National Geographic News: NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC.COM/NEWS
 

 

Does Islam Allow for Death Penalty for Converts?

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
March 31, 2006
 
Abdul Rahman, the Afghan man who faced execution for converting from
Islam to Christianity, is safely in Italy, as of Wednesday.

But the issues raised by his case endure, especially in Afghanistan, where a broad spectrum of Islamic leaders has called for Rahman's execution under Islamic law, or sharia.

"Rejecting Islam is insulting God. We will not allow God to be humiliated. This man must die," cleric Abdul Raoulf told Associated Press reporters.

Raoulf is considered an Afghan moderate—he had been jailed several times for opposing the Taliban during that faction's rule of most of Afghanistan in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Many Islamic scholars, however, stress that the Koran itself advocates freedom of religion.

"Faith in the Koran is a matter of private witness," said Abdulaziz Sachedina, professor of Islamic studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

"As such, it cannot be compelled by any outside force, including an Islamic government."

Scholar Ali Asani, Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, agrees.

"The Koran has a pluralist ethos that recognizes there are differences in society based on a variety of things, including race and religion. It calls for tolerating, even respecting, such differences," said Asani, a professor of Indo-Muslim languages and cultures.

Imam Mohamed Magid, of Virginia's All Dulles Area Muslim Society, also cited the Koran, specifically verse II:256.

"The verse reads, Let there be no compulsion in religion. That also applies that no one should be compelled to stay in a religion," he said.

"From the Islamic perspective belief is something that God will accept only when a person is sincere about it—you cannot force someone to believe," Asani said.

"[The Koran says that] God shows the truth, and if one doesn't accept it, the consequences are not in this life but in the life to come."

The Koran, however, isn't necessarily the only text invoked by Islamic legal systems.

Hadith—the collective sayings or customs of Muhammad and his companions—is also considered important in Islamic jurisprudence, though not equal to the Koran.

Some hadith scriptures are far less tolerant of religious freedoms than the Koran and have been interpreted to explicitly advocate execution.

But scholarly debate rages even about which hadith texts are authentic.

"[Some hadith texts] reflect the attempt of later generations trying to legitimize their viewpoints by claiming prophetic seal of approval," Asani said.

"It seems that human interpretations have come to be considered as being divine," he said.

"People can read into these texts any meanings that they choose," Asani added. "I think people have certain visions of Islam and what it should be, and that they use texts to support those visions."

(Related story: "Can Islam and Democracy Coexist?")

Religious, Political Loyalties Blurred

In Afghanistan and in other Islamic nations, many people see the act of apostasy—the renunciation of a religious faith—as a capital offense.

The idea may have its origin not only in hadith but also in an ancient mixing of political and religious issues.

Maintaining a just, Muslim civil order, free of corruption, is a moral duty for Muslims.

The Koran advocates harsh and sometimes violent punishment of people who threaten civil order. Apostates are sometimes included in this group.

Islamic governments have long used this concept of maintaining Muslim civil order to mix religious and civil issues.

Over the centuries some interpretations of the Koran became less tolerant of other faiths.

"There developed an overlap between notions of religious and political loyalty," Harvard's Asani explained.

"These notions overlapped so closely that religious dissent was often regarded as political dissent. For instance, if somebody was a Muslim and then declared himself a non-Muslim, that was seen more as an act of political treason and not really as an act of conscience."

Such laws were employed to punish not only apostasy, which is relatively rare, but also differences among various Islamic sects, such as the Sunni and the Shia. Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims recognize different lines of succession from Muhammad.

"When Sunni Islam became a state creed [in some countries] it meant that groups like the Shia, who had different religious ideas, were also seen as potential threats to the state. So they were persecuted and declared heretics," Asani said.

Magid, the Virginia imam, noted that Islam is not the only faith troubled by political and cultural issues.

He recalled living in Sudan when a local Christian was assaulted by his family for embracing Islam—a sort of mirror image of the Rahman case.

"I think it's cultural more than religious, a feeling of being betrayed or a loss of control—and a definition of anger is a loss of control," Magid said.

"Many crimes have been done in the name of God," he continued.

"When people say this is an Islamic [characteristic], we say, No, unfortunately this is a human [characteristic]. It has happened in other religions. … "

Fodder for Government Critics?

There are laws against apostasy in many Muslim countries, and they have been invoked in recent years in Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan. (See a map and photos of the world of Islam.)

Rahman's case left Afghan President Hamid Karzai in a difficult situation, suggesting that religion and politics remain as entwined as ever.

Karzai's administration tried to appease Westerners appealing for religious freedom without angering powerful domestic religious leaders who remain adamant about execution.

"My experience is that things like this get played out in a local [political] context," Harvard's Asani noted.

"I suspect that the opposition to Karzai is probably using this as an issue to say that he's a puppet of the West. I suspect that has added fuel to the fire.

"I was recently in Pakistan when the cartoon controversy [over images of Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper] was going on," he continued.

"The opposition was using this to try to bring down or at least discredit the government of [President Pervez] Musharraf by saying that he and his government weren't vocal enough in their protests, that they were not good Muslims."

"It was very clear that the purpose of all those demonstrations was ultimately tied in complex ways to political struggles within Pakistan," Asani said.

Some Islamic leaders are adamant that the apostasy laws should remain on the books. Others are advocating for change.

"A number of leading scholars of Islamic law have called for reform of the laws of apostasy because of the freedom of religion that is guaranteed in the Koran itself," the University of Virginia's Sachedina said.

"This issue has again raised the dialogue," added Imam Mohamed Magid.

"Many times I say to Muslims, We need not only interfaith dialogue but intrafaith dialogue. We need [to gather] Pakistani mullahs, Egyptian and Saudi scholars, to talk about Islam and how it's applicable in modern times."

Free Email News Updates
Sign up for our Inside National Geographic newsletter. Every two weeks we'll send you our top stories and pictures (see sample).

 

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.