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Converts from Islam - Free to choose?

10 April 2006

The case of Abdul Rahman, on trial last month in the Afghan capital Kabul for converting from Islam to Christianity, made the international headlines for some days. Both judge and prosecutor stated that, if found guilty, he would face the death sentence in line with the teachings of shari‘a [Islamic law].

Many Western leaders urged that he should be released and the Afghan authorities duly found a pretext for doing so.

The response of other Muslims was more mixed. Senior clerics in Afghanistan said that if the state failed to execute him they would incite the people to murder him – a people who by and large appear to agree that death is appropriate for those who leave Islam. But a number of Muslims in the West have denied the existence of the classic Islamic teaching on apostasy. For example, London-based Mufti Abdul Barkatullah said that the Shafi’i school of Islamic law eschews the death penalty for apostasy. This assertion is so easily refuted from the Shafi’i texts that one can only think the mufti assumes that no non-Muslim would ever bother to check his words.

The classical Shafi‘i manual of law, "‘Umdat al-Salik" [The Reliance of the Traveller] by Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri (died 1368) is unambiguous on this point. I quote from an English translation by Nuh Ha Mim Keller, published in the USA in 1997:

"8.1 When a person who has reached puberty and is sane voluntarily apostatises from Islam, he deserves to be killed.
8.2 In such a case, it is obligatory for the caliph to ask him to repent and return to Islam. If he does, it is accepted from him, but if he refuses, he is immediately killed."

Anwar Ahmad Qadri, a Pakistani lawyer, published "A Sunni Shafi‘i Law Code"
in Pakistan in 1984. This work is a translation of "Mukhtasar fil Risalah"
by the classical Shafi‘i jurist Abu Shuja al-Isfahani (died 1106), and states, including footnotes:

"Art. 113 Rules for Apostates. It is obligatory to ask the person apostatising from the religion of Islam, or on irtidad, (1) to offer taubah three times; then it is good if he did it, otherwise, he shall be killed (2); then, he will neither be given a bath, nor any funeral prayer, and so also, he will not be buried in the graveyard of Muslims.
¹ May be a male or a female, as he or she refuses to accept Allah, or falsifies any of the Prophets or holds as legal the things held haram by consensus or ijma‘.
² If a free man, the imam will kill him but not by burning; if anyone kills him except the imam, he will be punished by ta‘zir; if the apostate is a slave, the master will kill him."

Another Muslim response to the Abdul Rahman case was published in the "New Zealand Herald" by an Australian Muslim lawyer, Irfan Yusuf, who is an occasional lecturer in the School of Politics at Macquarie University. Mr Yusuf’s article is a masterpiece of propaganda, blending fact and fiction, passing off exceptions as the rule. He states rather curiously that “the alleged law of apostasy doesn’t exist in sharia. And if it does, there is little consensus on its application among Muslim legal experts.” His confusion about the existence or not of an apostasy law in shari‘a could easily be solved if he were to check some Islamic texts both ancient and modern, for example, those I have cited above. He would discover that all four schools of Sunni law as well as Shi‘a law agree on the death sentence for sane, adult, male apostates. This is hardly the “minority of medieval Muslim scholars” which Yusuf claims were the only ones who supported the death sentence for apostasy.

Yusuf’s short article is worth examining in some detail because it incorporates a number of spurious arguments which are often used by Muslims seeking to present this aspect of their faith in an acceptable light to Westerners. First he repeats the familiar adage that the Qur’an says that “there is no compulsion in religion” and suggests that everyone is free to choose their own faith. The quote is accurate (from sura 2, verse 256) but the interpretation is a special one for Westerners. The normal Muslim interpretation of this verse is that Muslims will not be forced to fulfil all their religious duties, it is up to them whether they do so or not.
This verse has nothing to say about freedom of conscience. In any case, it is a verse that was “revealed” relatively early to Muhammad and therefore many Muslims would consider that it has been abrogated [cancelled] by less tolerant-sounding verses which were revealed to Muhammad in later years.

Yusuf goes on to consider the death sentence for treason, which he believes to be mandatory today “even in the most civilised Western countries”.
(Presumably he does not consider to be very civilised the UK, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Norway, Canada and the many other Western countries who do not have the death penalty.) He states that Islam’s death sentence for apostasy is actually a death sentence for treason because any Muslim who left their faith and yet wanted to remain in the Islamic
city-state of early Islam was “effectively committing treason”. But why
should it be considered treasonable to stay in one’s homeland after changing one’s religion? Yusuf’s argument is nothing but a re-statement of the classical Islamic position that a convert from Islam is by definition a traitor. He does not require any evidence of treacherous activity against the Islamic state; simply to have left Islam without going into self-imposed exile is treachery enough.

Yusuf attempts to support his case by a further selection of examples. He says that “it isn’t the practice in the overwhelming majority of Muslim countries to kill people who leave Islam.” I thank God this is true, with only five modern states to my knowledge including the death sentence for apostasy in their legislation (possibly plus Afghanistan whose legal position remains unknown following Abdul Rahman’s release) and none of them putting it into practice very often. Even taking into account murders by family and community, and illegal assassinations by the security forces, the vast majority of Muslim converts to Christianity today do not lose their lives. But why should there be a death penalty even in theory?

Yusuf cites the Swiss Muslim Tarik Ramadan as arguing against capital punishment in Muslim countries because the corrupt police and judiciaries “will make sharia an instrument of injustice”. In other words, it is not that shari‘a is unjust but that bribe-taking officials might not apply it impartially. This is not an argument against the rightness of the death sentence for apostasy, but a counsel of despair from one who thinks corruption can never be rooted out.

Yusuf then gives the example of Indonesia where Muslims can convert freely to Christianity without being imprisoned. Although he does not say so, Indonesian converts are unlikely to face much prejudice or discrimination of any kind (except in Aceh). But there are some fifty Muslim-majority countries, and Indonesia is the only one of which this is true. Indonesia has for many years been a byword amongst Muslims for its lax attitude to Christian evangelism and conversion from Islam, an attitude which many other Muslim nations roundly condemn.

Yusuf’s crowning argument concerns the high rate of illiteracy in Afghanistan, which he says accounts for their ignorance of Islamic law.
Again he is determined to disbelieve in the existence of the abundance of Islamic texts which endorse the death sentence for apostasy.

In fact it is Irfan Yusuf’s readers who are likely to be ignorant of Islamic law, not the Afghan people. If he were not so certain of the ignorance of most New Zealanders, indeed of most Westerners, he surely
would not have dared to write such an article.

It is better for Muslims to be completely honest about their faith. The late Dr Zaki Badawi, who was president of the Muslim College in London, wrote a paper on “Freedom of Religion in Islam” tracing the history of the development of the apostasy law. He stated that “earlier jurists, with a few exceptions, supported the death penalty for the apostate and this remains the case to the present day”. Muslims can claim that the death sentence for apostasy was never intended by their founder (and this may well be true), but to claim that it was not taught by his followers as a basic doctrine for the next fourteen centuries is ludicrous.

It is only when Muslims have admitted the true situation that there is the possibility of change. A number of scholars of Sunni Islam’s leading Al-Azhar University in Cairo have in recent decades suggested that the apostasy law should be abandoned and genuine religious freedom allowed. We non-Muslims must do all we can to encourage this move within Islam. It was at Al-Azhar on 21st March that the Prince of Wales gave an outstanding speech urging mutual respect between the faiths, indicating in particular the need for reciprocity of treatment of each other’s minorities.

Muslims are rightly permitted to share their faith freely in the West and to win converts who rightly suffer no penalty. But this religious freedom must be reciprocated. Afghanistan is far from being the only Muslim country which has signed up to international agreements guaranteeing freedom of religion (such as Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights) and has also asserted the supremacy of shari‘a (complete with apostasy law), thus creating a serious ambiguity over issues such as freedom of conscience.

Al-Azhar has begun to grapple with the subject of religious freedom in Islam. What can be done to help them with this ground-breaking task, which is sure to face tremendous opposition from certain sections of the Muslim community? Could the Prince of Wales, Jack Straw and the Archbishop of Canterbury jointly urge Al-Azhar to issue a fatwa condemning the execution of apostates? Could the Lambeth-Al-Azhar initiative issue a joint statement ? Now is the time to act, while the example of Abdul Rahman, who was willing to die for his faith, is fresh in our minds. For although he may now be safe in exile, the plight of other converts is, if anything, even more acute as Muslim governments may decide it is better to let them be quietly murdered than for them to become an international cause.

Dr Patrick Sookhdeo
International Director of Barnabas Fund

A shortened version of this article was published in the Church of England Newspaper, UK (April 7, 2006)


Further Reading


[a] - Don't forget him now: Standing with Abdul Rahman - A challenge to




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