An-Nimr, Saudi Regime & the Right to Dissent

Several Muslim scholars to international rights groups such as Amnesty International have decried the recent death sentence leveled by the Saudi regime against Shaykh Nimr an-Nimr, who is a 12ver shi’i.  The Saudi regime sentenced him for supposedly “disobeying the ruler,” inciting sectarian strife” and “encouraging, participating and leading demonstrations.”  In other words, he was sentenced to death for voicing dissent and articulating his beliefs.

Speaking truth to power based upon one’s sincere beliefs is as much as a part of Islam as the five daily prayers and is an integral part of the character of all civilized societies.  Some of the most inspiring portions of religious scriptures from the Qur’an to the present day Torah and Gospel speak of Musa (AS) and Harun (AS) showing dissent to Fir’awn’s government to ‘Isa (AS) challenging the status quo among the Jews and the occupying Roman authorities.  Only tyrants and oppressors seek to quash dissent.

Criticizing or even cursing rulers is not worthy of the death penalty not only under international law but even according to the Islamic tradition.  In a sound tradition narrated by Ahmad bin Hanbal, bin Abi ‘Asim and others, a man cursed Abu Bakr while he was the khalifah.  A companion by the name of Abu Barzah then asked Abu Bakr if he could cut off the man’s head for his cursing him.  Abu Bakr replied by saying no, for none had the authority to do such after the Messenger of Allah.  Hence, the punishing of one for simply cursing Abu Bakr, who was both the political authority and a companion, was viewed as being unacceptable.

More importantly, the Prophet (SAWS) while having the political authority in Al-Madinah did not punish people simply for reviling him even though he had the enforcement capacity to have done so.  For instance in a well-known and sound tradition narrated by Muslim, bin Hanbal, and others, some of the Jews used to provocatively say, “Death be upon you, oh Father of Al-Qasim” when they addressed the Prophet (SAWS).  One day, ‘Aishah replied back to them, “And upon you be death,” in which the Prophet (SAWS) corrected her by biding her not to respond that way.  The Prophet (SAWS) did not accept rhetorical violence or physical violence on his behalf simply for people lying on him or reviling him.

The strength of a government or a people is their ability to respond to dissent and even insult with dignified ethics and intelligent discourse.  Such strength is tested when facing what is found to be repugnant, be it leaders who face sharp criticism to their hearing the reviling of revered personalities.

Thus, it would be a sign of not being weak if the Saudi authorities freed An-Nimr based upon his right to dissent and express his views, even if some of those views are deemed as religiously repugnant.  The basis of the death penalty against An-Nimr for simply raising his voice reeks of oppression, violates precedence set by the Prophet (SAWS) and Abu Bakr plus clearly violates internationally recognized standards of decency.

Beards, the Supreme Court, and religious expression for inmates

OCT 10, 2014, 10:00 AM

Beards, the Supreme Court, and religious expression for inmates


Justices of the United States Supreme Court three days ago strongly questioned oral arguments from Arkansas Department of Corrections defending their “no beard” policy for inmates, even when beards are worn for bona fide religious reasons.

The policy is being challenged by a Muslim convert named Gregory Holt, who holds that Arkansas is in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which is a federal law that says government cannot impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of prisoners unless it demonstrates that it has a compelling interest.

Some Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and others view shaving the beard as tantamount to committing sin. RLUIPA gives legal protection that despite even when people are incarcerated for felonies, the state does not have the absolute right to strip them of their religious practices and expressions. Even prisoners of war are guaranteed freedom of religious practice under the Geneva Convention.

Arkansas claims that beards should not be allowed in correctional facilities because they can be used to hide contraband such as weapons. Chief Justice John Roberts stated that Arkansas provided no proof of such ever happening, and Justice Sam Alito went farther by sarcastically suggesting to Arkansas that a “tiny revolver” could fall out of an inmate’s beard. Keep in mind that Roberts and Alito are both conservative jurists on the high court.

Just as in the Hobby Lobby case, in which the court ruled that two non-profit organizations did not have to provide full range contraceptive coverage for religious reasons to employees per the Affordable Care Act, I’m sure that the justices will rule in favor of beards for inmates.

At the end of the day, government has no right in meddling in the affairs of people’s bona fide religious beliefs as long as those beliefs do not pose a reasonable threat to security and justice in our land.