Reuters: On apostasy and the death penalty in Islam

A 27-year-old woman, Meriam Yahia Ibrahim, has been sentenced to death for the crime of apostasy by a Khartoum court. That fact, plus her marital and family status (pregnant mother with a 20-month-old child and a Christian husband) are about the only things about which the newspaper accounts agree. Reuters's account conflicts with those offered by some Christian NGOs and differ from the BBC and NBC, whose reports on the case appear to be based upon a press release provided by Amnesty International. Reuters also enters into this story with an assumption about Islamic law and the penalty for apostasy, writing as if all apostates from Islam are to be treated in the same way.

There is the shock value to Western eyes of the death sentence for apostasy. But this story should also trouble Muslim readers for what Reuters reports about Sudanese sharia law is at odds with Islamic jurisprudence. Not only is the sentence barbaric -- but unjust from a Western and Islamic perspective.

The lede to the Reuters story as printed in the Daily Mail states:

A Sudanese court gave a 27-year-old woman who is eight-months pregnant with her second child, until Thursday to abandon her newly adopted Christian faith and return to Islam or face a death sentence. 

All accounts I've seen agree with Reuters up to the point where the wire service writes: "her newly adopted Christian faith."

The key word here is "newly" -- for this word controls Ibrahim's fate under sharia.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide reports Ibrahim is not a new Christian.

Mrs Ibrahim was born in Western Sudan to a Sudanese Muslim father and an Ethiopian Orthodox mother. Her father left the family when she was six years old and she was subsequently brought up as a Christian by her mother. Under Shari’a law in Sudan, Muslim women cannot marry non-Muslim men. Moreover, since Mrs Ibrahim’s father was a Muslim, she is considered to be a Muslim, rendering her marriage to Mr Wani invalid.

Mrs Ibrahim testified before the court on 4 March that she is a Christian, showing her marriage certificate, where she is classified as Christian, as proof of her religion.

NBC reports her accusers say she was legally born a Muslim, reared as a Christian, became a Muslim as an adult and then returned to Christianity.

She told the court in the capital Khartoum that she had been raised by her mother as an Orthodox Christian, but the court said there was no evidence of this beyond 2005 and that she had recently converted from Islam.

Reuters offers conclusions of law, which are also questionable. It writes:

Meriam is a Muslim by default because she was born in Sudan.

That cannot be true. There is a Christian minority in the Sudan -- Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians and members of African Independent Churches. In an article I wrote on sharia law in the Sudan a few years back I reported:

In a 12 Oct 2011 speech to university students in Khartoum, [Sudanese] President al-Bashir stated: “Ninety-eight percent of the people are Muslims and the new constitution will reflect this. The official religion will be Islam and Islamic law the main source [of the constitution]. We call it a Muslim state.”

A number of these Sudanese Christians have been driven into South Sudan or are refugees in Ethiopia and Egypt. They are Sudanese born and bred -- and Christians. Christians are allowed to reside in Sudan, but they will be second-class citizens whose civil rights will be determined by their faith.

The imposition of sharia law is working itself out in the case of Ibrahim. Reuters explains:

Mariam Yahya Ibrahim was charged with apostasy as well as adultery for marrying a Christian man, something prohibited for Muslim women to do and which makes the marriage void. Thus, her marriage to a Christian is a criminal act.

On March 4th, Meriam was charged with adultery and apostasy. The adultery charge came with a punishment of 100 lashes. The apostasy charge came with a punishment of death. As it stands, Meriam will be put to death following the birth of her second child.

Note the two different spellings employed by Reuters for Ibrahim's first name. Mariam and Meriam. That should have been caught by a copy editor. Also, the date of her execution differs in the Reuters account. The BBC and CSW report Ibrahim will have two years to recant her faith before she is executed. She will only be flogged (as if that is a consolation) following the birth of her second child. Hanging takes place later.

The claims about Islam by default should have been spotted by an editor also. I also question the execution for apostasy angle.

Islam’s five major schools of jurisprudence, the Madh’hab, call for the death penalty for those who leave Islam for another faith. However Islamic law distinguishes between apostasy of an adult and a child. The ‘Umdat as-Salik wa ‘Uddat an-Nasik (Reliance of the Traveler and Tools of the Worshipper), of the Shafi’i school of Islamic jurisprudence as practiced by the Al-Azhar in Cairo rejects the death penalty for child apostates, as does the Hidayah, the Hanafi code that guides Muslim jurisprudence in India and Pakistan.

Iran's proposed Bill For Islamic Penal Law, for example divided apostates into two categories: parental and innate. Innate apostates were those whose parents were Muslim, made a profession of Islam—the Shahada-as an adult and then left the faith, while parental apostates were those born in non-Muslim families and converted to Islam as an adult, and then left the faith.

Sudanese Islamic jurisprudence follows the Shafi’i school, and its religious-civil code is similar to Iran's. Iran's code, like the Sudan's, states “Punishment for an innate apostate is death,” while a parental apostate is given three days to recant their apostasy. If they continued in their unbelief, “the death penalty would be carried out.” Women apostates were spared the death penalty, but would have been jailed until they recanted.

The twist in this case is that the Sudanese court is treating her as a parental Muslim and giving her three days to recant -- but treating her as a man, not a woman.

There are several holes in Reuters story, as noted above, and unasked and unanswered questions. Can she be called a convert or apostate from a faith she never practiced? Why is Ibrahim being treated as a man under Islamic law?

Which leads to the question, should the press flesh out these details about apostasy and sharia? Is answering this question necessary for arriving at an understanding of situation. And, readers, do you believe Reuters should correct their story?

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