Understanding the History and Politics behind Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws

The Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan this week announced that more than $100,000 had been raised by businesses and individuals in the north-eastern city of Sialkot for the family of a Sri Lankan factory manager murdered by a mob over allegations of blasphemy, in December.

Hundreds of people, believed to be members of the radical Sunni Islamist Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), attacked Priyantha Kumara, 49, on 3 December, beating and later setting fire to the father-of-two after accusing him of tearing up a poster inscribed with Islamic verses inside the factory he had worked at for eleven years.

In addition to the funds raised for Mr Kumara’s family, Rajco Industries, the company that owned the factory where he was employed has pledged to continue paying his monthly salary of $1700 dollars to his family for the next ten years.

Mr Kumara’s lynching was recorded and shared widely on social media, causing outrage inside the country and beyond.

Such tragic killings in Pakistan over blasphemy accusations are not just about extrajudicial vigilantism. Pakistan has the world’s second-strictest blasphemy laws after Iran, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

In December 2019, Junaid Hafeez, a university lecturer, was sentenced to death by a Pakistani court on the charge of insulting the Prophet Muhammad on Facebook.

Hafeez, whose death sentence is under appeal, is one of about 1,500 Pakistanis charged with blasphemy over the past three decades. No executions have ever taken place.

The ulema and the state

My 2019 book “Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment” traces the root of blasphemy and apostasy laws in the Muslim world back to a historic alliance between Islamic scholars and government.

Starting around the year 1050, certain Sunni scholars of law and theology, called the “ulema,” began working closely with political rulers to challenge what they considered to be the sacrilegious influence of Muslim philosophers on society.

Muslim philosophers had for three centuries been making major contributions to mathematicsphysics and medicine. They developed the Arabic number system used across the West today and invented a forerunner of the modern camera.

The conservative ulema felt that these philosophers were inappropriately influenced by Greek philosophy and Shiite Islam against Sunni beliefs. The most prominent in consolidating Sunni orthodoxy was the respected Islamic scholar Ghazali, who died in the year 1111.

In several influential books still widely read today, Ghazali declared two long-dead leading Muslim philosophers, Farabi and Ibn Sina, as apostates for their unorthodox views on God’s power and the nature of resurrection. Their followers, Ghazali wrote, could be punished with death.

As modern-day historians Omid Safi and Frank Griffel assert, Ghazali’s declaration provided justification to Muslim sultans from the 12th century onward who wished to persecute – even execute – thinkers seen as threats to conservative religious rule.

This “ulema-state alliance,” as I call it, began in the mid-11th century in Central AsiaIran and Iraq, and a century later spread to SyriaEgypt and North Africa. In these regimes, questioning religious orthodoxy and political authority wasn’t merely dissent – it was apostasy.

Wrong direction

Parts of Western Europe were ruled by a similar alliance between the Catholic Church and monarchs. These governments assaulted free thinking, too. During the Spanish Inquisition, between the 16th and 18th centuries, thousands of people were tortured and killed for apostasy.

Blasphemy laws were also in place, if infrequently used, in various European countries until recently. DenmarkIreland and Malta all recently repealed their laws.

But they persist in many parts of the Muslim world.

In Pakistan, the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq, who ruled the country from 1978 to 1988, is responsible for its harsh blasphemy laws. An ally of the ulema, Zia updated blasphemy laws – written by British colonizers to avoid interreligious conflict – to defend specifically Sunni Islam and increased the maximum punishment to death.

From the 1920s until Zia, these laws had been applied only about a dozen times. Since then, they have become a powerful tool for crushing dissent.

Some dozen Muslim countries have undergone a similar process over the past four decades, including Iran and Egypt.

Dissenting voices in Islam

The conservative ulema base their case for blasphemy and apostasy laws on a few reported sayings of the Prophet, known as hadith, primarily: “Whoever changes his religion, kill him.”

But many Islamic scholars and Muslim intellectuals reject this view as radical. They argue that Prophet Muhammad never executed anyone for apostasy, nor encouraged his followers to do so.

Nor is criminalizing sacrilege based on Islam’s main sacred text, the Quran. It contains over 100 verses encouraging peace, freedom of conscience and religious tolerance.

In chapter 2, verse 256, the Quran states, “There is no coercion in religion.” Chapter 4, verse 140 urges Muslims to simply leave blasphemous conversations: “When you hear the verses of God being rejected and mocked, do not sit with them.”

By using their political connections and historical authority to interpret Islam, however, the conservative ulema have marginalized more moderate voices.

Reaction to global Islamophobia

Debates about blasphemy and apostasy laws among Muslims are influenced by international affairs.

Across the globe, Muslim minorities – including the PalestiniansChechens of Russia, Kashmiris of India, Rohingya of Myanmar and Uighurs of China – have experienced severe persecution. No other religion is so widely targeted in so many different countries.

Alongside persecution are some Western policies that discriminate against Muslims, such as laws prohibiting headscarves in schools.

Such Islamophobic laws and policies can create the impression that Muslims are under siege and provide an excuse that punishing sacrilege is a defense of the faith.

Instead, I find, such harsh religious rules can contribute to anti-Muslim stereotypes. Some of my Turkish relatives even discourage my work on this topic, fearing it fuels Islamophobia.

But my research shows that criminalizing blasphemy and apostasy is more political than it is religious. The Quran does not require punishing sacrilege: authoritarian politics do.


– Ahmet T. Kuru, Porteous Professor of Political Science, San Diego State University

– Via www.theconversation.com


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