South Asia

For the Love of God: Forgiveness in the Aftermath of Blasphemy in Pakistan

Why people get killed over blasphemy in Pakistan.

The owner of a house publicises his identity to avert assault by an angry mob in Joseph Colony in Lahore. Credit: Azhar Jafri/White Star. Courtesy of Herald.

The owner of a house publicises his identity to avert assault by an angry mob in Joseph Colony in Lahore. Credit: Azhar Jafri/White Star. Courtesy of Herald.

Read Part 1 – For the Love of God: The Alchemy of Blasphemy in Pakistan; Read Part 2 – For the Love of God: The Violent History of Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws

The wings of the ceiling fans in the hall of the Presbyterian church had drooped in the heat, like wilted petals and this, people later said, was proof that it had been no ordinary fire. It must have involved special chemicals, the sort that were not readily available in Sangla Hill, wedged between Lahore, Sheikhupura and Faisalabad – and, they further reasoned, this meant that the fire must have been planned by outsiders, carefully orchestrated, rather than resulting from a spontaneous outburst of passion. Perhaps this was easier to stomach than wondering which of your neighbours had tried to attack you. In any case, there was no way of knowing whether the 88 arrested from the town were actually the ones who had set fire to the three churches, a convent, a girls’ hostel and a pastor’s house. So Reverend Tajammal Parvez and his Catholic counterpart decided to forgive them.

In return, a local Muslim, Kalu Suniara, withdrew the case against Yusuf Masih whom he had accused of setting fire to a shed that stored fragments of old Qurans. The two communities – Christian and Muslim – approached the courts and assured the judges that the matter had been resolved. It helped that no lives had been lost in the mob attack. It also helped that the small town of Sangla Hill was fairly integrated and that the elders of its various religious communities –Barelvi, Ahle Hadith, Shia, Catholic, Protestant – were well acquainted with each other.

In an influential study, political scientist Ashutosh Varshney investigated why some cities in India experienced more Hindu-Muslim violence than others and concluded that this variance depended on how strong ‘cross-communal’ civic associations were. In Sangla Hill, old relationships did not prevent violence but they did help the healing process afterwards. Still, Yusuf Masih had to leave town so that the other Christian families, who had fled when their homes were attacked, could return – though local leaders insist he was not forced to leave, but chose to do so himself. When he died a few years later, in 2008, his wife is reported to have blamed his death on injuries sustained during his time in government custody under the blasphemy charge.

In the renovated Presbyterian church, immediately after delivering a Sunday sermon, Reverend Pervez says the incident is firmly in the past. “The only change here is that no one takes out a procession in protest anymore – we are all too scared of what it might lead to. Last month, there were load-shedding protests all over the province, but no one came out on to the streets here. Ten years have passed. It is behind us now.”


Also read: For the Love of God: The Alchemy of Blasphemy in Pakistan


In another part of the province, healing has never happened. Hafiz Farooq Sajjad’s wife in Gujranwala has not forgotten the murder of her husband 22 years ago, although she has also pardoned the killers. For years, she pursued the case, ensuring that at least four of the murderers remained behind bars. Then her own father died and her spirits flagged. Her father was the one who dealt with the lawyers and sat in on the hearings. She had six children to care for and little time, money or emotional energy. When she reached a settlement, she received 200,000 Pakistani rupees from each of the four perpetrators, she says. The money did not last her very long. For a while, the local chapter of Jamaat-e-Islami provided a monthly stipend of 3,000 Pakistani rupees to her but that too stopped eventually. “Now if I ask anyone for money, they think it’s just my habit,” she says bitterly.

Her youngest son, traumatised from watching the mob haul away his father, refused to speak for months afterwards and compulsively picked at his own skin. At the local police station, where police briefly sheltered Sajjad after he was dragged out of his house and into the city streets, he begged for a bullet to the head instead of being handed over to the crowds outside. Beaten, bludgeoned and burnt to death, he was buried in Lahore because authorities feared his grave in Gujranwala would be frequently desecrated. These are the details his wife remembers. She cried continuously for months, bewildered: how could this happen to a religious man – a hafiz-e-Quran? “My father didn’t let me bury my own husband. He said I wouldn’t be able to bear the sight of his mutilated corpse. I’ve had no closure … sometimes I still think he’ll come back. I can’t believe it; I can’t forget it.”

Others around her seem to have forgotten. The lane where Sajjad’s family lives has changed over the years; old neighbours have moved away, new ones have moved in; the woman who accused him of blasphemy has died. Two doors down from his house, a group of women sitting in the outer veranda of their house struggle to recall the incident. “Oh yes,” says a young woman finally, “God only knows, of course, but I heard [Sajjad’s wife] had her own husband killed…”

Young anti-blasphemy protesters in Islamabad in 2012. Credit: Tanveer Shahzad/White Star. Courtesy of Herald.

Young anti-blasphemy protesters in Islamabad in 2012. Credit: Tanveer Shahzad/White Star. Courtesy of Herald.

Maulana Zahidur Rashidi believes there is room for tobah, for seeking divine forgiveness.

Rashidi, a religious scholar based in Gujranwala, is the founding editor of Al-Sharia, a journal that examines matters pertaining to Islamic legal thought. Sometimes, the opinions espoused in Al-Sharia can swerve dramatically away from mainstream religious opinion: the notion, for instance, that it is not permissible on religious grounds for non-Afghan Muslims to fight against international forces in Afghanistan. On other occasions, they are less innovative, such as on the status of Ahmadis. Still, Rashidi appears to be one of the few clerics in Pakistan willing to show flexibility on the blasphemy issue. “We talk about this in our circles,” he says. “The majority believes that blasphemy cannot be pardoned, but I firmly belong to the camp that thinks pardon is permissible in certain conditions. At the end of the day, naturally, the voice of the majority is the one that is heard.”

Our circles. Rashidi belongs to the Deobandi sect for which the issue of blasphemy, in particular against Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him), is a little less emotive than it is for Barelvis. But when it comes to the issue of the blasphemy laws, particularly with regard to their repeal, Deobandis and Barelvis band together as one – it is almost as if religion becomes a monolith only in the face of an external threat.

Still, Rashidi admits, without caveat, that the laws are extensively misused. After a young Christian girl, Rimsha Masih, was falsely accused of blasphemy, Rashidi’s son, Ammar Nasir, who now edits Al-Sharia and teaches Islamic studies at a private university in Gujranwala, noted: “The practice of charging individuals with blasphemy is thriving in Pakistan. As a consequence, it is not totally unforeseeable that in time even committed religious people and those dedicated to faith might be forced to consider the repeal or suspension of the blasphemy laws as a better option than enduring the deteriorating situation where the law is abused against innocents. And if the situation comes to this, I will proclaim without any fear of contradiction that the blame falls squarely on those persons of faith who aided and abetted the unbalanced public conduct in this matter. I will say this even if they ostensibly defend their innocence in claiming that such moves to repeal the blasphemy laws were a conspiracy conducted by the enemies of Islam.”

It matters who is talking, says Arafat Mazhar, a young researcher committed to reforming the blasphemy laws through Islamic jurisprudence. Others, of course, have also tried taking the same route, Javed Ahmed Ghamidi being the most famous among them. Ghamidi has argued that prosecuting blasphemy is not, for the most part, the business of the state. He was hunted out by hardliners and now lives in Malaysia after he received serious and frequent threats to his life.

Anti-blasphemy protesters in Islamabad. Credit: Tanveer Shahzad/White Star. Courtesy of Herald

Anti-blasphemy protesters in Islamabad. Credit: Tanveer Shahzad/White Star. Courtesy of Herald

Days before Mumtaz Qadri was executed in February 2016, a handful of students stood before the gates of Rawalpindi’s Adiala Jail on Valentine’s Day, bearing gifts for him. It made no sense and was a source of amused horror for many. “We admit it is not our tradition and it is wrong to celebrate Valentine’s day, but it is now widely celebrated and the media is full with Valentine’s day activities,” the students are reported to have said. They knew that this was how to catch the attention of the media. Perhaps it was for the same reason that two weeks later when Qadri was hanged, in a move that caught many off guard for its suddenness, young men attended his funeral wearing placards that read I am Qadri – an apparent appropriation of I am Charlie placards that cropped up all over Europe during protests against the attack on Charlie Habdo, the French magazine that had published the offensive caricatures of Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him. Irony aside, it appeared to be an attempt to connect to a global protest, to speak the same language as the “other”.

A false binary has been created, argues Arafat Mazhar: human rights abuses versus respect for religion; the victim complex of the majority versus the persecution of minorities; repeal of the law versus making it even more stringent. Perhaps it is time to start speaking each other’s language.


Also read: For the Love of God: The Violent History of Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws


In a dusty office in Nankana Sahib, a district town near Lahore, three lawyers and a cleric were huddled together last summer. They were conversing heatedly about Aasia Bibi, whose death sentence by a trial court was upheld by the Lahore high court in 2014 though the Supreme Court suspended the sentence in 2015 until her appeals were decided. One of the lawyers had successfully prosecuted the case at the district level: the cleric, a neighbourhood moulvi, was the one who had first reported the case to the police. He had heard Aasia Bibi confess, heard it with his own two ears, though he could not repeat her words now for that too would be a sin. He failed to understand how any true believer could feel sympathy for her: she had ridiculed the Prophet, nauzubillah and the only punishment for ridicule was death. The other men in the room nodded vigorously.

“But what about that story we’re all told as children,” I ventured, “the one about the old lady who would throw trash on the Prophet (may peace be upon him) whenever he went to the mosque? He never said a harsh word to her.”

“A story?” the older lawyer repeated in alarm, eyebrows raised, tone admonitory. “You cannot call it a story.”

At another time, in another place, many conversations could have been had: whether ordinary men and women can forgive an offence against the Prophet (may peace be upon him); whether to follow his practices of Makkah or only of Medina after an Islamic state had been established there; whether the word story, kahani, is indeed offensive, implying something that is not true; and why violence has become the predominant proof of love. Perhaps someone more articulate, more knowledgeable and less paranoid would have brushed off this policing of speech and pressed on. But fear is a great conversation-stopper: unnerved, I fell silent and let them talk, about love and honour and the irrefutable glory of Islam.

Alizeh Kohari is a former staffer at the Herald and is currently a graduate student of comparative politics at New York University.

The article was originally published by Herald.