Apostasy in the Muslim world

abdulrahmanAn Afghan court dismissed the case against a man facing possible execution for converting from Islam to Christianity, according to various reports. His release date has not been announced but could be very soon. It is worth noting that Abdul Rahman's case was not dismissed because of any sudden stated change of heart on whether the penalty for apostasy is death -- at least among those who were in a place or position to do him in. It was dismissed on a technicality. An Afghan Supreme Court spokesman said there were problems with the prosecutor's evidence. With some of Rahman's next of kin testifying that he was mentally ill, he was deemed unfit for trial.

We began the conversation about media coverage of Rahman's fate last week. One issue I highlighted was the need for reporters to understand that Rahman was facing death not for being a Christian but for being a Christian who once had been Muslim. In that previous discussion, Muslim reader Maryam, a.k.a. Umm (mother to) Yasmin, commented:

Actually (and I have memories of pointing this out before here) "sharia, or Islamic law" does not stipulate death for apostasy, and it would be nice if GR journos could take their peers to task for mindlessly repeating this mistake. Various scholars, jurists and thinkers (medieval and modern alike) vigourously disagree on the topic.

Radio Free Europe -- which is funded by the United States government -- made Maryam's point. In an article about Rahman, it compared penalties for converting from Islam to penalties for committing treason against the United States:

The key issue for Muslim thinkers grappling with Islamic law and modernity revolves not around whether apostasy is a heinous crime, but how to deal with it. Islam Online, a Qatar-based site that attempts to explain Islamic issues, quoted the well-known Islamic scholar Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi as acknowledging that there is a difference of opinion on the issue even if most support the death penalty.

"All Muslim jurists agree that the apostate is to be punished," al-Qaradawi said. "However, they differ regarding the punishment itself. The majority of them go for killing; meaning that an apostate is to be sentenced to death."

The Christian Science Monitor's Rachel Morarjee and Dan Murphy provided more context. They highlight religious tension between Muslims and Christians in Egypt and Pakistan, the killing of Muslims who convert to Christianity by their own family members, attacks against Christian churches for alleged sympathy for America, etc. They point out that Afghanistan is 99 percent Muslim and that the 10,000 Christians who practice there do so in secret:

The issue of religious freedoms is one in which, as in Afghanistan, modern laws are clashing with ancient traditions. Rahman's case illustrates a glaring contradiction between Afghanistan's constitution, which upholds the right to freedom of religion on one hand but enshrines the supremacy of sharia law on the other.

Most mainstream schools of Islamic jurisprudence call for converts to be executed. Though the Koran promises only hellfire for apostates and also says "there should be no compunction in religion,'' Islamic jurists have typically argued that execution is mandated, citing stories of comments made by the prophet Muhammad.

"The prophet Muhammad said that anyone who rejects Islam for another religion should be executed," said Mr. Mawlavezada, the judge.

Though some liberal Islamic scholars disagree, pointing out that no such rule exists in the Koran, they have been largely silenced in Afghanistan. Last year, Afghan writer Ali Mohaqeq Nasab spent almost three months in jail last autumn for an article questioning the traditional call for execution.

So Rahman's case has been dropped. But with so many Muslims viewing conversion from Islam to be a crime punishable by death, his future might be interesting. The issue of how Muslims deal with apostasy is not going away. Let's hope reporters don't forget the larger story.

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