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.