Blasphemy is the defamation of the name of one or more gods. In a broader sense, blasphemy is irreverence toward something considered sacred or inviolable. Many cultures disapprove of speech or writing which defames the deity or deities of their established religions, and these restrictions have the force of law in some countries.
The word blasphemy is derived from the Middle English blasfemen, which in turn is related to the Greek blasphemein, from blaptein ("to injure") and pheme ("reputation").
In Judaism, blasphemy is the uttering of God's name and/or speaking evil of Him. In the New Testament, blaspheming the Holy Spirit is considered unforgivable, and denying the Trinity has also been defined as blasphemous. In Islam, blasphemy constitutes speaking ill of God, Muhammad, any other prophet mentioned in the Qur'an, or the Qur'an itself. In Buddhism and Hinduism there is no formal concept of blasphemy, while Jainism calls the teaching of what is false blasphemous.
In modern times with the advent of freedom of speech and religion, blasphemy laws in Western nations are no longer enforced. However, in Muslim nations harsh laws against blasphemy are still in effect.
The commandment against blasphemy is given in Exodus 22:28: "Do not blaspheme God or curse the ruler of your people." Leviticus 24:16 states that those who speak blasphemy "shall surely be put to death" by stoning. The blasphemer was to be taken outside the camp, and all who heard him should lay their hands upon his head; then all the congregation should stone him. Leviticus also provides an example of an Israelite mixed blood (having an Egyptian father) being stoned to death after getting into a fight with a Hebrew and cursing the Name of the Hebrew God.
Later the use of God's proper name (YHWH) came to constitute blasphemy according to normative Judaism, although it is allowed to mystics of the kabbalistic and some hasidic traditions. In ancient times, people were also guilty of blasphemy if they were idolaters, manifested disrespect towards God, or insulted his chosen leaders. For example, reviling the king, who acts as God's representative, was considered a form of blasphemy (Exodus 22, 27; Isaiah 8.21). Equating oneself to God was also considered blasphemous.
The Mishnah states the rabbinical opinion that the blasphemer is not guilty unless he pronounces the name of God in his insult or curse (Mishnah Sanh. 7.5). An opinion in the Gemara, however, extends the definition of the crime to a disrespectful use of any words which describe the sacred attributes of God, such as "The Holy One" or "The Merciful One." When the Jewish courts exercised criminal jurisdiction, the death penalty was sometimes applied to the blasphemer who used the Name; but the blasphemer of God's attributes was subjected to corporal punishment (Sanh. 56a).
When taking testimony during a blasphemy trial, witnesses who heard the blasphemy were not permitted to repeat the very words in question. The excommunication of the blasphemer could be substituted as a punishment for the death penalty (Pithe Teshubah to Yoreh De'ah, 340, 37). In addition to the court's punishment, the blasphemer is also excluded from the life in the world to come ('Ab. Zarah 18a).
The New Testament teaching on blasphemy is often related to Luke 12:10: "Everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven." The author of Ephesians commands that blasphemers be expelled from Christian society: "Blasphemy be put away from you, with all malice" (Ephesians 4:31).
When Christians came to control the power of the state, blasphemy became a crime punishable by law. Thomas Aquinas saw blasphemy as a form of unbelief, stating in Summa Theologica (13:3) that blasphemy, being a crime directly against God is "more grave than murder." Moreover, later Christian society was not as forgiving as Luke, insisting on harsh punishments for blasphemy against the Father and the Son as well as the Holy Spirit, and sometimes equating the public denial of Christian doctrine as blasphemy. For example, a seventeenth century Act Concerning Religion in Maryland stated that whoever shall "Blaspheme GOD, that is curse him, or deny that JESUS CHRIST our Savior to be the Son of God, or deny the Holy Trinity… shall be punished with death, and forfeiture of all of his or her Lands and Goods…."
The advent of religious toleration in the late seventeenth century witnessed a graduation relaxation in blasphemy laws in Christian societies.
Blasphemy in Islam constitutes speaking ill God, of the prophet Muhammad, any other prophet mentioned in the Qur'an, or of any biblical prophets. The Qu'ran also states—in direct opposition to traditional Christian tradition—that it is blasphemy to claim that Jesus Christ is the son of God (5.017).
For those who blaspheme by attacking the Qur'an or the Prophet, the Qur'an says that the punishment shall be "execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: That is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter" (Surah Al-Maidah 5:33).
In Muslim countries, blasphemy is still considered a very serious offense and may in some cases be punishable by death. British author Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses was seen by many Muslims to contain blasphemies against Islam, and Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in 1989, calling for Rushdie's death. More recently, cartoons published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten were criticized on the basis that they were blasphemous against Muhammad. The Egyptian government, under pressure by the parliament, banned the film, The Da Vinci Code, and is to confiscate the novel for containing blasphemy. In Pakistan and other Islamic nations, Christians often bear the brunt of the country’s blasphemy laws.
Buddhism has no formal concept of blasphemy. The tenets of Buddhism permit that sincere followers of other beliefs are also rewarded in the afterlife. According to Buddhist teachings, this theological perspective is based on natural law, which is in accordance with scientific principles and applies to everyone regardless of their religious affiliation. Buddhism teaches that what is done in the present determines what happens to us in the future, and for this reason one does not find Buddhists condemning others for their beliefs.
However, the Buddhist Eightfold Path requires a practitioner to cultivate "right speech," which includes no abusive language, gossip, lying, or slander. Thus, if Buddhists slander the Buddhist saints or are blasphemous towards the followers of other traditions, then they are violating their own ethical concept. Buddhist monks and nuns are sometimes disciplined for such unacceptable speech, even if their sin is not called by the word blasphemy.
There is also no word for blasphemy in Hinduism, and the religion's concepts of "utmost freedom of thought and action" attracts many followers. Hinduism does not prohibit anyone to question its fundamental beliefs, and it has never banished anyone if they wrote a differing scripture or failed to observe a particular ritual. As Mahatma Gandhi wrote, "even atheists can call themselves as Hindus."
Yet despite the general tolerance and pluralism of the Hindu religion, the attitude of some Hindus toward people of Veda-rejecting faiths, such as Jains and Buddhists, is similar to those who condemn blasphemy. These faiths, having grown out of Hinduism, fall into a different category from those such as Judaism and Christianity, which never received the Vedas. Those considered heretical or blasphemous are deemed as Nastika. Certain Hindu sects are also considered Nastika, such as the practitioners of some Hindu Tantric traditions, as well as materialists.
In Jainism, blasphemy is the teaching of the false; the hindrance of the true religion; the denigration of the saints, of the images of gods, and of the community, of the canon; and the rape of sacred objects, all of which cause the state of darsana-mohaniya-k (a disturbance of the knowledge of the religious truth inherent in one's natural disposition).
An example of the Jain legal view on blasphemy occurred in Mangalore, India, where the police arrested B. V. Seetharam, editor of Kannada, the evening daily newspaper of Karavali Ale, along with his wife, Rohini. They were taken to the Panambur police station for the "blasphemous reporting and personal abuses" against the spiritual leader of Jainism, Munishree Tarunsagar.
In January 2007, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg adopted Recommendation 1805 on blasphemy, religious insults, and hate speech against persons on grounds of their religion. This recommendation set a number of guidelines for member states of the Council of Europe in view of Articles 10 (freedom of expression) and 9 (freedom of thought, conscience, and religion) of the European Convention on Human Rights. In this area, there is also considerable case-law by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
The recommendation deals with blasphemy in terms of "religious insults and hate speech against persons on the grounds of their religion." It stipulates that individual states are responsible for "determining what should count as criminal offenses within the limits imposed by the case law of the European Court of Human Rights." However, it recommends that blasphemy "should not be deemed a criminal offense" in itself, since in a pluralistic society one person may express in good conscience a theological view (such as denying or affirming the Trinity) which another person may consider blasphemous. However, when blasphemy is used intentionally as "hate speech," the recommendation implies that it may be rightfully prosecuted.
Some states still have blasphemy laws on the books from the founding days, although they are no longer enforced. For example, chapter 272 of the Massachusetts General Laws states:
Whoever willfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing, or contumeliously reproaching God, His creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching or exposing to contempt and ridicule, the holy word of God contained in the holy scriptures shall be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than one year or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars, and may also be bound to good behavior.
However, the last person to be jailed in the United States for blasphemy was Abner Kneeland in 1838, as decided by the Massachusetts case Commonwealth v. Kneeland. This was prior to the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment incorporating the Bill of Rights to apply to the states and not just the federal government.
The United States Supreme Court in Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson 1952, held that a New York State blasphemy law was an unconstitutional prior restraint on freedom of speech. The court stated that "It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches, or motion pictures."
Although blasphemy laws in England have not been repealed, the last person in Britain to be sent to prison for blasphemy was John William Gott on December 9, 1921. He had three previous convictions for blasphemy when he was prosecuted for publishing two pamphlets which satirized the biblical story of Jesus entering Jerusalem (Matthew 21:2-7), comparing Jesus to a circus clown. He was sentenced to nine months' hard labor.
In 1977, Denis Lemon, the editor of Gay News was found guilty of blasphemous libel for publishing James Kirkup's poem "The Love that Dares to Speak its Name," which vilified Christ and his life (Whitehouse v. Lemon). Lemon was fined £500 and given a suspended sentence of nine months imprisonment.
In 2002, a deliberate and well-publicized public repeat reading of the poem "The Love that Dares to Speak its Name" took place on the steps of St. Martin-in-the-Fields church in Trafalgar Square and failed to lead to any prosecution.
The last prosecution for blasphemy in Scotland was in 1843.
In the state of Victoria, Australia, legislation outlawing any "religious vilification" was introduced in 2004. This law, the Racial & Religious Tolerance Act, has caused chaos. A Christian Ministry called Catch the Fire was singled out for legal persecution by the Islamic Council of Victoria. The ministry's two pastors, Danny Nalliah and Daniel Scot, fought their case since it began, in December 2004. In June 2005, they refused to acknowledge the court's order for them to apologize and pay a fine. Outside the court, Nalliah claimed he would not submit "freedom of speech to a law which is sharia law by stealth. We will not bow down to pressure, and if it means we go to prison we will go to prison."
Among Muslim-majority countries, Pakistan has the strictest anti-blasphemy laws. In 1982, President Zia ul-Haq introduced Section 295B to the Pakistan Penal Code punishing "defiling the Holy Qur'an" with life imprisonment. In 1986, Section 295C was introduced, mandating the death penalty for "use of derogatory remarks in respect of the Holy Prophet."
In 1990, the Federal Shari’ah Court ruled that the penalty should be a mandatory death sentence, with no right to reprieve or pardon. This is binding, but the government is yet to formally amend the law, which means that the provision for life sentence still formally exists, and is used by the government as a concession to critics of the death penalty. In 2004, the Pakistani parliament approved a law to reduce the scope of the blasphemy laws. The amendment to the law means that police officials will have to investigate accusations of blasphemy to ensure that they are well founded, before presenting criminal charges.
However, the law is allegedly used against political adversaries or personal enemies, by Muslim fundamentalists against Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs, or for personal revenge. Especially Ahmadi Muslims are victims of the blasphemy law. They claim to be Muslims themselves, but under the blasphemy law, they are not allowed to use Islamic vocabulary or rituals.
The Pakistani Catholic bishops' Justice and Peace Commission complained in July 2005, that since 1988, some 650 people had been falsely accused and arrested under the blasphemy law. Moreover, over the same period, some 20 people accused of the same offense had been killed. As of July 2005, 80 Christians were in prison accused of blasphemy.
Christians in Pakistan protested Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code as blasphemous, with the support of Muslims as well. On June 3, 2006, Pakistan banned the film. Culture Minister Gulab Jamal said: "Islam teaches us to respect all the prophets of God Almighty and degradation of any prophet is tantamount to defamation of the rest."
Although considered one of the more moderate Muslim nations, Indonesian blasphemy laws allow a person to be jailed for up to five years. Yet Article 29, b, of Indonesia's constitution states: "The State guarantees all persons the freedom of worship, each according to his/her own religion or belief." In July 2006, Lia Aminddin, the female leader of the Kingdom of Eden sect, was jailed for two years. This sect was neither Christian nor Muslim, and was based in Jakarta. Aminuddin had preached her beliefs with impunity for a decade, until she declared that she was the spirit of the Archangel Gabriel. Islamists from the Indonesian Council of Ulemas surrounded her compound in Jakarta for two days, in December 2005, until Aminuddin and 48 others were arrested and charged. The prosecution sought the five-year penalty against Aminuddin, and launched an appeal against her "lenient" sentence.
In Saudi Arabia, the death sentence has been applied for apostasy, though in Saudi Arabia, the last known execution for apostasy happened in 1992. More generally, such cases are charged as blasphemy. In Saudi Arabia, blasphemy has been punished with sentences of decapitation or imprisonment for up to eight years. The latter sentence was imposed in 2002, on a man who had said he found the Qur'an "boring." On January 7, 2003, Hail Al Masri, a Yemeni fruit seller living in Jeddah was sentenced to death by decapitation. His "crime" had been to refuse his roommate's entreaties to engage in morning prayers. Masri had been sentenced to two years' jail and 600 lashes, but this had been overturned by a Jeddah court, which had imposed the death penalty.
There has been a recent tendency in Western countries toward the repeal or reform of blasphemy laws, and these laws are only infrequently enforced where they exist. Blasphemy laws exist in several countries, such as in: Austria (Articles 188, 189 of the penal code); Denmark (Paragraph 140); Finland (Section 10 of chapter 17); Germany (Article 166); Greece; Ireland; Iceland; Italy; The Netherlands (Article 147 of the penal code); New Zealand Section 123 of the Crimes Act 1961); Norway (section 142 of the the Norwegian Penal Code never applied); Spain (Article 525 of the penal code); and Switzerland (Article 261 of the penal code).
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