Dissertation Defense: Matthew Anderson
Candidate Name: Matthew M. Anderson
Major: Theological and Religious Studies
Thesis Advisor: Paul L. Heck, Ph.D.
Title: Prohibited Speech and the Sacred: Critically and Constructively Engaging Taqi al-Din al-Subki’s (d.1355) al-Sayf al-maslul ‘ala man sabba al-rasul
Tensions over blasphemy, religious offense, and the freedom of expression first surfaced powerfully on a global scale in 1988 following the publication of The Satanic Verses by the British-Indian author, Salman Rushdie. Since that time, a series of high-profile incidents in Europe have ignited impassioned public debates about the limits of free expression and the role of religion in the modern political landscape. At the same time, sensitivities around blasphemy continue to play a more systemic role in several Muslim-majority countries. Given the salience of these incidents and the recurrent international headlines, it is remarkable that most academic studies and media reports have focused almost exclusively on the modern context, leaving the traditional Sunni legal discourse on blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad largely unexamined and poorly understood.
This dissertation addresses this lacuna by examining an influential treatise devoted to explicating the legal discourse which formed around the question of blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad authored by the prominent Egyptian cleric, Taqi al-Din al-Subki (d.1355). As a luminary of the Shafi‘i tradition and an important jurist at work in Cairo and Damascus during the Bahri Mamluk period (c.1250-1390), al-Subki made significant contributions in the fields of jurisprudence, theology, and spirituality. Along with the fourth and final part of al-Qadi ‘Iyad’s (d.1149) Kitab al-shifa’ bi-ta‘rif huquq al-mustafa (The cure in knowing the rights of the chosen one) and Ibn Taymiyya’s (d.1328) al-Sarim al-maslul ‘ala shatim al-rasul (The unsheathed sword against the one who vilifies the messenger), al-Subki’s al-Sayf al-maslul ‘ala man sabba al-rasul (The unsheathed sword against the one who curses the messenger) presents one of the most detailed and important expositions of the way the criminal offense of blasphemy against the Prophet, often referred to in Arabic as sabb or shatm al-rasul, was analyzed and regulated by medieval Sunni jurists. By carefully examining al-Sayf al-maslul, the present study introduces the essential contours of traditional Sunni legal discourse on blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad. However, it does more than offer a merely descriptive or historical account of al-Sayf al-maslul. The dissertation also critically engages and evaluates several of the central arguments advanced by al-Subki and other medieval jurists to support severe penalties for those guilty of the offense. Most often, this critical engagement utilizes recognizable categories of Islamic law and legal interpretation in order to expose ambiguities in al-Subki’s argumentation and constructively propose alternate interpretive and legal possibilities. By critically and constructively engaging al-Subkī’s important treatise, this study attempts to open new possibilities not only for the Islamic legal tradition, but also for the still emerging global conversation on blasphemy and free expression.
Tuesday, May 22 at 10:30am to 12:30pm
New North, 207
37th and O St., N.W., Washington