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Islam: Muslims Divided Over Penalty For Apostasy

By Joyce Davis Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the funeral of Pope John Paul II in April 2005 (epa) Islamic scholars may agree that apostasy is a heinous crime, but they differ on whether the punishment should be death.

How Afghanistan deals with the case of Abdul Rahman, the former Muslim turned Christian who is standing trial in Kabul for apostasy, is being closely watched around the globe, and could have a profound impact on the interpretation of Islamic law in the modern world.

If Afghan President Hamid Karzai's reported promise to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper holds true and Rahman is set free, it will be another blow to extremists who try to use Islam to promote division and intolerance.

And a decision to free Rahman could embolden Muslim moderates in their vision of Islam as a force for human rights and peace.

A Crime, But What Punishment?

The issue of apostasy, when a Muslim converts to another religion, is one of the most sensitive areas of Islamic law. But there is no one authority in Islam, and the four main schools of Islamic thought differ on fundamental religious issues. So Muslims are left to decide which of a myriad of interpretations to accept on issues such as abortion, polygamy, divorce, homosexuality -- and, arguably most importantly of all, apostasy.

"All Muslim jurists agree that the apostate is to be punished. However, they differ regarding the punishment itself. The majority of them go for killing; meaning that an apostate is to be sentenced to death." -- Islamic scholar Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi

Muslim scholars agree that Islam respects Christians and Jews as "people of The Book," who share a common heritage with Islam. And they agree that Islam does not support forced conversion or religious belief. To support this view Muslim scholars frequently quote the Koran (Al-Baqarah, 2:256): "Let there be no compulsion in religion."

Hajj pilgrims pray at sundown around the al-Haram Sharif mosque in Mecca (epa)

Yet key Muslim jurists throughout history have agreed on one point: apostasy -- turning away from Islam to accept Judaism, Christianity, or any other religion -- is one of the worst crimes in Islam. They consider it treason against the Muslim community and against God.

To support this view, Muslim scholars also turn to the Koran (Muhammad, 47:34): "Lo! Those who disbelieve and turn from the way of Allah and then die disbelievers, Allah surely will not pardon them."

The key issue for Muslim thinkers grappling with Islamic law and modernity revolves not around whether apostasy is a heinous crime, but how to deal with it. Islam Online, a Qatar-based website that attempts to explain Islamic issues, quoted the well-known Islamic scholar Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi as acknowledging that there is a difference of opinion on the issue even if most support the death penalty.

"All Muslim jurists agree that the apostate is to be punished," al-Qaradawi said. "However, they differ regarding the punishment itself. The majority of them go for killing; meaning that an apostate is to be sentenced to death."

While this position may seem brutal to Westerners, Muslim scholars note that there are -- or have been -- similar attitudes in the United States and Europe toward treason, albeit treason against the state. And many countries, including the United States, have punished traitors with death. Many Muslims argue that treason against God deserves no less a punishment.

Who Should Carry Out The Punishment?

Yet, as al-Qaradawi's statement suggests, Muslim scholars are not unanimous on this point. There are those who argue that even if apostasy does warrant death, a question remains: Who is authorized to carry it out?

Sheikh Muhammad al-Gazali, a renowned Egyptian religious scholar who died in March 1996, ignited a debate within Islamic circles on the question of apostasy when he testified, in July 1993, at the trial of 13 Islamic militants accused of killing the Egyptian writer Farag Foda. Foda was an outspoken critic of radical Islamists, who accused him of apostasy. Al-Ghazali ruled than an apostate should be given time to repent. But his support of ultimately carrying out a death penatly roused other scholars to argue for leniency and a reinterpretation of Islamic law on this issue.

"Those who blasphemed and back away from the ways of Allah and die as blasphemers, Allah shall not forgive them." (Nisa Ayah, 48)

The Koran is not explicit on this point, however. And many Muslim scholars argue that punishment for apostates and blasphemers is not be exacted on earth, but by God. They point to a verse in the Koran (Nisa Ayah, 48) that speaks only of Allah's retribution: "Those who blasphemed and back away from the ways of Allah and die as blasphemers, Allah shall not forgive them."

Ibrahim Syed, president of the Islamic Research Foundation International, based in Louisville, Kentucky, believes that verse supports more lenient interpretations on apostasy. "One grave misunderstanding of Islamic beliefs over the years is that Islam doesn't tolerate apostasy," he wrote in the article, "Shari'a: Is Killing An Apostate In Islamic Law?" published on the Internet site

"A Sunni Muslim reads the Koran in the Um Al-Qura mosque in Baghdad (epa)Islamic scholars from past centuries -- Ibrahim al-Naka'i, Sufyan al-Thawri, Shams al-Din al-Sarakhsi, Abul Walid al-Baji, and Ibn Taymiyyah -- have all held that apostasy is a serious sin, but not one that requires the death penalty," Syed wrote.

Specifically, Syed noted the words of the respected scholar in the history of Islamic jurisprudence, Shamsuddeen al-Sarakhshi, who stated, "renunciation of the faith and conversion to disbelief is admittedly the greatest of offences, yet it is a matter between man and his Creator, and its punishment is postponed to the Day of Judgment."

Shah Abdul Halim, chairman of the Islamic Information Bureau of Bangladesh, states in the article "Islam And Pluralism – A Contemporary Approach," published on, that the Prophet Muhammad when he lived showed great tolerance to those who turned away from Islam.

"The Prophet never put anyone to death for apostasy alone rather he let such a person go unharmed. No one was sentenced to death solely for renunciation of the faith, unless [it was] accompanied by hostility and treason or was linked to an act of political betrayal of the community."

Scholars discussing apostasy in a forum on Islam Online support the more lenient interpretation and also argued against vigilantism in carrying out Islamic law. In the Afghan case, it is a very real threat even if Abdul Rahman is freed by the courts, individuals may try to kill him, believing it is their duty to defend Islam.

"If this were to happen, such reckless action would only lead to a vicious circle of murder and homicide in which case a great deal of innocent people would be injured," scholars wrote on Islam Online.

The Right To Disbelieve

In his arguments against using apostasy to promote intolerance, Syed spoke directly to the hearts of believers in an article published in April 2005 on

"Let he who wishes to believe, do so; and let he who wishes to disbelieve, do so."

According to Syed, the best example on how to deal with apostasy was set by Muhammad himself: "There was a case at the time of the Prophet when a man came to him in three consecutive days and told him that he wanted to apostate. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) never took any action against him and when the man finally left Medina, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) never sent anyone to arrest him, let alone kill him."

Syed and other Islamic scholars who support tolerance also note this guidance offered in the Koran (Al-Kahf, 29): "Let he who wishes to believe, do so; and let he who wishes to disbelieve, do so."

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