Islam Samhan: poetry, jail and the limits of Jordanian “tolerance”

It seems that Jordan’s tolerance and moderation can’t include a 28 year old poet who “dared” to use a fragment of Quranic language in one of poems in a way that a religious authority found offensive.

The news that a Jordanian court has sentenced the poet Islam Samhan to one year in prison plus a JD 10,000 fine (and that his book has been confiscated from the market) should be truly disturbing to anyone who cares about freedom in this country.

You may not like the guy’s poetry and your religious sensibility might tell you that what the poet did was “inappropriate”. But should anyone be put in jail because of some “risky” language. There are a million offenses out there in our society, from child abuse to unsafe buildings, to reckless driving, to corruption that deserve the attention of our religious leaders, judges and journalists. But no! This poet’s “crime” is way more important!!

Prominent columnist Samih Ma’aytah, writing in Wednesday’s Al-Ghad, wants this incident to be the “last of sorrows”, and I think he means it as a warning to anyone who skirmishes with society’s “constants”. So in the name of “balance”, “moderation” and “tolerance”, artists and poets need to make sure they are not offending any authority or sensibility that this or that group of people consider “constant values”.

The problem is that everyone seems to be so easily offended! These “constants” might be lurking anywhere.

So in effect, moderates like Al-Ghad’s Ma’aytah, want artists and poets to be “very creative” but without offending society in any way. A poet like Samhan is portrayed by them as a mere “seeker of fame”. Their definition of creativity and innovation is one that comes with all kinds of safety belts and cushions to ensure that resulting great creativity does not cause friction with anyone’s beliefs.

While I understand that every culture and society might put limitations and red lines on what can be said, drawn or performed in public, what truly bugs me is that our moderates (let alone the religious conservatives) seem intent on making the room for innovation, creativity and dissent smaller and smaller, all in the name of balance and social calm.

This reminds of a creative brief I once received from a Saudi client, who wanted to create something cool and crazy for the youth market but that does not offend the conservative sensibilities of Saudi society.

The message was “Live LARGE, but within limits”.

Long live our moderation!

12 Responses to “Islam Samhan: poetry, jail and the limits of Jordanian “tolerance””

  1. Fouad Masoud Says:

    Without limits and red lines we would be living like animals. and speaking of creativity u don’t have to defy a certain group or faith to be creative.

    The possibilities are endless for anyone to be creative its those with lack of vision and creative thinking who aim for acts/words/etc that offends a certain group to gain fast publicity. This isn’t creativity its the actions of a loser, a wanna be creative punk.

    I get really amazed when i see people defending cultures and the image of ones cities while at the same time support the acts of punks who tries hard to demolish it.

    My say on this even when i didn’t read his poetry is, he got what he deserved. though this comes different from my approach to things which is to let the dog park. but he got what he deserved.

    One final thing its not that everybody is easily offended its that some people don’t have anything to stand for. the punks!

  2. Rima Says:

    I have become so used to self censorship that I am shocked by the courage of some to say what often needs to be said, without fear. There is an argument that the majority rules and one needs to be “tolerant” of their exaggerated sensitivity over taboos, at least in public.

    It reminds me of the Investment Board ad at the airport arrival hall few years ago: “Jordan, small country, big ideas…” and they remain ideas, far from turning into more.

    Harsh sentence for a non-crime.

  3. Ahmad Al-Sholi Says:

    Its a social trauma that we present our opinions as facts, realities, definitions, we claim dialogue but we do not really believe in it. I was shopping few days ago, a shop owner was pissed off while me leaving because I did not think his merchandise was what I had in mind !!

  4. Fadi Awni Says:

    this is a way complicated issue to be generalized into freedom of speech or like what if he said this or that, its a bumpy road and people has been fighting even killing each other on such topics for years now. ill try to summaries some of my concerns here :

    1- He is by far not a poet!! under no circumstances he ever was or is (im not gonna say will be because maybe you never know) i have read the book after almost a week or two of its publication and disregarding the quranic hints it is a very weak poetry (not by me if your planning to blame me) but by publishers who are into poetry.

    2- The use of the quranic script was nothing but a mere stunt to pull attention, he is not the first one to do so, poets in the era of the prophet used quran in the poetry and no one said a word, the larger than life Mr. Taha Hussain used it and many more, while with our hero here, the use was in very rude and un-needed way. i think anyone with a slight knowledge or poetry would understand this.

    3- Whats really weird is that our brave-Religion-protectors whom ever they were, did not see the book when it was published, or printer nor even when it was deposited in the national library (yes i have seen that it had a registration number in the front pages), and i dont need to remind you that this book has been in the market for at least 4months now, they discovered this now and decided to jail him and even force him to pay 10K. So do we even have any sort of a commission or a governmental authority to approve new book (disregarding if this idea was right or wrong) and if we do where were they?

    after all, we all have to agree with one thing here, lets not parade the democracy and go ahead to ask to publish quranic songs and pictures of the prophet, lets remember that we do still live in an islamic country, im not saying dont write anything or dont draw anything, all i am saying is simply, if your planning to do so dont do it in an islamic country, go to denmark for example :-)

    It was never bravery to spill your guts out in the middle of a battle field, nor it was to run away, the wise is the person who knows what to say and when to say it.

    Peace and love people.

  5. Dana Says:

    No one questions political red lines such as king, royalty, and military. When was the last time we came to the defense of someone who was jailed for disrespecting royalty. But when our most sacred symbols are disrespected, we come to the rescue of those who suffer the consequences of such disrespect. Courage or cowardice?

  6. Kariman Says:

    This is the same kind of irrational logic that says it’s okay to kill women in the name of honor since it helps keep society in balance. It is therefor okay to sensor thought, art, creativity for the sake of maintaining the “balance and harmony” of society as defined by groups who believe they have a monopoly on the truth. I’m just glad they were not around during the Islamic Golden Age else we never would have had one! There were no irrational and anti intellectual red lines or limitations in the 10th century as Muslim scientists/philosophers/artists grappled with the questions of their time. 21st century Muslim scientists/philosophers/artists will never get round to saying anything really profound, they’ll be too busy self censoring.
    So why aren’t people out in the streets shouting for freedom? Either they don’t read a lot of poetry and so the confiscation of books is no big deal, or maybe most people agree with the ruling and are similarly unwilling to be offended.

  7. Tamara Says:

    Kariman, You are not making sense whatsoever. Are you suggesting that we sit quietly while God knows how many hundreds of Jordanians are imprisoned and maybe tortured because they have disrespected royalty or some bogus state taboo but we should risk our safety for the sake of one person who disrespected a religion that 1 billion people hold dear to them? If the so-called poet wants to compete with Dutch MP Geert Wilders then maybe he should do it from outside Jordan.

    Don’t let us stop you. Go light a candle for the Jordanian Geert Wilders. When you are ready to give up your double standards and are willing to defend those who have been suffering because they disrespected some idiotic state symbol then you will find more people willing to work with you. the way I and others see it, you could be a an Islam-hater and we have no interest in risking our safety for some crazy lunatic Geert Wilders wannabe.

  8. Humeid Says:


    Get your facts straight. There are no hundreds of prisoners in jordan in jail because they slandered royalty. Where the heck do you get your info from. Torture in Jordan exists of course, but guess what? This issue is openly talked about in the mainstream press. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty as well as local organizations tackle this issue with the government.

    The poet in question has clearly stated that he is no Islam hater. Also we are not here to judge his artistic merit, like some commenters above did. Don’t paint the guy as an “islam hater” just to justify your stance.

    Yes I will speak out too if someone is thrown in jail for criticizing the government.

    Slandering the king, or any other jordanian citizen is a different issue. The laws are pretty clear. But what we are talking about here is severe censorship of art, in the name of “protecting religion”.

    But It seems no one will receive the ‘badge of honour’ from you unless they slander royalty! As if this is the only freedom of speech worth fighting for!!

    You can paint me and others here as hypocritical liberals as long as you like. But you know what? Even the the “mainstream” Jordan Writers Association has strongly condemned the sentence against the poet as well. Read here:

    Are the members of the association all ‘Islam haters’ or phony liberals?

    This is a real debate that is taking place in society and not just a case of a ‘lunatic’ as you put it.

  9. Jimbo Says:

    Mr. Humeid: You conveniently draw a line between slandering a religion and slandering symbols of repression. You want us to tolerate the first but stand on the side of the repressive laws for the second. Did I sum up your answer?

  10. Gaa3ood Says:

    you say slandering a king, or any other citizen is a different issue. so what if mr. isalm wrote a comedic novel that mocks local royalty. isnt that art? will you defend him if he gets arrested?

  11. Amer Says:

    reading this from abroad is like reality slapping me on the face, it just amazes me how ‘tolerance’ actually exists in some countries, while unfortunately, back home ‘tolerance’ is restricted by some people’s interpretation of religious boundaries, reminds me of medieval ages.

    If it’s about protecting religion, they why can’t anyone speak up when a lecturer at Al Shareea Faculty at Jordan University makes fun of other religions/beliefs? (yes I studied a subject there and it happened almost daily). Or is our respect for one religion only – regardless of the many non Muslims who live in Jordan? And by non Muslims I do mean Christians, Drouz, and others, even those who choose not to believe.

    As Kariman mentioned, if this happened in Islam’s golden ages, it most probably wouldn’t have been noticed -Muslims were busy elevating science, philosophy, art and literature. 3ogbalna.

  12. Humeid Says:

    1. The guy is NOT slandering Islam. He used a fragment of language similar to the Quran’s style.

    2. You can slander a person, but not a “religion”. This is just a case of religious over sensitivity and paranoia.

    3. Royalty and even the pope get mocked in the west, because society has learned that allowing such things (even mocking religion) is safer for society than to jail and kill people who make fun of sacred things. I hope we can reach this stage one day, and I believe that no one should be thrown in jail for making fun of any kind of leaders, as long as there is no slander involved. Obviously this is a difficult issue. The other day a TV station in Amman was wrecked by members of a certain clan because they got upset by an sms message that was flashed on the screen. Just shows you how over sensitive this whole society is.

    4. Read amer’s comment above. And think for a minute about the double standards of this society.


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