Rant Number 477 14 February 2012
You are a Saudi boy of 23. Your name is Hamza Kashgari. On Milad Annabi, the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, you tweet that you have always loved your Prophet as a revolutionary and found him a source of inspiration. On the other hand you state candidly you do not fulsomely revere him, or words to that effect. Typical young man’s bravado. Brave bravado, or foolhardy in this case, as Saudi Arabia is not Manhattan or Kensington. Next you have to flee your country under death threats. Detained in Malaysia, you are now deported back to Saudi and sit, probably brutalised, in jail to await execution on charges of blasphemy.
Father Frank is not a ‘liberal’. Nor a secularist. Horribile dictu, he does not even, in principle, oppose the death penalty! Nor is the priest soft on blasphemers. Saudi worshippers apparently were in tears on learning of Hamza Kashgari’s ‘attack’ on their Prophet. Not for a moment do I scoff at them. I do not because I know how it feels. I too cry when Jesus is made the object of foul and hideous insults. I do bleed inside. I cannot even now, as I click away, think of the Passion of Christ, of the violence, beatings, the tortures he suffered on the way to the Cross without tears welling up in my eyes. Yes, blasphemy is a horrid thing.
Like pious Muslims in similar situations, I also have felt the hatred, the anger, the rage rising inside me at those who too often have made Christ the target of vile fantasies and actions. I know I felt capable of anything but then...like thunderbolt, Christ’s words in St Luke’s Gospel (23:34), as he was about to be nailed to the Cross, hit me: ‘Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they do.’
If Christ forgave his persecutors and torturers, how, how could I dare not to do the same? Lord, cast me, this poor sinner, in the deeper pit of hell if I fail to follow your example!
What has this hokum got to do with offending Islam’s Prophet, the tough-minded will ask? He did not forgive his enemies, did he?
Wrong. Actually, he did. Grab hold, pray (must be online somewhere, surely?), of Muhammad al-Tabari’s great work, History of God’s Envoys and of Kings. Just look up the Taif episode. Taif was a pleasant town near Mecca, sort of holyday resort. One day the Prophet travelled there on foot, seeking hospitality, protection and alliance with the local chieftains. Instead, he was rebuffed and mocked. They then gathered some riff-raff and incited them to drive the Prophet away. They pushed him, jostled him, threw stones at him, they hurt him in the thigh. Bleeding, exhausted, hungry and thirsty, Muhammad made his way out of the cruel city. Under the scorching, relentless desert sun, the Prophet sat down and cried. Then, Tabari relates, fearing an exemplary chastisement on the people of Taif and not wishing them to perish because of their disbelief and offenses, Muhammad raised his face towards heaven and prayed: ‘Lord, do not punish them, because they do not know I am your Prophet.’
First: I am translating from an Italian, shortened paperback edition of Tabari. I have not checked out the Arabic. Maybe my translation is imprecise. Still, will you blame me if I find Muhammad’s words immensely moving and uplifting? If they fill my heart with gladness and hope and joy?
Second, the Taif low-life were not aware of the Prophet’s status in Allah’s eyes. Their ignorance was their excuse. The same cannot be said of young Hamza. He knew. The boy was brought up as a Muslim – everybody is in Saudi and cannot not be a Muslim. Hamza could not plead jahilia, ignorance – what then? Would the Prophet be happy to see him die? Beheaded with a sword, kneeling in a public square in Riyadh, before a mocking crowd?
Here I must be careful. I am a Christian. I do not wish to ‘Christianise’ the Muslims’ Prophet. Nor am I quite a sentimentalist. The figures of Christ and Muhammad in many respects are very different. Muslims accept that. ‘Our Prophet fought, you know’, an Imam told me some time ago. Fair point. Christ too fought but not in the same way as Muhammad. Why expect mercy then?
I do not know. An Islamic court will try the boy. The penalty for insulting the Prophet in sharia is death. But Hamza’s words were frank, outspoken, yet not insulting. Will the judge be just? King Abdullah could always intervene but...would he? Mercy and compassion, those two stupendous attributes of God in the Qur’an, go hand in hand with...other things. Still, the Taif story means much to me. I hope it says a lot to merciful Muslims, too.
So, Hamza. Find the text of what he tweeted online. If a Christian wrote the same about Jesus of Nazareth I would not perhaps be quite pleased but nor would I deem it blasphemous. (Church of England panjandrums might enthusiastically consider someone who expressed similar thoughts about Christ a suitable candidate for ordination.) You could argue that, in refusing to grovel, the young man was paying a genuine, worthy homage to his Prophet. After all, Islam teaches that it is utterly wrong to accord to any human being anything even remotely nearing divine veneration...
I also recall something else. I remember a very silly, stubborn and rebellious young man. Someone who once embraced Marxism-Leninism, atheism and materialism, noisily revelling in it all. That young man went in for his share of Voltaire-like jibing and parodying and sending-up of faith and religion and churches and all that. Anticlerical satire was one of his passions. That young man drove his religious teachers crazy. He was truly arrogant, provocative and unbearable.
That young man was me.
I do not feel I can stand in judgment over hot-headed, obstreperous and irreverent youths – not really.
All this might not move or reach King Abdullah and his more benighted advisers, sure. But there is a petition online. In the name of mercy, compassion, justice, love – in the name of God, Maker and Sustainer of us all, let us save Hamza.
Revd Frank Julian Gelli