The crucifixion of Ali al-Nimr: are we allowing a Pharaonic Islam?

Saudi Arabia is for many Muslims an ambiguous country. On one hand we are talking about the place where ​​Islam arose, where the prophet grew up and which is still very important religiously, but on the other hand, many Muslims dissociate themselves from the Saudi government.

From all over the world, people are hoping that their cry for justice will be heard. Hashtags are being enabled, Facebook pages are being opened, and Amnesty International is collecting signatures: “I urge you to quash Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr’s conviction and death sentence. Ali al-Nimr should be given a fair trial in line with international law and standards and without recourse to the death penalty”, it says in the petition.

The case concerns the young political activist Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr who was arrested in 2012 after he was joining a demonstration against the Saudi regime. In 2014, Ali was sentenced to death by the Special Criminal Court in Jeddah for crimes he committed as “participation in anti-governmental protests, attacks on the security forces, possession of a gun and armed robbery.”

NaaxmloosThese “findings” were, however, formed by the confessions of Ali himself… After he had been abused and tortured. This is concerning for a lot of reasons. Is receiving a fair trial not an universal human right? And is the indication that this young man was still a minor only a small detail in this story?

There is something fundamentally wrong when human rights are not extended to every country, where injustice is being magnified in one country and violently muted in the other. The media seems deafening silent when it comes to the inhumane punishments that Saudi Arabia is guilty of. The sad thing about this case is that inhuman punishments are not unusual in Saudi Arabia, an ally of Western democracies which theoretically condemn these punishments. However, aside from all the democratic chatter, in times like these, we can speak of a global obscuration. The years of the European enlightenment seem so far, far away in moments like these. But also the mercy of Islamic values is out of sight.

Does the Saudi government not know its own history and religion? Where we saw the prophet advocating kindness, tolerance and even treating prisoners well, we now see the opposite in the eerie Saudi cells.

Does this government not know that the first word of the Qur’an that was sent down is the word “iqra”?

“Read: In the Name of your Lord Who created,” and later on, in the same verse “who taught by the pen.”

Who do they want to silence? Whose pen do they want to decline? A writer, a demonstrator, a political activist, someone with a different opinion? Organizations are battling against a government that uses medieval punishments. We, Muslims, are also launching a battle. A fight against a government which still uses medieval punishments, which also are prohibited by the laws of God. Full stop. Crucifying people and taking away a gift from Him, the pen, is not and will never be a part of my religion.

Does crucifixion has a basis in Islam?

It’s possible that the Saudi government is basing itself on the Quranic verse 5:33:

[Indeed, the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth [to cause] corruption is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land. That is for them a disgrace in this world; and for them in the Hereafter is a great punishment]

However, this verse is often incorrectly interpreted by the regular reader. Of a country that possesses enough theologians, however, it is at least expected that the tafsir won’t be ignored. It is very dangerous to use verses, without any historical context or deeper investigation, as rules or laws. The following explanation of this verse comes from the tafsir of Muhammad Asad and can also be read online.

” Most of the classical commentators regard this passage as a legal injunction, and interpret it, therefore, as follows: “The recompense of those who make war on God and His apostle and spread corruption on earth shall but be that they shall be slain, or crucified, or that their hands and feet be cut off on opposite sides, or that they shall be banished from the earth: such shall be their ignominy in this world.” This interpretation is, however, in no way warranted by the text, and this for the following reasons:

a) The four passive verbs occurring in this sentence – “slain”, “crucified”, “cut off” and “banished” – are in the present tense and do not, by themselves, indicate the future or, alternatively, the imperative mood.

b) The form yuqattalu does not signify simply “they are being slain” or (as the commentators would have it) “they shall be slain”, but denotes – in accordance with a fundamental rule of Arabic grammar – “they are being slain in great numbers”; and the same holds true of the verbal forms yusallabu (“they are being crucified in great numbers”) and tuqatta’a (“cut off in great numbers”). Now if we are to believe that these are “ordained punishments”, it would imply that great numbers – but not necessarily all – of “those who make war on God and His apostle” should be punished in this way: obviously an inadmissible assumption of arbitrariness on the part of the Divine Law-Giver. Moreover, if the party “waging war on God and His apostle” should happen to consist of one person only, or of a few, how could a command referring to “great numbers” be applied to them or to him?

c) Furthermore, what would be the meaning of the phrase, “they shall be banished from the earth”, if the above verse is to be taken as a legal injunction? This point has, indeed, perplexed the commentators considerably. Some of them assume that the transgressors should be “banished from the land [of Islam]”: but there is no instance in the Qur’an of such a restricted use of the term “earth” (ard). Others, again, are of the opinion that the guilty ones should be imprisoned in a subterranean dungeon, which would constitute their “banishment from [the face of] the earth”!

d) Finally – and this is the weightiest objection to an interpretation of the above verse as a “legal injunction” – the Qur’an places exactly the same expressions referring to mass-crucifixion and mass-mutilation (but this time with a definite intent relating to the future) in the mouth of Pharaoh, as a threat to believers (see 7:124, 20:71 and 26:49). Since Pharaoh is invariably described in the Qur’an as the epitome of evil and godlessness, it is inconceivable that the same Qur’an would promulgate a divine law in precisely the terms which it attributes elsewhere to a figure characterized as an “enemy of God”. In short, the attempt of the commentators to interpret the above verse as a “legal injunction” must be categorically rejected, however great the names of the persons responsible for it. On the other hand, a really convincing interpretation suggests itself to us at once as soon as we read the verse – as it ought to be read – in the present tense: for, read in this way, the verse reveals itself immediately as a statement of fact – a declaration of the inescapability of the retribution which “those who make war on God” bring upon themselves. Their hostility to ethical imperatives causes them to lose sight of all moral values; and their consequent mutual discord and “perverseness” gives rise to unending strife among themselves for the sake of worldly gain and power: they kill one another in great numbers, and torture and mutilate one another in great numbers, with the result that whole communities are wiped out or, as the Qur’an puts it, “banished from [the face of] the earth”. It is this interpretation alone that takes full account of all the expressions occurring in this verse – the reference to “great numbers” in connection with deeds of extreme violence, the “banishment from the earth”, and, lastly, the fact that these horrors are expressed in the terms used by Pharaoh, the “enemy of God”.

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Will we allow a Pharaonic Islam?

God teaches us to be righteous, not to be silent when we see injustice, to forgive and to teach. Islam is the religion of peace, not of darkness. This is why we, as Muslims, should not watch how others knead the Islam into an evil dough with which they want to poison our brothers and sisters in humanity.

If a simple signature on the petition of Amnesty International can make a difference on the life of this young man and so many other people, just like social media could make a hero out of Ahmed the clock maker, then let us contribute!

Because the Pharaoh is not the figure that we want to follow. The Pharaoh is the symbol of evil in Islam, the one that has been named in the Qur’an because of his evil acts. No, we will not follow in his footsteps nor accept his way of punishment. We are the followers of Mohammed, the symbol of mercy.

[And We have not sent you, [O Muhammad], except as a mercy to the worlds.] 21:107

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Written by Mayada Srouji

Mayada Srouji is a 23-year-old student Gender and Diversity at the UGent and has a bachelor in Arabic and Islamic Sciences, with a minor in political and social sciences. She is interested in women rights, philosophy, literature and history.