June 6th, 2014
08:28 AM ET
Opinion by Abed Awad, special to CNN
(CNN) – Last month, a Sudanese court imposed a death sentence on Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, a 27-year-old pregnant mother, because she refused to renounce her Christian faith.
Ibrahim says she was raised Christian by her mother after her Muslim father abandoned them when she was 6 years old.
But this week, a man claiming to be Ibrahim’s brother said that she was raised a Muslim and that if she does not return to the faith, she should be killed.
Both the Sudanese court and the man who claims to be Ibrahim’s brother say the Islamic faith is clear: Apostasy, renouncing the religion, is a capital crime.
But is it really?
The idea of apostasy as a crime within Islam begins with the Quran and the Sunna, the faith’s foundational texts.
The Quran is Muslims’ holy scripture, believed to be revealed by God to the Prophet Mohammed. Because Muslims believe the Quran contains God’s will, it is the most authoritative source of the law – the final word.
The Sunna is the example of Mohammed, embodied in stories about his sayings and conduct.
Two centuries after the death of Mohammed, Muslim scholars collected and sifted through hundreds of thousands of narratives (called hadith) attributed to him, accepting a few thousand as likely to be authentic.
Together, the Sunna forms the second most important source of legal guidance – but their application to modern life isn’t always clear, and at times, one lesson from Mohammed seems to contradict another.
What does the Quran say about apostasy?
The Quran warns apostates, except those who later repent, that a severe and painful punishment awaits them in the afterlife.
They shall forever be the companions of hellfire, the holy book says.
But nowhere in the Quran does God command earthly authorities to execute anyone who has converted from Islam.
That omission is key, because the Quran says, “The Lord neglects nothing, nor does he forget.”
In other words, if God wanted apostates killed, he would have said so.
Instead, the Quran’s message is: The apostate is accountable to Allah in the hereafter, not to judges on Earth.
As one passage says, “It is God who judges.”
What did Mohammed say about apostasy?
Unlike the Quran, there are conflicting stories and opinions about the prophet’s stance on apostasy.
According to several sayings attributed to him in the Sunna, Mohammed did call for apostates to be killed. “He who changes his religion, kill him,” the prophet said, according to one hadith, or story about his life.
But other stories contradict that teaching.
In the seventh century, for example, Mohammed, as leader of the growing Muslim community, brokered a truce with the Qurayshites, a competing religious tribe.
In the Truce of Hudaybiyyah, Mohammed agreed that if any Qurayshite came to join the Muslim community, he would not accept them.
On the other hand, Muslims were permitted to join the Qurayshites, no questions asked, no executions threatened.
Moreover, lots of Muslim coverts abandoned Islam during the prophet’s life, and he never sentenced one to death.
The Sahih al-Bukhari, one of the most famous collections of Sunna, contains an illustrative example.
A Bedouin man pledged allegiance to God and the prophet, only to later inform Mohammed that he wanted to cancel his pledge.
After the prophet refused three times to accept his cancellation, the Bedouin simply moved to another town.
The prophet did not order his execution despite such clear and undisputed apostasy. And there are many other examples like this in the Muslim historical literature.
The conflicting stories and lessons from Mohammed's life is one reason why the Sunna is not considered as authoritative a source of Islamic law as the Quran.
So, why is apostasy a capital crime in countries like Sudan?
Mohammed preached a message of unity and social justice, and his religious community welcomed believers regardless of tribe, color, race, ethnicity, social status or gender.
At the same time, the prophet’s growing tribe frequently battled outsiders, from competing Arabian religious tribes to Jewish groups.
That means a Muslim who decided to abandon his religion was not simply making a personal choice to follow another God. He was turning his back on his tribe at a time of almost perpetual war.
So, you can see why early Muslim jurists and leaders wanted to discourage conversions. To them, it was an act of treason against the community. It was a political crime and not a restriction upon one’s freedom of conscience.
A majority of early Muslim jurists thus concluded that male apostates should receive the death penalty. For women, the main schools of Islamic law don’t agree. Some say female apostates should be killed. Others argue that she should be imprisoned until she returns to Islam.
Still, many prominent contemporary Muslim scholars have argued that apostasy should never carry the death penalty except in cases where converts take up arms against Muslims.
That doesn’t mean that nations like Sudan have gotten the message, though. And while Meriam Ibrahim is undoubtedly the victim of harsh human judges, there are also larger cultural forces at play.
But at the end of the day, the fact remains that the Quran without a doubt supports religious freedom. Allah the most merciful and wise said it best: “There is no compulsion in religion.”
And that should be last word.
Abed Awad is an attorney, a national Islamic law expert and an adjunct law professor at Rutgers Law School and Pace Law School. The views expressed in this column belong to Awad.
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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.