Puneet Varma (Editor)


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Blasphemy is the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence to a deity, to religious or holy persons or sacred things, or toward something considered sacred or inviolable.


Some religions consider blasphemy as a religious crime. As of 2012, anti-blasphemy laws existed in 32 countries, while 87 nations had hate speech laws that covered defamation of religion and public expression of hate against a religious group. Anti-blasphemy laws are particularly common in Muslim-majority nations, such as those in the Middle East and North Africa, although they are also present in some Asian and European countries.


The word "blasphemy" came via Middle English blasfemen and Old French blasfemer and Late Latin blasphemare from Greek βλασφημέω, from βλάπτω "injure" and φήμη "utterance, talk, speech". From blasphemare also came Old French blasmer, from which English "blame" came. Blasphemy: 'from Gk. blasphemia "a speaking ill, impious speech, slander," from blasphemein "to speak evil of."' "In the sense of speaking evil of God this word is found in Ps. 74:18; Isa. 52:5; Rom. 2:24; Rev. 13:1, 6; 16:9, 11, 21. It denotes also any kind of calumny, or evil-speaking, or abuse (1 Kings 21:10 LXX; Acts 13:45; 18:6, etc.)."

Blasphemy laws

In some countries with a state religion, blasphemy is outlawed under the criminal code. Such laws have led to the persecution, lynchings, murder or arrest of minorities and dissident members, after flimsy accusations.

As of 2012, 33 countries had some form of anti-blasphemy laws in their legal code. Of these, 20 were Muslim-majority nations – Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Malaysia, the Maldives, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Turkey, the UAE and the Western Sahara. The other twelve nations with anti-blasphemy laws in 2012 were Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, India, Ireland, Italy, Lebanon, Malta, the Netherlands (abolished in 2014), Nigeria, Poland and Singapore. Blasphemy was treated as a capital crime (death penalty) in many Muslim nations.

Other countries have removed the ban of blasphemy. France did so in 1881 to allow freedom of religion and freedom of the press and blasphemy was abolished or repealed in Sweden in 1970, Norway with Acts in 2009 and 2015, the Netherlands in 2014, Iceland in 2015, and Malta in 2016.

Where blasphemy is banned, it can be either some laws which directly punish religious blasphemy, or some laws that allow those who are offended by blasphemy to punish blasphemers. Those laws may condone penalties or retaliation for blasphemy under the labels of blasphemous libel, expression of opposition, or "vilification," of religion or of some religious practices, religious insult, or hate speech.

Christian theology condemns blasphemy. It is spoken of in Mark 3:29, where blaspheming the Holy Spirit is spoken of as unforgivable—the eternal sin. However, there is dispute over what form this blasphemy may take and whether it qualifies as blasphemy in the conventional sense; and over the meaning of "unforgivable". In 2 Kings 18, the Rabshakeh gave the word from the king of Assyria, dissuading trust in the Lord, asserting that God is no more able to deliver than all the gods of the land.

In Matthew 9:2-3, Jesus told a paralytic "your sins are forgiven" and was accused of blasphemy.

Blasphemy has been condemned as a serious, or even the most serious, sin by the major creeds and Church theologians (apostasy and infidelity [unbelief] were generally considered to be the gravest sins, with heresy a greater sin than blasphemy, cf. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologiae).

  • Thomas Aquinas says that “[if] we compare murder and blasphemy as regards the objects of those sins, it is clear that blasphemy, which is a sin committed directly against God, is more grave than murder, which is a sin against one's neighbor. On the other hand, if we compare them in respect of the harm wrought by them, murder is the graver sin, for murder does more harm to one's neighbor, than blasphemy does to God.”
  • The Book of Concord calls blasphemy “the greatest sin that can be outwardly committed”.
  • The Baptist Confession of Faith says: “Therefore, to swear vainly or rashly by the glorious and awesome name of God…is sinful, and to be regarded with disgust and detestation. …For by rash, false, and vain oaths, the Lord is provoked and because of them this land mourns.”
  • The Heidelberg Catechism answers question 100 about blasphemy by stating that “no sin is greater or provokes God's wrath more than the blaspheming of His Name”.
  • The Westminster Larger Catechism explains that “The sins forbidden in the third commandment are, the abuse of it in an ignorant, vain, irreverent, profane...mentioning...by blasphemy...to profane jests, ...vain janglings, ...to charms or sinful lusts and practices.”
  • Calvin found it intolerable “when a person is accused of blasphemy, to lay the blame on the ebullition of passion, as if God were to endure the penalty whenever we are provoked.”
  • Catholic prayers and reparations for blasphemy

    In the Catholic Church, there are specific prayers and devotions as Acts of Reparation for blasphemy. For instance, The Golden Arrow Holy Face Devotion (Prayer) first introduced by Sister Marie of St Peter in 1844 is recited "in a spirit of reparation for blasphemy". This devotion (started by Sister Marie and then promoted by the Venerable Leo Dupont) was approved by Pope Leo XIII in 1885. The Raccoltabook includes a number of such prayers. The Five First Saturdays devotions are done with the intention in the heart of making reparation to the Blessed Mother for blasphemies against her, her name and her holy initiatives.

    The Holy See has specific "Pontifical organizations" for the purpose of the reparation of blasphemy through Acts of Reparation to Jesus Christ, e.g. the Pontifical Congregation of the Benedictine Sisters of the Reparation of the Holy Face.


    The most common punishment for blasphemers was capital punishment through hanging or stoning, justified by the words of Leviticus 24:13-16.

    Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Bring out of the camp the one who cursed, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him. And speak to the people of Israel, saying, Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him. The sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death."

    The last person hanged for blasphemy in Great Britain was Thomas Aikenhead aged 20, in Scotland in 1697. He was prosecuted for denying the veracity of the Old Testament and the legitimacy of Christ's miracles.

    Blasphemy (and blasphemous libel) remained a criminal offence in England & Wales until the passing of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, but was last successfully prosecuted in the case of Whitehouse v Lemon (1977), where the defendant was fined £500 and given a nine-month suspended prison sentence (the publisher was also fined £1,000).


    In Islamic literature, blasphemy is of many types, and there are many different words for it: sabb (insult) and shatm (abuse, vilification), takdhib or tajdif (denial), iftira (concoction), la`n or la'ana (curse) and ta`n (accuse, defame). In Islamic literature, the term blasphemy sometimes also overlaps with infidel (kufr, disbeliever), fisq (depravity), isa'ah (insult), and ridda (apostasy). There are a number of surah in Qur'an and sunnah in hadith relating to blasphemy, from which Quranic verses 5:33-34 and 33:57-61 have been most commonly used in Islamic history to justify and punish blasphemers. For example,

    The only punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is that they should be murdered, or crucified, or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides, or they should be imprisoned. This shall he a disgrace for them in this world, and in the Hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement. Except those who repent before you overpower them; so know that Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.

    Those who annoy Allah and His Messenger - Allah has cursed them in this World and in the Hereafter, and has prepared for them a humiliating Punishment. Truly, if the Hypocrites, and those in whose hearts is a disease, and those who stir up sedition in the City, desist not, We shall certainly stir thee up against them: Then will they not be able to stay in it as thy neighbours for any length of time: They shall have a curse on them: whenever they are found, they shall be seized and slain (without mercy).

    A variety of actions, speeches or behavior can constitute blasphemy in Islam. Some examples include insulting or cursing Allah, or Muhammad; mockery or disagreeable behavior towards beliefs and customs common in Islam; criticism of Islam's holy personages. Apostasy, that is, the act of abandoning Islam, or finding faults or expressing doubts about Allah (ta'til) and Qur'an, rejection of Muhammed or any of his teachings, or leaving the Muslim community to become an atheist is a form of blasphemy. Questioning religious opinions (fatwa) and normative Islamic views can also be construed as blasphemous. Improper dress, drawing offensive cartoons, tearing or burning holy literature of Islam, creating or using music or painting or video or novels to mock or criticize Muhammad are some examples of blasphemous acts. In the context of those who are non-Muslims, the concept of blasphemy includes all aspects of infidelity (kufr).

    In different Islamic schools of jurisprudence

    The Quran does not explicitly mention any worldly punishment for blasphemy (sabb allah or sabb al-rasul). Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) of Sunni and Shia madhabs have declared different punishments for the religious crime of blasphemy, and they vary between schools. These are as follows:

    Hanafi – views blasphemy as synonymous with apostasy, and therefore, accepts the repentance of apostates. Those who refuse to repent, their punishment is death if the blasphemer is a Muslim man, and if the blasphemer is a woman, she must be imprisoned with coercion (beating) till she repents and returns to Islam. If a non-Muslim commits blasphemy, his punishment must be a tazir (discretionary, can be death, arrest, caning, etc.). Maliki – view blasphemy as an offense distinct from, and more severe than apostasy. Death is mandatory in cases of blasphemy for Muslim men, and repentance is not accepted. For women, death is not the punishment suggested, but she is arrested and punished till she repents and returns to Islam or dies in custody. A non-Muslim who commits blasphemy against Islam must be punished; however, the blasphemer can escape punishment by converting and becoming a devout Muslim. Hanbali – view blasphemy as an offense distinct from, and more severe than apostasy. Death is mandatory in cases of blasphemy, for both Muslim men and women, and repentance is not accepted. Shafi’i – recognizes blasphemy as a separate offense from apostasy, but accepts the repentance of blasphemers. If the blasphemer does not repent, the punishment is death. Ja'fari (Shia) – views blasphemy against Islam, the Prophet, or any of the Imams, to be punishable with death, if the blasphemer is a Muslim. In case the blasphemer is a non-Muslim, he is given a chance to convert to Islam, or else killed.

    Some jurists suggest that the sunnah in hadith provide a basis for a death sentence for the crime of blasphemy, even if someone claims not to be an apostate, but has committed the crime of blasphemy. Some modern Muslim scholars contest that Islam supports blasphemy law, stating that Muslim jurists made the offense part of Sharia.

    The Islamic law considers blasphemy against Muhammad a more severe offense than blasphemy against God. Repentance can lead to forgiveness by God when God is blasphemed, however since Muhammad is no longer alive, forgiveness is not possible when Muhammad is blasphemed, and the Muslim community must punish his blasphemy by avenging blasphemer's death.

    In Islamic jurisprudence, Kitab al Hudud and Taz'ir cover punishment for blasphemous acts. The penalties for blasphemy can include fines, imprisonment, flogging, amputation, hanging, or beheading. Many nations prescribe and carry out the death penalty for apostasy, a similarly motivated action, and Pakistan and Egypt demand execution for some blasphemers. Muslim clerics may call for revenge against an alleged blasphemer by issuing a fatwa (legal ruling), or simply provide guidelines on behaviors and lifestyle that is blasphemous. For example, in Malaysia, Islamic scholars issued a fatwa declaring yoga as blasphemous, because yoga is a form of spiritual practice in Hinduism.

    Notable cases and debate on blasphemy

    As of 2011, all Islamic majority nations, worldwide, had criminal laws on blasphemy. Over 125 non-Muslim nations worldwide did not have any laws relating to blasphemy. In Islamic nations, thousands of individuals have been arrested and punished for blasphemy of Islam. Moreover, several Islamic nations have argued in the United Nations that blasphemy against Muhammad is unacceptable, and that laws should be passed worldwide to proscribe it. In September 2012, the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), who has sought for a universal blasphemy law over a decade, revived these attempts. Separately, the Human Rights Commission of the OIC called for "an international code of conduct for media and social media to disallow the dissemination of incitement material". Non-Muslim nations that do not have blasphemy laws, have pointed to abuses of blasphemy laws in Islamic nations, and have disagreed.

    Notwithstanding, controversies raised in the non-Muslim world, especially over depictions of Muhammad, questionning issues relating to the religious offense to minorities in secular countries. A key case was the 1989 fatwa against English author Salman Rushdie for his 1988 book entitled The Satanic Verses, the title of which refers to an account that Muhammad, in the course of revealing the Quran, received a revelation from Satan and incorporated it therein until made by Allah to retract it. Several translators of his book into foreign languages have been murdered. In the UK, many supporters of Salman Rushdie and his publishers advocated unrestricted freedom of expression and the abolition of the British blasphemy laws. As a response, Richard Webster wrote A Brief History of Blasphemy in which he discussed freedom to publish books that may cause distress to minorities.

    Notable cases in Muslim countries

    In September 2007, Bangladeshi cartoonist Arifur Rahman depicted in the daily Prothom Alo a boy holding a cat conversing with an elderly man. The man asks the boy his name, and he replies "Babu". The older man chides him for not mentioning the name of Muhammad before his name. He then points to the cat and asks the boy what it is called, and the boy replies "Muhammad the cat". Bangladesh does not have a blasphemy law but groups said the cartoon ridiculed Muhammad, torched copies of the paper and demanded that Rahman be executed for blasphemy. As a result, Bangladeshi police detained Rahman and confiscated copies of Prothom Alo in which the cartoon appeared.

    In November 2007, British schoolteacher Gillian Gibbons, who taught middle-class Muslim and Christian children in Sudan, was convicted of insulting Islam by allowing her class of six-year-olds to name a teddy bear "Muhammad". On 30 November, thousands of protesters took to the streets in Khartoum, demanding Gibbons's execution after imams denounced her during Friday prayers. Many Muslim organizations in other countries publicly condemned the Sudanese over their reactions as Gibbons did not set out to cause offence. She was released into the care of the British embassy in Khartoum and left Sudan after two British Muslim members of the House of Lords met President Omar al-Bashir.

    In January 2011, talking about the Asia Bibi blasphemy case, Pakistani politician Salmaan Taseer expressed views opposing the country's blasphemy law. He was then killed by one of his bodyguards, Malik Mumtaz Qadri. After the murder, hundreds of clerics voiced support for the crime and urged a general boycott of Taseer's funeral. The Pakistani government declared three days of national mourning and thousands of people attended his funeral. Supporters of Mumtaz Qadri blocked police attempting to bring him to the courts and some showered him with rose petals. In October, Qadri was sentenced to death for murdering Taseer.

    Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti said that he was first threatened with death in June 2010 when he was told that he would be beheaded if he attempted to change the blasphemy laws. On 2 March 2011, he was shot dead by gunmen, presumably because of his position on the blasphemy laws. Some expressed concerns that the assassinations of Taseer and Bhatti may dissuade other Pakistani politicians from speaking out against the blasphemy laws.

    Protests against depicting Muhammad

    In December 1999, the German news magazine Der Spiegel printed on the same page pictures of “moral apostles” Muhammad, Jesus, Confucius, and Immanuel Kant. Few weeks later, the magazine received protests, petitions and threats against publishing depictions of Muhammad. The Turkish TV-station Show TV broadcast the telephone number of an editor who then received daily calls. A picture of Muhammad had been published by the magazine once before in 1998 in a special edition on Islam, without evoking similar protests.

    In 2008, several Muslims protested against the inclusion of Muhammad's depictions in the English Wikipedia's Muhammad article. An online petition opposed a reproduction of a 17th-century Ottoman copy of a 14th-century Ilkhanate manuscript image depicting Muhammad as he prohibited Nasīʾ. Jeremy Henzell-Thomas of The American Muslim deplored the petition as one of "these mechanical knee-jerk reactions [which] are gifts to those who seek every opportunity to decry Islam and ridicule Muslims and can only exacerbate a situation in which Muslims and the Western media seem to be locked in an ever-descending spiral of ignorance and mutual loathing."

    The Muhammad cartoons crisis

    In September 2005, in the tense aftermath of the assassination of Dutch film director Theo van Gogh, killed for his views on Islam, Danish news service Ritzau published an article discussing the difficulty encountered by the writer Kåre Bluitgen to find an illustrator to work on his children's book The Qur'an and the life of the Prophet Muhammad (Danish:Koranen og profeten Muhammeds liv). He said that three artists declined his proposal, which was interpreted as evidence of self-censorship out of fear of reprisals, which led to much debate in Denmark. Jyllands-Posten editor Flemming Rose invited professional illustrators to depict Muhammad, as an experiment to see how much they felt threatened. One cartoon by Kurt Westergaard depicted Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, which resulted in withdrawal of the ambassadors of Libya, Saudi Arabia and Syria from Denmark, as well as consumer boycotts of Danish products in a number of Islamic countries.

    Reviewing the experiment, Danish scholar Peter Hervik wrote that it disproved the idea that self-censorship was a serious problem in Denmark, because the overwhelming majority of cartoonists had either responded positively or refused for contractual or philosophical reasons. Furthermore, the Danish newspaper Politiken stated that they asked Bluitgen to put them in touch with the artists who reportedly declined his proposal, so his claim that none of them dared to work with him could be proved, but that Bluitgen refused, making his initial claim impossible to confirm. Commenting the cartoon that initiated the diplomatic crisis, American scholar John Woods expressed worries about Westergaard-like association of the Prophet with terrorism, that was beyond satire and offensive to a vast majority of Muslims. Hervik also deplored that the newspaper's "desire to provoke and insult Danish Muslims exceeded the wish to test the self-censorship of Danish cartoonists."

    An online caricature competition was announced in support of Jyllands-Posten in Sweden but foreign minister Laila Freivalds pressured the provider to shut the page down. In 2006, her involvement was revealed to the public and she had to resign. In France, satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo republished the Jyllands-Posten cartoons of Muhammad and was taken to court by Islamic organisations under French hate speech laws; it was ultimately acquitted of charges that it incited hatred. In July 2007, art galleries in Sweden declined to show drawings of artist Lars Vilks depicting Muhammad as a roundabout dog. While Swedish newspapers had published them already, the drawings gained international attention after the newspaper Nerikes Allehanda published one of them on August 18 to illustrate an editorial on the "right to ridicule a religion". This particular publication led to official condemnations from Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt and Jordan, and by the inter-governmental Organisation of the Islamic Conference.

    In 2006, the American comedy program South Park, which had previously depicted Muhammad as a superhero ("Super Best Friends)" and has depicted Muhammad in the opening sequence since then, attempted to satirize the Danish newspaper incident. They intended to show Muhammad handing a salmon helmet to Family Guy character Peter Griffin ("Cartoon Wars Part II"). However, Comedy Central who airs the series rejected the scene and its creators reacted by satirizing double standard for broadcast acceptability. In April 2010, animators Trey Parker and Matt Stone planned to make episodes satirizing controversies over previous episodes, including Comedy Central's refusal to show images of Muhammad following the 2005 Danish controversy. After they faced Internet death threats, Comedy Central modified their version of the episode, obscuring all images and bleeping all references to Muhammad. In reaction, cartoonist Molly Norris created the Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, claiming that if many people draw pictures of Muhammad, threats to murder them all would become unrealistic.


    Leviticus 24:16 states that he that blasphemes the name of the lord "shall surely be put to death". In Jewish law the only form of blasphemy which is punishable by death is blaspheming the Ineffable Name.

    The Seven Laws of Noah, which Judaism sees as applicable to all people, prohibit blasphemy.

    The United Nations

    In the early 21st century, blasphemy became an issue in the United Nations. The United Nations passed several resolutions which called upon the world to take action against the "defamation of religions".

    The campaign for worldwide criminal penalties for the "defamation of religions" had been spearheaded by Organisation of Islamic Cooperation on behalf of the United Nations' large Muslim bloc. The campaign ended in 2011 when the proposal was withdrawn in Geneva, in the Human Rights Council because of lack of support, marking an end to the effort to establish worldwide blasphemy strictures along the lines of those in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. This resolution had passed every year since 1999, in the United Nations, with declining number of "yes" votes with each successive year.

    In July, 2011, the UN Human Rights Committee released a 52-paragraph statement, General Comment 34 on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) 1976, concerning freedoms of opinion and expression. Paragraph 48 states:

    Prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant, except in the specific circumstances envisaged in article 20, paragraph 2, of the Covenant. Such prohibitions must also comply with the strict requirements of article 19, paragraph 3, as well as such articles as 2, 5, 17, 18 and 26. Thus, for instance, it would be impermissible for any such laws to discriminate in favor of or against one or certain religions or belief systems, or their adherents over another, or religious believers over non-believers. Nor would it be permissible for such prohibitions to be used to prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith.

    Colloquial usage

    In contemporary language, the notion of blasphemy is often used hyperbolically. This usage has garnered some interest among linguists recently, and the word 'blasphemy' is a common case used for illustrative purposes.


    Blasphemy Wikipedia