How blasphemy law is used against minorities in Pakistan

This politicisation of religion can be traced to Pakistan’s colonial history, argues Adeel Hussain.  

Published : Mar 11, 2023 17:14 IST

The Pakistani state has struggled to form a consensus among its citizens on various issues. While Islam was perceived to be a binding factor for the new state, Pakistan’s political history demonstrates how it has not succeeded in uniting either the various provinces or even people.

However, it is a fact that the Prophet Muhammad and Islam retain a sacred and an infallible position in both religious texts and the mass imaginations of Muslims across the world. This has greater significance for Pakistan as the country was formed on the basis of Islam. Acts perceived as defiling the stature of the Prophet have led to a variety of reactions in the country: high-profile assassinations and persecution of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

The politicisation of religion in Pakistan coupled with blasphemy laws, whose roots can be located in its colonial history, has far-reaching consequences on the state-citizen relationship in the country. In a strange sort of diplomatic challenge, Pakistan faces domestic pressure against the Western countries that endorse freedom of expression in cases of blasphemy.

Book details
Revenge Politics and Blasphemy in Pakistan
Adeel Hussain
C. Hurst & Company, 2022
Pages: pp. viii+242
Price: Rs.2,448 (Hardback)

The Ahmadiyya movement

While existing studies regard blasphemy as one among the responses to colonial modernity, Adeel Hussain, a legal historian, attempts to understand the emergence and underpinning of blasphemy against the Prophet as a trope to rally around. On the basis of a close examination of various archival sources, Hussain argues that it was Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder of the Ahmadiyya movement, “who helped popularize today’s pervasive emotional response towards blasphemy” (p. 9), allegedly committed by non-Muslims at that time.

Adopting a longue durée approach, Hussain traces the genealogy of defending the Prophet Muhammad’s honour and reacting to acts of blasphemy to the charged polemic encounters between Pandit Lekh Ram of the Arya Samaj movement and Ghulam Ahmad in 19th century Punjab. Hussain argues that the idea that individual believers needed to protect the Prophet’s honour was inextricably intertwined with Hindu revivalist thought.

Hussain notes that it is ironic to see Pakistan’s obsession with blasphemy and persecution of Ahmadis, who were already declared non-Muslim. What is worse is that the same blasphemy law was used by Ghulam Ahmad against non-Muslims he thought were committing blasphemy (p. 11). Interestingly, in the recent history of Pakistan, there have been serious disputes between the rival Barelvi and Deobandi schools of thought about prophetic authority, but unlike in the case of Ahmadis, it did not lead to the eviction of Deobandis from their religious and political belonging.

The Arya Samaj movement

Hussain argues that Dayanand Saraswati, the founder of the Arya Samaj movement, and Ram Lekh both shared a common hatred of Islam. It was after hearing one of Dayanand’s lectures in which he spoke about what he perceived as “a long list of errors” in the Quran that Ram Lekh decided to devote his life to the Samaj movement.

Afterwards, he critically dealt with Islamic theology. During this period, Ghulam Ahmad started writing volumes to show Islam’s “superiority” over other religions. However, his writing did not follow a rational approach and often contained revelations he claimed to have received. Ram Lekh and Ghulam Ahmad exchanged heated letters on the subject of the superiority of their respective religions, and both saw the other as a legitimate representative of their faiths (p.32).

In order to gain support and establish the legitimacy of the Ahmadiyya movement, Ghulam Ahmad prophesied the death of Lekh Ram. Coincidentally, Lekh Ram was surreptitiously killed within the time limit of the prophecy by an ex-Muslim who pretended to be his follower.

Mourners throw flower petals on the ambulance carrying the body of Mumtaz Qadri to his funeral at Liaquat Bagh in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on  March 1, 2016.

Mourners throw flower petals on the ambulance carrying the body of Mumtaz Qadri to his funeral at Liaquat Bagh in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on March 1, 2016. | Photo Credit: FAISAL MAHMOOD/Reuters

The Shuddhi campaign led by the Arya Samaj continued to face fierce criticism from Ghulam Ahmad’s followers, who by then had split into two camps: Qadians and the Lahore faction. Pamphlets such as Rangila Rasul (The colourful Prophet) and Bichitra Jeevan (A strange life) whipped up the emotions of Muslims and had a significant impact on political and social stability, Hussain says.

Swami Shraddhanand, a recognisable face of the Shuddhi movement whose hand was seen as being behind these pamphlets, was assassinated in 1926 by Abdul Rashid. This led to Hindu-Muslim violence. The Arya Samaj newspapers, The Milap and The Pratap, published a series of nasty attacks on Islam, which were responded to in the same tone by the Ahmadi newspapers, Paigham-e-Sulh and Al-Badr (pp. 77-78). Mahatma Gandhi had advised Muslims to condemn Shraddhand’s killing.

But nearly half a lakh Muslims broke through the police barriers after Rashid’s execution in 1927 and paraded his body through Delhi as a martyr (p. 67). Hussain connects the incident to the case of the assassination in 2011 of Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab, by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri. After Qadri’s execution, his body “earned the most potent political symbol in the subcontinent: a martyr” (p. 157).

A fatwa

Tracing the origins of the blasphemy Bill, Hussain tells readers about the colonial government’s initial failure to come up with appropriate action to deal with the publication of material such as Rangila Rasul, which mocked the Prophet Muhammad’s private life. It led to Muslim tribes ejecting Hindus from their homes in Kohat town of the North-Western Frontier Province and a rise in Hindu-Muslim violence in Amritsar and elsewhere.

In response to the rising violence, the colonial government banned all forms of meetings in 1927 for 10 days barring those in mosques. To reduce the influence of Ahmadis in Punjab, Ata Ullah Shah, who founded the Majlis-e-Ahrar, issued a fatwa that called “upon Muslims to... kill any Hindu who indulges in using obscene language against Prophet Muhammad and if he fails to do so, he is not a true Muslim” (p. 82).

Against the backdrop of the pamphlet war, Mirza Mahmud, Mohammad Ali, and Zafarullah Khan, an Ahmadi, made efforts to have the blasphemy law included in the Indian Penal Code and make it illegal to intentionally attack a holy person. It was Zafarullah Khan who earned a name for himself by defending blasphemy avengers in courts.

T.A.K. Shervani, a representative of the United Provinces, expressed his discomfort with the Bill before voting in favour of it. He warned that “there was no clear-cut definition of who counted as Muslims and this would leave any one group of the three factions—Shia, Sunni, and Ahmadi” vulnerable to targeted attacks by others on the grounds of blasphemy (p. 86). It was Shervani’s advanced understanding of the blasphemy Bill that came to haunt Ahmadis and other religious minorities in Pakistan.

From being an important political and ideological force in the Muslim politics of colonial South Asia, the Ahmadis were reduced to a life of marginality and persecution in postcolonial Pakistan. The systemic campaigns to prevent them from expressing their Muslimness started with the demand that Zafarullah Khan resign as Foreign Minister of Pakistan. These movements set the stage for the organised anti-Ahmadi riots in Punjab in 1953, which led to the first declaration of martial law.

Later, in the 1970s, secular parties flirted with religious organisations that propped up Islamist student organisations in various university campuses that pressured Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government to constitutionally declare Ahmadis as a non-Muslim minority in 1974.

The Asiya Naureen case

Salman Taseer.

Salman Taseer. | Photo Credit: FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP

Towards the end, Hussain engages with Asiya Naureen’s alleged blasphemy case. He demonstrates how the law has made many people, particularly the minorities, vulnerable to serious criticism from religious groups. Death threats are issued and sometimes carried out, like in the case of Taseer.

For clerics, especially those associated with the Tahreek-e-Labaik Pakistan of the Barelvi school, any political intervention or rationalistic thought on blasphemy laws itself constitutes blasphemy. Underscoring how the defence in the case of Qadri claimed that he had acted to defend the Prophet’s honour (p.154), Hussain also draws attention to other defences such as Taseer’s alleged apostasy, which in Qadri’s eyes meant he deserved to be killed. When it comes to a situation where religious and state sovereignty compete with one another, Saif (2021) pertinently asks, who has the right to declare an “insulter” worthy of death, and who reserves the right to carry out the death sentence?

Examining Qadri’s trial, Saif (pp. 98-103) shows that the court built the case for state sovereignty and public order, refusing to engage with religious arguments on blasphemy, as invoked by Qadri’s defence team. Anyone interested in understanding Pakistan’s obsession with blasphemy and how it has come to affect the Ahmadis must engage with Hussain’s work.

Muneeb Yousuf is a doctoral candidate at the MMAJ Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi. He can be reached at


Saif, M. (2021): The Ulama in Contemporary Pakistan: Contesting and Cultivating an Islamic Republic, Cambridge University Press.

Tareen, S. (2020): Defending Muhammad in Modernity, Permanent Black.

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