Digest of terms


a notoriously elusive concept implying extreme lack of reverence in words or deeds towards God, or towards a comparably esteemed person or object (especially, today, Muhammad and the Qur'an). The more deliberate, the worse the offence. Examples abound of real or imagined slights, as in the case of insult to scriptures, demeaning visual imagery or ritual gestures being used to justify horrendous punishments, including the death penalty, as traditionally in Christian Europe, and as today in some Muslim countries (where it may be used as a pretext for false accusations in the pursuit of local disputes and personal grudges). The issue in respect of Muslim ethics was highlighted in particular in the so-called Rushdie affair.

In Western societies shaped by liberalism religious laws against blasphemy have widely given way to the principle of freedom of expression, though in turn this tends to be moderated by laws against incitement to religious hatred. What for one person may be casual usage of religious or sexual vocabulary with minimal intended hurt, for another may be deeply offensive and trivialising of what matters most. It is well worth considering what determines which elements in human experience (including sex and excretion) are felt to be so fundamental that we appeal to them in moments of exasperation, desperation or delight. Does that attribute to them religious/ ultimate import, or quite the opposite?

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