Affection for the Prophet more than for life itself
The plight of the Pakistani Christian woman known as Asia Bibi has attracted much attention and comment in Australia since the unanimous judgment announced on 31 October 2018 by a three-judge panel of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The court set aside her conviction in November 2010 for blasphemy, and acquitted her of the charge.
By contrast, the English language version of the court’s reasons, which can be read online, has excited little consideration here. This is unfortunate. The reasons set out the central role of blasphemy in Islam and why it is punishable by death. Australians should be encouraged to read the reasons. It will enable them to form and express their opinions in the ongoing public debate about the scope of the unique politico-religious claims made by Islam. That uniqueness supplies an internal, albeit grim, logic underpinning Islam’s life-controlling proscriptions and prescriptions.
Pakistan is an Islamic republic. It is one of the 57 member states of the Organization of Islamic Co-operation which has permanent observer status at the UN and regards defamation of religion (more specifically, Islam) as a serious affront to human dignity. The preamble to Pakistan’s Constitution provides that ‘the principles of democracy, freedom, equality, tolerance and social justice, as enunciated by Islam, shall be fully observed’. Section 2 provides that ‘Islam shall be the State religion of Pakistan.’
The theocratic element of the constitutional context for the Supreme Court’s decision in the Asia Bibi case is made explicit by the judges’ recitation of the shahada, the Islamic profession of faith, at the commencement of their reasons. They make clear that the Almighty has declared that the enemy of the Prophet Muhammad is the enemy of the Almighty and has ordained that, in this temporary world and also in the eternal life hereinafter, there is a punishment of the highest degree for those who disbelieve or disrespect him.
In observing that scripture prescribes the death penalty for the opponents of the Almighty and his Prophet, the court expressly approved an undisturbed decision of Pakistan’s Federal Shariat Court in 1991 that Islam forbids the penalty of mere life imprisonment upon conviction for blasphemy.
The Supreme Court states that anything which in any way attacks any aspect of the Prophet’s sacred life, infuriates Muslims to an intolerable limit, resulting in extremely serious law and order situations, with grievous, disastrous consequences. The Prophet’s followers have immense love, admiration and affection for him, more than their own lives or the lives of their parents and children. No one can be allowed to defy the name of the Prophet nor can a person guilty of disrespecting the Prophet be let off scot-free.
In Asia Bibi’s case, the Supreme Court emphasised that Islam as stipulated in the Holy Koran teaches believers, amongst many other virtues, to live in peace and harmony, with compassion and love for their fellow human beings. It is the masterpiece of guidance and knowledge bestowed upon humanity by the Almighty. It cannot be modified in any way whatsoever. It is the final book. The commandments of the Almighty are entrenched in the Koran which provides for a complete way of life. Thus, under the authority and command of the Constitution and sharia law, it is the duty of the State to ensure that blasphemy does not occur in Pakistan.
In asserting that blasphemy is abhorrent and immoral besides being a manifestation of intolerance, the court emphasised that a false allegation of blasphemy is equally detestable besides being culpable. If Islam comes down heavily upon blasphemers, then it is also very tough against those who level false allegations of blasphemy. It is, therefore, for the State to ensure that no innocent person is compelled or constrained to face an investigation or a trial on the basis of false or trumped up allegations of blasphemy.
Asia Bibi’s Islamic accuser (who is a party to the criminal case against her and is represented by counsel) alleged that she had blasphemed by stating something to the effect that the Prophet had fallen ill and was bedridden for one month before his death, that insects had emerged from his mouth and ear, and that he had married a woman intending to loot her wealth and after doing so had discarded her. It was also alleged that on the same occasion she had uttered words to the effect that the Koran was a self-made book not a book of God or otherwise divine.
The Supreme Court examined the evidence which had been used against Asia Bibi in her trial and concluded that the prosecution had categorically failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt. It ordered that she be released from jail forthwith, if not required in any other criminal case.
As an aside, the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s assessment that blasphemy infuriates Muslims across the globe to an intolerable limit was demonstrated in the violence of protestors in Sydney’s Hyde Park in late 2012 which was prompted by the film Innocence of Muslims. Their fury was further evident in the preparedness of some participating adults to parade children, at least one of them obviously below school age, holding aloft signs which contained the exhortation ‘BEHEAD THOSE WHO INSULT THE PROPHET’.
On 11 December 2018 Justice Bellew of the Supreme Court of New South Wales sentenced a man who had been convicted of doing acts in preparation for, or planning, a terrorist act or acts to sixteen years’ imprisonment. His Honour noted that as a 12-year-old boy the offender had participated in the Hyde Park demonstration holding aloft one such sign.
Asia Bibi’s life remains in danger. At the time of writing she has not, it seems, been set free.
The author is a Melbourne barrister