Blasphemy is defined as ‘showing contempt or the act of insulting or lack of reverence for God’ by Merriam Webster. When things considered sacred to religion are insulted, it ends up hurting religious sentiments and leads to simmering tensions in the society. Most of the countries in the world have laws against Blasphemy. However, the degree of punishment varies, according to a report by USCIRF (The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom) the punishment ranges between a wide gamut from 1-year imprisonment in New Zealand to a potential death sentence in Iran and Pakistan. Pakistan has been hailed as an ‘Islamic Republic’ in Article 1 of its Constitution. Further, Article 2 of the Constitution declares Islam as the State Religion. Thus the laws against Blasphemy in Pakistan, contain specific provisions in the Pakistan Penal Code, penalizing defilement of The Holy Quran (Section 295-B, The Holy Prophet(295-C), sacred to Islam. However, in recent years there has been a surge in blasphemy allegations and mob attacks on mere accusations, the killing of Priyantha Diyawadanage a Srilankan working in Pakistan in early December 2021 is a recent example. A chain of such events consequently has attracted concern about religious freedom and arbitrary slapping of Blasphemy Laws with harsh punishment. It thus becomes pertinent to navigate through Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan, underlying Islamic principles and historical context.
Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan
Chapter XV of the Pakistan Penal Code deals with Offences Relating to Religion. Its roots lie in the Indian Penal Code 1860, enacted by the Britishers, adopted by Pakistan in 1947 upon Independence. Originally it contained four sections against Blasphemy i.e. Section 295-298. These ensured equal protection to all religions and required evil intention as a mandatory element for the offence. The punishment spanned from the imprisonment of one to three years which was later extended to ten years. Pakistan amended the original laws in 1980-86, adding five more sections to the provision. These new Sections criminalized – Desecrating the Holy Quran (295B); The Holy Prophet (295C); insulting ‘holy personages’ related to the Prophet, often venerated by Sunni Majority but disapproved by the Shia minority (298 A); Penalising Ahmadis with imprisonment up to three years who pose themselves as Muslims (298 B, 298 C).
Of the aforementioned provisions, Section 295B (Defilement of the Holy Quran) attracts imprisonment for life while Section 295C (Defilement of the Holy Prophet) attracts a death sentence or imprisonment to life. These harsh provisions are based on the premise that Blasphemy is punishable with a death sentence by God himself and therefore is unchallengeable. This is different from some other Islamic countries such as Bangladesh where Blasphemy is punishable with imprisonment up to one-two years and Malaysia with imprisonment up to two-five years. So what are the underlying Islamic Principles governing Blasphemy laws in Pakistan making the punishment so severe? Let’s try to understand this.
Islamic Principles and the Dissent among Scholars
The Holy Quran, the primary source governing Islamic Law, has no specific mention of punishment for Blasphemy in any verse. Thus scholars have noted that although it is punishable in the afterlife, there is no provision of punishment for Blasphemy in this world.However, there is a group of scholars who have held that Blasphemy is punishable in Islam. This proposition is based on the interpretation of ‘Hadith’ i.e. inventory of Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) statements and actions which is secondary literature of Islam after the Holy Quran. As apparent from the provisions itself, this position on Blasphemy is widely accepted by the Sunni Majority in Pakistan and is dominant regardless of the dissent within Islamic Jurisprudence. The chief reason behind conflicting stands on Blasphemy laws is due to the absence of central authority in Islam, which paves way for numerous interpretations and provisions in Muslim countries. Even the authenticity of these Hadith has been disputed by another group of scholars. For instance, Javaid Ghamidi, a Ghamidi Scholar (school of thought in Islamic Jurisprudence) vehemently stated that “The blasphemy laws have no justification in Islam. These ulema [council of clerics] are just telling lies to the people”, adding that the law had “no foundation in either the Qur’an or the Hadith – the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad” and that “[n]othing in Islam supports this law”.
Further Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, a notable Indian Islamic scholar has opined the same. According to him, Blasphemy is nothing but misuse of freedom of speech and does not attract legal punishment. It was penalised only in the Abbasid period (the third caliphate after Prophet Mohammad PBUH) as the consequence of their political supremacy. The punishment, therefore, has no ground in Islamic law and is merely an innovation. Not only has there been dissent about the punishment for Blasphemy but also the concept of ‘pardon’ is under wide scepticism. Even Section 295C is silent on whether Blasphemy is a pardonable offence or not. It is claimed that Abu Hanifa, the founder of Hanafi School of Jurisprudence (widely followed in Pakistan) declared Blasphemy as a pardonable offence. However, at later stages, Al Bazzazzi, student and follower of Hanafi School, corroborated the original position and held it to be unpardonable. Imam Ibn e Abidin, a South Asian scholar, while criticising the misquoted position on Blasphemy, remarked it as ridiculous. The deadlock however comes from the fact that as per the Hanafi School of thought rules laid down by Abu Hanifa and his students are undisputed i.e cannot be challenged now.
What happens when someone tries to break this deadlock? The assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in 2011 is an unfortunate instance signifying an ill omen for reforms in Blasphemy laws in Pakistan. Taseer was a passionate critic of the Blasphemy law in Pakistan and even infamously declared it as a Balck Law. This led to widespread agitation among clerics, who even issued ‘Fatwas’ (edicts) demanding his beheading. The last public statement made by him reflected the pressure “I was under huge pressure to cow down before rightist pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing.”.
On 4 January 2011, he was assassinated by his security guard. Eventually, when the security guard was executed in 2016, the funeral was attended by thousands. Taseer’s assassination was followed by Shahbaz Bhatti’s assassination, the then Religious Minority Minister, a Christian and another vocal critic of the law. The message was clear, a large chunk of people believe Blasphemy laws in Pakistan are unquestionable and anyone challenging the status quo should be punished.
The repercussions of such a law and dominating popular stand on Blasphemy is a trend of worrying figures. For instance –
- Extra-Judicial Killings in Blasphemy related cases from 1946-87 (year of amendment of the laws) was merely 2. Whereas, between 1987- 2015 the figure rose to 57.
- Out of 1335 cases reported between 1990-2014, 702 were booked against minorities constituting Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus.
- The International Commission of Jurists on analysing Blasphemy cases in Pakistan revealed that out of the 25, witnesses were mala fide in 15 them.
In recent years Asia Bibi’s trial has come under the International limelight. In the June of 2009, she was accused of insulting Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), thus invoking Section 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code. In 2010, she was convicted of the offence by trial courts. Even the Lahore High court in 2014 did not amend the decision despite the noteworthy overlap in evidence. Finally in 2018, after spending 8 years in jail, the Supreme Court of Pakistan acquitted her. In the 34 pages long decision by a three-judge bench, Blasphemy was discussed extensively. Notably, the judgement also discussed how Blasphemy laws are misused by certain people through false accusations. Even though the acquittal was based on evidence, the separate note written by Justice Khosa recounting how Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) ensured protection to Christians living in the Islamic State, emerged as a ray of hope for Tolerance and further developments in Blasphemy law.
To sum up, Blasphemy in Islamic Jurisprudence is a complicated topic of discussion subject to different interpretations by different schools of thought. What makes it even more sensitive in Pakistan is the staunch narrative accepted by a large proportion of the population. This narrative extends unflinching support to the existing law. Thus, discussion on existing laws to reform/develop them is always discarded and frowned upon by them. With the growing international attention, it would be worth watching what course the Blasphemy laws take in Pakistan.
Author: Sabahat Wali Khan (Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh)
 W. Heffening, ‘Murtadd’, in The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Volume VII. Leiden: Brill, 1997, p. 635.
 W. Hallaq, ‘Apostasy’, in Jane Dammen McAuliffe (Ed.), Encyclopaedia of the Quran, Vol. I. Leiden: Brill, 2006, p. 120.
 On Trial: The Implementation of Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws, Nov. 2015, ICJ Geneva.