A Dissenting Voice on Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan

A Dissenting Voice on Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan

Yoginder Sikand

In the wake of the dastardly killing of Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, for having dared to question Pakistan’s draconian anti-blasphemy law, scores of Pakistani ‘Islamic’ outfits celebrated the crime by showering encomiums on the man’s murderer, insisting that his action was perfectly in consonance with (their understanding of) Islam. They feted him as an intrepid Islamic hero, a ghazi or warrior of the faith. Across the border, not a single Indian Muslim religious organization condemned the attack. This might well suggest that they shared the enthusiasm of their Pakistani counterparts, although, for obvious reasons, they were unable to openly express their delight at the deadly event. Probably the only Islamic scholar of note on either side of the border to have condemned the brutal murder in no uncertain terms, and to have insisted that it had no sanction whatsoever in Islam, was the New Delhi-based Maulana Wahiduddin Khan. He immediately responded to the murder in an article published in the Times of India, insisting that the punishment of death for blasphemy, as prescribed in Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law, had no sanction in Islam at all.

Khan’s views on the appropriate Islamic punishment for blasphemy, particularly for defaming the Prophet Muhammad, are diametrically opposed to those of the mullahs and doctrinaire Islamists, which is one reason why the latter so passionately detest him. He does not condone blasphemy, even in the name of free speech, of course, but nor does he agree with those Muslims who insist that Islam prescribes the death penalty for those guilty of it. He first articulated his position on the subject in a book titled Shatim-e Rasul Ka Masla: Quran wa Hadith aur Fiqh wa Tarikh ki Raushni Mai (‘Defaming the Prophet: In the Light of the Quran, Hadith, Fiqh and History’). The book, consisting of a number of articles penned in the wake of the massive controversy that shook the world over the publication of Salman Rushdie’s infamous Satanic Verses, was published in 1997. It is a powerful critique, using Islamic arguments, of the strident anti-Rushdie agitation and of the argument that the Islamic punishment for blasphemy is death. Although Khan condemned the Satanic Verses as blasphemous, he argued that stirring up Muslim passions and baying for Rushdie’s blood was neither the rational nor the properly Islamic way of countering the book and its author. Death for blasphemy, he contended, using references from the Quran and the corpus of Hadith to back his stance, was not prescribed in Islam, in contrast to what Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, and, echoing him, millions of Muslims worldwide, ardently believed.

Khan was possibly one of the only Islamic scholars to forcefully condemn the death sentence on Rushdie that Khomeini had announced and that vast numbers of Muslims, Shias and Sunnis, imagined was their religious duty to fulfill. Although his book deals specifically with the issue of blaspheming the Prophet in the context of the anti-Rushdie agitation, it is of immediate relevance to the ongoing debate about the anti-blasphemy laws and the violence it engenders in Pakistan today. What is particularly fascinating about the book is that it uses Islamic arguments to counter the widespread belief among Muslims that death is the punishment laid down in Islam for blasphemy as well as for those who, like the late Salman Taseer, oppose such punishment. Addressing the issue from within an Islamic paradigm, with the help of copious quotes from the Quran and Hadith, Khan’s case against death for blasphemers would, one supposes, appear more convincing to Muslims than secular human rights arguments against Pakistan’s deadly anti-blasphemy law that has unleashed such havoc in that country. 

Like most Muslims, Khan believes that Islam is the only true religion. Muslims, he says, are commanded by God to communicate Islam to the rest of humanity. This work of dawah or ‘invitation’ to the faith is, he says, the hallmark of a true Muslim. Yet, he laments, ‘the Muslims of today are totally bereft of dawah consciousness’. This lack, he contends, is at the very root of the manifold conflicts that Muslims are presently embroiled in with others in large parts of the world. This almost total absence of ‘dawah consciousness’ has made Muslims, so he argues, victims of a peculiar superiority complex (that has no warrant in Islam) that drives them on to engage in endless conflict with others. Muslims, he writes, imagine themselves as ‘the soldiers of God, the censors of the morals of the whole of creation, and the deputies of God on earth’, which, he contends, is ‘absurdly un-Islamic’. He insists that this attitude of presumed superiority and the drive for confronting and dominating others that it instigates have absolutely no sanction in the Quran. He quotes the Quran as referring to the Prophet as simply as a warner and guide, and not as a ruler over the people he addressed, and rues that Muslims behave in a totally contrary manner in their relations with non-Muslims. ‘They want to rule over others’, Khan laments. And that, he adds, is ‘their biggest psychological problem.’

The Quran, Khan says, exhorts Muslims to be bearers of glad tidings to others and to invite them to God’s path. The work of dawah is not a simple verbal calling. Rather, for dawah to be effective, he says, Muslims must themselves be righteous, including in their dealings with people of other faiths. They must see themselves as dais or missionaries inviting others to God’s path, and regard others as madus or addressees of the divine invitation. Dawah, Khan says, ‘must form the basis of the believer’s personality and must shape his relations with others.’ These relations must be fundamentally shaped by the dawah imperative, which means that Muslims must always seek to relate kindly and compassionately with others. A true dai, committed to this principal Islamic duty of dawah, must relate to people of other communities with love and concern for their welfare. They should ‘keep the needs of dawah above all other considerations,’ Khan says. They might face all sorts of loss and damage at the hands of others, but at no cost should they allow the cause of dawah to be hampered. This means, Khan insists, that ‘they must not resort to such activities that are opposed to the demands of dawah or that undermine its prospects.’ Principally, they must desist from conflicts with people of other faiths, even in the face of grave provocation, for this would certainly further reinforce their prejudices against Islam and Muslims and only sabotage prospects for dawah. Even when confronted with extremely hurtful and provocative situations, such as blasphemy, they must not resort to violent agitation and demand the death of the culprit. There are other, rational and more meaningful, ways to react, Khan says, but to react violently and to call for the death of blasphemers would only further magnify anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic sentiments, harden borders between Muslims and others, and, thereby, place additional barriers in the path of dawah.

Khan is convinced that the Muslims of today have abandoned their divine duty of dawah. This is why, he writes, instead of seeking to relate kindly with people of other faiths, as addressees of the ‘invitation’ to God’s path, they consider the latter as their ‘communal enemies’ and are constantly engaged in seeking to confront them. Muslims, he contends, wrongly imagine that they are ‘God’s deputies on earth’, completely forgetting that the Quran speaks about true believers as being His witnesses to humanity. Because the drive for dawah no longer enthuses them, he goes on, their relations with people of other faiths are conflict-ridden and they ‘engage in such acts as have no sanction at all in Islam’. Their hatred for others, which promotes constant conflict with them, he says, ‘is tantamount to murder of dawah.’  Treating others as their ‘political foes’, instead of as ‘potential addressees of God’s message’, they lose no opportunity to drum up opposition and instigate conflicts and agitations directed against them. Such Muslims, Khan minces no words in saying, ‘are murderers of dawah and divine guidance’. They are completely unmindful, he says, that ‘by engaging in such activities that sabotage dawah, they are inviting God’s wrath on themselves.’

Khan then turns to the issue of blasphemy and the violent agitations unleashed across the globe in the wake of Khomeini’s fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death. He insists that the fatwa and the agitation that it stirred are tantamount to ‘murdering dawah’, and bemoans that ‘it reflects a total lack of dawah consciousness.’ Such reactions, he warns, will only further reinforce deeply-rooted negative feelings among non-Muslims about Islam and Muslims, which would make the task of dawah even more difficult than it already is. He goes so far as to claim that those engaged in this agitation, whether as leaders or foot-soldiers, run the very real risk of ‘being treated as criminals in the eyes of God, notwithstanding the fact that they may label their dawah-murdering agitation as an agitation for the glory of Islam.’ Hence, he insists, the fatwa and the violent agitation that it spurred are ‘absurd and un-Islamic’.

Khan blames what he sees as the Muslims’ total lack of dawah consciousness for what he perceives as their wild emotionalism in the face of even the smallest provocation. If anyone dares says anything, no matter how minor, against their way of thinking, he contends, they immediately get provoked and resort to agitation and even violence. The most sensitive issue in this regard, Khan notes, is the image of the Prophet Muhammad. If anyone says or writes anything about the Prophet that does not correspond with how they themselves perceive him, Khan notes, Muslims turn ‘uncontrollably emotional’ and ‘lose all reason.’ Khan believes this is not at all the appropriate Islamic attitude, and traces it to what he perceives as the fact that ‘Muslims have abandoned dawah’. Because of this, he explains, they now ‘see others as their communal enemies’ and consider any such criticism as ‘an attack on their communal pride’, which forces them out on the streets in violent agitation and worse.

Had Muslims maintained their ‘dawah consciousness’, he remarks, they would have responded to the provocation differently: through patience and avoidance of conflict, as he says the Quran advises them to, so that prospects for dawah would not thereby be damaged. But since they have lost the commitment to dawah, he laments, they have fallen victim to what he terms ‘false emotionalism’ that drives them to respond violently to any and every provocation. This stance, he says, is completely un-Quranic, and is bound to reinforce anti-Islamic prejudices that underlie phenomenon such as blasphemy, instead of doing anything at all to resolve them.

In the face of provocations, such as negative statements or writings against Islam, Khan advises Muslims not to give in to the temptation to react with violent agitation. Instead, he advises, they should respond ‘with patience, wisdom, far-sightedness and clear-mindedness’, these being qualities which he identifies with ‘success in this world and in the next’.

[This article, in a very slightly edited form, appeared in the 21st January 2011 issue of the Daily Times, Pakistan, and can be accessed on ]http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2011\01\20\story_20-1-2011_pg7_18]


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