Wainwright: Taseer’s Assassination Lays Bare Contradictions in Pakistani Islam

Aadil Wainwright writes from Pakistan in a guest column for Informed Comment:

The assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer has laid bare a crucial debate within the Pakistani public over the nature of Islam and the place of Islamic law in national affairs. That it is a debate among Muslims with more than one side is a point that sometimes gets lost in Western discussions of Pakistan.

An investigation into the assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer, killed Wednesday 4th January, has been opened. According to Stratfor, it will try to identify why Malik Qadri, the assassin, was able to fire two magazines full of bullets before being apprehended, as well as how Qadri (who was already considered suspicious because of his religious views) was allowed to become part of the personal security detail of a politician whose secular positions had aroused much ire.

salman taseer vigil

Vigil for Salman Taseer at site of his Murder

Despite confusion over the extent of organisation and the number of individuals involved, the motive of the assassin himself appears clear. Qadri told photographers as he was led away that he was proud to have killed a ‘blasphemer’. It was through actively defending Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death under the blasphemy law in November 2010, that Taseer had became infamous.

A friend of Taseer’s and a fellow campaigner against the law who I spoke to yesterday evening told me with watery eyes that the media should take some of the blame, saying ‘TV channels had dedicated so much air time to footage of Mullahs saying he deserved to die that some people got into their heads that they could just go kill him.’

Like many others, Taseer had insisted Aasia Bibi was innocent. The claim was brought against Bibi six days after a spat with two Muslim women of her village refused to drink water from a glass she had touched because they said it had been defiled due to her Christian faith. Six days after the argument, her accusers said she had insulted the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him), Bibi said they were merely trying to settle an old score.

Taseer became a campaigner for Bibi and for reform of the blasphemy law, attracting approbation. Despite threats, he continued to be vocal on the issues he cared about, pointing to the way the blasphemy law is abused as a political tool against minorities and the vulnerable. In a recent interview he said, “This is a man-made law, not a God-made one.”
Looking in to the historical origins of the blasphemy law is beyond the scope of this article, here we merely seek to identify the parameters of the debate.

It will be useful to quote two different authorities interviewed recently about the blasphemy law. Dr. Khalid Zaheer of the University of Central Punjab is against the death penalty for blasphemy and says: “One must concede that there are a few instances that have been mentioned in Hadith literature where the death punishment was apparently inflicted upon people who were involved in the act of blasphemy. However, if you look at these instances and then study the Quranic text, it seems there is a conflict or contradiction.”

By comparison, the leader of the well-established conservative movement Jamaat e Islaami in Karachi, Miraij ul Huda Siddiqui, said of the blasphemy law, “It has been derived from the Quran and Hadith and there is unanimous consensus on this by scholars of varying sects and they also agree with the death penalty.”

Effectively Dr. Zaheer is saying that, though there may be examples of it being implemented in the Hadith, we do not need to consider these because they disagree with what can be described as the humanistic spirit of the Qur’an. Mr. Siddiqui’s argument, on the other hand, is based purely on the legal texts of the Islamic tradition and does not explicitly mention a role for human reason.

Though these are merely quotes from newspaper interviews and the interviewees don’t go into detail, these words illustrate some of the fundamental issues at play here. As Siddiqui’s words show, the traditionalists can frame the blasphemy issue as a simple question of ‘implementing God’s law’, despite the massive complexities involved, and thus appease any who value ‘God’s law’ – of which there are significant numbers in Pakistan . Those who criticize it, whether it be on the basis of an intellectual argument like Dr. Zaheer’s or Salman Taseer’s courageous activism, are contesting a symbol many hold sacred.

One of the over-arching issues at stake is the place and practice of religious authority in Pakistan. As Muhammad Qasim Zaman points out in his book, The Ulema in Contemporary Islam, the Ulema or Muslim clerics in Pakistan insist that the only possible rationale for the state’s existence is that the Muslims of South Asia wanted a separate homeland, whilst an impartial reading of history tells us it is not nearly that simple. Had Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder, had his way, Pakistan’s constitution would not have insisted on Shari’ah (Jinnah denounced what he called “theocracy”).

The fact that debate has raged over the blasphemy law and not the broader issue pertinent here – the social status of the minorities which the law is most often used against – is a troubling sign of the times. It suffices to cite one incident here to get an idea of what that status is; in 2009, 8 Christians in Punjab including 4 women and a child were burnt to death for allegedly defiling the Qur’an and police did nothing to stop the violence, nor was the claim that the Qur’an was defiled ever substantiated.

It is very difficult to see how Pakistan’s clerics, who stand on pulpits every Friday and quote ‘God commands justice and good conduct’ (16:90) from the Qur’an, could reasonably defend this law so aggressively when such injustices are committed in the name of defending Islam.

Protecting the honour of the prophet and the religion as a whole is a function of state in traditional conceptions of Islamic law, thus those who argue that the law should be abolished altogether are on thin ice – at least while Pakistan still defines itself as an ‘Islamic Republic’. At the same time however, when there is evidence to suggest that a law is being abused (which could very well have been the case with Aasia Bibi) then it cannot be blindly implemented and Taseer and others like him should be applauded for standing up.

The duplicity of the Ulema becomes ever clearer in the light of Taseer’s murder. Does the Shari’ah consider Taseer’s actions – defending someone accused of blasphemy who he believed to be innocent – as an offense punished with death? Of course not.

The unfortunate reality we must confront is thus: Aasia Bibi and the blasphemy law are – to a very real extent – political symbols which the moderates, the secular elite and the puritans are struggling over. Pakistan is a proud nation of colossal geo-strategic importance, and many perceive the state to be beholden to the wishes of an imperialistic and secularizing superpower. The presence of American special forces in Pakistan’s north-west only serves to confirm suspicions. Is it any wonder that conservatives invoke simplistic rhetoric about defending the prophet in the face of what they see as a crusade?

This should not be the closing point here however. Islam, in most of its historical manifestations, values introspection very highly. Before any one else is killed because of the poisonous rhetoric in the public sphere, those who possess religious influence have an urgent duty to engage in self-criticism.

Aadil Wainwright has an MA in Islamic Studies from SOAS and speaks Arabic and basic Urdu. He has studied with traditional scholars of Islam from Jordan, India and Yemen. He is currently based in Pakistan.

Posted in Pakistan | 21 Responses | Print |

21 Responses

  1. When looking at the Hadith, one has to understand that until the Quranic revelations had covered a specific point, Bibilical law was used by the Muslims. This is why there is a contradiction between what the Quran says, and what some Hadith say.

  2. “Humanistic spirit?” That’s probably a bad description, and the idea of using humanism is a non-starter for many Muslims. The Quran is supposed to supersede all, human conscience takes a third place.

    There are many things to tease out of this discussion. At the very least, Malik Qadri committed an act of vigilantism, something Islam does not approve of. Any crime must go through a judge. Second, even among hardline interpretations blasphemy isn’t necessarily a capitol offense in Islam, people can recant and often do.

    There’s plenty of blame to go around. Which countries gave General Zia money and diplomatic support to continue his dictatorship? One that eventually led to his creation of the blasphemy law to get public support? (Zia’s creation of blasphemy law reminds me of Bush’s sudden campaigning against gay marriage or Blair’s ban on Fox hunting)

  3. I wouldn’t call it a contradiction in Pakistani Islam, more like a disagreement or diversity of opinion. Islam isn’t monolithic.

  4. As so often happens, invoking simplistic rhetoric carries the day with large numbers of those whose mindset includes infantile dichotomies (AKA lack of requisite variety).

    We only have to look at the history of the United States to see that such debates can go on for over a hundred years and still not be decided.

  5. I am in agreement with most of this article. I could only add that a) under Islamic law, it is the responsibility of the state, not the individual, to carry out punishment of criminals and b) the responsibility of the individual to spread Islam, for the most part by having exemplary character. Unfortunately this sad episode shows that too many Muslims do not know their own faith.
    It is my understanding that those people who were executed after the opening of Makka were fervent and unrepentant slanderers, not the run of the mill hatred who made up a significant portion of the Makkan citizenry at the time i. e. this is significant evidence that ordinary running off at the mouth is not sufficient to warrant capital punishment or else there would have been a blood bath which, all reports indicate, there was not.

  6. I have suspected right from the outset there has been a dispute and she has been smeared.
    Ulema who talk of the law and have no concern for due process of justice are destroying Islam.

  7. Straw in the wind

    If you thought maybe things in Pakistan aren’t deteriorating rapidly, here’s pretty clear evidence you’re kidding yourself:

    Taseer was shot 27 times yesterday by one of his own bodyguards, who was reportedly enraged by Taseer’s opposition to Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws.

    A prominent group of Islamic scholars said that the funeral prayers should not be offered and warned that anyone who expressed grief for Taseer could suffer the same fate.

    Apparently this group of “Islamic scholars” is “considered moderate.” Here’s what Taseer did that was apparently justification for murdering him:

    Taseer was one of a handful of politicians who publicly supported Aasia Bibi, a Christian mother of three who has been sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the prophet Muhammad…

    We can complain all we like about how Bush’s wars have contributed to this deterioration, but at the bottom line you’ve got an increasing number of people who think God wants them to kill anyone who isn’t as fucked up as they are, and the source of that fucked-uppedness is Islam. Worst of it is, Pakistani liberals are now an endangered species, which means we can expect increasing numbers of them as refugees, and we won’t have any really useful means of telling whether we’re accepting genuine refugees or fucked-up Islamists who think God wants them to kill us.

    • The screwed-upness is not coming from Islam. It’s coming from decades of Zia ul Haqs policies being implemented an carried, among them giving powers to people who then portray themselves as some religious authority. It’s also coming from people in Pakistan seeing daily how they are being bombed by Christians and seeing Christians as hostile.

      Taseer himself was a Muslim, and a proud one at that. His funeral was attneded by lots of politicians and supporters, who defied these so called scholars.

      We do not generalize, otherwise we would follow what the KKK says on gangs in LA and there would be a total ban on people from Mexico coming in.

  8. Hi Juan

    I read your blog on a regular basis because I find it well written and informative and this article is no exception.

    However, I am confused why you inserted “peace be upon him”.
    Please explain.


  9. Since there has always been a diversity of opinion when it came to Islamic jurisprudence, it’s wrong to view these issues through an essentialist point of view.

  10. “Pakistan is a proud nation of colossal geo-strategic importance, and many perceive the state to be beholden to the wishes of an imperialistic and secularizing superpower. The presence of American special forces in Pakistan’s north-west only serves to confirm suspicions. Is it any wonder that conservatives invoke simplistic rhetoric about defending the prophet in the face of what they see as a crusade?”

    i take issue with this conclusion even though the rest of the article was informative – pakistan has perfected the art of making its living by exploiting its geostrategic importance ever since its inception and this has led to a national ethos of never taking responsibility for the consequences of its own actions

    this sense of irresponsibility extends across the state infrastructure, including both the civilian administration and the military, the ulema and its citizenry – the result is a low performing state

    a sense of crusade has nothing to do with it – that foreign presence in the north west frontier provinces would not have happened unless
    – obl and the kandahar taliban leadership had the freedom to hide there till the way to qetta was clear
    – the state apparatus, military and civilian, rejected all responsibility for an accessible education system that nurtured critical analytical skills but guess that saudi money for madrasas was way too tempting as an easy way out

    the ulema is not comprised of thoughtful scholars but mostly demagogues who hold sway over the disenfranchised masses who have islam as their opiate without the wherewithal to interpret the message of the quran that represents the spirit while the hadith is the letter

    given the chaos of pakistan, it has to be the judiciary that again needs to take the front line in asserting the essence of jurisprudence that needs to interpret the letter of laws in the spirit of the guiding principles under which they are/were framed – in any system, islamic or otherwise

    i still maintain that fighting a crusade is just another excuse to disavow responsibility

  11. Dear all, thanks for the comments. Several points are worth replying to:

    Suleyman F: humanistic spirit – I understand your point, but could not really go into a debate over Quranic ethics, I merely used this term to better frame Dr. Khalid Zaheer’s position.

    Yusuf Legere: could you send me your personal email? I would like to discuss some of the arguments and evidences offered for the jurists on this point.

    NassirH: who do you think is espousing an essentialist point of view?


    • “NassirH: who do you think is espousing an essentialist point of view?”

      Islamophobes and Muslim extremists both pretend that there is only one legitimate opinion on a variety of issues regarding Islamic law. For example, both may quote Ibn Taymiyya (who was influenced by the Mongol invasions) on Jihad but completely ignore the interpretations of Muslims scholars who contradict their preconceived notions.

    • Aadil, I would like to send you my contact info, but would prefer not to publish it for all to see. Some articles on some blogs have a link to the author included, but this one does not. Any suggestions?

  12. Sorry Sona I didn’t see your comment until after mine was published. I accept your points and I agree that there is an inability or unwillingness to shoulder the responsibility for reform here. But the perception that the sovereignty of Pakistan is being undermined is an important one nonetheless, even in the debate over the blasphemy laws. I had some reservations but put it in anyway as I thought it worth drawing attention to this. The notion of a crusade against Islam is ever-present in the Muslim world these days, and sensitivy over the person of the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH)in any country can not be understood without an awareness of this perception.

    • thank you for your response

      i accept that there is a perception of a crusade these days in the muslim world, however, to accept that perception carte blanche is hardly productive

      pakistan has not yet come to terms with the secession of east pakistan and the creation of bangladesh, preferring to use this event to strengthen its internal paranoia about india – there was no crusade talk then or even now regarding that event but there were 6m refugees, 2m+ deaths and many atrocities with rape featuring prominently that led up toit

      i never hear of the punjabi intransigence in letting the then east pakistanis (bengalis) to form the majority government that was their right since the elections returned more deputies from east pakistan than west pakistan which was in essence the genesis of that particular crisis

      then it was india, today it is christians and tomorrow it will be someone else but never pakistan itself

      to accept pakistan’s misperceptions unquestioningly, however widely held, is not going to encourage a reform process

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