Insults and Religion

Much has been made in recent weeks about the insulting of the prophet Muhammad through the crude and slapstick video made right here in the San Gabriel Valley.  I would like to explore this concept of insult a bit, and discover what we can learn through the lenses of various Abrahamic religions.  While this is by no means an exhaustive inquiry, even an introductory look can help people of goodwill get a better sense of the main issues at stake.  My own motivation comes from wanting to understand how insults can affect interfaith and inter-religious work.  I write as a Christian, and do not claim expertise in Islam or Judaism, but hope that these words are an accurate representation of these traditions.


There is much debate within Muslim theology about whether an insult to the prophet Muhammad constitutes blasphemy or not.  Interestingly, the Qur’an notes numerous times where the prophet was insulted or spoken ill of – his opponents claimed he was possessed (15:7 and 23:71). Nonbelievers thought that he was a victim of deception (17:48) and an imposter (16:101).

Not only was the prophet insulted, the Qur’an itself is depicted as being criticized – non-believers saw its instructions as fictitious tales (16:25).  Unbelievers are even cited as saying not to listen to the Qur’an, and interrupt the reading of it with laughter (41:26).  However, this passage is illustrative of the tension within the Qur’an regarding this issue.  Immediately follow the description of the unbelievers taunting, the text reads, “we will sternly punish the unbelievers, and pay them back for the worst of their misdeeds.  Thus shall the enemies of God be rewarded.  The Fire shall for ever be their home, because they have denied Our revelations” (41:27).  This seems to be suggesting responding to insults with a clear punishment, although the specific reason for the response is not indicated.

But later, in the same passage (41:34), we read, “requite evil with good, and he who is your enemy will become your dearest friend.”  This tension, it seems to me, to be similar to what we find in Christian theology when there is a clear ethical imperative – i.e. to love your neighbor – in the midst of texts that often don’t suggest that (i.e. nation-conquering).

In the Qur’an, the prophet does not retaliate.  In fact, the motivation for not retaliating is that God alone is the judge of actions between people:  “We will Ourselves sustain you against those who mock you” (15:96);   “Do not yield to the unbelievers and the hypocrites: disregard their insolence.  Put your trust in God; God is your all-sufficient guardian.” (33:49)

Not only are believers not to retaliate, the importance of forgiveness is emphasized: “It was thanks to God’s mercy that you dealt so leniently with them.  Had you been cruel or hard-hearted, they would have surely deserted you.  Therefore pardon them and implore God to forgive them.  Take counsel with them in the conduct of affairs; and when you are resolved, put your trust in God.” (3:160)

So we must ask if this is the path laid out in the Quran, how did we get to this place in 2012 where people who insult the prophet are being killed for blasphemy?  The short answer is that blasphemy against the prophet Muhammad and the Quran is considered by some to be apostasy.  Apostasy is then to be struggled against with all possible means, including death.

This response seems to many modern Muslims to be completely unacceptable given what has been outlined in the Qur’anic verses above.  This sense of a forgiving spirit and trust in Allah has been replaced by a more extreme and harsh sense of Islam.

The insulting of the prophet and the Qur’an in my view is hate speech, just as if someone were to go out of their way to insult Jesus, or the Buddha.  As an American, I have to stand up for the right to free speech, no matter how offensive.  But I do not need to stand up for hate speech.  If someone yells “fire,” in a crowded movie theater, the chaos that ensues has to be blamed on speech that is incendiary.  There is a fine line between critique and insult.  And while we here in America have a long history of protecting free speech, we also must stand up for civility, tolerance, and respect for others.


The Hebrew scriptures, alongside the Qur’an, recognize that prophets are often the targets of scorn and ridicule.   Jeremiah and Daniel are two examples that come to mind about prophets receiving ill treatment; the former is beaten and put in stocks, while the latter is put in the lion’s den.  These are prophets criticizing the people of Israel for not following Yahweh intently enough, or with the right focus (i.e. the poor).  Yet these prophets never inflict their own punishment upon non-believers, nor do they incite other believers to rise up against non-believers.  Judgement is left to God, whose compassions are “new every morning,” (Lamentations 3:23).  God is singularly in control of God’s creation, and no plan of God’s can be thwarted – this is the message of the vision of Job (ch. 38-41).

If the prophetic impulse is to bear, and perhaps even expect, resistance and insults, what of the rest of the Hebrew scriptures?  The towering figure of Moses is driven into exile, protested against by his own people after leading the people of Israel out of Egypt, and ultimately denied entrance into the “promised land.”  Of course we must also mention here the concept in the Hebrew Scriptures of exile – when the Israelites are not in control over their own destiny and must pursue their own self-identity as a people over against a larger more powerful country or army.  Here, bearing insults would seem to be a part of this experience.

The rabbis of the Talmud distinguished between two main types of insult: that which causes embarrassment and verbal oppression. (Here we are indebted to Joshua H. Shmidman’s article on “Insults” from the Encyclopaedia Judaica.  See

The primary biblical injunction against the first type of insult is, “Thou shalt surely rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him” (Lev. 19:17). Thus, wrongdoing should be admonished, but in a way that will not cause embarrassment. Even more so, embarrassing one who is innocent of wrongdoing is prohibited (Ar. 16b). The talmudic formulation of the sin of insult is halbanat panim (lit. “blanching of the face”) which, when committed in public, is equated with murder and deprives the offender of his share in the world to come (BM 58b). This idea is emphasized in the talmudic statement: “Let a man rather cast himself into a fiery furnace than shame his fellow in public” (BM 59a). For this reason, the rabbis often did not deny unjust accusations against themselves and allowed misdeeds of which they were innocent to be attributed to themselves, rather than cause embarrassment by revealing the identity of the true culprits. They derived this ethical principle from such biblical sources as, “And Shechaniah … said unto Ezra: We have broken faith with God and have married foreign women …” (Ezra 10:2). Shechaniah included himself even though he was guiltless (Sanh. 11a).

Related to the injunction against shaming is the commandment, “Ye shall not oppress one another” (Lev. 25:17), which the Talmud interprets as the second type of insult, namely, verbal oppression (ona’at devarim). Any taunt or expression of derision or gloating directed at someone which results in his mental anguish is prohibited.  In the view of the Talmud verbal oppression is more heinous than financial oppression, because it affects the victim’s inner self, and because no real restoration is possible (BM 58b; Maim. Yad, Mekhirah, 14:18). One who insults a Torah scholar (talmid ḥakham) is particularly condemned in the Talmud as one who “has spurned the word of the Lord” (Num. 15:31) and is considered a heretic (apikoros; Sanh. 99b).

According to halakhah, a person may receive financial redress for intentional embarrassment (boshet) caused him through a physical assault.  Although this compensation is limited to embarrassment arising from physical acts, the rabbis of the post-talmudic era prescribed a variety of penalties for purely verbal insult, including excommunication (niddui), flogging, and fines (ḤM 420:38). However, in cases where the insult is derived from a false statement, i.e., calumny (moẓi shem ra), the rabbis of the Talmud did prescribe penalties commensurate with the nature of the slander (Kid. 28a). Despite the strong injunctions against and penalties for the various types of insult, one is permitted to insult inveterate and unrepentant sinners, after the manner of the prophets, in order to secure their repentance and correction (Maim. Yad, De’ot, 6:8; Sefer Ḥinnukh, 240). Although some authorities maintain that when one is being insulted he may justifiably defend himself by responding in kind, the sages nevertheless praise the person who chooses to suffer indignities in silence: “Those who are insulted but do not insult, hear themselves reviled but do not answer … of them the Scriptures say, ‘They who love Him are as the sun when He goe’th forth in His might'” (Shab. 88b).

There are a number of interesting points raised in Schmidman’s article:

  1. Notice the strong accent on not embarrassing someone, which is equated with murder.  Causing shame to another is to be avoided at all costs.
  2. Verbal oppression is worse than financial oppression.
  3.  One who insults a Torah scholar is to be considered a heretic.
  4. There are to be penalties for intentional  embarrassment
  5. Bearing insults is praiseworthy.

There are strong admonishments against embarrassing, or shaming others in Judaism, rooted in the sacredness of the other (every human is created in the Image of God in the Genesis creation story).  The response to this embarrassment possibly includes some redress, but includes the option of bearing the insult, and taking the notion even further, to accept shame on yourself when you know it should go to another.  Protecting the dignity of the other seems to be a paramount concern.


The Christian scriptures provide another important viewpoint into the concept of insult.  Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Matt. 5:11).  Jesus, as the founder of a new religion, knew that being a small upstart group, the larger, more powerful forces already in existence would challenge this new direction.  So he tried to prepare his followers for being insulted and persecuted.  Jesus himself was insulted and persecuted, enduring torture and finally death on a cross at the hands of the Roman government.  This powerful imagery of sacrifice has permeated the Christian vision for centuries.

The book of Acts is replete with stories of this upstart religion facing critique and challenges as it expands across the Roman empire, finally reaching Rome through the voice of the apostle Paul.  Paul began his religious career as Saul, the relentless persecutor of the new Christian movement.

The rest of the Epistles discuss what the followers of Jesus might do in various situations as their community grows larger.  One prominent example is found in the book of Philippians:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in very nature[a] God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature[b] of a servant, being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!

Followers of Jesus were supposed to emulate his humility in self-sacrifice, and indeed many of the apostles died martyrs’ deaths.

But how do we reconcile these notions with the Christianity that ultimately overtook the Roman Empire, becoming the most powerful force in Europe for a thousand years?  With Constantine’s installation of Christianity as the religion of the empire, Christianity’s relationship with power was forever changed.  Far from being the persecuted minority, Christianity became the powerful majority in Europe.  Others were persecuted, excluded, and needed to be converted.  Insults in this context took on political overtones against the “Holy Roman Empire.”  Crusades and inquisitions become part of the story here.   The humble carpenter from Nazareth is a long way from the opulence and ostentatious administrations of the Popes of the 13th and 14th centuries.

The passage from Philippians is interesting in that while Jesus is to be admired for his humility, see how that early Christian prayer ends:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Christians have been trying to navigate this matrix of humility and power ever since the beginnings of the Christian church!

But, specifically relating to the concept of insult, Christians are to bear persecution knowing that someday all will be made right before the Creator at the end of time.  Romans 12:19 encourages believers to not seek revenge because “vengeance is mine,” says the Lord.


Each of the Abrahamic traditions wrestles to some degree with the concept of insult.  Each, surprisingly, includes a fair amount of instruction on bearing persecution and insults for one’s faith.  This example is lauded, as are the exemplars in each religion, as being people who withstood difficulties and pain.  Forgiveness, bearing the embarrassment of the other, sacrifice, and humility are all a part of these religious traditions.

Is this only my view as a Western American Christian?  Are my points compromised by my interest in interfaith work, and my place in a culture that values plurality?  Perhaps.  My perspective might be completely different as a Muslim in Indonesia, or as a Jew in Israel.  The critiques of real politik might be equally devastating – while these religious viewpoints may be true, it is people who are discussing and planning real world realities that must make the decisions regarding some of these concepts.  For example, what are the pressures on Muslim politicians in Pakistan, or Christian senators in America?  We cannot have a “pie in the sky” mentality when it comes to religious traditions.  There is no “pure” expression of any tradition, though there are people around the world in all of these traditions who are trying desperately to make that a reality.  But perhaps this betrays my sentiments!  I believe we are to be wary of imposing one vision of a religious tradition.  In the end, we are all allowed free will, to decide how to respond to our Creator.  These responses will be as varied as the many religions of the world, conditioned by the myriad types of human personality.  To seek to codify one perspective is to invite imperialism.  All of the religious traditions should seek to come together to help craft statements of human rights, like we see in the Geneva Convention.   Let us all do our part in this important religious issue by adopting a stance of humility and forgiveness towards ourselves and towards others.

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