December 17, 2010 Special Dispatch No. 3455

Pakistani Writers Debate Death Penalty For Christian Woman Under Pakistan's Blasphemy Law and Its Validity in Koran, Sunnah

December 17, 2010
Pakistan | Special Dispatch No. 3455

Aasia Bibi, courtesy:

Aasia Bibi, a Christian Pakistani woman and the mother of five children, has been sentenced to death by a Pakistani court for committing an act of blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad. The death sentence was handed down under Section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code. It is not just members of the Christian and Hindu minorities, but also Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan who are regularly accused by Islamic clerics of committing an act of blasphemy by allegedly not believing the Prophet Muhammad to be the last prophet of God.

The clerics are demanding that Aasia Bibi be hanged. There is a public struggle raging in Pakistan between a vast section of the population led by orthodox, often militant, Islamic clerics and the secular intelligentsia, who are best represented by Salman Taseer, the governor of Pakistan's Punjab province. Governor Taseer has sought to preempt the death penalty by trying to secure a presidential pardon. The Lahore High Court has issued a preemptive order against a presidential pardon, saying the case is being heard by it.

In the following two articles, Pakistani writers Abbas Zaidi and Dr. Mohammad Taqi debate the implications and rationale of the controversial blasphemy law in Pakistan. In the first article, titled "The Blasphemer Must Not Be Pardoned," Abbas Zaidi, a sociolinguist, argues that the clerics should not be allowed to have their way, as it will embolden the clerics, causing further such threats to the nearly five billion people who are not Muslim.

In the second article, titled "Blasphemy Laws: What Does the Koran Say?" prominent writer Dr. Mohammad Taqi argues that the Holy Koran and Sunnah, i.e. the deeds and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, do not prescribe any punishment for a blasphemer. He reasons that the clerics are misusing a Koranic verse dealing with war and sedition to call for the death penalty for blasphemy.

The following are excerpts from both articles, as they appeared in the Lahore-based liberal newspaper Daily Times.[1]

Abbas Zaidi: "Aasia Bibi Must Not Be Pardoned – Otherwise, the Lives of Around Five Billion Humans [i.e. Non-Muslims] Might Be Jeopardized"

"Hundreds of mullahs [clerics] have taken to the streets to warn against the possible pardon President [Asif] Zardari might grant Aasia Bibi, who allegedly blasphemed against the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). They say that if Aasia Bibi, the Christian blasphemer, is pardoned, they will launch a jihad against the government and the entire world and kill all the blasphemers. Aasia Bibi must not be pardoned. Otherwise, the lives of around five billion humans might be jeopardized. And now the Lahore High Court has also passed an order on the petition of a private citizen that the president cannot pardon Aasia Bibi because the case is sub judice. Why do mullahs so fanatically react to each case of perceived or alleged blasphemy?

"The logic is very simple. Non-Muslims have, roughly speaking, two views of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH): One, they (for instance, Christians and Jews) do not consider him to be a prophet at all; and two, they (Hindus, Buddhists, and the rest) are not bothered about the issue at all. Now this is not acceptable as far as our furious mullahs are concerned. They demand that the world positively accept him to be the last prophet. Which effectively means that non-Muslims either convert or be ready for the sword.

"Was the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) the last prophet of Islam or the world? This is a tricky issue, which the mullahs are not prepared to deal with. If he were the last prophet of Islam, then it would be unfair on our part to force non-Muslims to accept him as the last prophet of Islam. If the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was the last prophet of humankind, then we must look for guidance in the Holy Koran. And if the Holy Koran says that he was the last prophet of humanity, then we must seek guidance from the Book of Allah and see if Allah instructs us Muslims to wage a jihad against those [e.g. Ahmadi Muslims] who deny Prophet Muhammad's (PBUH) prophetic finality. If Allah gives no such an instruction, then we Muslims must fear His wrath because Allah very, very explicitly said in the very beginning of the Koran that whosoever kills one human being is guilty of killing all of humanity. Thus, by wanting to kill humans in the name of the Prophet (PBUH), these mullahs, in letter and spirit, want to launch an insane jihad against Allah."

"My Plea that Aasia Bibi Must Not Be Pardoned is Based Upon a Different Logic – If She Is Pardoned, It Would Establish Her Guilt"

"But my plea that Aasia Bibi must not be pardoned is based upon a different logic – if she is pardoned, it would establish her guilt. The president of Pakistan has a constitutional privilege to pardon anyone who has been punished for some offence. Now this implies that the person pardoned is indeed guilty. Thus, it would mean that Aasia Bibi did, in fact, commit a crime of an immensely heinous nature, which resulted in the death penalty verdict against her.

"In 1992, the Pakistan government formulated the blasphemy law, whose fruit Aasia Bibi is made to taste today. At that time, I wrote against the law, saying that it would be misused by criminals and criminally minded people to settle personal scores and commit acts of robbery and snatching people's possessions. Many people resented my argument and blamed me for being a Jewish agent. Three mullahs came over to 'see' me in the newspaper office where I worked. Those were different times.

"Now I may be dealt with in a different manner. However, certain things never change. In 1992, I wrote that the stature of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was not so weak as to need, of all the people, Pakistanis for protection. I say the same thing today: The great Prophet (PBUH) needs no protection from a country [i.e. Pakistan] which, year after year, is a contender for the top slot on the international list of the most corrupt countries. The Prophet (PBUH) does not need to be protected by the fascists who commit the ultimate blasphemy against Allah by killing people, His creation, in His prophet's name."

Dr. Mohammad Taqi: "[In Koranic Verses] Neither Has a Direct Order Been Given To Impart a Punishment, Nor Has A Set Punishment Been Prescribed [for Blasphemers]"

"[T]he Holy Koran and Sunnah [deeds of the Prophet] ostensibly form the premise of Article 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) and, without revisiting what they actually say about blasphemy, the only challenge that might be successful against this law would be to have its procedural aspects modified. The Koran and Sunnah indeed are the two material sources of the Shari'a law, but were eventually supplemented by a corpus of interpretation largely agreed upon by a majority of Muslim scholars (ijma) and deductive analogy (qiyas) to form the basis of Islamic jurisprudence…"

"I would point to one… [Koranic] verse: 'Verily! We have seen the turning of your (Mohammad's) face towards the heaven. Surely, We shall turn you to a Qiblah (direction of prayer) that shall please you, so turn your face in the direction of Al-Masjid al-Haram' (2:144). This is a unique verse; while the Koran and other holy books speak to what humans, including the prophets, must do to earn the pleasure (raza) of the Almighty, here Allah is doing something purely to earn the pleasure or raza of His Prophet (PBUH).

"So is it possible then that the Almighty, who has thus exalted the status of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), left us without any guidance on how to deal with speech or actions that attempt to disparage Him? Could the Koran be silent on a matter of such grave importance? Have we been left to rely on the ijma and qiyas of the clerics who came some two centuries after the Prophet (PBUH)?

"Indeed not, but that is something that the ones after a poor woman's scalp would have us believe. Let us consider Surah Al-Ahzab, verse 57: 'Lo! Those who malign Allah and His messenger, Allah hath cursed them in the world and the Hereafter, and hath prepared for them the doom of the disdained.'

"The Koran also mentions the most important case of blasphemy ever committed against Mohammad (PBUH). The Koran says in Surah Al-Massad: 'The power of Abu Lahab will perish, and he will perish. His wealth and gains will not exempt him. He will be plunged in flaming fire. And his wife, the wood-carrier, will have upon her neck a halter of palm-fibre.'

"The common theme between the verses noted above is that while the highest condemnation has been heaped on anyone reviling or attempting to revile the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and eternal damnation promised for the perpetrator, neither has a direct order (amr) has been given to impart a punishment nor has a set punishment been prescribed – not even for Abu Lahab!"

"[One Koranic] Verse Dealing with War, Sedition and Rebellion Is Invoked to Punish What May not Even Qualify as Theocratic or Religious Dissent [e.g. on Blasphemy]"

"Let us also consider the Arabic terms used to describe blasphemy against God and the Prophet (PBUH). The Arabic words sabba (abuse, insult) and shatm (vilification) denote blasphemy and have been adopted in Persian and Urdu as well. It must be stated that the word shatm does not occur in the Koran at all, while a derivative of sabba is used only in one verse, and that too to proscribe the Muslims from hurling sabba on other people's gods and deities (Chapter 6:108).

"So where then do punishments like death or chopping off limbs for blasphemy come from? Usually, anecdotal reports are cited from the Hadith in which the Prophet (PBUH) allegedly condoned the death or punishing of a blasphemer. However, for each such incident – usually reported on weak authority – there are two others where the Prophet (PBUH) tolerated and indeed pardoned insults against him. Not a single incident can be cited from the Sirah traditions [i.e. Sunnah] where charges of blasphemy were filed, a trial held and the punishment meted out.

"Almost all proponents of severe or capital punishment for blasphemy, therefore, quote verse 33 of Surah Al-Maidah, in support of their argument: 'The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter.'

"It is a travesty of justice that a verse dealing with war, sedition and rebellion is invoked to punish what may not even qualify as theocratic or religious dissent. In fact, Article 295 is not just a travesty of justice, it is an iftira (slander) against the Almighty and Prophet (PBUH) as it attributes to them what they never mandated. The presidential pardon is most commendable in the current case and procedural changes to the blasphemy laws would be welcome.

"However, Article 295 is repugnant to the Koran and Sunnah and, as long as it remains on the books, it will be a direct negation of the verse 'Wama arsalnaka illa Rehmatan-lil-alameen' (We sent thee not, but as a Mercy for all creatures – 21:107). By not prescribing harsh penalties, the Almighty prevented this exalted status of Mohammad (PBUH) from being undermined…"


[1] Daily Times, Pakistan, December 3, 2010. The text of the articles has been lightly edited for clarity.

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