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Why Pakistan's anti-blasphemy law is wrong in Islam

By Yoginder Sikand
January 21, 2011 14:30 IST
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Maulana Wahiduddin Khan's 1986 essay, centred on a case of perceived insult to the Prophet Muhammed and the violent Muslim response to it, bears immediate relevance to the issues being hotly debated today with regard to the anti-blasphemy law in Pakistan, says Yoginder Sikand

The brutal murder of the Pakistani leader Salman Taseer for daring to question his country's draconian blasphemy law which lays down death for insulting the Prophet Mohammed has ignited furious debate as to whether or not Islam prescribes this extreme punishment for such an act. Predictably, as on many other issues, there seems to be no unanimity among Muslims themselves on this question.

While Islamist and mullah ideologues insist that Islam demands death for traducers of the Prophet, liberal Muslim scholars, relying on the same texts as their opponents, stoutly deny that this is so.

One of the few Islamic scholars to have openly denounced the killing of Taseer and to have condemned Pakistan's blasphemy law is the New Delhi-based Maulana Wahiduddin Khan. Khan has written widely on the issue of blasphemy. One of his earliest essays on the subject appeared in 1986, which was later included in a volume that was published in 1997 under the title Shatm-e Rasul ka Masla Quran wa Hadith aur Fiqh wa Tarikh ki Roshni Mai (The Question of Blasphemy Against the Prophet in the Light of the Quran, Hadith, Fiqh and History).

This essay, centred on a case of perceived insult to the Prophet Muhammed and the violent Muslim response to it, bears immediate relevance to the issues being hotly debated today with regard to the anti-blasphemy law in Pakistan.

Khan penned this essay when a massive Muslim mob stormed the office of the Bengaluru-based daily Deccan Herald after it published a story titled provocatively. Although the story was not about the Prophet Mohammed himself, enraged Muslims took it to be an insult to him. They gathered outside the office of the newspaper and burnt down its warehouse, causing damage worth more than a crore of rupees.

Khan was at that time one of the few Muslim leaders to stridently condemn the action of the mob, insisting that their response to this perceived insult to the Prophet was not in accordance with Islamic teachings. He admitted that the title of the story was provocative and unfortunate but, he wrote, the Muslim reaction to it, too, was 'absurd'. The mob, he said, considered their violent agitation to be an 'Islamic jihad', but, in fact, it was nothing of the sort. Rather, he claimed, their actions were wholly contradictory to Islamic teachings. Agitations such as this, he contended, were certainly not what is termed in the Quran as 'jihad in the path of God' (jihad fi sabil Allah).

Khan argued that provocative and insulting statements about the Prophet were not a new development at all. In fact, in his own time the Prophet was routinely reviled by his opponents, being physically tormented and verbally insulted by them. The Quran tells us, Khan explained, that they even called him a liar, a mad man, and a magician. Yet, the Prophet did not react violently to such naked forms of insult and blasphemy. Nor did he ever instruct his followers to kill such blasphemers.

Given this, Khan argued, if Muslims truly want to follow the Prophet's path, they must react in the same manner as he did when he was so cruelly traduced. He accused Muslims of consistently failing to do so and, instead, of resorting to 'extremist agitation' in the wake of every act of blasphemy. 'Hence', he wrote, their agitations reflect only 'the following of their own base urges (nafs), and certainly not of God and His Prophet.'

When the Prophet was tormented with physical torture and relentless vilification, Khan reminded Muslims, he and his companions 'did not resort to agitation, destroying homes, killing people and raising slogans.' Rather, all that they did in response was 'to pray to God on behalf of such people so that they could be guided, and countered their arguments with logical evidence and proofs, leaving the rest in God's care.'  

That, Khan advised, was exactly how Muslims should react to provocations to their faith and insults to the Prophet -- by beseeching God to guide traducers to the right path, by interacting with them in an effort to remove their misunderstandings about Islam and the Prophet, and by responding to provocations to their faith by writing in the press. If Muslims reacted in any other way, such as through violence and emotionally-driven agitation, Khan argued, 'they would only attract God's anger on themselves, not His mercy, because God sent the Prophet as a source of mercy for all, and not to wreak destruction.'

Khan bemoaned the fact that Muslims generally react violently to any perceived insult to their faith, real or imaginary. This, he insisted, was not in accordance with the practice of the Prophet. Khan located this, what he termed as 'serious psychological problem' of the Muslims in the fact that they had forgotten their basic duty of dawah, of inviting others to the path of God as taught by the Prophet. Rather than seeing others as madus or addressees of God's message, he wrote, Muslims treated them as their communal foes.

As dais, believers committed to dawah, they should have been filled with love and concern for the welfare of the madus. That this was not the case was because they had turned their backs on the task of dawah. Consequently, he explained, 'on every small thing Muslims get agitated, and their hearts are filled with hatred of others. They have lost the balanced psyche that one needs to convey, in a serious and convincing manner, the Prophet's message to others.' He blamed this development on the Muslims 'negative mentality', which, he said, violent agitations against others could only reinforce, further reducing prospects for dawah work.

The attack on the offices of the Bengaluru newspaper was just one instance, Khan went on, of violent attacks by Muslims in the wake of perceived insults to their religion. 'Such attacks are taking place in every country where Muslims have freedom of action. They are misusing this freedom to engage in such destructive acts, calling these as Islamic jihad. But every action of this sort is undoubtedly an un-Islamic act. This isn't jihad at all but revolt (sarkashi), and, in the eyes of God, revolt is a terrible crime,' Khan bemoaned. 

After indicating that neither the Quran nor the practice of the Prophet lays down death for blasphemy, Khan went on to discuss some general issues related to the inflicting of punishment for crimes in Islam. These issues are immediately relevant to current debates about the blasphemy law in Pakistan, given the persecution of minorities in its name and its widespread misuse, and the fact that it has empowered 'Islamic' vigilante groups to take the law into their own hands (as in the case of the murder of Salman Taseer), thus potently challenging the very authority of the Pakistani state.

Khan argued that in Islam it was forbidden for people to take the law into their own hands. It was, he said, the prerogative only of the established government to punish criminals, and that, too, only if and when their crimes had been proven. Furthermore, if the shariah had laid down any specific punishment for a certain criminal act, the criminal must be given only that punishment. To inflict any other punishment, or a punishment that exceeded the one prescribed by the shariah, was forbidden (haram).

In fact, far from implementing the shariah, this would be tantamount to 'revolting against it', and those who administered such punishments would themselves be, as Khan termed it, 'the biggest criminals'. Further, he elaborated, the inflicting of punishment must be motivated by 'concern for the welfare' of the offender rather than by a desire to demean him, because the intention should be to reform him. If he was treated in such a way as to feel demeaned, he explained, it would only further his hatred for Islam and its followers, instill in him a burning desire for revenge, and extinguish any hope there might be that he might reform himself or recognize the truth.

Further, Khan wrote, only the criminal must be punished for his action, and not his relatives or other members of his community. Not to abide by all these conditions governing punishments or to support those who violated such conditions or even to remain silent spectators to their violations, Khan warned, might well 'invite God's wrath.'  

Even if the government of a country was in the hands of people who, as Khan put it, 'one could not expect to impose the shariah', these conditions still applied, he explained. Even in such a context it remained, Islamically-speaking, impermissible for Muslims to take the law into their own hands in the face of what they perceived as insults to their religion. In such a situation, Khan advised, Muslims must respond peacefully and patiently.

Following the practice of the Meccan phase of the Prophet's life, he wrote, they should seek to clear the misunderstandings that others have about Islam that often underlie vilifications of their faith. Under no condition, he stressed, should they resort to violent agitation simply because they felt that the sentiments of their community had been hurt. That, he added, is not a valid argument from the strictly Islamic point of view, noting that, 'To use the argument that the community's sentiments have been hurt as an excuse to attack and kill others is to add a new law to that of Islam's, and this no one has the right to do.'

Khan concluded his essay by appealing to Muslims to recognise that in the present context, 'from the point of view of the shariah, their responsibility is only to exercise patience in the face of unfavourable conditions', and to faithfully abide by what he called their principal Islamic duty of dawah. 'Other than this,' he warned, 'whatever else they do' in the face of such provocations 'will only magnify their own crimes, while they will continue to fail in their Islamic responsibilities that they owe to others.'

And, as the bloody events in Pakistan so tragically illustrate, Khan's words are proving to be true.

Image: A candlelight vigil in progress to commemorate the assassinated Pakistan governor Salman Taseer in Peshawar earlier this month.  Photograph: Fayaz Aziz/Reuters

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Yoginder Sikand