Why blasphemy remains unpardonable in Pakistan

Published February 19, 2015
Mobs rampaged through the Joseph Colony neighbourhood of Lahore in March last year after the allegations against Sawan Masih emerged. —AFP
Mobs rampaged through the Joseph Colony neighbourhood of Lahore in March last year after the allegations against Sawan Masih emerged. —AFP

This is the third article in a five-part series on the untold story of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Readers are recommended to read part 1 and 2 first to minimise confusion and clarify the context of this article.

Part 1: The untold story of Pakistan’s blasphemy law

Part 2: The fatwas that can change Pakistan's blasphemy narrative

This is a story of a group of religious and religio-political actors who completely changed their position on the blasphemy law for what they perceived to be the greater good of the society.

It was not that long ago that the Pakistani ulema were openly stating a position on the blasphemy law that said blasphemy does not mandate a fixed penalty, and is a pardonable offense.

And then, something changed.

Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer’s assassination acted as a catalyst for a rapid shift from what they originally held to be true (not only expounded by others but by their own selves) to a much more radical and populist stance.

These figures of religious authority had uncovered a simple code: regardless of political or religious orientation, the nation will rally together in defence of the name of the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him).

Moreover, this law and the narrative surrounding it serve as a tool for the persecution of minorities. This claim is not hyperbole – it is grounded in fact.

The story is best told through visuals.

The following infographic compares the extra judicial (vigilante) killings related to blasphemy and accusations of blasphemy before and after the passing of the blasphemy law (295-C).

It also shows the exponential increase in blasphemy cases over the past two decades.

It is clear that either people have become a lot more blasphemous, or there is an inherent capacity within the law to be used as a weapon of persecution.

—Data from 1990-2014.
—Data from 1990-2014.

—Data from 1990-2014.
—Data from 1990-2014.

—Data from 1990-2014.
—Data from 1990-2014.

A more in-depth look at the minorities targeted under the law reveal what may well be specifically a method of institutionalised persecution against the Ahmadis.

—Data from 1990-2014.
—Data from 1990-2014.

The power of the law means that it becomes important for religo-political actors to attach their narrative to the law, because that is where political mileage lies.

The clearest example of this was when Taseer was assassinated for requesting a presidential pardon for a blasphemy accused, and members of the public hailed his killer as a hero and approved of the murder.

Those who had previously acknowledged the option of pardon and waiver of the death penalty, recognising the shift in the locus of power, quickly changed their position in response to the apparent public sentiment.

The manner in which they have erased all mention of the possibility of pardon from their narrative and public declarations — endorsing even the polar opposite of what they have known to be true — makes for a fascinating case study of binary before and afters. It demonstrates all too clearly the hand of politics at work in the functioning of the 'apolitical' religious scholarship. A few cases in point:

Jamia Binoria

Jamia Binoria in Karachi is a major madrassah and its head, Mufti Naeem, made regular media appearances defending the law and criticising Salman Taseer for requesting presidential pardon for Asia Bibi. However, we know that before the “event”, Jamia Binoria itself adopted a much more lenient stance.

Both fatwas have been taken from the official Jamia Binoria website in 2010 and 2014 respectively.
Both fatwas have been taken from the official Jamia Binoria website in 2010 and 2014 respectively.

Mufti Muneeb ur Rehman

Mufti Muneeb ur Rehman has been one of the most vocal supporters of the blasphemy law and has repeatedly categorised blasphemy as an unpardonable offense, with a fixed death penalty.

He was instrumental in the exile of theologian Javed Ahmad Ghamidi from the country after their debate on blasphemy went public.

*The conversation cited in the “Before” is from the official transcript of a Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) meeting in 2003-2004 downloadable here.

If Sharia allows pardon in blasphemy cases, who can deny it?

It appears that Mufti Muneeb had a sudden case of amnesia during his debate with Ghamidi as he brushes away the idea in the strongest of terms.

The debate between Mufti Muneeb ur Rehman and Javed Ahmed Ghamidi

Mufti Muneeb ur Rehman has also gone on record in conferences declaring that Ghamidi’s insistence on pardon is a danger to the religious authority of the ulema.

Looking at the same Mufti Muneeb in a meeting of the Council Islamic Ideology before the issue was politicised, it is clear that he knew of the provision of pardon in Hanafi jurisprudence.

Note that at the time, while acknowledging the existence of pardon, he was personally reluctant to make the knowledge public for its 'potential harm'.

Now, of course, by hiding the truth, he has decided for the people what they should and should not know.

In contrast to the demand-driven about turns since Taseer's assassination, we can look to simpler times when the issue of pardon was raised in a relative political vacuum by looking to the stance of no less a personage than the Grand Mufti of Pakistan.

Grand Mufti of Pakistan – Mufti Rafi Usmani

Our Grand Mufti Rafi Usmani is perhaps the most authoritative faqih (Islamic Jurist) in Pakistan.

In 2003, he actually gave a step-by-step procedure for obtaining pardon for blasphemy (in the Council of Islamic Ideology Annual Report, 2003-04, pg 135).

This was in response to a query by the state on the acceptability of pardon for those charged under 295-C.

While these particular steps are for a Muslim (as per the case in question), he does acknowledge the provision of pardon as the Hanafi position for non-Muslims in the same article as well.

The very fact that he gave the criteria for pardon means that he is giving a legal and procedural way forward for people like Dr Younus Shaikh and Asia Bibi.

While the politicised religious forces were busy condoning and celebrating the assassination of Taseer for requesting pardon for Asia Bibi, buried in the archives of the CII annual reports, our own Grand Mufti had provided procedural recommendation for pardon years ago.

The Bench of the Ulema in the Federal Shariat Court Judgment 1991

As noted in the previous article, Ismaeel Qureshi – the architect of the law – filed a petition in the Federal Shariat Court to declare blasphemy a hudd (divinely ordained and fixed) offense without provision for pardon. The court looked towards a bench of seven ulema on the question of pardon.

Four out of 7 ulema categorically stated that blasphemy was a pardonable offense (i.e. the death penalty is not fixed).

The court ignored the majority vote of the bench and went ahead to formulate a legal interpretation that espoused the opposite, making it a hudd offense.

One cannot help but question the judgment, especially when we consider the following:

The story of Nawaz Sharif and his father

After the dubious judgment by the FSC in 1991, a petition was filed challenging the decision.

As discussed in my first article, my research partner and I interviewed Ismaeel Qureshi.

Ismaeel Qureshi made a phone call to Muhammad Sharif, the father of Nawaz Sharif, and told him that someone was trying to challenge the FSC judgment. ‘You are an aashiq-i-rasool and you cannot let this happen during your son’s government,’ said Qureshi.

In response, Muhammad Sharif called his son, the Prime Minister of the country, and instructed him to get the petition withdrawn.

Nawaz Sharif himself recounts in the acknowledgement section of Qureshi’s book how he interfered in a judicial matter.

Nawaz Sharif in the acknowledgement section of Ismaeel Qureshi’s book Namoos-i-Rasool aur Qanoon-i-Tauheen-i-Risalat.
Nawaz Sharif in the acknowledgement section of Ismaeel Qureshi’s book Namoos-i-Rasool aur Qanoon-i-Tauheen-i-Risalat.

In what is a clear violation of the separation of institutions in democracy, Nawaz made a phone call to the courts and got the petition thrown out.

Why? Because he said so.

The nonchalance with which Ismaeel Qureshi narrated this story of political interference speaks volumes about how commonplace it is for political agendas to creep into and usurp religious narratives.

Why are the religious forces hiding the truth on pardon?

My first article documented the original authentic Hanafi position on the penalty for blasphemy i.e. it is not a hudd offense, there is no death penalty for repentant Muslim offenders, no death penalty for non-Muslims and there is a provision of pardon in all cases.

Why then, do the religious forces deny or hide this?

My research partner and I went on a mission to find the answer to this question.

We met Fareed Paracha of Jamaat-i-Islami, as well as the president of Tanzeem-i-Islami, Hafiz Akif Saeed (son of Dr Israr Ahmed).

After presenting our evidence of the factual inaccuracies from which the current narrative draws its strength, we asked for their opinion. We got the same answer – that it is a matter of maslihat (public good). It is not in the best interest of the public that information like this be openly disseminated.

According to them, revealing this will help the mission of the 'secular agenda' in the country.

On a visit to the Jamia Madania, the chief mufti agreed with all of our research but refused to make it official by giving us a fatwa on the issue of pardon.

In fact, both our primary and secondary research shows that the instrument of maslihat is used consistently to misrepresent the classical Hanafi Jurists on the matter.

The idea being promoted is that Islam is in a fragile state and under attack, both externally from the West, and internally through growing secular voices. Thus, reverting to the authentic Hanafi position, which resonates with the 'secular' demand for clemency and lenience in blasphemy, is tantamount to collusion with this 'repugnant' force.

The mission then becomes to claim and retain ownership of this religio-political power play, even if it is at the expense of intellectual integrity and human lives.

Stay tuned for the next article in the series documenting relatively apolitical groups of the ulema that are working to dispel myths surrounding the blasphemy narrative.


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