Draconian Blasphemy laws – An Islamic Perspective
by Asiff Hussein
There has perhaps been no modern-day law that has irked so many, and particularly human rights activists, as the harsh penalties inflicted for blasphemy in certain Muslim countries like Pakistan. The harshness of these rulings which do not give the accused the opportunity to repent certainly call for review. Islam is a religion of love where repentance is always possible and it is primarily this feature of Islam as applicable to the offence of blasphemy that we intend stressing on here.
Firstly, let’s consider how the Penal Code of Pakistan defines blasphemy. It states: “Use of derogatory remarks etc in respect of the holy Prophet (PBUH) by word, either spoken or written. Or by visible representation, or by importation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiling the sacred name of the holy Prophet (PBUH)”. The penalty for such blasphemy, it declared, was death or life imprisonment. The Federal Shari’ah Court of the country however ruled in 1990 that the penalty should be a mandatory death sentence with no right to reprieve or pardon. Although Saudi Arabia does not have any specific laws for blasphemy, it is left to the discretion of judges to decide on their fate and there have been instances of some rather harsh rulings. For instance consider the case of Turkish Barber Sabri Bogday who was sentenced to death at the Jeddah General Court on March 31, 2008 on charges of blasphemy. The punishment was handed down after two men, one Saudi and the other Egyptian, reported to the authorities that he had sworn at God and the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) at his Barbershop in Jeddah last year. The judges concerned here did not give Bogday the chance to repent. According to Riyadh-based lawyer Abdul Rahman Al-Lahem, some judges consider blasphemy infidelity and hold that the accused cannot repent and would face the death penalty. Others consider the statement to be disbelief and would allow the accused to retract his words. According to Al-Lahem, the majority of Muslim jurists demand that the accused must be given a chance to repent (Arab News, 21st April 2008). Indeed the judgment was passed in spite of the fact that Saudi Arabia’s leading Ulama have ruled that the accused should be given the opportunity to repent for such an offence and only if it is spurned that he or she should be executed
When we consider the position of the various schools of Islamic law regarding the validity of repentance for blasphemy, we would find disagreement among them. For instance the Shafis hold that one could validly repent after being convicted of blasphemy against God or the Prophet, thus saving himself or herself from the death penalty. The Hanafis are divided, some allowing repentance in both cases and others conceding this only in the case of one who has reviled God. The more rigid Malikis and Hanbalis hold that no repentance is to be sought from the offender in either case and that he or she is to be put to death. According to this view, in case the blasphemer repents, the execution would be not for unbelief, but for committing the offence in the first place.
One wonders why some Hanafi jurists should hold that no repentance should be accepted from the one who insults the Prophet (PBUH) while at the same time accepting the repentance of the one who reviles God. This distinction hinges on a technicality if we may so term it. This school of thought makes a distinction between a person who uses foul language in relation to the Prophet and one who uses such language in relation to God. Thus reviling God is understood as a violation of the ‘Right of God’ (Haqq Allah) while reviling the Prophet is a violation of the ‘Right of Man’ (Haqq-Al Abd). For offences relating to the Right of God one could seek forgiveness through repentance while offences relating to the Right of Man could only be forgiven if the person affected forgives. In the case of the Prophet, the Muslim community as a whole is considered to be under obligation to avenge the offence on his behalf since he is not in a position to avenge the offence himself. The community cannot forgive him as the Prophet is the only one who can forgive the offender and since the Prophet is not alive today, forgiving the offender is not possible.
Of course we agree that blasphemy is a serious offence, but the fact is that there is nothing in the Qur’an or ahadith clearly enunciating an offence called blasphemy which in later times was categorized either as Sabb Allah (reviling God) or Sabb al-Rasul (Reviling the Prophet). Nevertheless evidence for the punishment of blasphemy seems to be based on some incidents in the lifetime of the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him). A case in point is the assassination of the Poet Ka’b Al-Ashraf who was also chief of the Jewish tribe of Banu Nadir. However, a proper reading of the hadith would show that Ka’b’s offence was far more serious than that offence so worded in the Penal Code of Pakistan for example. Ka’b not only composed poems denigrating the person of the Prophet and of Muslim women, but is also known to tried to provoke the Quraysh against the Prophet. He therefore showed open hostility to the Muslims. So heartless was he that he is even known to have demanded the women and children of Muslims as security against a debt of food shortly before his assassination. As the Prophet observed of Ka’b: “He has openly assumed enmity to us and speaks evil of us and he has gone over to the polytheists (who were at war with Muslims) and has made them gather against us for fighting”. (Zurqani) Ka’b’s blasphemous poetry was no doubt a serious offence. It is related that when the Jews complained about his assassination, the Prophet (PBUH) told them: “If he had calmed down, like others who follow his opinion or are on the same opinion as his have calmed down, he wouldn’t have been assassinated! But he has harmed us and he has defamed us with his poetry, and none of you would do this except we would deal with him with the sword!”.
The import of the Prophet’s statement implies that Ka’b was assassinated not just for a few words he uttered against the Prophet (PBUH) but for the vigorous and continuous campaign of hate speech he used to engage in. As the Prophet (PBUH) himself had said if he had calmed down like the others, he would not have been assassinated and that he had harmed him and defamed him with poetry. Poetry is certainly more than plain words uttered against the Prophet. And why we may ask ? Because slanderous poetry is by no means casual comment. It was much more than that and intended to get the maximum effect by catering to the lower instincts of men by attacking a man’s honour. What Ka’b did was undertaken to make the holy Prophet (PBUH) an object of ridicule and demean him in the eyes of others. We can only imagine the pain that our beloved Prophet (PBUH) would have felt by these defamatory remarks. Besides, Ka’b’s actions were also a threat to the Prophet’s mission, for to attack him verbally was also to attack his mission which was one of salvation for all mankind. To leave it unpunished would only have encouraged others to engage in this type of lowly character assassination, posing a threat to his mission as well.
Also cited is the case of the two singing girls who had their names on the black list of persons to be killed when the Prophet (PBUH) victoriously entered Mecca. Although a general amnesty had been given to the inhabitants of the city this was not to be applicable to six men and four women “even if you see them hanging to the cloths of the Ka’bah” though we know that many of them were later pardoned by the Prophet (PBUH). Among these names was a man called Abdullah ibn Khatal who used to be a Muslim. The Prophet once sent him to collect zakah from people who lived far away. He traveled with another man and a servant of his who was a Muslim. At one stage on the way they stopped. He gave the servant orders to slaughter a big goat and prepare food for him while he himself went to sleep. When he woke up, he discovered that the servant had not done anything. He killed his servant and, fearing the Prophet’s punishment, reverted to idolatry. Ibn Khatal had two slave girls who used to sing for him and for his companions songs abusive of the Prophet. The Prophet’s instructions specified that the two slave girls should also be killed. The man was killed as he was actually holding on to the coverings of the Ka’aba by Abu Barzah Al-Aslami and Saeed ibn Hurayth Al-Makhzumi and killed along with him were one of his slave girls. The other managed to flee until someone sought a special pardon for her from the Prophet, which he granted (Sirat Rasulullah. Ibn Hisham).
What we find here is a case similar to that of Ka’b. Songstresses who also engaged in hate speech attacking the honour of an innocent man and a Prophet of God at that. Songs, like poetry, have a profound impact on human minds and the danger posed by such singers could not be underestimated, particularly in an age of ignorance where men could easily be misled by them instead of seeing reason. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration if we were to state that their role was similar to that of a war-bard of old – a rallying point for combatants. A message had to be given to those who thought of indulging in similar actions – and it was. Nevertheless here too we find that it was a vigorous campaign of derogatory poetry that earned the Prophet’s ire and not a few plain words uttered against him. And despite all this, the girl who fled and later sought the Prophet’s forgiveness, was pardoned. If indeed, attacking the Prophet (PBUH) verbally was a punishment with no reprieve through repentance as some have sought to show, we may ask why the Prophet (PBUH) forgave the girl concerned. Surely, the Prophet would never have gone against Allah’s Law, and to contend otherwise would only be heresy.
Another incident cited is the case of the blind man who had an Umm Walad, a slave woman by whom he had children with. She used to curse the Messenger of Allah ((PBUH) and he would warn her to stop, but she wouldn’t. One night she was carrying on with cursing the Messenger of Allah (PBUH), and so he took a dagger, put it in her stomach, pressed it in and killed her. In the morning, the news reached the Messenger of Allah ((PBUH), and so he gathered the people and said: “I ask you in the name of Allah who ever did that to stand up”. So the blind man stood up and came walking to the Messenger of Allah (PBUH) until he sat in front of him and said ”O Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) I am the one who did that, she used to curse you and I used to tell her to stop and she would n’ t stop! I have from her two children like pearls and she was very kind with me. But last night she started cursing you so I took a dagger and I stuck it in her and killed her! ”. To this the Prophet replied “Bare witness that her blood is invalidated!” (Abu Dawud) meaning that there was to be no punishment for the blind man for his act.
Firstly, what has to be borne in mind here is that the Prophet (PBUH) did not order the woman’s killing. He however could not have disapproved this act committed by a loyal follower of his in his love and zeal for the Prophet (PBUH). Although there was no poetry involved in this case, we find that the woman concerned here indulged in an intense campaign of hate speech against the noble Prophet’s person and that she was killed by the man only after having been warned several times to desist from her evil conduct. Could we infer from this that this faithful companion of the Prophet (PBUH) was wrong in giving the woman several opportunities to cease her blasphemies. We certainly cannot, for the Prophet’s companions knew Islam better than we in this modern age. So what we can infer from this is that a person has an opportunity to repent from the sacrilegious act of reviling the Prophet (PBUH) and that he or she should be meted out the punishment only when they are unrepentant.
That what constitutes an offence of blasphemy is far more serious than that defined in Pakistani law may be seen from the following hadith where we find a man upon seeing the Prophet (PBUH) urinating while squatting said “Look at him, he urinates like a woman”. The Prophet (PBUH) hearing this replied: “Woe upon you, do you not know what happened to the companion of the Children of Israel ? When struck by urine, they used to cut it away with scissors. He forbade them from doing that and he was chastised in his grave” (Ibn Majah).
Here we have an instance of a man, in his ignorance, comparing the noble Prophet’s actions to that of a woman’s and he had the temerity to use this kind of language before the Prophet of Allah and the Ruler of the Community. But we do not find the Prophet pronouncing that he be killed for blasphemy. Rather we find the Prophet (PBUH) admonishing him and giving him an explanation as to why he did what he did.
Be it as it may, we find that all the four Sunni madhhabs lay down the death penalty for apostasy and this we cannot dispute as there is unanimity on this matter and the consensus of the Islamic Ummah cannot be questioned on the basis of the saying of the Holy Prophet (PBUH): “My Ummah will never agree in error”. This does not mean that we should accept the view that there can be no repentance for blasphemy, for one leading madhhab, the Shafi as well as some well known Salafi scholars have held the view that repentance for blasphemy is possible and should be accepted.
And why not. After all, we find the Holy Qur’an, the very Word of Almighty Allah telling us in Surah Tawba or the Chapter of Repentance (9:74): “But indeed they uttered blasphemy and they did it after accepting Islam… if they repent, it will be best for them, but if they turn back, Allah will punish them with a grievous punishment in this life and the hereafter”. We also know that the Prophet (PBUH) commanded us to do as he does, and since the Prophet we know, was compassionate and always ready to pardon those who did him harm and sought repentance, we do likewise.
And we don’t have to look far to realise this. Consider what some well-meaning Islamic scholars have to say about the matter. Take for instance Shaykh ‘Abd al-‘Azeez ibn Baaz (May Allah have mercy on him), Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti who has stated: “Reviling the Deen is one of the worst of major sins and the greatest of evils. The same applies to reviling the Lord, may He be glorified and exalted. These are two of the gravest things that nullify Islam and are means of apostatizing from Islam. If the one who reviles the Lord, may He be glorified and exalted, or reviles the deen is a Muslim, then he becomes an apostate from Islam thereby, and he becomes a kaafir. He should be asked to repent and if he repents (all well and good), otherwise he should be executed on the orders of the authorities via the Shari’ah court. Some of the scholars said: he should not be asked to repent, rather he should be executed because his crime is so great. But the more correct view is that he should be asked to repent so that Allaah may bless him with guidance and he may adhere to the truth. But he should be punished by flogging and imprisonment so that he will not go back to such a great crime. Similarly, if he reviles the Qur’aan or the Messenger or any other Prophet, he should be asked to repent and if he repents (all well and good), otherwise he should be executed. Reviling the Deen, reviling the Messenger and reviling the Lord, may He be glorified and exalted, are all things that nullify Islam. The same applies to mocking Allaah and His Messenger, or Paradise or Hell, or the commands of Allaah such as prayer and zakaah”. (Majmoo’ Fataawa al-Shaykh Ibn Baaz (6/387). This has also been the view of the Islamic Jurisprudence Academy in Mecca which has urged that those who indulge in blasphemy be tried and, if found guilty, be given a chance to repent.
But what may we ask are the legal underpinnings in the Shari’ah justifying the acceptance of the repentance of the blasphemer ? Many Ulama in favour of such a view generally tend to subsume blasphemy under apostasy, explaining that one who blasphemes Allah or His Messenger cannot fail, at the same time, to renounce Islam. Thus Ibn Naqeeb al Misri, the well-known Shafi’i Scholar thought it fit to include under apostasy, the offense ‘To revile Allah or His Messenger” (U’mdat as Saalik wa U’ddat an-Naasik’ Kitaab al Jinayaat) and this is also the view of Sheikh Bin Baz and like-minded scholars. The underlying reason here is that anyone who reviles or mocks Allah, May He be glorified, in any way, or who reviles the Messenger Muhammad (PBUH) or any other Messenger in any way, becomes an unbeliever and an apostate from Islam if he claims to be a Muslim, for after all the Almighty says in no uncertain terms: “Say: ‘Was it at Allah and His Ayat (proofs, evidences, verses, lessons, signs, revelations, etc.) and His Messenger that you were mocking?. Make no excuse; you disbelieved after you had believed” (al-Tawbah 9:65-66). Indeed it is difficult to imagine how one could revile the Almighty or the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and remain a Muslim at the same time.
We may also cite the hadith where it is stated that the blood of a person who bears witness that there is no god but God cannot be shed except in three cases: a life for a life, a married person who commits adultery, and one who leaves Islam and forsakes the community (Bukhari, Muslim). This is a well established and widely accepted hadith and was even cited by the third Caliph Hadhrat Uthman when he was about to be murdered by some rebels. Abu ‘Umama b. Sahl b. Hunaif is reported to have said that ‘Uthman b. ‘Affan looked at them (the rebels) and heard them mentioning the murder. Upon this, he said, “Do they give me a threat of killing? Then why are they killing me? Indeed, I have heard Allah’s Messenger (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) saying, “The blood of a Muslim is not lawful except for one of the three reasons: man fornicates while he is fortified (in a wedlock), will be stoned to death; or a man kills a person without any justification or a man turns an apostate after his (embracing) Islam.” By Allah, I did not commit fornication either in the pre-Islamic period (Ignorance) nor in (the state of) Islam, I have not killed any Muslim and have not turned an apostate since I have embraced Islam” (Ibn Majah).
Thus we find here the Prophetic command that the blood of one who has professed the faith cannot be shed except for murder, adultery and apostasy and therefore we may ask ourselves would it be applicable to the one who indulges in blasphemy ? If it is, then it can only be subsumed under the category of apostasy. Thus blasphemy in the case of a Muslim should perhaps best be regarded as apostasy where repentance could absolve one from the ultimate penalty. As such we would perhaps have to view blasphemy in the context of apostasy.
Apostacy and its punishment
There can be no doubt that in Islam, apostasy is a great sin. The Arabic term for apostasy, riddah (li.turning back) means desertion of Islam or conversion from Islam to another faith. The Qur’an says about such persons in very telling terms: “And whoever of you reverts from his religion and dies while he is a disbeliever, for those, their deeds have become worthless in this world and the hereafter, and those are the companions of the fire, they will abide therein”. Besides severing the bond with God and inviting Divine retribution, apostasy entails another dimension which is not strictly spiritual, but rather temporal in character, and that is desertion of the Muslim community which is regarded as a form of treason.
Treason means different things to different cultures and even in modern democratic countries of the west we still come across an offense called treason which is heavily penalized, sometimes with death. The citizens of a country are simply expected to be loyal to it even though they may dislike their country for some reason or other. In this they do not have much of a choice. Working against a country in which they happened to be born and are citizens of, can have severe repercussions and so it is with Islam which is not simply a faith, but also a whole way of life encompassing political, social, cultural and economic spheres among others.
When one is born or becomes a Muslim, he or she also becomes a member of the Islamic fraternity and as such is required to be loyal to it and protect it from harm, disorder and division. Leaving Islam means not just forsaking the Muslim community, but could also be interpreted as an attempt to split its ranks. And just as a deserter is a danger to an army, so is an apostate a danger to the faith. This was all the more so in the early days of Islam. During the Prophet’s lifetime when a nascent Islamic society and polity was vulnerable to hostile forces, apostasy seems to have been inextricably linked to treason, hence the Prophet’s definition of an apostate as one who leaves Islam and forsakes the community. Such treason often meant the redirection of one’s loyalty to those enemies of Islam who were constantly conspiring and attempting to destroy the newly emergent religious community. Such people could not only support the enemy, but also side with them in battle. They also posed the very real danger of sowing discord within the community itself. Thus apostasy was not simply a matter of individual choice or free-will. It had other damning consequences as well, including political implications. Indeed, all the four schools of Sunni Islamic law agree that it is obligatory to kill the apostate, though the Hanafi School does not prescribe killing the female apostate, requiring instead that she be beaten or imprisoned until such time she repents. This view however is questionable, for there is nothing in the Qur’an or Sunnah that states that women should be treated differently from men in this regard.
There exist a few ahadith which state, both explicitly and implicitly, that the apostate is to be given the ultimate sentence. For one thing, the Prophet (PBUH) is reported to have said: “It is not permissible to shed the blood of a person who bears witness that there is no god but God except in three cases: a life for a life, a previously married person who commits adultery, and one who leaves Islam and forsakes the community” (Bukhari, Muslim).
Another tradition has it that there was a man in fetters beside Abu Musa. Mu’adh asked, “Who is this?” He answered “It is a Jew who became Muslim and then reverted to Judaism”. He added “Sit down”. Mu’adh said. “I will not sit down until he has been killed. It is the judgment of Allah and His Messenger” and repeated it three times. So Abu Musa commanded that he be killed. A version of the hadith has it that he was asked to repent, and only when he refused was he killed (Abu Dawud).
Ikrimah is reported to have said: “Some Zanadiqah (heretics) were brought to Ali and he burnt them. This reached Ibn ‘Abbas and he said ‘I would not have burnt them because of the prohibition by the Messenger of God: ‘Do not punish with the punishment of God.’ I would have killed them in accordance with the word of the Messenger of God: ‘Whoever changed his religion kill him’ ” (Bukhari).
However just as Islam has laid down the death penalty for the apostate, it has also given ample scope for the offender to repent, thus saving him or her not only from the Wrath of God, but also from the prescribed capital punishment.
For instance we have the tradition where the Second Caliph Umar b. al-Khattab – may Allah be pleased with him – asked a man whether he had any news. The man replied “Yes, a man apostatized from Islam, so we killed him“. Umar said: “Why did you not lock him up for three days, and feed him on each day a loaf of bread and urge him to repent?” and he then said: “ O Allah — you are a witness — I was not there, Nor did I command it, and when the news reached me, I did not approve” (Al-Muwatta. Malik B.Anas). Umar no doubt had good reason to disassociate himself from the act, for we also know that the Prophet himself is known to have given the apostate an opportunity to repent. We also read that the Prophet himself offered Islam to a woman who had apostatized. He said: “It is good if she repents. If she does not, she is to be killed (Bayhaqi and Daruqutni).
The Holy Qur’an too suggests that Divine Punishment will fall upon those apostates who do not return to Islam, showing that the repentance of apostates is possible. For instance, we have the statement (4:137): “Those who believe, then reject faith, then believe (again) and (again) reject faith, and go on increasing in unbelief. Allah will not forgive them nor guide them”. Another Qur’anic verse (3:86-89) states: “How shall Allah Guide those who reject Faith after they accepted it and bore witness that the Messenger was true and that Clear Signs had come unto them? But Allah guides not a people unjust. Of such the reward is that on them (rests) the curse of Allah, of His angels, and of all mankind. In that will they dwell; nor will their penalty be lightened, nor shall they be respited. Except for those that repent (Even) after that, and make amends; for verily Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful”.
These verses would imply that just as there is repentance with God for apostasy in the spiritual sphere, the community of Muslims should also give him or her an opportunity to repent. What we can conclude from all this is that an apostate must be given an opportunity to repent and it is only after such an opportunity is given that he should be put to death. And this is the consensus of all the Sunni law schools.
The Hanafi Jurists propose that the apostate should be asked to return to Islam, and repentance sought. This according to them, is a recommended option, but not an obligatory one, since the apostate is already familiar with Islam as the true faith. According to this school, it is up to the apostate to reconsider his position and revert to Islam. If he desists, he shall have to be put to death. This opinion is supported by a statement of Imam Abu Yusuf also who writes in his book al-Amla: “I will execute an apostate and will not ask for repentance. If, however, he hastens to repent, I will leave him and commit his affair to God”. The Malikis on the other hand, hold that it is obligatory to demand repentance and that it is only if such apostates pay no heed that they should be given the death penalty. The Shafis and Hanbalis hold in like manner that seeking repentance is obligatory. Thus it could be seen that all the orthodox Sunni Jurists concede that an opportunity to repent should be given to the offender before he is put to death.
The time period for them to reconsider is however a very short one, with the majority holding that it should be for a period of three days. The Hanafis hold that the death penalty should follow immediately unless the apostate asks for time to reconsider and only then would he be granted three days, after which time he must either revert to Islam or be put to death. The Shafis on the other hand hold that an apostate should be granted three days to reconsider, even if it is not requested. The Malikis hold a similar position while the Hanbalis hold that either the apostate accept a return immediately to Islam on request or face death, or that he or she be given three days to reconsider. There are also those scholars such as Ibrahim Al-Nakhai and Sufyan Al-Thawri who maintained that the invitation to rejoin Islam should continue for as long as there is hope that the apostate might change his mind and repent. There are also those like Ibn Surayj, a prominent Shafi Jurist who did not prefer instant execution, but rather that the apostate be beaten to death with a stick, a slow method that might provide him with greater opportunity to repent.
Thus it could be seen that all the orthodox Sunni scholars are agreed that the apostate be given an opportunity to repent and that this has a valid Islamic basis. And as with apostasy, so with blasphemy. Repentance should be sought, or at any rate conceded. Almighty Allah after all is Merciful and to Believe in Him is also to Believe in His Infinite Mercy. As He Says in His Holy Book: “O My servants who have wronged against their own souls! Do not despair of Allah’s mercy! For Allah forgives all sins; for He is indeed Forgiving, Compassionate. Turn to your Lord repentant, and submit to Him, before the torment overtakes you when you shall not be helped” (Az-Zumar 39:53-54).
Blasphemy in other religions
Contrast this tolerant attitude of Islam with the penalties for blasphemy existing in other faiths. In the Third Book of the Torah (Leviticus 24:16) it is stated that those who speak blasphemy “shall surely be put to death”. We also know that in the Christian Europe of mediaeval times blasphemy was punishable by death in several states. The last case of a person executed for blasphemy in Britain took place as late as the 17th century when Thomas Aikenhead, a young twenty year old medical student at the University of Edinburgh was hanged in 1697 for making blasphemous statements such as calling the Old Testament ‘Ezra’s fables’, and the New Testament ‘the History of the Imposter Christ’ based upon the evidence given by his erstwhile friends. The summation of the indictment noted that Aikenhead claimed that he ‘preferred Mahomet to the blessed Jesus’. Aikenhead’s biggest offence allegedly was that he was more loyal to the Prophet than to any of the warring Christian dispositions. Aikenhead was charged under Scotland’s blasphemy act. The 1661 Act passed by the first Scottish Parliament under Charles II mandated death for one who ‘not being distracted in his wits shall rail upon or curse God, or any of the persons of the blessed Trinity’. Aikenhead was found guilty of cursing and railing against God the Father and the Son, denying the incarnation and the Trinity, and scoffing at the Scriptures. Despite submitting a petition for leniency he was hanged and buried on the road to Leith.
However at the same time, this does not mean that we should look upon these harsh rules prevailing at one time in Christian Europe’s dark ages as a justification for having such laws in a modern-day Islamic society, particularly when such laws really do not have any basis in Islamic Shari’ah. Blasphemy laws could certainly be in place for the good of the faith, but certainly not without providing the offender some sort of reprieve, namely in the form of repentance.
And finally we may ask what good has the wording of Pakistan’s blasphemy act done to the country, other than breeding a virulent form of extremism that knows no justice or respect for human life. Could it not be said that the perverse nature Pakistani ‘Islamist’ militancy has assumed today with rebellion to established authority, mob rule, sectarianism and oppression of minorities has its roots in this kind of extremist thinking that not only sets aside the Spirit of Islam but also its Word to achieve its goals. Having intolerant laws caters only to the needs of sick minds that are bent on death and destruction and stand to see no reason. Such laws only embolden these perverted minds and give them a license to think they can get away with anything including taking lives with impunity.
And this we see happening almost every day in Pakistan. One has only to read the newspapers to realize how violent a society this once peaceful country has become. Many are the allegations of blasphemy brought against a Muslim by a fellow Muslim which is hard to believe given the large number of such accusations, particularly in an Islamic society where love of the Prophet (PBUH) is part of the faith, and we cannot but suspect that many of them have an underlying motive – to settle an old score or misappropriate property for instance. And why is this piece of legislation being so abused and misused ? For the simple reason that it mandates death without reprieve through repentance. If it did not, unscrupulous men will not find it a useful tool to achieve their nefarious objectives by having a fellow human put to death on a false pretext.
Non-Muslims too are probably being oppressed by such mindless laws. The Islamic State we know is bound to protect its non-Muslim minorities and particularly Christians who have a special status in Islamdom, but what we find is that the blasphemy law is also being abused to harass Pakistan’s Christian minority. And indeed, how can one pass death on a non-Muslim for blasphemy without even accepting his right to embrace Islam and so save himself or herself from the punishment. It is generally agreed that in Islam, a non-Muslim, upon embracing Islam, would not only have all his or her past sins forgiven, but will also not be liable to be penalized for any crime he or she would have committed in their former state, even if it were against Islam.
Even today, it is not too late for Pakistan to revisit its legislation and consider how best to rephrase it and incorporate a provision for reprieve through repentance for the offense concerned. Although we know that the more rigid interpretation of Hanafi law (to which Pakistan subscribes) does not give the offender this opportunity, this does not mean that there is no other way. The principle of talfiq or eclectic choice between the various Sunni law schools could be resorted to so that the more reasonable Hanafi and Shafi views on it could be accommodated. This is not a new thing and was even resorted to way back in 1917 when the Hanafiite Ottoman Empire incorporated Hanbalite principles on stipulations in marriage contracts into its family law. Even today, we find that traditionally Malikite countries such as Tunisia and Morocco have adopted Hanafi principles on women’s capacity to marry giving the women in these countries the discretion to choose their marriage partners sans the consent of their agnatic guardians, which traditional Maliki jurisprudence does not permit.
Finally what we can conclude from all this is that it is only through a proper and thorough study of the Qur’an and Sunnah and a revisiting of the classical schools of jurisprudence by taking the best of them which are in conformity with the two primary sources of Shari’ah that we could derive a truly Islamic law that will at the same time fulfill the needs of modern society. Islam was meant for all time and so it shall be.
Published in Sailanmuslim.com
Note by the Author: Interestingly, Pakistani scholar Arafat Mazhar has shown that the prevailing view even among the Hanafi scholars (upon which Pakistan’s laws are based) is that blasphemy may be pardoned if the offender repents and that it is a misreading and perhaps willful arrogance on the part of people like Ismaeel Qureshi that led to the idea that repentance is not possible. See Arafat’s well researched articles: