Beyond the Udaipur Killing Lies the Spectre of Blasphemy. It's Time to Banish the Ghost.

Blasphemy laws in many countries raise a big question mark in respect of their own credentials as well as their international legal obligations.

The ghastly killings of Kanhaiya Lal, a tailor in Udaipur, and Umesh Kolhe in Amravati have sent shock waves across the country. Lal was hacked to death by Riyaz Attari and Ghouse Mohammad in the wake of his sharing a social media post in support of Nupur Sharma, the former BJP spokesperson who made disparaging comments on Prophet Muhammed. There was widespread condemnation of the gruesome murders, particularly from different sections of the Muslim community, including the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board.

Even as the heat and dust began to settle down – after the initial condemnation and comments on Sharma’s remarks from a number of countries in the Muslim world – the domestic scenario witnessed further mobilisation with sections of the Muslim community keeping it alive for political or social mileage. Lal’s murder was obviously a sequel to this mobilisation. Though there are reports of a ‘Pakistan connection’ to the killing, these things need extensive investigation.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court of India accused Sharma of “igniting emotions across the country.” Apparently, the issue has the potential of vitiating the festering wounds. Whether Sharma apologises to the nation or not – in deference to the apex court’s oral remarks – the Muslim community also needs to rise to the occasion by turning down the heat and dust generated. 

Anti-blasphemy waves across the world 

The killings have brought renewed focus on the place of blasphemy in Islam and in India as a whole. Allegations of blasphemy – with accompanying violence – are occasionally reported in many countries. Just three months back, a 21-year-old woman was beheaded in Pakistan by three women who accused her of blasphemy. There were several such instances in the past few years. Such incidents are often linked to laws and regulations in place, and how states impose such regulations.

Laws outlawing blasphemy were the norm in many countries for centuries, particularly where Semitic religions dominated. Blasphemy laws were in place in both Judaism and Christianity long before Islam emerged in the 7th century. In the modern era, blasphemy laws have gained a certain salience with ruling dispensations resorting to tactics that could sustain their regime interests and legitimacy.

The West Asia and North Africa region has the highest share of countries which have outlawed blasphemy. Many Sub-Saharan African countries have laws prohibiting blasphemy, proselytisation, or similar conduct, though the extent of their implementation is not frequently reported.

Many countries in the Asia-Pacific region also have anti-blasphemy laws, including India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Maldives, Singapore and Turkey. Similarly, a report by the US Congress says that some countries in Western Europe have blasphemy-related laws. Though such regulations are rarely implemented, there have been prosecutions, of late, in Austria, Finland, Germany, Greece, Switzerland, and Turkey. In countries such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, there are laws banning proselytisation or insulting religion. There are only a few countries in Latin America and the Caribbean which have blasphemy laws. Canada has a blasphemy law, but it is not enforced.

In South Asia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan have blasphemy laws that are rigorously enforced. The Indian Penal Code (IPC) still has the provisions of the British Indian Penal Code that outlaws blasphemy, without using that specific word, of course. Sections 295, 295A, 296, 297 and 298 of the IPC provide for imprisonment ranging from one year to three years to deal with an insult to a religious group or communal tension and violence.

Over the years, there have been attacks and fatwas on writers and media personnel on charges of blasphemy. Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses sparked off a blasphemy heat wave which continued for several years. After the novel came out in 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual and political leader of Iran, issued a fatwa for the death penalty as well as a reward of several million dollars for the assassination of Rushdie.

There were similar incidents associated with blasphemy. The Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was killed in 1991. The Italian translator of the novel was also attacked, but somehow survived. The Norwegian publisher of Rushdie’s work also suffered serious injuries in a firing.

Salman Rushdie. Photo: Reuters

A terror attack on the office of French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, in early 2015, resulted in the death of a dozen people. This follows the publication of a cartoon on the Prophet Muhammad. There were other attacks on magazine and newspaper offices in Europe. The publication of drawings of Prophet Muhammad in a Denmark newspaper also resulted in attacks. Since then, an International Blasphemy Rights Day  (September 30) is observed every year to show solidarity with those who resist ruthless laws and regulations against free expression and to support the right to challenge prevailing religious beliefs without fear of violence, arrest, or persecution.

The horrific murder of a French school teacher in a Paris suburb in October 2020 was another manifestation of the violence blasphemy allegations often engender.

In India, the cases filed and the calls for violence against filmmaker Leena Manimekalai for her depiction of the Hindu goddess Kali underline the fact that ‘blasphemy obsession’ is not confined to Islam.

Blasphemy law in Islam

Evidently, there are different interpretations of laws that impose a punishment (including the death penalty) for insulting Islam or the Prophet Muhammad. The Quran and Sunnah are the fundamental sources of Islamic laws, but various schools of Islamic theology have taken different positions on the question of blasphemy. Islamic jurisprudence involves a multitude of interpretations of the Quranic text and contexts. Islamic scholars point out that the Quran symbolises several allegories, metaphors as well as ambiguities that call for interpretations based on appropriate principles of justice, fairness and virtues of a good life. They also underline that there are no direct references to blasphemy in the Holy Book. The subject did not figure anywhere in the history of Islamic jurisprudence.

However, there were instances in the Quran when opponents resorted to deriding and mocking the Prophet. But, there was no specific command for punishing those who ridiculed him. Rather the Quran asks Muhammad to leave the punishment to God for such acts of insults and derogatory remarks. The Quran also tells believers to invoke God’s mercy and grace for the Prophet.

Those who believe that the Islamic traditions have laws for blasphemy since its beginning will argue that such laws are based on the Sunnah (sayings and practices) of the Prophet. They cite the example of a Jewish woman, who was apparently killed for writing provocative poems against the Prophet and Islam. There is hardly any authenticity to this narrative that says that the Prophet ‘praised the man’ who killed her. But there is another account that states that the Jewish woman was in fact killed for sedition for breaking the covenant signed in Medina, and not for any blasphemous comments. It may be recalled that whenever the Prophet was in Mecca, it was not quite unusual for the people to abuse and show disrespect or dishonour him for his uncompromising position. In the background of establishing an Islamic state, it was quite usual that there were many rivals to the Prophet. Yet, he stood firm and exhibited incredible patience. The Quran itself affords several such instances.  

The Surah 5:13 reads: 

“But because of their breach of their Covenant We cursed them and made their hearts grow hard: they change the words from their (right) places and forget a good part of the Message that was sent them nor wilt thou cease to find them barring a few ever bent on (new) deceits: but forgive them and overlook (their misdeeds): for Allah loveth those who are kind” (Al-Maida, translation by Yusuf Ali).

The Surah 21:41 reads,  

“Mocked were (many) apostles before thee; but their scoffers were hemmed in by the thing that they mocked” (Al-Anbiyaa – translation by Yusuf Ali). 

The Surah 25:63 is rather firm: 

“And the servants of (Allah) Most Gracious are those who walk on the earth in humility and when the ignorant address them they say “Peace!” (Al-Furqan translation by Yusuf Ali).

The Surah 38:4 says, 

“So, they wonder that a Warner has come to them from among themselves! and the Unbelievers say, “This is a sorcerer telling lies!” (Sad – translation by Yusuf Ali).

In spite of such attacks and ridicules, the Quran (Surah 73:10), in fact, advises the Prophet to “have patience with what they say and leave them with noble (dignity)” (Al-Muzzammil translation by Yusuf Ali). 

The most widely quoted Surah (2: 256) runs like this: “Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from error; whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things (Al-Baqara translation by Yusuf Ali).

Evidently, the texts of Islamic jurisprudence cannot disregard such examples of compassion, humility and patience displayed by the Prophet during his time. According to Ziauddin Sardar, blasphemy laws have hardly any basis in the Quran and that “there are better ways than demanding death sentences to show love and respect for the Prophet.”

A man holds The Holy Quran sitting on his prayer mat. Photo: Tarushi Aswani

Asghar Ali Engineer wrote that the Prophet was “so spiritual that he would never indulge in seeking revenge for personal insult.” He was “a model human being to be followed by others.” Engineer cited an instance of a Jewish woman who used to insult the Prophet by throwing garbage at him whenever he passed her house. But the Prophet never sought to punish her. One day, when the woman did not turn up with garbage, the Prophet asked why she did not. When heard that she fell ill, the Prophet straightaway went to see her. The woman felt ashamed of herself for misbehaving with such a person and immediately embraced Islam. Engineer says that to “avenge an insult is not a sign of religiosity but betrays worst human instincts.”

In the next two centuries after Prophet Mohammad, there was nothing like a blasphemy law. However, during Abbasid rule, at the beginning of the 9th century, the concept began to gain legitimacy, especially in the context of rebellion against Islam and the state. Conceivably, the idea took new dimensions as means of legitimizing the political power of the ruling dispensations. When a military general like Zia-ul-Haq tightened the blasphemy law in Pakistan, its purpose was only to legitimise his authoritarian regime under the garb of an ‘Islamic state.’ Zia also acquiesced to the agenda of orthodox ulama in Pakistan with a view to making inroads into the society through his military dictatorship. The condition has not changed since then, even after the transition to democracy. 

In sum, blasphemy laws in many countries raise a big question mark in respect of their own credentials as well as their international legal obligations. Such states have scant respect for protection for freedom of religion or belief, freedom of opinion and expression, equality before the law, the prevention of discrimination, and, above all, ensuring fair trial rights. The blasphemy laws have obvious repercussions for religious and ethnic minorities and create situations of religious intolerance, fundamentalism, and Islamic radicalism. Even as countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran have come under international pressure of countering terrorism and religious extremism, the question is whether the ruling dispensations in these countries will revisit their draconian blasphemy laws, and annul or radically revise all infringements related to religion in line with their international human rights obligations. 

In India, the Udaipur and Amravati killings have set in motion a new wave of reactions that, if not guarded, will spell disaster for the secular fabric of the polity and its multicultural environs. By universally condemning the killings, Indian Muslims have sent a message to the world that the Prophetic tradition of compassion, humility, and patience is the only way to deal with insults to their faith. The onus is on all Indians, including Hindus, to dial back the tension and hatred we see all around us.

The author, an ICSSR Senior Fellow, is Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala.