He just escaped his fourth assassination attempt. The new amendments to the blasphemy law may send him in jail for life.
by Massimo Introvigne
Engineer Muhammad Ali Mirza is a Pakistani Islamic theologian whose online lectures have more than one million followers. He is referred to as “Engineer” as he has a degree in Engineering and works part-time for the government in this capacity.
He is also a man in danger. Earlier this month, he escaped an assassination attempt when a Madrasa student armed with a knife tried to break into his Mirza Research Academy. The engineer had escaped other assassination attempts in 2019, 2021, and 2022. The extremist group Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan offered a reward of Rs. 500,000 to those who would succeed in killing him.
Now, however, an amendment to the Pakistani blasphemy law puts him at risk of being jailed for life.
What did Mirza do to enrage fundamentalists? He is certainly occasionally provocative. When former India’s ruling party BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma (who lost her job after the incident and was condemned by both the U.S. Department of State and the BJP itself) made derogatory comments on Prophet Muhammad in a TV debate—in her case, the reward offered by Tehreek-e-Labbaik for killing her was Rs. 5 million—the Engineer said that one should consider that she had been provoked by a Muslim panelist who had offended Hindu gods in the same show.
According to a blasphemy charge filed against him in April 2023, he is guilty of two different offenses. One is defending the persecuted Ahmadi minority, the other is disrespecting the companions of the Prophet.
Ahmadis are considered as non-Muslims by Pakistani law. Allegedly, Mirza defended them. What he said was in fact that they are closer to the truth than Christians and Jews and deserve a more humane treatment. However, he still maintains that they are non-Muslims and, to be on the safer side, put a statement to this effect on his YouTube home page.
In April 2023, the accusation about the companions of the Prophet would have carried a maximum penalty of three years in jail and perhaps he might have escaped with a simple fine. However, Article 298-A of Pakistan’s Criminal Code, which punishes those who offend the Prophet’s companions, has just been amended, and the corresponding penalty now goes from a minimum of ten years to life imprisonment, plus a fine of Rs. 1 million.
The controversy that involved the Engineer is about Mu’awiya, the first Umayyad Caliph. Sunni Muslims consider him a companion of the Prophet, while Shiites deny him this title and even curse him in some of their rituals for his opposition to Ali, whom the Shiites consider both the legitimate successor of Muhammad and their founder.
Engineer Mirza said that the Shiite position finds support in a hadith reported by al-Bukhari. When a companion of the Prophet called Ammar ibn Yasir was working at the construction of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina and complained that he was asked to carry too many bricks on his shoulders and they would kill him, Muhammad told him, “It is not they who will kill you but a wicked band of men.”
Since Ammar later sided with Ali and was killed by Mu’awiya and his men, Engineer Mirza, as others do, interpret the prophecy to the effect that Prophet Muhammad called Mu’awiya “a wicked man.”
It would seem an obscure theological and historical point. However, since the majority Sunni Muslims in Pakistan regard Mu’awiya as a companion of the Prophet, accusing the Engineer of offending him may lead to his arrest and a jail penalty from ten years to life, thus allowing fundamentalists to get rid of a theologian they regard as too liberal.