Home » All My Posts » Discoursing Blasphemy (I): Deconstructing the Contemporary Authoritarian Context

Discoursing Blasphemy (I): Deconstructing the Contemporary Authoritarian Context

The materials could be used to construct either the authoritative or the authoritarian. If the authoritarian is constructed, the text is rendered subservient and submerged into its representer and reader. If authoritative is constructed, the text survives unencumbered and unlimited by its representer and reader. – Khaled Abou El Fadl in Conference of the Books

Imagine your were born into a middle or lower-middle class Christian family in Islamic Republic of Pakistan. This ironic accident of nature would automatically grant you the deplorable status among approximately one percent ignorant, disbelieving and impure inhabitants of the otherwise land of the pure. Stretch your imagination a little further and assume being grown up to become an individual with religious conviction in line with any of the mainstream Christian denominations. Needless to add that you would strongly believe in fundamentals of your religion; fundamentals, which unlike Islam, do not necessitate belief in other Prophets and the truthfulness of their message. Obviously, you would not have a smidge of reverence for Prophet Muhammad or Quran in your heart.

At this point, a number of hypothesis can be proffered; however, among worst-case scenarios, lets just assume that you truly happen to doubt the historicity of Islam and its venerated Prophet, who erroneously – or with the sheer intent of deceit – pretended to be the last Messenger of God [1]. With truthful compassion and deep sincerity, you do not, for a moment, regard Quran as a piece of literature on which “a society can be safely of sensibly based”. Furthermore, you might consider it a “crude, endless iteration” faked as God’s word, and whose reading, would be a “toilsome experience” [2].

Now, would you reckon pronouncing your belief publicly in a decent, truthful and academic manner without facing charges for the crime of blasphemy and instigating Islamist upheavals demanding your death? And if the sheer simplicity of this hypothetical proposition is not enough to demonstrate the hidden strata of ironies, lets put it this way: the accident of your birth (and what you come to believe subsequently) might leave you with a strict binary choice in the land of the pure, i.e., live dishonorably as an infidel hypocrite or die ignominiously as a profane blasphemer.

There has been plenty of discussion in print and electronic media regarding the infamous blasphemy law of Pakistan. A common supporting argument, usually initiated to evade the real question regarding the actual religious basis of the law, goes like this: there is nothing wrong with the law itself, and therefore the soundness of religious injunctive value attached to it; however, there may be flaws in its procedural implementations – as there in almost all other clauses of Pakistan Penal Code – which can be exploited to prosecute people unjustly.

I want to argue here that the above proposition is flawed for two distinct but often interactive reasons: 1) it overlooks an important lingual nuance in the framing of the law itself and 2) it supplies us with a presumably monolithic, homogeneous and historically connected Islamic definition and character of blasphemy.

Coming first to textual ambiguity in framing the language of the law (295-C), which is hard to miss even by a careless reader. It is not too difficult to understand that terms like “derogatory remarks, etc.”, “imputation”, “innuendo”, “insinuation” and “defiles the sacred name” can be misconstrued and misused easily. In fact it is so easy that a mere refusal to insert the common salutations after the name of the Prophet due to simple academic and publishing requirements can be easily misconstrued as blasphemy and can be portrayed socially to incite dangerous reactions. This mostly ignorant and reactive social milieu is tragically ironic to an extent that prestigious publishers in Pakistan, e.g., Oxford University Press, insert ‘PBUH’ after the name of the Prophet as an ‘in-house policy’ to avoid unnecessary hue and cry [3].

What is more troubling, however, is the ease with which the question regarding real definition and character of blasphemy is circumvented by the street mullahs, facebook zealots and common people who enthusiastically – and at times, inadvertently – support murderers.

Starting from the time of Greek Sophists, blasphemy has a long and vicious history in all canonical religions, especially Christianity [4]. In more than one way, Islam emphatically redefined the sacred in relation to an individual and society and placed it in its correct metaphysical and eschatological perspective. While the divine message was repetitively explained with exceptional clarity and forceful persuasion (3:85; 4:125), submission of an individual was eventually came about in Islamic theology as a matter of personal preference without any compulsions (2:256) by the society or Muslim polity; and as a human psychological condition which may have immediate and distant repercussions in this world but will be judged ultimately in hereafter. Moreover, the assertive statement in Quran (18:29) that

Say, “The truth is from your Lord”: Let him who will believe, and let him who will, reject (it)…

tends to establish a clear contrast with the Christian dogma that thoughts can blaspheme too and therefore subject to confession [5]. Ultimately, in Islamic theological doctrine, sacredness and sanctity of the symbols of God is contingent upon submission of the individual in first place (5:2).

In this backdrop, classical Islamic jurists always considered an individual’s personal religious conviction to be a matter between him and his Creator (baynahu wa bayna rabbiy). Some of them theorized further, discussing extensively the underlying theological intricacies, and argued that the Islamic doctrine of kufr simply means non-belief in the truthfulness of the Prophethood of Muhammad (pbuh) – a psychological condition which should not be considered immoral for all worldly purposes [6].  Thus, regardless of its rare practical implementation, the classical advocacy of capital punishment for apostasy is not because of a Muslim’s intellectual subjection to a false doctrine but due to its direct and indirect sociopolitical consequences – a sense which is more in line with the modern concept of high treason against one’s government.

It is also pertinent to note that all convictions of presumed blasphemy – or heresy which is an often interrelated and sometimes indistinguishable thread – recorded in classical as well as modern Islamic heresiography had always been nuanced sociopolitically; some examples are Ibn Taymiah’s trials for his alleged anthropomorphic views [7], Ahmed Bin Hanbal’s condemnation for his views on nature of Quran [8], conviction of Mansoor Al-Hallaj for his claims of extreme mystical universalism, Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid’s exile from Egypt to Netherlands in 1994, and Hashem Aghajari’s trial and subsequent conviction in Iran in 2003.

It can be ultimately contended that the contemporary debate of blasphemy (as seen in Pakistan these days) thrives upon postmodern sensibilities of the sacred which are theologically inaccurate as well as morally ambiguous. While successfully carrying the burden of far-right Islamist politics, these sensibilities also appeal to the popular, mostly apolitical and semi-religious mindset which is easily provoked by complexity and naturally adores a simple and perfect causality. However, what still remains to be shown is that this dangerously simplistic discourse is based upon strictly radical and authoritarian readings of the scripture (both Quran and Hadith).                                                                             __________________________________________

  1. The aim is not to instigate the expected emotional response but just to bring about the moral ambiguity of the popular religious discourse insinuating complete homogeneity. For specific remarks see various publications by Ibn Warraq and Patricia Crone, for instance.
  2. For first remark see Sacred Cows by Britain’s foremost feminist Fay Weldon; for second see On Heroes and Hero Worship and the Heroic in History by Thomas Carlyle.
  3. For the description of actual event see Riaz Hassan, Expressions of Religiosity and Blasphemy in Modern Societies, Asian Journal of Social Science, 2007 – Springer.
  4. Two very important texts in this regard are A Brief History of Blasphemy by Richard Webster and Genealogies of Religion by Talal Asad.
  5. For details and discussion on related issues see Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion and his essay Reflections on Blasphemy and Secular Criticism in Religion: Beyond a Concept.
  6. Sherman Jackson, On the Boundaries of Theological Tolerance in Islam: Abu Hamid al Ghazali’s Faysal al Tafriqa.
  7. Sherman Jackson, Ibn Taymiyyah on Trial in Damascus, Journal of Semitic Studies, 1994.
  8. See for instance, Abu Zuhra’s work on Imam Ahmed Bin Hanbal’s life, work and fiqh.

9 thoughts on “Discoursing Blasphemy (I): Deconstructing the Contemporary Authoritarian Context

  1. While I agree completely with your conclusion, your premise is sort of guilty of the same simplification that you term as being dangerous towards the end, especially since you employ “a strict binary choice” argument.

    There’s almost always a… third option!

  2. I kinda concede to your accusation but do not share your gripe for reasons I’d like to clarify briefly; not for the sake of argument but just for the sake of academic integrity.

    I agree that my hypothetical setup may rightly seem way overboard but its not unrealistic as people in this country have been termed as blasphemers (and forced to pay a very heavy price) for purely academic philosophical and critical indulgences; critical towards theology, dogma, history as well as religious interpretation in general. An appropriate example is Fazlur Rahman; another one is Dr Abdus Salam; although not very appropriate example but even yesterday, a 17 year old boy in Karachi is convicted for blasphemy for his irresponsible (perhaps childish frustration) fudging in an exam.

    Secondly, I tried to allude that I am employing worst-case scenarios using published works by 3 scholars (always debatable) who can be loosely termed as Islamophobes. I just want to show that there had been people like Dante and Carlyle in history; there is Ibn Warraq, Daniel Pipes and Hitchens today; and there are many more to come. Even ad hominem critique should be replied by the critique. This has also been one of the foremost guidance of Quran for those who want to debate and discuss. Please understand that I am not going into age old debate about balance between defamation laws and freedom of expression.

    These were just my two cents and I am sorry if I am still unable to clarify myself. May Allah forgive us for our intentional and unintentional mistakes.

    Thank you for reading and commenting.

  3. Salaams, Aasem
    I’m not even sure the current anti-blasphemy regime in PK even merits a scholarly critique, for all its pretensions to defending tradition and the sacred. So long as they’re embedded in a “legal” culture that so completely ignores basic issues of justice and due process and which has is so utterly subordinated to political expediency and mob rule, the ordinances are a mockery of Islamic law. They bear more resemblance to lynchings or medieval witch trials than any principled attempt to establish Islamic values or protect Islam’s honor. As the high evidentiary threshold for zina accusations shows (e.g., firsthand knowledge, multiple witnesses, sight of the actual sexual act itself), Islam establishes high standards that are clearly designed to protect people from persecution and slanders, and which puts the onus of proof squarely on accusers. These standards are so high (think about it–a man who saw his wife emerge from a motel room couldn’t make the charge) that the priority is obviously on protecting the innocent even at the risk of occasionally letting the guilty escape justice.

    Compare that to this abomination and mockery of Islamic values, where the persecution of religious minorities (who already face much discrimination) has been legally sanctioned. Today in Pakistan a person’s very life can be put in danger with the vaguest, most unsubstantiated accusations of blasphemy, and, critically, with nary a peep from the ulema or judiciary. The flimsiness of so many of these cases is breathtaking, and the inability/unwillingness of judges to throw them out summarily is a sign of a deep malaise that calls into question the legitimacy of the whole process.

    Whatever the explanation–systemic incompetency or such abject lawlessness that competent, conscientious people dare not speak the truth–a law like this should not be on the books until there’s an iota of likelihood that it will be implemented justly and dispassionately.

    In that respect, I’m reminded of the death penalty here in the USA. I am comfortable with it in principle, but consider it completely immoral and barbaric in the context of criminal justice system that does not apply the same standards and penalties consistently across racial and class lines. So long as the system so profoundly biased and unjust, the philosophical/religious arguments are quite beside the point.

  4. On the Day of Judgment–or perhaps earlier–we will all answer for how we took care of those under our charge, whether we lived up to our basic responsibilities. That defending the legally sanctioned persecution of Ahmadis and Christians has become a rallying call for such broad swaths of Pakistani society scares me, and should scare Pakistanis I think. There are many kinds of wickedness that Allah punishes. Surely encouraging or condoning the persecution and marginalization of the Ahl-Dhimma (or whatever one categorizes Ahmadis, who are human beings and fellow Pakistani citizens) is just a likely to incur Allah’s wrath as the more obvious sins that condemned previous peoples.

    I care deeply about Pakistan–I’m married to a Pakistani, love Pakistan’s culture and have been there many times–but I must say that it’s getting harder to sympathize. Does a society that so blithely ignores the suffering of its most vulnerable and discriminated-against members deserve the sympathy of the outside world when it encounters hardship?

  5. Pingback: Among ‘Unliberated’ Liberals (I): Bogus critics unpack the so-called baloney of Pakistan’s literary ‘Babas’ | Hanging Odes

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