Islam’s apostasy problem
As you read this piece, a 27-year-old woman named Meriam Yahya Ibrahim will be awaiting her death in Sudan. For on May 15, she was sentenced to death by a court who found her guilty of “apostasy.” Her “crime,” in other words, was simply to abandon Islam and adopt Christianity.
In fact, the court who tried Ms. Ibrahim gave her just three days – so that she could perhaps “recant.” Yet she is still alive, because she was pregnant and recently gave birth to her baby. So the court decided that she will be allowed to live for two more years, in jail, with her baby, which she can breastfeed. Her other child, a 20-month-old boy, is already with her in prison. He will be old enough in two years to be traumatized by the execution of his mother. The husband, meanwhile, is in deep agony, hopelessly frequenting court rooms and prison gates.
In short, what is being done to Ms. Ibrahim and her family is a ruthless, cruel, outrageous violation of human rights. Yet unfortunately, both the Sudanese authorities and some likeminded Muslims see this only as justice, because they seriously believe that all “apostates” from Islam, without any doubt, should be put to death.
However, as a Muslim myself, I join many other co-religionists of mine who oppose this apostasy ban, and see it as both an attack on religious freedom and an insult to Islam itself.
Our first reason is simple common sense: How can a religion claim to be noble, and reasonable, if it tries to keep its believers in the fold with death threats? How can we also expect this threat to make the would-be apostates good Muslims? Wouldn’t they, at best, rather become hypocrites who hide their disbelief merely out of fear?
The second reason is that the ban on apostasy, which is indeed in Islamic law (shariah), has simply no basis in the Quran, the only undisputed source of Islam. None of its verses say people should be executed for disbelief. Quite the contrary, the Quran vindicates religious freedom, with verses such as, “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” (2:256)
But post-Quranic Islamic law gradually limited the scope of this “no compulsion” principle. (That is why some Quran translations today “edit” the verse above with a crucial in-parantheses insertion. They write, “Let there be no compulsion in [the acceptance of] religion.” The implication is that you are free to enter Islam or stay out of it. But once you enter, even simply by being born into it, you are not allowed to leave.)
As I explain in my book, “Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty,” in the chapter titled “Freedom from Islam,” the ban on apostasy emerged in post-Quranic Islam due to political needs. For the medieval scholars, the apostate was a traitor who could potentially join the enemy army. For the Islamic empires, the apostate was anyone whose ideas looked harmful to public order, and, of course, to the masters of the state.
Yet now we live in a world in which religious freedom has become a norm. Somebody who changes his or her religion does not commit high treason, but merely exercises a most fundamental human right.
Those who claim to implement the sharia – in Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Iran or elsewhere – should see this reality, reinterpret their laws, and stop killing innocent people. They can begin by realizing that the harm they give to Islam is greater than what the most vengeful apostate could possibly give.