Sharia doesn't discuss execution for apostasy?

Fathima Rifqa

There's something curious about the way the media have been handling the difficult and complicated story of Rifqa Bary. She's the Ohio teenager (pictured here) who fled to Florida after she converted to Christianity over concerns her Muslim father might kill her. We last looked at this story when CNN inexplicably referred to the girl as "Muslim" even though the whole point of this saga is that she's not. More recently, the Religion News Service has an interesting story about the case. The lede places the court battle over the case as just the latest example of crazy custody battles taking place in Florida:

If you're involved in a high-stakes custody fight, Florida, it seems, is the place to be.

Could Rifqa's father in Ohio really kill her for leaving Islam to embrace Christianity? Has the 17-year-old read too many fundamentalist Christian Web sites? Or is it all just teen dramatics?

Those are all questions swirling around the 17-year-old Ohio girl who became a Christian several years ago and sought shelter with an Orlando pastor after she feared for her life because, as she says, her father is bound by his Islamic faith to kill her.

Now, much of the piece is informative and it's a good introduction to the case if you're not familiar with it. But notice the somewhat flippant way the teen's concerns are handled? Is it all just fundamentalist Christian web sites? Is it teen dramatics? Could there be any reason -- other than teen dramatics or "fundamentalist" Christian web sites (whatever those are) -- for why she might have fled?

Now let's look at how the parents' case (family pictured below) is presented:

A Florida Department of Law Enforcement report found no evidence of any threat or abuse against Rifqa and said her allegations are "based on her belief or understanding of the Islamic faith and/or Islamic law and custom. (Rifqa) stated that she believes Islamic law dictates she must be put to death for her abandonment of the Islamic faith."

Her father, Mohamed Bary, denied making any such threat, according to the report, but he told investigators when he confronted Rifqa about her conversion last June he lifted a laptop to throw it but reconsidered, thinking about how much money he had invested in it.

The case has put Muslim groups on the defensive. Islam condones no such killings, said Babak Darvish, executive director of the Columbus chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Darvish said the girl's parents are distraught about her behavior. They brought the family to the United States from Sri Lanka when Rifqa was a child so that she could receive better treatment for an eye injury that eventually left her blind in one eye, he said.

So we've got teen dramatics and fundamentalist Christian web sites on the one hand and a Muslim denying that Islam condones killing for apostasy. Case closed? It is for this article. But is that all there is to the underlying issue?

Well, here's a story from April of this year about Harvard's Islamic chaplain Taha Abdul-Basser endorsing death as a punishment for apostasy. (Note the correction appended to that article where a Muslim student who thinks the chaplain should be removed asks that his name be removed from his quote "to avoid conflicts with Muslim religious authorities.") And here is what Wikipedia says about the matter:

In Islamic law (sharia), the consensus view is that a male apostate must be put to death unless he suffers from a mental disorder or converted under duress, for example, due to an imminent danger of being killed. A female apostate must be either executed, according to Shafi'i, Maliki, and Hanbali schools of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), or imprisoned until she reverts to Islam as advocated by the Sunni Hanafi school and by Shi'a scholars.

A minority of medieval Islamic jurists . . . held that apostasy carries no legal punishment . . . these minority opinions have not found broad acceptance among the majority of Islamic scholars.

That article goes on to say that beheading is the preferred form of execution for convicted apostates, that the use of execution as punishment varies, and that there are a number of recent examples of killing for apostasy. (I should note that the article does seem to underplay Muslim opposition to capital punishment for apostasy.)

Unfortunately, precisely none of that information makes it into the story. I'm in no way saying that I think that Bary's parents could kill her. I don't know her and I don't know her parents and, what's more, I'm just as sympathetic to their plight as I am of hers. It's a difficult and complicated situation about the religious rights of parents. But it's not like the idea of capital punishment for apostasy from Islam is something Christians invented, much less "fundamentalist Christian" types.

Teen Convert

And should an employee of the Council for American Islamic Relations really be the go-to source for a quote on whether or not Islam condones execution for the crime of apostasy? Reporters really like to go to CAIR for quotes, which is somewhat surprising considering their controversial ties to Hamas (You can read more about that from when the group was named an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation case regarding terrorist financing). I think a more impartial, more theological, less political Muslim source might be a better source. Or maybe we could get a discussion between Muslims from different perspectives about whether Muslim law would apply in this case and how it would.

Here's another quibble, which I like to file under the "show, don't tell" category:

In her few public appearances, Rifqa is at times emotional, impassioned, giddy and sometimes a little incoherent. In a YouTube video during which she shares her testimony, Rifqa calls her parents "radical, radical Muslims" and says, "they can't know of my faith because if they do know the consequences are really harsh. Just the culture and the background that they come from is so hostile toward Christianity."

She explained that a classmate introduced her to Christianity, and then grows emotional as she describes the moment she became a Christian, during an altar call at church.

"The Lord completely wraps me in his arms of love, and I break down on the floor and weep," she said. "I felt nothing but love, nothing but this great radical love."

Now, maybe this young woman is all of these somewhat pejorative adjectives. (Ever notice how infrequently we hear of men described as "giddy" or "incoherent"?) But are we supposed to get the "incoherent" part from these quotes? If so, I don't get it. If not, the "incoherency" should be substantiated or eliminated from the copy.

Again, this is a complicated story with competing claims and a truly tough situation. Any parent can imagine the horror of a falling out of this nature with their child. But the other issue -- the threat of death for apostasy -- is legitimate enough that it should be treated more seriously and with more input from religious scholars.

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