Monday, February 18, 2008

Islam and the apostasy debate

By Roger Hardy
BBC Middle East analyst

Leaving Islam can be fraught with difficulty.

Despite the well-known Quranic injunction "There is no compulsion in religion", issues of religious freedom have persisted into the 21st Century.

A recent report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (co-authored with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights) throws a spotlight on problems in Egypt.

Suppose a Christian woman converts to Islam, for example when she marries a Muslim man, but later wants to convert back.

Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch relates what happened in one case.

"We had one woman telling us how, when she converted to Islam, it was 'Just hold on, when you've finished your coffee your documents will be ready'.

"But in trying to convert back to Christianity, she's had to go to court - she's been completely frustrated in those efforts."

Identity crisis

The problem was aggravated when the Egyptian state computerised identity documents over a decade ago.

Christians seeking to re-convert encountered bureaucratic hassle in getting their ID cards changed.

Another issue arose from the fact that the state officially recognises only three religions - Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

Egypt's Bahais find it hard to
uphold their faith on official papers

This put the small Bahai community in an obvious difficulty.

Human-rights groups have welcomed two recent court cases as steps in the right direction.

In one, Bahais were allowed to leave blank the entry for religion on their ID cards.

In the other, a group of Christians seeking to re-convert were told the state should acknowledge their change of status on their identity documents.

Root of the problem

Apostasy - the abandonment of one's faith - is not just a problem in Egypt.

Some scholars favour the death penalty; others say the punishment should be left to God on the day of judgement
In 2006 an Afghan Muslim who converted to Christianity was sentenced to death and fled to Italy.

A new penal code that has been drafted in Iran would, if ratified, formalise the death penalty for apostasy.

The late Ayatollah Khomeini famously denounced the author Salman Rushdie as an apostate for his novel The Satanic Verses - and said he should be killed.

So what is the root of the problem? Why do some Muslim scholars favour such a severe penalty?

Abdal Hakim Murad, a lecturer at the faculty of divinity at Cambridge University, says Islamic law is extraordinarily diverse.

"There's a few things on which everybody agrees - pray five times a day, fast in Ramadan - but, in terms of public law, on most issues there is no consensus."

So some scholars favour the death penalty; others say the punishment should be left to God on the day of judgement.

Dr Murad says he recently attended a conference of Muslim scholars from around the world - and only one took the hard-line view. The others said the death penalty should no longer be applied.

But, for now, the debate goes on - and individuals continue to suffer.

The Star Online
Ex-follower of sect convicted of apostasy

KUALA TERENGGANU: The Syariah High Court has convicted former religious teacher Kamariah Ali and follower of the Sky Kingdom deviant sect led by Ayah Pin of apostasy.

Judge Muhammad Abdullah deferred the sentencing to March 3 to give Kamariah a chance to declare that she had repented and was willing to abandon any teachings contrary to Islam.

“Although I have drawn up several punishments, what I want to see is for Kamariah to change. The offence is an insult to Muslims in Malaysia and the world generally.

“Because Kamariah still lives in Terengganu and resides at the site of the Sky Kingdom which was previously used as a base for the Ayah Pin teaching, I would like to hear an admission from Kamariah that she has repented and is ready to leave all teachings except Islam.

“Don’t say I am telling Kamariah to repent because it must come from her own heart. I believe and am confident that Kamariah knows better of what is Islam and who is Allah,” he said.

Kamariah: Recited holy verses and told
the court she had regretted and repented

Kamariah, a graduate of Al-Azhar University was charged under Section 7 of the Syariah Criminal Offence Enactment (Takzir) Terengganu after she declared herself an apostate on July 21, 2005.

She could be fined up to RM5,000 or jailed up to three years or both, if convicted.

Kamariah, 57, was asked by Justice Muhammad to submit the declaration as this was a landmark case for the court here.

He also explained that the court was responsible to execute the Syariah law as her offence had insulted the feelings of Muslims in Malaysia.

“The court has a prima facie case against you, the sentencing could be heavy but the court is giving you a chance to repent and I would evaluate the sentence that should be meted out, later,” he said.

Earlier during the trial, Kamariah declined to recite the holy verses as requested by the court to prove that she was still a Muslim.

Pressed further by the judge, the mother of four said she was still a Muslim but did not want to recite the holy verses because she felt she had the freedom not to do so in front of other people.

The court then stood down for half hour and when the proceedings resumed, Kamariah finally recited the verses and told the court she had regretted and repented, prompting the court to defer the date of sentencing.

Kamariah's counsel Sa’diah Din in her mitigation asked the court to consider her client’s plea as she had not committed any other civil offences and was a widow with four children.

Prosecuting officer, Mustafar Hamzah asked the court to mete out a severe sentence as the accused was born a Muslim, highly knowledgeable in Islam, the case’s outcome could affect the faith of other Muslims in Malaysia.

Further Readings:
Malaysia: Lonely Widow's Battle To Leave Islam
Malaysia: Islamic Court Places Woman's Faith On Trial
Escape from Islam
Kamariah Ali - vs - Kelantan
Malaysia: Totalitarian Aspects of a "Moderate" Muslim Regime
Is Malaysia an Islamic state?
Malaysia's 'moderate" Islam supports oppression
Malaysia's "Moderate" Islam Means Racism and Oppression
Ex-teacher still a Muslim, rules court

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