By Abdulrasheed Ibrahim, LL.M, Notary Public
The death penalty for blasphemy passed on one Yahaya Aminu Sharif by an Upper Sharia Court in Kano State has been a very big issue in the news .The debate on whether the convicted person ought to die by hanging for committing blasphemy against Muhammad (peace be on him), the prophet of Islam has been overwhelming. I have read many views for and against of the conviction. To the best of my knowledge as a student of Islam, this is one of the issues where the scholars of Islam are not unanimous.There are various Schools of thoughts in Islam and prominent among them are Imam Hanifah , Imam Malik , Imam Hambali and Imam Shafi Schools that could be said to be of the Sunni Sect. Most often when it comes to discussing certain issues on Islam, you may find areas where these schools are unanimous as well as some other areas where they are not unanimous. Some time if an Islamic Scholar is asked to speak on an issue, he may cite opinions of the various schools of thought after referring to some portions from the Holy Quran and Hadiths (the sayings of the Prophet Muhammed, peace be on him) to support his view.But some time when he arrives at crossroads on some issues, he will tell you that , Allah, the Almighty Lord of the universe knows the best.
In the wake of the debate on the said conviction, I found two of the articles I read very interesting and this prompted my present intervention.I am not here writing as a scholar of Islam but rather as a student of Islam.The first article by one Dr. Abdulsalam Ajetunmobi was titled : “Is blasphemy punishable by death in Islam?” The other one was a rejoinder by Ewulum Ifechukwu Christopher, a lawyer, titled: “In justification of the death penalty passed on Yahaya Aminu Sharif for Blasphemy by the Upper Sharia Court in Kano State”. The major contention of Dr. Ajetunmobi was not far fetched from his argument when he said: “The foremost question that should immediately crop up in the mind is whether blasphemy is a crime punishable by death in the Qur’an. The answer to that question is not far fetched .For unlike the Bible (Leviticus 24: 16), the Qur’an – which the Muslims unequivocally accept as the prime source of all their principles, commandments,rules and laws directing their social as well as individual life – does not prescribe the death penalty for blasphemy.” Although the learned writer posed the question in a spirit of debate but he did not hesitate to clearly state his position that the Quran did not prescribe death penalty for blasphemy.
My understanding from the general reading is that majority of Islamic scholars seem to support the view that the appropriate punishment for any person that commits what is considered a blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammed (peace be on him) or Islam itself is death penalty. The Islamic Scholars that hold the contrary view are in the minority because they are of the view that apart from the fact that there is no specific provision in the Holy Quran where a death penalty is prescribed for any person that commits an offence of blasphemy or apostasy against the religion of Islam, holding such view will seriously contradict various verses in the Holy Quran as to what Islam claims to stand for. There are Islamic Scholars who even contend further that the only ground upon which a person said to have committed apostasy can be subjected to death penalty is that if he has committed that offence with the offence of murder, otherwise, such a person is not to be sentenced to a death penalty.
There is no doubt that Dr. Ajetunmobi in his submission is not in support of the Kano State’s death penalty as imposed by the Upper Sharia Court on the ground that it was not specifically prescribed by the Holy Quran which is that primary source of the Islamic law. But Mr. Christopher in his rejoinder was of the view that since the death penalty was carried out under a valid law made by the Kano State House of Assembly, the validity of such law cannot be questioned. According to the learned counsel in his rejoinder:
“…The most important question which the learned writer appeared to have missed is; in view of the facts and circumstances of the case at hand, has there been any valid law which the accused was tried?The answer is in affirmative. Section 382 (2) of the Kano Penal Code 2000 to which the accused was tried states that : Whoever by any means whatsoever intentionally abuses, insults, derogates, humiliates or seek to incite contempt of the Holy Prophet (SAW) or his prophethood or any other Prophet of Allah recognized by the religion of Islam shall be punished with death….”
Since the Upper Sharia Court of Kano State has exercised its power under the above law against the convict and an appeal has been filed against that decision, the validity or otherwise of that law by the Kano State House of Assembly will now be determined first by the Kano State High Court and on further appeal to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Nigeria. The Supreme Court’s case of SHALLA Vs. THE STATE (2007) 18 NWLR (Pt. 1066) 240 was heavily relied on by the two learned writers in the cause of their argument . Upon my reading the full judgment of the apex court , I discovered that unlike the case of Yahaya Aminu Sharif that was commenced at the Upper Area Court where he was convicted, that of the Abubakar Dan Shalla and Five (5) others commenced at the Kebbi State High Court where they were all eventually convicted and sentenced death. Both the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court unanimously and respectively affirmed the death penalty.
In the case of Abubakar Dan Shalla Vs. The State in which judgment was delivered on 5th October 2007 by Supreme Court of Nigeria’s panel consisting of S.U, Onu; G.A. Oguntade; A.M. Mukhtar ;W.S.N. Onnoghen and I.T. Muhammad ,JJSC. Hon. Justice Oguntade (now Rtd) reading the lead judgment observed:
“…In any case, even on the assumption (although without any proof ) that the deceased had in some way done anything or uttered any word which was considered insulting to the Holy Prophet Muahmmed (S.A.W.), was it open to the appellant and others with him to constitute themselves into a court of law and pronounce the death sentence on the another citizen? Plainly, this was jungle justice at its primitive and callous level.The facts of this case are rather chilling and leave one wondering why the appellant and the others with him committed this barbaric act .It cannot escape notice that the victim of this reckless and irresponsible behaviour is another Moslem, An Alhaji.I am greatly pained by the occurrence.”
I was equally pained, even more pained than the learned Jurists when reading the judgment. It is one thing to claim to be Muslims ,it is another to really know what the Islam is all about.The madness played by Abubakar Dan Shalla and his gang that eventually led to their being sent to the gallows is a typical example of some ignorant Muslims who have no knowledge of Islam but always claim to know. Shalla and his gang had heard from the hearsay that one Abubakar Alh. Umar had committed what they considered a blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammed (peace be on him). Without more they brought themselves together as a kangaroo court and despite all the advice given to them by some other Muslims that they lacked the power to inflict punishment on the deceased whom they eventually took to a place near a burial ground and slaughtered like a ram.This later led to their being arrested and arraigned at the High Court of Kebbi State , Birnin Kebbi where they were eventually convicted and sentence to death for murder based on their confessional statements. Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad (JSC as he then was) in his own contribution to the judgment said:
“The trite position of law under sharia is that any sane and adult Muslim,who insults ,defames or utters words or acts which are capable of bringing into disrepute ,odium ,contempt,the person of Holy Prophet Mihammed (SAW) such as person has committed a serious crime which is punishable by death.See Alkhursi ,commentary on Mukhasar Al-khalil Vol. 8 page 70,Hashiyatul vol. 2 page 290. However as observed by the court below,Islamic law has not left the killing open in the hands of private individuals.The offence alleged has to be established through evidence before a court of law.The court itself will have to implore its professional dexterity in treating the case by allowing fair hearing and excluding all the inadmissible evidence or those person who may fall within the general exemption clause such as infant ,imbecile or those who suffer mental delusion .Thus the killing is controlled and sanctioned by the authorities….The law will thus , have set a dangerous precedence if private individual were authorized to take law into their hands as the appellant and others did in this case .Sharia guarantees and values the sanctity and dignity of human life.That is why it outlaws unlawful killing of human life…”
The trite position being referred to above by the learned jurist (now the incumbent CJN) ) reflects the view of the majority of Islamic Scholars as oppose to the view of the minority of Islamic scholars on whether blasphemy is punishable by death in Islam. The space here may not allow discussing in details the various views on this issue for proper analysis. The definition given to the word BLASPHEMY according the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (7th Edition) is a “behaviour or language that insults or shows a lack of respect for God or religion”. In the Black’s Law Dictionary (9th Edition), it is defined as :
“Irreverence toward God, religion , a religion icon ,or something else considered sacred.Blasphemy was a crime at common law and remains so in some U.S. jurisdictions, but it is rarely if ever enforced because of its questionable constitutionality under the First Amendment … ‘Blasphemy is the malicious revilement of God and religion.In England, blasphemy was the malicious revilement of the Christian religion …Blasphemy has been held to be common-law crime (in the United States) because of its tendency to stir up breaches of the peace .it is expressly made punishable by some statutes.’ Rolling M. Perkins & Ronald N. Boyce, Criminal Law 474,475 (3rd ed. 1982).”
Blasphemy is not a new phenomenon in the history of the world. When the Jesus Christ (known to Muslims as Prophet Isa, peace be on him) was going about preaching during his mission, he met a lot of resistance from the Jews who called him all sorts of names and even accused him of blasphemy (See John 10: 31-33). Muhammed , peace be on him, was also not spared from being called all sorts of names when going about preaching Islam during his mission including being called a madman (See Quran 15:6; 23:70). Did any of them respond violently? Many critics or writers that have written books against Islam and its Prophet have not been very fair in their attack against Islam. In the 1990s, I came acrossed a book written by one G.J.O. Moshay titled : WHO IS THIS ALLAH? When I read the book, I did not see any difference from what had been written in the past by the orientalists against Islam. Testimonies are abound from writers who have been very objective in their study of Islam and what it really stands for as well as how the Prophet of Islam treated his arch enemies even when he was forced into the battle field against them. In my article published in the Daily Independent Newspaper of 21st August 2013 titled: IS BOKO HARAM ISLAMIC? I quoted a professing Hindu by name Professor K. S. Ramakrishna Rao who wrote in his book titled: MUAHMMAD, THE PROPHET OF ISLAM as follows:
“In age of barbarism, the battlefield itself was humanized and strict instructions were issued not to embezzle, not to cheat, not to break trust, not to mutilate, not to kill a minor child or a woman or an old man, not to hew down date palm nor burn it, not to cut down a fruit tree, not to molest monks and persons engaged in worship. His own treatment of his bitter enemies was the noblest example for his followers. At the conquest of Mecca, he stood at the zenith of his power. The city which had tortured him and his followers ,which had driven him and his people into exile and which had unrelentingly persecuted and boycotted him even when he had taken refuge in a place more than 200 miles, that city now lay at his feet. By laws of war he could have justly avenged all the cruelties inflicted on him and his people. But what treatment did he meet out on them? Muhummad’s heart overflowed with milk of love and kindness as he declared. ‘This day, there is no reproof against you and you are all free’. ”
The above is one of the incidents being relied upon by the minority Islamic Scholars to argue that the death is not the appropriate penalty for blasphemy in Islam. It is necessary before ending this to identify some of the problems with many people that claim to be Muslims today but do not care learning about the true teaching of the religion of Islam. A lot of admonitions run through the pages of the Holy Quran urging followers of different faiths against being excessive in the practice of their religions. But what is happening today as gone beyond religious extremism and a lot of strange things have crept into Islam.You see people today going about claiming to be the followers of a particular religious leader, sheikh or saint, but they have elevated the status of that their so-called religious leader or sheikh above that of the real propagator of the religion they claim to be affiliated to. Can a servant be greater than his master? A classical example of this is that of the Yahyah Aminu Sharif of the Kano State in question. This is one of the fallout of religious ignorance and fanaticism that can only be cured by the true knowledge of Islam.
NOTE: Anyone is at liberty to disagree with my above submissions as I will surely appreciate a balanced, fair and objective rebuttal., 08055476823, 08164683735: email@example.com)
16th September 2020
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