Blasphemous distortion of Islamic law – by S Iftikhar Murshed

The death sentence handed down on Aasia Bibi over allegations of blasphemy has brought shame to Pakistan and been roundly condemned worldwide. It has also distorted the teachings of Islam. Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, despite his murky track record in politics, did the right thing for once by visiting the hapless woman and holding out the promise of a presidential pardon. This prompted obscurantist clerics to stage demonstrations in several cities of the province. On Nov 24 the Alami Jamaat-e-Ahl-e-Sunnat issued a fatwa (decree) which declared him an apostate.

Blasphemy laws have existed in British India since 1860. In 1927, Article 295 was added to the Penal Code under which “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religious belief” became a culpable offence. The law was non-discriminatory and conviction under its provisions depended exclusively on conclusive evidence, as a consequence of which there were only ten blasphemy cases in the 58 years between 1927 and 1985. Since that year the number of blasphemy cases has soared to more than 4,000.
In 1982, Gen Ziaul Haq introduced Section 295-B in the Penal Code of Pakistan, under which “defiling the Holy Quran” became punishable by life imprisonment. In 1986, Section 295-C was added, mandating capital punishment for “use of derogatory remarks in respect of the Holy Prophet”. Even the law minister at the time did not support the bill when it was introduced in the National Assembly “on the ground that the Quran did not prescribe a penalty for this offence”.

The enactment of Ziaul Haq’s blasphemy laws unleashed a reign of terror in which the impoverished Christian community suffered the most. The violence will continue till these draconian laws are repealed. This is unlikely, however, because the present law minister, Babar Awan, was quoted by the print media on Nov 26 as saying that “no one can change the blasphemy laws.” Thus, so-called liberal politicians have been just as responsible as semi-educated clerics for the distortion of the laws of Islam in pursuit of their respective political agendas.
This distortion becomes apparent from the following analysis of Islamic jurisprudence.

If one accepts the dictum that the Quran is Islam, then the obvious implication is that whatever the scripture does not ordain or prohibit cannot be incorporated into the relatively limited corpus of its ordinances. However, this has not dissuaded several prominent Muslim jurists, scholars and commentators from overlaying Quranic teachings with their own interpretations of its laws. Of the Quran’s 6,247 verses, only 70 deal with civil laws and 30 with penal laws; 70 discuss personal laws, 100 pertain to ritual practices and 20 with jurisprudence, including testimony.

The reason for only a limited number of laws is not to impose too great a burden on believers. This is clearly stated in the Quranic passage: “O you who have attained to faith! Do not ask about matters which, if they were to be made manifest to you (in terms of law), might cause you hardship; for, if you should ask about them while the Quran is being revealed, they might (indeed) be made manifest to you (as laws). God has absolved (you from any obligation) in this respect: for God is much-forgiving, forbearing. People before your time have indeed asked such questions – and in result thereof have come to deny the truth.”

The obvious implication is that believers should not try to deduce additional laws from the injunctions clearly spelt out in the Quran and by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), as that “might cause you hardship”. However, this is precisely what has happened through the centuries, as a consequence of which burdens have been imposed on the believers far beyond the actual stipulations of the Quran or the authentic pronouncements of the Prophet.

It is from this verse that some of the greatest Muslim scholars have concluded that, to quote one text, “Islamic Law, in its entirety, consists of no more than the clear-cut injunctions forthcoming from the self-evident (zahir) wording of the Quran and the Prophet’s commandments, and that, consequently, it is not permissible to extend the scope of such self-evident ordinances by means of subjective methods of deduction. This, of course, does not prevent the Muslim community from evolving, whenever necessary, any amount of additional, temporal legislation in accordance with the spirit of the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet: but it must be clearly understood that such additional legislation cannot be regarded as forming part of Islamic Law (the Shariah), as such.”

Thus, contrary to perceptions, modernity and Islam are not mutually exclusive, as the Quran does not place any impediments in the way of Muslim societies to adopt laws in accordance with the requirements of their times.

Based on the Quranic passage cited above, Ibn Hazm (994-1064), a theologian of Arab-Persian descent born in Cordova, observed: “It circumscribes all the principles of religious law (ahkam ad-din) from the first to the last – namely: what the Prophet has left unspoken – neither ordering nor prohibiting it – is allowed (mubah), that it is, neither forbidden nor obligatory; whatever he ordered is obligatory (fard), and whatever he forbade is unlawful (haram); and whatever he ordered us to do is binding on us to the extent of our ability alone.” Ibn Hazm, a staunch opponent of the Asharites, subscribed to the Zahiri (exoteric) school of law and believed that the only level of meaning in the Quran was the explicit, and, therefore, all attempts to find hidden connotations were inadmissible.

It was on the basis of Ibn Hazm’s principles of jurisprudence that the reformer Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935) further explains: “Many of our jurists (fuqaha) have, by their subjective deductions, unduly widened the range of man’s religious obligations (takalif), thus giving rise to the very difficulties and complications which the clear wording (of the Quran) had put an end to; and this led to the abandonment, by many individual Muslims, as well as by their government, of Islamic Law in its entirety.”

The blasphemy laws of Pakistan which impose harsh penalties in the name of religion, including capital punishment, were never authorised either by the Quran or by the authentic Traditions of the Prophet. They are certainly not sacrosanct and can be rescinded or drastically modified despite Law Minister Babar Awan’s categoric assertion about their immutability.

The writer is the publisher of Criterion quarterly. Email: iftimurshed@

Source: The News, November 28, 2010



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