Islamic Scholars Wrestle With Death-For-Apostasy Issue

By Patrick Goodenough | April 30, 2009 | 4:46 AM EDT

( – An international Islamic body has appointed a committee of six religious scholars to study one of the most contentious issues in Islam today – whether “apostates” should face the death penalty.
The decision was taken Wednesday at a conference in the United Arab Emirates hosted by the International Islamic Fiqh Academy, an organ of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) that is responsible for interpreting shari’a, or Islamic law.
Attended by 200 scholars from dozens of countries, the five-day conference, which ends Thursday, has grappled with issues ranging from the environment and financial questions to ways of controlling the issuing of fatwas (edicts) on sensitive matters.
Under some interpretations of shari’a, Muslim men who abandon Islam or convert to another faith, and who refuse to return to Islam – usually within a specified, limited period – can be put to death for apostasy.
Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran, Afghanistan and Mauritania are some of the countries where people have been accused or convicted of apostasy.
Mauritania’s criminal code, for instance, provides for a three-day period of reflection and repentance for any Muslim guilty of apostasy, “whether by word or action.” “If he does not repent within this time limit, he is to be condemned to death as an apostate and his property will be confiscated by the Treasury.”
Scholars have debated the issue down the centuries, according to religious historians.
At a simple level, those who argue for the death penalty invoke writings such as sura 4:89 of the Koran, which urges Muslims to seize and kill those who turn away. The Hadith, or traditional writings and sayings of Mohammed, include one in which he commands, “Any [Muslim] person who has changed his religion, kill him.”
Others counter that in order to deserve death the apostate should not only have converted but also be a danger to the community or society, equating it with the crime of treason. They often cite the Koranic injuction, in sura 2:256, that “there is no compulsion in religion.”
Participants at the International Islamic Fiqh Academy (IIFA) conference debated the issue on Wednesday, with some scholars calling for a review of the death penalty requirement while others insisted that it be retained, the Saudi Arab News reported.
“Religious freedom is a right that should be guaranteed to every human being,” it quoted an Egyptian government minister, Mahmoud Zaqzouq, as saying.
A prominent Saudi religious law professor, Muhammad al-Nujaimi, argued that scholars in the past did not differ substantively over punishing apostates. They only differed over how quickly the apostate should be executed – after three days, a week, or several months, he said.
Al-Nujaimi reportedly shrugged off criticisms from human rights organizations.
“These groups will never stop attacking Islam even if we were to agree to all their demands,” he said. “We will never allow others to dictate our religion to us.”
IIFA secretary-general Abdul Salam sl-Ebadi said a number of OIC government representatives wanted the apostasy issue clarified. Six scholars had been tasked to study the issue and submit recommendations, he said.
Earlier, OIC secretary-general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu told the conference that a proliferation of individual interpretations on religious issues was encouraging extremism, and damaging the Muslim world.
Among other things, he pointed to the inclination of some Muslims to denounce others as apostates, saying this could lead to sectarian conflict such as the Sunni-Shia strife in Iraq.
‘A lifetime of fear’
Together with controversies such as the ill-treatment of women and clerical justification of violence, apostasy frequently features in criticisms of Islam.

A covered Muslim woman in Afghanistan. (AP Photo)

Last year Iran’s parliament voted in favor of a bill that will provide for the death penalty for any male Iranian who leaves the Islamic faith while women converts would face imprisonment.
The draft law is now being considered by Iran’s Guardian Council, a legal-religious body appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and empowered to approve or veto legislation.
In Saudi Arabia, apostasy is on a par with rape, murder and drug trafficking as offenses punishable by death. President Bush last November used the opportunity of a Saudi-initiated interreligious meeting at the U.N. to urge the kingdom to scrap its prohibition on religious conversions.
In Afghanistan, Christian convert Abdul Rahman was sentenced to death in 2006 for apostasy, but after the U.S. and other Western members of the coalition forces there brought pressure to bear on the Karzai administration, he was freed and allowed to seek asylum abroad.
The Barnabas Fund, an international charity working among Christians in Islamic societies, says that Muslims who change religions often face “a lifetime of fear.” Even in countries where conversions are not punishable by law, apostates often face hostility from their families, communities or Islamist radicals.
The Barnabas Fund says some accused of apostasy or the closely-associated offense of blasphemy are not converts, but rather Muslims who have questioned some interpretations of Islam
Sudan in 1985 executed a religious scholar named Mahmoud Mohamed Taha after he publishing a leaflet calling for Islamic law to be reformed to make it more humane.
Iranian history professor Hashem Aghajari was sentenced in 2002 to hang after saying in a speech that Muslims should not follow clerics “blindly.” After students protested he was retried, sentenced instead to five years’ imprisonment and later freed on bail.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow