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 . 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” .
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 .
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 . 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 . 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 . 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 , Ahmed Bin Hanbal’s condemnation for his views on nature of Quran , 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). __________________________________________
- 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.
- 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.
- For the description of actual event see Riaz Hassan, Expressions of Religiosity and Blasphemy in Modern Societies, Asian Journal of Social Science, 2007 – Springer.
- Two very important texts in this regard are A Brief History of Blasphemy by Richard Webster and Genealogies of Religion by Talal Asad.
- 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.
- Sherman Jackson, On the Boundaries of Theological Tolerance in Islam: Abu Hamid al Ghazali’s Faysal al Tafriqa.
- Sherman Jackson, Ibn Taymiyyah on Trial in Damascus, Journal of Semitic Studies, 1994.
- See for instance, Abu Zuhra’s work on Imam Ahmed Bin Hanbal’s life, work and fiqh.