The recent assassination of Salmaan Taseer, the former Governor of Pakistan’s wealthiest and most populated Punjab Province, represents a watershed moment in Pakistan’s young history. It is difficult to recall a period in which such deep fissures have developed between the ruling class and laity. From what is known, the Governor’s assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, a twenty-six year old Pakistani man and member of the Sunni Braveli sect, appears to be have been motivated by Taseer’s opposition to Pakistan’s infamous “blasphemy law.” Indeed, Taseer was the most prominent politician to come out in defense of a middle-aged Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who had been sentenced to death under the law. An honest assessment of the Governor’s position suggests that his opposition to the law was founded primarily on the way in which it had been used to persecute religious minorities in furtherance of personal vendetta, political expediency, and a mob mentality that has engulfed large segments of Pakistani civilian society. I would like to offer my thoughts on Pakistan’s blasphemy law in the context of the late Governor’s murder and its broader implications for Pakistan and the Muslim world at large.
To make my position clear at the outset: my strong belief is that the so-called “blasphemy law” is an archaic doctrine that has little place in the modern Muslim consciousness. Apart from the fact that death sentences in these cases are generally rendered on highly speculative evidence, there are several other factors that point to the fact that the law may be at variance with Islam itself. As a preliminary matter, it seems clear that the textual basis for the law is extremely tenuous. Nowhere does the Qur’an mandate the punishment of death for blasphemy and, on the contrary, there are several verses that point to the very opposite (“Let there be no compulsion in religion (2:256); “To you by your religion and to me be mine.” (109:1-6)). Most of the textual support that proponents of the law cite is derived from the hadith canon (prophetic traditions), Islam’s secondary source for divine law. However, even these traditions are merely anecdotal and do not prescribe death as a universal punishment. Rather, they speak to specific, isolated incidents in which the Prophet (pbuh) purportedly sanctioned the killing of a blasphemer. It is on the basis of these traditions that supporters of the law infer that capital punishment is the de jure penalty for blasphemy. For the sake of argument, I will set aside the fact that many highly respected Muslim scholars have produced convincing scholarship that shows that there are hadith traditions, even in the most reliable collections of Imam Bukhari and Muslim, that are apocryphal in nature. But let’s assume for a moment that these hadiths are authentic.
First, it is well-known that in the context of 7th century Arabia, poetry and eloquence played an instrumental role in shaping the belief system of the Arabs. Indeed, pre-modern Arabia has sometimes been characterized as an “oral culture” (in contrast to a “literate culture”) in which excellence in expression was revered as one of the highest virtues. During the time of the Prophet there existed professional character assassins and rhetoricians whose disparagements of the Muhammad (pbuh) were so eloquently and persuasively delivered that they had the ability to cause believers to turn against him and commit political (not just religious) treason. Indeed, treason is a high crime punishable by death even in the most “enlightened” societies today, including the United States. There is a famous hadith in which the Prophet warned eloquent speakers to beware of using their eloquence for nefarious ends. Addressing the eloquent he said, “On account of your eloquence, I may rule in your favor in a dispute between you and an innocent man, but should I do so, you would only be reserving your place in the Fire.”
To those sympathetic to the blasphemy law: did this Christian woman’s alleged blasphemy have the slightest influence on a single Muslim in Pakistan? A single Muslim in the world? Did this defenseless village woman pose a threat comparable to the Arabian poets who had such mastery of their language that the proud Arab bedouins would bow in prostration before them? Or was this simply a case of a pathological man bent upon paying homage to an obsolete doctrine for some twisted symbolic purpose? A madman trying to express his commitment to the faith in the most desperate, graphic, and inhumane way? Was Mumtaz Qadri really acting to defend the honor of the Prophet, or was he the tragic victim of extreme religious and political indoctrination? Are these the people you want representing your faith?
Imagine if this Christian woman is ultimately put to death. If one considers the reputational harm that Muslims will suffer throughout the world as backward, stupid, uncivilized, and primitive people, are we truly justified in implementing this law? How on earth have we Muslims become so foolish as to allow an incident involving an unlettered Christian woman to mar the reputation of 170 million people? My understanding is that Bibi was involved in a school-yard argument with her neighbors in which she allegedly uttered senseless language. How have Muslims allowed such a petty incident to become one of the most high-profile stories in the world? How did this lead to the murder of the Governor of Pakistan’s most populous province and orphan six innocent children? Had the religious leaders offered their countrymen sensible and humane guidance on how to deal with this innocuous episode the tragedy could have been averted. What happened to Muslim jurists who would balance “maslaha and mafsada” (harm and benefit) before rendering a legal edict? The idea that any law, secular or religious, should be carried out in such a perfunctory manner, without regard for its consequences, runs contrary to even the most primitive legal philosophy. There are innumerable examples throughout Islamic history in which highly revered Muslim jurists amended, suspended, and even abrogated laws due to the change in circumstances the Islamic world was undergoing. The intellectual bankruptcy of contemporary Muslim jurists represents a betrayal of Islam’s rich scholastic tradition.
However, we may take it a step further. Even if one were to maintain that this law has relevance today, by any definition this assassination constitutes an act of high treason and pre-mediated murder. To those showering Qadri with rose petals: who gave this man authority to carry out an assassination against a reigning government official? If one believes in the rule of Islamic law, what about the divine right to due process whose Islamic origins predate the Western legal tradition? What about the mandate that punishment should only be meted out by an official state apparatus? What about the categorical prohibition against vigilantism? Imam Malik himself stated that even if citizens wish to protest the injustice and depredations of the ruling class, they should never resort to political murder because “60 years under an unjust tyrant is preferable to one hour of anarchy.” In the days before the assassination Pakistan’s current political establishment was slowly unraveling due to a shift in political alliances. That is, the country was already in a extremely precarious and fragmented state. This murder has the real potential to cause immense political turmoil and even more killings, and counter-killings. Again, did this insignificant woman’s alleged blasphemy justify this madness?
In my mind the Qur’an provides the most cogent and eloquent guidance on how to deal with the likes of Asia Bibi: “And when they (the believers) hear vain talk, they turn away and say, ‘We are responsible for our deeds, and you are responsible for your deeds. Peace be upon you. We do not wish to behave like the ignorant ones.'” (Qur’an 28:55). Indeed, when the Muhammad (pbuh) returned to his beloved city of Mecca following his exile ten years earlier and confronted the Qur’aish, who not only blasphemed against him but beat him, heaped garbage on him, tortured and murdered his followers, and imposed an economic boycott against the early believers for a period of thirteen years, he asked the Quraish, “What do you think I will do to you?” Appealing to his good nature, they said: “You will do good. You are a noble brother and the son of a noble brother.” The Prophet then answered: “Then I say to you what Yusuf (as) said to his brothers: ‘There is no blame upon you.’ Go! For you all free!.” Not only is this tradition better-attested to than those few hadith that proponents of the blasphemy law cite, but it is also far more direct and explicit in addressing how the Prophet dealt with blasphemers in a broad sense and hence a better source for legal doctrine. Why have Pakistan’s religious leaders not cited this prophetic example of largesse and mercy?
The irony is that, judged by the standard of modern Western societies, the Governor assumed a very conservative position on the blasphemy law. Taseer maintained that blasphemy ought to be criminalized, but merely insisted that death was not an appropriate punishment and, even more, that the law was not being applied in accordance with elementary principles of fairness, consistency, and due process. That seems to me a very moderate position. Despite his “liberal” lifestyle, by all accounts Taseer was a man who believed in “La ilaha illa-Allah Muhammad-dur-Rasulallah,” had tremendous love for the Prophet and the Islamic tradition, and indeed, unapologetically identified himself as “Muslim.” Qadri had been entrusted (Arabic: “amana“) to protect his fellow Muslim brother by life and limb, and he violated that trust in the most dishonorable way. Given Islam’s commitment to the highest ethical principles, there are traditions that prohibit subterfuge, deception, and even unfair surprise in the context of battle. Did Qadri consider those? He and his supporters would have done well to reflect on the Qur’anic adage that “whoever kills a soul unjustly it as though he has killed all of humanity.” (Qur’an 5:32).
The Governor’s assassination is a sorrowful reminder that the Muslim world, now more than ever, must strive to create an intellectual culture in which unconventional views can be expressed and vigorously debated by people of conscience, without fear of inviting condemnation, intimidation, or even death. The religious leaders of the Muslim community have a moral responsibility to initiate a process of intellectual reform in which dissent and diversity of opinion reclaim their status as indispensable elements of Islamic law and thought. My sincere hope is that, in the tradition of the great scholars of the past, the ulema will revive the spirit of tolerance, love, and compassion that characterized the life of the beloved Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and seek to apply divine law in a manner that is faithful to God’s intent.
“You shall invite to the path of your Lord with wisdom and kind enlightenment, and debate with non-believers in the best possible manner.” (Qur’an 16:125).