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Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws

Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws
From Islamic Empires to the Taliban

This pioneering study of the evolution of blasphemy laws from the early Islamic empires to the present-day Taliban uncovers the history and questionable motives behind Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and calls for a return to the prophet Muhammad’s peaceful vision of social justice.

July 2013
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222 pages | 6 x 9 | 21 b&w photos, 14 illus. |

Under the guise of Islamic law, the prophet Muhammad’s Islam, and the Qur’an, states such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Bangladesh are using blasphemy laws to suppress freedom of speech. Yet the Prophet never tried or executed anyone for blasphemy, nor does the Qur’an authorize the practice. Asserting that blasphemy laws are neither Islamic nor Qur‘anic, Shemeem Burney Abbas traces the evolution of these laws from the Islamic empires that followed the death of the Prophet Muhammad to the present-day Taliban. Her pathfinding study on the shari’a and gender demonstrates that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are the inventions of a military state that manipulates discourse in the name of Islam to exclude minorities, women, free thinkers, and even children from the rights of citizenship.

Abbas herself was persecuted under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, so she writes from both personal experience and years of scholarly study. Her analysis exposes the questionable motives behind Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which were resurrected during General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime of 1977–1988—motives that encompassed gaining geopolitical control of the region, including Afghanistan, in order to weaken the Soviet Union. Abbas argues that these laws created a state-sponsored “infidel” ideology that now affects global security as militant groups such as the Taliban justify violence against all “infidels” who do not subscribe to their interpretation of Islam. She builds a strong case for the suspension of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and for a return to the Prophet’s peaceful vision of social justice.

  • Preface. The Ethnography of a Military State
  • Chapter 1. Pakistan’s Military State and Civil Society
  • Chapter 2. Muhammad, the Messenger
  • Chapter 3. Blasphemy Laws’ Evolution
  • Chapter 4. Colonial Origins, Ambiguities, and Execution of the Blasphemy Laws
  • Chapter 5. Risky Knowledge, Perilous Times: History’s Martyr Mansur Hallaj
  • Chapter 6. Blasphemy Cultures and Islamic Empires
  • Conclusion. The Affiliates: Where To?
  • Appendices
    • 1. Fieldwork
    • 2. Text of Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws
    • 3. A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission
    • 4. The Hudood Ordinance Qanun-e Shahadat, the Law of Evidence
    • 5. Fate of a Teacher Accused of Blasphemy to Be Decided Today
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Shemeem Burney Abbas is the Doris and Carl Kempner Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Gender Studies, and Literature at the State University of New York at Purchase. She was formerly a professor and chair of the Department of English Language and Applied Linguistics at Allama Iqbal Open University in Islamabad, Pakistan.


The Ethnography of a Military State


I am a woman scholar of Sufism who was charged with blasphemy by state functionaries at a federal university in the capital of Islamabad in 1998 during the Nawaz Sharif government. This was six years after my return with a doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin. My PhD dissertation was on "Speech Play and Verbal Art in the Indo-Pakistani Oral Sufi Tradition," an area toward which the faculty of clerics in my university were extremely hostile. The Sufis and clerics have never been friends, as much of Sufi poetry ridicules the clerics, the sheikhs, and the mullas. As a full professor and chair of the Department of English Language and Applied Linguistics at the Allama Iqbal Open University, I was accused of using “frequent, ‘blasphemous’ and derogatory remarks against Islam, the Holy Quran and the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH [peace be upon him]).” A female junior faculty member in the department initiated the charge. A male junior colleague, an adjunct political appointee who was on contract and who could not get an appointment through the regular selection board, further backed the accusation. He corroborated that “Dr. Shemeem Abbas said, ‘The Quran is an outdated book and should be put on the cupboard.’” For me, the female perpetrator recommended a fate like that of Salman Rushdie.


The accusation was encouraged by the vice chancellor whom the faculty of clerics had brought to the Allama Iqbal Open University from the International Islamic University in Islamabad. The clerics around the vice chancellor colluded in the charge, especially among them the dean of my faculty of humanities, who had a PhD in Islamic studies from a madrassa (religious seminary) in Lahore, the Jamia Ashrafia. Many others like him had reached key positions within the university, such as deans of faculty and heads of departments, during General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq's regime. These were individuals whose degrees were given “equivalence” through the rubber-stamping processes at the University Grants Commission in Islamabad in the 1980s at the height of Pakistan’s “Islamization.” The late Dr. Muhammad Afzal, a close relative of General Zia-ul-Haq, in that period was the chairman of the University Grants Commission as well as the federal minister for education. Although a liberal intellectual with a graduate degree from the United States, he did uphold the rubber-stamping of the “mullaization” of the Pakistani academy. Consequently, the madrassa diplomas of the clerics were upgraded to doctorates; they were made scholars of Islam, or culema, to validate the Islamization of education in the region under General Zia-ul-Haq.


My instant action on being falsely charged with blasphemy was to seek an interview with the military secretary to the president of Pakistan, as the president is the chancellor of all the universities in the country. At that time it was Mr. Rafiq Tarar. Since I was a military war widow of the 1965 war with India, I got the interview immediately over the telephone with the military secretary, who asked me to also petition the president. I personally delivered my petition at the presidency, where the military personnel on the staff treated me with the utmost respect.


A few days before I went to meet with the president, I met with the chief justice of the High Court of Panjab Province, who was a family friend. The chief justice cautioned me not to mention anything about my work in Sufism to the president, Rafiq Tarar, as he was an ahl-e hadith, in other words, of the sect whose members practice conservative, orthodox Islam based largely on a textual reading of the Qur’an and hadith (sayings of the Prophet and his Companions). The ahl-e hadith do not approve of the Sufis. However, with my petition as an army war widow whose husband had gone missing in a commando mission called Operation Gibraltar in 1965 in Srinagar (Indian-held Kashmir), the state had to take action. The state had to uphold the jihad rhetoric. The Qur’an promises unlimited rewards in paradise to those who die in jihad.


While I petitioned the president of Pakistan regarding the blasphemy accusation, I also responded to the charge through my immediate supervisor, a seminary cleric. In my response I said, “The procedure adopted in the instant case is unheard of under the E & D [Efficiency and Discipline] Rules. However, the counter allegations raised can be pleaded by Ms. X in defense during the inquiry.” I further affirmed in the response, “The charge of blasphemy is a serious matter. It is a cognizable offence. Ms. X may be advised to get an FIR [first investigation report] registered so that on the failure of the charge, its pushers and collaborators could be made answerable under the qizaf [slander or defamation] law and Section 211 of the Pakistan Penal Code (S211 of PPC).”


I copied my defense to the university's registrar and vice chancellor. Furthermore, I copied it to the university chancellor, who was President Tarar. In the defense I asserted, “For my own protection, I am forwarding a copy of this letter to the Chancellor, Allama Iqbal Open University.” Consequently, the vice chancellor was summoned to the presidency and was told to apologize to me; other women faculty too were facing harassment in different ways, and thus with the plethora of complaints, the immediate directive to the vice chancellor was to put the house in order.6 At the presidency, the matter was not just left at that. Within six months the president himself, his military secretary of the rank of brigadier general, the federal minister for education Syed Ghaus cAli Shah, and the entire ministry of education visited the university to verify the complaints and to correct the situation of the adverse soap-opera publicity that the university was getting in the tabloid Urdu press.


And although I was civil and dignified during the president’s inspection, in order to preserve my integrity I eventually found a way to leave the university, where I knew I had no security. With my own limited funds I relocated to my alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, in 1999 and wrote the manuscript of my first book, The Female Voice in Sufi Ritual: Devotional Practices of Pakistan and India, which the University of Texas Press published in 2002. I had some additional support from the United States Educational Foundation for a Fulbright travel grant. Furthermore, the American Institute for Pakistan Studies sponsored me for a lecture series in American universities.


However, after writing the book I went back to Pakistan, as I was on a sabbatical in Austin and had to report to my home-country university. Within a few months I returned to the University of Texas with admission into the creative writing program, and later I became a visiting faculty member. The tragedy of the Twin Towers in 2001 made it difficult for me to return to Pakistan. I applied for immigrant status to rebuild my life in the United States, where I am now on the faculty of the State University of New York at Purchase College. I had the support of the Scholars at Risk and the Institute of Education in New York in identifying this position, which made it possible for me to write this manuscript. I must make clear that while I create the contexts for Pakistan’s blasphemy laws through my background as an educator, my arguments in this book are within the established frames of Islam. My credentials for engaging in such a discourse are that I am a practicing Muslim woman, a Hanafi Sunni adherent of Islam. My scholarship is informed matrilineally from a lineage of Islamic jurisconsults, distinguished scholars of Islamic law and sharia, well documented in Kanhyalal’s Tarikh-e Lahore (a history of the city of Lahore).


My mother was a writer who was additionally versed in the Qur’an and the sharica. My mother’s ancestors had been the Muftis, Islamic jurisconsults of Lahore city since the time of Qutubdin Aibak, the slave sultan who founded the Delhi Sultanate, 1150–1210. The family’s scholars issued fatwas (scholarly opinions) on legal matters, and among those still living, many have distinguished themselves as writers, intellectuals, professionals, and military men, including my late husband, who was a recipient of one of the Pakistani army’s highest gallantry awards, the sitare-e jurat (star of gallantry). It was my mother, herself a Mufti, who taught me to use the rhetoric of the mullas against them, and hence this manuscript.


Hanafi Sunni Islam of the kind in which I was raised is tolerant and accepting of other sects within Islam as well as the surrounding religious domains such as Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity. In my family, Sufi practices were common such as going to the shrines of holy men, especially the Sufi auliya (wise men). In the faith that I follow, intermarriage between Hanafi Sunnis and Shi'a is common, all integrated within the practice of Hanafi Islam. Hanafi Muslims share spiritual, intellectual, and social domains with the Shi'a . My own maternal and paternal families represent these practices, as do most Muslims in the region. I have lived in Sunni and Shi'a communities, and my experience of both Sunni and Shi'a Islam informs my scholarship. Furthermore, my scholarship is informed through training in comparative religions in academies in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and the United Kingdom.




“Shemeem Abbas has written a courageous and important book, the first of its kind on blasphemy laws of Pakistan. It is an important contribution to the history of Pakistan and of Islam, and urgent reading in today’s troubled times. While a scholarly monograph, the book is written in an engaging, easy-to-read style, and especially because of its use of visual materials such as posters, charts, and maps, is an excellent introductory book for lay readers as well as students of Islam and Pakistan, and for scholars of the field of Islamic Studies as well.”
Fawzia Afzal-Khan, University Distinguished Scholar and Professor of English and Director of Women and Gender Studies, Montclair State University; author of the memoir, Lahore With Love: Growing Up With Girlfriends Pakistani Style

“Focusing largely upon Pakistan, this book vividly illustrates the growing frenzy within some contemporary Muslim societies to exterminate those perceived as religious deviants. The author’s personal experiences, as well as the open support recently extended by Pakistan’s legal community to those who kill alleged blasphemers, are part of a disturbing global trend. That this slide into medieval barbarism can happen in the twenty-first century makes one fear for the future of the human species.”
Pervez Hoodbhoy, Professor, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad

“Professor Abbas’s own fatwah provoked her to inquire into the origin of Pakistan’s ‘blasphemy laws.’ General Haq and his mullahs updated models invented by the Abbasids, the Omayyads and the rest of the Islamic theocracies. Her surprising conclusion: ‘blasphemy laws’ were derived not from the Qur’an but from Islamic polities. Literate illiterates still twist Surah 53:11 to enforce their zeal for civic unity.”
Ernest Kaulbach, Professor of English, University of Texas at Austin


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