A few days after the Kinari Road carnage of Shias in Quetta on February 16, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, appointed his country’s first Religious Freedom Ambassador. The honour went to a man from the Ahmadiyya community in Maple, Ontario. On this occasion, Harper spoke with passion about the pitiable plight of minorities in Pakistan.
The Kinari Road tragedy followed on the heels of the hideous bomb explosions on January 10 in Quetta’s Alamdar Road, again a Shia locality, which left more than a hundred dead. The Quetta massacres were replicated on March 3 in Karachi’s Abbas Town. Last year 2,200 civilians were killed in Karachi and, of these, 400 were Shias.
The coldblooded slaughter of Shias and Ahmadis is justified by a lunatic fringe of extremists who consider them kafirs (infidels) and, even worse, apostates. The literal meaning of the term kafiris “he (or it) covered a thing” and, in one of the verses of the Quran (57:20) it is used to describe a tiller of the soil i.e., a person who covers a sown seed with earth. With this one exception, in all other instances where the word appears in the Holy Book, it implies “one who denies the truth.” The earliest chronological occurrence of the term in this sense is in 74:10. This is immediately followed by the commandment: “Leave Me alone (to deal) with him…” The punishment of kafirs is, therefore, the exclusive prerogative of God.
Similarly, condemnation of people as non-believersis also forbidden: “…O you who have attained to faith, when you go forth (to war) in God’s cause, use your discernment, and do not… say to anyone who offers you the greeting of peace, ‘Thou art not a believer…’”(4:94). Thus, even at a time when the Quraysh of Mecca had vowed to exterminate Islam, all that was required to be considered a Muslim was the customary Islamic “greeting of peace.” This liberal criterion was thrown to the wind in the adoption of the second constitutional amendment under which Ahmadis were excommunicatedfrom Islam.
It was political expediency, and not religious belief, that prompted Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, to shepherd the passage of the second amendment under which Ahmadis were excommunicated from Islam. This is corroborated in Yasser LatifHamdani’ssuperbly argued article recently carried by a Lahore-based newspaper whichrecalled that Bhutto tried“to keep Dr Abdus Salam on his cabinet and even promised him that he would undo the second amendment one day.” Two years later, in 1976, Bhutto wrote to Sir Zafrullah Khan extolling his services for the Muslims of South Asia, particularly during his one-term presidency of the All India Muslim League.
Thus the country’s only Nobel laureate and its first foreign minister were, in one sweep, declared non-Muslims. It is strangely ironical that during his recent visit to Islamabad, Egypt’s Islamist president, Muhammad Morsi, did not have the least hesitation in saying that Dr Abdus Salam was a source of pride to the entire Islamic world. Decades earlier, yet another Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, expressed his unqualified gratitude for Sir Zafrullah Khan’s defence of the Arab and Palestinian cause at the UN and then added: “Some people say Zafrullah is not a Muslim, well, if he is not a Muslim, I am not one either.”
But despite this Ahmadis in Pakistan have been ruthlessly killed as have the Shia on charges of apostasy. In the early 1950s, when MaulanaShabbir Ahmad Usmani circulated a pamphlet stressing that the Islamic punishment for apostasy was death, the Munir Commission, which was, at the time, inquiring into the anti-Ahmadi riots, observed that the penalty “has implications of far-reaching character and stamps Islam as religion of fanatics, which punishes all independent thinking.”
In his 1971 work, Punishment of Apostasy in Islam, chief justice S.A. Rehmanconcluded thatin none of the twenty instances where apostasy is mentioned in the Quran, is there any indication of punishment in this world because the apostate “will be punished only in the hereafter.”This was also confirmed by the late Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Muhammad SayyidTantawi as well as by the Shafi Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Ali Goma, and the Shia Grand Ayatollah, Hossein-Ali Montazeri. But these and other modern scholars were merely repeating the views expressed by their medieval predecessors.
For instance, Abu al-Walid Al-Baji (d. 1081), the famous Maliki jurist and poet from Al-Andalus had no doubt that “…apostasy is a sin that carries no prescribed penalty…” Similarly, the Hanafi scholar, Abu Bakr al-Sarakhsi (d. 1106), who is referred to as “the Hugo Grotius of the Muslims,” was convinced that the punishment for apostasy “is postponed to the day of judgement.” Even the controversialHanbali thinker, IbnTaymiyyah (d. 1328), on whose writings Al-Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates in Pakistan base their skewed concept of jihad, believed the abandonment of one’s religion is not punishable in this life in Islam.
The Christians, on the other hand, have been the victims of ZiaulHaq’s blasphemy laws. Those responsible for the atrocities against them in Shantinagar (February 6, 1997), Gojra (August 1, 2009) and scores of other places have never been brought to justice. But, undoubtedly, the most overwhelming expression of their desperation was when the Reverend John Joseph, the first bishop of Punjab, shot himself to death in a Sahiwal court on May 6, 1998. Last month, more than 170 Christian homes were set ablaze in Lahore’s BadamiBagh.
Yet the Quran says that it is a book for those “who believe in that which has been bestowed from on high upon thee, (O Prophet,) as well as that which was bestowed before thy time…”(2:4). Thus the doctrine of historical continuity of divine revelation is one of the fundamental tenets of Islam. In this scheme of things, the Christians and Jews have a special place. Some of the outstanding thinkers of recent times, notably Muhammad Asad (1900-1992), were of the view: “…the religion of the Quran can be properly understood only against the background of the great monotheistic faiths that preceded it, and which, according to Muslim belief, culminate and achieve their final formulation in the faith of Islam.”
Islam has never claimed to be a new religion. Its emphasis on peace and interfaith harmony has been eroded by fanatical groups who preach, instead, that thegates of heaven will open only for those who relentlessly exterminate suspected blasphemers and apostates. The actual message of the Quran and, in particular, its highly allegorical eschatology, was understood by the early Muslims and the great savants, whose teachings expose the skewed ideology of extremist violence.
One of them implored: “Lord, if I worship Thee for fear of hell, burn me therein; if I worship Thee for love of paradise, exclude me from it; but, Lord, if I worship Thee for Thy own self, hide not Thy eternal beauty from my eyes.” This was the prayer of RabiaBasri (711-801) of Iraq who spent her entire life in preaching that the essence of religion is the love of God and compassion for humankind in which unprovoked violence has no place.