October 1st, 2012
04:30 PM ET

Explainer: Pakistan's blasphemy laws

By Reza Sayah, CNN

Islamabad, Pakistan (CNN) - It has been more than a month since a teenage Christian girl was charged in Pakistan under the country's blasphemy laws . Her accusers say she burned pages from the Quran, Islam's holy book. Amid twists in her case, including changed statements by witnesses, she is facing life in prison.

On Monday, CNN reported that three witnesses whose testimony could absolve the 14-year-old Rimsha Masih have changed their statements, a potential setback for her. She has denied the charges.

The case has drawn the country's complex laws about blasphemy into the spotlight. Here is a primer on those laws.

What are the major stipulations of Pakistan's blasphemy laws, and what exactly do they prohibit?

Pakistan’s blasphemy law makes it a crime to destroy or damage the Quran or to insult the Prophet Mohammed.

The following are two sections of the law as they appear in Pakistan’s penal code:

Whoever will fully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Quran or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable for imprisonment for life.

Whoever by words, either spoken or written or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.

When were Pakistan's blasphemy laws adopted? What fueled them?

 According to the public policy think tank Jinnah Institute, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws originated in British colonial laws drafted in 1860 to protect religious beliefs and customs.

In the 1980s, under the rule of hardline Islamist and military dictator Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the laws were amended to include life imprisonment and the death penalty.

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Zia-ul-Haq accused previous governments of leading the country away from the principles of Islam and openly stated his mission to return Pakistan to a conservative Islamist state. Zia-ul-Haq’s reign is widely viewed as the “Islamization” of Pakistan.

Critics say that soon after the blasphemy law was amended under Zia-ul-Haq, many accusers began misusing the law and exploiting Pakistan’s ineffective justice system to settle personal scores and persecute minorities.

The Jinnah Institute says nine cases of blasphemy were reported in Pakistan between 1929 and 1982. Over the past 15 years, the number of cases has reached into the thousands.

What are the big Pakistani blasphemy cases in recent years that got international attention? How were they resolved?

In November 2010, Christian laborer Asia Bibi was sentenced to death after a fellow worker accused her of insulting Islam. The sentence is under appeal, and Bibi is still in jail.

Months after Bibi’s death sentence, provincial Gov. Salman Taseer and Federal Minister Shahbaz Bhatti – both moderate Pakistani politicians – were assassinated after public calls to amend the blasphemy laws.

In May 2010, militants attacked two mosques and killed more than 90 worshipers of the Ahmadi sect, minority Muslims often viewed as heretics and blasphemers by hardline Sunnis in Pakistan.

Why have some hardline Islamist groups in Pakistan rejected the call to change the blasphemy law and gone as far as praising the assassination of politicians who pushed for change?

Aasim Sajjad, a political analyst and professor of history at Islamabad's Quaid-i-Azam Univeristy, blames a succession of governments, leaders and institutions that have directly or indirectly either promoted or tolerated a hardline Islamist mindset.

“There are very well-entrenched structures of power that exist in this society,” Sajjad said. “Some of them have to do with how this state and its institutions are set up. Those deeply established structures are part of the answer why this continues to happen.

“What one needs to emphasize is how since its inception, the state has depicted itself as citadel of a particular kind of religious ideology. And what’s well-established is the direction of the state towards a self-proclaimed Islamic state during the late '70s and '80s. I think that was a fundamental turning point," he said.

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“Today, there is a wide cross-section of society that tolerates this, and I think there’s also an environment of fear where they feel that if they do stand up against it, they will be targeted. The primary sentiment is one of ‘keep your head down and don’t get yourself involved, because if you do, then you’re going to be set up to be jailed or killed,' " the professor said.

Is there any chance of meaningful debate or change when it comes to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws?

“I think it’s going to take a visionary political leadership which is willing to be courageous and take a stand to generate popular support,” Sajjad said.

“But my sense is that the mainstream political forces in this country have the same approach as most everyday Pakistanis, which is just put your head down and don’t take up these issues. Until a popular constituency develops, political will won’t be generated. Until a political will is generated, a popular constituency may not be developed.

“It’s like what came first, the chicken or the egg?”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Islam • Islamic law • Pakistan • Quran

soundoff (1,048 Responses)
  1. Heywood

    So is it Blasphamy to say that the prophet mohammed was a violent pedophile? That he may have had intimate relations with camels and farm animals?
    Christians in that part of the world should be very concerned and those not there, should be very outspoken and vocal about how you feel about this poor little girl.

    Its not as if she put those pages to good use like the toilet paper it really is.

    October 11, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  2. Apul M'Deek-Aoud


    Here's a fun game for all to enjoy. The kiddies will love it.

    October 10, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  3. allenwoll

    The presently CIVILIZED Peoples of the world need to create an Official LIst of their membership in the same and to formally and officially EXPEL those found to be continuing to commit uncivilized, barbarian acts toward themselves or toward others.. We do NOT have to look too far for MOST of these folks ! ! !

    The above is carefully worded, for even the most civilized people in the world can frequently be found to have committed grossly UN-civilized acts in the past : The PRESENT and the FUTURE are what count NOW ! ! !

    October 10, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  4. Anybody know how to read?

    Prophet Mohammed was a SBNR gone wild.

    October 3, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
  5. Dilip Khanna

    We now need to focus on India. The American invasion of Afghanistan brought to the forefront the irrelevance of India as a nation. With a population of over 1.2 billion people there was no value that this nation could bring to the table. Their soldiers (ragtag) 1.2 million continue hiding in the trenches scared from Talibans. A few teenage Talibans invaded the country and held it hostage for days on end showing how useless India is. It was embarrasing for the world to observe this humiliation of a nation that was being touted as a regional power.

    October 2, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • power4things

      No curry for you, my friend. But I did miss how this comment has anything to do with blasphemy laws in Pakistan ...

      October 11, 2012 at 5:11 am |
  6. bindiya subbramaniam

    The disenchantment of minorities is evident by the recent uprising in India. From Bangalore to Mumbai, to Goa to Kerala and Chennai and Pune not to forget Assam and onto New Delhi ..... this is a premonition of epic proportions. We are witnessing the implosion of India..some will grasp it now while others will need to see it in the rear view mirror.

    October 2, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  7. hinduism by Judaism self center ,secularism source of hindu filthy hinduism, racism.


    October 2, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • Theen Allah Fat Mullah (the original hinduism source.....)

      Mullah Tunes Theen Allah for President, a new show on the road for peace to fool humanity, denier of truth absolute. For more visit my blog LooneyMullahs.com and click on DuffyAllah to open file.

      October 2, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • AvdBerg source of AvdBergfilthyracism.

      Absurdity of a hindu name theif, pagan making name most longer.

      October 2, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  8. Theen Allah Fat Mullah (the original hinduism source.....)

    Word "blasphemy" is based on Latin word blasphemare, ba or be, Te, or Ta, meaning act of insulting Fat Mullah or showing contempt or lack of respect for Theen Allah, Al, the, La, limited, H, Hight, corruption of Humanity, blasphemy goon practice, denier of truth absolute. For more visit my blog Montezuma’s revenge.com and click on work Puke to open file on website.

    October 2, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • Abdullo

      Blasphemy Talks. Allah Walks.

      October 2, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • hinduism by Judaism self center ,secularism source of hindu filthy hinduism, racism.

      hinduism, absurdity of a hindu, lair.

      October 2, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  9. Naushad Shafkat

    The Blasphemy laws as we now know them were framed by that great hypocrite Zia-ul-Haq. He was a ruthless military dictator who had his political opponents hanged, flogged in public, killed in cold blood or just made them vanish from the face of the earth. He wanted to take Pakistan back to the dark ages and religion was just a peg to hang his personal desires on. But all said and done he was supported to the hilt by the US. He could not have come into power or ruled for over a decade if the US had not backed him. Considering that America sees itself as the greatest supporter of democracy that, to put it mildly, is a bit strange.

    October 2, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  10. niknak

    These laws are used to punish anyone who dares go against the crap islam preaches.
    Don't think for a second that poor girl will be alive a year from now.
    Those cretins will find something to stone her to death for.
    islam is the most backward of the world's backward religions.

    October 2, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • hinduism by Judaism self center ,secularism source of hindu filthy hinduism, racism.

      Truth is hinduism, crap for a hindu' out law, way of hindu's deniers of truth absolute to avoid accountability for their hinduism, criminality. Way of hindu Jew's, criminal self centered, secular's.

      October 2, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • hinduism by Judaism self center ,secularism source of hindu filthy hinduism, racism.


      October 2, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  11. Reality


    See p. 16 of the commentaries for details.

    October 2, 2012 at 8:15 am |
    • hinduism by Judaism self center ,secularism source of hindu filthy hinduism, racism.

      Prove your hinduism, absurdity, Blasphemy means nothing else but to be a Jew, self centered or a hindu, denire of truth absolute, thinking himself to be truth absolute GOD, get some education before spewing your hinduism, absurdity.

      October 2, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  12. ronvan

    GUILTY BY ASSOCIATION!! ALL Muslims are GUILTY Through their inaction & SILENCE, they ALL are responsible for those inhuman actions of the FEW!! Their religious leaders DO NOT condemn terrorist actions! They ALL use their religion as an excuse to KILL, even their own people, if you do not support them! Make them mad and they cannot handle it, they just go insane and want to kill! YES, All religions have "bad" history & are responsible for killing millions in the name of their religion. HOWEVER, I do not know of any other that so OPENLY supports such outdated, illiterate, suppresive and inhumane teachings!? CONVINCE me that I am WRONG!!!!

    October 2, 2012 at 8:02 am |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      Only by hinduism absurdity of a hindu, denier of truth absolute, Muslim truthful are guilty of no hinduism, denial of truth absolute but proud to support implementation of truth among humanity, hndu's, guilty are none other than hindu's, criminals by the faith, deserve to be eliminated by Muslim's, truth full for peace among humanity. For more visit limitisthetruth.com

      October 2, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.


      October 2, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  13. Kebos

    Islam, a pathetic religion (aka cult) that picks on little girls. Time to banish this cult to the dark ages where it belongs.

    October 2, 2012 at 6:11 am |
  14. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    October 2, 2012 at 4:25 am |
    • Twinkly Bob, Doom Leprechaun of the Apocalypse

      Unicorns change things too.

      October 2, 2012 at 4:32 am |
    • nope


      October 2, 2012 at 4:35 am |
    • Nope

      I'm a dope

      October 2, 2012 at 4:36 am |
    • Pope

      I like soap on a rope.

      October 2, 2012 at 4:41 am |
    • just sayin

      Self confession is good for the soul. God bless

      October 2, 2012 at 4:48 am |
    • just sayin

      I really enjoy lying. And I am shit-stupid.

      October 2, 2012 at 4:50 am |
    • truth be told

      When a so called atheist steals names it is not long before they degenerate to filth.

      October 2, 2012 at 4:52 am |
    • nope


      October 2, 2012 at 4:54 am |
    • nope


      October 2, 2012 at 4:56 am |
    • snopes says

      nope to nope

      October 2, 2012 at 8:59 am |
    • hal 9001

      I'm sorry, "Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things", but your assertions regarding atheism and prayer are unfounded. The degree to which your assertions may represent truths is 0.0. To help you understand the degree to which your assertions may represent truths, I will access my Idiomatic Expression Equivalency module (IEE). Using my IEE module, the expression that best matches the degree to which your assertions may represent truths is: "TOTAL FAIL".

      I see that you repeat these unfounded statements with high frequency. Perhaps the following book might help you overcome this problem:

      I'm Told I Have Dementia: What You Can Do... Who You Can Turn to...
      by the Alzheimer's Disease Society

      October 2, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • Jesus

      Prayer does not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!|.

      October 2, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  15. ronny groda


    October 2, 2012 at 3:15 am |
    • Kebos

      Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu......it's all the same. All have the potential to be extreme. All are cults.

      October 2, 2012 at 6:15 am |
  16. Theen Allah Fat Mullah (the original hinduism source.....)

    From Day one creation of Islamic Republic of Pakistan, it is plagued with corruption, illiteracy, poverty, and Mullah ism, corruption of Theen A, foundation of Pakistan has been ALLAH, AL, the, LA, limited, H Height, corruption of humanity, THERE IS NO TRUTH BUT TRUTH ABSOLUTE AND, SPIRIT OF TRUTH ABSOLUTE IS 'FAT' MESSENGER, foundation of consti pation of Pakistan. Any Shia criminal deviating from consti pation of truth absolute is a hindu, traitor to fundamental of truth absolute, foundation of existence every muslims and every thing including Pakistani terrorists, denier of TRUTH ABSOLUTE and deserving of nothing less than punishment of a Mullah, traitor, death, for committing Terror ism, treason by Theen ism, corruption of truth absolute labeled as religions. No exception's.

    October 2, 2012 at 1:50 am |
    • George Patton

      Pakistan sucks go hang yourself.

      October 2, 2012 at 1:54 am |
    • hinduism by Judaism self center ,secularism source of hindu filthy hinduism, racism.

      hinduism, absurdity of a hindu, ID thief.

      October 2, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  17. Dawkins is my homeboy

    Simply put, religion is complete delusion. Each one has fvcking retarded myths its believers buy as truth. I guess people are just fvcking stupid.

    October 2, 2012 at 12:08 am |
    • Towelie

      You wanna get high?

      October 2, 2012 at 12:16 am |
    • Dawkins is my homeboy

      I already am! Blaze that sh•t up my cotton friend.

      October 2, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • free man


      October 10, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.