Does Islam prescribe death for blasphemy?

Photo: Asif Hassan/AFP

Does Islam prescribe death for blasphemy?

Fahad Syed

The hanging of Mumtaz Qadri has sparked a fresh debate on blasphemy law in Pakistan. Qadri was executed on 29 February at Adiala jail in Rawalpindi for gunning down Salman Taseer, the former Governor of Punjab.

Qadri was an elite commando, who was deputed as one of Taseer's bodyguards. He murdered Taseer for the latter's defence of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death under Pakistan's blasphemy law.

While secular and liberal voices across the world hailed the sentence; within Pakistan, a different reaction emerged. A large segment of the Pakistani society mourned Qadri's death as martyrdom. He was accorded the title of ' (the lover of the messenger)' by radical elements and over 1,00,000 people attended his funeral held at Liaquat Bagh on 1 March.

In contrast, the reaction of the Pakistani civil society was largely subdued. Few among the liberals were willing to take a stand on the issue. Political parties chose not to go against the public sentiment for fear of obvious consequences.

The Prophet says in the Quran that only God has the right to punish those who insult him

It is a great irony that nobody came forward to speak the truth in a Muslim-dominated country. Only a few could muster courage to call Qadri a criminal and denounce his action.

This is despite the fact that courts clearly viewed Qadri's act as a crime. It is a ray of hope for Pakistan that its judiciary upheld the spirit of the law and resisted public pressure.

The Real Islam Vs Pseudo Islam

The debate surrounding Salman Taseer's murder has not died down with Qadri's execution. We need to ask how a common Pakistani views Mumtaz Qadri? Qadri's audacity to appoint himself as a religious savior; people pouring the streets in his support; and justification of his crime by religious leaders, are all aspects of the same fundamental question.

There can be no rational argument for eulogising Qadri and defending violence in the name of blasphemy. People worshiping Qadri as hero ignore the basic tenets of Islam.

"I Am A Believer And I Don't Support Qadri"

Correct me, if I am wrong. Islam prescribes punishment that is proportionate to the gravity of the crime. Whereas, the jurisprudence of 'life for a life' might seem logical, Islam also provides scope for clemency, if the afflicted party is ready to forgive.

But, are these basic principles followed in the blasphemy law? How can I be judged guilty, if I have not harmed anybody? Is capital punishment under blasphemy law, not violative of the Islamic ethics of proportionate punishment?

Can anybody prove that such a punishment is mentioned in the Quran? The Hadith records that the Prophet Muhammad had spared the life of a man who insulted him. When followers sought permission to slay the man, the Prophet refused.

"[O Muhammad!] surely, we will suffice you against the scoffers," the Quran says. [Al-Quran 15.95].

This clearly demonstrates that punishment for blasphemy is not advocated by the holy book. The Prophet says in the Quran that only God has the right to punish those who insult him.

According to Hazrat Abu Hanifa Rah., no non-Muslim citizens of an Islamic state can be killed for blasphemy because he is already the culprit of a bigger crime of practicing idolatry or polytheism.

When the Sharia law does not preach death sentence for a crime as serious as idolatry, how can it do so for blasphemy, which is a relatively lesser misdeed in Islam?

There is usually a stereotypical response to such arguments. Hardliners argue that not everything is mentioned in the Quran. For instance, it does not teach how to offer the namaz. But, that hardly justifies killing a person for blasphemy. Would they murder a person who does not know the right way to offer the namaz? If not, then what validates death sentence for blasphemy, since Islamic texts have not directly addressed the issue?

Taking the life of another human being despite these facts is denying the word of the Quran. This is also blasphemy. Would the supporters of Qadri be able to punish themselves accordingly?

Capital punishment under blasphemy law are violative of the Islamic ethics of proportionate punishment

I would like to reiterate that my arguments are open to scrutiny. But, they must be contested with authentic proof. Has our Prophet ever ordered the killing of those who mocked him or god? I could not find a single such example in the history of Islam. Therefore, I feel that supporters of death punishment for blasphemy do not heed the teachings of the Prophet.

This entire episode is not out of context of India. The Indian Muslim society is also infected with bigotry. We saw what happened after Kamlesh Tiwari posted objectionable comments on social media. There was violence amid a clamour for death to Tiwari. A large number of Muslims came out on the streets in over two dozen districts of Uttar Pradesh. Although, Tiwari has been jailed and the law is taking its course, the demand for his hanging has not subsided within Muslims.

This shows that the majority of Muslims are intolerant towards blasphemy. This sentiment was evident during worldwide agitation against Salman Rushdie's book . A fatwa issued for Rushdie's murder only added to his popularity. He became the face of the perceived Muslim intolerance in the western media. Rushdie's opposition only deepened misapprehensions regarding Islam. The whole community of Muslims paid for the whim of a few of its leaders.

Fahad Syed