Revenge, Politics and Blasphemy in Pakistan
by Dr Adeel Hussain
Hurst Publishers 2022, 242pp

Reviewed by: Dr Sana Ashraf, PhD (Australian National University)
12 May 2023
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Revenge, Politics and Blasphemy in Pakistan is a remarkable contribution to the study of blasphemy and religious politics in Pakistan. It covers significant new ground in tracing the historical roots of blasphemy as imagined and articulated in the current political and legal context of Pakistan. Hussain skilfully narrates some of the less known but critical historical junctures, particularly from the pre-partition twentieth century, which have come to define the dominant discourse of blasphemy and its punishment in present-day Pakistan. Hussain’s exceptional storytelling, supported by an in-depth, detail-rich, and well-researched historical analysis, makes for an incredibly compelling read.

Blasphemy has come to be a central and unavoidable issue in the Pakistani political consciousness. Over the past 15 years, scholarly literature on the topic has grown due to increasing national and international concern and a widespread desire to understand what drives the seemingly radical and irrational reaction of the Pakistani public and state to alleged incidents of blasphemy. Most studies on the topic, however, tend to see Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamisation of the laws—including introduction of clauses 298-B, 298-C, and 295-C concerning the punishment of blasphemy—as the main cause of Pakistan’s blasphemy problem. Hussain’s book offers new historical insights into the evolution of blasphemy as a central and defining political currency in Pakistan by bringing previously overlooked historical developments from the past two centuries to light.

The main question the book sets out to answer, as noted in the introduction, is: “How has Pakistan come to dominate the global field on blasphemy?” (4). To answer this question, Hussain suggests we need to go as far back as the early nineteenth century when the traditionalist Muslim scholars “invented blasphemy to stem the rising tide of Enlightenment rationality” (4). While the predominantly sectarian debates amongst the traditionalist Muslim scholars of the nineteenth century brought the concept of blasphemy into elite religious discourse, Hussain argues that this cannot explain the centrality of blasphemy in Pakistani Muslim thought today. Instead, he proposes the debates between two North Indian revivalist movements (Ahmadiyya and Arya Samaj) to pursue spiritual supremacy over each other led to Pakistan’s current fixation on blasphemy.

The first three chapters of the book are particularly enlightening as they bring a wealth of narrative detail to the story of blasphemy in the sub-continent through in-depth discussion of stories that are often left out in the scholarly discussion on blasphemy. Hussain contends that the legal and political genealogy of blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad in the Indian subcontinent is fundamentally linked to inter-religious (rather than sectarian) conflicts between Hindus and Muslims. In particular, religious debates between Mirza Ghulam Ahmad—the founder of Ahmadiyya, a Muslim reform movement that emerged in the nineteenth century—and Pandit Lekh Ram—a Hindu nationalist leader of the Arya Samaj—transformed the public understanding of blasphemy and its punishment in the sub-continent. The Hindu-Muslim polemics initiated by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad and Pandit Lekh Ram, and carried on by their successors, regularly humiliated the moral foundations of the other religion by accusing its followers and leaders of worldly desires and sensualities. A series of speeches, public forums, and publications from both groups focussed on such degradations, creating a spiral of hate speech and revenge culminating in deaths, public protests, and institutionalisation of laws intended to contain hate speech between religious groups. This part of the book provides a detailed account of the killings of Hindu revivalist leaders, Pandit Lekh Ram, Swami Shraddhanand and Rajpal, in 1897, 1926, and 1928 respectively, by self-proclaimed defendants of Prophet Muhammad’s honour. Hussain claims that the rise of individualist revenge politics in the context of blasphemy against the Prophet and its punishment was enabled and normalised by the Ahmadi leaders responding to derogatory attacks by the Arya Samaj stalwarts.

While the wealth of historical knowledge shared by Hussain in the first part of the book is unparalleled as far as the literature on blasphemy in the sub-continent is concerned, some questions remain unanswered. While Ahmadis are shown to be at the forefront of promoting violence to protect the honour of the Prophet, the killers of Lekh Ram, Shraddhanand, and Rajpal were not all Ahmadis. The Ahmadi anti-blasphemy discourse is said to have promoted violence and revenge by individual Muslims offended by derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad. However, there are accounts of such individualised violent action and revenge from as early as the Prophet’s lifetime, commonly cited by Muslim scholars from across the different sects. The specific insults hurled by the Ahmadi and Arya Samaj leaders upon each other’s religion—such as allegations of sexual promiscuity, bestiality, pursuit of sensual and worldly pleasures (62-63)—had cultural undertones making them uniquely offensive within the cultural context; these cultural meanings and significance of the types of insult remain unexplored. And finally, it remains unexplained why a particular form of reaction and punishment—individual Muslims taking it upon themselves to protect the honour of the Prophet by killing the offenders and being revered by their co-religionists—was adopted by Muslims but not by Hindus despite the reciprocal insults and counterattacks on each other’s religion. It would also have been useful if the Ahmadi-Arya Samaj polemics could have been placed within the context of the traditionalist sectarian debates and modernist reform movements amongst the South Asian Muslims at the time, instead of being offered as an alternative explanation for Pakistan’s blasphemy problem on their own. Nevertheless, the historical account of Ahmadi-Arya Samaj debates and their impact on popular consciousness regarding blasphemy adds a crucial layer of complexity and nuance to the scholarly discussions of the issue.

The last three chapters of the book focus on the better-known history of religious politics since the creation of Pakistan, on which much has been written. The major events Hussain covers include the first seven sessions of the Constituent Assembly, the anti-Ahmadi riots that led to Pakistan’s first martial law in 1953, Bhutto’s ascent to power, Zia-ul-Haq’s era of Islamisation, the Sharif and Bhutto families’ successive turns in power, and consistent military intervention right up to General Parvez Musharraf’s era. Hussain highlights how many of the political events since the creation of Pakistan revolved around the question of religion and the role each event played in further centring the notion of blasphemy in the political and public consciousness of Pakistanis. In his last chapter, he discusses some of the more recent cases of blasphemy-related killings including that of Salman Taseer, Punjab’s governor at the time, and the veneration of his killer, Mumtaz Qadri. Hussain wraps up the story with the popularisation of Tehreek-e Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a Sunni Barelvi political party founded entirely on the issue of the honour of the Prophet and the duty of individual Muslims to punish the blasphemers.

Hussain’s account of Pakistan’s political history since its creation focusses on the progressive exclusion of Ahmadis in tandem with the increasing popularity of the theme of blasphemy in the national discourse. In doing so, he draws our attention to the tragic irony of Ahmadis being the most affected victims of the anti-blasphemy rhetoric propagated by their founder and his successors against the Hindus. It is certainly a new perspective in the study of blasphemy politics in Pakistan and one that calls for further exploration. In particular, it would be interesting to compare the popular narratives concerning the punishment of blasphemy in present-day Pakistan with the narratives used by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad and his successors. A comparative analysis of references to religious texts, appeals to reason, and evocation of emotional and passionate responses in these narratives would provide valuable insights into the development of popular Muslim ethos regarding the issue of blasphemy in the sub-continent over the past two centuries. Somewhat more challenging, research into the views of the religious figures at the forefront of anti-blasphemy campaigns in contemporary Pakistan regarding Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s narratives would also be insightful and would enhance our understanding of the wider sectarian tensions at play within the various traditionalist, reformist, and revivalist schools of thought competing for political clout and social legitimacy in Pakistan today.

On the whole, Hussain’s book is a valuable addition to the literature on blasphemy in Pakistan as it offers one of the most comprehensive historical accounts of the evolution of the legal, political, and public life of blasphemy in the consciousness of South Asian and particularly Pakistani Muslims. Beyond the issue of blasphemy, the book offers important insights into political structures and processes in Pakistan as well as the development of nationalist discourses in both Pakistan and India.

© Bloomsbury Pakistan 2023


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