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Libya’s Blasphemy Law

While Libya is in the midst of drafting a new constitution, and therefore the State’s posture towards religion and freedom of belief is not yet known — Libya’s penal code, incepted under King Idris in 1953, and largely retained throughout the Gaddafi era — like many regional penal codes, does punish insult of religion.

Unfortunately, Article 291 of the Libyan penal code does not seem to have been written about before, in any book or website…which is why it is now being written about here. Generally, Libyan penal law seems to be understudied.

So…short, sweet, here it is.

مادة ( 291 ) إهانة دين الدولة
كل من اعتدى علانية على الدين الإسلامي الذي هو دين الدولة الرسمي بموجب دستور ليبيا أوفاه بألفاظ لا تليق بالذات الإلهية أو الرسول أو الأنبياء يعاقب بالحبس مدة لا تتجاوز السنتين

Article 291 (Insult of the State Religion): Whoever publicly abuses the Islamic religion — that being the official religion of the State under the Libyan constitution — with verbal terms not befitting for the Divine Being, the Messenger, or the Prophets, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years.

So, while other Arab constitutions or penal codes absolutely specify Islam as the religion of the state — Libya, to my knowledge, is the only one to so specifically invoke the notion of “state religion” in direct relation to religious insult. In case it was not clear, the “Messenger” (al-rasul) mentioned above refers to the Prophet Muhammad, and the “Prophets” (al-anbiya) refer to Abrahamic prophets held sacred by Islam.

And just so I can stretch out this post a little longer…a bit of historical background.

The original 1953 Libyan penal code addressed blasphemy and religious insult in two places: Articles 291 and 499. At some point (most likely under Gaddafi), Article 499 seems to have been removed, and its provisions combined with Article 291.

Here is how they originally read in the 1953 penal code:

Article 291 (Contempt of the State Religion): Whoever publicly attacks the Mohammedan religion which is the Official Religion of the State in accordance with the Constitution of the United Kingdom of Libya shall be punished by a penalty of detention for a period not exceeding two years.

Article 499 (Blasphemy): Whoever publicly utters unseemly expressions against the Divinity or the Apostle of God or the Prophets or things sacred to the State religion shall be punished by a penalty or fine not exceeding ten pounds.

Blasphemy, and religious contempt, were different offenses. So, it can be seen how these were combined. But a fine of ten pounds for blasphemy…interesting. And, as can be seen, the two years of imprisonment was retained.

Given the ability of penal law to outlast several forms of government, as in the case with Libya — and Libya’s new found religious orientation — it seems doubtful that this provision will change.

Short post, but hope I could be helpful.

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