Islam goes one step further than any other religion in granting man the freedom of speech and expression. Blasphemy is condemned on moral and ethical grounds, no doubt, but no physical punishment is prescribed for blasphemy in Islam despite the commonly held view in the contemporary world.
Having studied the Holy Quran extensively and repeatedly with deep concentration, I have failed to find a single verse which declares blasphemy to be a crime punishable by man.
Although the Holy Quran very strongly discourages indecent behaviour and indecent talk, or the hurting of the sensitivity of others, with or without rhyme or reason, Islam does not advocate the punishment of blasphemy in this world nor vests such authority in anyone.
Blasphemy has been mentioned five times in the Holy Quran.
1) For instance, this subject is mentioned in generality:
He has already revealed to you in the Book that, when you hear the Signs of Allah being denied and mocked at, sit not with them until they engage in a talk other than that; for in that case you would be like them. Surely, Allah will assemble the hypocrites and the disbelievers in Hell, all together. [Ch. 4: Al-Nisa’: 141]
When thou sees those who engage in vain discourse concerning Our Signs, then turn thou away from them until they engage in a discourse other than that. And if Satan cause thee to forget, then sit not after recollection, with the unjust people. [Ch. 6: Al-An’am: 69]
What a beautiful response to the utter ugliness of blasphemy! Not only does Islam disallow any human being to take the punishment of the blasphemer into his or her own hands, but declares that people should register their protest against blasphemy by staging a walkout from an assembly of men where religious values are being mocked and ridiculed. Suggestions of any positive measures aside, not even a permanent boycott of the blasphemer is prescribed by the Holy Quran. On the contrary, the Holy Quran makes it amply clear that this boycott is only to last for the period during which the act of blasphemy is being committed.
2) Again, blasphemy is mentioned in Surah Al-An’am where, hypothetically, the question of blasphemy is discussed not only with regard to God but also idols and imaginary objects of worship besides God. One is overwhelmed by the beauty of Quranic teachings when one reads:
Revile not those whom they call upon beside Allah, lest they, out of spite, revile Allah in their ignorance. Thus unto every people have We caused their doing seem fair. Then unto their Lord is their return; and He will inform them what they used to do. [Ch. 6: Al-An‘am: 109]
It is the Muslims who are addressed in this verse. They are strictly prohibited from blaspheming the idols and imaginary gods of the idolaters. It is also pointed out that if one does so, others may, by way of retaliation, indulge in blasphemy against God. In this hypothetical discussion of blasphemy against God and idols on equal terms, no physical punishment is prescribed in either case.
The moral of this teaching is rich in profound wisdom. If one commits a crime against someone’s or other’s spiritual sensibilities, the aggrieved party has a right to pay back in the same coin regardless of the nature of his beliefs and his being right or wrong. Neither is permitted to retaliate in different terms. One can safely conclude from this that spiritual offence should be avenged by spiritual means just as a physical offence is avenged by physical retaliation—but without transgression.
3) Blasphemy is mentioned in the Holy Quran in relation to Mary and Jesus (as),
For their disbelief and for their uttering against Mary a grievous calumny. [Ch. 4: Al-Nisa’: 157]
This verse refers to the historical stance of the Jews contemporary to the times of Jesus Christ (as). According to this verse, the Jews committed a grave blasphemy by declaring Mary (as) to be unchaste and alleging Jesus (as), to be a child of questionable birth.
The Arabic word Buhtanan ‘Azima (translated above as ‘a grievous calumny’) expresses condemnation of this folly on the part of the Jews in the strongest term. Yet, surprisingly, no physical punishment is prescribed.
4) It is interesting to note that while the Jews are condemned by the Quran for committing an act of blasphemy against Mary (as) and Jesus (as), at the same time the Christians, in their turn, are censured for committing blasphemy against God by claiming that a son was born to God through a human wife. In the following verse, the Holy Quran declares it as an enormity. Yet no corporal punishment of any sort is advocated nor is the right delegated to any human authority to punish blasphemy against God.
No knowledge have they thereof, nor had their fathers. Monstrous is the word that comes out of their mouths. They speak naught but a lie. [Ch. 18: Al-Kahf: 6]
5) In the end, let me come to the most sensitive area—more sensitive in the sense that the Muslims of today are more sensitive to blasphemy against the Holy Founder (saw) of Islam than blasphemy against anything else—even God!
Yet there is a case of blasphemy so serious that it is recorded in the Holy Quran itself, which speaks of ‘Abdullah bin Ubayy bin Salul, known in the history of Islam as the Chief of Hypocrites. Once returning from an expedition, ‘Abdullah bin Ubayy declared in the company of others that the moment they returned to Medina, the noblest would expel the meanest among the Medinites.
They say, ‘If we return to Medina, the most exalted will, surely, drive out therefrom the most mean,’ while true honour belongs to Allah and to His Messenger (saw) and the believers; but the hypocrites know not. [Ch. 63: Al-Munafiqun: 9]
Everyone understood the implied insult to the Holy Prophet (saw). They were seething with indignation and rage to the extent that, if permitted, they would have most certainly put ‘Abdullah bin Ubayy to the sword. It is reported authentically that tempers were running so high at this incident that no less a person than the son of ‘Abdullah bin Ubayy himself approached the Holy Founder (saw) of Islam seeking permission to kill his father with his own hands. The son argued that if anyone else did so, he might later on, in ignorance, entertain the thought of revenge against his father’s killer. For centuries, the Arabs were accustomed to take revenge at even the smallest insult hurled at them or their close relative. Perhaps, this custom was what the son had in mind. But the Holy Prophet (saw) refused to grant his request nor did he permit anyone else from among his Companions to punish the hypocrite, ‘Abdullah bin Ubayy, in any manner whatsoever. [Narrated by Ibn Ishaq: Al-Sira tun Nabawiyya by Ibn Hisham, pt. III; p. 155]
Having returned to Medina after the expedition, ‘Abdullah bin Ubayy continued to live in peace. When he died at last, a natural death, of course, to the surprise of everyone, the Holy Prophet (saw) gave ‘Abdullah’s son his own shirt so that he could enshroud his father’s body for burial—a singular act of blessing, indeed, which must have left the other Companions yearning to barter it from the son at the cost of all their possessions. Not only that, the Holy Prophet (saw) decided to lead his funeral prayer. This decision must have deeply disturbed many of his Companions who could never forgive ‘Abdullah for the grievous offence mentioned above. Yet, it fell to the lot of Umar (ra), who later succeeded the Prophet (saw) as the Second Caliph to give voice to their suppressed uneasiness.
It is reported that as the Holy Prophet (saw) was proceeding to the funeral, Umar (ra) suddenly stepped forward and stood in the way begging the Prophet (saw) to change his decision. In doing so, Umar (ra) reminded the Prophet (saw) of the verse of the Holy Quran in which reference is made to some known hypocrite on whose behalf intercession would not be accepted even if the Holy Prophet (saw) prayed for him seventy times. Incidentally, the number seventy should not be taken too literally because, according to Arab usage, it was only employed to indicate a large number.
However, the Holy Prophet (saw) smiled and responded: Stand aside, Umar (ra). I know better. If I know God would not forgive him even if I seek forgiveness seventy times, I would seek forgiveness for him more than seventy times. The Prophet (saw) then led the funeral prayer. [Bukhari, Kitabul Jana‘iz, Babul Kafani fil Kamisilladhi Yukaffu ‘au la Yukaffu]
This is a fitting rebuttal to those who are crying themselves hoarse in demanding death for the blasphemer who dares to insult the Holy Founder (saw) of Islam and nothing but death. Such a religion must have a claim to establish inter-religious peace in the world.
Source: Islam's Response to Contemporary Issues by Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad (rah)