Shemeem Burney Abbas

Book Reviews

From Choice (March 2014)

This book by Abbas (State Univ. of New York at Purchase College) is part personal narrative, part scholarly exploration. The first highlights here passion and courage, the second her sound research and keen analysis. The synthesis is both engaging and powerful. Abbas examines the issue of “blasphemy laws” that are being advanced (and in some instances implemented) by hypersensitive and aggressive Islamists in some Muslim majority countries as a way to secure supremacy of Islam and protect it from any criticisms and challenges. She argues that such laws are not sanctioned by prophetic example nor supported by textual stipulations, and actually contradict the tolerance exemplified by the Prophet Muhammad and inherent in the Quran. She traces the evolution of these laws under later Muslim rulers as tools to secure their regimes, intimidate their critics, and oppress “others.” She is particularly energetic in exposing the political motivations behind enacting these laws in Pakistan and the human rights abuses that have resulted as a consequence (which also affected her). This timely, thoughtful counterpoint to the appropriation of the Islamist discourse by extremist groups discusses Islam and Shari‘a law from within reasonable and humanistic perspectives. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readership levels.

—A. Ahmad, Black Hills State University

From The Middle East Media and Book Reviews Online (January 2014)

This book addresses a pressing issue that agitates interfaith relations and theological politics in many Muslim countries, particularly Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, Malaysia and Bangladesh. The criminalization of blasphemy, simply understood as insulting Islamic religious symbols, has become an instrument by which religious minorities and social critics, scholars and intellectuals are harassed and silenced by clerical orthodoxy. These laws are also used as impediments to social reform, especially with regard to minority and women’s rights. In Pakistan, the assassination of Salman Taseer in 2011, then governor of Punjab, by his own security detail, brought global attention to the problem of blasphemy laws and their abuse in Pakistani politics.

Professor Abbas, herself a victim of false persecution under the blasphemy law of Pakistan, tries to argue that the culture of intolerance and persecution of alleged blasphemers is a historical consequence of Muslim empires using religion to discredit and delegitimize dissent. She claims that the criminalization of blasphemy—she understands it as kufr (also understood as disbelief)—cannot be supported from the Qur’an and is essentially an un-Islamic law exploited as Islamic by the continuing collusion of state and the clerical establishment in the Abbasid and the Umayyad empires, as well as in Pakistan under President Zia-ul-Haq.

I am sympathetic to her claims and also applaud her personal courage in dealing with the horrors of persecution [. . .].

The broad idea or strategy of the book is to show how the mixing of religion and politics has engendered a culture of intolerance that often backfires, and rather than fostering homogeneity and solidarity, leads to fragmentation and oppression. I agree and find that argument compelling. The book provides useful historical details about blasphemy laws in the subcontinent and provides a context to understanding current challenges.

The best chapter of the book is Chapter 5, which deals with the case of the Sufi Al-Hallaj who was brutally executed for blasphemy. In this chapter, which is both rich in historical details and discussion of the various elements of the Al-Hallaj episode, Abbas successfully shows how politics have abused Islamic law, and especially how blasphemy laws are used as the stick of the orthodoxy in collusion with state apparatus to punish the dissenting or subaltern voice which may speak up for justice. [. . .]

This book is for experts, for those who are interested in Shari‘a politics in the Muslim world, in historical aspects of Islamic law, and in challenges for human rights in the Muslim world. [. . .]

—Muqtedar Khan, University of Delaware

From The Middle East Journal (Winter 2014)

The issue of blasphemy has risen to paramount importance throughout the Muslim world as contemporary Muslim majority states seek to assert a politico-social identity through the assertion of new kinds of sharia-based laws. While laws condemning blasphemy have existed for nearly a millennium in South Asia, they have taken on a new degree of controversy in contemporary Pakistan as they are often used as a tool of ethnic and sectarian discrimination.

Shemeem Burney Abbas’ book takes a huge leap into this formidable arena of controversy. While the study was initiated as a personal account — she was charged with blasphemy in Pakistan in the late 1990s — it has developed into a very solid work, both historical and contemporary, and makes an important contribution to our understanding of this critical concept and its legislative manifestations. The book provides a wealth of information on the historical development of Islamic law and how and why blasphemy codes developed in conjunction with these [. . .]

Following the initial foray into details about Pakistan’s “military state and civil society,” Abbas then takes an historical optic on blasphemy. She argues that the concept neither emerges from the Qur’an nor from the life or practices of the Prophet, but rather was created later. She expounds on how orality had been central to the way disputes had been settled during the Prophet’s life and how Sura al-A’raf, 7–158 (as translated by Yusuf ‘Ali) proclaims him as “the unlettered Prophet;” stating that today may indict someone of blasphemy. Abbas details how enemies of the Prophet arose, first the Quraysh and later because of changes in the social order given the Prophet’s “message of social justice, economic equality, and regard for the oppressed” (p. 35) which challenged the prevailing Arabian tribal hierarchy. She makes note of a number of early examples of the Prophet’s enemies disparaging him that proponents of blasphemy laws still cite as a call to support them (p. 37). Abbas then carefully examines the historical opposition to the Prophet and his message, whether during his lifetime, on the battlefield or as succession disputes, and elaborates on the development of the use of Islamic laws. She argues blasphemy laws developed in conjunction in an effort to exert social and political control on the now expanding umma. After elaborating on how sharia has evolved within various schools of jurisprudence, she then turns to the even more controversial texts of the hadith. She notes the work of Muhammad Abid al-Ja-biri, who provided,

Extensive historical evidence that very early on the rulers realized they could legitimize their authority by associating and justifying acts on the basis of religious citations. According to him . . . the era of putting the religious texts into writing was the beginning of the institutionalizing of censorship (p. 49).

[. . .] While exploring the details of both Zia’s general Islamization laws and its emphasis on excluding women from public and political life, Abbas questions the motivation behind the Pakistan state’s forced “silence on events in Islamic history” (p. 54), especially the Blasphemy Law’s prohibition of any discussion of the Prophet’s wives. She argues that this must have been to deflect attention away from A’isha’s political defiance of the state — notably her armed opposition to ‘Ali — so as, in turn, to deny using Islamic history against Zia’s current state.

Abbas continues to go back and forth between her rich historical dialogue covering both colonial and postcolonial periods, and extensive musings on Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. This is a remarkable contribution to our understanding of this controversial legislation both historically and today.

—Anita M. Weiss, University of Oregon

Lectures, Interviews, and Features

Professor Abbas speaks on blasphemy laws in Pakistan in a lecture given at Montclair State University.

Professor Abbas discusses her book Pakistan's Blasphemy Laws: From Islamic Empires to the Taliban with SUNY Purchase Professor Nina Pelikan Straus.

Professor Abbas was a guest on WNYC Radio's "The Brian Lehrer Show" in November 2013. From the WNYC site: "Against Blasphemy Laws: Having been their victim, Shemeem Burney Abbas, associate professor of political science and gender studies at the State University of New York at Purchase College, and the author of Pakistan's Blasphemy Laws: From Islamic Empires to the Taliban (University of Texas Press, 2013) argues that blasphemy laws in Pakistan and other Islamic countries are politically motivated, not religious."

Professor Abbas was featured on "The Brian Lehrer Show" again on Dec. 17, 2014, to discuss a Taliban attack on a Pakistani school.

Professor Abbas was featured on the Scholar Rescue Fund website, on the occasion of the Fund's tenth anniversary. Read more.

In 2006, the New York Times published an article featuring Professor Abbas. A pdf of the article can be found here.

A Conversation with Shemeem Burney Abbas (Interview with Professor Nina Pelican Straus), 2013.

Professor Abbas speaks about the woman's voice in Sufi music in this video clip.

Here is the same clip, with Professor Abbas's voice recorded in English.

Professor Abbas appears in "Courage to Think," sponsored by Scholars At Risk.