In February 2017, a heated discussion broke out among a section of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) students, especially on social media. The issue was of blasphemy following a first information report filed by a member of AMU Students’ Union (AMUSU) against Shehla Rashid, a student leader from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Shehla Rashid was invited to an event in Aligarh, organized by AMUSU, which was postponed in the wake of this controversy. Shehla Rashid was accused for one of her Facebook posts, in which she had allegedly used blasphemous language against the Prophet. She had drawn a distinction between hate speech and hateful speech, essentially in the legal perspective, by using sentences about religious figures like Ram and the Prophet to illustrate her points.
The post offended and enraged numerous young Muslim students and many others associated with AMU – many missing the point that these were not Shehla Rashid's opinions about the Prophet or Lord Ram but simply examples of hateful epithets and offensive remarks about the Prophet, which are common on the Internet. Nevertheless, her nuanced distinction between hate speech and hateful speech did find several supporters among AMU students who clearly saw her line of argument.
At the macro level, this incident becomes a metaphor to understand the shrill responses of many Muslims to anything they consider a threat to their religion – whether it is the Shah Bano case of 1985 or the more recent debates in India about the practice of triple talaq. All hell certainly breaks loose when it comes to the reaction of the Muslims to the real or alleged insult of the Prophet.
How did Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, the founder of AMU, react to such situations during his time? He faced many similar issues, including the dishonouring of the Prophet and the charge of irreconcilability of Islam with modernity, but his response to these issues was never emotive, knee-jerk, or irrational. His articles and books written on Islam, the Prophet, and the cultural life of Muslims acquire a prescient quality when seen in the context of many twenty-first century debates.
His responses to the contents of a book or article he considered offensive or blasphemous have relevance beyond his time. In an analytical article titled ‘Blasphemy and Conversion Debate and Sir Syed’, Shafey Kidwai refers to two incidents from Sir Sayyid's life when he very thoughtfully addressed blasphemy.