Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Apostasy and Freedom

Roland Clarke

Soon after the cartoons about Muhammad hit the head lines in early 2006 another controversy captured the world's attention. In Afghanistan, Abdul Rahman was charged with the 'capital offense' of apostasy for converting to Christianity. The controversy surrounding the trial seemed as if it might trigger a popular uprising to lynch Rahman.

A reporter for the Associated Press, March 23rd, 2006, interviewed four prominent clerics in Kabul. Each of these leaders believed Rahman should be executed. Abdul Raoulf, a member of the Afghanistan Ulama Council, was quoted as saying, “The government is playing games. The people will not be fooled... Cut off his head ... We will call on the people to pull him into pieces so there's nothing left.”

The report continues, “Raoulf said the only way for Rahman to survive would be for him to go into exile. But S.M. Nasri, the top cleric at Hossainia Mosque ... said Rahman must not be allowed to leave the country. “If he is allowed to live in the West, then others will claim to be Christian, so they can too,” he said. “We must set an example ... He must be hanged.”

Another Afghan Muslim leader, Ahmad Shah Ahmad-Zai, said to Asia Times Online, “Regardless of the court decision [whether or not he is hanged], there is unanimous agreement by all religious scholars from the north to the south, the east to the west of Afghanistan, that Abdul Rahman should be executed”.

President Karsai came under strong international pressure to spare Rahman from what seemed an inevitable death penalty. However, the judges and clerics strongly objected to this 'interference'. Few westerners understand this anger because they do not realize that, “Execution for apostasy has been accepted in Muslim society from the times of the Prophet Mohammed, and there is no difference among the schools of Islamic jurisprudence, be they Hanafi, Malaki, Shaafai, Hanbli or Jafari (Shi'ite).” (as reported by Syed Saleem Shahzad on March 25th, 2006 in the Asia Times.)

Mercifully, the charges against Rahman were dropped (incidentally, his name means 'mercy'). President Hamid Karzai was eventually able to negotiate a compromise. The Supreme Court finally called off the trial, saying there was insufficient evidence to prove Rahman mentally fit to stand trial. This face-saving tactic averted pressure from human rights groups but it did not really solve the problem.

The root of the problem is that the constitution of Afghanistan is based on Sharia law which states that apostasy is punishable by death. If this is not addressed, the question will arise sooner or later, “What should be the fate of 'normal' (mentally fit) Afghanis who leave Islam and choose to follow Jesus Christ?” As the law stands now, any Muslim who converts to another religion would be legally charged as an apostate and sentenced to death. If this should happen another trial would be held, revealing yet another embarrassing example of human rights violations by Muslim leaders.

One wonders if moderate Muslim scholars could not take steps to prevent this. Can they not reinterpret Sharia law to make it compatible with the UN charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Some are optimistic about introducing these changes but how realistic is it?

Is there hope that Muslim nations will soon stop penalizing apostates? (e.g. the death sentence)

What is the opinion of moderate Muslim judges in Afghanistan in answer to this question? Abdul Raoulf, the above-quoted cleric is regarded as a moderate. His verdict was that Rahman should be hanged. If you doubt that Raoulf's is moderate, bear in mind that he was jailed by the Taliban for opposing them!

Muslim leaders in USA who claim to be moderate have declared that a "man's conversion is a personal matter not subject to the intervention of the state." (as stated by CAIR) No matter how noble this seems, it is not enough to quote this North American Muslim association (CAIR). A brief statement like this makes no impact on Afghani jurists who have eminent degrees in Islamic law and are firmly entrenched in powerful positions.

Another example of the restrictive effects of Islamic law became evident in a court ruling in early 2008 when an “Egyptian judge ruled that a Muslim who converts to Christianity cannot legally change his religious status, although he may believe what he wants in his heart” as reported by Ethan Cole in the Christianpost

Cole continued explaining that six months earlier, “Muhammad Hegazy filed a historic case to seek official recognition for his conversion from Islam to Christianity. Because of persecution, converts to Christianity usually hide their new religious beliefs and only practice their faith secretly.

But Hegazy was the first convert to sue Egypt for rejecting his application to officially change his religion on his identification papers. He explained that his wife, who is also a Muslim convert to Christianity, was expecting a baby and wanted his daughter to be raised in an openly Christian environment.”

Cole explained that “Hegazy and his wife, Zeinab, have gone into hiding since filing the case because of the numerous death threats they received, including one from Hegazy’s father if he does not return to Islam.”

If this is the kind of freedom one can hope to attain in a country as westernized as Egypt, God help us! It is noteworthy that Egypt has a large Christian population and, compared to other Arab nations, has made considerable accommodations to western expectations. An example of this is Egypt's ratification of international human rights treaties granting the individual the right to adopt a religion of their choice. Considering the situation in Afghanistan and Egypt, there is little reason to hope that Islamically governed nations will grant real freedom of conscience.

The law of apostasy will not likely be changed. Indeed, the threat of the death penalty has been hanging for a long time over the heads of converts from Islam to Christianity. For example, over 80 years ago, Samuel Zwemer, commented on his times, saying, “Today we read of new mandatories, of liberty, and of promised equality to minorities under Moslem rule; and newspapers assert that a new era has come to the Near East. Economic development, intellectual awakening, reforms, constitutions, parliaments and promises.” [Zwemer, then asked], “Does the sword of Damocles, however, still hang over the head of each convert from Islam to Christianity?” ... “Again and again has European pressure, aided by a few educated Orientals, endeavored to secure equality before the law for all religions and races in the Near East. But as often as the attempt was made it proved a failure, each new failure more ghastly than the last. The reason is that the conscience and faith of the most sincere and upright Moslems are bound up with the Qur'an and the Traditions.” (p. 7, The Law of Apostasy in Islam, by Samuel Zwemer, bold font added for emphasis) Since Zwemer wrote this article there has been ample opportunity for moderate Muslims to present a strong case for freedom of conscience against the long standing consensus of traditional-bound Muslim jurists.

Earlier I asked, “What would happen if a 'normal' Afghan Muslim should convert to Christianity?” This is not just a hypothetical question. Well placed sources in Afghanistan report that “up to 10,000 Afghans have secretly converted to Christianity in recent years.” (from The Telegraph as quoted in Religiouswatch.) An Afghan who converted to Christianity 20 years ago, was interviewed by the Telegraph. He admitted that he and other converts are threatened but added, “we don't get trouble from ordinary people, but extremist religious groups will try to kill or kidnap us.”

Does this mean that the threat of persecution is a minor problem? Not at all, especially when you consider what has happened since Rahman's trial started. Reports tell of Afghan converts experiencing more threats including two converts being imprisoned. (source) This same problem prevails in over a dozen other Muslim nations where apostasy is labeled a crime and “in at least eight of these states [it] is punishable by death, either through explicit anti-apostasy laws or the broader offense of blasphemy.” (source) While the death-for-apostasy controversy was happening in Afghanistan, the Algerian parliament passed a law intended to “ban religious activity and secret religious campaigns” (source) - these are the words of an official of the Algerian ministry of religious affairs. This new law shows a definite trend towards adopting radical Islamic policies. This development, along with the rise of a radical Islam in Palestine and Iran, does not bode well for human rights in the Islamic world. Paul Marshall, who has written the most definitive recent study on worldwide persecution, estimates that about 160,000 Christians are being martyred every year ('Their Blood Cries Out'). In many cases the perpetrators are Muslims.

One wonders if most of these martyrs were sentenced to death by judges. Usually not. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross points out, “The greatest threat to apostates in the Muslim world derives not from the state, however, but from private individuals who take punishment into their own hands. In Bangladesh, for example, a native-born Muslim-turned-Christian evangelist was stabbed to death in the spring of 2003 while returning home from a film version of the Gospel of Luke. As another Bangladeshi apostate told the U.S. Newswire, 'If a Muslim converts to Christianity, now he cannot live in this country. It is not safe. The fundamentalism is increasing more and more.'” (source) The judicial basis for this is “the important legal text The Hidaya by Al-Marghiniani (d.1197), 'if any person kills an apostate....Nothing [i.e. No punishment] ... is incurred by the slayer'.” (source)

Abdul Rahman was spared from execution by the courts but if he had remained in Afghanistan, street-justice would probably have killed him. The fact is, most of the citizens of Muslim nations are not free to leave their religion or worship God according to their own conscience. Ex-Muslims often flee to the west to find freedom. Indeed, many Muslims emigrate to the west, attracted by the prospect of greater freedom. But how free is the west?

At the time I am writing this, another story of persecution is breaking into the mainstream non-religious media. However, this time it is happening in a western country, which supposedly upholds freedom of conscience. Sabatina James is an Austrian of Pakistani heritage who converted to Christianity. She "is at the center of a storm between Islam and international human rights law. After converting from Islam a few years ago, James had to flee from a father who wanted her killed for apostasy -- and from Austrian authorities who instead of protecting her, suggested she resolve the conflict by returning to Islam."

This story published on the 9th December 2008 by Radio Free Europe highlights the fact that many other ex-Muslims are facing a similar threat of abandonment by 'western' authorities to the threat of punishment as an apostate. What makes this tragedy even more startling is the fact that these things are  happening in so-called western countries which have historically defended human rights and freedom of conscience!

Freedom and the west?

Western nations pride themselves for upholding basic human rights and for having freedom of press, freedom of worship, etc. But real freedom involves more than just having the privilege to choose. Many Christians admit that the freedom enshrined in the constitution of western nations has become tainted by lust and greed. We can cite many examples of moral decay in the west, including, rampant sensuality, pornography, abortion, high divorce rates and love of money. The Bible clearly warns against abusing freedom in this way, “For you have been called to live in freedom - not freedom to satisfy your sinful nature, but freedom to serve one another in love.... If you keep looking steadily into God's perfect law - the law that sets you free - and if you do what it says and you don't forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it.” (Galatians 5:13; James 1:25)

Freedom and the east?

Scholars from the east have sometimes advocated freedom of conscience by quoting the Qur'an, “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (Surah 2:256). Unfortunately the vast majority of legal experts in Islam have restricted the meaning of this statement, making it non-applicable to Muslims leaving Islam.

Here is another well known statement about freedom that originated in the Near East. Jesus the Messiah said, “the truth will set you free”. The full statement, as found in John 8:31-59, reads:

Jesus said to the people who believed in him, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”

“But we are descendants of Abraham,” they said. “We have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean, 'You will be set free'?”

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin. A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family forever. So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free. Yes I realise that you are descendants of Abraham. And yet some of you are trying to kill me because there is no room in your hearts for my message. I am telling you what I saw when I was with my Father. But you are following the advice of your father.”

“Our father is Abraham,” they declared.

“No,” Jesus replied, “for if you were really the children of Abraham, you would follow his example. Instead you are trying to kill me because I told you the truth which I heard from God Abraham never did such a thing. No, you are imitating your real father.”

They replied, “We aren't illegitimate children! God himself is our true Father.”

Jesus told them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, because I have come to you from God. I am not here on my own but he sent me. Why can't you understand what I am saying? It's because you can't even hear me! For you are the children of your father the Devil, and you love to do the evil things he does. He was a murderer from the beginning. He has always hated the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, it is consistent with his character; for he is a liar and the father of lies. So when I tell the truth, you just naturally don't believe me! Which of you can truthfully accuse me of sin? And since I am telling you the truth, why don't you believe me? Anyone who belongs to God, listens gladly to the words of God. But you don't listen because you don't belong to God.”

The people retorted, “You Samaritan devil! Didn't we say all along that you were possessed by a demon?”

“No,” Jesus said, “I have no demon in me. For I honor my Father – and you dishonor me. And, though I have no wish to glorify myself, God is going to glorify me. He is the true judge. I tell you the truth , anyone who obeys my teaching will never die!”

A Muslim reader might find it difficult to think of the Jews speaking about God as their 'Father' (or Jesus for that matter). But pause and think for a minute. Although God is described as 'Father', Satan is also described as 'father'. Notice how Jesus accused the murderous Jews of being like their 'father', the Devil. This is especially interesting when we consider that the Qur'an describes Satan using the same metaphor, “Iblis broke the command of his Lord. Will ye then take him and his progeny [children] as protectors?” (Surah 18:50) The title 'Father' in relation to Allah is strictly prohibited in Surah 5:18. A fuller discussion can be found here.  Bearing this in mind, let us continue reading the heated exchange between Jesus and the Jews. The hostility and prejudice of the Jews surfaces once again as they accuse Jesus of being demon possessed.

The people said, “Now we know you are possessed by a demon. Even Abraham and the prophets died, but you say, 'Anyone who obeys my teaching will never die!' Are you greater than our father Abraham. He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?”

Jesus answered, “If I want glory for myself, it doesn't count.” But it is my Father who will glorify me. You say, 'He is our God,' but you do not even know him. I know him. If I said otherwise, I would be as great a liar as you! But I do know him and obey him. Your father Abraham rejoiced as he looked forward to my coming. He saw it and was glad.”

The people said, “You aren't even 50 years old. How can you say you have seen Abraham.”

Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was even born, I AM!” At that point they picked up stones to kill him. But Jesus was hidden from them and left the Temple.

If we pause to reflect on this encounter, I'm sure most of us will agree that Jews are not the only ones who find it difficult to understand the meaning of Christ's words, “anyone who obeys my teaching will never die”. This elusive statement might arouse your curiosity but some readers get angry, like the Jewish leaders. If you are inclined to react this way I pray that you will humbly ask God to help you understand these puzzling words Jesus spoke about 'never dying'. God willing, you will also be pleasantly surprised to discover the meaning of Jesus' words, “if the Son sets you free, you will indeed be free”.

When Jesus spoke of freedom he purposely contrasted it to being enslaved to sin. Moreover, we know that if a person dies in sin he ends up in the worst prison - hell. The obvious alternative to hell is heaven – where God's children experience freedom in its fullest sense. True liberty means being freed from the limitations of this earthly life. As it is written, “the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God's children in glorious freedom from death and decay.” (Romans 8:21) “Look, God's home is now among his people! He will live with them and they will be his people... He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” (Revelation 21:3,4)

Note: All Biblical quotations are taken from the New Living Translation. All Qur’anic quotations are from Yusuf Ali’s translation.

Points to ponder

  1. Reflect on Jesus' words, “You are truly my disciples if you keep obeying my teachings. And you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” These last few words have become well known but few people understand that in order to experience freedom we must obey Christ. This means we need to know what Christ taught. I encourage you to get a Bible and begin reading through the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

  2. Are you oppressed or under bondage? Do you believe the Messiah can set you free? We invite you to write and tell us what is burdening you so we can pray for you.

  3. Jesus' implied that the Jews were not really free – even though they thought they were. They denied they were slaves to anyone, claiming that they were “descendants of Abraham”. They asked Jesus, “What do you mean, 'You will be set free'?” Think about this and ask yourself, “Am I really free?” “Do sinful thoughts and desires control me?”

  4. What did Jesus mean when he said “before Abraham was even born, I AM!” Perhaps you want to explore this puzzling statement. If so, I suggest that you re-examine Abraham's test when God asked him to sacrifice his son.

  5. Jesus said, “I hold the keys of death and the grave.” (Revelation 1:18) This intriguing statement provides a clue to resolving Christ's claim – to be able to free people from death. You can explore this riddle about immortality here.

Two other articles which are relevant to the topic of human rights and apostasy are available:

Academic Lies About Apostasy, by Robert Spencer, April 6, 2006
Apostasy: What is the Real Issue? by Wildcat

If I can be of any assistance please contact me.