Prior to August 2021, Afghanistan was an Islamic republic, with blasphemy and apostasy theoretically punishable by death. However, a limited degree of secularism existed, including permissions for the listening of music and for girls to attend school. With the resurgence of the Taliban and the reestablishment of their "Islamic emirate," these embers of secularism are slated to be snuffed out in a government with absolutely no religion-state separation. Blasphemy, apostasy, and a host of other "un-Islamic" behaviors are likely to be punished with death, more frequently and more brutally than under the previous U.S.-backed government.

History of Blasphemy & Apostasy Laws


Afghanistan came into existence as a de jure nation-state in 1919, following the end of the last Anglo-Afghan war. Today, the ethnic breakdown remains varied: comprised of majority Pashtuns (42%), the rest Tajiks (27%), Uzbeks (9%), Hazara (9%), Turkmen (3%), Aimaq (4%), Baluch (2%), and small communities of Brahui, Nuristani, Pashaie, Pamiri, Khirgiz, and Qizilbash. Islam in Afghanistan has been a unifying force—a common denominator of a population otherwise composed of groups with varied ethnic, linguistic, and tribal diversity.

Development of Blasphemy Laws

Modern national boundaries were fixed by King Amir Abdul Rahman (1880-1901), who used Islam to bring the country’s tribes under centralized control. In 1896, Rahman proclaimed a compilation of criminal rules based on Hanafi law, to be dispensed by religious courts and judges. Laws were divided into three groups: sharia, administrative (qānūn), and tribal, with three corresponding courts. Rahman’s son, Habibulla, introduced the "Supreme Commandments," a compilation of Islamic law. At the same time, Habibullah maintained relations with the British—an unpopular move to a population that regarded supporting an ‘infidel empire’ as a betrayal—especially against the former seat of the Caliphate, the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, Habibullah’s perceived fraternization with the enemy resulted in his assassination in February 1919. 

Amanullah, Habibullah’s son, succeeded to the throne in 1919, and declared war on the British. Taking inspiration from Atatürk in Turkey and Reza Shah in Iran, Amanullah attempted to introduce Western secular law to the country. On April 1923, he enacted Afghanistan’s first formal written constitution, which at once declared Islam the state religion, and granted wider protection of religious freedom and the equality of all Afghan citizens. In an effort to distance Afghan politics from religion, family matters were now delegated to civil courts instead of religious courts. These reforms earned Amanullah accusations of having abandoned Islam; when the repression of religious leaders provoked rebellion, he passed the throne onto his brother in 1929. Due to poor infrastructure in the largely rural country, Amanullah’s secularist reforms did not penetrate much farther than the capital, only widening the chasm between the intellectuals in Kabul and everywhere else, where religion prevailed. 

Islam once more became a uniting force in 1979, as the country fought against the invasion of a “godless communist” Soviet Union. As a consequence of Afghan victory, however, religion became one of the few legitimizing forces in the now-fractured country. It was in this landscape that the Taliban (1996-2001) rose to power, appealing to the idea of a “pure” Afghanistan run by religious law. 

Islam finally became enshrined in the latest iteration of Afghan law: the 2004 constitution retained much of the Islamic character of the years under the Taliban. According to Article 1 of the penal code, Hanafi law formed the basis for jurisprudence, including in cases of apostasy and blasphemy, which mandates the death penalty for both. Although recorded cases of the death penalty are few, those few have been high-profile deterrents of dissent, lest it be punished by legal or extralegal means. Additionally, articles 1, 2, 3, and 18 reference the inherent Islamic character of the state, and provide that no law “contravene the tenets of Islam.”

Recent Developments

The Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in August 2021, overthrowing the previous U.S.-backed government headed by President Ashraf Ghani. Given the recency of this development, the Taliban government is still in a transitional phase. The exact letter of the law with regard to blasphemy and apostasy is not yet clear, but it is essentially a certainty that both will be punished with death, and probably more frequently than by the previous government. They are also slated to even further entrench Islam into Afghan government and society, wiping out even trace influences of secularism.

Cases of Persecution in Afghanistan
Christian convert Abdul Rahman arrested and tried for apostasy
ISIS executes ten men for "apostasy" in Afghanistan
Afghan writer Ahmad Javeed Ahwar forced in exile for religion-critical op-ed
Leading Afghan journalist Ahmed Ghous Zalmai gets 20 years for translating Qur'an
Magazine editor and cleric Ali Mohaqiq Nasab imprisoned for blasphemy
Student Farkhunda Malikzada beat, burnt, run over, and killed over false blasphemy accusations
Magazine editor Sayeed Mahdawi and journalist Ali Reza Payam sentenced to death
Student-journalist Sayed Pervez Kambaksh sentenced to death for sharing women's rights info