Blasphemy in Pakistan: Anatomy of a lynching

A Christian couple in a village were set ablaze at a brick kiln by a mob. This is the story of what happened

Shahzad and Shama Masih, seen here in an undated photograph provided by their brother, Iqbal.
Asad Hashim

This is the second story in a two-part series about blasphemy in Pakistan. The first part, about the case of the first woman on death row for blasphemy in that country, is available here.

KOT RADHA KISHAN, Pakistan — Walking through the quiet, empty streets of Chak 59, patrolled by stray dogs and the odd buffalo, one finds it difficult to tell whether the village is inhabited at all.

It is striking how silence can envelope a life, so as to all but erase it. Or, in this case, two lives: Shama and Shahzad Masih, a young Christian couple accused of blasphemy in this hamlet 31 miles from the big city of Lahore, but deep in the wilderness that dominates Pakistan’s Punjabi heartland.

On Nov. 4, 2014, Shama and Shahzad (most Christians in Pakistan are known only by their first name) were killed by a mob, stirred up by false allegations that the couple had desecrated the Holy Quran, at the brick kiln where they lived and worked for the previous 18 years.

The mob first beat them with sticks and fists before dragging them to the kiln furnace to set them on fire. Witnesses say one or both of them were still alive as they burned.

A month later, there was only silence on the streets of Chak 59. Villagers who lived alongside the couple said they never knew them. Among their co-workers, some said they were visiting relatives on the day of the attack, others that they had left to observe the religious ritual of Ashura. From grocery-stall vendors to policemen, no one admitted ever meeting, let alone knowing, Shama and Shahzad. Most of the villagers fled after the attack, and many of the rest were locked up in police custody.

Probing beneath the silence, however, one discovers that by the morning of Nov. 4, everyone in the village knew that a mob was being formed to kill the couple, and no one — not even they themselves — did anything to stop it.

This is a story to fill the silence.

An example of a zaicha. Nazir, Shahzad's father, made talismans much like this one for people to hang in their homes or businesses as a form of good luck.
Asad Hashim

Nazir Masih, 65, had spent the last two decades of his life working at kilns as a thekedaar, an agent who procures laborers. As a respected elder who was well-liked in Chak 59, he often intervened to settle disputes in the village.

Nazir, a Christian, was also a spiritual man. At home, he kept a Bible and a Quran and would spend his time in retirement making taveezes and zaichas: pieces of cloth or paper bearing inscriptions that people in the subcontinent — Hindus, Muslims and Christians alike — often use as talismans or charms.

On the morning of Oct. 29, after suffering for two weeks from an intestinal complaint, Nazir died. He is survived by his sons Iqbal, Shahbaz, Saleem, Nawaz and Fayyaz. Finally, there was Shahzad, his youngest son, with whom he lived at the Gujjar brick kiln, the father taking one room, while Shahzad, Shama and their three children took the other.

Meanwhile, about a mile away from the kiln, in the narrow, red-brick lanes of the village, preparations were underway for a grand celebration as local clerics prepared to welcome Muhammad Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a well-known Barelvi Muslim scholar, to an Urs, a traditional South Asian celebration of the life and works of men considered to be Sufi saints. This event, organized by a religious political party, honored Ilmuddin, a Muslim man from Lahore who, in one of the most high-profile blasphemy cases ever to occur in then-undivided India, stabbed to death the publisher of a religiously charged pamphlet titled Rangeela Rasul (The Promiscuous Prophet) in 1929. Ilmuddin pleaded not guilty to murder and was defended at the Lahore High Court by, among others, Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Ilmuddin was found guilty and hanged on Oct. 31, 1929. 

Eighty-five years and three days later, back in Nazir’s rooms, Shama was cleaning out the remnants of her father-in-law’s life. The furnishings were basic, with each wall covered in baked mud and the rooms guarded by a pair of cracked wooden doors. There was no room for Nazir’s papers. Shama took them to the sewage channel outside their home and burned them, as is common with garbage in this part of the world.

Irfan (whose last name isn’t known in the village), a fellow laborer on the kiln, watched Shama as she burned her garbage. Nearby, Ramzan Hameed, who sold fruit and knickknacks off the back of his bicycle, arrived, looking to sell his wares.

Of late, Irfan, a young Christian convert to Islam, had had a bone to pick with Shahzad’s family. Three weeks prior, an argument between him and one of Shahzad’s nephews over working space at the kiln had turned to curses and then to blows. Eventually, Shahzad’s elder brother intervened, expecting that to be the end of it, he said.

The maulvi [cleric] picks up the loudspeaker — actually, I would call it a Kalashnikov — and starts firing bullets into the air.

A villager who wished to remain anonymous

Irfan saw Shama burning the zaichas and taveezes, which appeared to be fragments of paper with stylized Arabic script on them. He went to Ramzan Hameed and Afzal, the kiln supervisor (who only goes by one name), claiming that he had seen her “desecrating the Quran” — a crime punishable by life imprisonment in Pakistan.

Irfan and Hameed shared the news of the alleged desecration with the rest of the village, where it was discussed among villagers, and specifically with Haris Bashir and Riaz Qambo, who belonged to locally influential families.

What is unclear is who decided to take the matter to Muhammad Hussain, the local maulvi (cleric). Just four days earlier, Hussain had hosted the Urs for Ilmuddin. Over the course of the night, the news of the alleged desecration spread, and maulvis from nearby villages planned to announce the allegation during the morning prayer, offered just before 6 a.m.

According to interviews with witnesses and police, and the police report filed after the attack, the maulvis prepared a fatwa, calling for those who desecrated the Quran “to be burned the same way that they burned the [holy book].”

Just before sunrise, an announcement was made from the local mosque, about a mile away from Shahzad and Shama’s home, asking all Muslims to gather at the Gujjar brick kiln to avenge the desecration of their holy book.

“The maulvi picks up the loudspeaker — actually, I would call it a Kalashnikov — and starts firing bullets into the air,” said one local, requesting anonymity because of safety concerns.

The announcement spread like wildfire, going from mosque to mosque, and half an hour later, there were hundreds of people from Chak 59 and six nearby villages converging on the Gujjar brick kiln.

It was just past first light, and Shahzad and Shama were headed to work.

The loudspeaker at the local mosque in Chak 59, from which the first announcement calling for Shahzad and Shama to be killed was made.
Asad Hashim

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are not, in fact, originally Pakistan’s at all. They were inherited, along with most of the country’s penal code, from the British, who put the laws on the books in 1860 to counter rising communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims in the jewel of its crown of colonies, India.

But where the British used the laws sparingly, with only seven cases registered before 1947, independent Pakistan has prosecuted hundreds of people for alleged blasphemy. Since 1977, when dictator Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq began an “Islamization” campaign, there have been more than 1,000 cases of blasphemy registered, according to the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a human rights advocacy group.

In the last 10 years, Pakistan has seen charges brought for offenses as absurd as throwing a business card in the trash (the visitor’s name was Muhammad), shouting slogans against a police officer (the police officer had the same name as one of the companions of the prophet), a rural water dispute, a spelling error, the naming of a child and, perhaps most chillingly, for the acquittal of a person accused of blasphemy by a judge.

Increasingly, cases are also being fought outside the courtroom. Since 1990, more than 65 people have been extrajudicially killed as a result of blasphemy cases. The list includes not just those accused of committing blasphemy, but also, in some cases, their families and security guards.

The law is disproportionately applied against religious minorities, lawyers say, both non-Muslims and minority sects within Islam such as Ahmadis. Moreover, perpetrators of hate crimes based on blasphemy allegations are seldom brought to justice, while those who are alleged to have committed blasphemy are almost always convicted.

The last year alone has seen a dramatic uptick in blasphemy-related murders. Lawyers have been killed for defending those accused of blasphemy. People accused of blasphemy have been killed in police custody as well as after their release. Even religious scholars calling for reforms to the laws have been shot dead.

And Shama and Shahzad were beaten and set on fire at a brick kiln in Chak 59.

A view of the furnace and main exhaust of the Gujjar brick kiln, where Shahzad and Shama were killed. The slogans on this storage building are expressing solidarity with brick kiln laborers, many of whom are in indentured servitude.
Asad Hashim

It was a clear morning, and there was the beginning of a chill in the air, as November shrugged off autumn and winter began in earnest in the Punjab.

Shama and Shahzad brought their 1-year-old daughter, Poonam, with them for the walk to the furnace where the daily wage was 600 rupees per person (roughly $6). Soon, there would be another mouth to feed: Shama was five months pregnant.

The kiln administrator Afzal called Shahzad and Shama over to his office, in a small, oblong white building with three rooms and a thatched cane roof. News of the planned lynching had reached him, and he locked the couple and Poonam in one of the rooms. It is unclear if he was protecting them or making sure they did not run away.

Iqbal, Shahzad’s elder brother, who also worked at the kiln, says he never expected matters to come to this. He and his family knew of the threat the night before the attack, but did not take it seriously, he says. As far as he knew, his family was well-respected and had no enmity with anyone.

“I had said that what’s the problem? Bring your four people, we’ll bring ours, and we’ll sit down and talk it out,” Iqbal says, recalling how he had thought of the dispute that morning.

It was now 6:30 a.m., and the mob was beginning to arrive, on motorcycles or piled into trailers dragged by tractors. Iqbal pleaded with Afzal to let his brother go. But the administrator, Iqbal says, told him he was under orders: Either recover a debt Shahzad owed to the brick kiln’s owner (for just under $2,000) or keep them locked up.

I went to the door when they had broken the lock, and then there were people trying to break in from the roof as well. I tried to intercede, to save them, but the people were too crazed.

Muhammad Ali

police officer

Outside, the mob was growing. Estimates on the size of the crowd vary, with witnesses saying it was anywhere from 600 to several thousand people. Iqbal, who thought he’d reason with the crowd, saw that he didn’t stand a chance. Fearing for their own safety, he and his wife, who was with him at the time, fled to the relative safety of their own rooms.

The room in which Shama and Shahzad were confined was roughly 10 feet by 10 feet and contained three beds, a television and a DVD player. It is where Afzal spent most of his time. It is where Shama and Shahzad would spend their last moments alone together.

Around 7:15, the mob started banging on the room’s blue metal door, locked from the outside by Afzal and the inside by the couple. Shahzad and Shama were silent. Several men, armed with pickaxes, begin to climb the roof. Outside, clerics and others urged the mob on while cries of “Allah-u-Akbar!” rang out.

Haris Bashir, the young village leader, was in the thick of things. He made a phone call to the police, but witnesses and police dispute why he did so. Some say he was the prime driver behind the mob and determined to extract justice for the supposed desecration of the Quran. Others say he was attempting to calm the crowd and to urge them to lodge a legal case against the couple.

Muhammad Ali, a police officer posted nearby, was the first of the authorities to reach the scene. His contingent of five officers, however, did not intervene. Instead, they watched the drama unfold from a safe distance.

And then the lock cracked.

The charred fragments of Shahzad and Shama's bones are seen resting here on a copy of the police report in the case against their attackers.
Asad Hashim

“I went to the door when they had broken the lock, and then there were people trying to break in from the roof as well,” Ali says. “I tried to intercede, to save them, but the people were too crazed.”

The door swung open and Shahzad and Shama were dragged outside. In the confusion, Poonam, the baby, was saved by her aunt.

“As the door opened suddenly, the man and his wife emerged outside. I saw just a fleeting glimpse of them. The crowd lost control and started shouting slogans, and [they] disappeared from view,” says Malik Abdul Aziz, a local journalist who had just arrived on the scene.

The mob separated Shahzad and Shama, hitting them with arms, feet, fists and wooden sticks. The couple fell to the ground, their bodies smeared with blood.

“Shama was covered in wounds, and she had blood on her face and arms. It was clear that — you know how people look like after a stampede of thousands has passed over them? That is what it looked like,” says Aziz, who was filming the attack. Several members of the mob, he says, were also using mobile phones to do the same.

It was then that Shahzad, according to several witnesses, lost consciousness, prompting a sudden silence from the crowd, as it became aware, perhaps, what it was capable of.

“Look what you have done! You’ve killed him!” Bashir reportedly shouted, urging people to move back from the couple. As the crowd moved back, Shama struggled to her feet and sat down on a nearby charpoy, attempting to catch her breath. 

Aziz, standing right behind her, says the blood had soaked through Shama’s clothes. Shahzad, he was convinced, had already taken his last breath and was lying on the floor beside her.

And then a rallying cry went up, as the crowd set upon the couple again.

Men armed with pickaxes climbed onto the roof of the building where Shama and Shahzad were taking shelter, and broke through the ceiling in an attempt to reach them.
Asad Hashim

Muhammad Haseeb recalls the first time he defended a client accused of blasphemy, in Karachi in 2013.

Against the advice of several senior lawyers, he read out, in open court, the phrase his client was accused of having written, while laying out his defense strategy before the judge.

“And that is not blasphemy,” he added.

The courtroom went silent, he remembers. Even the scratching of the stenographer’s pen came to an abrupt stop, and everyone in the room, the judge included, turned to stare at him. And then, as if to break the trance, a police guard tapped him on the shoulder and whispered: “Kuch aur kahein, waqeel sa’ab.” (“Say something else, Mr. Lawyer.”)

In Pakistan, repeating an allegedly blasphemous statement is also considered blasphemy and is subject to the same punishment as the original speech.

Haseeb, whose name has been changed to protect his safety, has defended several other people accused of blasphemy since then, and he says that from the moment lawyers for the defense enter the courtroom, they are immediately “on the back foot,” working against a system that is tilted in favor of the prosecution.

Haseeb and other lawyers who have fought blasphemy cases say that judges tend to automatically accept the definition of blasphemy put forward by the prosecution, for fear of being accused of blasphemy themselves by challenging that definition. As a result, defense lawyers are limited to two options: contesting whether the blasphemous remarks were ever made or pleading mental instability on the part of their clients.


You want get rid of someone for three years, that’s the best thing you can do ... You just tell the police that this person has said this to me, here is my witness … and the police will arrest him.

Defense attorney

who has represented people accused of blasphemy

And that accusation of having committed blasphemy, Haseeb continues, is like “a sword hanging over [minorities’] heads all the time” and used to settle existing personal, monetary or property disputes.

“You want get rid of someone for three years, that’s the best thing you can do: Go to the nearest police station, and you don’t even have to say anything!” Haseeb says. “You just tell the police that this person has said this to me, here is my witness … and the police will arrest him.”

Malik Shamsher is the local police chief in Kot Radha Kishan, and he says that disputes between Muslims and Christians in his district are usually settled using traditional local councils involving community leaders and village elders. Once the matter reaches the courts, however, judges are under pressure to deliver guilty verdicts in blasphemy cases, say lawyers and police who deal with such cases, with mobs of clerics and others often protesting outside courthouses and judges threatened with dire consequences if they do not convict.

“They’re just so scared,” says Haseeb. “[The judges] say, ‘Well, [the defendant] is going to die, but if I go this way, then I’ll die, too.’ ”

It is unsurprising, then, that the conviction rate in blasphemy cases in Pakistan is high and that the standards for evidence tend to be low. In a recent high-profile case, that of Aasia Noreen, for example, while delivering a guilty verdict, the trial judge stated that any argument between a Muslim and a non-Muslim “could not [be] other than the [sic] blasphemy.”

And it is thus that blasphemy cases are fought, and mostly lost, in Pakistan’s courtrooms — with defense lawyers forced to fight with one hand tied behind their back and the other shielding them from accusations against themselves. 

Iqbal Masih, Shahzad's elder brother, saw his brother being beaten to death, and says he has been in a state of shock ever since.
Asad Hashim

Shahzad and Shama never stood a chance.

As the crowd attacked them with renewed vigor, several people grabbed her by her legs and arms, while others did the same with the now-limp body of her husband.

The mob dragged the couple to the kiln “like dogs,” says Aziz, who was forced to flee as the crowd realized he had been filming them.

As the flames reached three feet high, the couple was placed on an open furnace shaft. Shama was still struggling to breathe and to break free, while the flames licked at Shahzad’s lifeless body. Unable to hold her down, the men placed a heavy metal sheet on Shama’s struggling body.

The flames did the rest.

At 8.45 p.m., Imran Prakash rushed to the scene of his uncle’s and aunt’s murders. He found Iqbal hiding behind the door in his room. It is unclear where his wife and Poonam, the toddler, were at this point.

Iqbal was in a state of shock, staring blindly into space. Imran had to shake him back to reality. His first words were: “Don’t hit me! I didn’t do anything. I didn’t do anything.”

Outside, as the police began to arrive in greater numbers, the mob melted away. Whoever was found in the village was immediately arrested, while the police hunted down those whose names they did know: Afzal, the administrator; Muhammad Hussain and his fellow clerics; Haris Bashir and Riaz Qambo, the local village leaders; and Yousuf Gujjar, the owner of the kiln.

The case attracted national attention as Aziz, the journalist, spread news of the murders. Locals either fled or mourned.

There was nothing left of Shama and Shahzad but a few charred fragments of bone, and it took several hours for authorities to recover even those from the raging fires of the kiln.

Finally, at 10 p.m., Prakash and his brother Parvez were able to retrieve the remnants of their relatives’ bodies from the hospital to bring them to the local church for a short service.

And so, in the dead of night and with only their closest family members present, Shama and Shahzad’s bones were finally laid to rest.

In the days following the attack, a memorial was made at the very spot where Shehzad and Shama were killed, atop the brick furnace.
Asad Hashim

Today, the trial of the alleged perpetrators is ongoing, with Afzal, Haris Bashir, Riaz Qambo, Yousuf Gujjar and 97 others still behind bars, but progress has been slow. On March 21, Pakistan’s Supreme Court directed local authorities to reinvestigate the case, expressing dissatisfaction with both the pace and standard of the investigation into the murders.

About a month after the attacks, a small memorial was visible at the spot where Shama and Shahzad had been burned to death, marked by a pile of bricks and some flowers. Their rooms were a mess, the floor covered in the detritus of the family’s hasty exit following the murders: a child’s slipper lay by the door, a man’s sandal in the corner and remnants of broken glass on the floor where Shama and Shahzad once slept.

The village itself was enveloped in silence. A few days later, the memorial would be gone, and a new batch of laborers procured from nearby villages was back at work as a thin column of smoke arose again from the Gujjar brick kiln’s chimney.

Iqbal, Shahzad’s brother, seemed still in shock when asked whom he held responsible for the killings. After giving his uncle a few moments, Imran Prakash answered for him, neatly summing up the chronicle of two murders that could have been prevented but weren’t. He held Irfan, the young man who had fought with Shahzad’s other nephew, chiefly responsible.

“[Irfan] was the one who got everyone to do it. If he wasn’t there, this wouldn’t have happened. If the owner of the brick kiln took a stand, this wouldn’t have happened. If the maulvi had investigated this, it wouldn’t have happened. If the village elders fulfilled their responsibility and brought the two parties together and then took [Shahzad and Shama] to the police station, then they would not have been burned alive,” Imran said. 

“So the responsibility,” he concluded, “is everyone’s.”

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