Islamic Views on Blasphemy Are More Complex Than Pakistani Courts Admit

Islamic jurisprudence both justifies the country’s draconian laws and offers a way out; it’s time for Muslim countries to make the change

Islamic Views on Blasphemy Are More Complex Than Pakistani Courts Admit
Islamist activists carry placards against Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who was released after spending eight years on death row for blasphemy / Asif Hassan / AFP via Getty Images

In the past week, Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, saw mobs of angry men burning down Samsung billboards. As the local press reported, they were furious at the South Korean tech giant because one of its employees had set up a “blasphemous name” for a Wi-Fi device in a shopping mall. Other reports noted that the perceived blasphemy — which is commonly understood as an alleged insult of Islam, God, the Quran and especially the Prophet Muhammad — was contained in the QR code of the device. Soon, the police arrested some 27 employees of Samsung, and the company issued an apology, adding that it had “started internal investigations into the matter.”

Many of those outside Pakistan who read this news may have rolled their eyes. Yet this latest eruption in the Islamic Republic over blasphemy turned out to be a mild case compared with bloodier incidents in the recent past. In March this year, Safoora Bibi, a teacher at an all-girls Islamic school, was killed by a colleague and two students who slit her throat because they believed she committed blasphemy against the Prophet. In February, Mustaq Ahmed, who suffered poor mental health, was stoned to death by some 300 villagers who believed he desecrated the Quran. And in December last year, Priyantha Kumara, a Sri Lankan factory manager who had simply pulled down some posters he didn’t understand — and which happened to have verses from the Quran — was tortured and then set ablaze by hundreds, some of whom took cheerful selfies with his burning corpse.

The sad truth is that the obsession with blasphemy in Pakistan ruins an innocent life almost every month — either by the draconian blasphemy law that decrees the death penalty for anyone “who defiles the Quran or the Prophet Muhammad” or vigilante mobs who take the law into their own hands, often with false charges. As recently reported by human rights lawyer Akmal Bhatti, since 1987 — following a decade in which the long-existing blasphemy law, enacted during British colonial rule, was “Islamized” and specified under the military regime of Gen. Muhammad Zia ul Haqq — more than 1,865 people have been charged with blasphemy, most of them jailed for years. Meanwhile, more than 130 people have been killed by mobs and nonstate actors, the victims often minorities — Christians, Ahmadis and Shiites for whom “the land of the pure” has turned into a land of fear.

One of the most famous victims of this double persecution — by both the authorities and the vigilante militants — was Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of four who was accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death in November 2010 following a minor dispute with co-workers on a farm because she drank some water before her Muslim co-laborers and thus “dirtied it.” She spent eight years on death row in solitary confinement until her acquittal due to lack of evidence. Then she had to flee to Canada in May 2019 to escape the militant Islamists who still wanted to see her dead. In the meantime, Salman Taseer, the late governor of Punjab, who merely called for “mercy” for Asia Bibi in 2011, was assassinated by his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri. The bodyguard was executed for murder in 2016 but died as a hero among the militants. More than 100,000 people attended his funeral, and even a mosque was raised in his name. Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, the federal minister of minorities affairs, was also killed because of his stance against blasphemy laws and in support of Bibi.

Needless to say, all these tragedies should concern any person who cares about innocent lives. More specifically, it should concern any sensible Muslim because all the violence and persecution are taking place in the name of Islam. The political party that spearheads the zealotry, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, an offshoot of the Sunni-Sufi Barelvi movement, even claims to act out “ishq al-Rasul” (love of the Prophet). (It is a sobering case for those who may perceive Sufism as always synonymous with “moderation.”)

To be sure, while Pakistan touts some of the most severe criminalization of blasphemy, this is a global problem leading to human right violations in many nations. As noted in a 2020 report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), blasphemy is criminalized in some 84 countries, which include Brazil, Spain and Italy. Yet often the punishments are mild: In Brazil, the sentence is imprisonment from one month to one year or a fine; in Spain and Italy, it is a mere fine.

In the non-Muslim world, two countries stand out as the worst persecutors in the name of criminalizing blasphemy: Russia, an unabashedly authoritarian regime, and India, an increasingly illiberal and majoritarian “democracy,” where a rampant Hindu supremacism ruthlessly targets religious minorities, especially Muslims.

However, the same USCIRF report also makes it clear that the bulk of the problem with blasphemy laws exists in the Muslim-majority world. In addition to Pakistan, Russia and India, the top 10 countries that criminalize blasphemy include Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Indonesia, Yemen, Bangladesh and Kuwait. Moreover, the majority of the “mob activity” related to blasphemy also takes place in Muslim-majority nations or regions: Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt and Nigeria. In May, Deborah Yakubu, a Christian university student in Nigeria, was lynched by Muslim classmates who believed she defiled the Prophet Muhammad on a WhatsApp message.

So, all these facts, I believe, call for an honest discussion about the Islamic verdicts and attitudes on blasphemy. And this should not just be about opposing vigilante mobs for “taking the law into their own hands,” as mainstream politicians or clerics in Pakistan or the broader Sunni world typically do. It should also be about questioning whether blasphemy laws themselves are justified.

Proponents of blasphemy laws will point to traditional Islamic jurisprudence that they say justifies these harsh punishments. And indeed, their argument is not groundless, despite the cries of apologists who claim otherwise. But often lost in this conversation is the complexity of the legal tradition in Islam, which like any other legal tradition, offers more nuance than today’s Islamic courts are willing to admit.

For starters, blasphemy and in particular “sabb al-Rasul,” or insulting the Prophet, has indeed been considered a capital crime in the four major Sunni schools of jurisprudence — Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki and Hanbali, as well as in the Jafari school of the Shiite tradition. They disagreed only on whether someone who insulted the Prophet could be pardoned if they repented, something the Hanbalis, for example, reject outright because they call for execution no matter what. This rigid, merciless legal stance was later defended — emphatically — by the influential scholar Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), whose treatise “The Unsheathed Sword Against the One Who Insults the Messenger” has proved definitive for many Sunnis even beyond his own school. The Pakistani courts that deliver the harsh sentences to punish blasphemy actually defer to Ibn Taymiyya in their jurisprudence and quote his work in their legal decisions.

However, there is also a minority view in classical Islam that is particularly important for Pakistan. It appeared in the early Hanafi school, which is the very tradition that most Pakistanis — including the Barelvis and Deobandis — claim to follow, yet it is often ignored by the country’s courts.

According to this view, a Muslim who blasphemes shall be executed, but only because such blasphemy amounts to apostasy. (The criminalization of apostasy is another burning problem that begs another discussion for another day.) However, the same ruling does not apply to non-Muslims who, by virtue of being non-Muslim cannot commit apostasy and shall therefore be shielded from blasphemy laws, a stance that could have saved almost all the high-profile cases that have unfolded in Pakistan over the years.

The very founder of the school, the great Imam Abu Hanifa (d. 767), made this point clearly when he said that the “dhimmis,” or “protected” Jews, Christians and other non-Muslims living under Islamic rule, should not be executed for blasphemy, “because their [overall] unbelief is worse,” but they are not targeted for it. A later Hanafi scholar, Al-Sarakhsi (d. 1090), put the rationale even better: “The true kufr [unbelief] is the greatest sin, but it is between man and his God. The punishment for this sin is postponed until the Day of Judgment.” The state could still give a discretionary punishment known as “tazir” so as to ensure law and order, and this need not be the death penalty.

This early view among Hanafi jurists — which later died out, conforming to the mainstream view — is important, not only because of what it is but also because of what it indicates: There is actually no clear basis for blasphemy laws in the two fundamental sources of Islamic law, the Quran and the Sunnah (the example of the Prophet). And this is the part that is too often ignored by today’s Islamic courts.

This is clear with the Quran, which in all its 6,236 verses does not have a single commandment to punish blasphemers — or apostates either, for that matter. Moreover, in two parallel verses — one revealed in Mecca (6:68), the other in Medina (4:140) — the Quran actually tells Muslims to do something mild in the face of blasphemy. The latter verse plainly says:

“If you hear people denying and ridiculing God’s revelation, do not sit with them unless they start to talk of other things, or else you yourselves will become like them.”

Just “do not sit with them” — that is the literal Quranic response to blasphemy. It is not killing or jailing. It is not even censorship.

In contrast to the clarity in the Quran, historical accounts about the Prophet are admittedly more complicated. The authoritative books of both hadith (sayings and acts of the Prophet) and sira (biographies of the Prophet) contain stories about the execution of a number of “poets” among the polytheists of Mecca or the Jewish tribes of Medina, with whom the early Muslim community clashed swords. These reports complicate the legal arguments on blasphemy and its punishments because of the precedent they set. Indeed, these reports formed the very justification the medieval jurists used for the execution of blasphemers.

Still, as I argued in “Reopening Muslims Minds,” a detailed examination of these stories suggests that the poets in question were targeted not for merely insulting the Prophet but for inciting violence, even all-out war against the nascent Muslim community, which had to fight for its survival in the harsh world of early 7th-century Arabia. On the other hand, there are historic accounts that show that the Prophet himself did not go after those who insulted him, choosing instead to calm the nerves of his agitated companions. “Be gentle and calm,” he said in one incident, “as Allah likes gentleness in all affairs.”

So why can’t we take this gentleness as the guiding principle from the Prophet?

Well, the staunch cleric Ibn Taymiyya had an answer to that question, which was approvingly quoted by the Islamabad High Court in a 2015 decision, using a little-used word meaning those who display contempt for another:

“The Holy Prophet … had pardoned some of his contemners, but the jurists concur that the Prophet himself had the right to pardon his contemners but the ummah has no right to pardon his contemners.”

In other words, while the ummah, the global Muslim community, should emulate the Prophet in all matters — as Sunni authorities would typically argue — this emulation should not include his forgiveness.

This selective approach to the prophetic example is just one manifestation of a certain drive that has shaped the formative centuries of Islam, which also “abrogated” the tolerant and peaceful verses of the Quran in favor of belligerent ones. It was a drive that married the faith into a political project of imperialist expansion and legal supremacism — in line with the religious-political norms of the era, also represented by the Byzantine and Sassanid empires.

Abdullah Saeed, professor of Islamic studies at the University of Melbourne, also made this argument in a pivotal article in an important book, “Freedom of Expression in Islam: Challenging Apostasy and Blasphemy Laws” (2021). “The need to develop detailed blasphemy laws,” Saeed observes, “began with the consolidation of political power, with the Umayyads and early Abbasids at the helm, and a strong, growing sense of the new religion’s superiority over other religions.” Yet today, he adds, “contemporary Muslims should be free to rethink the concept of blasphemy,” as there is really “no strong textual basis for the death penalty for blasphemy in either the Quran or the traditions of the Prophet.”

Some brave scholars in Pakistan publicly made the same case, too — but only to risk their lives. One of them is Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, who created a storm in 2011 when he said to the media: “The blasphemy laws have no justification in Islam … and these ulema [council of clerics] are just telling lies to the people.” Soon, after a failed plot to bomb his home, he had to leave Pakistan, first to Malaysia and ultimately to the United States.

The drama of Ghamidi indicates the dilemma that Pakistan continues to face today: To overcome the religious fanaticism that causes so much injustice, it needs fresh ideas about religious laws. But that very fanaticism doesn’t allow those ideas in the first place.

As is the case in civil or common law, religious law, too, can be approached with complexity and nuance, leading to different decisions that arise from the court’s sway and influence.

Hence, Islamic scholars in freer societies should help Pakistan — and other Muslim-majority countries with limited freedom — by reaching out to its Islamic movements, exercising both fraternal goodwill and tough love. They need to share a message that is crucial for the future of not just Pakistan but also Islam itself:

Killing or tormenting innocent people in the name of the Prophet of Islam doesn’t protect his “honor.” If anything, it only defames Islam. And if there is a part of the Prophet’s example that is universally valid, it is that he exercised gentleness and forgiveness toward those who insulted him.

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