Conversion Is Not Treason

Posed by Walt Thiessen
Answered by Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.

Q. Have you written or are you planning to write something about Abdul Rahman Jawed and Afghanistan's interpretation of Islamic law regarding converts to other religions?

A. Yes. I wrote the attached piece for the Washingon Post, but they did not publish it:

Muslims have so thoroughly scrambled the teachings of Islam that non-Muslims cannot be blamed for many of their misunderstandings. It is not merely a matter of confusion over specific provisions of Islamic law, such as whether apostasy is a capital offense, but the terminology of Islamic law (such as sharî`ah) has been so abused in modern times that even Muslim jurists, let alone the Muslim public and outside observers, have come to perverse conclusions about its nature and rulings.

The consequences can be grave, such as the life of Abdul Rahman, the Afghani convert to Christianity, which now hangs in the balance.  <>The root of the problem is the confusion in the minds of Muslims among three completely different, albeit related, concepts: sharî`ah, fiqh and hudûd. Shari`ah is the law ordained by God. Fiqh is Islamic jurisprudence, the completely human effort to understand, articulate, and codify the sharî`ah. Hudûd are crimes for which a specific penalty is explicitly mandated in the Islamic scripture.  

Sharî`ah literally means “the path to the watering place,” reflecting the Islamic view that the law is divinely ordained, inherent in the nature of creation. The Muslim view of the law that governs human actions is similar to the Newtonian view of the laws of nature: they are God-given, something for humans to discover, not to invent. The path to the well, unlike the “positive law” of legislatures, is mapped, not constructed.

Fiqh, the Islamic jurisprudence developed by Islamic legal scholars, is analogous to the theories of physical scientists, human attempts to codify the laws of nature. As our understanding of the law of gravity changes with time, even though the gravity itself does not, so the fiqh may evolve, has done so in the past, and must do so in the future if Muslim civilization is not to remain forever stagnant and under the thumb of other civilizations.

The question often asked of individual Muslims, whether they favor the “imposition of sharîah law,” has no meaning. It is the equivalent of asking whether one advocates the imposition of the law of gravity. One submits to the law of gravity; one does not impose it. Questioners really mean to ask does one advocate the imposition of the hudûd punishments (such as flagellation for public drinking). This is an interesting question, but it can also be misleading if one does not know what the hudûd punishments are and under what circumstances and conditions they are implemented.

The case in point is the claim that apostasy is punishable by death. Non-Muslims must be excused for believing that it is, when so many Muslims (most recently including the Afghani professor of law quoted in the Washington Post, “For Afghans, Allies, A Clash of Values,” March 23, 2006, A1), have made assertions to that effect. Non-Muslims are not in the position to appreciate, as Muslims should, that legal opinions based on debatable interpretations of traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) cannot abrogate the teachings of the Qur’an that are clear and unambiguous upon the following relevant points: (1) that a person’s choice of religion can not be coerced and that (“Let there be no compulsion in religion….” 2:256) and (2) capital punishment applies only to acts of murder or waging war against society (e.g., terrorism, “… if anyone slew a person unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land it would be as if he slew the whole people…” (5:32).

Without doubt renegades who abandoned Islam to join the enemy forces in war against the Muslims were punished by early generations of Muslims with the death penalty, as those engaged in treason have been subject to the death penalty throughout history around the world. Treason, however, is distinct from mere conversion. According to the BBC, Abdul Rahman’s response to the charges against him was, “I am not an infidel or a fugitive. I am a Christian.” His conversion is not subject to hudûd punishments. As Muslims, by definition, believe that the Qur’an is the word of God, we must submit to the Qur’anic commandment, “Leave Me alone (to deal) with the creature I created (bare and) alone” (74:11).

The recent call for the release of Abdul Rahman by the Council on American Islamic Relations citing the opinion of the Fiqh Council of North America (an association Islamic legal scholars) is a welcome sign that Muslims may be ready to challenge intemperate rulings born out of historical periods of conflict to return to the recognition that our belief that “there is no god but God” has as its corollary that no one has the right to interpose himself between the individual and his Creator in matters of belief.

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