When the British introduced the blasphemy law in India in 1860, it did not carry the death sentence. Then how and when did the law mutate to claim more and more victims?
The regime of 13th century king of France, Louis IX, formulated and imposed what are considered to be the first formal laws that prescribed punishments for those found to have committed blasphemy. The punishments included the mutilation of the tongue and the lips. Historian Nora Berend writes in her book At the Gate of Christendom that Louis IX largely used his blasphemy laws against Jews and Muslims and against his Christian opponents. He also ordered the burning of dozens of copies of the Talmud — the central text of Rabbinic Judaism — after claiming its contents were “blasphemous.”
There was no concept of such a law in the Muslim world at the time. As Fareed Zakaria (quoting the renowned South Asian Islamic scholar Maulana Wahiddudin Khan) points out in an article, “Nowhere does the Quran prescribe the punishment of lashes, or death, or any other physical punishment.”
Yet, a detailed 2017 report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom placed Iran and Pakistan as the top two countries whose blasphemy laws severely deviated from recognised international human rights principles. The report studied 71 countries where some form of blasphemy laws exist. It then investigated the severity of these laws and prepared a list. The top two names on the list were of Iran and Pakistan.
According to the report, the blasphemy laws of these two countries were also more likely to be misused and/or encourage vigilante violence. To understand how this happened, it is important to investigate how the idea of the blasphemy law evolved in Europe, where it had originated. After 13th century France, blasphemy laws also appeared in England in the 15th century during the reign of King Henry IX. Between 1404 and 1504, dozens of alleged “heretics” were killed for blasphemy. The 13th century blasphemy law in France was finally repealed almost 500 years after it was first enforced. It was cancelled in 1791 soon after a revolution toppled the French monarchy and established a secular nationalist republic in France. England’s 15th century blasphemy law was made part of the British Common Law in the 17th century, but without the death penalty. In 1949, a British judge ruled that the law was a “dead letter” and “not required anymore.”
It is interesting to note that various forms of blasphemy laws were enacted in Europe between the 13th and 19th centuries, but no such law was ever adopted by a Muslim-ruled region. The first Muslim-majority region to prescribe the death sentence for blasphemy was Saudi Arabia, when that country came into being in 1932.
In South Asia, the idea of the blasphemy law was introduced by British colonialists. It was first codified in India in 1860 and then, as tensions and violence between Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus increased, it was expanded in 1927. It did not carry the death sentence. In 1947, when Pakistan came into being, it adopted the 1927 law. It carried a one-year prison sentence or a fine. Pakistan thus became the second Muslim country to have a blasphemy law. Libya adopted one in 1953 and Indonesia in 1965. None carried the death sentence.
However, the situation began to mutate rather drastically when Shia clerics came on top during the 1979 revolution in Iran. The new Islamic regime enacted stern blasphemy laws, making Iran only the second Muslim-majority country to prescribe the death penalty for blasphemy after Saudi Arabia. Pakistan would become the third and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, the fourth. In Pakistan, the intransigent military regime of General Zia that had come to power in July 1977, upped the ante in 1980 when it added two more years of imprisonment to the 1927 law. In response to Iran’s increasing “Islamisation”, Saudi Arabia began to further beef up its blasphemy laws. The Zia regime followed suit when, in 1982, it further expanded the law by prescribing life imprisonment for those found guilty of “defiling the Muslim holy texts.” A year after the 1985 election, in which only pro-Zia parties and individuals took part, a new Parliament came into being, led by Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Junejo. Zia encouraged the Parliament to legislate laws that would “truly turn Pakistan into an Islamic state.”
Human rights activist and lawyer, the late Asma Jahangir then delivered a scathing speech at a Women’s Action Forum (WAF) seminar in Islamabad in which she asked why the ulema (Muslim scholars) were being turned into a political class. A member of the Jamaat-i-Islami Liaqat Baloch and another member of Zia’s Parliament, Nisar Fatima, took slight at Jahangir’s criticism and demanded that WAF be banned.Fatima then accused Jahangir of using inappropriate language for Islam. A former justice of the Zia regime’s Federal Shariat Court, Aftab Hussain, disagreed. He told reporters that he found nothing objectionable in Jahangir’s speech. But Fatima continued to demand action. With a few of her colleagues in the Parliament, she demanded that a Bill be tabled to add the death penalty to the blasphemy law. In the “debate” that ensued, only an MNA from Jhang, Arif Khan, pleaded that patience be exhibited to pass a Bill prescribing the death sentence. But his voice was drowned out by those who claimed that “divine displeasure awaited those who would oppose the Bill.” Ironically, the situation seemed to have spiralled out of control for the Junejo regime because some ministers tried to stall the Bill. But they couldn’t and it was passed into a law which many experts believe is highly vague.
For example, a Multan court recently sentenced a professor to death for committing blasphemy, whereas the Islamabad High Court rejected a petition against Prime Minister Imran Khan (for allegedly committing blasphemy) when the court noted that “religion was a private matter.”
From 1947 until 1985, just 14 people were charged under the blasphemy law that carried a one-year sentence.
After 1986, when the death penalty was added, over 1,500 people have been charged.