Of course, this is not to say extremists should threaten and harm cartoonists for more diverse theological reasons; obviously, they should not target them at all. But the exclusive focus on the Prophet Muhammad is worth pondering. One obvious explanation is that while God and the other prophets are also sacred for Judaism and Christianity, the Prophet Muhammad is sacred only for Muslims. In other words, the zeal comes not from merely respect for the sacred, but from militancy for what’s sacred to us — us being the community of Muslims. So the unique sensitivity around Muhammad seems to be a case of religious nationalism, with its focus on the earthly community — rather than of true faith, whose main focus should be the divine.
Still, this religious nationalism is guided by religious law — Shariah — that includes clauses about punishing blasphemy as a deadly sin. It is thus of vital importance that Muslim scholars courageously, even audaciously, address this issue today. They can begin by acknowledging that, while Shariah is rooted in the divine, the overwhelming majority of its injunctions are man-made, partly reflecting the values and needs of the seventh to 12th centuries — when no part of the world was liberal, and other religions, such as Christianity, also considered blasphemy a capital crime.
The only source in Islamic law that all Muslims accept indisputably is the Quran. And, conspicuously, the Quran decrees no earthly punishment for blasphemy — or for apostasy (abandonment or renunciation of the faith), a related concept. Nor, for that matter, does the Quran command stoning, female circumcision or a ban on fine arts. All these doctrinal innovations, as it were, were brought into the literature of Islam as medieval scholars interpreted it, according to the norms of their time and milieu.
Tellingly, severe punishments for blasphemy and apostasy appeared when increasingly despotic Muslim empires needed to find a religious justification to eliminate political opponents.
One of the earliest “blasphemers” in Islam was the pious scholar Ghaylan al-Dimashqi, who was executed in the 8th century by the Umayyad Empire. His main “heresy” was to insist that rulers did not have the right to regard their power as “a gift of God,” and that they had to be aware of their responsibility to the people.
Before all that politically motivated expansion and toughening of Shariah, though, the Quran told early Muslims, who routinely faced the mockery of their faith by pagans: “God has told you in the Book that when you hear God’s revelations disbelieved in and mocked at, do not sit with them until they enter into some other discourse; surely then you would be like them.”
Just “do not sit with them” — that is the response the Quran suggests for mockery. Not violence. Not even censorship.
Wise Muslim religious leaders from the entire world would do Islam a great favor if they preached and reiterated such a nonviolent and nonoppressive stance in the face of insults against Islam. That sort of instruction could also help their more intolerant coreligionists understand that rage is a sign of nothing but immaturity. The power of any faith comes not from its coercion of critics and dissenters. It comes from the moral integrity and the intellectual strength of its believers.