On October 1, 2011 a Judge of Pakistan anti-terrorism court sentenced Mumtaz Qadri to death over the murder of former Punjab Governer, Salman Taseer. As soon as the news came out, it has stirred up the debate regarding blasphemy again as this is an issue that is a cause of high polarization in our society.
I started learning about blasphemy and its punishment in Islam in 2006, when a Danish newspaper published offensive cartoons regarding Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and as a result fierce protests broke out in Pakistan. First question that I asked which apparently others didn’t bother to was that why are these protestors destroying our own country by burning cars and markets when we had nothing to do with it? Anyways, as far as I did my research regarding this topic, I came to the conclusion that there is no point in having a punishment for blasphemy.
First of all, let’s start with the logical argument which apparently people in our country don’t like. Not everybody thinks the same about everything; people are brought up in different circumstances, with different sources of information around them and in different countries. Now if somebody is brainwashed or is prejudiced against our Holy Prophet (PBUH), don’t we need to talk to that person and erase any misconceptions? If we start killing everyone who we think is a blasphemer according to our definitions and criteria of judgement, we close any prospect of dialogue before it even starts and can’t bring him to “the right path” as we see it. Moreover, when we as Muslims start going crazy over any incidence of Blasphemy e.g. by issuing death fatwas on people like Salman Rushdie, it gives them a lot more importance than those stupid people deserve. The sales of his book sky rocketed after the whole controversy because people wanted to know what it was that he said. In addition, when people saw the images of violence from the Muslim world, they thought him to be the victim and sympathized with him. It was so sad to see that at a time when the whole world was criticizing Islam for being intolerant, Muslims were on the forefront to prove it. The question that we have to ask ourselves is that is our love for our Prophet or our faith so weak that we have to take somebody else’s life to keep it strong?
For those of you who didn’t like the first argument, let’s go to the religious one. First question that all of us need to ask is that that how many of us know Classical Arabic i-e the language of the Quran. The truth of the matter is that even those people who live in the Middle East cannot interpret Quran just by reading it, much like not every person who knows Urdu can interpret Ghalib or Mir. The Holy Quran, much like the Old and the New Testament can be interpreted in different ways. Then there is a proper way to study Hadith, anybody who is a student of Hadith knows that they contradict each other at several points and there is a proper way to figure out which ones are stronger, which ones are weaker and which ones are totally not valid. Even in the Hadith, there are always disagreements as some Hadith that might be considered strong by some scholars would be considered weak or non-valid by others. When even after 1400 years of Islamic scholarship, there is such confusion regarding sensitive religious matters, shouldn’t we spend more time in understanding our religion instead of being God and passing judgements in this world? In Surah Al-Baqarah, talking about unbelievers, God says that “God has set a seal on their hearts and on their hearing, and on their eyes is a covering” (2:5). Honestly, take a look at our society and see how perfectly it applies. Our ears are sealed as we have no tolerance to listen any other point of view and our eyes are covered when we shamelessly turn them blind to severe injustices happening in our society in the name of religion.
Furthermore, anybody who studies the history of Islamic empire should know that Islamic law has never been fixed or absolute. From the time of the 4 Caliphs to the Ummayads to Abbasids and finally up to Ottomans, laws have always been interpreted and changed depending on the time and place. More recently take the example of Saudi government; the same Shura council that didn’t give women the right to vote for so long has now concluded that it’s ok to let them have a vote in municipal elections. Hopefully sooner they will get a right to drive as well. Now can someone please explain that something that was considered to be un-Islamic till yesterday became suddenly Islamic today? Religion has always evolved as situation, time and place changes. In fact that’s what the concept of ijtihad is all about it. On the other hand, if we want to remain stagnant in a medieval mindset, well we can clearly see how well that’s going for us!
Even after these arguments if any of you believe that punishment of blasphemy is death in Islam, you should also know that one of the basic principles of Islamic law requires having a Qazi (judge), credible witnesses, proper procedure and then awarding of any punishment based on circumstances as Qazi can always mitigate or aggravate the punishment depending on the situation. No individual has the right to take laws into his or her own hands as it undermines the authority of Islamic courts.
Last part is related to the idea of whether having a punishment for blasphemy works or not. First of all, the point of any Islamic law is to prevent fitna or disorder in the land. But we can clearly see that this law has been a cause of fitna, instead of preventing it. Minorities are discriminated against without any proper evidence, religious right uses it for political power and leverage, and worst part is that it increases blasphemy outside Pakistan, especially in the West. I would like to start with a personal example of how in our religious studies class, the professor showed the news clipping when lawyers were showering rose petals over a person who had just taken somebody’s life. The discussion in that class made me realize how serious is it for us as Muslims to reclaim our religion from wrong understandings as it is increasing the hatred against our Prophet instead of stopping it, which is a point of any punishment, to stop the crime. The blasphemy was not limited to my class, Western newspapers, Tv-Channals and Media pundits got a point to slander Islam and Prophet Muhammad in the worst possible way. They called him a warrior, man who brought sword and started and encouraged violence in the name of religion. If punishment of blasphemy is death, should I now start killing these people too? Why apply this law only to Pakistan? This is what our religion has reduced too, an example of pure violence. How can we convince people that Islam is the religion of peace when there is nothing peaceful that we are doing in its name?
As far as the case of Mumtaz Qadri is concerned, one thing that I don’t understand is that as Qadri and his supporters were shouting on the top of their lungs that “Namoos-e-risalat par jaan kurbaan,” then why is he appealing his sentence? Shouldn’t he be happy that he has finally achieved his dream of being a martyr? On the other hand, for the statement of Salman Taseer, I would like to quote Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri who also said that “as far as I listened to (Salman Taseer’s) statement in news and media, technically if I see it as a student of Islam, it doesn’t fall into the category of what we call gushtaki-e-rasool.”
Conclusion: We need more Salman Taseers and less Mumtaz Qadris or else chaos is waiting (if it has not already taken over).