Chronicles of blasphemy

Published: September 1, 2010

Blasphemy is a subjective term that can be misused by those in power

The British Raj criminalized blasphemy in 1860 and till 1986, the maximum punishment for the crime was ten years in prison. An amendment in 1986 created penalties of life imprisonment and death. This makes the Pakistani blasphemy laws the harshest in the world. Section 295 C awards the the death penalty for innuendo or insinuation. Words which, by very definition, are subjective. Our criminal system can put a person to death for vague terms.

Here is an example:

Muhammad Mehboob (alias Booba) was accused of putting ishtihars on the main gate of his local mosque which were allegedly against the dignity of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and hence attracted the provision of the death penalty vide 295 C. He was convicted to capital punishment on investigation of a sub inspector, who said he acted “without any guidance.” The police took Booba’s testimony under extreme coercion. On appeal, it was found by the High Court that the state had not been able to establish the facts beyond all reasonable doubt. The FIR in this case was registered by a homeopath, who did not remember the institution that awarded him his degree and professed no knowledge of religion. (PLD 2002, Lahore 587)

In another case against Ayub Masih was accused of praising Salman Rushdie and Christianity by a group of laborers. Both the Trial Court and Division Bench for appeal ignored the  fact that Masih was not given to preaching, and was a bricklayer who would have been unlikely to speak about an author. They also ingoned that the FIR was lodged after concurrence by the village elders, hence likely to be fabricated and that nine marlas of his land were in dispute. Only at the Supreme Court was Masih able to clear himself. He had never committed blasphemy by word or insinuation. His entire trial process took years. (Ayub Masih 2002, SCMR 1048)

We are all familiar with the case of Dr. Younas Sheikh. He was accused of blasphemy because he narrated some facts pre- Islam to his class and spent three years incarcerated in prison.

In none of the reported cases (the majority of which are against Mulsims), has any accused admitted to blasphemy. In most, the lower courts gave the harshest penalties. None of them regarded the Sunnah which ordains; as long as one has ability, one must avoid the Hudood. It is a principle most loved by the Holy Prophet (PBUH) that releasing a guilty man in error is better than punishing an innocent man, in error.

These cases demonstrate the exploitation of law, histories of fabrication, faulty investigations and inherent prejudice in our process. As Justice Chowhan  wrote:

the nature of the accusation so overwhelmed the trial court that it had become oblivious to the simple standard of proof of establishing facts”, “mere accusation itself had created prejudice in the Court (PLD 2002, Lahore 587).

Until 1986, there were fourteen cases reported under blasphemy. Today, there are approximately seven hundred. Have people started blaspheming more as the criminal law has become harsher? Or, has the law provided ammunition to people to settle old scores, and terrorize minorities and intellectuals? Case law proves the latter.

In view of our tragic history, it is essential that our Parliament makes further amendments in our PPC and Criminal Procedure Code. Firstly, it must ammend  the language of 295 C to remove ambiguity – so that no one can make accusations just because they heard something that they may have thought could possibly have been derogatory. Secondly, section 295 D should be inserted, this criminalizes false accusations under blasphemy punishable by ten years. Thirdly, the cognizance of the offence should only be taken by a Magistrate.

Without these amendments, our blasphemy laws only create state sponsored victimization. The criminal law must create deterrence against its own misuse. Otherwise, we will continue to have the most horrifying blasphemy chronicles.


Sharmeen Khan

A corporate lawyer who works in the private sector in Karachi.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • shy

    Govt and society is responsible for these laws.Recommend

  • rocket

    In my humble opinion,this whole idea of blasphemy is a farce.Allah,God or Ishwar whoever that almighty is,may never be such a cruel and intolerant entity to rejoice the ghastly scenes of pain and punishment to the critic.almighty should be tolerant enough to set an example for the mortals.and nobody has the authority to punish the so called sinner of blasphemy on behalf of almighty.Recommend

  • http://USA Humanity

    I fear for the author’s safety now .. May be she has blasphemized and hurt the extra fragile feelings of a self-righteous muslim ..

    God will help Pakistan, when the the people of Pakistan will raise themselves to become human.Recommend

  • parvez

    Very clear and objective writing.
    The three amendments to this law you have mentioned are most important and would go a long way in redressing the issues mentioned. The problem is with the present pathetic set of law makers can one expect any change. Recommend

  • Kiran Rakesh

    Why has suddenly Islam become so fragile. It ruled over India and most of the civilized world for centuries. There were many blasphemers, but were they all killed? No never. The Prophet of Islam never killed anybody for blasphemy. He prayed for them so that God may guide them on the true path.Recommend

  • Angelos

    Government need to cover the loopholes in Blasphemy law liket author of the article pointed out.Recommend

  • Ahmer

    Another reminder to all of us that we are living in the stone ages and are absolutely against the ‘true teachings’ of Islam and for ‘extremism’. More voices like these need to be heard in the right ‘courts’Recommend

  • fatima

    What the masses need is a group of credible, knowledeagble religious scholars – as we as a nation attach more importance to what they say- openly censuring the law and its perpeterators. It is their responsibility to create awareness amongst the people that they cannot take it upon themselves to execute someone whose actions or words seem blasphemous.

    Also, those who rejoice in uttering derisive, “blasphemous” views about Islam just cuz they believe in the freedom of speech, should also exercise tolerance “towards Islam”, and demonstrate respect for all religions, regardless of their belief or lackthereof in them.Recommend

  • Dildar Zaidi

    Blasphemy laws are the defensive reaction of our own weaknesses. They are not Islamic!Recommend

  • Ali Farooqui

    Blasphemy law per se is not the problem and should not be scrapped as they are scripted in Quran and Sunnah and since we have admitted the power lies with almighty in constitution we cannot challenge his laws. Admittedly there are loop holes within the blasphemy laws in Pakistan specially in respect to the evidence and burden of proof therefore it is these loop holes which needs to be addressed. However it all comes back to the root cause of these issues that is vigilantism, and steps (how harsh they may be) must be taken to curb mob justice Recommend

  • Fahr Ahmed

    Insulting the prophets or religious leaders obviously incenses their followers. But there are times when it is necessary to engage in an honest discourse to correct misinterpretations of scriptures and negate vile ideas propagated by some so called ulemas/pastors/rabbis etc. Unless it is blatant hate speech against a faith, it is very difficult to decide that it is “blasphemy”. Pakistanis must learn to accept that people may have valid questions or points on Islam that require rigorous analysis, research and rational response. We need to also think that while Muslims must not ridicule their prophets, should the bar for non-Muslims be the same? Yes, they should not be insulting to our prophets but they cannot be expected to show the Muslims’ respect level. Why should they? Furthermore, as the article entails many times the cases of blasphemy are framed for motives of wealth acquisition and vendetta.

    Blasphemy, on balance, is a dangerous law stifling the essential need for debate about religion between Muslims and with non-Muslims. Parliament should make efforts to scrap it.

    Fahr AhmedRecommend

  • Dildar Zaidi

    @Ali Farooqui
    Remember Taif, remember Fath-e-Mecca who was punished and who was not? If blasphemy laws were scripted in Quran, how could the offenders go without punishment? Think!Recommend

  • M Hussain

    I think the writer has done a commendable job! I must say shes a fierce lady…good work! This is a topic most people would dread touching.Recommend

  • Talha Shahid

    Comprehensive piece highlighting the evil of blasphemy, the so-called phenomenon doesn’t deserve a place in our religion, definitely !! Recommend

  • http://http/ Noshab

    in my very honest opinion to my respectable colleague that blasphemy laws are very much inline with our religion(if it matters)removal of death sentence would just deprive the state or law enforcement authorities from dealing any such incident which occurs beyond all reasonable doubt,secondly not only about this issue but as a lawyer also practicing in criminal law i am of the view that whenever the aggrieved party is not satisfied with the punishment provided in our penal code they try to impose justice and that is a very dangerous situation,believe me.finally my suggestion is that the procedure is required to be amended according to our society, and that only can solve the problem rather playing with the religious sentiments of any general public,e.g. if a person is directly dealing with the blasphemy thing at least he has a remedy and if its not available then…..,nobody i heard of has ever been sentenced in the court of justice keeping in view such incidents happen.Recommend

  • hakeem

    Blasphemy laws protect minorities by giving majority a way of redressal if these laws are repealed than mob will do justice at spot. And Derrogation of our religion by minorities is reality.Recommend

  • AF

    There is an error in the article. The citation of Ayub Masih case is ‘PLD 2002 SUPREME COURT 1048 not 2002 SCMR 1048Recommend

  • zoya ali

    @AF: That is right-apologies. -sharmeenRecommend

  • sharmeen

    @AF: That is right-apologies. -sharmeenRecommend