Islam and the Tolerance of Verbal Abuse

False charge of ordering killing of those who “insult” the faith; Foolish followers make same claim as opponents

The Light & Islamic Review (US), November/December 1991 Issue (Vol. 68, No. 4, pp. 10–13)

Western orientalists in general in the last and the earlier part of this century, when writing about the life of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (may peace and the blessings of God be upon him), levelled allegations against this noblest and gentlest of men of having ordered the murder of certain opponents of Islam on various occasions, for the reason that they directed abuse, satire and insult against him and his faith. These allegations were based on groundless reports and stories contained in some Islamic historical books of dubious credibility. In his book Muhammad the Prophet, Maulana Muhammad Ali has devoted a chapter, added in 1932, to refuting a number of specific instances of such false charges. By the greatest irony of history, in the last two years several Muslim Ulama [clerics] and Islamic publications have, in the context of a well-known controversy, been putting forward these very alleged instances in support of their wild assertion that Islam does indeed order the killing of such persons. For example, the Hong Kong Muslim Herald for March 1989 carries an article on its back page, in which it is boldly asserted:

“One of Islam’s famous historians is Waqidi. Maghazi is his well-known book which is mostly about the Prophet’s wars. He writes in the first volume of his book that Asma, Marwan’s daughter, insulted the Prophet, bad mouthed Islam and the Muslims and committed sacrilege. Umair ibn Adi, a Muslim, vowed after hearing the insulting talk by Asma, that he will kill her …. Umair went to Asma in the middle of the night and killed her. In the morning when Umair went to the mosque for prayer the Prophet looked at him and said: You killed Marwan’s daughter? Umair replied: Yes, have I committed a sin? The Prophet said: Never, this is not even worth talking about.

“In Madina, Abu Afak not only did not accept Islam, but constantly showed his enmity to the Prophet … Salim ibn Umair, a Muslim, said: I have to kill Abu Afak or be killed while doing it.  While Abu Afak slept in his house among his people, Salim went there and killed him.”

The article continues with further extracts of a similar nature from Waqidi’s Maghazi.

Nearly sixty years before this article, while refuting charges against the Holy Prophet brought by orientalists such as Sir William Muir and Mr. Cash, who had cited exactly the same reports, Maulana Muhammad Ali had written:

“Neither Muir nor Cash has taken the trouble of testing the reliability of the record on whose basis he has dared to condemn the most merciful and truest of men as cruel and treacherous. If the writer had gone to the root of the question, he would have found that the Prophet and the Muslims bore patiently the severest abuses and the annoying verses of all their opponents, whether Jews or idolators. Indeed, the Holy Quran had plainly enjoined on them that they should bear all abuses patiently … [the verse 3:186 is here quoted which is given later in our article — Editor]. How could the Prophet, in the face of such a plain injunction, order the murder of those who abused him, and how could the Muslims carry out an order which was directly opposed to the Holy Quran? It was simply impossible, and if Ibn Hisham or Waqidi says that the Prophet ordered the assassination of his abusers, it is Ibn Hisham or Waqidi — a frail authority after all — that must be rejected, and not the Quran which is admittedly the most reliable source of information as to the doings of the Prophet.  The Quran had allowed fighting against an aggressive enemy, yet it refused to give sanction to the murder of one who abused the Prophet and Islam; nay, it plainly required such abuse to be borne patiently.” (Muhammad, The Prophet).

The Maulana then deals with the particular cases alleged.  Regarding the case of Asma, he concludes as follows:

“In the face of this clear testimony, none but a biased mind can accept as reliable a report which relates that the Holy Prophet had ordered and applauded the killing of a woman simply for the offence that she composed annoying verses. This report is undoubtedly a forgery.”

Similarly, dealing with the reports of Abu Afak’s killing, he writes:

“We have no hesitation in calling this story as baseless a fabrication as that relating to the murder of Asma”.

Islam’s Teachings on reacting to Abuse:

Now that we find some Muslims themselves declaring these stories to be genuine, and announcing that these illustrate the commandments of their faith, it is important to examine, more fully and thoroughly, the question: What are the teachings of the Holy Quran and the Holy Prophet Muhammad about how Muslims should respond to verbal abuse against their faith. There is unambiguously clear guidance about this in the text of the Holy Quran and the practical example of the Holy Prophet himself. Note that we are concerned here only with the issue of how Islam requires its followers to react to their feelings of offence, outrage and hurt when painful words are used against their cherished religion and religious figures. As to any criticism of the faith, whether it is expressed in scurrilous language or not, the response must be to reply to it, by word, under all circumstances.

We may preface our discussion with the following saying of the Holy Prophet Muhammad:

“The Muslim who mixes with the people and bears patiently their hurtful words, is better than one who does not mix with people and does not show patience under their abuse.” (Mishkat, Book: Ethics, Chapter: Gentleness, modesty and good behaviour)

What a noble and wonderful piece of guidance, which is so applicable to the modern world in which people of differing faiths have to mix and come into contact so closely!

Teachings of the Holy Quran:

As a general point, it may first be noted that the Holy Quran itself records the accusations made against, and the insults heaped upon, the Holy Prophet Muhammad by his opponents (e.g., that he was insane, or that he fabricated his revelation), and it answers these charges, but nowhere does it require Muslims to inflict any kind of punishment on the accusers. The Quran has itself, therefore, given permanence to these allegations and the replies thereto, obviously anticipating that similar charges would be made by critics in later times. If such abuse or criticism could damage a Muslim’s faith, and requires to be silenced by force, why should the Quran itself have quoted so much of it from its opponents’ mouths?

The Holy Quran tells Muslims:

وَ لَتَسۡمَعُنَّ مِنَ الَّذِیۡنَ اُوۡتُوا الۡکِتٰبَ مِنۡ قَبۡلِکُمۡ وَ مِنَ الَّذِیۡنَ اَشۡرَکُوۡۤا اَذًی کَثِیۡرًا ؕ وَ اِنۡ تَصۡبِرُوۡا وَ تَتَّقُوۡا فَاِنَّ ذٰلِکَ مِنۡ عَزۡمِ الۡاُمُوۡرِ ﴿۱۸۶﴾

“You will certainly hear much abuse from the followers of previous books and from the idol-worshipping people.  And if you are patient and keep your duty — this is surely a matter of great resolution” (The Holy Quran, 3:186).

وَدَّ کَثِیۡرٌ مِّنۡ اَہۡلِ الۡکِتٰبِ لَوۡ یَرُدُّوۡنَکُمۡ مِّنۡۢ بَعۡدِ اِیۡمَانِکُمۡ کُفَّارًا ۚۖ حَسَدًا مِّنۡ عِنۡدِ اَنۡفُسِہِمۡ مِّنۡۢ بَعۡدِ مَا تَبَیَّنَ لَہُمُ الۡحَقُّ ۚ فَاعۡفُوۡا وَ اصۡفَحُوۡا

“Many of the followers of previous books wish that they could turn you back into disbelievers after you have believed … but you should pardon and forgive” (The Holy Quran, 2:109).

In connection with these verses, it is recorded in the Hadith collection Bukhari:

“The Messenger of Allah and his Companions used to forgive the idolators and the followers of previous books, as Allah had commanded them, and they used to show patience on hearing hurtful words.” (Book: Commentary on the Quran, chapter 16 under Surah 3).

Addressing the Holy Prophet, God says in the Quran:

فَاصۡبِرۡ عَلٰی مَا یَقُوۡلُوۡنَ

“Bear patiently what they say” (The Holy Quran, 20:130 and 50:39).

وَ لَا تُطِعِ الۡکٰفِرِیۡنَ وَ الۡمُنٰفِقِیۡنَ وَ دَعۡ اَذٰىہُمۡ

“Obey not the disbelievers and the hypocrites, and disregard their hurtful talk” (The Holy Quran, 33:48).

In all the verses quoted above, Muslims are taught to bear their feelings of hurt and anger with patience, and to ignore the abuse.

Another verse having some bearing on this subject is as follows:

وَ اِنۡ تَدۡعُوۡہُمۡ اِلَی الۡہُدٰی لَا یَسۡمَعُوۡا ؕ وَ تَرٰىہُمۡ یَنۡظُرُوۡنَ اِلَیۡکَ وَ ہُمۡ لَا یُبۡصِرُوۡنَ ﴿۱۹۸﴾ خُذِ الۡعَفۡوَ وَ اۡمُرۡ بِالۡعُرۡفِ وَ اَعۡرِضۡ عَنِ الۡجٰہِلِیۡنَ ﴿۱۹۹﴾

“And if you invite them to guidance, they hear not; and thou seest them looking towards thee, yet they see not. Hold fast to forgiveness and enjoin goodness and turn away from the ignorant” (The Holy Quran, 7:198–199).

This directs us that when we have to deal with people who are blindly prejudiced and ignorant, and therefore fail to understand the guidance, we must not give vent to anger, fury and violence against them. We should treat them with forgiveness, do our duty of enjoining simple goodness, and then turn away from them, leaving the matter in the hands of Allah.

Withdrawing from Company:

Muslims are told:

اَنۡ اِذَا سَمِعۡتُمۡ اٰیٰتِ اللّٰہِ یُکۡفَرُ بِہَا وَ یُسۡتَہۡزَاُ بِہَا فَلَا تَقۡعُدُوۡا مَعَہُمۡ حَتّٰی یَخُوۡضُوۡا فِیۡ حَدِیۡثٍ غَیۡرِہٖۤ ۫ۖ

“When you hear Allah’s messages disbelieved in and mocked at, sit not with them until they enter into some other discourse” (The Holy Quran, 4:140; see also 6:68).

These verses deal with the case when the religion is being mocked and derided (as distinct from being criticised). A Muslim is required to do no more than to withdraw from such a company, and even that only while the mocking continues, and to rejoin the same company afterwards. Any criticism underlying the abuse must, of course, be answered. But the response to any sheer abuse, ridicule or mockery is withdrawal of oneself from the company.

Some Incidents from the Holy Prophet’s Life:

1. A man called Suhail ibn Amar had a voice suited to oratory, and used to employ this talent in making speeches against the Holy Prophet.  He was captured by the Muslims at the battle of Badr and brought before the Holy Prophet.  A Muslim suggested that some of Suhail’s teeth should be knocked out to disable him from speaking well.  The Holy Prophet replied: “If I disfigure any of his limbs, God will disfigure mine in retribution”.

2. Once when the Holy Prophet divided some wealth among his followers, one man accused him to his face of being unfair and told him:

“Fear God, O Muhammad”.

After the man had left, the following conversation took place between Khalid ibn Walid and the Holy Prophet, as recorded in Bukhari:

Khalid: “Shall I strike off his neck?”

Holy Prophet: “No, perhaps he is a man who says prayers.”

Khalid: “There are many people who pray, but what they say is not what is in their hearts.”

Holy Prophet: “I have not been commanded by God to cut open people’s chests to see what is inside their hearts” (Book: Maghazi, Chapter 63).

Here a man insults the Holy Prophet to his face, and a Muslim asks permission to kill the man. The Holy Prophet advances the possibility of there being some good in the culprit, but Khalid argues that the man’s prayers are only for show. The Holy Prophet then makes it clear that we cannot know about people’s motives or sincerity, but have to accept that what they are doing is in good faith.

3. Some Jews, when addressing Muslims, would distort the greeting as-salamu alaikum and say it as as-samu alaikum, which means “death be upon you”.  When they once addressed the Holy Prophet in this manner, his wife Aisha retorted back in the same words.  The Holy Prophet disapproved of this reply and said that God did not like harsh words.

4. Once there were four men who spread an accusation of immorality against the Holy Prophet’s wife Aisha. Their allegation was ultimately proved to be false because they failed to back it up with any witnesses. One of the four men, called Mistah, used to receive financial assistance from Hazrat Abu Bakr, Aisha’s father. After this incident, Hazrat Abu Bakr swore never again to help Mistah.  The following verse was revealed to the Holy Prophet on this occasion:

وَ لَا یَاۡتَلِ اُولُوا الۡفَضۡلِ مِنۡکُمۡ وَ السَّعَۃِ اَنۡ یُّؤۡتُوۡۤا اُولِی الۡقُرۡبٰی وَ الۡمَسٰکِیۡنَ وَ الۡمُہٰجِرِیۡنَ فِیۡ سَبِیۡلِ اللّٰہِ ۪ۖ وَ لۡیَعۡفُوۡا وَ لۡیَصۡفَحُوۡا ؕ اَلَا تُحِبُّوۡنَ اَنۡ یَّغۡفِرَ اللّٰہُ لَکُمۡ ؕ

“Let not the possessors of grace and means among you swear against giving to the near relatives and the poor and those who had to flee in God’s way. Pardon and overlook. Do you not love that God should forgive you?” (The Holy Quran, 24:22)

Hearing this, Hazrat Abu Bakr exclaimed:

“Indeed, I certainly love that God should forgive me”. He then resumed providing assistance to Mistah, as before. (Bukhari, Book: Testimony, chapter 15).

Note that this allegation was not made against just an ordinary Muslim woman, but the wife of the Holy Prophet, and therefore it struck at the holy household at the centre of the religion of Islam, which was required to be a model of purity for all Muslims. In view of this, the forgiveness taught in the above verse becomes all the more generous and magnanimous.

If Muslims today were to follow and proclaim these teachings of Islam, they would earn respect and admiration for their faith, its Holy Founder and themselves in the eyes of all reasonable people in the world.