Where did the blasphemy law come from?

This was originally published in The Express Tribune Blogs on December 2, 2010 and in The Friday Times later, with slight modifications

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According to Islamic belief, blasphemy is considered the use of profanity or a show of disrespect towards religious beliefs and holy personages, but unlike Judaism and Christianity, no strict punishment for the crime has been proscribed. In fact, Allah takes it upon Himself to deal with those who “revile Allah in their ignorance”.

Quran’s Surah Al-Anam aayah 108 says:

“Revile not ye those whom they call upon besides Allah lest they out of spite revile Allah in their ignorance. Thus have We made alluring to each people its own doings. In the end will they return to their Lord and We shall then tell them the truth of all that they did” as per the translation of Maulana Yusuf Ali.

Similarly, in Hinduism and other non-Abrahamic religions, there’s no concept of blasphemy as a punishable crime.

Following the Prophet’s footsteps

The life of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) is proof of the fact that Islam reinforces the values of forgiveness, kindness and tolerance especially for those who refuse to accept the word of wisdom and commit blasphemous acts. Throughout our student life, we have been hearing compelling stories of the Prophet’s tolerance, forgiveness and his exemplary ways of dealing with the worst of his enemies. Most common of them being the anecdote of that old woman who used to throw garbage on the Prophet whenever he passed her street. The Prophet got concerned when it stopped one day, enquired about her health and took care of her when he found her ill.

The second common narration is that of the Prophet’s early preaching visit to Ta’if, a small city in the Southeast of Mecca, where he was cursed and stoned by the locals. The persecution was so harsh that his body was full of wounds when he returned and his shoes were full of blood. But he responded to them with kindness and prayed for their blessings.

The birth of the black law

The blasphemy laws in the subcontinent, which were mainly the work of Muslim rulers, were later repealed by the British colonial rule to evangelise the Christian missionaries. But in 1860 the law was retained in the Indian Penal Code as Section 295, which gave protection to worship places, scriptures and personages of all religions of India. Later in 1927, two Sections 295 (A) and (B) were inserted, which prescribed punishment for outraging religious feelings of any class or religious group with deliberate and malicious intentions. Pakistan and Bangladesh inherited this Code and hence, the Blasphemy Law was born.

The wave of Islamisation of the judiciary and constitution made Pakistan take the lead in having the strictest blasphemy laws among all Muslim-majority states. An Amendment was introduced to 295 (B) in 1982 that extended penalty options to include life imprisonment, in addition to inserting Section 295 (C) whereby defamation against Prophet Mohammad was punishable by death.

In 1986, further additions were made to Section 295-C adding the option of the “death penalty”, and a minor amendment to Section 296 (disturbing religious assembly). In 1992, the Nawaz Sharif government removed the option of life sentence from Section 295-C (“derogatory terms against Prophet Mohammed”). In this shape, the blasphemy laws of Pakistan made convicted “blasphemers” liable to a mandatory death sentence.

It’s not just Pakistan

In the rest of the world, blasphemy has been a serious crime punishable by death and remains so in some parts to this day. The last execution for blasphemy in Britain occurred in 1697 when an 18-year-old Thomas Aikenhead was persecuted for saying: “I wish I were in that place Ezra calls hell so I could warm myself.”

British blasphemy law was repealed in 2008 while in the US, it is unconstitutional to try someone for blasphemy. This historical journey of blasphemy legislation did not come about without a popular vigilantism patronised by political leaders and state institutions of the time.

Today, these laws pose the greatest threat to minority communities of Pakistan and bring shame to Pakistan’s name in the comity of nations every other day. Pakistan’s civil society has been voicing its concern and standing for the repeal of especially 295 (B) and (C) for over two decades.

Since their inception, these black laws could not see any serious attempt for their repeal due to lack of public support and too much pressure from religious parties and organisations. In 2000 The all-powerful former president, General (R) Musharraf promised to ensure that before making charges of blasphemy, the case would be examined by a civil servant. It is not difficult to guess why he took back his proposed amendment to blasphemy case procedures just a month after the proposal; it is not rocket science.

Not only do these laws have no religious standing in Islam, they are repugnant to the basic principles of justice, equality and human rights in addition to challenging the basic spirit of the Constitution of Pakistan which guarantees equal rights to all citizens.

It is high time we build public pressure groups to repeal the blasphemy laws which make it impossible for religious groups that do not have a voice in the political system to impose their version of religion over a vast majority of this country – a country whose population is religiously diverse and moderate.

 

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