Christian Persecution in Pakistan
My heart bled today as I read the latest report out of my birth place, Pakistan: another Christian sentenced to death under the blasphemy law. The story is not new, in fact it’s like a tragic play already played out countless times in Pakistan as well as other Muslim countries.
This time, it was the case of Sawan Masih, a poor Christian from Lahore accused of using derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. His accuser: a friend with whom he was in a property dispute. With no evidence being produced except for the accuser’s testimony, any court of law would have difficulty deciding that the property dispute was not the real motivator, rather than religious sentiment. Any court except the so-called Shariah courts of Pakistan.
The case raises some very thought provoking questions for Muslims not only in Pakistan but also right here in the United States. If we are to be one ummah, we must have interest and concern about any and every case of misuse of Islamic teachings or law. First and foremost, the question that comes to mind is whether Islamic law as it was intended to be practiced really does punish blasphemy, and if so, what constitutes blasphemy and how is it measured?
What Does the Quran Say?
The Holy Quran is rife with descriptions of blasphemy and defamation. Disbelievers made a jest of the Holy Prophet (21:36); he was called ‘a mad man’ (15:6 and 23:70) and ‘a victim of deception’ (17:47). He was treated as a liar (35:25 and 16:101) and the Holy Quran was ‘mere stories of the past’ (16:24) and ‘confused dreams’ (21:5). They urged people ‘not to listen to it, but make noise during its recitation’ (41:26). Finally, they ‘tore the Quran into pieces’ (15:91). Yet nobody was punished and no reciprocation occurred. In reality, the Holy Quran itself teaches that blasphemy is a crime punishable by God alone. Many verses such as the one below point to this concept:
Verily, those who malign Allah and His Messenger — Allah has cursed them in this world and in the Hereafter, and has prepared for them an abasing punishment. And those who malign believing men and believing women for what they have not earned shall bear the guilt of a calumny and a manifest sin.” (33:57-58)
Another question that arises here is whether the Muslims of today are justified in punishing blasphemy, whether by legal means or mass rioting like the hundreds of Muslims who attacked Sawan’s Christian colony, started fires and desecrated churches? Is this the example of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and his companions? Absolutely not, he did not punish his enemies even after rising to power in Mecca and Medina, despite the extreme persecution, ridicule and blasphemy against Allah his enemies continued to do for years. The Holy Prophet was once approached by a Jew to whom he owed money. The Jew came to him mistakenly thinking that the amount was overdue, and confronted the Holy Prophet, demanded his money using very harsh and blasphemed words. He also insulted the Holy Prophet and his tribe. Hadhrat Umar, who was also there, became extremely annoyed and perhaps was about to strike him. The Holy Prophet stopped him for doing so and said: “Umar, you should have behaved differently.” (Bukhari)
The fact is that punishment against blasphemy is on the books of virtually every Muslim country and some non-Muslim nations as well. Pew Research found that almost half of the countries of the world (47%) have some kind of law against blasphemy and religious defamation. Out of this number, 13 countries are in the Middle East/North Africa, 9 in the Asia Pacific and 2 in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet the book we all claim to follow – the Holy Quran – does not have any punishment against blasphemy.
In glaring contrast, the Blasphemy Law of Pakistan was amended under the Shariah Petition No. 6/L of 1987 – a 30‐page judgment that quotes from the Holy Quran, some hadith from a source outside the ‘Six Sahih’ (‘correct’) books and interpretations from the medieval ages. Nobody was called to argue the opposing view. Today in Pakistan, Christians and Ahmadi Muslims are the most frequent defendants under this harsh law.
The recent case of Sawan Masih is not the only one – who can forget poor Rimshah Masih and British citizen Muhammad Asghar making headlines of the worst kind in months past? Yet mainstream Muslims don’t speak out against harsh and unjust blasphemy laws except for sporadic events. As one writer explains: Pakistani politicians who raise their voice are silenced either by ridicule, or even death. So far two major politicians in power have been killed because of their stance against blasphemy, and their fate has silenced all the others.
That is where we as American Muslims come in. Living in a country of freedom and equality, we owe it to our brothers and sisters in Pakistan and elsewhere to be their voice and their conscience. We who are educated in our religion must educate others about the true Islamic teachings of justice and mercy. We can write articles on blogs, send letters to newspaper editors, participate in protests, do whatever we can in a peaceful and respectful manner to show the Islamic world that blasphemy laws as enacted by the majority of Muslim countries today are actually un-Islamic. By professing to be in accordance of the teachings of Islam, it is these laws themselves that commit blasphemy because they distort and falsify the essence of the Quran and Sunnah.
Perhaps most importantly, we must protect the religious minorities in all Muslim countries, make sure they are treated justly and are able to live without fear with us. And finally, we must understand that Allah does not need our harsh punishments, especially those that are obviously biased and unjust. He is more than capable of defending Himself, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and Islam. It is a difficult job, and many have lost their lives protesting against blasphemy. But can we afford to stay silent?