Blasphemy Laws


The Blasphemy law is a part of the Pakistan Penal Code, which was introduced in 1860 by the British Government to protect religious feelings. It may be observed that Section 295 provides protection to worship places of all classes of religions living in the subcontinent. It does not contain element of discrimination or preference to any class. It maintains equality of all before the law. The law appears to maintain mutual harmony and peace as well as to promote sense of mutual tolerance, understanding and respect in the multifaceted society of the subcontinent. This section represents the typical example of a secular democratic law for benefit of all and loss to none.

Section 295 prohibited:

Injuring or defiling place or worship, with intent to insult the religion of any class. Whoever, destroys, damages or defiles any place of worship, or any object held sacred by any class of persons with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of any class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of persons is likely to consider such destruction, damage or defile­ment as an insult to their religion, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extent to two years, or with fine or with both.

In 1927 when religious riots rocked pre-partition India, 295-A was promulgated: Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs. Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outrage the religious feelings, or any class of the citizens of Pakistan, by words, either spoken or written or by visible representations, insult or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, or with fine, or both.

This law was amended further in 1982 as 295-B, defiling the Holy Qur’an, was added by Presidential Ordinance 1:

Defiling the copy of Holy Qur’an. Whoever wilfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur’an or of an extract there from or uses it in any derogatory manner for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.

It stipulates life imprisonment for an offender who wilfully defiles a copy or portion of the Holy Qur’an. It may be observed at the very outset that the law provides protection to the Holy Scripture of only one class of the country. The sentence of life under this section is not an expression of administering justice but rather a tempting tool in the hands of the Muslim extremists to hold the members of the religious minorities in religious-cum judicial blackmail for personal vendettas.

That did not satisfy the extremists, they pressurised General Zia-ul-Haq to add 295-C through Criminal Law (amended) Act III of 1986, the Blasphemy against the Holy Prophet. However, it was further amended by the judgement of the Federal Shariat Court making the death penalty mandatory on conviction for the offence of desecrating the name of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Not only that, but for the first time religious qualification was added to the PPC, so that only a Muslim Judge may hear the case under this section of the law (Section 295-C).

This is read as:

295-C: use of derogatory remarks etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet: – who ever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation innuendo, or insinuation, directly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life and shall also be liable for fine.

The law stipulated death penalty or life imprisonment for defiling the name of the prophet of Islam. The Federal Shariat Court of Pakistan while adjudicating on a case in 1991 struck down the option of life imprisonment and made the death penalty obligatory, along with a fine usually very high. The other noteworthy aspect of this section is the absence of the expression wilfully or intentionally in the text of the law. Disregard of the element of will or intention in the law makes the whole environment suspicious for the reason that “will” or “intention” is an essential part of human behaviour in the context of identifying a criminal offence. Thus under section 295-C, a person committing offence without “will” or “intention” is awarded death sentence at par with the one committing it “wilfully” or “intentionally”. We can see that law is required to punish the “unintentional” offence on the same scale as in the case of “intentional” one, without any justification.

These laws seem to protect the embodiments of faith of only one community in a multifaith society, whereas that community is already in majority and ruling class of the country. On the contrary these laws provide no protection to members of other religions and hence they are discriminatory. They are used against the members of other religious communities including Christians, Ahmadis, and Hindus and even against Muslims who have some differences with main sects. It is even being interpreted by extremists as ‘blasphemous’ to claim that it is not necessary for a man to grow his facial hair long in Islam!

Christians are the main targets by the fundamentalist and religious political parties. The law is being used for forced conversion, forcibly taking over the lands and business of Christians, hindering the preaching of Christian faith and for settling personal scores, rivalries and vengeance. Nevertheless, these laws have proved to be the most injurious weapon of active religious persecution by the extremists with encouragement from the government.

Muslims on the other hand also face these problems but only those who are being declared as non-Muslims by the majority known as Sunni. The other sects of Muslims who are declared as non-Muslims are Ahmedis, Shias, Bahais, Zakris, etc. and they also face problem from the majority. They are also accused and charged with blasphemy to settle personal disputes.

Many innocent persons have been falsely accused under these laws and the number is still on the rise. Victims are severely manhandled and even murdered by mobs and individuals; their families go in hiding. They have to leave their home or even their homeland and their dear ones accept exile to save their lives. Their worship places, houses and localities are attacked, burned and destroyed. Those accused have to undergo fierce media trial. Throughout the process of arrest, investigation and trial anyone showing sympathy with the accused is liable to harassment and allegations being made against them of acting in a non-Islamic way. Police are pressurised and blackmailed. Judges are threatened, harassed and have even been killed. Even if the accused is acquitted, they are still hunted and killed by extremists. There are still many in the jails waiting for fair trial.

The Unholy Law

It is widely believed that the draconian Blasphemy Law is used for the miscarriage of justice; it is exploited ruthlessly by fanatics to settle scores with rivals and by religio-political parties to gain political leverage over administrative apparatuses.

In Jawaid Ghamdi’s book, The Penal Shariah of Islam, Ghamdi maintains that capital punishment can only be given to a person who has killed someone, or to someone who is guilty of spreading disorder in society. With reasonable certainty, during a seminar organised by People’s Resistance (PR), Islamic scholar Dr. Khalid Zaheer confirmed the notion that there is no blasphemy law in Islam.

Despite the fact that the law has no Islamic underpinnings, successive democratically elected governments in Pakistan have proved reluctant to remove this controversial law from the books. The fact is, the law has little to do with religion, and everything to do with the changing socio-political climate in Pakistan. It is important to remember that the Blasphemy Law emerged – and endures – in a particular social context, and is thus beholden to the history of Pakistan. Here, contextualises the law and maps  the reasons for its resilience.

A numbers game

The Pakistani Blasphemy Law originated from the 1860 British Penal Code, which contained a few clauses that protected the interests of diverse religious groups in undivided India. From 1984 to 2004, 5,000 cases of blasphemy were registered in Pakistan and 964 people were charged and accused of blasphemy; 479 Muslims, 340 Ahmadis, 119 Christians, 14 Hindus and 10 others. Thirty-two people charged with blasphemy had been killed extra-judicially. Eighty-six percent of all the cases were reported in Punjab.

Pakistan’s minorities

The religious minority demographic of Pakistan’s population is 3.7 per cent (an estimated six million). There are approximately 30,000 Sikhs, 20,000 Buddhists, 1,822 Parsis, and 600,000 Ahmadis (an exact estimate is difficult to obtain because of their reluctance to register as non-Muslims in the census). Other religious groups are Bhais, Kalasha, Kihals and Jains.

Hindus and Christians are the two biggest minorities. They comprise 83 per cent of the non-Muslim population in Pakistan. Ninety-three per cent (2.4 million) of all Hindus live in Sindh and 81 per cent (2 million) of Christians live in the Punjab. Those accused of blasphemy over the years primarily hail from the following divisions of the Punjab: Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Toba Tek Singh, Jhang Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Sialkot and Sargodha.

Urbanisation is providing opportunities to minorities for upward social mobility, which in turn is perpetuating awareness about individual rights and their assertion in the public spheres. For the feudal mindset, this empowerment has become a challenge and the blasphemy law is providing a way for landowners – as well as those dependent on the landowners’ good favour – to keep minority subjects in fear, and thus under control. Increasingly radicalised mullahs in rural areas are helping landowners maintain their stranglehold over minority workers.

Divide and school

The radicalisation of Pakistani society, which manifests as a heightened intolerance for religious minorities, has been traced back to various social developments. One of them is the mushrooming growth of madrassahs in Pakistan, a phenomenon perpetuated by the Afghan war. Historically, madrassahs were considered a particular type of educational institution and never confronted the state as an institution, though they are responsible for creating a stringently static mindset.

Madrassahs have become important and influential; Pakistan has 16,059 high schools and 15,725 madrasahs: the total high school population stands at 1.6 million while there are an estimated 1.5 million madrassah students (though a group of researchers has claimed that madrassahs accounts for less than one per cent of enrollment). Madrassahs are in the forefront of producing a particular world view based on Alam-e-Islam (World of Islam) and Alam-e-Kufr (World of Infidels).

The Maududi mindset

Meanwhile, the new influence of religion in the political sphere has contributed to the persistence of the Blasphemy Law. In the twentieth century, the politicalisation of religion was mainly a reaction to the colonisation of Muslim lands by western powers. Religion played an effective motivating role for political parties seeking independence of their homeland. As politics and religion collided, Islam seeped out of the madrassahs and into modern educational institutions.

The Maududi mindset is a product of the above-mentioned paradigm shift, and served to facilitate the entrenchment of Political Islam. It was no accident that Syed Maududi of the Jamaat-e-Islami, in a quest for a holy community and with aspirations of dominating the state apparatus, demanded an Islamic system of governance for this nascent state.

This and other pressures exerted by Maududi and his accomplices later translated into The Objectives Resolution, the anti-Ahmadi movement of 1953, and the declaration that no non-Muslim could be the head of the state in the Constitution of Pakistan. Maududi’s legacy eventually prompted General Ziaul Haq to revive the British-era Blasphemy Law, but in a skewed fashion.

Reality reassembled

Pakistani society was also polarised by Gen Zia’s introduction of a separate electorate in 1985. It was another major step to reduce the status of minorities. Earlier, in the joint electorate system, the minorities still had some clout as a representative could not ignore the votes of non-Muslim constituencies. But by introducing a separate electorate, the military dictator isolated Christian voters.

A majority of Christians, who had earlier supported mainstream parties and were aware of the larger issues facing the country, lost sight of this wider view – the Christian vote became mired in personal and religious issues. The divide was particularly evident with regards to sensitive issues like imposition of Shariah, Hudood Ordinance and the efforts for the repeal of the Blasphemy Law. Although the separate electorate law was done away with in 2002, the damage over 17 years had taken a toll and Pakistan’s Christians found themselves politically marginalised.

Mission of hate

The culture of Political Islam and ‘jihad’ in the 1980s also led to the widespread dissemination of anti-minority propaganda. Hate literature was constantly churned out by various religio-political groups that spat venom not only on non-Muslims, but also against other Muslim sects.

Under the Pakistan Penal Code in 2006, the government banned 16 books 12 weekly magazines, 9 monthlies and one daily newspaper to discourage the circulation of hate material. In 2005, the government had already banned about 133 publications. The amount of money spent by extremist organisations to produce offensive literature still runs into millions of rupees every month. Inevitably, the literature targets Shias, Ahmadis and Christians, and is freely available in the areas of operation of sectarian and ‘jihadi’ organisations.

The defunct Sipahe-e-Sahaba Pakistan (now operating under the name of Ahle Sunnat wal-Jammat Pakistan) used to distribute more than a dozen pamphlets and booklets in which so-called ‘objectionable material’ from Shia history books was reproduced, and readers were urged to get rid of these ‘blasphemers.’ It is disappointing to note that this hate literature is popular amongst various government offices and as recently as 2005 was openly found on the tables of government officials. In the face of such official apathy, and in some cases, complicity, it is no wonder that accusations of blasphemy were frequent in the Punjab, which is home to most sectarian outfits.

Revisiting the law in Pakistan

The extremist organisations’ incitements to hate and violence have sadly turned into actions and reality have a direct bearing on the public’s conduct towards minorities, particularly those accused of blasphemy. A review of major blasphemy cases over the last 26 years and interviews with the accused revealed that the law is used by zealots to suppress liberals and others who think differently. Over the years, it has become evident that the Blasphemy Law singles out non-Muslims for persecution.

Non-Muslims who offer a rebuttal to the abuse of radicalised clerics and youngsters are branded as criminals guilty of blasphemy. The judiciary, meanwhile, faces perpetual pressure from the fanatics, a pressure that jeopardises the delivery of justice.

It has been reported that for the safety of the accused, cases have been transferred from the courts to other ‘safer’ locations. These measures have caused hardships to the accused and his/her family. Still, in many cases, the accused in a blasphemy case was killed extra-judicially because imams incite people and issue fatwas urging the public to kill the alleged blasphemer. In some cases it was also observed that the religious affiliation of the law-enforcers eclipsed their professional mandate as they became party to attacks against blasphemy accused.

In other Muslim countries, blasphemy is dealt with under state law instead of Sharia law. For example, in Indonesia, the maximum penalty for a convict under is five years imprisonment. In 1994, Maulana Kausar Niazi, former Chairman of Islamic Ideology Council, remarked that Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law needed modification, while noted intellectual Akbar S. Ahmed stated that the law was mostly invoked to put an end to political vendettas, land disputes and political rivalry.

At the recent PR seminar, Dr. Zaheer mentioned that even though there are several mentions of blasphemy committed by the polytheists of Makkah and hypocrites of Madinah against Islam and its Prophet (PBUH), no worldly punishment has even been hinted at in the Qur’an.

Instead, the Qur’an urges Muslims to ignore what the blasphemers were doing, to not participate when they blaspheme, and create circumstances that do not allow blasphemy to take place. Dr. Zaheer pointed out that Muslims must apologise to non-Muslims for the unwarranted crimes in the past committed against them in the name of religion to ease tensions. He stated that Muslims should condemn, or at least not hold those individuals as their heroes, who murdered non-Muslims accused of blasphemy because they become inspirational to the youth of the community.

If a Blasphemy Law must exist, from an Islamic point of view, Dr. Zaheer believes it must satisfy the following conditions:  

a) Capital punishment cannot be given to a person who is found guilty of committing blasphemy. According to the Qur’an, capital punishment can only be given to murderers and those who take the law into their hands. (Qur’an; 5:32)

b) The punishment should be applicable to those found guilty of blasphemy against revered personalities, deities of all faiths and it should be equally applicable to both Muslims and non-Muslims. The Qur’an says: “Don’t use abusive language against their false gods lest they should use the same language against yours in retaliation.” (Qur’an; 6:108)

Ultimately, though, most civil society participants in the debate on the blasphemy law believe that to ensure the fundamental human rights of all citizens, irrespective of class, caste and creed, as envisaged by Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the current government needs to repeal the law without further delay.

Blasphemy laws in pakistan