Blasphemy law in Egypt: the intersection of sharī’a and state control over public morals

By Jiou Park

Since the debacle surrounding the film, The Innocence of Muslims, which triggered prosecution and websites blocks across various Muslim-majority countries, blasphemy law in Muslim majority countries has been a familiar topic for many in the West.[1] As a result, a common perception is that blasphemy law, which aims to regulate or criminalize speech or acts against religion, is unique to Muslim majority countries. Although disproportionate attention has been given to the existence and use of blasphemy laws in Muslim majority countries, blasphemy law exists in various countries including Germany, the UK, Poland, the Netherlands, and Ireland.[2]

However, the use of blasphemy law in Egypt has been of particular note, especially since the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and the ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood in mainstream Egyptian politics. The number of blasphemy cases prosecuted sharply escalated during the incumbency of president Morsi member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and continues to be used vigorously under the secular regime of President Sisi.

Currently, blasphemy, or insult to religion cases are mainly prosecuted under Article 98(f) of the Egyptian Penal Code, as amended in 2006, which states:

Detention for a period of not less than six months and not exceeding five years, or paying a fine of not less than five hundred pounds and not exceeding one thousand pounds shall be the penalty inflicted on whoever exploits and uses the religion in advocating and propagating by talk or in writing, or by any other method, extremist thoughts with the aim of instigating sedition and division or disdaining and contempting any of the heavenly religions or the sects belonging thereto, or prejudicing national unity or social justice.[3]

In addition to Article 98(f), there exist other articles within the penal code that can be used to prosecute acts that are specifically connected to religion. Among others, Articles 160 and 161, under Part 11, Misdemeanors Connected to Religion, of the Egyptian Penal Code, state:

Article 160

A penalty of detention and paying a fine of not less than one hundred pounds and not exceeding five hundred pounds or either penalty shall be inflicted on the following:

First: Whoever perturbs the holding of rituals of a creed or a related religious ceremony, or obstructs it with violence or threat.

Second: Whoever ravages, breaks, destroys, or violated the sanctity of buildings provided for holding religious ceremonies, symbols or other objects having their profound reverence and sanctity in relation to the members of a creed or a group of people.

Third: Whoever violates the sacredness or sanctity of graves or cemeteries. Imprisonment of a period not exceeding five years shall be the penalty if any of these crimes is committed in execution of a terrorist purpose.

Article 161

These penalties shall be imposed on any encroachment that takes place by one o f the methods prescribed in Article 171, on a religion whose rituals are publicly held.[4]

The following shall fall under the provisions of this Article:

First: Printing and publishing a book which is viewed as holy by members of a religion whose rituals are publicly held, if a text of this book is perverted in a way that changes its meaning.

Second: Imitating a religious celebration in a public place or public community, with the aim of ridicule, or for the attendants to watch.[5]

As can be seen from the language of these provisions, the penal law governing blasphemy does not invoke sharīʿa or single out Islam as a religion deserving special protection above other “heavenly” religions. In fact, the Egyptian novelist Youssef Ziedan was charged for blasphemy in 2013 based on a complaint filed by Coptic Christian and Jewish, as well as Muslim groups.[6]

“The principles of Islamic law are the main source of legislation,”[7] has resulted in the blasphemy provisions being used for the policing of public morality as well as a tool for the state to define what constitutes orthodoxy in the context of Islam.[8] Absent a broad consensus on what constitutes blasphemy under Islamic law, significant latitude is given to the state and Al-Azhar to enforce a specific form of Islam as orthodox.

A good example is the incorporation of the principle of hisba through Article 2 of the Constitution. Hisba denotes a principle in Islamic jurisprudence to “enjoin the good and forbid evil,” and allows a Muslim to bring suit against a fellow Muslim when there is belief that one is acting in contravention to the tenets of Islam.[9] Through a 1966 case at the Court of Cassation, the highest court of Egypt, the principle of hisba was procedurally allowed according to Article 2 of the Constitution, leading to abusive prosecution used to settle personal or political grievances.[10]

Moreover, in recent years, the use of Article 98(f) has been extended to speech acts that occur on the Internet. The already vague language of Article 98(f) lends to particularly easy application to cases of online speech, which, by its nature, makes it easier to satisfy the dissemination requirement.[11] The case of the film, The Innocence of Muslims, is one powerful example showing the ease of building a legal case under Article 98(f) when online speech is involved. Although the arrest warrant issued by the Egyptian authorities remained largely symbolic in this case, others met much more serious consequences.[12] For example, in January 2015, Karim El-Banna, a 21 year old student, was sentenced to three years in jail for announcing on Facebook that he is an atheist, under the charge of blasphemy.[13] The trend seems to be that Article 98(f) can be, and is increasingly being used as a powerful tool to control online speech, whether it be in order to enforce specific forms of religious conduct and public morality, to silence political opposition, or to escalate personal grievances into malicious prosecution.


[1] See, e.g., “Google finds itself embroiled in Libya, Egypt blasphemy charges,”! , last accessed March 22, 2015.

[2] See Freedom House, Policing Belief, The Impact of Blasphemy Laws on Human Rights, at 5, see also Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006, UK.

[3] Egyptian Penal Code Article 98(f), Law No. 58 of 1937.

[4] Article 171 establishes accomplice liability for the inducement of “one of more persons to commit a felony or misdemeanor, by talks, shouting in public, a deed, or a hint insinuated in public, by writing, drawing, pictures/photographs, marks and symbols, or any other method of representation made in public, or in any other means of publicness.” Egyptian Penal Code, Article 171.

[5] Other related articles include Article 176, criminalizing the incitement “to hate or deride a sect of people,” and Article 178, criminalizing the making and holding “for the purpose of trade, distribution, leasing, pasting or displaying printed matter, manuscripts, drawings, advertisements, carved or engraved pictures, manual or photographic drawings, symbolic signs, or other objects or pictures in general, if they are against public morals […].” Egyptian Penal Code, Articles 176 and 178.

[6] Aswat Masriya, “Egyptian Arabic Booker winner faces blasphemy charges, February 24, 2013,, last accessed March 22, 2015; see also Freedom House, Policing Belief, The Impact of Blasphemy Laws on Human Rights, at 28.

[7] Article 2, Constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt, 2014.

[8] The 2012 Constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt included Article 44, which explicitly forbade the insulting of Prophets, adding an explicitly constitutional imprimatur to Article 98(f) of the Penal Code. The 2014 Constitutions, in contrast, does not contain any similar provision.

[9] Ahmed Mansour, “Hisba: A Historical Overview,” Ahl AlQuran International Quranic Center,

[10] Baber Johansen, “Apostasy as Objective and Depersonalized Fact: Two Recent Egyptian Court Judgments,” Social Research 70, no. 3 (2003), is_3_70/ai_110737774/pg_6/?tag=content;col1; Freedom House, Policing Belief, The Impact of Blasphemy Laws on Human Rights, at 26.

[11] Similarly, defamation law with vague and broad wording has also been used to control online speech. See, e.g.,  (discussing the role of defamation law and its impact on freedom of expression online in China).

[12] Most of the seven Coptic Christians against whom arrest warrants were issued were living abroad, and thus could not be actually prosecuted in an Egyptian court. (need source)

[13] AFP, “Egypt student gets 3-year jail term for atheism,” Ahramonline, January 11, 2015,, last accessed March 22, 2015.

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