Stifling creativity in any medium through the threat of force has far-reaching consequences for creativity and innovation in a society for every medium, whether artistic or technological. There is an undeniable correlation between the free exchange of ideas (with the accompanying possibility of errors), and progress in areas well beyond the arts. The process of inquiry, trial, and error that may crank out the “New Coke” of a particular discipline also yields material and intellectual advances we later wonder how we ever lived without. And as soon as that freedom of thought is stifled, great ideas, along with fair ones and lame ones, are shoved in a drawer or never materialize in the first place, and a society is poorer for it while others press forward.
“Poet accused of being enemy of Islam,” by Suha Philip Ma”ayeh for The National, October 6
AMMAN // When Islam Samhan recited his poetry about love, loneliness and life in front of a crowd at a culture club four months ago, he was given a standing ovation.
But now, Samhan, 27, who is also a journalist, has been accused of apostasy, a crime that can carry the death sentence in the Islamic world.
Last week, Jordan’s grand mufti, Noah Alqdah Samas, the kingdom’s highest religious authority, called Samhan an enemy of religion for his poetry, some of which included lines comparing his loneliness to that of the prophet Yusuf in the Quran.
Now there are calls for the poet to be detained, his collection of poetry banned and the publishing house penalised. He is even receiving threatening phone calls to his private mobile number.
All this comes as something of a surprise to Samhan, whose book, In a Slim Shadow, published eight months ago, is a collection of his best work over the past decade. The ministry of culture even bought 50 copies.
He dismisses claims that he defamed or insulted the prophet or religion with his poems, but acknowledges that some of his verses may sound similar to the Quran because they were in Arabic.
“The Quran is in Arabic and I am influenced by my language and its rich terminology. Where I grew up, the Quran was sung and its music is still playing in my ears. I have read the Quran, and the Arabic language is that of the Quran.”
Defaming religion in Jordan, as in many Arab and Muslim countries, is a line that cannot be crossed. Although citing Quranic verses in poetry or literature is not forbidden, how they are used is what can cause problems.
In one poem, Samhan has his beloved address God, which his critics say personifies God. In another the woman is talking to God while lying beneath a see-through sheet. Samhan said he was referring to the gods of Greek mythology.
The state-run Press and Publication Department has transferred Samhan’s case to court to decide if his book violates the law.
“I have taken a look at the book, and I found in it what is in violation of the law. I have transferred a copy to the court,” Nabil Momani, the PDD general directorate, said.
Mr Momani also said that Samhan had failed to register his work with the department, which would mean he was not authorised to publish it. Samhan insists he registered with the department.
Eight years ago, Musa Hawamdeh was charged with apostasy because of a poem he wrote titled Joseph, which Islamists said contradicted the story as it was told in the Quran. His book was banned.
Although he was later acquitted on all charges in both sharia and civil courts, he has been sentenced to three months in prison for violating the press and publication law. His lawyer is appealing the case.
Abdul Hameed Qudah, deputy secretary general of the Muslim Brotherhood, said the lines of Samhan’s poetry were harmful to Islam.
“Any delay in taking measures against the writer would be a reason for discord,” he said in a statement posted on ammonnews.net, a popular Jordanian news website.
The controversy has also brought to the forefront issues of freedom of expression in a country where the king has repeatedly said the ceiling is the sky.
It also shows the religious establishment’s intolerance for poets and writers who use religion metaphorically in literature.
Defending a writer’s right to creativity, Saud Qubeilat, head of the Jordanian Writers Association, warned: “One shouldn’t judge poetry based on literal terms, otherwise many of the poets would be declared apostates.
“And if anyone has a say in literature, it should be a literary critic and not anyone from a different field who doesn’t know anything about old or contemporary literature.”
“These practices are only to silence the freedom of expression,” said Muwafaq Malkawi, editor of the culture section of Alghad newspaper.