Islam is not a sword or shield for the global political stage, but a belief system designed to purify the human heart.
As of 6pm (UK time) today, 7,894 people had signed a petition urging the Saudi government to drop all charges of blasphemy against Hamza Kashgari, a columnist for the Jeddah-based daily Al-Bilad. Kashgari, 23, had sparked outrage for detailing an imaginary conversation with the prophet Muhammad on his Twitter account, in which he addressed him as an equal: “I will say that I have loved aspects of you, hated others, and could not understand many more.”
After generating over 30,000 fevered responses (including a number of death threats), Kashgari deleted the post and issued a formal apology. However, this did not stop the juggernaut. As of 6pm (UK time) today, A Facebook page entitled “The Saudi people want the execution of Hamza Kashgari” had 26,632 members – a figure that sadly dwarfs the number who had signed the petition to save him.
There is a familiar explanation for the scale of the hate campaign against Kashgari: some of his fellow citizens had been following his writings for many months, waiting for him to “trip up”. He tried to flee to New Zealand via Kuala Lumpur but was arrested by Malaysian police at Kuala Lumpur airport. Having been detained for several hours, he was finally extradited back to Saudi Arabia. According to Human Rights Watch, he was kept incommunicado and denied access to legal representation and the UN refugee agency.
In the meantime, a Jeddah public prosecutor was compiling the necessary paperwork to bring a case against Kashgari, on charges of “disrespecting God” and “insulting the prophet”. Both charges carry the death penalty in Saudi Arabia.
On top of the usual questions about freedom of expression and its limits, such punishments – whether real or implied – point to a much graver crisis. Any religious faith that is born of insecurity is likely to react rather than respond, to silence dissent rather than embrace it, and to regurgitate black-and-white answers where few exist. But at the same time it makes the soul hungry for greater incarnations of its opposite: religious faith that has grown out of a place of love and contentment, whose most notable by-product is genuine compassion and wishing for others what you would want for yourself.
Rewind 1,400 years, and there are countless examples where the prophet Muhammad utilised the latter approach. One tradition relates that an elderly woman used to throw rubbish on the prophet whenever he passed by her house. This occurred on a daily basis, yet he showed no signs of anger or irritation. One day, the rubbish-throwing ritual stopped, and Muhammad asked a neighbour where the woman had disappeared to. Upon being told that she was unwell, the prophet asked for permission to pay a visit and assist with her recovery. The elderly woman was so moved by this act of kindness, she converted to Islam straight away.
The people threatening Hamza Kashgari should stop, re-examine their motives and remember what Islam is actually for. It is not a sword or shield for the global political stage, nor is it a stick with which to beat minorities. Finally, it is not the equivalent of a product manual, as some followers seem to think. Instead, it is a belief system designed to purify the human heart. There is a famous hadith which encapsulates this beautifully. In it, the prophet says: “Verily, in the body there is a piece of flesh. If it is sound, the body is all sound. If it is corrupt, the body is all corrupt. Verily, it is the heart.”