Almost 90 years ago, in his 1924 The Law of Apostasy in Islam, Samuel Zwemer made these observations, regarding the post World War I “Arab Spring” of that era:
The story is told that Damocles, at the court of Dionysius of Sicily, pronounced the latter the happiest man on earth. When, however, Damocles was permitted to sit on the royal throne, he perceived a sword hanging by a horse-hair over his head. The imagined felicity vanished, and he begged Dionysius to remove him from his seat of peril. Today [circa 1924] 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 Does the sword of Damocles, however, still hang over the head of each convert from Islam to Christianity? Is the new Islam more tolerant than the old? [emphasis added] Will the lives and property of converts be protected, and the rights of minorities be respected? ….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 the faith of the most sincere and upright Moslems are bound up with the Koran and the Traditions. [emphasis added] Civilization cannot eradicate deep—seated convictions. Rifles and ironclads, the cafe, the theatre, written constitutions, representative parliaments; none of these reach far below the surface. A truer freedom…than the one supplied by their own faith, must come before Moslems can enter into the larger liberty which we enjoy.
Iranian Pastor Youcef Nadarkani’s chilling “apostasy” case illustrates, starkly, how Zwemer’s remarks remain depressingly relevant today: the scimitar of Damocles hovers over Nadarkhani for his “crime” of converting from Islam to Christianity. Thus far mainstream American Muslim advocacy groups—notably the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) have failed to condemn Pastor Nadarkhani’s heinous death sentence. This dereliction of basic moral duty by CAIR and ISNA, so vocal in highlighting the slightest perceived “violations” of Muslim rights here in the US, demonstrates that the continued failure of Islam to uphold basic freedom of conscience extends beyond the “Near East,” to Muslim communities across the entire world.
Notwithstanding transparent last minute Iranian efforts to recast the criminal proceedings against Pastor Nadarkhani with allegations of—what else—“Zionist conspiracism,” or other trumped up charges, a translated Iranian Supreme Court brief from 2010 (obtained by CNN from the American Center for Law and Justice, and translated from its original Farsi by the Confederation of Iranian Students in Washington) makes plain that apostasy is the sole charge.
Mr. Youcef Nadarkhani, son of Byrom, 32-years old, married, born in Rasht in the state of Gilan is convicted of turning his back on Islam, the greatest religion, the prophecy of Mohammad at the age of 19…He (Nadarkhani) has stated that he is a Christian and no longer Muslim…During many sessions in court with the presence of his attorney and a judge, he has been sentenced to execution by hanging according to article 8 of Tahrir Al- Wasilah (a book on Islamic Law, Sharia, authored by Ayatollah Khomeini as a guide for Muslims)
The quintessence of a contemporary Shiite pronouncement on apostasy in Islam (which cites Khomeini’s treatise extensively) appearing in Kayhan International, March 1986, stated openly
In Islam, apostasy is a flagrant sin and guilt for which certain punishments have been specified in Shari’a (Islamic law). Apostasy means, to renounce the religion or a religious principle after accepting it. In other words, one’s departure from Islam to atheism is called apostasy. A person who abandons Islam and adopts atheism is called an apostate . . …Apostasy is the escape from the pattern of creation and nature and that is why the word “voluntary” has been adopted for such an apostate…Can the penalty of escaping from the path and pattern of nature and creation be anything other than annihilation? This is the same thing that has been crystallized in the penal code of Islam. The anti-apostasy punishments of Islam are proper laws to rescue mankind from falling into the cesspool of treason, betrayal, and disloyalty and to remind the human being of his ideological commitments.
Iranian apostasy law is consistent with mainstream Islam’s rejection of freedom of conscience since the 7th century advent of the creed, through the clear modern dictates of the global Muslim umma’s religio-political hierarchy as put forth in the 1990 Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, signed by all 56 member nations of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (now the Organization of Islamic Cooperation).
- Koranic verses, such as 2:217 and 4:89 and their classical, mainstream exegeses by seminal Koranic commentators such as Baydawi (on 4:89: “Whosoever turns his back from his belief [irtada], openly or secretly, take him and kill him wheresoever ye find him, like any other infidel”) and Qurtubi (on 2:217: “Scholars disagree about whether or not apostates are asked to repent. One group say they are asked to repent and, if they do, they are not killed. Some say they are given an hour and others a month. Others say they are asked to repent three times, and that is the view of Malik [founder of the Maliki school of Islamic Law]..It is also said they are killed without being asked to repent.”)
- Muhammad is reported to have sanctioned lethal punishment for apsotates in the two most important canonical hadith collections, i.e., Bukhari and Muslim, and the Muwatta of Imam Malik: Bukhari, volume 9, #17—Narrated Abdullah: Allah’s Messenger said, “The blood of a Muslim who confesses that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that I am His Messenger, cannot be shed except in three cases: in Qisas (equality in punishment) for murder, a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse and the one who reverts from Islam (Apostate) and leaves the Muslims.”; Bukhari, volume 9, #57—Narrated Ikrima, “Some atheists were brought to Ali and he burnt them. The news of this event, reached Ibn Abbas who said, “If I had been in his place, I would not have burnt them, as Allah’s messenger forbade it, saying, “Do not punish anybody with Allah’s punishment (fire).” I would have killed them according to the statement of Allah’s Messenger, “Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him.”; Muslim—Chapter 6: WHEN IT IS PERMISSIBLE TO TAKE THE LIFE OF A MUSLIM, Book 016, Number 4152: Abdullah (b. Mas’ud) reported Allah’s Messenger as saying: It is not permissible to take the life of a Muslim who bears testimony (to the fact that there is no god but Allah, and I am the Messenger of Allah, but in one of the three cases: the married adulterer, a life for life, and the deserter of his Din (Islam), abandoning the community.; Muwatta of Imam Malik, #1410—“Zaid b. Aslam reported that the Apostle declared that the man who leaves the fold of Islam should be executed.
- There is also a consensus by all four schools of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence (i.e., Maliki, Hanbali, Hanafi, and Shafii), as well as classical Shiite jurists, that apostates from Islam must be put to death. Averroes (d. 1198), the renowned philosopher and scholar of the natural sciences, who was also an important Maliki jurist, provided this typical Muslim legal opinion on the punishment for apostasy: “An apostate…is to be executed by agreement in the case of a man, because of the words of the Prophet, ‘Slay those who change their din [religion]’…Asking the apostate to repent was stipulated as a condition…prior to his execution.”
- The contemporary (i.e., 1991) Al-Azhar (Cairo) Islamic Research Academy endorsed manual of Islamic Law, Umdat al-Salik (pp. 595-96) states: “Leaving Islam is the ugliest form of unbelief (kufr) and the worst…. When a person who has reached puberty and is sane voluntarily apostasizes from Islam, he deserves to be killed. In such a case, it is obligatory…to ask him to repent and return to Islam. If he does it is accepted from him, but if he refuses, he is immediately killed.”
- The equivalent, gravely negative implications of the OIC’s Sharia-based Cairo Declaration are most apparent in its transparent rejection of freedom of conscience in Article 10, which proclaims: “Islam is the religion of unspoiled nature. It is prohibited to exercise any form of compulsion on man or to exploit his poverty or ignorance in order to convert him to another religion, or to atheism.” Ominously, articles 19 and 22 reiterate a principle stated elsewhere throughout the document, which clearly applies to the “punishment” of so-called “apostates” from Islam: “[19d] There shall be no crime or punishment except as provided for in the Sharia.; [22a] Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Sharia.; [22b] Everyone shall have the right to advocate what is right, and propagate what is good, and warn against what is wrong and evil according to the norms of Islamic Sharia.; [22c] Information is a vital necessity to society. It may not be exploited or misused in such a way as may violate sanctities and the dignity of Prophets, undermine moral and ethical values or disintegrate, corrupt or harm society or weaken its faith.”
The universality of these Islamic attitudes affects Muslim communities in the West, including North America. Syed Mumtaz Ali, the late architect of Canada’s Sharia (Islamic Law) tribunal, and law professor Ali Khan, for example both have openly advocated extending Islamic apostasy laws to the West. Mumtaz Ali, in a disturbing essay, affirmed the traditional Islamic legal viewpoint that apostates must “choose between Islam and the sword,” arguing further that if Canada were to act in accord with its own Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian government must grant the country’s Islamic community authority to punish those Muslims who apostasize, or malign their faith.
Washburn (Topeka, Kansas) University Law Professor, Ali Khan, another practicing Muslim, provided a more original, but no less frightening rationale for Muslims in the West to violate, fatally, the basic freedom of conscience of their co-religionists. Khan argued in The Cumberland Law Review that apostasy from Islam is an “attack” upon “protected knowledge,” which if deemed (i.e., by some Islamic tribunal one must assume!) to be “open, hostile, and voiced contemptuously,” justified punishment by death. Ali Khan is convinced that traditional Islamic law precepts antipodean to freedom of conscience nevertheless trump this foundational Western freedom, because,
Islam is the truth beyond doubt. [And] [t] hese rules preserve the dignity of protected knowledge, discouraging an ‘easy in, easy out’ attitude toward Islam.
And in April, 2009 Harvard Muslim chaplain Taha Abdul-Basser explained approvingly to a Muslim student that the traditional Islamic practice of executing apostates from Islam, remained both venerable, and applicable:
There is great wisdom (hikma) associated with the established and preserved position (capital punishment), and so, even if it makes some uncomfortable in the face of the hegemonic modern human-rights discourse, one should not dismiss it out of hand.
The Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America (AMJA), consistent with modern fatwas published by Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, president of the International Union for Muslim Scholars (IUMS), and other prominent, mainstream Muslim clerics in Egypt (Al Azhar University), Lebanon, Iran, and Malaysia, has also mandated lethal punishment for apostates from Islam. AMJA’s mission statement maintains the organization was, “…founded to provide guidance for Muslims living in North America…AMJA is a religious organization that does not exploit religion to achieve any political ends, but instead provides practical solutions within the guidelines of Islam and the nation’s laws to the various challenges experienced by Muslim communities…” Moreover, AMJA was deemed a laudable, mainstream Muslim organization for North American imam training by the (US) Muslim Observer in October 2010, despite AMJA’s imams having issued the following public rulings on “apostasy” from Islam, in 2006 and 2009:
Dr. Hatem al-Haj 2006-04-17 As for the Sharia ruling, it is the punishment of killing for the man with the grand Four Fiqh Sharia scholars, and the same with the woman with the major Shari`ah scholars, and she is jailed with Al-Hanafiyyah scholars, as the prophet, prayers and peace of Allah be upon him, said: “Whoever a Muslim changes his/her religion, kill him/her”, and his saying: “A Muslim`s blood, who testifies that there is no god except Allah and that I am the Messenger of Allah, is not made permissible except by three reasons: the life for the life; the married adulterer and the that who abandons his/her religion”.
Dr. Main Khalid Al-Qudah 2009-01-02 Under the authority of the Muslim state, the People of the Book have the right to stay on their belief without being compelled to embrace Islam. But if one of them has embraced Islam, it would not be acceptable from him to go back to his original religion. The same rule applies to those who are born into Muslim families. According to the Islamic Law, they cannot commit apostasy.
Dr. Main Khalid Al-Qudah 2009-04-10 As for the second one, the “people” in this hadith means either the apostates who had become Muslim and then retreated to disbelief thereafter, or the polytheists who do not attribute themselves to any divine religion. This second possible meaning has been mentioned in Imam Al-Nasa’i’s narration: “I have been commanded to fight against the polytheists until they…” In Islam, neither of these categories of people is allowed to remain on their religion. The fact that there is no compulsion in religion does not negate the other fact that someone who has embraced Islam cannot change his mind afterward and embrace polytheism.
The eerie silence regarding Pastor Youcef Nadarkani’s looming death sentence for “apostasy” from typically shrill mainstream Muslim advocacy groups such as CAIR and ISNA can only be interpreted as meaning these organizations reject true freedom of conscience, and condone such Sharia-based punishment for the “crime” of “apostasizing” from Islam.
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