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

Why people get killed over blasphemy in Pakistan.

An angry mob sets Christian homes on fire in Joseph Colony, Lahore, in 2013. Credit: M Arif/White Star. Courtesy of Herald.

An angry mob sets Christian homes on fire in Joseph Colony, Lahore, in 2013. Credit: M Arif/White Star/Herald

Even though the rally had ended late, even though the night sky over Gangapur was turning translucent, Falak Sher’s wife insisted we stop by her house for kheer. There was no electricity all across the village, so she stumbled about in the dark, rattling pots and pans, intent upon hospitality. Outside, the lanes hummed with festive chatter: the village – birthplace of Sir Ganga Ram, the father of modern Lahore – had been looking forward to this rally for months now: a celebration of the glory of Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him) and an assertion of the finality of his prophethood. Sher, who worked as a police constable in Lahore, had asked for leave weeks in advance for the rally but the Zimbabwean cricket team happened to be in town, the first international team to tour Pakistan since the attack on Sri Lankan cricketers six years ago, and all vacation had been suspended for the police force. Sher paid no heed and came home anyway. He had never missed a khatm-e-nabuwwat rally in his village, said his wife.

It was May 26, the death anniversary of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, founder of the Ahmadi faith, which considers itself a sect of Islam. This was no coincidence, for everyone at the rally agreed that Ahmadis, whom they disparagingly referred to as Qadianis, were fifth columnists, aasteen kay saanp, and that the death of their founding father was something to celebrate. Indeed, the showpiece of the rally was a nephew of the current Ahmadi leader, Mirza Masroor Ahmed, a large moon-faced man who had recently split ranks with his uncle and converted to Sunni Islam. All of Gangapur, a part of the central Punjab district of Faisalabad, seemed to roar when he came on stage to speak. When he paused, loudspeakers blasted the rally’s signature soundtrack, a rousing refrain of ghustakh-e-Muhammad teri ab khair nahin hai, khair nahin, khair nahin, khair nahin hai (O blasphemer of Muhammad, you are done for now).

From the edge of a neighbour’s rooftop, where the women of the village had gathered to watch the proceedings, Sher’s wife sang along, not caring that she did not know all the words. Back at her house, she fussed over the chief guest’s wife, pressing a second serving of kheer into her hands, ensuring it had enough pistachios and, by way of small talk, directing her attention towards the top right corner of the room where rainwater had seeped through the wall, leaving a large damp mark amid curlicues of peeling paint. If you looked at it closely, said Sher’s wife, wiggling her torch in that direction, if you tilted your head a certain way, the mark resembled the name of Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him). She paused, then clambered on top of a trunk and brought down a small pink frame. Inside was a piece of old roti, its overcooked centre similar in shape to the mark on the wall. “Subhanallah,” murmured the chief guest’s wife admiringly. Her host beamed, luminous with pride.

hundred or so kilometres to the north, in Saroki village in Gujranwala district, Nazeer Cheema rose to offer his fajr prayers. His house was silent: his wife was still asleep, his three daughters, married now, all had their own homes and his only son, Aamir, dead at the age of 28, lay buried next door. He would have been 37 had he not walked into the office of Die Welt, a German daily that had reprinted caricatures deemed offensive by Muslims, to try to murder its editor, Roger Köppel – and, after six weeks in a jail in Berlin, hanged himself with a noose made of his own clothes. Nazeer, a retired college teacher, does not think his son took his own life; he believes Aamir was tortured to death by German authorities. So do the thousands who continue to flock to his shrine; they consider him a martyr, a modern-day Ilamdin. In the portrait that hangs above his grave, Aamir Cheema even appears to resemble his early 20th century predecessor: the same moustache, the same meticulous side parting, both unnervingly young.

He was a quiet child. His parents say they never heard him utter a single swear word and that he never lied. He was studying textile engineering at a German university, with one semester left towards the completion of his degree. Earlier, when some Pakistanis had gathered outside their consulate in Berlin to protest the publication of the offensive cartoons, he did not join them. “Nothing will come of it,” he told his cousin’s husband. A few weeks later, he barged into Die Welt’s office with a knife. His family back home was not aware of what he was going to do, which may have been for the best, says his mother. “We wouldn’t have been able to help ourselves – we would have tried to stop him.” It was early in the morning and she was not wearing her denture, so her lips sank into her mouth as she sighed, making her appear very old and very young, all at once. “In doing so, in persuading him otherwise, we might have sinned against the Prophet ourselves.”

An anti-blasphemy protest in Lahore in 2012. Credit: M Arif, White Star. Courtesy of Herald

An anti-blasphemy protest in Lahore in 2012. Credit: M. Arif/White Star/Herald

love lyric, a ballad, a legend, an opera, an epic: there are many descriptions of the dhola, a genre of Punjabi folk music. It was through a dhola that a young Hanif Shaikh first learnt about Ilamdin, the 21-year-old carpenter’s apprentice who murdered the Hindu publisher of a “scurrilous” pamphlet about Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him). Rajpal had already escaped two attempts on his life when, on an April afternoon in 1929, Ilamdin stabbed him eight times inside his bookshop in Lahore, relenting only when hapless bystanders began flinging books at him. Executed six months later – his final appeal fought famously by one Muhammad Ali Jinnah – Ilamdin grew into a folk hero of sorts, inspiring popular accounts of his exploits in many formats: film, poetry, prose and what can only be described as fan fiction. In the 1970s, an unabashedly hagiographic biopic titled Ghazi Ilamdin Shaheed hit cinemas, directed by Rasheed Dogar whose later credits would include the salaciously titled Pyasa Badan, Husn Parast and Madam X. When Shaikh went to watch Ghazi Ilamdin Shaheed, he wept.

Shaikh is something of an authority on Ilamdin. He wrote an extensive account of the young vigilante’s life, tracking down his family home in Lahore’s Mohalla Sirian Wala. Originally named after the siris (slaughtered animals’ heads) sold there, it was later rechristened Mohalla Sarfaroshan to commemorate Ilamdin’s bravery. He recounts meeting Ilamdin’s bhabhi, sister-in-law, who reportedly cooked sweetened rice to celebrate the assassination of Rajpal. With equal familiarity and fondness, Shaikh lists other men who took the law into their hands: Abdul Rasheed, who stabbed the Arya Samaj missionary and shuddhi (re-conversion) advocate Swami Shraddhanand in Delhi in 1926; Abdul Qayyum, who, in 1932, attacked a Hindu leader, Nathu Ram, in Karachi while he was in court on trial over a provocative book on Islam; Mureed Hussain, who murdered a Hindu veterinarian in 1935 in Palwal town of Gorganwan district, now in Haryana, India, because he had named a donkey after a beloved Muslim figure. Shaikh has written books on all of them; he is a bit of an expert on this particular brand of the subcontinental ghazi. But when the conversation turns (inevitably) to Mumtaz Qadri, the security guard who, in January 2011, pumped 28 bullets into Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab at the time, he hesitates, looking troubled.

“If someone were to actually insult the Prophet, I’m afraid even I might not spare him. But Taseer didn’t blaspheme, not really – he only criticised the law.”

Shaikh, whose real name is something else, so wary is he even of musing out loud on this subject, has been thinking about this lately, this creeping expansion of what constitutes blasphemy. Suppose someone who cannot read, buys food from a street side stall, suppose what he buys is wrapped in newspaper which has the name of the Prophet written on it. If the wrapper is thrown away, wonders Shaikh, if the person who cannot read unthinkingly tosses it into the trash – insult would have occurred, but without intent.

“That isn’t blasphemy,” he says. “Is it?”

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 in Herald in three sections. The second and third will sections will be published in The Wire on Tuesday and Wednesday.