This past November in Pakistan, Aasia Bibi, a Christian, was sentenced to death by hanging. Bibi is accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad during an argument with co-workers. According to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, the punishment for defiling the Qur’an is life imprisonment, but for insulting the Prophet the penalty is death.
President Asif Ali Zardari had initially pledged to pardon Bibi, but was later barred from doing so by a Pakistani court. Even though the punishment of death has never been carried out, the blasphemy laws have resulted in death. Many times, the accused is killed by mobs.
This story troubled me on a number of levels. First, while I find mocking or insulting of any prophet to be irreverent, I find it more reprehensible to punish that kind of action with death. All this does is further the image that Islam is intolerant and violent.
Second, most writing on blasphemy seems to agree that the punishment laid out in the Pakistani blasphemy laws are not in the Qur’an or the Sunna. In other words, it is the result of Muslim jurist’s interpretation. Shouldn’t the difference in context be considered and who these laws apply to?
Third, there are many Qur’anic verses that recognize the fact that a Muslim’s beliefs may be insulted and instructs them how to respond:
“Bear, then, with patience, all that they say, and celebrate the praises of thy Lord, before the rising of the sun and before (its) setting.” (Quran 50:39)
“And when they hear vain talk, they turn away therefrom and say: ‘To us our deeds, and to you yours; peace be to you: we seek not the ignorant.'” (Quran 28: 55)
“And the servants of Allah … are those who walk on the earth in humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say ‘Peace’!” (Quran 25:63)
With these verses in mind and the example of the Prophet Muhammad who patiently endured ridicule and sometimes persecution, I cannot see that these laws represent the spirit of Islam. I think there should be basic respect of each other’s faiths and prophets and these kinds of actions will not achieve it.
What do you think of the blasphemy laws? Do you think that they represent the spirit of Islam? How can we reconcile them with the example of the Prophet? Should free speech mean insulting others’ sensibilities? Please share your thoughts below.