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. Terry Brookman

    What a sham the Moslem's are, I don't think you could get more than a hundred that believe the same thing. Any religion created by the sword will die by the sword. They can always find reasons to kill each other and for everyone else they need no reason at all. Mohamed borrowed from Christianity and was chased out of the middle East because he preached against the rich and powerful, he then went to France where he spent six years living with Jesuit priests before returning to his home with the added version of conversion by force. He had also somehow gained some wealth and with his brother they proceeded to convert by force and bribery.

    October 7, 2011 at 8:22 pm |
    • Absol

      ...but Christianity was formed by the sword and has yet to die by the sword. Then again, Christianity was also formed by the spear, axe, torture equipment, and took up the symbol of an execution device.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
    • Jesus

      Read YOUR Bible! Placing another God before you is punished in the Bible by DEATH (by stoning)! Wake up! Your Bible is no better than the Koran.

      October 7, 2011 at 11:00 pm |
    • Naota

      Mohammed, whom Islam is based upon, murdered tens of thousands of people, while Jesus never killed anyone.

      October 8, 2011 at 9:57 pm |
  2. Ed

    Mohamad was a nobody and looser zero zip pathetic individual that was only interested in feeding his ego. He was a man that brainwashed people like all religious leaders do. Nothing more than more mind contril bull dung. Islam is a really poor excuse for a religfion. It is nmothing more than a political movement. ISLAN AND MOHAMAD ARE LOOSERS!

    October 7, 2011 at 8:22 pm |
    • Absol

      In that last sentence of yours, you spelt 2/5 words correctly and failed at capitalization. Your argument is invalid.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
  3. TakeNoBull

    This is true. You can be a child molester, murderer, rapist, and etc and be a atheist in good standing. Their values are that low.

    October 7, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
    • Dave

      I've found that atheists tend to take a higher view of human life than the religious do. Saying that most of us have no morals or ethics is ridiculous...with all of the kiddie-molesting priests and the murderous history of Christianity in general, you also have no room to talk.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
    • Absol

      Atheists' values are built on humanism. They take responsibility for their actions and have a high code of ethics. Religious people find solace in their flaws and seek absolute pardon from their unethical behaviors.

      Atheists are the most moral of all people.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
  4. OneOfTheSheep

    "Pastor's possible execution reveals nuances of Islamic law?" Not even close!


    October 7, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
    • Absol

      Godwin's Law has been invoked. Your argument is invalid.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:30 pm |
    • OneOfTheSheep


      Godwin's Law was humorous well-intentioned speculation.

      My comparing the Nazi Judges and their purported legal "system" and that today in Iran is both appropriate and factual. Accordingly it is your would-be invocation of Godwin's Law that is invalid. Get a life.

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

    I thought God of Islam was the same God as Christian's. So on what ground, except for the differences of practice?

    October 7, 2011 at 8:05 pm |
    • Albert Morse

      The god of the muslims requires the muslim to earn a spot in heaven by perfoming acts. The God of the Christians requires repentance from breaking God's laws and trusting in the redemptive work of Jesus upon the cross. Basically Muslim god requres an earned entrance into heaven the Christian God requires a faith based intrane into heaven

      October 8, 2011 at 8:31 am |
    • Scott

      Exactly post Albert Morse. This is correct.

      October 8, 2011 at 9:55 am |
  6. JT

    I just wished you Christians, Muslims and Jews (Abrahamic brothers) would go away already and evolve out of existence and leave the minority rational population alone to advance our species.

    October 7, 2011 at 8:05 pm |
    • Jesus

      It's s mental disorder.

      October 7, 2011 at 11:04 pm |
    • Bonse

      How did jews got involved? Islamists want to kill a christian so you decide that also jews must dissapear? What did they do?

      October 9, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
  7. Jumping Jack

    Whenever a book such as the Koran become so complex in it own interpretation than the insanity is the obvious reason that a cult can not be determine what he fate will be. It is totally bewilder and full of flaw that it has no principle meaning whatsoever. My hope is however that he be let free. He right is as much important as those who refuse to let go of their own belief. Let each man chose it own belief base on pure fact and not on speculation of what the Koran may or may not says...

    October 7, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
    • asdf

      Quran is not complex and is very simple. It's second half (in chronological order) is full of violence and hatred. Please take the time to read it. My sympathies with the Muslims who are trapped in trying to defend the indefensible. And no sympathies for the ones who are fallacious knowing well that there is something wrong with Quran and prophet muhammed.

      October 8, 2011 at 4:46 am |
  8. joe

    there are so many Christian haters out there..poor hatefilled Atheists...they talk about not believeing in a invisible being (God)...but they believe a monket was their Daddy and mommy.... how funny...

    God Bless Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani...Jesus Christ loves you and knows your strength and courage...Praise Jesus Christ...

    October 7, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
    • Dave

      A monkey wasn't my mommy, but based on your language skills, one may have been yours. Try learning about evolution- you trying to make fun of it is just simply making you look bad.

      And really, I wouldn't be saying anything about atheists being hateful- the religions seem to have that market locked up.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
    • Absol

      Uhh... yeah... joe...
      Dave makes much more sense than you, so he's right. Joe, you're wrong.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
    • OneOfTheSheep


      Nobody believes a "monket" is their "mommy and Daddy". Have to be a hermaphrodyte! It's those voices again, Joe!

      October 7, 2011 at 10:40 pm |
  9. Khadijah

    This what they do is not Islam, not at all! The leaders in Iran are despots and should be the one's hanging. It is not permissible to torment those of other religions. I wish the leaders would like, "MAN UP".

    October 7, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
    • Kiumars

      Evangelists burned 100s of copies of Quran just a few months ago in the USA, this Evangelist preacher should not be hanged, he must be burned to death.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:09 pm |
  10. Iba

    Once again, the ever perfect human being in the form of mohammed (the polygamy practicing pedophile) basically said to kill whoever changes their religion, to kill them. Yep. The apologists will once again push the tired 'no compulsion in religion' bit from the quran, without addressing mohammed's later actions. Do not believe the liars. If there is no compulsion in religion, then why are religious minorities throughout the Middle East dying away? Consider it...

    October 7, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
  11. Jerry

    We sane and rational people should just execute everyone stupid enough or crazy enough to actually believe in imaginary beings and ludicrous sky-fairies of any kind. Then there'd be plenty of land and plenty of resources for everyone left and no idiotic "religious differences" to fight over; we'd finally have World Peace!

    October 7, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
    • Pwilson

      Mass murder is what Stalin believed in too. Your neighbors should fear you psycho.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
    • Mr Chihuahua

      yes make them into dog kibbles lol!

      October 7, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
    • mike

      you are just now starting another fight, you believe in no God and you want to force your belief on everyone and kill who believes in anything else, so you just did what moslems are doing, you are not any better!!!!!!!!!!!

      October 7, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
    • John Richardson

      @Jerry Peace through mass murder. Brilliant.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
    • Kevin

      World peace through genocide. What a great idea, Jerry! A number of your "sane" friends had the same idea, e.g., Hitler, Pol Pot, Amin, Papa Doc, and Stalin.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:18 pm |
    • Absol

      Hitler was a Christian. He believed in mass-murder. Don't be like Hitler. Don't be like the religious folk.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:39 pm |
  12. Doug Allard

    What nonsense.
    Sure, put him to death... and make a martyr outta his a%%.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
  13. *frank*

    I like kubideh.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
  14. Mike

    Our prayers go out to Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani and his family. May God preserve him in this trial.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
  15. sacred geometry to string theory

    Would an atheist be willing to die for his belief? I'm sure many would for friend or family, but if it came down to the principle of being willing to die for your non-belief, would you?

    October 7, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
    • Christiancult

      So self-sacrifice in service to an antiquated, blood-soaked book written thousands of years ago and touted as the word of "God" is an admirable thing? The guy is going to die for the adult-equivalent of Santa Clause.

      At least people that dumb tend to remove themselves from the gene pool early, one way or another.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
    • pirate

      An atheist is not stupid enough to die for a belief in any invisible man in the sky. An atheist might die for real reasons, like saving someone else's life...

      October 7, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
    • sacred geometry to string theory

      So all of those martyrs that died at the hands of Rome had nothing to do with the fall of Rome? You believe in nothing thus you fall for anything. I pity you.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
    • Jerry

      If I were given the choice "Follow this religion or die!" my reply would be "Just bury me face-down so you all can kiss my dead atheist @$$!"

      October 7, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
    • sacred geometry to string theory

      Jerry: Having the conviction to stand or die for you beliefs is an honorable trait. May not believe as you do, but at least you would have the hair on your peaches to do it.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
    • Dave

      That would be "You stand for nothing, so you fall for everything." And methinks you are a bit defensive about atheism. It's really much clearer once you understand that this life is all there is- no God, no heaven, no devil. Just people on a water covered unremarkable rock orbiting an unremarkable yellow sun.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
    • JT

      Die for one's non-belief? Only a crazy deluded Christian would ask such a stupid insane question.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
    • John Richardson

      Actually, Rome fell fairly shortly after it became officially Christian.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:18 pm |
    • Einstein

      Sorry Sacred Geometry, but study your history. Rome didn't fall because of Christian martyrs. Rome became a Christian empire in 330 AD under Constantine the Great and fell to the barbarians in 474 AD, 125 years later. God sure took his time in punishing Rome and then punished Christians, not pagans according to your view.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:22 pm |
  16. 2tor

    Dan, you're not too much on Islam, or Sharia are ya? First off, the guy's stated over and over he was never a muslim. Which makes your very first paragraph incorrect. Secondly, I'm nt sure who's sharia you're referring to. Since there's many different versions in almost as many places as there is Islam. So to quote Sharia, make sure your demographics are correct to the particular Sharia for that area. Then you might look at least educated enough to write an article such as this.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
  17. JoJo

    No religion lives and lets live. It's all about their way or ... you know.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
  18. Mopper

    Why this concern over whether this or that group of Muslims support the apostasy law. Our civilization sees it for the barbarism that it is. Denying freedom of conscience is not negotiable. So many young Westermers have died for this and we should be standing up not haggling over it

    October 7, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
    • Christiancult

      It's forbidden in the Qu'ran.

      The Bible specifically advocates forcing women to marry their rapists. Christians slaughtered thousands of Muslims in Bosnia as recent as the mid-90's. Should we also reject the barbarism of the Christian cult?

      Next stop: air strikes at the Vatican. Let's not be hypocrites, after all.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
    • pirate

      You mean the barbarism of ANY cult/religion? All of them are cults, all of them believe in things nobody has any solid reason to believe in, and I won't give in to c$ap like belief in god on faith alone, darn sloppy way to run a universe! Pretty pathetic actually.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
  19. Yourmom

    Ahh, once again the religion of peace and tolerance swinging into action...

    October 7, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
  20. Jimzcarz

    Isn't Islam great****

    October 7, 2011 at 7:21 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.