Junaid Hafeez, a university lecturer in Pakistan, had been imprisoned for six years when he was in December 2019. The charge: blasphemy, specifically insulting Prophet Muhammad on Facebook.
Pakistan has the world’s second strictest blasphemy laws after Iran, according to the .
Hafeez, whose death sentence is under , is one of about charged with blasphemy, or sacrilegious speech, over the last three decades. No executions have taken place.
But since 1990, at least by mobs and vigilantes who accused them of insulting Islam. Several people who defend the accused have been killed, too, including and who publicly opposed the death sentence of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman convicted for verbally insulting Prophet Muhammad. Though Bibi was , she fled Pakistan.
Blasphemy and apostasy
Of that criminalize blasphemy, 32 are majority Muslim. Punishment and enforcement of these laws .
Blasphemy is punishable by death in Iran, Pakistan, , , and . Among non-Muslim-majority cases, the , where the maximum penalty is three years in prison.
Half of the world’s 49 Muslim-majority countries have additional laws , meaning people may be . All countries with apostasy laws are Muslim-majority except . Apostasy is often .
This class of religious laws is quite popular in some Muslim countries. According to a 2013 , about 75 percent of respondents in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and South Asia favor making sharia, or Islamic law, the official law of the land.
Among those who support sharia, around 25 percent in Southeast Asia, 50 percent in the Middle East and North Africa, and 75 percent in South Asia say they support “executing those who leave Islam” – that is, they support laws punishing apostasy with death.
The ulema and the state
My 2019 book traces the root of blasphemy and apostasy laws in the Muslim world back to a historic alliance between Islamic scholars and government.
Starting around the year 1050, certain Sunni scholars of law and theology, called the “ulema”, began working closely with to challenge what they considered to be the sacrilegious influence of on society.
Muslim philosophers had for three centuries been making major contributions to , and . They developed the used across the West today and invented a forerunner of the modern .
The conservative ulema felt that these philosophers were inappropriately influenced by and against Sunni beliefs. The most prominent in consolidating Sunni orthodoxy was the brilliant and respected Islamic scholar , who died in the year 1111.
In several still widely read today, Ghazali declared two long-dead leading Muslim philosophers, , apostates for their unorthodox views on God’s power and the nature of resurrection. Their followers, Ghazali wrote, .
As modern-day historians and assert, Ghazali’s declaration provided justification to Muslim sultans from the 12th century onward who wished to – even – seen as threats to conservative religious rule.
This “ulema-state alliance”, , began in the in , and and a century later spread to , and . In these regimes, questioning religious orthodoxy and political authority wasn’t merely dissent – it was apostasy.
Parts of were ruled by a similar alliance between the Catholic Church and monarchs. These governments assaulted free thinking, too. During the Spanish Inquisition, between the 16th and 18th centuries, were tortured and killed for apostasy.
Blasphemy laws were also in place, if infrequently used, in various European countries until recently. , and all recently repealed their laws.
But they persist in many parts of the Muslim world.
In Pakistan, the military dictator , who ruled the country from 1978 to 1988, is responsible for its harsh blasphemy laws. An ally of the , Zia – written by British colonizers to avoid interreligious conflict – to defend specifically Sunni Islam and increased the maximum punishment to death.
From the 1920s until Zia, these laws had been applied . Since then they have become a powerful tool for crushing dissent.
Some dozen Muslim countries have undergone a over the past four decades, including and .
Dissenting voices in Islam
The conservative ulema base their case for blasphemy and apostasy laws on a few reported sayings of Prophet Muhammad, known as hadith, primarily: “.”
But many and reject . They argue that Prophet Muhammad never anyone for apostasy, nor his followers to do so.
Nor is criminalizing sacrilege based on Islam’s main sacred text, the Quran. It contains over encouraging peace, freedom of conscience and religious tolerance.
In chapter 2, verse 256, the Quran states, “There is no coercion in religion.” Chapter 4, verse 140 urges Muslims to simply leave blasphemous conversations: “When you hear the verses of God being rejected and mocked, do not sit with them.”
By using their political connections and to interpret Islam, however, the conservative ulema have marginalized more .
Reaction to global Islamophobia
Debates about blasphemy and apostasy laws among Muslims are influenced by international affairs.
Across the globe, Muslim minorities – including the , of Russia, of India, of Mymanmar and of China – have experienced severe persecution. No other religion is so widely targeted in so many different countries.
Alongside persecution are some that discriminate against Muslims, such as laws prohibiting and the US ban on travelers from several Muslim-majority countries.
Such laws and policies can create the impression that Muslims are and provide an that punishing sacrilege is a defense of the faith.
Instead, I find, such harsh religious rules can contribute to . Some of my Turkish relatives even discourage my work on this topic, fearing it fuels Islamophobia.
But my research shows that criminalizing blasphemy and apostasy is more political than it is religious. The Quran does not require punishing sacrilege, authoritarian politics do.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.