December issue 2010
Interview: Dr Khalid Zaheer, Religious Scholar
“Capital punishment for blasphemy is simply not Islamic”
– Dr Khalid Zaheer, Religious Scholar and Dean of the
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences,
University of Central Punjab
Q: Is the death penalty prescribed under the Blasphemy Law Islamic? Has it been derived from the Quran?
A: A law that punishes people who are involved in the act of blasphemy, to me, is not directly derived from the Quran — there is no clear mention in the Quran about the punishment for blasphemy. Muslims have a right to frame a blasphemy law, but not to prescribe the death penalty as punishment.
Capital punishment can only be given in two instances, according to the Quran. If somebody is a murderer, he can be killed after his [act of] murder is confirmed. If somebody is involved in the act of spreading mischief on earth, that too is an act for which the ultimate punishment can be death. But no third crime has been mentioned by the Quran which is punishable by capital punishment.
The law currently in place is against this basic understanding. The Quran mentions quite a few instances of blasphemy that were committed by people during the lifetime of the Prophet (PBUH). And for all the cases that have been mentioned in the Quran, the Almighty has responded by asking the believers to just ignore them, or by telling the non-believers that they would face dire consequences in the hereafter.
One must concede that there are a few instances that have been mentioned in Hadith literature where the death punishment was apparently inflicted upon people who were involved in the act of blasphemy. However, if you look at these instances and then study the Quranic text, it seems there is a conflict or contradiction. In actual fact, all these mentions in the Hadith have to be read in the light of what the Quran says. When we look at these incidents in light of the Quranic understanding, things become quite clear.
The Quran tells us that the punishment for those who receive the message from the messengers [prophets] directly, yet go on denying it beyond a certain deadline (that is decided by the Almighty himself), and reject the direct message of the messengers, is death. But that sentence has got nothing to do with people other than those who receive the message from the messenger directly. So if there are mentions in the Hadith that give us an understanding that there were some people who were killed because they denied, rejected and ridiculed the Prophet (PBUH), the Quran also clarifies that this punishment has got nothing to do with any other nation except the one that received the message from the messenger directly.
Q: So does that mean that in today’s day and age, since the message is not being received directly, the state cannot carry out such a punishment?
A: The state cannot execute a punishment of this nature. If it wants to reprimand — by imprisoning or imposing a fine — that is within its jurisdiction. Of course, it still cannot be claimed that it is an Islamic punishment because for a punishment to be Islamic you have to bring forth evidence from the Quran and Hadith.
Islam does not disallow coming up with a law for your own purposes in the light of, and in keeping with the spirit of Islam, but then it has to be rational, fair and applicable to all people across the board and without any bias or prejudice. But capital punishment for blasphemy is simply not Islamic.
Q: Do you think the rest of the law is in keeping with Islamic injunctions?
A: No, not at all. I think the way it has been mentioned, it is clearly biased against non-Muslims. It does not include revered personalities of other religions. It provides people who would otherwise want to exact revenge from non-Muslims or even Muslims, the opportunity of involving them in the act of blasphemy, and I think this too is a clear weakness of the law.
Q: In several instances, innocent people, especially minorities, have been framed under the law…
A: Absolutely, and I can’t see any reason why non-Muslims who are living as a tiny minority in a country like Pakistan would do it [blaspheme]. And even if they do, the better approach would be to question them about [the nature of] their grievances. We are the kind of people who should be involved in preaching and disseminating the message politely. People are then inclined to take it more positively. With such harsh punishments for alleged acts of blasphemy, we are just driving people away from Islam.
Farieha Aziz is a Karachi-based journalist and teacher. She joined Newsline in 2007, rising to assistant editor. Farieha was awarded the APNS award for Best Investigative Report (Business/Economic) for the year 2007-2008. She is a co-founder and Director at Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum of Digital Rights.