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What counts as an insult to Muhammad?

What if the remarks are true?

Indian Muslims on June 10 burn an effigy and portraits of Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal in Kolkata, India, in response to remarks attributed to the two Hindu nationalist party officials. Associated Press/Photo by Bikas Das

What counts as an insult to Muhammad?
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India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party is facing severe diplomatic outrage from several Muslim-majority countries after two of its officials reportedly made insulting comments against Muhammad and his wife, Aisha.

In its report, the Associated Press did not specify what Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal said but noted that the remarks were “derogatory references” to Islam and Muhammad. Muslim countries, including Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan issued complaints. To contain the fallout, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) released a statement denouncing “any ideology which insults or demeans any sect or religion.” The statement is strategic and expected, as India relies heavily on Gulf countries for energy and other economic interests. However, for Muslims, the statement was not enough, and the internet exploded with hashtags against the ruling BJP.

Under pressure, the party suspended Sharma, who clarified that she “had said some things in response to comments made about a Hindu god but it was never her intention to hurt anyone’s religious feelings.” She added that she was willing to “unconditionally withdraw” her comments.

Insulting anyone is never right. Nevertheless, the media does not tell us the specifics of the insult against Islam. What were the derogatory remarks against Muhammad or Islam? The vast majority of left-leaning media outlets are satisfied to report that two Indian politicians made insulting comments against Muhammad and his wife. But the public needs to know what actually constituted an insult and supposedly created this outrage.

It turns out that Sharma’s comments, according to another report, referred to an account found explicitly in original Muslim sources indicating that Muhammad married Aisha when she was a 6-year-old girl.

Of course, Sharma’s comments were shocking to many who never thought that a founder of a world religion would have married a girl that young. Many began to look up sources for the age of Aisha when Muhammad married her.

While the vast majority of conservative Muslims insist that the reports of Aisha’s young age are accurate and trustworthy, many modernist and progressive Muslims tend to deny and reject these traditions.

According to the most trusted Sunni Muslim collections of Muhammad’s traditions, Aisha admits that Muhammad “married her when she was six years old and he consummated his marriage when she was nine years old, and then she remained with him for nine years,” when he died. At that time, Muhammad was 53 and older than Aisha’s father. In another report, Aisha states that she “was taken to his house as a bride when she was nine, and her dolls were with her.”

If these are the trusted and most reliable reports among Sunni Muslims, then Sharma’s remarks were merely conveying that which Muslim sources themselves claim. Aisha appears to have been proud of her young age when she married Muhammad, as she reports, “I used to play with the dolls in the presence of the Prophet, and my girl friends also used to play with me.”

Without a doubt, the reported young age of Aisha creates huge problems for contemporary Muslims, as it appears to establish a religious precedent for child marriage, as exemplified in the life of Islam’s prophet. If Muhammad married Aisha when she was 6, and he is the exemplary model for Muslims, then can Muslim men follow the same course and imitate him today? This is one reason why child marriage is still flourishing and practiced in some Arab Muslim countries. According to Human Rights Watch, child marriage in Yemen continues to destroy the lives and innocence of many young girls.

While the vast majority of conservative Muslims insist that the reports of Aisha’s young age are accurate and trustworthy, many modernist and progressive Muslims tend to deny and reject these traditions. In denying these reports, however, these progressives would have to either reject the entire corpus of tradition deemed sacred by the majority of Muslims or cherry-pick from it according to their progressive agenda and cultural preferences.

While we should all be critical thinkers and evaluators of ideas, no insult against anyone should be acceptable. However, if Sharma was referring to a cherished Muslim tradition, deemed sacred and reliable by numerous Muslims, how can this be blasphemous or insulting? If Muslims consider Sharma’s comments insulting to Islam or Muhammad, does this mean that the Muslims who documented these reports about Muhammad were inherently blasphemous, too?

The Muslim outrage against Sharma’s comments may indicate that some Muslims are embarrassed by what the Muslim sources reveal about Islam’s prophet. Instead of distancing themselves from these sources by rejecting their claims, these Muslims resort to punishing anyone who dares to reveal what these sources say. But they can’t change the text of ancient written documents, and they know it.

A.S. Ibrahim

A.S. Ibrahim, born and raised in Egypt, holds two PhDs with an emphasis on Islam and its history. He is a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught at several schools in the United States and the Middle East, and authored A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad (Baker Academic, 2022), Conversion to Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), Basics of Arabic (Zondervan 2021), A Concise Guide to the Quran (Baker Academic, 2020), and The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (Peter Lang, 2018), among others.

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