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Professor: Hasan Yahya, Ph.D

Michigan State University


Blasphemy in History

No person has the right to punish another person physically or mentally or spiritually for an idea or opinion under the law. (Hasan Yahya 1990)


Good-evil; right-wrong; truth-falseness; spirituality-materialism; Idealism-realism; and religious-secularism are abstract dichotomies. Their abstractness opens diversity of interpretations. They can interpreted in terms of the interpreter’s value-judgment or in terms of the eye beholders. According to this statement, and in terms of our experiences and observations, we confidently say that what is good in the eyes of a person (A) is may be not good (or evil) in the eyes of another person (B). The same can be said about other concepts as well. In politics, we might substitute person (A) and person (B) with nations, parties or ideologies as (A and B). Religions have ritual standards which are elastic by practice. Secular thoughts have also their anarchic standards, which are also open for change and transformation in practice. Both religious and secular thoughts have been divorced a long time ago, when Europe separated the state from the church politically. Such divorce was imposed on the newly independent states in the Middle East, Africa, South America, and South East Asia.

The fruits of such divorce was new plantations of human mind, and material interests for persons as well as for nations. The build up secular doctrines in the last two hundred years in Europe and the new world were crystallized in these countries where religion became a little-if any-factor in the life of people. Outside the circle of Europe and the new world, independent nations in after 1950 separated the state from the church in practice, but not in theory. The crack-down of confusion between what IS and what SHOULD BE approaches have created the fact of difference among the members of any family or nation. The emerging political parties in most Third World countries including the Muslim nations have exploited the slogan of “what SHOULD BE” in religious doctrines in order to serve the slogan of “what IS” for the domination of their subordinates. Such exploitation is observed in their disposal (education, communication, and mass media). The status quo and authority were crystallized. Free expression and free thinking were suppressed. Human rights were violated by defining them according to traditional familial or tribal measures. Invention and innovation were prevented by force, and sometimes severely punished. The picture can be generalized to cover many Third World countries.

From the above reasoning, we deduct the fact, that differences should be expected in any social, or economic, or political matters. Such differences are expected in the field of religion as opposed to secularism.

If you do not like philosophy. You may stop here. This article will not be boring though, because many expatriates and religiously illiterate do not know what blasphemy is, or may be they do. So you are still reading this article to defend yourself from the unfair accusation to some, concerning the term “religiously illiterate”, that’s good, then a little more information doesn’t hurt. Or does it? While the world is taking new course in history of human civilization under the slogan of globalization, almost one hundred years ago, H. B. Bonner wrote (1912) “Blasphemy … varies with the temper of the age in which it is administered and of the judge who has administered it.” Does freedom has limits in the case of blasphemy and apostasy? We will not answer quickly. Because the matter of freedom is not an easy one. It took too much efforts and too many lives across history with justification of those who administer it or judge it. Some of the assumptions underlie this article are: all religions share in common principles and doctrines cherished, respected and practiced with little freedom to cut ties with it by their followers; In the age of swift reason, unfortunately, emotions lead, and therefore, control reason in many instances to the wrong decision in the so-called enlighten rational world. And those most secular nations are not less dogmatic in their doctrines than religious nations when it comes to freedom of expression as far as the attack is on OTHERS’ belief and practices. The western human beings as well as many Eastern societies are stripped from the power of thinking about what is right and what is wrong for themselves when it comes to freedom limitations, much of their decisions are controlled by mass media, availability of money, and overhead policy directions and above all sort of “taboos” of certain kind. In no way, westerners or Easterners are free in terms of destroying their value system without rational as well as irrational justified defense. Saying this, the issue of blasphemy and apostasy has taken its course in human history. In this article we will investigate the two concepts in Islam in the East, and Christianity in the West. Therefore, we will show the Islamic tradition dealing with these concepts for the purpose of lasting peace and productive normalization between religions and cultures. And show in the second part how these concepts were developed. This investigation is a part of large research project began fifteen years ago. Taking into account the hypothesis which says: Islam is the most misunderstood religion across history even-though Islam shares Christianity and Judaism perceptions in terms of blasphemy and apostasy. Generalization of misunderstanding is common among religions and cultures toward each other. This, I believe, a dogmatic cherished curse common to all religions or ideologies of the past as well as of today. Especially when they consider materialism as a supreme power and goal for political life, and do not give more than a fraction to thought to spiritualism in life (or after life). H. B. Bonner wrote in 1912 “Blasphemy … varies with the temper of the age in which it is administered and of the judge who has administered it “. In his opinion, Orthodoxy has persecuted heresy in the last five hundred years ….. it has sometimes killed the heretic, he said, but it has never killed the heresy. This article tries to investigate blasphemy in the last millennium. Blasphemy may be analyzed in terms of three concepts: opinion, manner, or place in which it was (or it will be) occurred.

Few years back, before eleven years to be sure, Salman Rushdie wrote his novel The Satanic Verses. Was it an opinion expressed? Or on the manner in which it was expressed? Or is it the place where it was written and published? Or I might add, is it the audience who was supposed to read it? To answer these questions, it is imperative to describe how Islam shares other diseased, existed or will exist ideologies in appreciating those who conform with it and punish those who oppose it. Capitalism, as well as communism have their rules concerning outsiders and those who deviate from their rules. After the defeat of communism, the United States leads the capitalist world. According to this world rules, those who conform with globalization are rewarded through the World Bank, and future dreams, and those who deviate from globalization under capitalism are doomed and punished.

Salman Rushdie’s novel when it was written became Triode horse for both Khumeini and his enemies (westerners or otherwise). It was used by Khumeini to attack the west, and it was used by the west NOT to attack Khumeini and Iranian Islamic republic alone, but the west found it a great opportunity to publicized his attack and legitimize it to justify that attack on Islam and Muslims any where. As a result, the primary cause of the controversy became secondary. Whether Khumeini was right or wrong in his decision and “fatwa” (decisions about legal matters) , and whether the West has the right to be ethnocentric and defend blasphemy for the purpose of free expression, we believe, that both sides justified their opinion religiously or politically. Similar works have been authored in the past and can be easily found in the literature, and treated differently in the history of Islam and Christianity. In my opinion, there is no one is free to jump over the lor bend it for their own interest. I believe, it is not a matter of right or wrong, but a matter of conformity to one’s own system of beliefs and norms. Even in a totally free country. It is the spirit of age and space, which determine the reaction to the act rather than the act in itself. In the process of social change, things almost always change and people’s perception change accordingly to the spirit of the age and space. To illustrate, people sometimes after a number of years might accept an idea was (rejected as taboo) several years back. In terms of Islam as a religion, the rules are protected by the survival of the Qur’an, even-though interpretations of its verses were varied among Ulama’ (experts of jurisprudence) and common followers of Islam. As an ideal type of conduct it is believed that it balances both spiritual and material sides of human life. Islam remains the Mizan (balance) which control human desires and their greediness from anarchy and individualism for material possessions. The individual conformity is appreciated in group prayers. Solidarity of faithful is highly recommended in terms of brotherhood and sisterhood. On the same token, disconformity is neglected and condemned. Apostasy and blasphemy are examples of this disconformity. According to Islam, blasphemy and apostasy are deviations in most public opinions. Others may have different view. In both cases, those who claim blasphemy and apostasy are used as a means rather than as an end. Blasphemy and apostasy are considered by some as wishes of free thinkers.



Blasphemy in Islamic history

More than a millennium ago, a poet called Abul Alaa’ al-Ma’arri described religious followers as follows:

Hanifs are stumbling, Christians all astray,

Jews wildering, Magins far in error’s way,

We mortals are composed of two great schools—

Enlightened knaves or else religious fools.

Salman Rushdie may be classified under the enlightened knaves school according to Abul Alaa` verse. He, in fact, rejected all religious claims to posses the truth including Islam. While he attacked all dogmas of religions, he did not refrain from doubting that Qur’an was really the Word of God. Abul Alaa’ was considered a free thinker and materialist in his times, while Rushdie is considered as liberal, materialist and freethinker, but both writers did NOT announce that they are disbelievers (Kafirs). And both are the products of their age. No one asked them why they announce their beliefs as they did. The difference between the two writers is a millennium, but in Abul Ala’a age the Muslims where in a high point of their civilization, contrary to the Western civilization which was in almost complete darkness. And in Rushdie’s times, The western civilization is in its highest point. And Muslims are in their lowest point of their civilization.

In Islam, blasphemy covers various areas of sin, like public insult of faith, or its founder, or ridicule its practices. Blasphemy is similar to heresy and apostasy, and these concepts are used across history to attack the intellectual Muslims who challenge Islamic doctrines. Blasphemy was condemned in Islamic courts in the 17th century, even if committed by Jews or Christians when they ridicule Jesus and Moses. Because Qur’an views both Prophets as over ridicule and have to be respected as Messengers from God. On the other hand, apostasy is worse than blasphemy, it means abandonment of faith or converting from one religion to another, such act is punishable by death in an Islamic state. But the question is: was that practiced by the Prophet Muhammad. This punishment is recalled in Qur’an and Prophet sunnah (sayings). What was the truth of acts and their judgment across Islamic history concerning apostasy ?

Apostasy constitutes a politico-religious rebellion, these politico-religious in Islam are explained as:

The sayings and doing of the Prophet, the decisions and practices of the caliph Abu Bakr, the consensus of opinion of the companions of the Prophet and all the later Muslim jurisconsults and even certain indirect verses of the Qur’an, all prescribe capital punishment for an apostasy. (cited in Rahman 1972:5)

A Muslim authority commentator, Al-Samar’i, in his Ahkam al-Murtadd, the judgment of apostasy, wrote in the introduction of his book,

“In the book (Qur’an) I found sometimes “al-riddah” mentioned expressly and sometimes by import. I followed up the verses in the various commentaries and I arrived at the conclusion that the punishment of the apostate (which is death) is NOT to be found in the Book but finds mention in the Sunnah only.” (Ibid:9-10)

From this statement, we see that there was no mention of such penalty for apostasy in Qur’an, because God have postponed the punishment until later , to the Day of Judgment. Another explanation is that the door of repentance is always open, where Surat al-Tawbah (repentance) verses 11-12, show that in case of repentance from apostasy and disbelief, the apostate became as any other Muslim, if he performed prayer and pays his alms dues. We can deduce that people do not repent after their death, and this what Qur’an means by repentance of the apostates.

The realistic stance of Qur’anic verses is amply illustrated in the following commandments where Islam is left to people freely to follow or reject, it is the greatness of Islam, that it gives the choice for human beings even to disobey God. Every one is responsible for his choice, whether it was good or evil. Tolerance in Islam springs from its message conveyed by Qur’an and its messenger. Some of these commandments as they spelled in Qur’an give the choice for people to be good and follow Islam, or to remain astray and face the consequences of their choice in the Day of Judgment. Examples of these commandments are:

1.     “Lo! Those who believe (in Muhammad’s message), and those who are Jews, and Christians, and Sabe’ans-whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and does right-surely their reward is with their Lord and no fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieves.” (Qur’an 2:63)

2.     “Lo! Those who disbelieveand die while they are disbelievers, on them shall be the curse of Allah and of angels and men combined.” (Qur’an 2:257)

3.     “There no compulsion in religion. Surely the light direction is henceforth distinct from error. And he who rejects false deities and believes in Allah has grasped a firm handlehold which will never break. And Allah is Hearer, Knower.” (Qur’an 2:257)

The above Ayat have taken a large debate among Muslim Ulama and Fuqaha. It contains the charter of freedom of conscience which is not found in any other religion. Two schools can be distinguished dealing with apostasy, one is represented by Ibn al-Arabi, the other is Ibn Taymiyyah and the majority. Ibn al-Arabi in his Ahkam al-Qur’an declares dogmatically that to compel to the truth is part of the Faith, on the authority of Hadith, “I have been commanded to fight people til they recite the declaration of faith (La ilah illa Allah:There is no god but Allah),” which he considers to have been derived from the Qur’anic verse: “And fight them until persecution is no more and religion is for Allah Alone.” (al-Anfal:40; al-Baqarah:194)

Rahman comments on Ibn al-Arabi’s statement saying: “the verse clearly and explicitly enjoins fighting to end religious persecution and lends no support to the theory of justfication of force even in the interest of truth.” (p:20)

The opposing school is represented by Imam Ibn Taymiyyah’s opinion, as summerized by Sheikh Abu Zahra of al-Azhar, Egypt. He says:

“On the first question as to whether it is permissible to fight, the disbelievers on the ground of their disbelief or on that of their tyranny and transgression, the Imam refers to two schools of thought among Ulama. The first school holds that, according to Imam Malik, Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal, Imam Abu Hanifah and Others, and the majority of Ulama and A’immah, fighting with disbelievers is allowed only if they are bent upon oppression and tyranny. From this opinion it follows that war with infidels is not permissible in any other circumstances. Consequently fighting can brestorted to as a defensive measure or in response to aggression, even if it turns out to be a case of emergency….

“The second school”, Abu Zahra continued to say: “is of the opinion that war with the disbelievers is grounded on their disbelief. That means that fighting is obligatory … because they are infidels and not because they are inclined toward tyranny. This was the creed of Imam Shafi’i. Therefore, under this principle, every disbeliever who has attained majority and discretion would be deserving of capital punishment…. ” “In this regard, Imam Ibn Taymiyyah considers the first opinion, viz. The opinion of the majority, to be correct and, in support of his opinion, cites authorities from Qur’an and Sunnah.” (Rahman 1971:21-2)

These verses referred to by the Imam here are ( La Ikraha fid-Din), no obligatory in religion (Q:2:191), which he says, is neither abrogated nor circumscribed in scope by any consideration. Other Ayat reads: fight with them (the disbelievers) until persecution is no more and religion is only for Allah.” (2:194). He also reasoned that all wars of the Prophet were defensive in character. This reasoning is also adverted to by al-Zamakhshari in al-Kash-shaf, where he cites the verse “if thy Lord had willed (enforce His Will), all who are in the earth would have believed together: wouldst thou compel men until they are believers?” (Yunus:100) as authority sanctioning this opinion.

4.     “And if they argue with thee, say (O Muahammad), I have surrendered myself completely to Allah and (so have) those who follow me. And say to those who have received the Scripture and those that are unlettered: Have you (also) surrendered ”If they surrender, then truly they are rightly guided, and if they turn away, then it is thy duty to convey the message (unto them). And Allah is watchful of (His) bondmen” (Q:3:21)

5.     “For each of you, We prescribed a Divine Law and a traced-out way. Had Alla willed He could have made you one community but (He wishes) to try you by that which He has given you. So vie with one another in good works” (al-Ma’idah:53)

6.     “ The duty of the messenger is only to convey (the message). Allah knows what you proclaim and what you hide.” (al-Ma’idah)

7.     “O you who believe! You have charge of your own souls. He who goes astray cannot injure you if you are rightly guided. To Allah you will all return; and then He will inform you of what you used to do.” (al-Ma’idah:106)

8.     “The people (O Muhammad) have denied it, though it is the truth. Say, I am NOT put in charge of you.” (al-An’am:67)

9.     “Proofs have come unto you from your Lord, so whose sees, it is for his own good and whose is blind to his own hurt. And I am NOT a keeper over you.” (al-An’am:105)

10. “And if they deny thee, say: Unto me my work and unto you your work. You are innocent of what I do and I am innocent of what you do.” (Yunus:42)

11. “We never punish until We have sent a messenger.” (Bani Israel:al-Isra’a:16)

12. “Say O Muhammad, For Allah’s is the final argument—had He willed, He could have guided all of you.” (al-An’am:150)

13. “And most men will NOT believe even thou ardently desire (it).” (Yusuf:104)

14. “Surely thou canst not guide whomsoever thou lovest: but Allah guides whosoever He pleases; and He is best aware of those who walk aright.” (al-Qasas:57)

15. Finally, Allah Says: “Obey Allah and Obey His Messenger; but if you turn away the duty of Our Mesenger is ONLY to convey (the message) plainly.” (al-Taghabun:13)

According to the above commandments and Ayat. Qur’an presents keynotes for the conduct of Muslims in war and in peace. These ayat are examples, to show the climate of tolerance and human freedom in Islam. Human life in general on this earth is an empirically oriented environment. This meaning is expressed in the Ayah which reads: “And verily We shall try you till We know those of you who strive hard (for the cause of Allah) and the steadfast and till We test your record. And We will make known the (true) facts about you.” (Muhammad:32)

After all these examples from Qur’an, a question remains to be answered: does Islam as a religion of God need police protection other than God’s?

The answer will be in the next article about Apostasy in Qur’anic Verses for the sake of scientific truth of observation and analysis.

Apostasy In Qur’anic Verses

Was the death sentence made by Khumaini a decade ago legal? And has its roots in Qur’an? The answer to this question relative to any one who answer it. According to Qur’an, however, it shows that apostasy is a sin, where the sinner may be punished in the Hereafter not in his lfetime. Qur’an, in fact, shows that the door of repentance is always open, even to those who miss their way away from God. Let us examine these ayat which specifically deal with the issue of apostasy which far more deviant than blasphemy. The verses bearing on apostasy are dispersed throughout Qur’an. For example, Surat al-Baqara verse 218, reads:

“And they will not cease from fighting against you til they have made you renegades from your religion, if they can. And those from among you turns back from his Faith and DIES while he is a disbeliever: such are they whose works shall be vain in this world and in the Hereafter. These are inmates of the Fire and therein they shall abide.”

The verse clearly shows that the punishment is not by killing, by the fact the renegade will die naturally. The punishment in the ayah for apostasy as Zamakhshari interprets the verse is deprivations of the apostate from the fruits of Islam when he DIES (not killed as a punishment) as apostate. Other commentators share Zamakhshari also are Alusi Baghdadi, al-Qasim, and al-Nasapuri. Others such as Sheikh Haqqi, in his Ruh al-Bayan, comments on the ayah by saying: “This contains the warning against apostasy and in it is inducement to revert to Islam after apostasy, till the time of death.” (Rahim:32). The word used, in the ayah in Arabic is yamut (dies) not killed which makes significance in interpretations. In other place God distinguishes between normal death and (death caused by) killing in the verse (3:195):

“And Muhammad is but a Messenger, messengers (like him) have passed away before him. If then he dies or is killed (slain), will you turn back on your heels?”

This difference is clear between maata (died) and qutila (killed-slained). Still some authorities explain that the ayah demands the death of the apostate, but this interpretation is not warrant, because change of faith in Islam means change in the social and civil status in the case of marriage and property and zakat.

The second ayah concerning apostasy in Qur’an reads:

“On the Day when (some) faces will bewhitened and (some) will be blackened, and as for those whose faces will be black, it will be said unto them: Did you disbelieve AFTER believing? Taste then the Punishment because of your disbelief.” (3:107)

As we see in this ayah by reasoning, the punishment will be made by God in the Day of Judgment, not before that-in life time. The ayah clearly negates the punishment of disbelievers in Dunia (life) by people.

A third example can be found in the same sura verse 178, it reads:

“Those who purchase disbelief, by the price of faith, harm Allah not at all, but theirs will be a painful doom.”

Al-Qurtubi (a well known Muslim commentator) comments on this ayah on the authority of Ibn Abbas (one of close companions of the Prophet) that this applies to those who forsake Islam for disbelief. Rahman (1972) comments on the same subject that no mention is made anywhere of any punishment being inflicted on an apostate on the authority of this verse.

A fourth example may be found in surat al-Nisa’ (the Women) verse 138 which reads:

“Those who believe, and disbelieve, and then, (again) believe, then disbelieve, and then increase in disbelief, Allah will never pardon them nor will He guide them to the (right) path.”

This ayah is definitely and exclusively stands against the thesis that the apostate should be sentenced to death. Because the verse as we see shows repeated apostasies and reversals to faith without mentioning any punishment made by other Muslim on earth.

In con, apostasy is a sin not a crime, the crime can be punishable by the state and according to the state rules and laws, but the sin is punishable by God in the Hereafter. Qur’an in fact, includes a unique concept of liberty and freedom of conscience not only for Muslims but for all human race. Many other verses emphasize the same idea, the reader can see for example, al-Ma’idah:55; 33-35; 3:87-92; al-Nahl:107; al-Baqarah:118; al-Hajj:12; Muhammad:33; and al-Tahrim:10)

In Sunnah, (the saying and actions made by the Prophet-PBUH) the story of punishment for apostasy differs. For example, the hadith on death sentence for apostasy is built upon the one narrated by Ibn Abbas which says: “Whosoever changes his religion, slay him.” (al-Bukhari Sahih). The same hadith was narrated by al-Tabarani in his Mu’jamat al-Wasat, and traced to A’isha, the second Prophet’s wife. However, in al-Tabarani’s Mu’jamat al-Kabir, the following sentence was added to the hadith and reads: “Verily, Allah does not accept repentance from His servant who has adopted disbelief after having accepted Islam.” This statement, as a matter of fact, contradicts previous Ayah, and therefore, considered unreliable, because what contradicts Qur’an from hadith is not authentic and therefore unreliable. Such contradiction follows cultural norms and laws rather than revealed laws. In this case, Qur’an statements are the reliable ones. As the Prophet (PBUH) said: “whatever contradicts Qur’an in my sayings (Or thought as it was my saying) take what Qur’an says. This rule was in fact, practiced as aprinciple guide by al-Bukhari in his methodology of collecting Hadiths in his Sahih.

Another example, Abdullah Ibn Mas’ud narrated that the Prophet said: “It is not lawful to shed the blood of a person professing Islam, who testifies that there is no god but Allah and that I am the messenger of Allah, except in three cases: life for life, or a married person guilty of adultry or a person who separates from his faith and deserts his community.” (in al-Bukhari and al-Tirmidi). As we see here, the shed of blood of a person is a penalty for the one who kills other person, or commits adultery, or (separates himself from the faith and desert the community) the last condition means the deviation from rules of Islam as religious community.

In Kitab al-Diyat, al-Bukhari records another version of the hadith by saying: “The messenger did not put to death anyone by way of hadd (prescribed punishment), except for one of three antecedents: a person who commits murder of his own freewill shall be killed, (so also) a person who commits fornication after marriage or a person who fights Allah and his Messenger and becomes an apostate from Islam. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. II, p. 1019). This hadith also, has other version traced to Uthman, the fourth Khalifah and recorded in al-Nasa’I Sunan and in Abu Dawud. In Abu Dawud’s version, this sentence was added: “who fights Allah and His Messenger and he will be killed or crucified or banished from the land (where he leaves to another community)” This statements closer to the ayah 35 in Surat al-Ma’idah.



Balsphemy and heresy in the West

While the purpose of this article is not to record all incidents of blasphemy in the Western history, it will give some examples in terms of the development of punishment for the crime. Blasphemy or Apostasy in the West has a long history goes back to the twelfth century. England was the cradle of punishment for blasphemous acts. Because the law of England as it was considered was the law of God. Any one opinion contradicts with the law of God (or the law of England for that matter) was sentenced and persecuted by burning in the twelfth century. In later years, however, this act was punishable by imprisonment and fine. And finally, it becomes common or a way of life for many westerners by the name of freedom. Which nonetheless, distinguishes the spirit of electronic and technological (globalization) age.

It began in 1378 with the persecution of Wycliffe and the Lollard in George 11th rule. In 1400 Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, called for establishing the Statute of Heretics, where the heretic could be taken to a high place before the people and to be burnt. Justification of this action was that such punishment might bring fear in the minds of others. In the same year, a disciple of Wycliffe called William Sawtre, was burned one week before the clergy Act was passed.

In 1410, another man, a tailor named John Badby, was brought to justice before the Archbishop, he persisted in his heresy. He was burned in the presence of Prince of Wales. The chain of persecution follows. Persecution and burning continued under Henry the 5th. And Henry the 6th. For example, 38 persons were hanged and burned in 1414. John Klaydon and Richard Turmyn were burned in 1415; in 1422 William Taylor, was burned, he was a priest; in 1438 John Gardiner was burned; (Stubbs, Vol. III)

Across Christian history, hundreds of people were executed and persecuted by the name of the church, because there were almost always isolated heretics. Some of the leaders of Western thought where on the line of punishment and imprisonment, Thomas Hobbes in 1666, Richard Carlile in 1818, James Watson in 1823, to name a few.

Blasphemy is a misdemeanor at Common Law punishable by fine and imprisonment without hard labor. It consists of:

Scoffingly or irreverently ridiculing or impugning the doctrine of the Christian faith; or in uttering or publishing contumelious reproaches of Jesus Christ; or; in profane scoffing at the Holy Scriptures; or exposing any part thereof to contempt or ridicule. (Laws of England, Vol. 9. Page 530, section 1070)

Blasphemy in abstract is any denial of the truth of religions or their principles in general or of the existence of God. In the Statute of William III, against blasphemy, is described by Lord Chief Justice Coleridge as a “ferocious” and “inhuman” Act. William III law was an Act for the more effectual oppressing blasphemy and profanes, it begins with:

“Whereas many persons have of late years openly avowed and published many blasphemous and impious opinions contrary to the doctrine and the principles of the Christian religion, greatly tending to the dishonor of Almighty God, and may prove destructive to the peace and welfare of this Kingdom…. Such person or persons for the first offence shall be adjudged incapable and disabled in law … to have enjoy any office … to be a guardian of any child … shall suffer imprisonment for the space of three years ….” (Bonner, Penalties Upon Opinion, 1912:19-22)

In 1726, Thomas Woolston, a man of learning and piety, became a deist, he published a book titled: Six Discourses on the Miracles, in which he held up the miracles to ridicule, 30,000 copies were sold, and 60 pamphlets were written in reply. In 1728, the writer was tried for blasphemy, in his defense he tried, and claimed that he intended to show that the miracles were not to be taken in a literal but an allegorical sense.

In 1729, Woolston was sentenced toa one year in prison and a fine of 100 English pound. He was kept in prison until he died in 1733. (Ibid:28-29)

The case of Pain’s Age of Reason, still fresh even it was in the eighteenth century, millions of pain’s book copies were sold. “In June, 1779, a poor bookseller named Williams was tried before Lord Kenyon for selling a copy …. - a single copy only- of the second part of the Age of Reason.” Williams was sentenced to one year imprisonment, and to be bound in his recognizance for 1,000 Pounds.

In 1812, a trial made for Daniel Isaac Eaton for blasphemy. He was a bookseller, educated at the Jesuits college, he was arrested for publishing a collection of short essays by Pain, in his third part of the Age of Reason. Eaton was convicted of having published “an impious libel representing Jesus Christ as an impostor, the Christian religion as a mere fable, and those who believe in it as infidels to God.” (Ibid:35) Eaton was sixty years old, he was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment.

In 1817, Richard Carlyle was arrested for publishing The Parodics on the the Booof Common Prayer. He was sent to prison for 18 weeks. In 1819, Carlyle was arrested for publishing the three parts of Pain’s Age of Reason, and sentenced to three years in prison. He was kept for further three more years. His wife also continues publishing the book, she was also sentenced to two years imprisonment. (as a married woman, she has no property and therefore, she was not fined). Carlyle’s sister was also sentenced to two years imprisonment for the same offence.

In 1822, Tunbridge was convicted for publishing a blasphemous libel, Palmer’s Principles of Nature. He volunteers to work in Carlyle’s bookstore, others such as Susannah Wright and James Watson were also convicted for 12 months in 1823 for publishing and selling Palmer’s Principles of Nature, and Poor Man’s Guardian.

In recent modern times, religion was described as social phenomenon by Durkheim, Marx, and Bertrand Russel. Russel, in fact, denies religions completely to promote peace. He made objections to religion on the following intellectual and moral grounds. On intellectual grounds, Russel claims that there is no reason to suppose any religion as true. Because religions did not prove practical, and useful. Each one of the existent religions produces hostile attitudes to evidence, and causes people to close their minds to every fact does not suit their prejudice. On the moral grounds, this objection was that “religious precepts date from a time when men were more cruel than they are and therefore, tend to perpetuate inhumanities which the moral conscience of the age would otherwise outgrow.” (Ibid: 30) Russel goes far, even to reject the belief that there is God, he claims that “I see no reason, therefore, to believe in any sort of God.” (p. 31)

In conclusion, blasphemy existed a long time ago, but does blasphemy means the same meaning among all people especially with the fact that people differ in their socio-economic and political backgrounds and in all changing times? The answer is, simply, negative. But what can be sure is that no human being has the right to enforce belief over other, or any one else, or to punish someone for leaving that belief or ridiculing it by death without a fair hearing and judgment. Blasphemy is highly encouraged in the West and related to what the West have accomplished in recent modern times in the field of freedom and free expression. This statement is supported by a speech made to support Rushdie against Khumeini by Wieseltier, an editor in the New Republic who quoted to say: “It was blasphemy that made us free.” This phenomenon is not a new one, in fact, more than one hundred years ago, and in 1889 to be exact, a bill was introduced into the House of Commons providing that “ after the passing of this act no criminal proceedings shall be instituted in any court against any person for schism, heresy, blasphemous libel, blasphemy at common law, or atheism,” One speaker was commenting against the bill by saying: “ While we punish those who killed the body, the Bill would allow men to murder souls with impunity; under the law of Moses blasphemers were taken out of the camp and stoned to death.” (Ibid: 96)

Today, we can repeat exactly the same words in the case of any deviation or blasphemy. Such words may be hard to work in todays’ world, where the material body-no doubt-is more sacred than the soul. This Bill was rejected in the House of Commons by 143 to 48. Mr. Bradlaugh who introduced the Bill commented after its failure of support, that he felt it an exceedingly depressing and distressing circumstance that the Bill should have had so little support. The Bill, however, was approved less than twenty years later by the House of Commons.

In this article, blasphemy and apostasy were described, and their development in history was reported. It began with history of the concepts as treated by ayat of Qur’an or traditions of the Prophet concerning punishment of blasphemous and apostate, followed by history of the concepts in the west. Especially in England. A conclusion completed the subject.


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Dr. Hasan Yahya Publications مطبوعات ومنشورات الكاتب العربي في المهجر - الدكتور حسن يحيى المجدلاوي

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