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. Muhammad

    Nowhere in the Quran has it said to kill people.
    It is not up to us to judge anyone.
    “We shall not misinterpret the holy Quran” (Ayatollah Muhammad Rosa Khani”)

    August 2, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  2. Robert

    Perjalanan Seorang Pengikut Kristus

    October 13, 2011 at 7:53 am |
  3. Muneef

    They Quran came as a "Furqan" to all creeds of the Abrahamic Faith...

    Al Furqan – Is the Criterion (between truth and falsehood). It is another name for the Quran.

    Islam is a restrictive religion in the eyes of those who think that modernization and the development in the technologies are hindered by Islamic teachings. This concept of the modern world has drawn misty clouds over righteous deeds and presented them as sins.

    The word furqan is an Arabic word that means Criterion or Standard. The instinct and nature of man is based on a balance between good and evil. When this balance is lost either man becomes a devil or he enters the blessings of Allah.

    The meaning of this word is to distinguish between good and evil. Again Allah says in the in surah e furqan:

    “And they who do not call upon another god with Allah and do not slay the soul, which Allah has forbidden except in the requirements of justice, and (who) do not commit fornication and he who does this shall find a requital of sin; The punishment shall be doubled to him on the day of resurrection, and he shall abide therein in a basement; Except him who repents and believes and does a good deed; so these are they of whom Allah changes the evil deeds to good ones; and Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.”

    Fitra of mankind

    According to Islam it is the fitra of a man that motivates his actions and defines his role on the course of life. The common needs of a man are food, shelter, and protection. The most important thing is success that everyone is looking for. Quite a number of people go under the influence of the method of attaining their goals by hook or crook means. The things provided to man are just to test him. So the people committing sinful acts are most of the times taking advantage of what they are provided with.

    October 12, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
  4. Muneef

    Sahih International
    And when Our verses are recited to them as clear evidences, those who do not expect the meeting with Us say, "Bring us a Qur'an other than this or change it." Say, [O Muhammad], "It is not for me to change it on my own accord. I only follow what is revealed to me. Indeed I fear, if I should disobey my Lord, the punishment of a tremendous Day." (10:15).

    Say, "If Allah had willed, I would not have recited it to you, nor would He have made it known to you, for I had remained among you a lifetime before it. Then will you not reason?" (10:16).

    So who is more unjust than he who invents a lie about Allah or denies His signs? Indeed, the criminals will not succeed. (10:17).

    Sahih International
    Say, "O mankind, the truth has come to you from your Lord, so whoever is guided is only guided for [the benefit of] his soul, and whoever goes astray only goes astray [in violation] against it. And I am not over you a manager."

    And follow what is revealed to you, [O Muhammad], and be patient until Allah will judge. And He is the best of judges. (10:109).

    October 12, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
    • Muneef

      "A Question raised as to why do majority of so called Muslims then follow hadiths and other books besides the holy Quran? God almighty answers the question. Fortunate people are not too many!
      [The Quran 6:116]  If you obey the majority of people on earth, they will divert you from the path of GOD. They follow only conjecture; they only guess."

      Following other than the actual Holy Books which were replaced by other books such as that happened to "Torah" into "Talmud" and Gospel " and Old Testament into some New testaments... While some Muslims had taken other than Quran as a book or adopted some informal translations or explanations that could be misguiding and where only we are able to recognize this by the use of our Fitra as a Furqan to tell which could be which otherwise if not we will become as programed robots "Brainwashed"...
      Interesting informative link;

      October 12, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
  5. Lisa

    This is getting so far off of the article itself. Believe in Christ, don't believe....it's your choice and you will pay the consequences if there is any to be paid. I personally (as I said earlier) am a God follower but the best way to share that is by example. What you do speaks volumes over what you say.

    On the pastor, I spoke to my bf tonight and he is leaving to go to Iran within the next week. One thing he has said a million times is that a larger number of Iranians like Americans and welcome them, it's our governments that don't get along.

    At any rate, weather you pray, meditate, chant....just keep this man in your thoughts/prayers. God bless him for standing up for what he believes in....regardless of what it is and not cowering.

    October 11, 2011 at 11:28 pm |
    • jeddah

      well put..

      November 20, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
  6. Bob Smith

    What a bunch of “nuanced” PC BS.

    If a Muslim quits Islam he or she is a marked person. If the state doesn’t execute them, some independent deeply devout Muslim will kill them.

    All the PC writing won’t change this fact.

    Islam is the way it is because countless devout believers are independently willing to kill in order to keep Islam alive and exactly like it was in the 7th century.

    Read my complete thesis at: http://islamsfatalflaw.blogspot.com/

    October 11, 2011 at 1:34 am |
  7. Yeoland

    The article is not informative, and it confuses more than it clarifies. The author could have done some real research and could have reported to us some basic, important information, such as the percentages of Muslims who want apostates to be punished, and the percentage of those who want the penalty to be death versus some other type of punishment. The author could have easily found out what percentage of Iranian jurists support the death penalty for apostasy (it was about 96%, as of a few years ago). The author could have found out how many Islamic countries currently explicitly have the death penalty for apostasy. The author could have interviewed some apostates of Islam.

    The pastor's execution does not reveal "nuances" of Islamic law. It is simply one example of the classical, mainstream, majority opinion among actual Muslim jurists that the penalty is death for the sane adult male who makes public his apostasy from Islam, if he does not repent and return to Islam.

    Also note: None of the western academics quoted in this article say that they reject a worldly penalty for public expression of apostasy, with the exception of the Ahmadiyya spokesperson.

    From the article: "The overriding opinion of each scholar was simple – the complication of Islamic law makes it somewhat difficult to predict what Iran will do."

    Anecdotal, irrelevant, and nonsense. This has nothing to do with the letter of the law about apostasy in Iran, which is clear. (And besides, if they aren't able to execute him as an apostate, they could also execute him for proselytizing for Christianity, or for blasphemy, or for "spreading corruption on earth," or any number of other crimes under sharia). Iran's subsequent backpedalling in this particular case has more to do with posturing and international public relations; they don't want too many people in the West to become alarmed about Islam. Iranian officials have already explained this policy of holding back on administering some harsh sharia punishments, temporarily, in cases that generate a backlash in the Western media, in order to protect Islam's image.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:29 pm |
    • asdf

      Excellent comment. The mainstream media is run by the old generation now who have their pre-conceived notions of what Islam should be. It is the new media and the word of mouth which will have to pick up the slack. A new vocabulary will help which is doesn't offend people which is something like "I am anti-Islamism" and not "anti-muslim". The term Islamism covers all sects of Islam at this point except the Ahmediya community. All, the sects of Islam except Ahmediyas need to be contained. We can all play our part by using social pressure and social media.

      October 10, 2011 at 11:31 pm |
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About this blog

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.