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Vindicating Islam

  • 30 March 2011

Just before I arrived in Pakistan a few weeks ago, the Governor of the Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, was attacked and killed by one of his own bodyguards. The Governor had declared the blasphemy law to be a 'black law' (kala kanun) because it was being used to oppress religious minorities in Pakistan.

Soon after, when I was visiting the capital city, Islamabad, the Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, was shot dead just a few blocks away. Leaflets left at the scene of the crime stated the reason for the murder: speaking out against the blasphemy law.

There may have been other reasons for these murders but the immediate effect was to provoke fear and insecurity among Pakistani citizens belonging to the religious minorities.

What aggravated the shock and pain for friends from the minority community, with whom I spoke shortly after these murders, was the realisation that their Muslim teachers and professors were keeping silent. Not one protested against the injustice of openly assassinating political figures.

Posters in the streets proclaiming the Governor's killer to be a hero only added insult to injury. Sweets were even distributed in the killer's honour. A similar response followed Bhatti's murder.

I began to wonder what was going on in the minds of these educated persons that would make it possible for them to celebrate the murders of their Provincial Governor and State Minister. How could one explain their readiness to condone the murders of these leaders, who had spoken out against a law which many thinking people knew was the cause of much injustice and oppression?

Muslims in other countries have already stated that blasphemy laws are incompatible with Islam and that, when the Prophet Muhammad himself was insulted, the Qur'an did not order him to retaliate. So why were these intellectual persons in Pakistan so defensive about the blasphemy law?

Nothing much can be gained by examining the moral attitudes of these particular professors and intellectuals. It may be more helpful to consider how the relationship between religion and politics has developed in Islam ever since Muhammad unified the religious, civil and political domains through the example of his own leadership.

Although a distinction between the political leader (Caliph) and the religious scholars ('ulama) began to appear soon after the death of the Prophet, Islam has never recognised a formal distinction between the authority of 'Caesar' and that of God. Ever since the experience of the earliest Muslim