The uproar over Afghanistan’s now-faded threat to execute a man because he converted from Islam to Christianity underscores the gulf between certain Muslim traditions and international principles of human rights – a rift that’s problematic for Muslims in the United States.
”This is just the latest in a long line of unfortunate incidents that have created misunderstanding, leading to negative perceptions of Islam,” Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Monday.
CAIR, which called for Abdul Rahman’s release last week, does not agree with the teaching that defectors from Islam should be executed.
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Other Muslims do, however. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im of Emory University, a Muslim legal specialist on human rights, said the problem is that all traditional schools of Muslim law, both Sunni and Shiite, treat apostasy from the faith as a crime punishable by death.
Classical jurists debate only secondary matters, such as whether a convicted apostate should get time to consider recanting, and whether women should be punished by life in prison instead of execution.
Lesser penalties can apply. An unidentified Christian convert in Egypt remains in custody without charge and facing a possible five years in prison, said Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
Apostates have been – and still are – deprived of various rights. And those who aren’t prosecuted by the state can face overwhelming pressure or social isolation from their families and associates in Islamic countries.
The primary sources of Muslim law are the Quran, and the Sunna (or hadith), authoritative traditions of the Prophet Muhammad’s words and deeds compiled after his death.
The Quran’s verses on apostasy do not mandate the death penalty and leave punishment up to God in the hereafter.
The death penalty stems from a hadith saying Muhammad taught that the blood of a Muslim cannot be shed except with a murderer, an adulterer and ”whoever forsakes the religion of Islam” (from the widely used Sahih Bukhari collection, IX, 83, 17). Thus apostasy is one of three capital crimes.
A major issue, said Ingrid Mattson, a Muslim scholar at Hartford (Conn.) Seminary, is what ”apostasy” means. She said many modern Muslim thinkers believe that in Muhammad’s day the term meant defection in a manner that threatened the community, the equivalent of ”treason” as opposed to a private change of conscience.
She said that understanding is widespread, and discussed even in Saudi Arabia where the strict tradition still holds.
A statement from CAIR, which relied upon advice from the Fiqh Council of North America – a body of specialists that issues rulings on Muslim law – said ”conversion is a personal matter not subject to the intervention of the state.” It cited in support four passages from the Quran, such as ”let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256).
Hooper said it’s an Islamic principle that ”if an issue is clear in the Quran you don’t go further,” consulting the hadith only if further explanation is needed.
But An-Na’im said traditional jurists often said the more tolerant verses of the Quran from Muhammad’s days in Mecca were abrogated by later passages when he was the ruler of Mecca.
An-Na’im notes that the dictum has been applied not only to those who convert to other faiths but Muslims who become atheists or heretics, for instance the Ahmaddiyas for whom Muhammad is not the final prophet. An-Na’im’s own mentor, Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, was executed in Sudan in 1985 for advocating liberal Muslim legal concepts.
”What happened in the Sudan can happen in any other Muslim country today,” An-Na’im warned at the time, depending on the relation between traditional Muslim law (Sharia) and civil law.
Mattson said that, with over 1 billion people and 60 nations in the Islamic world, injustices are bound to occur.
She said the question for American Muslims is: ”To what extent do we have to keep answering for what Muslims in various corners of the world are doing?”