24 March 2006

Death Penalty for Apostasy

There has been a reasonable amount of coverage in the news about a man in Afghanistan who has been accused of converting from Islam to Christianity and may face the death penalty. He has been a Christian for 16 years after converting while he lived in Canada. His family reportedly turned him in after a custody dispute.

The Afghanistan constitution allows Shari'a law to be in effect as long as its rulings don't conflict with principles or laws set forth by the constitution. While I am very concerned that the constitution does not ban the death penalty or limit it only to capital murder convictions, I am not opposed to Shari'a law still having a role in a Muslim country (although it should only apply to Muslims) as long as there are limits and when more reasonable forms of Shari'a law are used.

There is no one form of Shari'a law. I've written about the different schools of Islamic thought (also here) and some of the different interpretations of Islamic law. This article from the Sisters in Islam website, while a few years old and specifically related to Malaysia, nicely outlines the controversy over apostasy and its different interpretations. A few of its most important points:

Surah An-Nisa', 4:137, states that "those who believe, then disbelieve, then believe again, then disbelieve, and then increase in their disbelief - Allah will never forgive them nor guide them to the path." If indeed it was Allah's intention to impose the death penalty for apostasy, then such occasion of repeated apostasy could have provoked such a punishment. But neither the first instance of apostasy, nor repeated apostasy brought about capital punishment.

Those who advocate the death penalty for apostasy based their reasoning on a hadith which proclaims, "kill whoever changes his religion". But this hadith is open to varying interpretations on several grounds.

First, this hadith is considered a weak hadith with just a single isnad (this means there is only one chain of transmission or narration) and thus according to the rules of Islamic jurisprudence, it is not enough to validate the death penalty.

Second, this hadith is also considered a general ('amm) hadith in that it is in need of specification (takhsis); for it would otherwise convey a meaning that is not within its purpose. The obvious reading of the hadith would, for example, make liable the death punishment on a Hindu or Christian who converts to Islam. This is obviously not the intention of the hadith.

According to the rules of Islamic jurisprudence, when a text is interpreted once, it becomes open to further interpretation and specification. Therefore, many scholars interpret this hadith to apply only to cases of high treason (hirabah), which means declaring war against Islam, the Prophet, or God or the legitimate leadership of the ummah.

Third, and most importantly, there is no evidence to show that Prophet Muhammad saw or his Companions ever compelled anyone to embrace Islam, nor did they sentence anyone to death solely for renunciation of the faith.

Based on these three reasons and the Qur'anic principle of freedom of religion, prominent ulama from the seventh to the twentieth centuries have come out with the position that there can be no death penalty for apostasy.

Islam is an incredibly diverse religion with many different interpretations. There are Muslims around the world working for less restrictive interpretations to be used. This interview with a woman attorney from Iran highlights one problem: "In my opinion, it is the patriarchic culture that gives men priority in all issues...We need an interpretation of Islam that recognizes women's rights."

These interpretations are out there and used in many parts of the world. Instead of trying to make Islam look like one homogeneous, intolerant religion, let's support the more liberal interpretations. I'd much rather live in Central Asia than Saudi Arabia!


  1. Amira, my understanding is that the four main schools (madhab) of Islamic thought all decree death for apostasy from Islam -- at least for sane mature males. My recollection is that they do not differ all that much -- the main difference being in how the punishment should be applied to a woman apostate or the degree to which the punishment should be delayed before the apostate is in fact killed. I believe at least one of the schools argued that the apostate should be imprisoned for a period of three days (thus being given a chance at repentance) before the death penalty was executed -- but I'll have to re-investigate this question a bit before I speculate too much and say the wrong thing.

    I'm sure there are many more tolerant and liberal Muslims in the world today. However this is a question I've brought up with Muslim friends and neighbors occasionally here in the United States and I've been surprised at how emphatically and quickly some of them have said that yes, they do uphold the death penalty for apostasy. They may have their reasons for saying so ... but it bothers me all the same.

  2. I agree that it is a big problem and that most Muslims probably think that in general, death for apostasy is acceptable. And that the four major schools don't ban it. But there are individual Muslim countries that do, and there are individual Muslims trying to change that.

    In the end, I prefer to highlight the efforts of those who are trying to change things for the better than griping about the bad. Change to Islamic law is not going to come because of Western criticism. It will come because Muslims call for change and I think the West could do more to support those people.