Aasia Bibi: A question of religious freedom

Published: November 24, 2010

Classical schools of Islamic law are in unanimous agreement that those who commit blasphemy are to be executed or punished.

The recent case of Aasia Bibi once again thrust Pakistan into the international stage for it’s appalling record of human rights. But though many commentators have called for the repeal of the blasphemy law, I feel we are missing the bigger picture.

Calling for piecemeal legal reforms is a necessary part of incremental, pragmatic and gradualist change (tadarruj as it’s know in the classical Islamic legal traditions). However, the greater point about this case is the issue of religious freedom. It is a question of freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. On another level it is to do with religious traditions coming into conflict with modern articulations of human rights legislation, and how the State has to mediate between these deeply held traditions and the modern treaties of human rights that Pakistan is a signatory of.

The fact of the matter is that those calling for a repeal of the blasphemy law are at a severely disadvantaged position. The weight of tradition and Muslim history is set against them, since all the classical schools of Islamic law are in unanimous agreement that those who commit blasphemy by undermining and disagreeing with the central religious truths of Islam are to be executed, or punished in some way (different jurists do differ in some particular instances). Furthermore, the punishment for apostasy (if a Muslim is to convert into another faith) is also to be death. Of course, modern Muslim scholars and intellectuals will try and rationalise these juristic opinions by saying that when classical jurists spoke of ‘’blasphemy’’, or ‘’apostasy’’, what they really meant was ‘’sedition’’, ‘’undermining civic order’’, or to prevent acts of grave treason.

But be that as it may, no matter how we choose to interpret our legal heritage and history the fact remains that the majority of Muslim scholars and jurists had an impoverished and regressive view of religious freedom. That is not to say that these rulings are an intrinsic part of our faith and creed, indeed Muslim jurists in the past have issued opinions and rulings on slavery and women’s rights which would seem shocking and inexcusable to us today.

Indeed, I have talked about this issue before, this very delicate issue of religious tradition and human rights. The fact is those who are calling for a repeal of the blasphemy law have to make critical decisions. They have to undertake a process of intellectual struggle and creativity and wholeheartedly raise the call for ijtihad. Pakistani liberals, as I have said before have to enter the domain of religious interpretation to present an alternative narrative and vision for religious harmony and religious liberty which surely form the basis of a just and peaceful Islamic public order. Indeed, there are those who are undertaking this process. A noted declaration of religious freedom by many Muslim scholars, clerics and intellectuals makes it clear that religious freedom and liberty are to be guaranteed within Islam. Indeed, there is now a growing minority of Muslim intellectuals and scholars calling for a re-interpretation of religious tradition and thought to reflect the core values of our faith.

Elsewhere, the former Chief Justice and late Dr Sheikh Abdur Rahman has dealt quite admirably with the case of religious freedom in his work “Punishment Of Apostasy in Islam”, where he engages with the traditional fiqhi stance towards freedom of conscience and tolerance whilst advocating new paradigms and rulings reflecting the clear and unambiguous Quranic texts that clearly lay down the foundations for freedom of conscience and tolerance. Other Pakistani scholars such as Ghamidi, Muhammad Khalid Masud and the late Professor Rahman too have advocated similar lines of argument for change.

A change in religious interpretation and mindsets is needed. If Pakistani liberals are to try and bring meaningful change in the culture of legislation in this country they need to adopt the tone of religious liberalism:

‘’For Pakistani liberals to have a truly transformational effect, they need to speak in the religious idiom and bring to the table a rigorous and charismatic theology of liberality. It is critical to talk about the arts, Urdu literature and the humanities but not as a hope that it will act as a creative buffer against radicalisation. The real buffer against terrorism with a religious impulse is a culture of religious tolerance and pluralism borne out of a unique theology of liberality in combination with these aforementioned disciplines.’’

The issue with the blasphemy laws is part of a larger set of questions for Muslim societies today.

  • What is ijtihad?
  • How can it be done and by whom?
  • What are the sources of legislation for a modern nation state today?
  • How should we interpret our religious traditions and history?
  • Are our religious traditions infallible or simply the works of fallible but erudite scholars?
  • Can we question the works of past jurists, or uncritically adhere to them (taqlid)?

There is no beating around the bush, the issue with the blasphemy laws cannot just be isolated to that one law, it is part of a wider problem that Muslim societies have with modernity.

But we should also understand that all religious interpretation is situated within a particular political, economic and social context, and hence part of the drive towards religious liberalism should encompass a program for rooting out corruption, political nepotism, feudalism and tribalism. Inevitably, a harsh religious culture is reinforced by harsh economic forces and an unforgiving political culture where democracy is only restricted to the ballot box.

Pakistan is at cross-roads at the moment. The free media needs to do its job well by undertaking a critique of authority, including religious authority. The various disparate groups of civil societies, NGOs, secular liberals and religious liberals need to realise they share a common cause and need to come together more often.

Indeed, the question is no longer whether one is ‘’religious’’ or ‘’secular’’, but if one believes in a free, open, just, tolerant and equal society. Surely, people from both religious and secular backgrounds can come to an understanding that these principles are needed in Pakistan more than ever.

The fact is most of the dichotomy between ‘’religious’’ and ‘’secular’’ Pakistanis is manufactured. An example of this is a friend who argues that since Islam guarantees liberty, equality and freedom why should I become a ‘’secularist’’. The confusion hence lies in the terms of the debate, not in the substance of the debate.

The question was never whether one is ‘’secular’’ or not. But the questions are whether we believe in a democratic society which protects and upholds peoples’ rights and liberties, which looks out for the poor, and which believes in the equality of all its citizens.

The agenda for ‘’secularism’’ is empty. Secularism is simply the separation between religious institutions and the State, and I believe this is a crucial condition for being a modern nation state, but it is simply not enough. We must speak of liberty and justice rather than ‘’secularity’’.

What all sensible citizens of Pakistan can agree upon is the need for liberty and justice. The focus should be on developing an indigenous tradition of liberal thought which can foster bonds and bridges between different groups of society. The issue with the blasphemy law raises a host of critical questions for Pakistanis today, and to take a piece-meal approach to it and ignoring the ‘’big questions’’ is counterproductive.


Ahmad Ali

A medical student and freelance writer who tweets @AhmadAliKhalid

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

  • Klues

    Freedom to mock our leader? I dont think so. Law is fine, if she is wrongfully accused she needs to file for an appeal like civil society does.

    It is like you remove the theft law on basis of saving thief.Recommend

  • Usman

    “Indeed, the question is no longer whether one is ‘’religious’’ or ‘’secular’’, but if one believes in a free, open, just, tolerant and equal society. ”

    You are correct but the reality is that 90% of our people are illiterate and intolerant. There is no chance of having justice and tolerance in the circus that is Pakistan, untill there is a change in the mindset of the people. And that wont happen quickly, certainly in not my lifetime.Recommend

  • Humanity

    @Klues “Freedom to mock our leader?”

    May I ask which of the great practices of our leader do you actually follow in real life? Are you humble, forgiving, honest, hard working, truthful? Do you serve humanity through acts of kindness? Do you speak up against injustice? Do you watch out for your neighbors, the elderly, the sick, and the poor?

    The honor and respect of our leader is safe guarded by following in his footsteps. Empty emotions and chest thumping is only hypocrisy. Our leader did not care for hypocrites and neither does our Creator.Recommend

  • Amna

    Pakistan is a soverign country. We do not need to be influenced by the West or anyone else when it comes to what laws we keep or do not keep.

    If a law is being abused, we need to do something about it. But we do not need to get rid of the blasphenmy laws…just because Western countries think we do not grant religious freedom.

    Islam does grant religious freedom….more so than other religions. If blasphemy is punishibale by death….then it is what it it. Why are we so ashamed of everything that we have not copied from the West? Yes, it may be abused…but our “leaders” neeed to be the ones to focus on fixing that error…but no, if blasphemy is a cirme…then it is.

    Non-Muslims have every right to pratice their own religion, just look at examples of rule during the Khalipha’s rule. They even have the right to be judged by different courts so to not have to have Islamic ruling. But ot make it OK to openly insult Islam or the Prohpet PBUH? No. As a Muslim nation….we can make a law to defend that…just the way any other nation has the right to make its own laws.

    The USA has the patriot act…which causes a clear bias against Muslims, and people that look like immigrants from the middle east. But…the USA can make their own laws….it is a soverign coutnry.

    What Pakistan neeeds to focus on is how to prevent this law from being abused.Recommend

  • http://kashifmd.wordpress.com Kashif Chaudhry

    This article will be incomplete without mentioning the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community that has been the first to preach moderation. Where others resort to the hadith, the Ahmadi Muslims have shown from the Quran that neither apostasy nor blasphemy is punishable by the death sentence. You can youtube for details. The Quran’s verdict is clear Let him who will believe and let him wo wills disbelieve. and that there is no compulsion in religion.

    About Blasphemy, it is clear that God will punish deliberate and repetitive offenders in both worlds. That is His responsibility and not our prerogative. [Many verses in the Quran] Recommend

  • T R Khan

    Ahmadiyya Community is of the considered view that the Quran makes absolutely no mention of the Blasphemy Law or of punishment of death or imprisonment; on the contrary, there are many verses in the Quran which clearly support the principle of freedom of faith and conscience. Blasphemy, as an immoral act, however, stands to be condemned by not only Islam but also all decent persons and societies, no matter against whom blasphemy is committed.Recommend

  • faraz


    51 percent people punished under Blasphemy law are Muslims. Why would a common man abuse a Prophet? Its a matter of common sense; you dont need other countries to tell us. There is no punishment for blasphemy in Quran and Sunnah. The mullahs and muftis who are demanding death for this poor illetrate lady, clearly rejected to issue fatwas against suicide bombing. Has quran or hadees allowed suicide? Why dont these mullahs quote quranic verses against sectarian killings or terrorism? Atleast in US, armed guards dont conduct fill body search before allowing a person to enter into a mosque. Recommend

  • http://dreamsbecomedestiny.wordpress.com/ fatima

    The deadly blasphemy law itself is blasphemy.Recommend

  • Amna

    Once again…it is how you are implementing the laws. Like you said 51 percent are Muslim, so it is highly likely that a good number of people accused are innocent.

    But that again points to a loopholes in the system. The law needs to be changed obviously because people can abuse it quite easily. But for Pakistanis to think it is progressive to let and encourage people to abuse and insult Islam or the Prophet PBUH is ridiculous. People think being obnoxious and insulting Islam is “free speech”.

    But yes, I think in a Muslim country Blasphemy should be a crime. How you prove or go about trying people who are accused of Blasphemy is something the leaders need to work on.

    As far as suicide bombings and secular killings are concerned, I do think Mullahs should condemn this and I thnk that would help our society a lot. But I think you are assuming that I agree with Mullahs and everythign they say or do. No. I believe in Islam and if a mullah is teaching the wrong thing or something against Islamic teachings and misguiding people, I do not follow the mullah. But just because mullahs do not have not condemned those things, does not mean that I can not agree with them on something they have said about blasphemy. Like I said, if the mullah is right…i willl agree with what he says…if he is wrong, I will not. I follow Islam the best I can…I do not follow Mullahs. So I think you are assuming I agree with Mullahs blindly…I dont. And I do think Pakistanis should press the mullahs to condemn suicide bombings. Why dont we? We argue with them all the time about non-muslims rights…why do we not make a case for bombings?Recommend

  • Sobriquet

    Those who feel that blasphemy should be a crime need to think why. How can anything be blasphemous if God is almighty?

    Freedom of religious choice is a God-given right, those who deny it do not trust their own belief in God. Just think: If the punishment for apostasy (for those converting from other religions to Islam) had been in place at the time of Mohammed, there would have been no Muslims today. Recommend

  • http://www.apnijobs.com Abu Hamza

    If the woman has uttered blasphemy, she has to be punished accordingly. But first, please bring forward the witnesses who’ve heard her, and take their oaths on the Holy Book.

    In my opinion, if blasphemy law is applied in letter and ink, most of the public figures would be taken into account.Recommend

  • Amna

    1. WHat about The holy Prophet PBUH??

    As a Muslim, I am speaking for or against laws written in a Muslim country. The West has the right to make whatever laws they choose as well.

    Like the French ban on burqa….if I am a Muslim living in France, and I can not change the law legally….it is my duty to protest legally as allowed by French Law. If they do not change the law, I must either deal with it or move.

    Same goes for any country. I dont care what laws the western world want to implement….but if they want to have religious laws or laws discriminating against religion, then they shouldnt declare themselves secular countries. If you want to be secular, be prepared for people to expect that of you. Pakistan claims to be an Islamic Republic not secular….so people should expect Islam to impact laws. Simple. Just because the west chooses to live a certain way or legalize or ban certain things, does not mean they can try to decide how Pakistan makes its laws.Recommend

  • faraz


    There is no punishment for Blashphemy in Quran and Sunnah. Death is the highest form of punishment and Quran hasnt prescribed it for Blasphemy. This law is derived from fiqh; so the mullah is going to decide who dies and who lives. And how do you decide whether mullah is preaching according to the teachings of Islam or not? Due to difference of opinion regarding the status of Prophet (PBUH) vis-a-vis the God, many scholors of rival sects blame each other of committing Blasphemy; but they arent hanged because they are too many in number. Recommend

  • Sobriquet


    Show me a passage in the Quran (post a link) that defines blasphemy and categorically justifies a punishment for it.

    Pakistan was formed as a secular, democratic state. Jinnah stated, “You may belong to any religion caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”

    Democracy does not imply the wish of the majority. That is what a hanging by popular demand is. Democracy implies protecting the rights of the minorities, with the rule of the majority. Those that cannot understand this can never have a functioning democracy.

    If Pakistan really is an Islamic state then it should enforce Sharia to the letter with all its bans and prohibitions. You cannot pick and choose what your idea of an Islamic sate is. If Pakistan (as a country) and you (as a person) are not ready to accept this then do not talk about being an Islamic state; you sound hypocritical just as the Taliban do. Recommend

  • zaheer

    Do you know how well western countries treat muslims in their country ? They are 1000 times better than pakistanis muslims treat pakistani non muslims . IF they western countries keep a blasphemy law like any one say bad about jesus will be put to death will die you will see all our pakistani diaspora back in pakistan for the fear of death .You know how our economy ( that is food for you and electricity for your house) is run ? Western countries aid ( gifts ) and pakistani diaspora . Just think if you keep the law as you please and they dont give us aid will you be ready to eat only 1 meal a day ? .Think .Dont touch the keyboard for a minute .Think and then reply.Recommend

  • http://nill SYED IJAZ HAIDER