COMMENT: Blasphemy laws: what does the Quran say? —Dr Mohammad Taqi - Thursday, December 02, 2010

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It is a travesty of justice that a verse dealing with war, sedition and rebellion is invoked to punish what may not even qualify as theocratic or religious dissent. In fact, Article 295 is not just a travesty of justice, it is an iftira (slander) against the Almighty and Prophet (PBUH) as it attributes to them what they never mandated

“Haq jalwagar ze tarz-e-bayan-e-Mohammad [PBUH] hast,

Aaray kalam-e-Haq ba zuba-e-Mohammad [PBUH] hast,

Ghalib sana-e-Khwaja ba Yazdan guzashtaim,

K’aan zaat-e-Paak martaba-daan-e-Mohammad [PBUH] hast” — Ghalib.

“The Truth expresses its grace through Mohammad’s [PBUH] expression,

Indeed the Truth speaks through Mohammad’s [PBUH] word,

Ghalib, therefore, I leave Mohammad’s [PBUH] praise to God,

Almighty alone can understand the exalted status of Mohammad [PBUH].”

While the Lahore High Court (LHC) is restraining the president from pardoning Aasia Bibi in a blasphemy case and a federal minister has vowed to not allow any change in the blasphemy laws, why do I quote Ghalib’s praise for the Holy Prophet Mohammad (PBUH)? For starters, Ghalib remains one of the foremost secularists that the Indian subcontinent has ever produced and this na’at (hymn) — perhaps amongst the finest written in any language — goes to show that it is perfectly alright for the secularists to occasionally talk about matters of faith, including their own faith. In fact, it is imperative to do so when a fog of confusion is deliberately created around faith by bigots of all shades.

Moreover, the Holy Quran and Sunnah, ostensibly, form the premise of Article 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) and, without revisiting what they actually say about blasphemy, the only challenge that might be successful against this law would be to have its procedural aspects modified. The Quran and Sunnah indeed are the two material sources of the shariah law, but were eventually supplemented by a corpus of interpretation largely agreed upon by a majority of Muslim scholars (ijma) and deductive analogy (qiyas) to form the basis of Islamic jurisprudence.

In the first quoted verse, Ghalib is referring to the Holy Quran, which states: “That this (Quran) is indeed the speech of an illustrious messenger” (69:40). Ghalib’s last verse, of course, is the crux of a Sufi’s faith and, once again, alludes to the passages in the Quran where the Almighty showers praise on Mohammad (PBUH). I would point to one such verse: “Verily! We have seen the turning of your (Mohammad’s) face towards the heaven. Surely, We shall turn you to a Qiblah (prayer direction) that shall please you, so turn your face in the direction of Al-Masjid-al-Haram” (2:144). This is a unique verse; while the Quran and other holy books speak to what humans, including the prophets, must do to earn the pleasure (raza) of the Almighty, here Allah is doing something purely to earn the pleasure or raza of His Prophet (PBUH).

So is it possible then, that the Almighty, who has thus exalted the status of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), left us without any guidance on how to deal with speech or actions that attempt to disparage him? Could the Quran be silent on a matter of such grave importance? Have we been left to rely on the ijma and qiyas of the clerics who came some two centuries after the Prophet (PBUH)? Indeed not, but that is something that the ones after a poor woman’s scalp would have us believe. Let us consider Surah Al-Ahzab, verse 57:

“Lo! those who malign Allah and His messenger, Allah hath cursed them in the world and the Hereafter, and hath prepared for them the doom of the disdained.”

The Quran also mentions the most important case of blasphemy ever committed against Mohammad (PBUH). The Quran says in Surah Al-Massad:

“The power of Abu Lahab will perish, and he will perish. His wealth and gains will not exempt him. He will be plunged in flaming fire. And his wife, the wood-carrier, will have upon her neck a halter of palm-fibre.”

The common theme between the verses noted above is that, while the highest condemnation has been heaped on anyone reviling or attempting to revile the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and eternal damnation promised for the perpetrator, neither a direct order (amr) has been given to impart a punishment nor a set punishment prescribed — not even for Abu Lahab!

Let us also consider the Arabic terms used to describe blasphemy against God and the Prophet (PBUH). The Arabic words sabba (abuse, insult) and shatm (vilification) denote blasphemy and have been adopted in Persian and Urdu as well. It must be stated that the word shatm does not occur in the Quran at all while a derivative of sabba is used only in one verse and that too to proscribe the Muslims from hurling sabba on other people’s gods and deities (Chapter 6:108).

So where then are punishments like death or chopping limbs for blasphemy coming from? Usually, anecdotal reports are cited from the Hadith where the Prophet (PBUH) allegedly condoned the death or punishing of a blasphemer. However, for each such incident — usually reported on weak authority — there are two others where the Prophet (PBUH) tolerated and indeed pardoned insults against him. Not a single incident can be cited from the Sirah traditions where charges of blasphemy were filed, a trial held and the punishment meted out. Almost all proponents of severe or capital punishment for blasphemy, therefore, quote verse 33 of Surah Al-Maidah, in support of their argument:

“The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter.”

It is a travesty of justice that a verse dealing with war, sedition and rebellion is invoked to punish what may not even qualify as theocratic or religious dissent. In fact, Article 295 is not just a travesty of justice, it is an iftira (slander) against the Almighty and Prophet (PBUH) as it attributes to them what they never mandated. The presidential pardon is most commendable in the current case and procedural changes to the blasphemy laws would be welcome.

However, Article 295 is repugnant to the Quran and Sunnah and, as long as it remains on the books, it will be a direct negation of the verse “Wama arsalnaka illa Rehmatan-lil-alameen” (We sent thee not, but as a Mercy for all creatures — 21:107). By not prescribing harsh penalties, the Almighty prevented this exalted status of Mohammad (PBUH) from being undermined; Ghalib was spot-on.

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