Following the gruesome murder of Deborah Yakubu, numerous questions have been raised. Those who killed her accused her of blasphemy, which has led to the question of what the punishment of blasphemy in Islam is? According to Deborah’s killers, she insulted the much-revered prophet of Islam and deserved to be stoned to death and burnt to ashes. While some Muslims have publicly displayed their support for Deborah’s killers, others have condemned their action as Un-Islamic. In the opinion of the latter, whether Deborah blasphemed or not is not the issue here. Instead, the point is that there is no justification for murdering a human being in cold blood. As Farooq Kperogi succinctly puts it, “The sanctity of human life shouldn’t be up for debate.”
On the official Islamic punishment for blasphemy, www.TrueIslam.co.uk explains that while Islam indeed condemns blasphemy, there is no single verse in the Holy Quran that teaches Muslims to punish someone for the sin or crime of blasphemy. The website explains that while the Quran tells us all the prophets were mocked in their lifetime, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) inclusive, Allah never commanded the prophet to punish his detractors. On the contrary, Allah said to him: “overlook their annoying talk and put your trust in Allah” (33:49). This, as the website notes, is what the prophet did throughout his earthly existence. For instance, the prophet refrained from exerting vengeance on Abdullah bin Ubay who had publicly insulted him, even though he easily could. The prophet himself led his funeral prayer when the latter died of natural cause.
While not disregarding the religious sensitivity of Muslims, several Christians have continued to question the rationale behind the action of the mob that snuffed life out of Deborah. Shouldn’t Islamic law only apply to Muslims? Are Muslims not sometimes, knowingly or unknowingly, guilty of what can be considered “blasphemy” against Christianity? Didn’t the management of Sterling Bank, led by a Muslim, recently compare Jesus to Agege Bread? Isn’t it blasphemy from a Christian perspective to deny the divinity of Jesus and refer to him as a mere prophet, just as from a Muslim perspective, it is considered an act of blasphemy to voice anything but reverence and deference to the prophet? While to Muslims, the prophet is the best human being ever, Christians do not have such an exalted opinion about the prophet of Islam. Similarly, while for Christians, Jesus is divine and sinless, for Muslims, he is neither divine nor sinless. As a prophet, Jesus (Isa) is much revered by Muslims. He is just not God according to Islamic theology.
Perhaps the basic theological question should be whether it is possible to “blaspheme” against a creed you do not expound? Am I, as a Christian, guilty of blasphemy when I refused to acknowledge that prophet Muhammed is divinely inspired or that he is the greatest human being ever? Isn’t this what it means to be a non-Muslim? In the same vein, is it blasphemy when Muslims refuse to accept that Jesus is God? Bear in mind that to accept that Jesus is God is to cease to be Muslim and become a Christian. The Islamic profession of faith, known as the shahada, asserts the unicity, omnipotence, and transcendence of God and the prophetic identity of Muhammed. This is the most fundamental expression of Islamic belief, and as Imam Kamil Mufti rightly quips, “One becomes a Muslim making this simple declaration.” Am I guilty of blasphemy if I publicly or openly reject this declaration?
Christians, in contrast, believe in the unicity, omnipotence, and transcendence of God (just like Muslims) while at the same time believing in the mystery of the Trinity. Also, according to Christian belief, about two thousand years ago, the second person of the Holy Trinity took human nature (without ceasing to be God) and dwelt among us. Is a Muslim openly rejecting these fundamental elements of the Christian faith guilty of blasphemy? Is it a crime to publicly voice one’s opinion? Is it a crime not to be Muslim or Christian? Is it a crime to not accept the Christian messiah or to not acknowledge Islam’s prophet? In expressing an opinion on matters of faith, what is the “red line” that we must not cross? Who draws the line? Is it the religious texts, self-appointed religious gatekeepers, official religious authorities, individual emotions, or the law of the land?
Beyond theological questions, sociopolitical concerns have also been expressed. The unfortunate incidence has again generated questions regarding Nigeria’s continual existence as a single nation. On the one hand, some people insist that Nigeria’s unity is not negotiable. For them, we all must continue to hope and pray for a more peaceful and prosperous country and not let the actions of a few extremists discourage us. But on the other hand, are those who see Deborah’s murder and the attack on Churches in Sokoto soon after the murderers were apprehended by law enforcement as further proof that there can never be harmony between the predominantly Muslim north and the largely Christian south. Therefore, according to them, the ultimate solution is to divide the country across regional and religious lines.
However, while numerous questions have been raised already, and so many Nigerians have expressed their views through different platforms, I want to observe that the single most fundamental question that needs to be raised is yet to be raised. How much does a Nigerian life cost? How much is Deborah’s life worth? How long before she stops trending on Twitter? Besides Deborah, who was killed in Sokoto state on May 12, at least two other Nigerians have been gruesomely murdered in the last few days. On the same day that Deborah was killed, David Imoh, a 38-year-old man, met his unfortunate end at the hands of an angry mob in Lagos. An eyewitness informs us that his disagreement with the mob was over 100 naira only. And a day after, a robbery suspect was set ablaze in Auchi Edo State.
These are not the only human lives Nigeria has lost needlessly this year alone. Human life in Nigeria has become so cheap. It is as if ordinary Nigerians no longer possess the fundamental right to life. Innocent Nigerians continue to fall victim to ritualists, kidnappers, armed robbers, and even mob violence. About two weeks ago, a crossdresser was beaten to a stupor in Lagos. Thank God he is still alive. Nigerians continue to die every day of preventable and treatable diseases. Our hospitals have become worse than gas chambers. When our leaders and politicians fall sick, they fly out for treatment.
Most Nigerians live in abject poverty and lack access to basic amenities such as clean water, air, hygiene, housing, and basic health care. There are more than 10 million out-of-school children in Nigeria. Most of these children are almajirai from the country’s northern region. Government-run universities have been on strike for a few months now, and government officials are more interested in strategizing for next year’s election.
While we must continue to condemn religious extremism and demand justice for Deborah and Imoh, the fundamental issue we must not ignore is that ordinary Nigerian life has become so cheap. Those who killed Deborah are at once perpetrators of a crime and, at the same time, victims of a society that has notoriously displayed a lack of concern for the life and wellbeing of its citizens. They are victims of systemic “Islamic” miseducation. They displayed apparent ignorance regarding the sanctity of the human right to life and a fair hearing under the law. Yet they are seemingly aware that given the porousness and corruption of the Nigerian legal and criminal system, they would easily get away with murder. While they are indeed guilty, we would be naïve not to see in their action a predictable reflection of the lackadaisical attitude of the Nigerian government as far as the life of the ordinary Nigerian citizen is concerned.
Fr. William Orbih is a priest of the Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja whos is currently a Doctoral Student at Notre Dame University, Indiana, United States of America.