Tracing roots: Academics delve into blasphemy law’s origin

Published: January 14, 2011
London speakers say the law is left over from colonial era.

London speakers say the law is left over from colonial era.

LONDON: A senior lecturer at the Islamic College in London has said that there isn’t a single verse in the Holy Quran that deals with blasphemy.

“The laws relating to blasphemy as contained in the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) are man-made laws,” said Dr Tahir Wasti, who has authored a book called The Application of Islamic Criminal Law in Pakistan. “While the Quran prescribes punishment for theft, murder, slander and illicit intercourse, there is no mention of blasphemy,” he said.

A number of academics spoke to a packed lecture hall at a seminar held at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London, on Salmaan Taseer’s assassination and the context of the blasphemy law.

Tracing the laws’ history, Wasti said that all provisions enacted by colonial authorities included the concept of ‘intention’ and no crime could be committed unless there was an intention to insult religious feelings. This element was absent from General Zia’s provisions.

Dr Asad Ahmed, associate professor of anthropology at Harvard University, pointed out that the concept of blasphemy had been imported from the Judeo-Christian tradition into the Indian subcontinent and it had been a ‘very minor theme’ in Islamic law. “Blasphemy was a big issue in the England of the 1830s and the colonial architects of these laws were simply transferring English concerns onto an Indian audience,” he said. “It gave legitimacy to colonial rule to depict locals as excitable and irrational people who were highly sensitive to insults.”

Ahmed said that enabling ‘wounded sentiments’ to be the basis for a cause of action criminalised religious debate and became the basis of religious nationalism.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 14th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (28)

  • Moazzam+Salim
    Jan 14, 2011 - 10:45AM

    Bravo. Dr.Tahir Wasti has shown the world what people fear to say and hear in this time and era. Looking at the debate that has been going on in Pakistan one can see that the issue has been intentionally confused. The Blasphemy Law is already in place and it would be extremely difficult to convince a religiously charged section of our society to think of any repeal but it can always be amended to make it a better and just law. The issue with the Governor’s murder should have been whether calling a man made law a “kala qanoon” is equivalent to blasphemy? As Dr. Wasti has pointed out there is not a single quranic verse where a law has been laid down in this respect, examples of defined Quranic laws include the law of Inheritence which has been described in detail in Surah Baqra. The thing that most of the emotionally charged population of Pakistan do not know or do not want to know is that all laws consist of both substantial and procedural parts. A prudent course of actionn would be not to argue against the substantial part of the Blasphemy law i.e. the offence and its punishment but the procedural part, where the nitty gritties of the law are provided. This part of the law should be looked into as there are lots of loop holes by virtue of which this law is being used to settle personal vendettas. Nobody wants to kill/punish an innocent person and therefore extra care is required. The law about Zina is also a Quranic law and to prove that you need four pious muslims as eye witnesses. This is because the punishment in that case too is of death and therefore the extra care to prove the offence. However, there is no such restriction in the Blasphemy law and this is where the debate should be; how to improve this law. Recommend

  • Jan 14, 2011 - 11:38AM

    This law does not need to be impoved…it needs to be done away with!

    Allah does not need our defence nor does Mohammad. We need ALLAH!!

    This is a mindless law designed so that people have an excuse to act like barbarians and feed on thier hate and desire to hurt people over just words that they say. It was put in place to have a legal reason to hurt others if you do not agree with them. A law for tiny people with tiny brains who feel intellectually inferior and therefore unable to DISCUSS topics intelligently. Just like a child who does not yet have the vocabulary to express their desires….they throw a temper tantrum….the difference is that the adults throw tantrums that are deadly.

    Education is key… all subjects not just Islam. If there were a decent education system that actually taught critical thinking skills as well as ACCURATE WORLD History and not just memorization but actual theory, things would be different. Recommend

  • Jan 14, 2011 - 1:34PM

    For Muslims being a Muslim is not by force, and la ikrah fi din is another supportive agreement , as to Muslims blasphemy is capital punishment and it is imperative in Pakistan’s special circumstances due to its localized culture and rampant penchant for claiming oneself Mehdi, Prophet and so on etc. For Muslims this simply amounts to treason from the basic ideas of Islam as the most glaring and distinguishing factor in Islam from other Ahle-e Kitab is personality of the Last Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him. Christians never target but Muhammad, Jews target but Muhammad, Hindus, and so on. If Muslims also begin to target the foundation of its own religion, then there is bound to be maximum possible problem and it needs the vigilance of society from intellectual and other legal and ancillary means as the society decides . There is no second thought , but even in such cases mass emotionalism and narrow parochial approach should not be the judge. ( examples of bias towards Prophet peace be upon him are rampant on internet). But in that case no individual can take law into her or his hands, legal procedure and proper prosecution is required to prove and punish such person. If such person is Muslim then it becomes extreme fitna and an issue to be dealt with as per nature of the case. in this situation of being Muslim it is also Fitna and rebellion against the foundations of Islam , thus it becomes a complex and double crime, which if kept free can unleash more destructive forces within the society and polity of country. This will demolish the edifice of Islam and if on the name of shadows of terroism drones can be unleashed by civilized world then why can a real , proven, threat to fundamental way of life can not be dealt with legally? Here is also the point death punishment is the last resort or the fine, incarceration etc as the case may be..( Personally I do not like imprisonment of any sort as it is against thuman / insani liberty.) For Muslims its capital punishment is also emancipation from punishment hereafter, as if he is punished in this world then his sins are no more ( Refer to case of solitary rijam in Prophet peace be upon him’s time). Despite presence of this law no single individual, group, sect, or others can be exhorted to take law into their own hands. No place for acts like Salamn Taseer ‘s murder, although in first he never committed blasphemy. Here I differ with your point of view that it is mere Fitna…. for Muslims it is more than fitna and it is fundamental plaque of Islamic law and Shariah. We can discuss it more if the point is not clear.

    At conquest of Makkah Hanzal? and his two woman slaves were specifically punished with death for deliberately insulting Prophet peace be upon him , other many people were sought but ran away or did not pass through this punishment. They were non Muslims …. why Holy Prophet peace be upon him applied capital punishment on them? Is act by Prophet peace be upon him done in personal capacity not Sunnah… and as in this capacity part of Shariah? If answer is yes then the issue is clear .Recommend

  • Shahryar+Ahmed
    Jan 14, 2011 - 1:37PM

    This is a great peice! On it is our duties to take this forward. If the electronic media has some ethics, I hope they pick up on this to educate us all.

    Great, I am really happy t read this article. Recommend

  • Jan 14, 2011 - 2:20PM

    It is significant that both the respondents above have not focussed on the strangest statement in the article –

    ““The laws relating to blasphemy as contained in the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) are man-made laws,”

    All laws are man-made. The only laws ordained by God (if you will) are the laws of nature. In that case abusing your physics text book should be deemed as a blasphemous act.

    For me personally talk shows in Pakistan are endless entertainment and a terrible addiction because of all these strange pronouncements. So please carry on.

    The latest from Amir Liaqat’s show is that a man with a wig cannot conduct ablutions that are legitimate in the eyes of God. However a man with a patch of hair stuck on his head to cover a bald patch can conduct a legitimate rite of ablutions because only 1/4th the hair needs to be involved in the act. This is much like our priests saying that cutting a strand of hair from a boy’s head is alright during the all-important thread ceremony in lieu of completely shaving the head!!Recommend

  • M M Malik
    Jan 14, 2011 - 3:30PM

    There is no temporal punishment for blasphemy. Recommend

  • Hafsa Zubair
    Jan 14, 2011 - 4:14PM

    This is really interesting, and encouraging… What comes to my mind though, is that it’s all very well for the English-speaking minority to read this news (and all the other debate that’s been surrounding this and other current issues). But what of the vast majority of the public? Do they read and hear these things? Is there similar debate in major Urdu-language forums – no, wait, are there any major Urdu-language forums?

    Unless and until we start the same kind of dicsourse among the majority of our public (perhaps a foolish and unrealistic thought, but a necessary thought, I think) it will not matter what sane, reasoning people think and say elsewhere in the world; our society will continue to entrench itself deeper and deeper in this Godless abyss under the guise of religion.Recommend

  • zaigham
    Jan 14, 2011 - 5:28PM

    at prasad:
    lol… irony is the fact still you find people who regard natural sciences as hedonistic and they would rather sow the seeds of religious study only and reap the harvest of happiness in the next… Recommend

  • T R Khan
    Jan 14, 2011 - 8:44PM

    Blasphemy punishment is un-Islamic, its Jewish.Recommend

  • Muhammad Tariq
    Jan 14, 2011 - 9:39PM

    Dr. Wasti needs no introduction, he is a well known scholar and I personally appreciate his positive thoughts. He has commented very boldly about a hot issue “blasphemy” in Pakistan. Majority of Pakistani population is illeterate and follow their so-called religious scholars (Ulemas). Those Ulemas just go to small schools or to small relligious teaching centers (Madrissas) in Pakistan. Such institutions’ teachers are hardly able to transfer their knowledge of reading Quran and Hadith. It is evident in practical life that most of their pupils and followers say “YES” to them without having confirmation from any independent source.
    Tolerence and Forgiveness were much common in the teaching and in practical life of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). Last Messenger (PBUH) never killed intentionally/unintentionally a single human being in his life and he left the message that “He who kills one human being, he killed the whole humanity”.

    I would love to quote undereath a famous true story/message from our beloved Prophet.

    ‘Once the Prophet PBUH was seated at some place in Madina, along with his companions. During this time a funeral procession passed by. On seeing this, the Prophet stood up. One of his companion remarked that the funeral was that of a jew. The Prophet replied “Was he not a human being?” (Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Sunan An Nasai)

    Dr. Wasti is not only a teacher but also a good practical muslim and he follows the message of tolerence and forgiveness. He can never compromise on blasphemy but according to Quran and Sunnah.

    I will particulaly mention that one should not follow those Ulemas who have little knowledge as against a Ph.D Doctor. As it is said that “little knowledge is dangerous”. Latest example of little knowledge holder is Mr. Qadri (murderer) who killed Mr. Salman Taseer (ex Governor of Punjab, Pakistan).
    Mr. Wasti is a Doctor and he has extensive knowledge about the Prophet ( PBUH) and religion Islam. In his latest speech at SOAS, London, UK he added that there isn’t single verse in Holy Quran that deals with blasphemy. It is open to every body to investigate about his stated words.
    It desn’t mean that Mr. Wasti is supporter of blasphemy, in my views he strongly dislikes the blasphemy but under the Sharia Laws not under the man made laws like in Pakistan.Recommend

  • Dr Pakhtun
    Jan 14, 2011 - 10:08PM

    Moazzam & Salim! With reference to your lines “The law about Zina is also a Quranic law and to prove that you need four pious muslims as eye witnesses. This is because the punishment in that case too is of death and therefore the extra care to prove the offence”..The punishment for Zina per the Holy Qutran is 100 lashes and not death.

    Let me quote a few lines from Dr Khaled Abu el Fadl’s book” Islam and the challenge of Democracy”, that are very relevant to this dicussion

    “If a legal opinion is adopted and enforced by the state, it cannot be said to be God’s law. By passing through the determinative and enforcement processes of the state, the legal opinion is no longer simply a potential—it has become an actual law, applied and enforced. But what has been applied and enforced is not God’s law—it is the state’s law. Effectively, a religious state law is a contradiction in terms. Either the law belongs to the state or it belongs to God, and as long as the law relies on the subjective agency of the state for its articulation and enforcement, any law enforced by the state is necessarily not God’s law. Otherwise, we must be willing to admit that the failure of the law of the state is in fact the failure of God’s law and, ultimately, of God Himself. In Islamic theology, this possibility cannot be entertained.Recommend

    Jan 14, 2011 - 10:17PM

    Well, there is no dearth of individuals in Pakistan who are fearless and upright. Its heartening to note that they are taking on the mad clerics and mullas who are themselves committing blasphemy by spreading hatred and passing death sentence orders. Recommend

  • Tafseer
    Jan 14, 2011 - 11:27PM

    i think if you reading the Quran and understand it why you guys are not promoting the laws which already mentioned within the Quran. dont think whenever you want exclude you start debating when ever you think there is some think which you can digest you start avoiding it. I am not favoring man made laws but at least follow the law which mentioned within the Qurna-e-Majeed “Holly book”.Recommend

  • Balma
    Jan 15, 2011 - 12:06AM

    I found your physics comment extremely funny…..even if the context in which you said is quite depressing. Recommend

  • Jan 15, 2011 - 3:05AM

    stop it everyone – just stopit you are blaspheming against some mullah… i mean it stop it!Recommend

  • Jan 15, 2011 - 12:52PM

    100% of the Laws required to live a perfect life are listed in the QURAN.. the thing is that NONE of these MULLAH.. not a single one actually reads the quran.. they claim to Quote the Quran but none of them will actually spend the time to read and understand it (its a very easy book to read / understand).Recommend

  • Jan 15, 2011 - 1:06PM

    @Mohammed Abbasi
    Would it be a DEATH SENTENCE if we aruge with you because you carry the name MOHAMAMD as part of your name?

    Actually, I have decided NOT to hire anyone with the name Mohammad.. i would be charged with blasphemy if i end up firing this guy.. so you need to start thinking of changing your name to something other than MOHAMMADRecommend

  • Canuckistani
    Jan 22, 2011 - 1:32AM

    Rather than debate the fallacy of the arguments presented in this piece, I shall point out that ET has dozens of articles in favor of repealing the blasphemy laws altogether and none in favor better application, amendment or no change at all. Has the editor heard of the term BIAS?Recommend

  • Jan 22, 2011 - 11:25AM

    there is ONLY one position to take when you are dealing with EVIL!!! you have to be AGAINST IT!!! this is NOT the court of LAW where even the EVIL are allowed to speak.

    This LAW is TOTALLY EVIL.. UN-ISLAMIC and spawned by the DEVIL himself and needs to go!!Recommend

  • Canuckistani
    Jan 22, 2011 - 7:32PM

    @ “QuranvsHadith”

    The fact that you are using CAPITAL letters with plenty of EXCLAMATION marks!!!!!! suggests that you are shouting your point of view across forcefully. Secondly, the language you are using is extremely confrontational and one-sided. Rather than debate with you about the merits of your argument, I will point out to you that the stance you have adopted leaves you right out of the debate. Nobody disputes that the majority is in favor of the blasphemy laws. So if the majority is just as forceful as you, you don’t stand a chance of even being able to utters those words in public. If your objective is to promote tolerance, it helps to show some yourself, particularly if you entirely disagree with someone and wish for them to change their position. Considering that the position you have adopted is not one of dialogue but confrontation, what do you think the result of your stance would be if you actually had the courage to act on those words? My prediction is that you’d be silenced very quickly and would probably have to end up moving and hiding….and that is the BEST case scenario for you! And could you blame the other side for describing you as “Evil”, “UnIslamic”, and “the Devil” (that one is just ridiculous) when yourself are adopting that rhetoric and confrontational stance? Do you expect that you will threaten the majority and they will meekly bow down? If its a democracy, the majority rules and they want the blasphemy laws…you cannot over-rule the majority by force and claim that you’re acting on behalf of democracy and tolerance. it takes patience and struggle to achieve change when you are in such a minority…you must win people over, not try to abuse them or fight with them because you will lose badly.

    The majority of the articles on ET admit that the position of the majority is that the blasphemy laws are untouchable, but then go on to denigrate that majority (i.e. at least 90 million Pakistanis) for their incivility and lack of enlightenment. There is however not a single article that provides a reasonable account of the view of the majority. Recommend

  • John
    Jan 23, 2011 - 6:51AM

    Religion and State politics are incompatible. Akbar understood it in India and the framers of US constitution understood it well. The majority Hindu India understood it and put secularism as the primary pivot in their constitution. In Pakistan religion was the sole basis of it’s founding as in Israel. As such, neither in Islamic countries nor in Israel the person of different faith can be truly free in their thought, speech, or writing. It fact that was Jinnah’ fear with majority Hindu India in his two-nation theory. In any state where there is state sponsorship of religion, the sponsored religion becomes superior, and by default all other religious thoughts including atheism become blasphemy. The person belonging to the sponsored religion becomes superior while the person belonging to the non sponsored religious belief, including atheist, becomes inferior-Kafir. In the case of Pakistan, a non Islamic person can not become a head of state because he/she has to swear an oath as being a Muslim. The very fear expressed by Jinnah on his two-nation theory. The same goes for other religious states as well. It is true that in other nations, where there is secularism, the head of state happens to be member of dominant religion of the land even in US. Surprisingly, India out-witted all other secular states by getting minorities in the highest state office much ahead of western secular states. Even in US it is yet to be shown that a presidential candidate can be non Christian and it offended many in US when religion came into political picture during Obama’s election. Unfortunately, in the era of global instant communication Islam gets a bad rap. The fault lies on educated Muslims who resist honest religious discussion for Islamic spiritual revival, Including the author of the article and many comments herein. trying to justify that blasphemy
    Law was colonial era or jewish era past. Let us not forget Salman Rushdie case here. When lawyers shower rose petal on the killer, how much worse can it be? No religious teaching is complete and constant discussion is essential and only people who live in that land can bring about change in their religious thinking. Unfortunately it has become blasphemy so all discussions are eliminated. How can you reform? By speaking and writing in a civilized manner. Hindus, Buddists, Jews, Christians, Bahais, Sikhs, and even atheist did it. What is stopping Islam? Pakistan has to follow the principles of Turkey or Indonesia for it’s Islamic ideology of State religion. Embrace the best, throw the archaic interpretations, form moderate theological seminaries to train Mullahs in the philosophy of religion, embrace the principles of the Indian sub continent that enabled the thoughts on religion that contributed much to the Islamic school of thoughts of Asia. Recommend

  • Canuckistani
    Jan 24, 2011 - 6:07PM

    John…this is a debate that all of us have had time and again and frankly, I can’t be bothered to have it again. The thing I can tell you is the last thing we, or anybody else, wants is to have foreigners telling them how things should be with the self-righteousness expressed by most westerners that visit Pakistan. Why can’t you people go mind your own business? You have plenty of your own problems and its your countries that have attacked and killed more people in the last 50 years than ours! Please John…leave us alone and let us do our thing! Recommend

  • Canuckistani
    Jan 24, 2011 - 6:30PM

    John, do you really think that with your superficial knowledge of Islam you have the right to tell Muslims what type of Islam is ok to practice and what changes we should make in order to generate a “revival”? I am sure if the shoe was on the other foot you’d be able to see the arrogance in your post more clearly. Since you are an American, I think you should be more concerned with an American revival considering that the US is a step away from losing its economic superpower status which is likely going to turn your national debt into your greatest enemy. You will experience inflation, you will no longer be able to fund these wars, your ability to produce the most high tech weapons is already compromised because China now monopolizes the world’s rare earths industry…these are essential components of everything from satellites to missiles, jets, supercomputers, etc More Americans die of peanut allergies every year than do from terrorism, yet you are here interfering in our country and spending hundreds of billions because you think you’re so damned smart….I’d say you’re a fool to be doing this. All things considered, you should not be talking down to anybody any more but should rather see that humility is the fate of every superpower that overstretched itself and/or thought they had the final solution for all of mankind’s problems related to governance and the way of life of the people. You are telling people of the subcontinent what lesson to learn from Akbar and Jinnah after probably having done a perfunctory search on the net- we had indoor plumbing here in Moenjedaro (modern day Pakistan) over 5000 years ago when you people were still living in caves. Please take a longer look at the way the pendulum of history swings before making such ethnocentric and uninformed comments.

    Your comment-
    “The fault lies on educated Muslims who resist honest religious discussion for Islamic spiritual revival, Including the author of the article and many comments herein. trying to justify that blasphemy”

    It is simply not the case that educated Muslims are resisting anything…you just should not expect us to be eager to have a discussion with someone who is totally biased, uneducated, ethnocentric, and just incapable of understanding just how ill-equipped he is for the discussion. You really don’t get it at all. I would suggest you go home and worry about the fact that Americans are losing their homes. Also, as I said previously, peanut allergies kill more Americans every year than “terrorists”…so maybe you should try and catch up on your legumes, you may have more success in that community since they presumably only have one simple topic to discuss. Recommend

  • Palvasha von Hassell
    Jan 24, 2011 - 9:33PM

    Hafsa, I fully agree with your idea of starting a similar Urdu-language debate on this issue to reach the common man. Unless that is done, we aren’t getting anywhere in the long run.Recommend

  • Babruk
    Jan 25, 2011 - 7:38AM

    i am glad to hear that intellectuals are taking up the issue and are doing something beside living in the ivory tower of intellect. welcome to the practical world of people. hope you defeat the ideology of the ignorant mullas. Recommend

  • John
    Jan 26, 2011 - 11:25PM

    Self analysis and self criticism is an integral part of human and spiritual developments. The human society has developed this far only by self analysis and self questioning. In fact the very idea of religious thoughts across the globe have developed by a self probing question “who are we, where do we come from, what is the purpose in life, etc”. Asking somebody to shut up is not new. It has happened before when Gallileo said that the earth is round. No society in the world is perfect and it is by constant self examination that the society can move forward. That is how all societies in the world have done it and the time has come to Pak for self examination. Just because my thoughts come from across the globe should not be the reason for not self examination on your part. In pite of all it’s shortcomings, the people of US has always been doing this since their inception as an Union. They could have easily set up christian state in 1776 when every one was Christian. But they did not. They self examined slavery, corrected it and went into civil war to protect that universal right of freedom. They self examined it again and again and that is where they are today. Denying self examination and critical thinking is like the child saying “leave me alone” to their parents when they declipline the child@Canuckistani: Recommend

  • Canuckistani
    Jan 26, 2011 - 11:56PM


    “Just because my thoughts come from across the globe should not be the reason for not self examination on your part.”

    “Denying self examination and critical thinking is like the child saying “leave me alone” to their parents when they declipline the child”

    John….you admit your thoughts are from all the way across the world…then you should also realize that your knowledge of things in this part of the world is superficial at best. That being the case, you should not be surprised that people in this part of the world wanting to have a serious discussion about the future of this country would not be impressed by what you have to offer, especially considering you are here presuming you know more than us about ourselves. To top it off, you suggest that we are “acting like children” and you are the disciplining parent…it only adds to the presumptuousness of your position. Its not just us, nobody welcomes this kind of interfering, holier-than-thou attitude. You will see it more clearly in ten years when the Chinese start doing that to you. Recommend

  • John
    Jan 27, 2011 - 12:48AM

    Dear Canuckistani, From your comment it is evident that you are not concerned about the issue at this topic but rather you are self absorbed about nationalistic pride mixed with religious fervor. Since you opened up the can of worms, here it is. Just because Muhanjadharo is in modern Pakistan boundary it does not make it modern day Pakistan’s history. It is a civilization of Indian sub continent people. Your comment on this tantamount to Present day Mexico claiming that Mayan civilization is Spanish. The very identity of Pakistan begins from Lahore resolution and trying to stretch to Indus valley civilization is not only absurd but is also “blasphemy of History”. In any case, your thought on peanut allergy kills more people than terrorism,itself suggest that terrorism is less of importance. Please understand that peanut allergy is as universal as is penicillin allergy and people of Pakistan is not immune to that either. Regarding US economy being in collapse.. I can go in rhetoric and say like many in US and say “stop the foreign aid including to Pak” to reduce the deficit. But I am not going to say that. The modern economy of the world pivots around G-20 nations economy and people here in US have a good understanding of economy and the US treasury knows where every dollar bill is in this world. China and US are politically different but economically one. Your very idea of taking joy in predicting that US economy will fall due to China is repugnant. Modern economy is invented by Americans after years of thinking and they know very well. Will China’s economy will be more than US in few years. May be, hard to say. Even so, so what? If China is prosperous it is not that people in US are going to be envious, if any they will be pleased that their economic policy and integration with China has proved correct. In any case, do not think that other people in the world do not understand Islam. In fact, if it is any thing of consolation it is the people outside of Islam understands it better due to critical and open analysis of all religious thoughts with candid and open discussion. Unfortunately such analysis is blasphemy in your thought. How long can you avoid this? How, what and why are important in any thoughts and discussion. Saying that all is perfect is akin to saying ” do not think”. @Canuckistani: Recommend

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