A Question About Blasphemy: Amendments 298-B and 298-C in Pakistan’s Penal Code

By Sheza Alqera Atiq

Pakistan: Penal Code [Pakistan], S.295-C, S. 298-B, S. 298-C, Chapter XV, Act No. XLV, 6 Octber 1860, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/485231942.html [accessed 12 November 2018]

Summary: The legislation under analysis includes sections 295-C, 298-B, and 298-C in Pakistan’s Penal Code (PPC). President Zia-ul-Haq passed sections 298-B and 298-C on 26 April 1984 through the promulgation of Ordinance XX. In 1986, the President further amended the Penal Code through the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1986 which added S. 295-C. The sections, in  brief,  criminalize  any  religious  acts  performed  by  the  Qadiani  and  Ahmadi  groups, which are minority Muslim sects in Pakistan,  including  acts  of  self-referral  as “Muslims” by members of these groups. The laws also  stipulate  punishments  for  those  found  guilty  of  defaming  the  Holy  Prophet  Muhammad. 

Sections 298-B and 298-C of Ordinance XX in the Pakistan Penal Code (PPP) have long been touted as Pakistan’s ‘blasphemy laws.’ The sections specifically address members of the Qadiani and Ahmadi groups, minority Muslim sects who regard religious reformer, Murza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908) as a Maḥdi (Guided One) and messiah (Encyclopedia of Global Religion, 2012). Sections 298-B and 298-C outline actions forbidden to members of the Ahmadi and Qadiani communities under the constitution – these include, but are not limited to, acts of a religious nature and practice. The targeting of a minority group on distinctly Islamic grounds does appear to invoke state protections against blasphemy. Yet an analysis of these sections will show the provisions to have much broader implications than simply the issue of blasphemy. Indeed, this review will argue that amendments 298-B and 298-C have little to do with blasphemy at all. The sections instead seem to have important legal implications for three issues, namely, the state’s right to determine Muslim and Islamic identity, the status of the Ahmadi population in the country, and, in conjunction with section 295-C, the procedural nature and content of blasphemy laws.

General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq adopted Sections 298-B and 298-C under Ordinance XX in 1984 as part of his broader Islamization policy. The sections effectively sealed the state’s role in determining religious identity of its citizens. An important auxiliary clause that predated, and indeed, paved the way for sections 298-B and 298-C to come to the fore was the second amendment of the 1974 Pakistan constitutional act. The act states:

A person who does not believe in the absolute and unqualified finality of The Prophethood of MUHAMMAD (Peace be upon him), the last of the Prophets or claims to be a Prophet, in any sense of the word or of any description whatsoever, after MUHAMMAD (Peace be upon him), or recognizes such a claimant as a Prophet or religious reformer, is not a Muslim for the purposes of the Constitution or law (The Constitution of Pakistan, pakistani.org)

The law established an important precedent, namely, allowing the State to define ‘a Muslim’ or a follower of the religion of Islam. Sections 298-B and 298-C seem to take this authority a step further by clearly demarcating the boundaries of “Muslim” and “Islamic behavior” that are appropriate only for those considered to be Muslims by the State. Thus, in criminalizing the Ahmadi’s use of the adhan (the Muslim call to prayer) or their designation of a place of worship as ‘masjid,’ the State has stipulated certain acts of worship and use of terms as belonging exclusively to those practitioners of the Islamic faith whom it has determined to be ‘Muslim.’

Sections 298-B and 298-C also raise important questions about the status of minority groups in Pakistan. In rejecting their Islamic identity, the State has done more than designate Ahmadis as a religious minority – it appears to have characterized them as anti-establishment or anti-Islam. Such efforts clearly go beyond blasphemy; the State’s criminalization of certain sects in Pakistan operates on a presumption of blasphemous practice which effectively allows it to undermine the basic religious identity of these communities. This is evident from provisions in the laws which guard against Ahmadi and Qadiani groups’ religious practice and freedoms. Far from relegating the Ahmadi and Qadiana group to the status of dhimma (as other religious minority groups in Pakistan such as the Christian, Hindu, and Zoroastrian communities are considered), sections 298-B and 298-C ensure that several basic rights afforded to non-Muslim minorities such as the right to practice religion freely, are not applicable. Section 298-C is especially clear in this regard, stating “any person of the Qadiani  group or the Lahori group (who call themselves “Ahmadis” or by any other name), who, directly or indirectly, poses himself as a Muslim, or calls, or refers to, his faith as Islam, or preaches or propagates his faith…shall be punished with imprisonment” (PPC 298C, pljlawsite.com).

Finally, the provisions in PPP raise – and have raised – important questions regarding the process underlying charges of blasphemy and ensuing punishment. The sections and amendments under question, including section 295-C that prescribes the death penalty for committing blasphemy, have been criticized by international human rights groups and local legislative bodies for not having provisions that protect against false charges of blasphemy[1]. This has become a matter of particular relevance considering the Pakistani government’s recent failure to pass a bill that called for punishments of equal nature and severity for those making false accusations of blasphemy as for those found to be  guilty perpetrators of blasphemous acts.  The Senate’s failure is particularly striking given the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s recent decision (October 31, 2018) to acquit Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, of blasphemy charges and overturn her death sentence (Crl.A.No29-L/2015) . In its ruling, the Court cited an earlier ruling in the case of Malik Muhammad Mumtaz Qadri Vs. the State where the judge had noted,

If our religion of Islam comes down heavily upon commission of blasphemy then Islam is also very tough against those who level false allegations of a crime. It is, therefore, for the State of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan 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 regarding commission of such an offense (PLD 2016 SC 17).

A bill criminalizing false charges, had it passed, would have contended directly with Section 295-C which calls for capital punishment. This was illustrated by the Federal Minister for Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony, Pir Noorul Haq Qadri’s recent statement that the government plans to restore the bill to the “original soul” of Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code (Dawn, 13 October 2018)[2]. Such statements underscore the political underpinnings of a legislation that overtly appears to attempt to redress acts of blasphemy. The spirit of blasphemy laws is arguably undermined if there is little concern by the State to ensure the law is not abused and used as a tool to violate minority rights.

The wording of section 295-C  also, interestingly, leaves open the possibility and opportunity for the government to expand blasphemy from dealing exclusively with Islamic sensibilities to other religions. A hallmark case in the Lahore High Court in 1994, for instance, considered the possibility of interpreting the legal ordinance as including Prophets in other traditions that also have an important status in Islam, such as the Abraham and Jesus (LHC, PLD 1994). The ruling has been accompanied by claims from Pakistan’s Christian community to protect against blasphemous utterances about the latter. Such a decision could lead to further litigation as the question of prophets is once again relegated to the State or to Pakistan’s Muslims only.  Such practices also, importantly, cause sections 298-B, 298-C and 295-C to emerge as instances of State determination and intervention in religious identity and practice rather than as provisions against religious hate speech. The absence of Islamic or Qur’ānic textual support for the legislation either during the history of its enactment or later instances of judicial enforcement has made this particularly clear.

Works Cited:

Constitution of Pakistan, Pakistan. Second Amendment Act, 1974. http://www.pakistani.org/pakistan/constitution/amendments/2amendment.html

Dawn News, Pakistan. https://www.dawn.com/news/1438748/key-bill-seeking-strict-punishments-for-false-blasphemy-accusations-withdrawn-from-senate-on-pti-request

Kotin, Igor Yurievich. “Ahmaddiya.” Encyclopedia of Global Religion. Eds. Mark Juergensmeyer and Wade C. Roof. Vol. 1. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2012. 22. SAGE Knowledge. Web. 11 Nov. 2018, doi: 10.4135/9781412997898.n9.

PLJLawSite, Pakistan Legal Journal. http://www.pljlawsite.com/html/ppc298b.htm

PLJLawSite, Pakistan Legal Journal. http://www.pljlawsite.com/html/ppc298c.htm

PLJLawSite, Pakistan Legal Journal. http://www.pljlawsite.com/html/ppc295c.htm


[1] See Amnesty International’s on “’As Good As Dead’ The Impact of the Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan” (2016) and  the Islamabad High Court Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui’s comments in October 2017 that the law is seriously misused (Dawn, 2018).

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