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Islam in Pakistan

Blasphemy is a sensitive subject in Pakistan, where insulting the Quran or Prophet Muhammad can result in life imprisonment or a death sentence. Increasingly, blasphemy accusations also carry the threat of extrajudicial violence by mobs or in targeted attacks. At least 75 people have been killed in connection with blasphemy accusations in Pakistan between 1990 and 2020. The murdered include those accused of the crime, people acquitted by the courts, their lawyers, family members and judges connected to their cases.

Recent years have seen an Arabisation of Pakistani culture. Thanks to the large expatriate community working in the conservative Arab kingdoms and emirates, a peculiar brand of Arab/Islamic culture has been infused in the Pakistani society. ‘Khuda hafiz’ is being replaced by the Saudi ‘Allah hafiz’. It is more fashionable to pronounce ‘Ramzan’ as Ramadan. And the name of the hapless republic is pronounced as ‘Al Bakisatn’ rather than Pakistan. Killing of Shi’a and Hazaras has become so common that it is hardly taken note of. As for the Ahmedis they are not only persecuted but also killed and maimed in the heartland of Punjab with impunity.

The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion, and requires all provisions of the law be consistent with Islam. The constitution states, “subject to law, public order, and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion.”

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 199.1 million (July 2015 estimate). According to the most recent census conducted in 1998, 95 percent of the population is Muslim (75 percent of the Muslim population is listed officially as Sunni and 25 percent as Shia). The remaining 5 percent officially is made up of Hindus, Christians, Parsis/Zoroastrians, Bahais, Ahmadi Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Kalasha, Kihals, and Jains. Unofficial estimates vary widely with regard to the size of minority religious groups. According to 2014 media accounts, although there are 2.9 million non-Muslims registered with the National Database and Registration Authority; estimates of the actual number exceed 3.5 million. Religious community representatives estimate minorities constitute 3-5 percent of the population, approximately six to nine million citizens.

Islam was brought to the South Asian subcontinent in the eighth century by wandering Sufi mystics known as pir. As in other areas where it was introduced by Sufis, Islam to some extent syncretized with preIslamic influences, resulting in a religion traditionally more flexible than in the Arab world. Two Sufis whose shrines receive much national attention are Data Ganj Baksh in Lahore (ca. eleventh century) and Shahbaz Qalander in Sehwan, Sindh (ca. twelfth century).

The country has a population of 170 million. Official figures on religious demography, based on the most recent census taken in 1998, showed that approximately 97 percent of the population was Muslim. Groups comprising 2 percent of the population or less include Hindus, Christians, and others, including Ahmadis. The majority of Muslims in the country are Sunni, with a Shi'a minority ranging between 10 to 20 percent. Parsis (Zoroastrians), Sikhs, and Buddhists each had approximately 20,000 adherents, while the Baha'i claimed 30,000. Some tribes in Baluchistan and North West Frontier Province (NWFP) practiced traditional animist religious beliefs.

While there is no census data regarding the different sects, it is thought by some that Deobandis and Barelvis have equal numbers of adherents in Pakistan. By another estimate, some 15% of Pakistan's Sunni Muslims would consider themselves Deobandi, while some 60% are in the Barelvi tradition, based mostly in the province of Punjab. It is generally agreed that at least 60% of the total seminaries are run by Deobandis, and 25% by the Barelvis.

  • The Deobandi trace their origin to Islamic revivalism from the Madrassa in the town of Deoband, in Uttar Pradesh, India, which was founded in 1867. The purpose of this movement and the madrassa was to counter the influence of Islamic leaders who favored European-style education desired closer ties with British colonialists, and who wanted to liberalize or modernize Islam. One of Pakistan's larger religious parties, Jamaat-ul-Ulema-i-Islam (JUI), is a Deobandi sectarian organization.
  • The Barelvi sect is the major Sunni sub-sect within Pakistan. Ahmed Raza Khan of Bareilly founded this sub-sect of Sunni Islam in 1906 in reaction to the austerity and conservatism of the Deobandi. Jamiaat-e-Ulamma-Pakistan / Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP) is the religious political party linked to the Barelvi.
  • The Ahl-e-Hadith / Salafi is one of the smaller and the most puritanical Sunni sub-sect in Pakistan. Ahle-Hadith, founded by Sayyed Ahmed Barelvi [confusingly] in the early nineteenth century, is closely linked to the teachings of Arabian thinker Muhammad bin Wahhab. Ahle-Hadith is linked to the largest jihadi group in Pakistan, Jamaat-Dawah, formerly known as Lashkar-e-Tayyaba.

The universal characteristics of Islamic State are derived from the teachings of the holy Quran, as embodied in the political practice or the Prophet Mohammed. An Islamic State is closely linked with the society because Islam is accepted as a comprehensive integrated way of life. The State is only the political expression of an Islamic society.

After the end of the Mughal Empire, the Ottoman caliph had become the symbol of Islamic authority and unity to Indian Sunni Muslims. A pan-Islamic movement, known as the Khilafat Movement, spread in India. It was a mass repudiation of Muslim loyalty to British rule and thus legitimated Muslim participation in the Indian nationalist movement. The leaders of the Khilafat Movement used Islamic symbols to unite the diverse but assertive Muslim community on an all-India basis and bargain with both Congress leaders and the British for recognition of minority rights and political concessions.

Muslim leaders from the Deoband and Aligarh movements joined Gandhi in mobilizing the masses for the 1920 and 1921 demonstrations of civil disobedience and noncooperation in response to the massacre at Amritsar. At the same time, Gandhi endorsed the Khilafat Movement, thereby placing many Hindus behind what had been solely a Muslim demand.

Despite impressive achievements, however, the Khilafat Movement failed. Turkey rejected the caliphate and became a secular state. Furthermore, the religious, mass-based aspects of the movement alienated such Western-oriented constitutional politicians as Jinnah, who resigned from Congress. Other Muslims also were uncomfortable with Gandhi's leadership. The British historian Sir Percival Spear wrote that "a mass appeal in his [Gandhi's] hands could not be other than a Hindu one. He could transcend caste but not community. The [Hindu] devices he used went sour in the mouths of Muslims."

According to the constitution and the penal code, Ahmadis are not Muslims and may not call themselves Muslims or assert they are adherents of Islam. The penal code bans them from preaching or propagating their religious beliefs, proselytizing, or “insulting the religious feelings of Muslims.” The punishment for violation of these provisions is imprisonment for up to three years and a fine. The law bans the sale of Ahmadiyya religious literature.

The constitution states the government shall make Islamic studies compulsory for all Muslim students in state-run schools. Although students of other religious groups are not legally required to study Islam, their school may not offer parallel studies in their own religious beliefs and the students may have no other option. In some schools, however, non-Muslim students may study ethics. Parents may send children to private schools, including religious schools, at the family’s expense. Private schools are free to teach or not teach religious studies as they choose.

The constitution states “all existing laws shall be brought in conformity with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah.” It further states no law shall be enacted which is “repugnant” to Islam. The constitution states this requirement shall not affect the “personal laws of non-Muslim citizens” or their status as citizens. Personal laws regulating marriage, divorce, and inheritance for minority communities date from prepartition British legislation.

The constitution establishes a Federal Shariat Court (FSC) composed of Muslim judges to examine and decide whether any law or provision is “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.” The constitution gives the court the power to examine a law of its own accord or at the request of the government or a private citizen. The constitution requires the government to amend the law as directed by the court. The constitution empowers the court to review criminal cases relating to certain crimes – including rape, and those linked to Islamic morality, such as extramarital sex, alcohol use, and gambling.

The constitution establishes a Council of Islamic Ideology to make recommendations, at the request of the parliament and provincial assemblies, as to “the ways and means of enabling and encouraging Muslims to order their lives in accordance with the principles of Islam.” The constitution further empowers the council to advise the legislative and executive branches, when they choose to refer a question to the council, as to whether a proposed law is or is not “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.”

The law prohibits publishing any criticism of Islam, or its prophets, or insults to others’ religious beliefs. The government continued to enforce blasphemy laws, whose punishment ranges from life in prison to the death sentence for a range of charges, including “defiling the Prophet Muhammad.” The police arrested several individuals on charges of blasphemy. Legal observers said the authorities took steps to protect some individuals from unfounded accusations of blasphemy, although lower courts continued to fail to adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases.

Blasphemy remains a sensitive topic in predominantly Sunni Muslim Pakistan, where insulting Islam’s prophet or the religion is punishable by death. Mere accusations in the past have resulted in mob violence and lynchings of alleged blasphemers. Rights activists have long complained about the misuse of blasphemy laws in the country, where many people have been murdered over unproven allegations of committing blasphemy or anti-Islam acts in recent years.

In 2018, a student shot and killed his college principal on campus after accusing him of blasphemy in Charsadda city of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The principal had scolded the student for missing classes to attend a protest organized by a right-wing Islamist group in Islamabad. In April 2017, Mashal Khan, a student, was beaten to death by his fellow students at his university campus in the Mardan region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Khan was accused of posting blasphemous materials on social media.

About 60 people accused of blasphemy have been killed in "mob justice." Most of the victims have been Muslims, along with members of minority faiths such as Christians and Ahmadis. In some cases, Muslims have used blasphemy charges against non-Muslim neighbors for personal benefit. A Muslim kiln owner, for example, raised allegations against a Christian couple in Punjab province in November 2014 after a salary dispute. An angry mob broke their legs and threw them into the kiln where they had worked.

In one high-profile case in January 2011, a police guard killed the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, who had advocated reforms in what he called the country's "ill-conceived" blasphemy laws and had pleaded the case for a Christian mother facing the death penalty on blasphemy charges. On October 7, the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence given to Mumtaz Qadri, who assassinated Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in 2011. Qadri told the court he killed Taseer for publicly criticizing the application of the blasphemy laws in the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman convicted of blasphemy in 2010. The court stated in its written verdict that criticism of the blasphemy laws was not blasphemy itself and did not justify vigilante violence. The court also stated malicious persons had misused the blasphemy law.




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