Blasphemy cases in Pakistan have made international headlines, especially in recent years, but they aren’t primarily an international issue, in fact international campaigns may likely be an impediment to change.
Blasphemy is foremost a national issue in Pakistan, one that is part of its own culture wars, in which perceptions of Shariah, opposition to foreign interference, conceptions of nationalism and worldwide degradation of sacred Islamic symbols combine to create a volatile mix within society.
The fact is the blasphemy laws passed in the 80’s during dictator Zia ul-Haq’s Islamization drive have led to horrific consequences: the targeting of the poorest of the poor, used and abused to settle personal squabbles, inflaming of passions leading to vigilante mobs wreaking havoc, and the targeting of minorities who increasingly feel under siege and fearful.
The following article in the Pakistani daily, Dawn, gives us a glimpse into the societal discussion over blasphemy, how the current blasphemy laws are in stark contradiction to classical Islamic Fiqh (the human endeavor to know Shariah) understanding and a departure from the consensus of Muslim scholarship in the subcontinent.
Change within society cannot be imposed from the outside, Amnesty International will not be as effective as local groups, scholars, politicians and media. In Pakistan there is clear precedent for this, a previous law regarding rape requiring four witnesses was deemed anti-Islamic and subsequently the law was changed. This was due to the efforts of those working within an Islamic Fiqh paradigm and the nationwide, robust media discussion that altered and changed the narrative.
While the proposed changes in the blasphemy law will not please “Western liberals,” since it does not call for elimination, what they must keep in mind is that this is not about them. This is about injustice and the many lives who are endangered by an un-Islamic blasphemy law. (h/t: Arif J.)
Pakistan’s blasphemy law continues to sustain popularity and credence, with death being considered not only the most appropriate retribution for offenders, but the only one. This ideology is embraced most wholeheartedly when it comes to non-Muslims charged with blasphemy.
In my previous article when I spoke of the authentic Hanafi position on the permissibility of pardon for all blasphemers (Muslims and non-Muslims), the overwhelming response supported such a pardon for the likes of Junaid Jamshed (a ‘fellow Muslim brother who had offended some by mistake’) but held that the same principle of pardon could not be extended to non-Muslim offenders such as Asia Bibi.
This is largely reflective of the predominant public narrative on blasphemy.
Those who dissent – who speak of pardon and of waiving the death penalty, particularly for non-Muslims – are seen to be speaking from borrowed western ideologies or from a faith deemed too weak to be seen as a credible authority for the public. This has made it convenient for citizens to largely ignore those who plead for clemency, reducing these voices to a small, ineffective and irrelevant force, at best.
There was a time when this was not so – in fact, at one point, the most revered ulema (religious scholars) of South Asia had rallied together to defend the position that non-Muslims could not be awarded the death penalty for blaspheming.
This occurred in the late 19th century, when the South Asian ulema (the overwhelming majority of whom belonged to the Hanafi school of thought) were under ideological attack from the Ahl-e-Hadith.
The Ahl-i-Hadith originated as a movement influenced (and later funded) by the Wahabis of the Arabian Peninsula. This movement challenged the established Hanafi rulings on various issues, including blasphemy, alleging that these were based on opinion (ra`y) and Greek influenced analogy-driven reasoning (Qiyas), rather than on prophetic tradition (Ahadith).
In particular, they took exception to what they perceived as Hanafi lenience towards non-Muslims blasphemers (i.e. not prescribing a fixed death penalty and the provision for pardon) which they viewed as incompatible with Ahadith.
These criticisms roused the Hanafi ulema to an impassioned rebuttal.
Many of them targeted the Ahl-e-Hadith from within their own framework, deconstructing several Ahadith that formed the basis of these criticisms.
One such example is a monumental, 21-volume commentary, the I’la al-Sunan (the exaltation of the normative practices [of the Prophet]) by Maulana Zafar Ahmad ‘Uthmani, aiming to demonstrate, against the charges of the Ahl-i-Hadith, that the legal doctrines of the Hanafi school were in fact solidly based in traditions of the Prophet (PBUH).
Despite monolithic individual efforts of such stature, the most profound and relevant in terms of blasphemy, in my view, was Fath Al Mubeen Tanbeeh Al Wahabin (an explicit victory and a warning against the Wahabis).
This contains a fatwa (see below) that clearly states that a non-Muslim blasphemer cannot be killed unless he/she is habitual in the offense.
This last part is an important qualifier because it differentiates single acts of blasphemy from multiple and deliberate attempts, in fact from what is considered politically rebellious blasphemy.
The monumental fatwa endorsed by 450 scholars that shows that killing is not permissible unless adat (habituality) and kasrat (high frequency) of offenses are established.The Ahl-e-Hadith, in challenging the Hanafi position on blasphemy presented a compilation of Ahadith which supposedly showed that blasphemous offenders (including non-Muslims) were in fact killed, and that therefore the Hanafi ruling was erroneous in this regard.
In the rebuttal, the fatwa pointed to an important flaw in the Ahle-Hadith argument — that the Ahadith thus presented all pertained to cases of repeat or habitual offenders.
There is not a single case where a non-Muslim was ever killed for committing a singular offense of blasphemy.
(Further, according to Imam Abu Hanifa, the death penalty is awarded in cases where it is categorised as siyasa (political) punishment, as opposed to sharia (divine) punishment, against elements openly rebelling against the Islamic state, using habitual blasphemy as a tool).
This legal position was approved and signed by no less than 450 of the most prestigious names in the Hanafi ulema, not just from South Asia, but around the world.
It is difficult to come up with a case study of a bigger systematic consensus (ijma) than this one. Hundreds of leading ulema of their time from South Asia have declared that non-Muslims cannot be killed for a single offense for blasphemy and their pardon is acceptable unless it becomes a habitual and high frequency offense.