Islamic religious texts must be read in context to understand blasphemy
Indonesian police are investigating Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaya Purnama, also known as Ahok, for blasphemy. They named him a suspect after hundreds of thousands of people rallied against the Chinese-Indonesian and Christian governor earlier this month.
The reason for their anger was a speech that Ahok gave in September. Among other things, he warned his listeners about people who invoke verse 51 of the Surah Al-Maidah in the Quran to “deceive” people into not voting for him.
The Islamic Defenders Front reported Ahok for alleged blasphemy after a video of this part of his speech went viral.
How to read religious text
The verse Ahok claimed his opponents were referring to advises people to avoid aligning with Christian and Jews. According to the Sahih International English translation, verse 51 of Al-Maidah reads:
O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are [in fact] allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you – then indeed, he is [one] of them. Indeed, Allah guides not the wrongdoing people.
In his speech, Ahok did not specifically name the people he accused of using the Quran verses to dissuade people from voting for him.
But, in Indonesia, it is unfortunately not uncommon for hardline clerics to use, or more correctly misuse, religious texts for their own political interest.
To avoid following a misguided use of sacred texts, religious believers should understand the context in which the texts appeared the first time. Religious texts usually emerged as answers to problems that occurred within the social and political contexts of the time.
Al-Maidah verse 51 in context
In the case of verse 51 of Al-Maidah, there are various interpretation of the reason (asbab an-nuzul) this verse came down.
But all of these interpretations agree it’s highly likely that the verse came out in Medina in the later year of sixth century of Islam’s formative period.
At the time, the newly emerged Muslim community was persecuted by the Arab tribes as well as Christian and Jewish communities. They outnumbered the Muslims and were politically and socially strong. In these circumstances, siding with the hostile groups could damage the unity of the small and fragile Islamic community.
Based on its history, this verse should be proportionally understood in the context of Muslims asserting their religious identity at the time.
Furthermore, verse 51 is strongly related to previous verses that provide guidance on Muslims’ relationship with other groups. Verse 51 of Al-Maidah should be read in line with them.
Taking a single verse out of its context can result in an incomplete understanding of the purpose and true essence of those verses.
As for blasphemy, in Islamic literature, the concept of blasphemy is actually very loose and only lately developed.
Originally, to blaspheme does not only refer to speaking irreverently about God or other sacred things. In the Jewish tradition, saying God’s name is already considered a blasphemy and sinful.
Only later, when governments started to regulate blasphemy through their laws, did blasphemy became associated with speech or actions that implicitly or explicitly insult God, or carry an element of hatred towards God, or doubt God’s omnipotence.
In Islam, two of the best-known concepts related to blasphemy are apostasy and heresy. Apostasy, or riddah in Arabic, is the renunciation of belief. And heresy, or kufr, is belief in unorthodox teachings or the denial of the truth.
But blasphemy is not limited to apostasy and heresy. It includes the concept of deviation, or dhalal in Arabic, which means departure from the true path.
In Islamic heresiography, which is the writing of and about heresies, deviation or dhalal is used to define those who reject the fundamentals in religious belief, such as belief in God, the prophets and Sharia laws.
This became a foundation of classical Islamic scholarship, particularly in the 11th and 12th centuries, to categorise groups that were considered deviant.
Contemporary Muslim clerics have adopted this too. And, in turn, there are a number of commonly used terms such as sabb, which is blasphemy against the Prophet’s friends, and al-istihza, blasphemy against religious leaders or sacred symbols in Islam such as the Quran.
In Indonesia, the MUI, a council of Muslim clerics that produces religious edicts, use the concept of deviation to determine whether a group is deviant or sacrilegious. In 2007 the MUI came up with a list of categories to determine whether a group was deviant or not. This became the basis for state-sanctioned banning of minority groups such the Ahmadiyya.
Ahok’s blasphemy case has grown beyond defending the sanctity of religion from blasphemy. Some people who protested against Ahok were also driven by frustration at the slow investigation of the governor, which they suspect was due to his position and closeness with the country’s political elites. Others are political adventurers who tried to ride the wave by using this religious sentiment.
Whatever the religious or political background to Ahok’s case, the principle of innocent until proven guilty must be applied. The court must not be influenced by public pressure.
Meanwhile, religious believers would do well to learn the context of their sacred verses to truly understand their purpose and essence.
Ismatu Ropi, Senior Lecturer and Director of Research, Centre for the Study of Islam and Society, Universitas Islam Negeri Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta