According to the Daily Telegraph: "Meriam Ibrahim, the Sudanese woman sentenced to death for apostasy, is to be freed in a few days, a senior Sudanese official has said. But her lawyers say they will not believe it until they see her walk out of prison" (1)
As the BBC reported: "Dr Meriam Yahya Ibrahim was condemned to hang for allegedly leaving Islam and marrying a Christian man. The court said that by doing so, she had abandoned her religious faith and was guilty of apostasy, which carries the ultimate penalty under Islamic law in the country." (2)
The BBC noted that this applies in other countries - Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan also uphold strict interpretations of Sharia law.
Curiously, while David Cameron has been open in his condemnation of the sentence, there has been a deafening silence from the White House. Perhaps it is not seen as politically expedient to make this a cause as the kidnapping of the schoolgirls was. Michelle Obama launched a campaign to rescue them under the Twitter hashtag #BringOutGirlsBack, but has been silent on this case.
As a Telegraph writer Rob Crilly notes, part of the problem is how people behave
"Islamic law is being abused by the impious and the hypocritical. To these pseudo-believers, it is simply another tool to be used to keep women in their place or foreigners in line. That is exactly what happened to Meriam. A half-brother apparently furious that she had gone her own way, choosing her own husband and planning to emigrate to America, was simply not going to allow it. Never mind that Meriam had never practised as a Muslim, he cried 'apostasy' and accused her of converting to Christianity."(3)
Yet if the laws were not in place, she would not have ended up in prison. When stringent laws were in place in Jersey, forbidding witchcraft, and allowing very little in the way of proof to be adduced, small and petty minded people, often neighbours, accused others of witchcraft. Some were exiles, many others were sentence to be strangled and burnt at the stake.
It was an abuse of the laws, but the laws themselves were part of a cultural mindset which fostered intolerance, and was a ready seed bed for false accusations to take root. For over a hundred years, people facing such accusations were placed into prisons under gruelling conditions, and often were executed, although lesser sentences, such as banishment, sometimes with ears cut off, could also occur.
It is pretty obvious that the law was certainly being abused by the impious and the hypocritical, but it is also obvious that it was an extremely bad law, ripe for that kind of abuse. And that is exactly what we do see today in places like the Sudan.
Professor Abdullah Saeed has noted that what has happened is that in a number of Muslim countries, "the government assumes the responsibility of 'protecting' local orthodoxies. Those who do not adhere to the government-sanctioned orthodoxy can be branded as deviants, heretics, or apostates. The potential for abuse is all the more real because governments in a number of Muslim countries are either semi-authoritarian or fully authoritarian; thus civil, political, and religious rights remain severely curtailed there."
He comments that "in these countries also mean that there are very few, if any, institutional safeguards to check abuses, safeguards such as elected representatives of Parliament, independent courts, or a free civic society and media."
In his historical survey of the roots of the law of apostasy, he notes that much of this was bound up in the earlier period when Islam was emerging.
"In the political context of the Prophet's time, a person either belonged to the community of believers (Muslims), the unbelievers (non-Muslims) who were at peace with Muslims, or the unbelievers who were at war with Muslims. If one leaves Islam and the Muslims and their allies, there is no option but to join the opposition. An apostate, therefore, was perceived to have automatically joined the non-Muslim side, becoming part of the enemy ranks and using apostasy as a means to attack and inflict maximum harm on the Muslim community. Thus the question of apostasy in early Islamic history was closely associated with the safety and security of the Muslims. Apostates were deemed a serious social and political threat to the whole community."
The texts of the hadith, such as the one which said "If anyone changes his religion, kill him", in their historical context, referred to those who were in a state of war against Muslims, and hence could be put to death. It was not so much a question of changing belief, as a matter of treason, hence the death sentence - much as the death sentence remained on the statute books for traitors in the UK until the later part of the 20th century.
The historical context was largely forgotten, and what emerged was a instead a limitation of the scope of freedom available to Muslims regarding belief, when Muslim scholars of the classical period opted for an extremely narrow definition of religious freedom. It was confined to non-Muslims as freedom to remain under Islamic rule as "protected religious minorities" (and pay a special religious tax for that privilege) or convert to Islam. Conversion from Islam was banned completely.
As Professor Saeed suggests:
"These scholars went against the general ethos of the Qur'an when they argued for state coercion to prevent Muslims from converting to other religions. The view of these early scholars is unsurprising as they functioned at a time when religious freedom and the concept of individual human dignity were not related in the way they are today"
And he notes that:
"People who remain Muslims under the threat of force are unlikely to have anything beneficial to offer to Islam or Muslim communities. Criminalizing apostasy and imposing a death penalty give the impression that Islam is an imposed religion"
Because the textual basis for the apostasy laws is actually quite weak, he would like to see a reformation of those laws, emphasizing religious freedom as a basic human right. Focus has been on those governments when Islamic law is imposed in very strict ways concerning apostasy, but he thinks that the vast majority of Muslims are moving away from the notion of the need to force Islam on Muslims to an alternative view that
"Islam is essentially a covenant between the individual and God. This is closer to the Qur'anic idea of noncoercion in religion, which was so strongly emphasized in the Qur'an in a variety of contexts but largely ignored in the formulation of the classical law of apostasy.Just as the institution of slavery, which had garnered Muslim and other consensus in the past, has been dropped, punishments for blasphemy and apostasy can also be revised."
However as Paul Marshall and Nina She observe: "many moderate Muslim voices are being silenced, especially by apostasy and blasphemy rules, which are key to preserving the tyranny of reactionary forms of Islam"
Zeyno Baran comments that: "The most important ideological struggle in the world today is within Islam. Moderate and secular Muslims, who embrace the compatibility of Islam and democracy and the individual freedoms we all cherish in the West, are being confronted by Islamists, who are extremist activists that hijack Islam and seek to gain political power and reshape societies."
And Marshall and She conclude that:
"In recent years, political campaigners who call for transparent elections in Iran, democracy activists who demand a constitution in Saudi Arabia, and editors who press to end the criminalization of blasphemy in Afghanistan have all been imprisoned for apostasy or blasphemy. Some, like Pakistan's minister Bhatti and governor Taseer, both strong advocates of blasphemy law reform, have been murdered."
There is evidently a long way to go yet before the situation is improved, not least because governments which use authoritarian means of control over their own people, are less likely to countenance anything which weakens that control. But scholars like Professor Saeed can lay solid foundations, so that where reform becomes possible, there is a solid foundation within the Qur'an for building an alternative and more contextual view of apostasy..
2) BBC News
4) Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide, editors Paul Marshall, Nina Shea, quotes fromchapter by Abdullah Saeed and concluding chapter by editors, OUP, 2011.
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