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Blasphemy and the death penalty: Misconceptions explained

Updated Nov 02, 2015 12:18pm

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In the Hanafi school of thought, there is unanimous prohibition on the killing of non-Muslims for blasphemy. —Reuters
In the Hanafi school of thought, there is unanimous prohibition on the killing of non-Muslims for blasphemy. —Reuters

This is the fourth article in a five-part series on the untold story of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. It is recommended that the previous parts be read in order to understand 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

Part 3: Why blasphemy remains unpardonable in Pakistan


At the beginning of this year, when this series began, Junaid Jamshed had been charged with blasphemy.

Judging from comments across social media and forums, a significant proportion of the online population reacted with a mood of forgiveness.

Some commentators said he was deserving of sympathy and forgiveness because, even though he was accused of blasphemy, he had apologised and was a Muslim. Indeed my first article went to great lengths to establish the acceptability in Islam for pardon of actual blasphemers.

When this same charge is levelled at a non-Muslim, however, the reaction is extremely negative, and often violent.

Such a reaction is contradictory to the Hanafi jurists who have commented on the issue throughout the past 1200 years. Those jurists represent the stance of the Hanafi school of thought, which is one of the four schools of thought in Sunni Islamic Jurisprudence and the one with the largest following in the world, as well as the predominant theological orientation to which an overwhelming majority of Pakistani Sunnis subscribe.

Contrary to popular sentiment and belief, the position on Muslim blasphemers is actually stricter and more severe than on non-Muslims. In fact, throughout the Hanafi tradition, blasphemy by non-Muslims is recognised merely as an extension of their disbelief.

The founder of Hanafi School, Abu Hanifa notes:

‘If a dhimmi (non-Muslim) insults the Holy Prophet, he will not be killed as punishment. A non-Muslim is not killed for his kufr (denying the Prophet) or shirk (polytheistic beliefs). Kufr/Shirk are bigger sins then sabb e rasool. – (Therefore non-Muslims will not be killed for sabb e rasool.)’ [Al Saif al Maslool]

Further, Abu al-Husayn Ahmad al-Quduri:

‘Non-Muslims insult Allah and say that He has a son and the Zoroastrians say He has an “opposite.” This does not break their covenant of security, therefore the same applies to insult of the prophet PBUH.’
[Al-Tajrid]

Ali ibn Abi Bakr al-Marghinani in Al Hidaya (which is taught all over Pakistan in Hanafi seminaries) states:

‘Insulting the prophet is kufr/disbelief. Since the non-Muslims are not killed for their disbelief, they will not be killed for any addition in their disbelief.’
[Al-Hidaya]

In fact, Tahawi goes on to prescribe a verbal warning as an appropriate punishment for an offending non-Muslim:

‘If a non-Muslim commits blasphemy, he will be given a verbal warning. If he repeats the offense, he will be punished but not killed.’
[Mukhtasar al Tahawi]

One may be tempted to think that in citing these sources, I am cherry-picking i.e. selectively choosing ones that support this stance. But, in fact, this is not the intent or method of research.

Below is a compiled, annotated timeline of every Hanafi jurisprudence text of significance that has discussed non-Muslim blasphemy.

View the timeline in a full screen.

This includes four authoritative tomes, whose monumental significance and influence can be gauged by the fact that they have had over 200 commentaries written on them.

Even the briefest perusal of this reference resource will show that there is a unanimous prohibition on the killing of non-Muslims for the offense of blasphemy. The only exception noted is in the case of habitual offense committed as treason, and therefore liable – at the discretion of the ruler – to any punishment up to and including the death penalty.

It is ironic, then, that people believe that to not kill a non-Muslim blasphemer – and even to advocate for his/her life – is tantamount to blasphemy itself.

How is it, then, that today’s Hanafis (including devout Barelvis and Deobands) differ so radically from the position established by the most revered personages of their tradition?

In my first article, I established that Pakistan’s blasphemy law and the discourse surrounding it re-imagined the offense of blasphemy, claiming that there was an ijma (consensus of scholars) that blasphemy carries a hudd (divinely ordained) punishment of death, with no possibility of pardon.

My first article established that on all three points (ijma, hudd and the impossibility of pardon), this narrative was wrong, and based on a completely erroneous reading of Imam Abu Hanifa’s position on blasphemy by the 14th century scholar, al-Bazzazi. This misattribution was subsequently used by Ismaeel Qureshi in framing Pakistan’s blasphemy law.

Yet, even in al-Bazzazi’s incorrect reading of Abu Hanifa, he was still only talking about the death penalty with respect to Muslim blasphemers.

This means that the origin of the current narrative against non-Muslim blasphemers rests on uncertain foundations.

In framing Pakistan’s blasphemy law, Advocate Ismaeel Qureshi made two grave errors:

  1. As we have already discussed in previous articles, he referred to the erroneous stance put forth by al-Bazzazi prescribing a fixed death penalty for Muslim offenders (and misattributed it to another jurist).

  2. In order to indiscriminately apply the jurisprudence to Muslims and non-Muslims, Ismaeel Qureshi takes the quote and replaces the word Muslim with “Kafir” so that the death penalty can be applied to non-Muslims as well.

The original quote built off the misreading:

“A Muslim blasphemer of the prophet PBUH will be killed under hudd and his pardon won’t be acceptable.” – (Ibn Abidin, Kitab al Jihad, Bab al Murtad)

Which Ismaeel Qureshi changed to:

“A kafir blasphemer of the prophet PBUH will be killed under hudd and his pardon won’t be acceptable.” – (Ibn Abidin, Kitab al Jihad, Bab al Murtad)

Actual Quote of Bazzazi’s misreading:

مسلمان کو سب و شتم النبی ﷺ کی وجہ سے بطور حد قتل کیا جاے گا اور اس کی توبہ قبول نہی کی جاے گی کیونکہ حد توبہ سے ساقط نہیں ہوتی۔

Modified quote of Bazzazi’s misreading:

کافر کو سب و شتم النبی ﷺ کی وجہ سے بطور حد قتل کیا جاے گا اور اس کی توبہ قبول نہی کی جاے گی کیونکہ حد توبہ سے ساقط نہیں ہوتی۔

In summary, Ismaeel Qureshi not only picks an established erroneous stance, but also goes on to misattribute it to a much greater and renowned scholar (Ibn Abidin), and finally extends this false position to non-Muslim offenders as well.

The result: An erroneous extension of an already false prescription (fixed death penalty) for Muslims, to non-Muslim offenders as well.

As a result of this, various distinct groups are now subjected to the same treatment under the blasphemy law.

The sordid history of the blasphemy law includes other attempts at establishing the strictest possible penalty (death) for non-Muslims by quoting sources meant only for Muslims.

In 1987, when the law was first passed, references were made, in the parliament, to Fatawa-e-Alamigiriyah (the most consulted resource for fatwas in South Asia) to establish a consensus on blasphemy being a capital offence for Muslims and non-Muslims, when the text explicitly states a guarantee of the protection of the life and property of non-Muslim offenders by the state.

Scanned excerpt from Fatawa-e-Alamgiriyyah:

Excerpt from Arabic version of Fatawa-e-Alamgiriyyah:

ومن امتنع من أداء الجزية أو قتل مسلما أو زني بمسلمة أو سب النبي صلي الله عليه وسلم لم ينقض عهده

Further in 1991, the Federal Shariat Court, in a judgement applying to both Muslims and non-Muslims, cited Abu Bakr al-Jassas al-Razi’s position of a death penalty for blasphemers, while ignoring the same author’s prohibition on killing non-Muslim blasphemers.

Scanned Arabic excerpt from Sharh Mukhtasar al Tahawi by al-Jassas:

English Translation: 'Whoever insults the Prophet, non-Muslims will not be given a death punishment.'

It is unclear whether this was a deliberate or incidental oversight. But, even today, indications of a distorted understanding of the issue are abundant. The narrative is perpetuated by a variety of similar instances of erroneous and at times, fabricated sources.

Take, for instance, a fatwa on the treatment of blasphemers (both Muslims and non-Muslims) published by Jamia Uloom e Islamia, Binori Town (one of the largest Hanafi seminaries in Pakistan). Here is the original text of the fatwa, which is citing Al Sarim al Maslool:

Scanned excerpt from a fatwa from Binori Town:

Translation: “There is a general consensus amongst scholars that he who insults the Prophet PBUH will be killed as *hudd. This has been endorsed by Imam Malik, Imam Laith, Imam Ahmad, Imam Ishaq and Imam Shafi has the same position …… and Abu Bakr Farsi quotes Imam Shafi on the general consensus of Muslims on death penalty to blasphemers.”*

At first glance, it seems that the use of ellipses “…” is merely to save space and exclude irrelevant information. However, upon locating the cited source with the complete sentence, we find that the ellipses had been used to omit one of the most significant aspects of the ruling.

Here is the complete text from which the fatwa is ostensibly quoting:

"قال ابن المنذر: "أجمع عوام أهل العلم أن من سب النبي صلي الله عليه وسلم القتل، وممن قاله مالك والليث وأحمد وإسحاق، وهو مذهب الشافعي". قال: "وحكي عن النعمان: لا يقتل-يعني الذمي-ما هم عليه من الشرك أعظم". وقد حكي أبو بكر الفارسي۔۔

“There is a general consensus amongst scholars that he who insults the Prophet PBUH will be killed. This has been endorsed by Imam Malik, Imam Laith, Imam Ahmad, Imam Ishaq and Imam Shafi has the same position. However, Abu Hanifa differs and states that a non-Muslim will not be killed for blasphemy. Shirk is a greater sin (and we do not kill him for that). Abu Bakr Farsi quotes Imam Shafi on the general consensus of Muslim.

The ellipses reveals itself — scan of original Arabic text:

Translation: “Abu Hanifa differs and states that a non-Muslim will not be killed for blasphemy. Shirk is a greater sin (and we do not kill him for that).”

It is surprising that the Binori Town scholars chose to omit a reference that prohibits the killing of a non-Muslim blasphemer, especially when one considers that the omitted source is none other than the very founder of their own madhab (religious tradition), Imam Abu Hanifa.

In formulating a fatwa, a Hanafi jurist is bound to refer to the ruling of his own school, and over here, what has occurred is the opposite, simply because the position endorsed by their own school in this case provides a more lenient and forgiving narrative towards non-Muslims.

Clearly, the internal biases and ‘otherising’ perspectives of the Ulema are interfering in their intellectual integrity in responding to issues of blasphemy.

Moreover, the use of ellipses appears to be an attempt to manufacture consensus on the issue and to suppress any opposing viewpoint, even if it comes from within their own tradition; the tradition which is the pre-dominant one in the region.

Indeed, scholars throughout the Hanafi tradition who adhered to strict codes of integrity, have acknowledged a natural bias to prescribe the strictest possible punishment for the offense of blasphemy, and have admitted that it even feels like a matter of honour to do so, but have cautioned against giving in to such biases.

Ashraf Ali Thanawi, arguably the most popular 20th century jurist from South Asia remarks:

A feeling of dishonour ('bey-gharati') is natural when I think of Hanafi tradition on non-Muslim blasphemers i.e. they will not be killed for it. Then God puts in my heart the thought that Abu Hanifa (who prohibited the death penalty for non-Muslim offenders) has more honour/ghairat than us. [Malfoozat e Hakeem ul Ummat, Vol. 26]

Similarly, Qasim Ibn Qutlūbughā warned jurists against letting emotions dictate the law:

“Although our hearts tilt towards a strict punishment to the non-Muslim blasphemers, we must not pay heed to it.” (Ibn Abidin, Tanbih al-wulat wa’l hukkam ‘ala Ahkam Shatimi Khar al-anami aw ahadi ashabihi’l kiram)

With the latest Supreme Court judgement, it appears that our institutions have realised the need to reexamine our own biases in the indiscriminate and heavy handed application of a death penalty to a population it was perhaps not meant for.

In light of all the research and resources that are now available, and observable mistakes made over the past three decades, perhaps it is time that we start learning from history and set the record straight.

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Author Image

Arafat Mazhar is the founder of Engage, an institution for research and reform of religious laws in Pakistan.

He can be reached on Facebook or at arafat@engagepakistan.com and tweets @arafatmazhar.


The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.



Comments (64) Closed



Omar Nov 02, 2015 12:24pm

A very well written and soundly researched article. I cant wait to read the 5th write up of this series.

analyses Nov 02, 2015 12:37pm

Great research. However in Pakistan no one has time, energy or will to research and correct mistakes. Our approach is to just keep mum and do nothing. Only a person who stands for principles and moral values will change these.

Anees Nov 02, 2015 12:43pm

An eye opener for blind folded with hatred.

Karim Nov 02, 2015 12:45pm

Very brave effort with the sword of knowledge and wisdom.

Alugobi Nov 02, 2015 12:59pm

Great article. Pakistan must keep state and religion separate. Don't apply 7th century rules to 21 st century...

Zain Nov 02, 2015 01:04pm

The timeline and the images. Lawyers and judges should have copies of these. Supreme Court should take a notice of this and call for a revision based on these texts. Now is the time to talk after Qadri's judgement. Let us not be silent anymore. Let us talk. Brilliant Article. The best read of this year.

sheryar Nov 02, 2015 01:18pm

now to translate this article in urdu for the masses to read and not just the literate

Amanullah Rabbani Nov 02, 2015 01:20pm

I am grateful to the writer for bringing this thing up with so many credible references. I hope the legislators will pay some attention to this important issue.

Faisal Nov 02, 2015 01:25pm

Well done Arafat! its a well researched document.

Tahir A Nov 02, 2015 01:39pm

Well written article. However, I hope we Muslims do not spend a lifetime on debating hair splitting religious issues.

Instead, can we spend more time to alleviate poverty, corruption and improve our welfare system. Thank you.

wellwisher Nov 02, 2015 02:02pm

when we move into 21st century.Should not rules be moderated and more tolerance introduced.

Rani Sharma Nov 02, 2015 02:16pm

The irony about blasphemy is that God does not care if God is insulted. It is humans who bring down God to the level of humans and then rule that God gets insulted. The real blasphemy is in the minds of humans and in the words of humans and in the books that humans wrote wherein humans imagine that God is like humans.

Zain Nov 02, 2015 02:34pm

Is there a way to access the texts from which the pages have been scanned?

sameer Nov 02, 2015 02:37pm

QADRI sab should be free

Acorn Guts Nov 02, 2015 02:43pm

@Tahir A I had to leave my dear country and seek refuge in UK because of this law. My 17 year old nephew is in Liaquat National as we speak recovering from 4 bullet wounds to his stomach .. I know several friends and families from my Ahmadiyya community who had their lives ruined because of this law and and you have the nerve to dismiss all this so callously?

Ahmad Nov 02, 2015 02:53pm

All the articles from this series must also be translated by experts (to avoid wrong translation) in Urdu, Sindhi, Punjabi, Pashto, Baluchi, Farsi, Saraiki, Hindko, Potohari, Makrani.

saurabh Nov 02, 2015 02:55pm

Amazing!! What religion advocates death for human beings?!!! How does it matter what religion they belong to! How can you justify killing of human beings! I am more interested to know what do they have to say if the person is mentally impaired? Kill him too?! Shame!

Azm Nov 02, 2015 03:17pm

fantastic article!

Tahir A Nov 02, 2015 03:21pm

@Acorn Guts

Brother, you have completely misunderstood me. I am trying to convey the same feelings as yourself i.e. repealing the ghastly 2nd amendment and other similar laws that followed on which the Mullahs are making a meal. I am on your side and must have come across you in the gathering in August.

I pray for the speedy recovery of your nephew.

AHA Nov 02, 2015 04:14pm

A sensible article. However, when a majority of our people believe in intolerance, sense has no value.

Dr Ahmed Nov 02, 2015 04:21pm

Hard work and great effort. I wish people read this or be able someday to understand this to change their mindsets.

Abdul Karim Nov 02, 2015 04:56pm

Are we all not civilised people? Even leaving religion aside its human not to kill anyone for any reason whatsoever!

MD Nov 02, 2015 05:08pm

The world is moving ahead with better ideas developed from different civilizations and we are still living in an old civilization

S. Haider Nov 02, 2015 05:23pm

@Rani Sharma . A wise comment. I agree with you.

Ali S Nov 02, 2015 05:26pm

This series needs to be published in Urdu in all mainstream Urdu dailies as an act of public service.

Junaid Syed Nov 02, 2015 05:41pm

Brilliant work Arafat! The timeline is quite useful for young researchers.

Changez_Khan Nov 02, 2015 06:00pm

People still act like stone age era. They need to be educated.

ivehadit Nov 02, 2015 06:02pm

very nice and educational for all. let's follow our own religion for starters. proud of Mr. Mazhar for addressing this in a public forum and for Dawn for engaging in this debate.

Secular Pathan Nov 02, 2015 06:14pm

Killing another human or animal over any issue is not justifiable. Is human life so cheap and valueless?

Jamal Nov 02, 2015 06:22pm

@Acorn Guts I am Sunni but because of this law and extremism in general I feel like not going back home. I am a human, I have feelings, and I feel your pain. One day the believers will know that it is stupidity ruining others lives based on beleives.

Salman Nov 02, 2015 06:33pm

Great and much needed work. It was long over due.

haider Nov 02, 2015 07:07pm

well researched

Irfan Cheema Nov 02, 2015 07:20pm

Excellent article. it shall go down in the history as an eye opening piece of work that helped restoring the faith of Muslims on their own religion.

jen Nov 02, 2015 07:36pm

Great Series Mr. Mazhar. I read all at one go!

Pleaseeeeeee ask someone to translate them in Urdu and/or other regional languages. So that masses can understand that how these mullahs are hiding truth from them!

It is good to see that intellectuals in Pakistan are slowly and gradually understanding the harms of radical behaviour!

Thanks for taking this pain.

citizen Nov 02, 2015 07:42pm

Most of the lynching is done by uneducated unruly mob under the influence of local uneducated mullah..How to educate them?

Muzaffar Ali Nov 02, 2015 07:50pm

It is all about power...and this law gives" them" that power.

Muzaffar Ali Nov 02, 2015 07:54pm

One way out of the Law is to give the same punishment to all the accusers if proven wrong.

Muzaffar Ali Nov 02, 2015 07:59pm

@citizen You wrote:

"Most of the lynching is done by uneducated unruly mob under the influence of local uneducated mullah..How to educate them?"

One way is to give them the same punishment if proven wrong! And all their accomplice.

Usman Nov 02, 2015 08:03pm

Very well written article! This whole series is an eye opener

Dabangg Nov 02, 2015 08:05pm

This is all well and good.

Fyt Nov 02, 2015 08:09pm

Well done. That's true teachings of Islam.

Alugobi Nov 02, 2015 08:25pm

Can each of you begin by sharing this article on facebook and twitter? Let us make this viral. It is important to get notice. Also, can volunteers translate this to local languages to spread the message?

Sajid Syed Nov 02, 2015 08:35pm

Arafat Mazhar, a good effort does not go waste. Providence shall reward you. You have many friends across the world. You have earned goodwill, good wishes and blessings of many around the globe. Keep up the good work and stay blessed.

shahid Nov 02, 2015 09:15pm

A million thanks for writing this article. It is only with such efforts that we can return to the fundamental principles and guidance provided by Islam.

FMALIK Nov 02, 2015 09:57pm

Blasphemy laws should be repealed as they are utilized by people to settle personal scores. Also, no one should be able to lose their life because of their religion. Pakistan was created by Jinnah for preserving political rights of Muslims and not for strictly religious reasons. Jinnah envisioned a secular state where religion for no business of state and a personal matter of a person. These laws have victimized significant section of our society and has brought bad name for us in world.

Raj Patel Nov 02, 2015 10:08pm

The big question is who will bell the cat ? Who will teach this to the educated bigot who has selfish agenda ??

Parvez Nov 02, 2015 10:47pm

Common sense should tell us what is right and what is not......in this case its a misuse of the law and there is no remedy to counter this misuse.

Zia Nov 02, 2015 10:48pm

We now live in a world that more or less has adopted "freedom of speech" to prevent followers of a religion, righteous or misguided, from harming of a non-believer in their version of the faith.

We need to grow up and figure out how we are going to make a constructive/productive contribution to the world around us.

Our prophet left us a legacy of love and tolerance. We have allowed ourselves to be misguided by the "criminals of religious interpretation".

Khalid Toronto Nov 02, 2015 11:52pm

I did not have the time to read through this or the previous articles of the series. But, my question is why do we need to do so much in-depth analysis? It seems like an awful waste of life to research and try to justify if is ok to kill someone or not. Why can't we just use common sense? Why do we need a Mufti or an Aalim to tell us right from wrong? Are we so dumb?

Religion is a means to an end and not an end in itself. All religions teach us to be good and tolerant, tell us not to lie, steal, bribe, or kill. All it takes is a little bit of common sense really.

Tara Nov 02, 2015 11:53pm

@sameer

By what count? This article proves the opposite. Qadri is a brain-washed killer but his fate should be decided by the wife and children of the Shaheed Taseer.

Satyam Vada Nov 03, 2015 12:14am

@Khalid Toronto perfectly put.

Emran Jamal Khan Nov 03, 2015 12:33am

I have been following this very well researched and amazingly well narrated series ever since the first article was published. I am absolutely stunned and impressed by your extensive research, your flow of expression and your bold stance on this sensitive topic. This nation needs more and more people like you to light more candles and eradicate the prevailed darkness of ignorance. Peace.

AD Nov 03, 2015 01:31am

@jen Slowly?? Slower than watching paint dry. Why is this coming out after so many years. Obviously many must have known about this year ago.

haider Nov 03, 2015 04:56am

This matter can be resolved very easily All the PM has to do is to take notice and make a committee

straight shooter Nov 03, 2015 06:16am

you guys are retards living in the 7th century.suits you !

saba Nov 03, 2015 06:29am

well done! I agree that this needs to be translated into Urdu.

Rani Sharma...a very correct comment.

dk Nov 03, 2015 06:43am

I wish it were translated in Urdu and published in all media channels. The ignorance is the most dangerous enemy of a vibrant society. It becomes even more dangerous when associated with a religion. I applaud the efforts and courage of writer, who has given one solid analysis despite risks associated with rational thinking in otherwise blindfolded society.

overseap Nov 03, 2015 08:56am

Great service to the nation.

Alima Nov 03, 2015 08:59am

Thank you so much for writing this well researched article. I always wondered why a non Muslim is being killed for blasphemy ? Thanks for clarifying the misconception

Ajaya K Dutt Nov 03, 2015 09:18am

Hurting religious feelings of any one, Muslim or not, is an evil act. Punishment can be a deterrent.

Same should be applied to those insulting other religons

Gulfam Hassan Nov 03, 2015 06:39pm

Excellent work. Well researched.

SMQ Zaman Nov 03, 2015 08:02pm

Many thanks to Sh. Arafat Mazhar (and updating at least my extra-lural knowledge of Fiqh on this contentious global matter. May God reward you more, Ameen, Amen, and So Be It) for Part 4 of 5 of this important Series on Hanafi Law of Jurisprudence (or Fiqh) re. Blasphemy Law (one of four traditional and classical Sunni-Muslim Schools of Law or Jurisprudence; the others being Maliki, Shafi`i, and Hanbali for the uninitiated).

Posted by: ZAC Consulting 'working in practice and international development for a better, inclusive, and peaceful world' United Kingdom

Ekperson Nov 04, 2015 02:51am

Excellent work and great unbiased research

Peace Nov 04, 2015 07:40pm

Well, a very well researched series of articles. Eye opener and shocking for most of us. This piece must be translated in Urdu and get published in every Urdu newspaper and magazine. The really shocking part is that our most revered and respected ulemas have hidden the truth from us for so long. They are the main culprits and have blood of so many innocent victims on their hands. Does hiding the truth and promoting falsehood will bring any good to society; Never, ever