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Draconian Blasphemy laws – An Islamic Perspective

There has perhaps been no modern-day law that has irked so many, and particularly human rights activists, as the harsh penalties inflicted for blasphemy in certain Muslim countries like Pakistan. The harshness of these rulings which do not give the accused the opportunity to repent certainly call for review. Islam is a religion of love where repentance is always possible and it is primarily this feature of Islam as applicable to the offence of blasphemy that we intend stressing on here.

Firstly, let’s consider how the Penal Code of Pakistan defines blasphemy. It states: “Use of derogatory remarks etc in respect of the holy Prophet (PBUH) by word, either spoken or written. Or by visible representation, or by importation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiling the sacred name of the holy Prophet (PBUH)”. The penalty for such blasphemy, it declared, was death or life imprisonment. The Federal Shari’ah Court of the country however ruled in 1990 that the penalty should be a mandatory death sentence with no right to reprieve or pardon. Although Saudi Arabia does not have any specific laws for blasphemy, it is left to the discretion of judges to decide on their fate and there have been instances of some rather harsh rulings. For instance consider the case of Turkish Barber Sabri Bogday who was sentenced to death at the Jeddah General Court on March 31, 2008 on charges of blasphemy. The punishment was handed down after two men, one Saudi and the other Egyptian, reported to the authorities that he had sworn at God and the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) at his Barbershop in Jeddah last year. The judges concerned here did not give Bogday the chance to repent. According to Riyadh-based lawyer Abdul Rahman Al-Lahem, some judges consider blasphemy infidelity and hold that the accused cannot repent and would face the death penalty. Others consider the statement to be disbelief and would allow the accused to retract his words. According to Al-Lahem, the majority of Muslim jurists demand that the accused must be given a chance to repent (Arab News, 21st April 2008). Indeed the judgment was passed in spite of the fact that Saudi Arabia’s leading Ulama have ruled that the accused should be given the opportunity to repent for such an offence and only if it is spurned that he or she should be executed

When we consider the position of the various schools of Islamic law regarding the validity of repentance for blasphemy, we would find disagreement among them. For instance the Shafis hold that one could validly repent after being convicted of blasphemy against God or the Prophet, thus saving himself or herself from the death penalty. The Hanafis concede this only in the case of one who has reviled God while the more rigid Malikis and Hanbalis hold that no repentance is to be sought from the offender in either case and that he or she is to be put to death. According to this view, in case the blasphemer repents, the execution would be not for unbelief, but for committing the offence in the first place.  

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