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Blasphemy and the Status Quo in Pakistan

As millions of Egyptians take to the streets to bring down their autocratic, US-managed rulers, forty-thousand Pakistanis also demonstrated in Karachi on January 9, 2011. The latter are no strangers to criminal regimes, rife with nepotism and dynasticism. Their state has killed thousands of its own citizens in the last decade alone. The US has contributed to the carnage through missile strikes, also with the government’s complicity. Uncounted numbers of citizens have also been disappeared by the government, also with the aid of the US and other renditionists (such as the Mubarak regime). Malnutrition in the wake of the monsoon floods is threatening to take thousands more lives. The economy is increasingly privatized and debt-laden, offering little hope to the millions who survive the bombs and mismanagement. Yet, the Pakistani demonstrators who took to Karachi’s streets this January were moved by another issue all together. They were worried that a middle-aged Christian mother of five might not be executed after being convicted for blasphemy.

It should be clarified at the outset that demonstrating against all that ails Pakistan, aside from blasphemers, is no less a feature of the Pakistani street than any other. In the thirty years that Mubarak has ruled Egypt, Pakistanis have been subjected to and overthrown two military and four civilian regimes. All these civil actions have been driven by popular opposition to autocracy and empire, and substantive change in alternative directions has been the hope of large segments of protesting masses. Their victories include constitutional amendments that overturn presidential powers to dissolve the legislature. They have also promoted judicial autonomy and won the right of press freedom. But, as the unconstitutional realities of Pakistan illustrate, constitutional amendments have a long way to go before delivering good governance. Pakistan’s controversial ‘Blasphemy Laws,’ in fact, well illumine the distance to be travelled. After all, demonstrations in support of Blasphemy Laws are not calling for change in any direction. They are rallying for laws long on the books.

The history of these Blasphemy Laws explains why, at least in part. Blasphemy has been acknowledged as an offense as long as Islamic jurisprudence has existed. A range of punishments have been articulated by legal schools and pre-colonial Muslim states enforced the dictates of these schools in various ways and to varying degrees.

For example, jurists have agreed that blasphemy is a subset of laws concerning apostasy (irtidad). However, the same jurists have long debated whether apostasy itself is a statutory (hudud) offense, punishable by the state in any manner at all.

Furthermore, where the state’s jurisdiction has been acknowledged, stringent and exacting rules of evidence have been articulated for charges to be registered and false accusations have been considered serious offences, punishable in their own right.

Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws, on the other hand, are neither rooted in the jurisprudence or the statecraft of pre-colonial Muslim societies. Pakistan’s laws grew out of ‘British India.’ In the 186’s, as part of the aftermath of the so-called ‘Mutiny’ in which colonial authority was formalized, sections of the latest penal code added blasphemy against any religious tradition, punishable by a maximum of two years imprisonment. A number of cases and a few convictions followed, and a minor amendment in language was made in the 1920’s. The legal provision itself reflects the process of codification in light of British jurisprudence begun as early as 1780. It should be recalled that Britain upheld Blasphemy Laws (applicable only to Christianity) until July 2008. British jurisprudence was the basis for the colonial code, and these were the laws inherited by Pakistan upon ‘independence’ in 1947.

Not surprisingly, given the colonial origins of Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws, the application of these laws would be best nurtured and spread under autocratic, rather than democratic, post-colonial rule. Pakistan has remained autocratic from its start, allowing the advocates of such laws to infiltrate the establishment beginning with the anti-Ahmadiyya riots of the 1950’s. But it was not until the tenure of General Zia ul-Haq (1978-88) that colonial ‘Penal Code Section 295’ was amended for the first time. From 1980 to 1986, defaming Prophet Muhammad, derogatory remarks against Quranic passages and defilement of the Quran, were added as offenses. The former offense carried the death sentence and the latter life imprisonment, when the accused’s intent was established in court. As well, ‘Section 298’ made derogatory remarks against or negative representations of any holy Muslim personage (relatives of the Prophet, etc.) punishable by up to 3 years imprisonment and/or fines.

These amendments were part of a far larger policy to ‘Islamize’ Pakistan – a policy that sought to provide Zia’s military regime legitimation, while churning out mujahidin for the US to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. On a jurisprudential level, the amendments concerning blasphemy made Pakistani law more ‘British,’ additions rendering them applicable only to offenses against the dominant creed: Christianity in the case of Britain, Islam for Pakistan. The rules of evidence, in any case, remained British in origin. As for the contribution of ‘Islamic’ legal thought, the laws themself confirm that only the legal opinions included were those of the Pakistani religio-political parties willing to legitimate military rule and raise mujahidin. Prime among these parties were ‘Jamaat-i Islami’ and ‘Jamaat-i Ulama-i Islam,’ whose own doctrinal origins, like the laws in question, also lead back to the colonial era.

When colonial jurists began drawing blasphemy into their penal codes after the 1857 Uprising (‘Mutiny’), Muslim jurists, shell-shocked by defeat, began rebuilding a madrasa-system devastated by decades of colonial rule, let alone the ravages of the late-Uprising. In 1866, a trio of students from one of Delhi’s last remaining pre-colonial institutions, closed in 1856 for cancelled endowments, joined the trend by laying the foundations of a school for the future. Their madrasa would not follow the patterns of those which had produced its founders. It would be funded by small private donations, rather than large land endowments. It would teach a fixed curriculum with exams and awards, like European schools, but designed to emphasize the study of Quran, Hadith literature and law. Philosophy, metaphysics, logic, rhetoric, scholastic theology, astronomy, medicine and various fields of math, literature and languages, taught in pre-colonial madrasas, would be dropped. Furthermore, the law taught would not be derived through pre-colonial Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). This madrasa’s sharia would follow an approach developed only a century earlier – an approach based on the removal of all juristic opinion based on analogical reasoning or the consensus of scholars from the sharia, if ‘direct reference’ could be found in the Quran or Hadith literature. Thus, the entire study of the principles of jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh) was not included in the curriculum, while such established juristic principles as ‘public utility’ and ‘juristic preference,’ common in South Asia’s pre-colonial jurisprudence, was not to be utilized in arriving at the laws to be considered part of the sharia. Only a scripturally-based and codified sharia would be proffered from the madrasa founded at Deoband in 1866. Pakistan’s Jamaat-i Islami, Jamaat-i Ulama-i Islam and a variety of other off-shoots testify to the success of Deoband’s founding vision, at least so far as the organization, curriculum and jurisprudential approach of their associated madrasas are concerned.

As previously mentioned, since Deobandi-type amendments were introduced in Pakistan, the military-dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq, four civilian governments and the military dictatorship of Parvez Musharraf have fallen. All upheld the Blasphemy Laws. The current civilian regime of Asif Ali Zardari has also responded to recent developments, such as Papal criticism, by firmly shutting the door on reform. This longevity and broad-based support best confirms that the religio-political parties promoting these laws, though ‘Islamists,’ are not anti-establishment; no matter their rhetoric. Rather, for the last thirty years at least, members of such parties have held posts in virtually every government, whether headed by the military or a civilian, and irrespective of close ties to the US.

Take the example of the religio-political party that orchestrated the demonstration in Karachi on January 9: Jamaat-i Ulama-i Islam. The current leader of the faction involved, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, inherited the party from his father, who served as Governor of the NWFP in the 1970’s. Rahman himself has been a member of the National Assembly (Parliament) four times since taking the reins of the party in the 1980’s.  He was a stalwart ally of Benazir Bhutto, during her second term in office, helping to organize the Afghan Taliban. In 2002, he was one of the nominees for Prime Minister. Until recently, Rahman’s party was also a member of the ruling coalition, high ranking members even holding ministerial posts in Zardari’s government. The association only ended when one of those ministers was found to be involved in a massive scam that defrauded thousands of pilgrims on Hajj in Mecca! In other words, these parties and laws are not examples of popular activism against the establishment, as much as they are extensions of that establishment.

As a result of consistent support from the highest ranks of the Pakistani state, about 4000 blasphemy cases have been registered and 700 persons (about half Christians and Ahmadis) have been convicted since the 1980’s. Although no one has been executed, many of the accused have been killed, even while in jail or out on bail. According to human rights groups, the cases lodged are most frequently based on false accusations motivated by personal and/or political disputes. One of the latest cases concerns the conviction of a Sunni Imam and his son for supposedly pulling down a poster than sported Quranic passages. The case was prompted by Deobandis as the Imam belongs to the rival Barelvi movement, although the latter also supports the Blasphemy Laws. Police, lawyers, judges and activists of various political parties, religious and secular, have been documented to be involved in such abuses, just as dissenting members of the same groups have also been subject to everything from harassment to murder. The recent assassination of the Governor of Punjab Province for supporting reform, in opposition to the stance of his own Pakistan Peoples’ Party, adds to the Blasphemy Law’s list of supporters and victims.

Whether or not blasphemy should feature in Islamic law, this short history is insufficient to even offer an opinion. However, it clearly suggests that Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws are manmade and ill-conceived. For this mundane reason, not their purported divine perfection, the only offense that supporters of the law are really reacting to is change. Change in imperial relations, change in the conduct of generals and change in civilian administrations dominated by dynasties of feudal landlords and crony-capitalists. Change, as well, in the composition of clerics who legitimate the nefarious activities of the former by shackling Islam itself to their colonial schools. Supporters of these laws, whatever their professed ideologies, are bulwarks in the establishment’s unrelenting resistance to change. They are not demonstrators of the kind now staking their claim in Tahrir Square. They are akin to the ‘Pro-Mubarak’ crowds jostling to maintain the status quo. Their thuggery only charts the distance Pakistan’s ‘democracy’ has to travel before Pakistanis can enjoy good governance. Despite so many fallen governments and constitutional amendments, Pakistan’s establishment, no less than Egypt’s, remains entrenched, autocratic and managed from afar.

M. REZA PIRBHAI is an Assistant Professor of South Asian History at
Louisiana State University. He can be reached at:



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M. Reza Pirbhai is Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. His latest book is Fatima Jinnah: Mother of the Nation (Cambridge, 2017).

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