On May 22, 2023, the Sindh High Court issued an order releasing on bail an applicant who was arrested for using the title “Syed” (descendant of the Prophet Muhammad) in his name. The applicant, a 76-year-old lawyer and advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan who is a member of the Ahmadi Muslim minority, was arrested under section 298-B of the Pakistan Penal Code, which stipulates as follows:
2[298B. Misuse of epithets, descriptions and titles, etc., reserved for certain holy personages or places.—(1) Any person of the Quadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves ‘Ahmadis’ or by any other name) who by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation,– …
(c) refers to, or addresses, any person, other than a member of the family (Ahle-bait) of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), as Ahle-bait; …
shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, and shall also be liable to fine.
The complainant alleged that the applicant “has deeply aggrieved and stressed him” and that his “religious sentiments are hurt and that Tariq should be punished for using the word ‘Syed’ in his name.” (Bail Application Order para. 1.) The complainant holds that by using the title, the applicant implies that he belongs to the “Ahl-e-Bait” — the family of Prophet Muhammad — which therefore “makes the applicant liable under the criminal law.” (Para. 5.) The applicant “approached the high court directly seeking post-arrest bail.” (Para. 1.)
The order comes in the context of increased persecution of Ahmadi lawyers in Pakistan by bar associations and councils, with the judge in this case also facing intimidation. Justice Omar Sial J. of the Sindh High Court stated:
Not only an attempt was made to intimidate the court and interfere in the smooth administration of justice, but a lawyer … was physically abusive towards … one of the learned counsel for the applicant. … This was simply unacceptable behaviour and conduct and must necessarily be condemned by the Bar Associations and Councils.
The court first addressed the question of the nature of the term “Ahl-e-Bait” and its usage and found that
[m]ost surprisingly, neither counsel attempted to explain as to what exactly did the phrase ahley-bait mean, who exactly fell within the ambit of ahley-bait, what are its historical origins, how many times has the phrase appeared in the Holy Quran, how has it been used in these verses, what have the Islamic scholars to say about it? Upon a specific query also having been made in this regard, counsel were not clear on it. (Para. 5.)
The court further held that the assistance of a recognized body of religious scholars is necessary as “[t]his issue requires deep thought and Islamic knowledge and wisdom. The meaning given to the phrase can have far reaching consequences for the country at the national and international level, hence, maximum care and caution has to be taken.” (Para. 6.)
The court also held that though “no disrespect in the glory of Islam can be shown by any person,” it is, however, “also under a constitutional duty to protect every citizen’s fundamental rights.” The court states: “It cannot be denied that there is a thin line between prosecution and persecution. The High Court in compliance of its constitutional duties cannot and must not permit any action initiated against any citizen of Pakistan that could [be] even remotely tantamount to persecution.” (Para. 7.)
The court then relied on Article 20 (freedom of religion) of Pakistan’s Constitution and looked at the Federal Shariat Court case of Majib-ur-Rehman and 3 others vs Federal Government of Pakistan and another, which found that Anti-Ahmadi laws were not in violation of Article 20 and also touched on the meaning of the phrase “Ahl-e-Bait,” but found that it did not apply to the situation of this case:
In the case in hand, the applicant has not claimed that he is a Muslim. There is a fleeting mention of the phrase “ahley-bait” in this judgment and it is said that the phrase ahley-bait, like the word “sahabi” is used by Muslims for companions and members of the family of the Holy Prophet respectively all of whom were the best of Muslims. It went on to say that “use of such sacred expressions by Qadianis in respect of the wife, members of the family, companions and successors of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, therefore amounts to defiling them.” This is not the situation in the present case as the applicant has not made any attempt to call the wife, members of the family, companions and successors of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as ahley-bait. (Para. 7.)
The court also held that “[r]eligious beliefs of nobody should be allowed to be violated. The dignity of each person must jealously be guarded. It should also be ensured that religion is not used as a ground for persecution of any citizen of Pakistan.” (Para. 7.)
In the operative part of the order, the High Court granted bail to the applicant and stayed the criminal trial proceedings until the investigating officer put on record his opinion on the meaning of the phrase “Ahl-e-Bait” in the relevant section of the Penal Code together with a list of learned religious scholars “who will appear as witnesses.” (Para. 10.)
Tariq Ahmad, Law Library of Congress
June 22, 2023
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- Pakistan: Sindh High Court Releases on Bail Ahmadi Lawyer Arrested for Using Title “Syed” in His Name