defy free speech,” September 8, 2011, She often writes about Islam’s anti-blasphemy laws in the West.

Further, the Human Rights Committee, meeting in its 102nd session, in Geneva, July 2011, offers a counter to efforts by Muslim groups to limit free speech under the aegis of the United Nations. Comment no. 34 in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article Nineteen, Paragraph 48, reads: “Prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant . . . Thus, for instance, it would be impermissible for any such laws to discriminate in favour of or against one or certain religions or belief systems, or their adherents over another, or religious believers over non-believers. Nor would it be permissible for such prohibitions to be used to prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith.” Human Rights Committee, General Comment No. 34, September 2011, Geneva.

[41] Ahmed Mansour, “Freedom of Speech in Islam,” The bracketed comment is mine; the parenthetical ones are his.

[42] Wikipedia, “Historicism.”

[43] Wikipedia, “Ahmed Subhy Mansour.”

[44] World Conference on Human Rights, UN GAOR, 4th Session, Agenda Item 5, Cairo Declaration on Human Rights, Doc. A/CONF.157/PC/62/Add.18 (1993), Aug 5, 1990, University of Minnesota Human Rights Library. I made small mechanical adjustments.

[45] Caliphate Online, “Islam’s View towards Freedom of Speech,, April 2009.

[46] U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom 2012 Annual Report.

[47] Andrew M. Allison, M. Richard Maxfield et al., The Real Thomas Jefferson: The True Story of America’s Philosopher of Freedom, rev. ed. (National Center of Constitutional Studies, 2008), 602-03.

[48] This series does not contrast Christianity and Islam. But readers may be curious about it. If so, they may go to my older studies, which are still relevant: Insulting and Threatening Jesus and Muhammad; Muhammad’s Critics and Their Deaths (scroll down for the comparison); How Jesus Christ Fulfills the Law; and How Christians Benefit from the Old Testament. We don’t need to bring those old blasphemy laws in the Old Testament forward to today.

James M. Arlandson, Ph.D., has written the book:
Women, Class, and Society in Early Christianity.
He has also written the 17 part series:
Islamic Sharia Law: Its Origins, Development, and Application Today
and the 12 part series:
The Sword in Early Christianity and Islam
as well as numerous other articles.

Articles in the Series

More Punishments: