Islam, Religious Defamation and an Identity Deficit

Jakarta Demonstrations 4th December

Whilst I was in Jakarta this past week, over 200,000 Muslims again gathered in demonstration at the central Jakarta monument. They were calling for the arrest of the Chinese descent Christian Governor of Jakarta, on charges of defamation of Islam. Some months ago, the Governor had commented to an audience on a particular portion of the Qur’an, which had earlier been used as a basis for protesting his legitimacy as the Governor of Jakarta by traditionalist Muslims. Rapidly the protests gathered momentum, calling for the imprisonment of the Governor.

In response to the accusations, the following is based upon an insightful article written by one of our Muslim friends, Prof Mun’im Sirry, in a Jakarta online newspaper (

I see this type action coming out of a sense of feeling threatened and insecure, because of an increasing deficit in identity. Has the Muslim community ever had a sense of security within itself?

The history of Islam experienced a period where there was a sense of security within itself, which even allowed for “heated” debates without any accusation of religious defamation. During the great Abbasid Dynasty (Baghdad 750AD – 1250 AD), the caliphate was not only a political figure but also quite an intellectual. It was under him that a mass of translated literature emerged from Greek into Arabic.

In this era, the Muslim leaders prepared a special room for debating between Muslim and Christian leaders, normally recorded by Christian and Muslim scribes. One debate that is recorded is between Timothy, the Patriarch of the Church of the East, and Caliph al-Mahdi, with the records showing a friendly and honouring interaction, even though the content would these days be considered extremely sensitive. 

Timothy, not believing Muhammad as a Prophet, or that the Qur’an was divinely inspired, endeavoured to show that it is impossible for the Qur’an to be from God. Likewise, al-Mahdi challenged Christian doctrines, such as the Trinity. My point is at the end of the debate session, according to the records, the two leaders embraced and honoured each other for their efforts. (Extra note: The Headquarters for the Church of the East with its rapid missional expansion and the Abbasid Caliphate continued for a long period near each other in Baghdad)

It should be added, the concept of “Religious Defamation” and “Defamation of the Prophet” in Islam only emerged hundreds of years after Muhammad during the period of the Crusades. Prior to that, throughout the classical era of Islamic writings and compiling of Islamic legal traditions, there was no understanding of “Religious Defamation” as we have it today. “Religious Defamation” was possibly first referred to in the political turbulent period of Islam in the 14th Century, when Islamic Empires were dividing and a strong sense of insecurity existed.

Many Muslims are embarrassed to hear the accusations of “Religious Defamation” (i.e. Insulting the Qur’an and the Prophet), demonstrations voicing anger, using physical intimidation rather than a logical argument.

With this as a background, the cause of demonstrations such as the ones recently in Jakarta is not isolated to a particular event. It reflects an underlying issue, one that has been present for centuries. A growing segment within the Muslim world is embracing change and reform, whilst a large segment live in a world of insecurity as Arab traditions of the past are being held on to.


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