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Pastor's possible execution reveals nuances of Islamic law
Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani preaches in a file photo.
October 7th, 2011
06:55 PM ET

Pastor's possible execution reveals nuances of Islamic law

By Dan Merica, CNN

(CNN) - The possible hanging of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani for converting from Islam to Christianity has exposed a division among Islamic jurists on whether Iran would be violating Islamic law by carrying out the execution.

According to some of these scholars, the Quran not only outlaws the death penalty for the charge of apostasy, but under Sharia law, conversion from Islam is not a punishable offense at all.

"Instead, it says on a number of occasions that God prefers and even demands that people believe in Him, but that He will handle rejection of such belief by punishing them in the afterworld," wrote Intisar Rabb, an assistant professor of law at Boston College and a faculty affiliate in research at Harvard Law School, in an e-mail to CNN.

But Rabb also acknowledges that there is a more nuanced view to Islamic law, too.

Clark Lombardi, an associate professor of law at the University of Washington, said there is more room for interpretation because the Quran is not the only source of Islamic law.

"Most Muslims look past the Quran and say the Quran needs to be looked at in the practice of the Prophet. So they look to see what rules the prophet laid down," Lombardi said.

And, according to Lombardi, if you look at literature about the life of Mohammed, "then apostasy is clearly something very bad. And there are examples of apostates being punished."

What emerges from this is a complicated division between whether apostasy is punishable in the first place and, if it is punishable, for what reason.

"Most Muslims, most but not all, believe that apostasy is a deep and terrible sin," Lombardi said. "The question of whether the state should punish deep and terrible sins is in fact something that Muslims do disagree about."

Nadarkhani, the leader of a network of Christian house churches in Iran, was first convicted of apostasy in November 2010, a charge he subsequently appealed. Though news reports from Iran have indicated the pastor is now charged with "security related crimes" and is no longer charged with apostasy, briefs obtained by CNN from the 2010 Supreme Court case show the pastor's original charge was solely apostasy.

"He (Nadarkhani) has stated that he is a Christian and no longer Muslim," states the Supreme Court brief. "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 - olvasileh."

Harris Zafar, national spokesperson of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA, does not mince words on the subject, stating in a Huffington Post opinion piece that "Islam prescribes absolutely no punishment for apostasy."

"Chapter two of the Holy Quran emphatically denies this possibility, stating 'there shall be no compulsion in religion," writes Zafar. "This is an unambiguous declaration protecting freedom of conscience and choice."

Mohammad Fadel, associate professor of law at University of Toronto, said that there is a difference, though, between just being a nonbeliever and being someone who is actively preaching a religion other than Islam. Fadel said Nadarkhani's preaching "may be viewed as a kind of treasonous comment."

"Even for people who reject Islam religiously, many still identify them with the religion culturally, even if they aren't religious," Fadel said.

According to Rabb, the idea for punishing apostasy stems from medieval times, when your religious affiliation was the basis for your citizenship. Renouncing your faith was also announcing your intent to no longer regard yourself a citizen of that community - in effect, treason.

But as time went on, your religious affiliation is no longer closely tied to your citizenship. "Now, we have an era of territory-based citizenship," Rabb wrote.

"The problem in the modern period is that contemporary states apply medieval rules in unreflective ways that do not often match the classical Islamic legal tradition to which they are trying to adhere," wrote Rabb.

But Lombardi points out that Iran is formally known as the Islamic Republic of Iran and "being Muslim is part of full citizenship in Iran." Though he couldn't speak for the Iranian justice system, he said there are two grounds for which Iran could give to put Nadarkhani to death for apostasy.

"One of them would be to say traditionally in Shiite Islam, people have interpreted the scripture for apostates to be put to death," Lombardi said. "The other one is that people who apostatize have committed a sin and they are real threat to the Muslim community and as a threat, they are punishable as someone who is a traitor to the country."

The website islawmix, a project through the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, was created to be an authoritarian voice on the nuances in Islamic law.
Made up of 13 scholars and founded by Rabb, along with Umbreen Bhatti and Kaizar Campwala, the website looks to connect "news readers, media producers, and legal scholars with credible, authoritative information about trends in Islamic law."

Bhatti, a practicing civil rights lawyer, said the nuances of Islamic law are not unique; the same sort of nuanced opinions are regularly found in American law.

"The reality is the 13 scholars on our sites could give you a variety of different responses," Bhatti said. Islamic law has a "rich legal tradition and it is important for us to not convey something definitive or to suggest there is one answer."

The overriding opinion of each scholar was simple - the complication of Islamic law makes it somewhat difficult to predict what Iran will do.

Lombardi recalled a story in Afghanistan, where a man's neighbors hauled him to court for leaving Islam.

"The judge takes a look and says this person is an apostate and therefore the crime should be putting them to death," Lombardi said. "But then the judge said, Islam is such great religion, you could have to be crazy to have to convert from Islam. And therefore, I think this person should get off on ground of insanity."

Moral of the story, according to Lombardi: "There are all sorts of grounds for pardoning someone."

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Iran • Islam • Islamic law

soundoff (638 Responses)
  1. Misterwire

    This is probably why most moslems remain in that religion because they would be killed if they accept Christ. If Moslems believe that Christ will return soon, then why are they killing people who believe in the same Christ? I do not understand it!

    In fact, they would be doing this pastor a great favour if they kill him. Christ warned us not to be afraid of the Imams who can destroy only the body but to be afraid of He (God) who can destroy both the body and soul.

    October 7, 2011 at 11:07 pm |
    • Anon

      You're both screwed up in the head.

      October 7, 2011 at 11:19 pm |
  2. salman

    almost all muslims will agree with me when i say that he has the right to be christian. the iranian government thinks that some harm will come from letting this guy be christian, when it does more good than bad to keep him alive.

    October 7, 2011 at 10:48 pm |
    • Q

      Then where are the protests by Muslims? The claim to have a billion followers. Why aren't they rallying in the street for this man's life?

      October 7, 2011 at 10:55 pm |
    • Arthur

      And where are all the Christians protesting the war in Iraq? And the illegal torture of the captives of Guantanamo Bay?

      October 8, 2011 at 1:53 am |
  3. Q

    Iran needs to be exposed for how it mistreats its Christians. Farshid Fathi has been tortured in prison alongside Youcef, simply for being a Christian. Sonia Abrahiman was jailed for her faith and lost her baby in prison. Her husband, Vahik, was tortured and has fled Iran after finally being released from prison, only to have his captors follow him with death threats. Nazly Belyad is going to be imprisoned for the "crime" of believing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and loved her enough to die for her. Nazly is seven months pregnant. Will her baby share the same fate the Sonia's did? We must pray for these people and DO whatever is in our power to free them.

    October 7, 2011 at 10:42 pm |
    • Kat

      did you get the names of these people from your fundi christian pemphlet?

      October 7, 2011 at 10:46 pm |
    • Q

      They are friends of mine. Your disrespect towards them and defence of the indefncible (killing by the sword) is disgusting.

      October 7, 2011 at 10:52 pm |
    • saved through faith

      I agree. Our mandate is to pray for all those who have trusted Christ and are suffering persecution for their faith. Many of us Christians know little of what persecution really is. I also realize persecution can be in a different form than just physical. May God bless and strengthen our brothers and sisters in Christ and deliver them from harm. Read about the many heroes of faith in Hebrews 11: 36-40. Also Hebrews 13:3, 5-6, 8.

      October 7, 2011 at 11:00 pm |
  4. Rod

    Ambiguity in any religion shows the fallibility not only of the mind but of the heart! The heart however disingenious it is rules over the mind for compassion and love. Any person with convictions other than traditional beliefs deserve commendation and willful coexistence. This is diversity in a world of acculturation regardless of race feligion or creed! The Iranian pastor deserves commendation!

    October 7, 2011 at 10:34 pm |
  5. savedbygrace

    God saved us because of our faith. We must all pray. If Jonah was able to save all of those terrible people, and there were a lot, then hundreds of thousands of people praying should be able to save pastor Yousef, his family and his lawyer and his family. Pray with everything in you. God will listen. Let this open the eyes of the people of Islam. Our God is a loving God.

    October 7, 2011 at 10:32 pm |
    • AGeek

      ...which completely explains how he simply allows atrocity after atrocity to persist, despite all these people praying.

      October 7, 2011 at 10:41 pm |
    • Q

      God can save Youcef, but He might have a martyr's crown in store for him. Remember, what happens here on earth is but a vapour. What happens in heaven is forever. Youcef will be all right regardless of what they do to him. It's his children, Daniel and Yoel, and his wife, Fatema, we must care for.

      October 7, 2011 at 10:43 pm |
  6. Kat

    Is the US media always going to report on some flimsy stories that condemns Muslims every time Israeli thieves burn down mosques or steal homes, or colonize others or condemns UN vote for Palestine or starts a war on one of its neighbors?

    October 7, 2011 at 10:31 pm |
    • Q

      An innocent man is about to die for his faith, and all you can think about is getting an antisemitic jab in there? No wonder more and more people are disgusted by Islam and the apologists for the religion of "peace".

      October 7, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
    • Kat

      this is an old story that CNN already reported and Iran denied that he's sentenced to death for apostasy but because of raping many boys. Why is CNN beating on this horse? Is israek about to strike Iran?

      October 7, 2011 at 10:40 pm |
    • Q

      It's not an old story. It is a current one, with people still trying to fight for Youcef's life up to the last moment. The fact that you care so little for this dedicated man's life and choose to spew bigoted hate on board says a lot about you.

      October 7, 2011 at 10:45 pm |
    • Kat

      the fact that you are defending a compulsive rapist of boys says much about you.

      October 7, 2011 at 10:49 pm |
  7. TonyQ

    If Jesus, Mohamad and Buddha knew each other they would be best friends. The problem is people create this thing called religion to gain power,respect or money..... Its just to bad..... 🙂

    October 7, 2011 at 10:29 pm |
    • Q

      Jesus wasn't friends with pedophiles and religionists.

      October 7, 2011 at 10:38 pm |
    • Wanderer

      Neither Jesus nor Mohamad nor Buddha created religions, don’t excuse yourself in their name.

      October 7, 2011 at 10:42 pm |
    • snow

      Riight.. Jesus was not a riligionist at all.. I mean he really did not say that he is the son of god, no less, and you better follow him.. or else..

      Nope. not riligionist at all

      October 7, 2011 at 10:45 pm |
    • Wanderer

      @snow
      Good advice but Jesus is not the only one on earth who everybody should follow. If you love him, it is perfect alright for you to follow him. If you don't want Jesus to look bad, if I were you, I would never tell other people to follow Jesus because it is about personal choice.

      October 7, 2011 at 10:51 pm |
    • Anon

      Screw Jesus, a clown can offer better advice.

      October 7, 2011 at 11:04 pm |
    • THE BROWN NOTE

      according to ot level 8 in scientology

      l ron hubbard claims that jesus was a pedo

      and it wouldnt surprise me in the least bit

      October 7, 2011 at 11:39 pm |
  8. Qularkono

    a major difference is that Christians (real Christians not just in name) believe that God's Word is absolute ... and the traditions of men and/or Imams does not have any authority over God's Word. Yes, Catholics believe that the Pope (traditions of men) can take precedence ... just like the pharasees. Yes, Mormons have a whole book invented by Joseph Smith that takes precedence over the Word of God ... but they are both sinning grievously.

    October 7, 2011 at 10:29 pm |
  9. Kat

    this is an old story that CNN already reported and Iran denied that he's sentenced to death for apostasy but because of raping many boys. Why is CNN beating on this horse? Is Israel about to strike Iran?

    October 7, 2011 at 10:28 pm |
  10. Doug in San Diego

    Any religion that cannot allow other religions to exist in close proximity is insecure. Any religion that truly reflects the will and spirit of God would be able to win out in the marketplace of ideas. If there is a supreme being, it doesn't need your protection. Unfortunately, that vast swath of geography from North Africa through most of South Asia is inhabited by an insecure people who seem to think God needs protecting. And quit smiling, fundamentalist Christian - you are nearly as insecure as the Muslims in your beliefs.

    October 7, 2011 at 10:27 pm |
  11. kimsland

    I think this guy should turn to the Islamic people and say
    I love you, now burn in Hell.

    It would be nice to see those Christian values upheld with bravery and peace.
    What? Oh when it comes to life here on Earth, they rather turn their back on their religious beliefs.
    How interesting.

    Burn Islam burn in Hell
    And you Christians are going to all be punished by Allah, I'm thinking a type of Bubba in prison hate crime.
    Probably best you all get away from this religious stuff, quick smart.

    October 7, 2011 at 10:25 pm |
    • o.k.

      Kimsland...I've been following these posts for a number of months, occassionally logging in when someone says something unusally stupid...but mostly I just read the posts to see what arguments people wish to make. More often than not the posts are the same: Christians hate atheists...Atheists hate christians...So on and so forth.

      All of that said, I must say that of all the people who regularly post on the religion blogs, you are by far–there is no one even remotley close to you–as hateful as you. HYour posts are as vile as they come. I truly feel sorry for you.

      October 7, 2011 at 11:21 pm |
    • o.k.

      I suppose if I'm going to bring you to task, I should do so in proper English. The post above should have read:

      Kimsland...I've been following these posts for a number of months, occassionally logging in when someone says something unusually stupid...but mostly I just read the posts to see what arguments people wish to make. More often than not the posts are the same: Christians hate atheists...Atheists hate christians...So on and so forth.

      All of that said, I must say that of all the people who regularly post on the religion blogs, you are by far–there is no one even remotley close to you–the most hateful person here. Your posts are as vile as they come. I truly feel sorry for you.

      October 7, 2011 at 11:32 pm |
  12. cnnsucks

    Lack of religion is bad. Those who don't believe in a higher power don't believe in themselves or give a care about the world.

    I'll take a religious friend regardless of depth over an atheist anyday.

    Never met a decent athiest, they are almost always smug and think they're so smart cause they were able to resist what their parents brought them up as. *clap clap* you lose in life, enjoy loneliness.

    October 7, 2011 at 10:24 pm |
    • lucianne

      I have a lot of wonderful atheist and agnostic and deist friends and know some really cruddy "Christians". Thomas Jefferson was vocally a deist, not a Christian, but Hitler was. Hmm...

      October 7, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
    • Q

      Hitler wasn't a Christian. He forged his own religion mixed in with New Ageism, Buddhism, Catholicism (which many argue isn't Christianithy anyway), and Islam. In fact, he was close friends with Mohammad Amin al-Husseini.

      October 7, 2011 at 10:48 pm |
    • warmesTghosT

      Hitler was a Catholic who was never excommunicated, and cnnsucks is a perfect example of why I have no respect for the opinions of theists.

      October 10, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  13. samuel

    we wrestle not against blood and flesh but against powers, principalities and rulers of the present darkness. brothers in christ go down on your knees and pray for GODS will to be done. Even if he is killed right now i assure you he lives because of jesus christ triumphing on the cross. because HE lives we live ...GOD bless you pastor youcef and give peace to you in the name of JESUS CHRIST OF NAZARETH AMEN.

    October 7, 2011 at 10:24 pm |
  14. Mark1969

    Dear All, The Hadith of mohammed clearly says: It is not lawful to shed a beleiver's(a muslim) blood, except in 3 cases,a soul for a soul, the married who commits adultery, and who changes his religion and abandons the congregation. Also Quran orders muslims to fight non-beleivers till they pays taxes ( Zegia ) and are totally submitted( humiliated/belittled) (Saageeron). lets not forget also the cutting of hands and feet for steeling. This is a satanic religion that aims to destroy humanity and humans. THERE IS NO PEACE IN ISLAM.

    October 7, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
    • Kat

      you're wrong. Islam only allows fighting in self-defense. The Quran clearly says "Let there be no compulsion in religion"

      October 7, 2011 at 10:26 pm |
    • Q

      Islam calls for murder of those who don't adhere to its "peaceful" tenets. From the Qur'an:

      Fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a thing which is good for you, and that ye love a thing which is bad for you. But God knoweth, and ye know not. (2:216)

      But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for God is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. (9:5)

      Fight those who believe not in God nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by God and His Apostle, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book (Christians and Jews), until they pay the jizya [tribute] with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued. (9:29).

      October 7, 2011 at 10:50 pm |
    • Kat

      Q, thank you....all these verses refer to self-defense and/or wars that took place 1400 years ago, only if your hate mongering sources teach you how to read in context. For example, if you keep read the verses in chapter 2, you would see that it goes on to say "do not transgress for God does not love trangressors...and if they cease fighting you then God is the most forgiving and the most merciful"
      In second verse, the sacrned months passed 1400 years ago and it refers to the those who persecuted muslims for years, it goes on to say if these disbelievers came and asked for refuge then give it to them.....
      In the third verse, it refers to Jews and Christians who initiate hostility....pretty simple do not initiate wars to self-fullfil Armgeddon and end of the world bloody prophecies.

      October 7, 2011 at 11:05 pm |
    • THE BROWN NOTE

      self defense

      like the part in the koran that gives permission to beat your wife right

      because if she doesnt do your laundry

      she is in a way attacking you

      so its self defense

      oh i get it

      so the koran is about love and peace

      thanks for clarifying

      October 8, 2011 at 12:33 am |
    • THE BROWN NOTE

      "Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them." - Qur'an 4:34

      October 8, 2011 at 12:34 am |
  15. BVN

    ALL religion is bad.

    October 7, 2011 at 10:12 pm |
  16. vs101

    It is strange that Iranians can be so proud of their culture and heritage, but cling to a religion that was imposed upon them following conquest of their land by Arab invaders.

    October 7, 2011 at 10:10 pm |
  17. Veritas

    Great...so maybe there is a loophole so the guy doesn't end up being killed for acting in accord with the United Nations Universal Charter on human rights! Wow, makes me feel all warm and fuzzy toward Islam!

    October 7, 2011 at 10:10 pm |
    • lucianne

      Maybe you should rethink that – save your not-so-fuzzy feelings for the government of Iran. Please read the article carefully and you will notice that killing apostates is no more part of Islam than buring heretics at the stake is part of Christianity.

      October 7, 2011 at 10:27 pm |
  18. kimsland

    So the Islamic guy says I'm converting to Christianity
    And the 'Islamic' leader says, hang him or stone this traitor to death or both!
    Anyway, the Christian guy turns around and says you are all going to burn in Hell for eternity.
    So the rest of the world pop in and say, I think one of them is right, and loving.

    What a total joke religion is.

    October 7, 2011 at 10:10 pm |
  19. M

    No there is disagreement about whether apostasy carries the death penalty because some of the Islamic jurist realize if they execute this man for leaving his faith its going to make their religion look bad. Honestly who wants to be associated with a religion that kills people for leaving it. This is pure propaganda and shame on you CNN for falling for it.

    October 7, 2011 at 10:09 pm |
    • lucianne

      Inquisition? Religious wars in Europe between Protestants and Catholics? Burning witches in Salem? C'mon guys, read some history.

      October 7, 2011 at 10:28 pm |
    • Anon

      Religious folks love to ignore history because it makes them inconfortable with their dark and bloody origins.

      October 7, 2011 at 11:23 pm |
  20. THE BROWN NOTE

    and we didnt already know islam was trash

    October 7, 2011 at 10:08 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.