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. Ramesh

    Pakistan is in Asia but surviving on $2 B from US & many other solid supports from Middle East, makes Pakistan's chances to survive very high. Think little more from inside US perspective. Muslim population is increasing & taking advantage of High Liberty. They are already trying to favor Sharia Law in few states in US.

    September 2, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  2. organically

    Religion is the biggest scam in the history of humanity

    September 2, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  3. Michael

    I would gladly pay increased taxes to have my name on a nuclear bomb that would wipe out the entire problem in the Middle East.


    September 2, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • John

      Pakistan is in South Asia, not the ME

      September 2, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • Ugly N Fat

      Not a bad idea!

      September 2, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  4. stevensb

    ......... man , if ever there was proof that religion , any religion , is the most ignorant and dangerous past time of mankind ....... the posts here to day confirm it .............. religion = death of the species .......

    September 2, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  5. holy

    god had the holy books written, don't need your human protection since can always create more..
    humans are morons.

    September 2, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  6. Muneef

    We pay people to collect the scattered pieces of Quran pages or Arabic writtennews papers pages that might contain the names of God from any where on the streets to have them burnt rather than being walked on with out realizing..
    I just wonder if that was wrong to do...? I can consider that burning the whole Quran book is intentional but scattered pages here and there on the streets is no crime and rather is a service... Those who are angry should then as Muslims not throw pages or old used books of the Quran on the streets if they care that much..so I say it is not fair what it is happening to this girl and her family whether she was Christian or Hindu or Jewish or Muslim if needed to collect some disposed off papers to use as fuel to warmup or cook their food...so I think those caring should spread on their neighbourhood streets to collect and dispose of in a proper way and thing they consider holy rather than throwing away carelessly and then blame people for any act thereafter...

    August 31, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  7. okahn

    The blasphemy law is against the teaching of Islam. The Quran and the hadith do not mention blasphemy, nothing in Islam supports it. Mohammad (PBUH) or his companions never recommended blasphemy, this was started centuries later by rulers for political gains. Do some homework before stereotyping.

    August 30, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  8. Russell's Teapot

    The USA is not a christian nation, never has been, never will be... I refer you to the Treaty of Tripoli for further instruction

    August 29, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • niknak

      It is not a xtian nation, yet.
      That is really what this next election is all about.
      The repubs want to turn this country into the xtian version of Saudia Arabia.
      I work with fundies, and this is their ultimate goal.
      To make this a white, conservative xtian military state.
      They are scary, creepy, violent people.
      I can't wait until I can retire and be as far away from them as possible.

      August 29, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • HWB

      niknak is one phucked up individual.

      September 2, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • jcanton

      Niknak, I can't wait until you retire and get as far away from this country as possible.

      September 2, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  9. Chris

    Ah Pakistan, the bastion of backwardness.

    August 28, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  10. Syed Hossain_Bangla Desh

    I must say that hinduism is the most repulsive cult that ever existed. Barabaric values, archaic culture, disrespect for fellow humans, cannibalistic practices, anti women/children mindset, and worship of the most sugly looking deities.

    August 28, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • Jon

      No. Hindu and Buddism is the most peaceful form of religion, including Zaoism. None of these three religion advocate violence in any way, shape, or form.

      September 2, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  11. Reality

    AND ONCE AGAIN:–>>>>>> (ONLY FOR THE NEW MEMBERS)-----–>>>>>

    THE SAFE AND EASY SOLUTION: (Analogous steps are available at your request for deprogramming the myths of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Paganism..)

    From the studies of Armstrong, Rushdie, Hirsi Ali, Richardson and Bayhaqi––

    The Five Steps To Deprogram 1400 Years of Islamic Myths:

    ( –The Steps take less than two minutes to finish- simply amazing, two minutes to bring peace and rationality to over one billion lost souls- Priceless!!!)

    Are you ready?

    Using "The 77 Branches of Islamic "faith" a collection compiled by Imam Bayhaqi as a starting point. In it, he explains the essential virtues that reflect true "faith" (iman) through related Qur’anic verses and Prophetic sayings." i.e. a nice summary of the Koran and Islamic beliefs.

    The First Five of the 77 Branches:

    "1. Belief in Allah"

    aka as God, Yahweh, Zeus, Jehovah, Mother Nature, etc. should be added to your self-cleansing neurons.

    "2. To believe that everything other than Allah was non-existent. Thereafter, Allah Most High created these things and subsequently they came into existence."

    Evolution and the Big Bang or the "Gi-b G-nab" (when the universe starts to recycle) are more plausible and the "akas" for Allah should be included if you continue to be a "crea-tionist".

    "3. To believe in the existence of angels."

    A major item for neuron cleansing. Angels/de-vils are the mythical creations of ancient civilizations, e.g. Hitt-ites, to explain/define natural events, contacts with their gods, big birds, sudden winds, protectors during the dark nights, etc. No "pretty/ug-ly wingy thingies" ever visited or talked to Mohammed, Jesus, Mary or Joseph or Joe Smith. Today we would classify angels as f–airies and "tin–ker be-lls". Modern de-vils are classified as the de-mons of the de-mented.

    "4. To believe that all the heavenly books that were sent to the different prophets are true. However, apart from the Quran, all other books are not valid anymore."

    Another major item to delete. There are no books written in the spirit state of Heaven (if there is one) just as there are no angels to write/publish/distribute them. The Koran, OT, NT etc. are simply books written by humans for humans.

    Prophets were invented by ancient scribes typically to keep the un-educated masses in line. Today we call them for-tune tellers.

    Prophecies are also invali-dated by the natural/God/Allah gifts of Free Will and Future.

    "5. To believe that all the prophets are true. However, we are commanded to follow the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings
    be upon him) alone."

    Mohammed spent thirty days "fasting" (the Ramadan legend) in a hot cave before his first contact with Allah aka God etc. via a "pretty wingy thingy". Common sense demands a neuron deletion of #5. #5 is also the major source of Islamic vi-olence i.e. turning Mohammed's "fast, hunger-driven" hallu-cinations into horrible reality for unbelievers.

    Walk these Five Steps and we guarantee a complete recovery from your Islamic ways!!!!

    Unfortunately, there are not many Muslim commentators/readers on this blog so the "two-minute" cure is not getting to those who need it. If you have a Muslim friend, send him a copy and help save the world.

    August 28, 2012 at 1:03 am |
    • Muneef

      Hi and good bye

      August 31, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  12. Prayer is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer takes people away from actually working on real solutions to their problems.
    Prayer has been shown to have no discernible effect towards what was prayed for.
    Prayer makes you frothy like Rick Santorum. Just go to http://santorum.com to find out more.
    Prayer prevents you from getting badly needed exercise.
    Prayer makes you fat, pale, weak, and sedentary.
    Prayer wears out your clothes prematurely.
    Prayer contributes to global warming through excess CO2 emissions.
    Prayer fucks up your knees and your neck and your back.
    Prayer can cause heart attacks, especially among the elderly.
    Prayer reveals how stupid you are to the world.
    Prayer exposes your backside to pervert priests.
    Prayer makes you think doilies are exciting.
    Prayer makes you secretively flatulent and embarrassed about it.
    Prayer makes your kids avoid spending time with you.
    Prayer gives you knobbly knees.
    Prayer makes you frothy like Rick Santorum. Just google him to find out.
    Prayer dulls your senses.
    Prayer makes you post really stupid shit.
    Prayer makes you hoard cats.
    Prayer makes you smell like shitty kitty litter and leads you on to harder drugs.
    Prayer wastes time.

    August 27, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
  13. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    August 27, 2012 at 9:01 pm |
    • hal 9000

      I'm sorry "Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things", but you assertions regarding atheism and prayer are unfounded. I see that you repeat these unfounded statements frequently. 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

      September 2, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  14. HeavenSent

    Keep believing in the lies of the Mohammad and you will be swimming with satan in hell. I just spilled my potty tray and the cats are drinking it. Start your walk with Jesus and learn His truth if you want to live forever in paradise.

    August 27, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
    • Jon

      Spoken like a true Christian extremist, you're no different from Muslim.

      September 2, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • HWB

      Spoken like a non existent idiot. No one could possibly see you?

      September 2, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • HWB

      That is Jon.

      September 2, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  15. Ram Ram Ram

    slamism is healthy for any other living things, but not for humans since no other living things give a $H|T to 72 hoors in Jannat if they die of unnatural death.

    August 27, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
    • Mountain High

      LOL I knew it Islam was a fake deal. Lying Bas tards.

      August 27, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
    • Miss Ducky

      Uueeee Amma, your fact based bold posts are making assshole hurt.

      August 27, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
    • Mr Dick

      I am half muslim half atheist and I don't give give a $H|T to 72 you-know-what! I live free American life, s ex, drug, and rock and roll baby!

      August 27, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
    • Cabot Looser

      Shame on my parent for not practing safe se x.

      August 27, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
  16. Anon

    Muslims and Christians are fu*ked up in the head, end of story.

    August 27, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
  17. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    Word Pak is based on Latin word Puki, Pe or Pa, Te, or Ta, meaning from stomach and throat base word for Sick in English, Upchuck, blowing chunks or spewing, meaning, worshiping at the porcelain thrown or a sweaty, infection of puke absolute, such as flu, or Food poisoning, in disregard diarrhea or Montezuma’s revenge,

    Word Stan is based on Latin word Satan, Se or Sa, Tan, or Ten, meaning land of devils.

    Mohammad Ali Jinnah, a chain smoker, tuberculosis patient, atheist muslim lawyer, who jokingly called then Sindhu land occupied by trible people "Pakistan" literelly means "land of Puking Devils", poor soul never imagined his personal racist joke on some group would become a reality one day country Pakistan he founded. Pakistan is a land of Puking Terrorists.

    August 27, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
    • HWB

      Man you are puke. Where did you get such sh it?

      September 2, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  18. Believe

    Why is everybody so quick to rule out God as being real. There is more evidence to support he exist than evidence that he doesn't exist. Who doesn't believe Jesus Christ lived as a real man in a real time whether or not he was the messiah or miracle maker or what have you? "oh you of little faith", don't bother sending me any postcards from Sodom and Gomorrah (San Francisco and New York) lol

    August 27, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • arishsahani

      ITs all about ruling one by others. In past we had wars . Soldiers were send to conquer. Now arabs found a better way they have book, created to first take over the minds , convert poor and uneducated and then use them to destroy any nation using the book No arms needed.
      Pakistan ,Afganistan were hindu nations by converting all poor , uneducated first making them anti national anti culture. NOw same hindu convert to islam are idling and finishing unconverted. Whole country destroyed no soldiers send by Arabs Book is doing the work. Same will happen to europe and west soon.
      So WEst should not let this book enter in their country.

      August 27, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
  19. Believe

    God is Good!

    August 27, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Mohammad is better.

      August 27, 2012 at 10:28 pm |
  20. norma jean.


    August 27, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
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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.