A renowned Algerian professor has been sentenced to three years in prison for “offending Islam” through his social media posts. Said Djabelkhir (53) was charged earlier this year with “mocking religion and the rituals of Islam” after questioning some hadiths (preachings of the Prophet Muhammad) and rituals in Islam.
The professor was put on trial after seven lawyers and a teacher at the University of Sidi Bel Abbs made complaints against him for ‘disrespecting Islam’. The complainants believed Djabelkheir’s Facebook posts had violated religious Islamic precepts.
The professor, who is currently out on bail, expressed shock at the severity of punishment meted out to him and has vowed to keep fighting for his freedom of thought. Speaking to the French news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) after the verdict, the professor said that he would appeal to the Court of Cassation if necessary. Reportedly, while leaving the courtroom after his harsh sentencing, the professor said that he is a professor and not an Imam, therefore, he has to use reason and critical thought.
It is pertinent to note that Algerian law has a three-to-five-year prison term and or a fine for “anyone who offends the Prophet or denigrates the dogmatic precepts of Islam, whether it be by writings, drawings, a statement or another means”.
“We have the misfortune to be doing research in Algeria”, said the scholar, adding that the fight for freedom of conscience is non-negotiable. “It is a fight which must continue.”
What was the ‘offence’ of the Algerian professor
The scholar, an author of two well-known books on Islam, was called out by the plaintiffs for questioning some hadiths and rituals followed in Islam. Professor Said Djabelkhir had raised objections to the practice of animal sacrifice during the Muslim festival of Eid, which he claimed was a pre-Islamic practice.
The professor also raised objections to the practices of marrying of pre-pubescent girls in some Muslim societies.
He also suggested that parts of the Quran, such as the story of Noah’s Ark, might not be literally true. He worried that many Islamists take everything written in the Quran literally. He said that they are unable to distinguish between “history” and “myth” – such as in the case of the Noah’s Ark story.
Speaking to AFP, professor Djabelkhir said: “Everyone thinks of history with a capital H”. The traditional readings [of the Quran] no longer meet the expectations, needs and questions of modern man”, added the professor.
Algerian professor receives death threats
According to The News Arabs, professor Djabelkhir also received death threats while he was awaiting a verdict in the case.
The professor was first summoned to court on February 25, 2021. A complainant in the case told the judge during the second trial on April 1, 2021, that “Djabelkir’s controversial writings had caused him psychological harm.”
The professor told the judge in his defence his intention was “ijtihad [interpretation] not jihad”. The verdict was then postponed to April 22, when the professor was handed a three-year prison sentence on Thursday.
Professor Djabelkhir had also received death threats in 2019 after he had said that fasting is not essential during Ramzan. Djabelkhir argued that the Ramadan fast is not mandatory and that Muslims have the choice of donating food and money to the poor instead.
“Under normal circumstances, not all of the prophet’s companions fasted… some Muslims fasted and others didn’t. They did this and didn’t criminalise each other,” the scholar said. “The Ramadan fast is not mandatory – it is a choice in Islam because it started like this as is documented in the Quran and Islamic law,” he added.
Blasphemy law in Algeria
More than ninety-nine per cent of Algeria’s population is Sunni Muslim. The Constitution of Algeria declares that Islam is the state religion but Article 36 of the Constitution provides for ‘freedom of belief’. However, despite the provisions of the Constitution, Algeria severely restricts what anyone can say or what anyone can do as a religious practice.
The stringent Algerian law stipulates a three-to-five-year prison term and or a fine for “anyone who offends the Prophet or denigrates the dogmatic precepts of Islam, whether it be by writings, drawings, a statement or another means”.