Blasphemy in Pakistan

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The Pakistan Penal Code, the main criminal code of Pakistan, penalizes blasphemy (Urdu: قانون ناموس رسالت) against any recognized religion, providing penalties ranging from a fine to death. According to human rights groups, blasphemy laws in Pakistan have been exploited not so much for protecting religious sensibilities of Muslims, but for persecuting minorities, and for settling personal rivalries - often against other Muslims.[1]

From 1967 to 2014, over 1,300 people were accused of blasphemy, with Muslims constituting most of those accused.[2][3] Between 1987 and February 2021 at least 1,855 people have been charged under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.[4]

Though no judicial execution has been carried out under these laws, many of those accused, their lawyers, and anyone speaking against blasphemy laws and proceedings have become victims of lynchings or street vigilantism in Pakistan. From 1947 to 2021, 89 Pakistanis were "extra-judicially killed over blasphemy accusations".[5][6][7] Among the victims (for speaking out against blasphemy laws or acquitting accused) have been the Governor of Punjab, Pakistan's largest province (Salman Taseer),[8] the Federal Minister for Minorities (Shahbaz Bhatti),[9][10] and a high court justice in his chambers (Arif Iqbal Bhatti).[11] As of early 2021, according to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, around 80 people are known to be incarcerated in Pakistan on blasphemy charges, with half of those facing life in prison or the death penalty.[1]

Besides non-Muslim and Ahmadiyya minorities, Pakistan's minority Shias too are accused of blasphemy for their beliefs. Since 2001, more than 2,600 Shia Muslims have been killed in violent attacks in Pakistan. Many are buried in the Wadi-e-Hussain Cemetery, Karachi.[12]


Many people accused of blasphemy have been murdered before their trials were over,[13][14] and renowned figures who opposed the blasphemy law have been assassinated.[2] Since 1990, 62 people have been murdered following blasphemy accusations.[15] According to one religious minority source, an accusation of blasphemy commonly exposes the accused, police, lawyers, and judges to harassment, threats, attacks, and rioting.[16] (In October 1997, for example, a high court justice in Lahore was murdered in his chambers for acquitting two Christians accused of blasphemy, but the killer was "acquitted due to lack of witness testimony".)[17][11]

Critics complain that those accused of blaspheming have seldom actually said or done anything blasphemous; (one lawyer who defends those accused of blasphemy, Anneqa Maria, states that: “In my entire career of 14 years as a criminal lawyer, none of the blasphemy victims I represented have actually committed blasphemy");[18] Asad Hashim writes that from 2010 to 2020,

the “offences” committed by those accused of blasphemy have been as absurd as throwing a business card into the rubbish (the man’s name was Muhammad), a rural water dispute, spelling errors, the naming of a child, the design of a place of worship, burning a (non-religious) talisman or sharing a picture on Facebook.[19]

They also complain that Pakistan's blasphemy laws are "overwhelmingly being used to persecute religious minorities and settle personal vendettas",[20] but calls for change in blasphemy laws have been strongly resisted by Islamic parties - most prominently the Barelvi school of Islam.[15] Many atheists in Pakistan have been lynched and imprisoned over unsubstantiated allegations of blasphemy. The state began a rigorous crackdown on atheism starting in 2017, causing conditions to deteriorate significantly. Secular bloggers started facing kidnappings, and the government-initiated advertising campaigns encouraging citizens to identify potential blasphemers in their midst. Further exacerbating the situation, the nation's highest judicial authorities classified such individuals as terrorists.[21]

Cases under the blasphemy law have also been registered against Muslims who have harassed non-Muslims.[22][23][24]

In 2020, the European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS) in a report entitled, Guilty until proven innocent: The sacrilegious nature of blasphemy laws in Pakistan, recommended wide-ranging changes to Pakistan's laws and legal systems.[25]

According to the International Crisis Group, while in previous decades it was "Islamist hardliners" who lodged blasphemy charges, by around 2022 an environment had developed where "judges, police and private citizens" were "likely to see rewards rather than repercussions for making blasphemy accusations" and it was state court judges, not Islamists, who "increasingly raising the issue".[17]


By its constitution, the official name of Pakistan is the "Islamic Republic of Pakistan" as of 1956. More than 96% of Pakistan's 220 million citizens (2022) are Muslims.[26] Among countries with a Muslim majority, Pakistan has the strictest anti-blasphemy laws. The first purpose of those laws is to protect Islamic authority. According to the constitution (Article 2), Islam is the state religion. By the constitution's Article 31, it is the country's duty to foster the Islamic way of life. By Article 33, it is the country's duty to discourage parochial, racial, tribal, sectarian, and provincial prejudices among its citizens.[27] Under Article 10A of the constitution, it is also the state's duty to provide for the right of fair trial.[28]

Religion-related offences on the territory of modern Pakistan were first codified by the British Raj in 1860, and were expanded in 1927.[29] Pakistan inherited that legislation when it gained independence after the partition of India in 1947.[29] Several sections of Pakistan's Penal Code comprise its blasphemy laws.[30]

Development of Pakistani blasphemy laws[edit]

During the 1920s, after the assassination of a publisher of a book named Rangila Rasul, published in Lahore, Punjab, the administration of the British Raj enacted Hate Speech Law Section 295(A),[31] in 1927, under pressure from the Muslim community, as a part of the Criminal Law Amendment Act XXV. This made it a criminal offence to insult the founders or leaders of any religious community.[32][33] After the creation of Pakistan in 1947, many anti blasphemy laws and clauses were introduced in Pakistan's Penal Code.[30]

Between 1980 and 1986, the military government of General Zia-ul Haq modified the existing blasphemy laws (which had been inherited from the colonial-era Indian Penal Code) to make them more severe, with a number of clauses being added by the government in order to "Islamicise" the laws and deny the Muslim character of the Ahmadi minority.[2] Before 1986, only 14 cases of blasphemy were reported.[13] Parliament through the Second Amendment to the Constitution on 7 September 1974, under Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, declared Ahmadi Muslims as non-Muslims.[34] In 1986, it was supplemented by a new blasphemy provision also applied to Ahmadi Muslims (See Persecution of Ahmadis).[35][36] Between 1987 and 2017 at least 1,500 people were charged with blasphemy and at least 75 people involved in accusations of blasphemy were killed in Pakistan according to the Center for Social Justice.[37] According to another source, between 2011 and 2015, "the latest period for which consolidated data is available" as of 2020, there were "more than 1,296 blasphemy cases filed" in Pakistan.[19]

In January 2023, Pakistan's National Assembly passed a vote to tighten the country's blasphemy laws, a move that incited concern among minority groups. These communities feared the enhanced laws could lead to more human rights violations and further persecution of religious minorities. On January 17, the Assembly unanimously approved the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill. This legislation increased the penalty for disrespecting the Prophet Mohammed’s companions, wives, and family members from three years of imprisonment to 10 years, in addition to a fine of 1 million Pakistani rupees, equivalent to roughly GBP £3,500.[38] Blasphemy is a capital offence in Pakistan. Muslims’ stances on blasphemy are not just about religion, though. They are influenced by international affairs.[clarification needed] Across the globe, Muslim minorities — including the Palestinians under Israeli occupation, Chechens of Russia, Rohingya of Myanmar and Uyghurs of China — have experienced persecution.[39]

Religious offences and punishments[edit]

Pakistan Penal Code sections Types and description of offences Punishment
§ 298 Uttering of any word or making any sound or making any gesture or placing of any object in the sight with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person. 1 years imprisonment, or fine, or both
§ 298A Use of derogatory remarks etc., in respect of holy personages. 1980 3 years imprisonment, or fine, or both
§ 298B
(Ahmadi blasphemy law) Misuse of epithets, descriptions and titles etc., reserved for certain holy personages or places, by Ahmadis. 26 April 1984 3 years imprisonment and fine
§ 298C
(Ahmadi blasphemy law) Aka Ordinance XX: f a Muslim, or preaching or propagating his faith, or "in any manner whatsoever" outraging the religious feelings of Muslims, or posing himself as a Muslim. 26 April 1984 3 years imprisonment and fine
§ 295 Injuring or defiling places of worship, with intent to insult the religion of any class. Up to 2 years imprisonment or fine, or both
§ 295A Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs. 1927[40] Up to 10 years imprisonment, or fine, or both
§ 295B Defiling, etc., of Quran. 1982[41] Imprisonment for life
§ 295C Use of derogatory remarks, spoken, written, directly or indirectly, etc. defiles the name of Muhammad or other Prophet(s). 1986 Mandatory Death and fine (Feb. 1990[42])

Trial must take place in a Court of Session with a Muslim judge presiding.[43]

Except for § 295-C, the provisions of § 295 require that an offence be a consequence of the intent of the accused. (See below Sharia.)

§ 298 states:

Anyone who, with the purposeful intent to offend the religious sentiments of another individual, either speaks a word or makes a noise within earshot of that person, or performs a gesture or displays an object within their line of sight, is liable to be penalized. The punishment may include imprisonment of any type for a period that could last up to one year, a monetary fine, or both.

Between 1986 and 2007, Pakistani authorities charged 647 people with blasphemy offences.[44] with one source saying 50% of these were non-Muslims, who represent only 3% of the national population.[44] No judicial execution for blasphemy has ever occurred in Pakistan,[45][46] but 20 of those charged were murdered.[44][47]

The only law that may be useful in countering misuse of the blasphemy law is PPC 153 A (a), whoever "by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representations or otherwise, promotes or incites, or attempts to promote or incite, on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, caste or community or any other ground whatsoever, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities" shall be fined and punished with imprisonment for a term that may extend to five years.

On 12 January 2011, Prime Minister of Pakistan Yousuf Raza Gilani once again said that there would be no amendments to the blasphemy law.[48]


The Federal Shariat Court (FSC) is a religious body that rules on whether any particular law is repugnant to the injunctions of Islam. If a law is repugnant to Islam, "the President in the case of a law with respect to a matter in the Federal Legislative List or the Concurrent Legislative List, or the Governor in the case of a law with respect to a matter not enumerated in either of those lists, shall take steps to amend the law so as to bring such law or provision into conformity with the Injunctions of Islam" (Constitution, Article 203D). In October 1990, the FSC ruled that § 295-C was repugnant to Islam by permitting life imprisonment as an alternative to a death sentence. The Court said "the penalty for contempt of the Holy Prophet ... is death".[49][50] The FSC ruled that, if the President did not take action to amend the law before 30 April 1991, then § 295-C would stand amended by its ruling.

Promptly after the FSC's ruling in 1990, Bishop Dani L. Tasleem filed an appeal in the Supreme Court of Pakistan, which has the power to overrule the FSC. In April 2009, the Shariat Appellate Bench of the Supreme Court considered the appeal. Deputy Attorney-General Agha Tariq Mehmood, who represented the federal government, said that the Shariat Appellate Bench dismissed the appeal because the appellant did not pursue it. The appellant did not present any argument on the appeal because, according to reports, he was no longer alive. Consequently, it appears to be the law in Pakistan that persons convicted under § 295-C must be sentenced to death with or without a fine.[51]


Those who are accused of blasphemy may be subject to harassment, threats, and attacks. Police, lawyers, and judges may also be subject to harassment, threats, and attacks when blasphemy is an issue.[52][53] Those accused of blasphemy are subject to immediate incarceration, and most accused are denied bail to forestall mob violence.[50][52] It is common for those accused of blasphemy to be put in solitary confinement for their protection from other inmates and guards. Like those who have served a sentence for blasphemy, those who are acquitted of blasphemy usually go into hiding or leave Pakistan.[46][52][54] Pakistan's blasphemy laws are known to be widely abused by those seeking personal gain from those accused, as evidenced by the Imran Ghafur Masih case study. Masih was accused and sentenced to life in prison under Section 295B of the blasphemy laws after his neighbor manipulated and tricked him into unknowingly throwing away a copy of the Quran, because the neighbor wanted to gain Masih's storefront real estate.[55]

United Nations[edit]

Pakistan's support of blasphemy regulation has caused it to be active in the international arena in promoting global limitations on freedom of religion or belief and limitations on freedom of expression. In March 2009, Pakistan presented a resolution to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva that called upon the world to formulate laws against the defamation of religion.[52] See blasphemy.

Internet censorship[edit]

In May 2010, Pakistan blocked access to Facebook because the website hosted a page called Everybody Draw Muhammad Day. Pakistan lifted the block after Facebook prevented access to the page. In June 2010, Pakistan blocked seventeen websites for hosting content that the authorities considered offensive to Muslims. At the same time, Pakistan began to monitor the content of Google, Yahoo, YouTube, Amazon and Bing.[56][57]

In January 2021, an Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) convicted and sentenced three men to death for sharing blasphemous content on social media. A fourth accused in the same case, one Anwaar Ahmed, professor of Urdu language, was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, along with a fine of Rs 100,000. He had been accused of disseminating controversial, blasphemous views during a lecture at the Islamabad Model College.[1] During the trial, the court did not admit witnesses for the defense because they were blood relatives of the accused.[1]

Public opinion[edit]

Anti-Pakistani blasphemy law protest in Bradford, England (2014).

On 19 March 2014, The Nation polled its readers and later reported that 68% of Pakistanis believe the blasphemy law should be repealed.[58] On the other hand, the International Crisis Group reports that

... the Islamic parties are most successful in galvanising street power when the goal is narrowly linked to obstructing reforms to discriminatory religious laws that often provoke sectarian violence and conflict and undermine the rule of law and constitutionalism.[59]

Pakistani human rights activists say that charges of blasphemy are being used to harass minorities and settle personal conflicts.[60] Harshil Mehta, South Asia's political observer, has commented that it is "an urgent need to replace these laws" in his article in Outlook.[61] If the Islamic Republic, he wrote, "wants to prove itself as a haven for religious freedom, then it must ban these regressive laws".[61]

Selected cases[edit]

Although death sentences for blasphemy have been issued on numerous occasions, no one has yet been executed by the order of the courts or government of Pakistan.[62][63] However, those accused of blasphemy are frequently targeted and killed by angry mobs before any trial can begin.[64]

Year Case
1996 On 14 October, Pakistani police arrested Ayub Masih, a Christian bricklayer, for violation of penal code § 295-C. Muhammad Akram, a Muslim neighbour of Masih, complained to the police that Masih had said Christianity was right, and Masih had suggested that Akram read Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses.[49][65] The same day that Masih was arrested, Muslim villagers forced the entire Christian population of Masih's village (fourteen families) to leave the village. Masih's family had applied under a government program that gave housing plots to landless people. Local landlords resented Masih's application because the landlords had been able to oblige landless Christians to work in the fields in exchange for a place to live. Masih's application gave him a way out of his subservience to the landlords.[50] Upon Masih's arrest, the authorities gave Masih's plot to Akram.[49] Akram shot and injured Masih in the halls of the Session Court at Sahiwal on 6 November 1997. Four assailants also attacked Masih in jail. The authorities took no action against Akram or against the other assailants.[49] On 20 April 1998, Judge Abdul Khan sentenced Masih to death and levied a fine of 100,000 rupees. Two judges of the Lahore High Court heard Masih's appeal on 24 July 2001. Shortly thereafter, the judges affirmed the judgment of the trial court.[49] On 16 August 2002, the Supreme Court of Pakistan set aside the judgment of the lower courts. The Supreme Court noted Akram's acquisition of Masih's property and concluded the case had been fabricated for personal gain. The court also noted other breaches in the law of due process.[66][67]
1997 On 6 and 7 February, a mob of approximately 30,000 Muslims burned and looted the villages of Shanti Nagar and Tibba near Khanewal in Punjab.[68][69] The riot began after loudspeakers accused the local Christian population of ripping pages from the Quran and scribbling insults against Mohammed in the margins.[70] The attacks saw the destruction of at least 785 homes as well four churches and forced over 2,500 Christians to flee.[71] In 2013, villagers in Shanti Nagar erected the then largest cross in Pakistan in memory of the attack.[72]
2000 In October, Pakistani authorities charged Younus Shaikh, a physician, with blasphemy on account of remarks that students claimed he made during a lecture. The students alleged that, inter alia, Shaikh had said Muhammad's parents were non-Muslims because they died before Islam existed. A judge ordered that Shaikh pay a fine of 100,000 rupees, and that he be hanged.[73] On 20 November 2003, a court retried the matter and acquitted Shaikh, who fled Pakistan for Switzerland soon thereafter.[74]
2005 On 11 August, Judge Arshad Noor Khan of the Anti-Terrorist Court found a different Younus Shaikh guilty of “defiling a copy of the Quran, outraging religious feelings and propagating religious hatred among society”.[75] Shaikh was arrested after openly distributing copies of his book, Shaitan Maulvi (Satanic Cleric), in which he wrote that stoning to death was not mentioned in the Quran as a punishment for adultery. The book also said that four historical imams were Jews.[76] The judge imposed upon Shaikh a fine of 100,000 rupees, and sentenced him to spend his life in jail.[77]
2006 On 3 June, following protests by the country's Christian minority, Pakistan banned The Da Vinci Code (film) for theorizing about the descendants of Jesus Christ. Although the book had been available for some time, culture minister Ghulam Jamal said that "Islam teaches us to respect all the prophets of God Almighty and degradation of any prophet is tantamount to defamation of the rest".[78][79]
2009 In June, Asia Bibi, a Catholic woman from Punjab, was arrested and prosecuted under penal code 295C after supposedly making derogatory remarks about Muhammed.[80] Bibi was convicted and sentenced to death in November 2010, as well as fined the equivalent of $1,100.[81] On 8 October 2018, following several unsuccessful appeals, Bibi's death sentence was overturned by Pakistan's Supreme Court.[82] However, she was prevented from leaving the country by order of the Government of Pakistan until 8 May 2019 when she was reunited with her family in Canada.[83]
2009 In July, eight Pakistani Christians were killed in the Punjabi town of Gojra after members of the then-banned Sipah-e-Sahaba attacked and burned their homes. Christians in the neighboring village of Korrian had allegedly torn up pages of the Quran during a wedding, but the Federal Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti said this was untrue and that the police had ignored his instructions to protect Gojra's Christian community.[84][85][86]
2010 In July, a trader in Faisalabad complained that one of his employees had been handed a pamphlet which contained disrespectful remarks about Muhammad. According to the police, the pamphlet appeared to have the signatures and addresses of Pastor Rashid Emmanuel and his brother Sajid, who were Christians. The brothers were shot and killed while being escorted by the police from a district court. Both had denied the charge of blasphemy.[87] Following their murder, rumors spread that angry Christians were burning Muslim homes, prompting hundreds of Muslim men to gather in Christian neighborhoods. They then clashed with nearby Christians before the police dispersed the crowd.[88] An anti-terrorism court later sentenced Maqsood Ahmed, a Muslim man, to death for the double-murder of Rashid and Sajid.[89]
2011 On 4 January, Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab, was shot dead in Islamabad by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri for his opposition to Pakistan's blasphemy laws and his support for Asia Bibi.[90] Qadri was sentenced to death on 1 October by an anti-terrorism court and, after several failed appeals, was executed on 29 February 2016.[91]
2011 On 2 March, Shahbaz Bhatti, who was a Catholic member of the National Assembly, was killed by gunmen in Islamabad as he was travelling to work, a few weeks after he had vowed to defy death threats over his efforts to reform Pakistan's blasphemy laws.[92]
2012 In August, a Christian girl named Rimsha Masih was arrested for blasphemy in Islamabad for allegedly burning pages of a Quran or a book containing verses from the Quran.[93][94] Masih, who was described as being between the ages of 11 and 16, could not read or write.[95] The charges against her were dropped following widespread international concern. Masih and her family left Pakistan shortly thereafter to settle in Canada.[96]
2014 In January, Muhammad Asghar, a 70-year-old British man from Edinburgh, was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death by a court in Rawalpindi. Asghar had initially been arrested in 2010 after sending letters in which he declared himself a prophet, and had lived in Pakistan for several years prior to his arrest and trial.[97] Following a stroke in 2010, doctors in Edinburgh diagnosed Asghar with paranoid schizophrenia. He spent a month in a psychiatric hospital before leaving for Pakistan.[98] In September 2014, Asghar was shot in the back by a prison guard for reasons unknown.[99]
2014 On 18 September, Shakil Auj, Dean of Islamic Studies at Karachi University, was assassinated by unknown gunmen while driving in Karachi following accusations of blasphemy.[100]
2016 In first of its kind case, a 30-year-old Shiite Taimoor Raza has been sentenced to death by an anti-terrorism court, for posting blasphemous content on Facebook.[101][102] He was booked in 2016 after he engaged in sectarian debate with a counter-terrorism official on Facebook.[103]
2017 In March, Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif supported a crackdown on blasphemous material posted on social media and described blasphemy as an "unpardonable offence".[104][105] Shortly after, Pakistani blogger Ayaz Nizami, founder of,[106] an Urdu website about atheism, and Vice President of Atheist & Agnostic Alliance Pakistan,[107] was detained under the charges of blasphemy and could face the death penalty.[108][109]
2019 Junaid Hafeez, formerly a lecturer at Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan, was sentenced to death for blasphemy after being arrested in 2013 and accused of insulting the prophet Muhammad on Facebook. Hafeez's first attorney, Rashid Rehman, was murdered in his office in 2014 after agreeing to represent Hafeez. The verdict prompted an outcry from human rights groups; Amnesty International called it a "'vile and gross miscarriage of justice".[110][111]
2020 In June, Sajid Soomro, an assistant professor at Shah Abdul Latif University was arrested after allegedly claiming that Islam is a male dominated religion. Another professor from Sindh University Dr Arfana Mallah came under severe pressure for supporting and terming blasphemy law to be unfair. Various NGOs, including the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, condemned the misuse of blasphemy law against Soomro.[112][113]
2023 On February 11, Muhammad Waris, a Muslim man, was lynched in the city of Nankana Sahib by an angry mob after having been arrested by police on the charge of blasphemy. In footage of the incident posted to social media, hundreds of people surrounded the police station where Waris was being held. He was then dragged through the streets, stripped of his clothes, and beaten to death with metal rods and sticks.[114][115]
2023 On 17 April,[Notes 1] a Chinese transport supervisor employed at the Dasu dam in northern Pakistan was accused of disrespecting Islam by the Pakistani transport drivers working under him after allegedly admonishing the drivers for delaying in reporting to work after their prayer time during the month of Ramadan. About 400 residents gathered to protest after the labourers accused the engineer of uttering disrespectful comments. For his safety, the accused Chinese supervisor was transported to a police station in Komila and flown thereafter to Abbottabad. The police arrested the Chinese supervisor after filing a FIR against him in accordance with Section 295-C of the Pakistani Penal Code.The FIR also referenced Section 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act.[117][118][119][120][121] According to Jibran Ahmad of Reuters, the arrested Chinese national was subsequently released on bail, with police officials stating the case may be a misunderstanding. Such bail is exceptional in Pakistan, where judges usually postpone blasphemy cases for many years, worrying about reprisals.[122]

See Also[edit]


  1. ^ .. Time line as per Dawn (newspaper) : Alleged incident happened on April 15, arrested in Upper Kohistan district on April 16, Lodged the FIR on April 17, Date of court hearing and bail ? [116]


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Further reading[edit]