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. Muneef

    (The Cattle);
    Say, "Indeed, my Lord has guided me to a straight path – a correct religion – the way of Abraham, inclining toward truth. And he was not among those who associated others with Allah ." (06:161).

    Say, "Indeed, my prayer, my rites of sacrifice, my living and my dying are for Allah , Lord of the worlds. (06:162).

    No partner has He. And this I have been commanded, and I am the first [among you] of the Muslims." (06:163).

    Say, "Is it other than Allah I should desire as a lord while He is the Lord of all things? And every soul earns not [blame] except against itself, and no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another. Then to your Lord is your return, and He will inform you concerning that over which you used to differ." (06:164).

    And it is He who has made you successors upon the earth and has raised some of you above others in degrees [of rank] that He may try you through what He has given you. Indeed, your Lord is swift in penalty; but indeed, He is Forgiving and Merciful. (06:165).

     (The Light);

    When you received it with your tongues and said with your mouths that of which you had no knowledge and thought it was insignificant while it was, in the sight of Allah , tremendous.  (24:15).
    Indeed, those who like that immorality should be spread [or publicized] among those who have believed will have a painful punishment in this world and the Hereafter. And Allah knows and you do not know.   (24:19).
    And if it had not been for the favor of Allah upon you and His mercy... and because Allah is Kind and Merciful.   (24:20).
    And We have certainly sent down to you distinct verses and examples from those who passed on before you and an admonition for those who fear Allah .  (24:34).
    [Such niches are] in mosques which Allah has ordered to be raised and that His name be mentioned therein; exalting Him within them in the morning and the evenings (24:36).
    Allah has promised those who have believed among you and done righteous deeds that He will surely grant them succession [to authority] upon the earth just as He granted it to those before them and that He will surely establish for them [therein] their religion which He has preferred for them and that He will surely subst-itute for them, after their fear, security, [for] they worship Me, not associating anything with Me. But whoever disbelieves after that – then those are the defiantly disobedient. (24:55).
    Unquestionably, to Allah belongs whatever is in the heavens and earth. Already He knows that upon which you [stand] and [knows] the Day when they will be returned to Him and He will inform them of what they have done. And Allah is Knowing of all things. (24:64).

    October 8, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
  2. Muneef

    Umm, its nice that you pull out figures yet dont bother to know what the story was behind that. The punishement for treason or desertion has always been death and was death at that time as well and Muhammad even asked their leader to tell him what he would do in this situation b'c it was clear as day treason as they broke the treaty and attacked the Muslims. Their leader said he would kill them too, it was fair, thats war for you.
    October 8, 2011 at 1:35 am | Report abuse |
    Battle of the Trench
    October 8, 2011 at 7:00 pm | Report abuse |

    You are right and maybe the Pastor above is being looked upon as that since there is war and he might be connected to some western church or politics for which that might be translated as an act of treason?!! That what is happening is a normal practice not even as a convert from Islam... Rather they will bring up all the legitimate excuses they have against him only if doubting his intentions... Since lately there are moves to christianize people in the middle and far east to make use of them driving rebel and be as martyrs for the sake of bringing up Christianity or have their countries divided on those bases as religions...! Think there were past blog articles that spoke of that taking place by the Roman Church and some other American Church...!
    October 8, 2011 at 7:14 pm | Report abuse |

    October 8, 2011 at 7:20 pm |
  3. James

    Death is a NUANCE????
    CNN, you are such a JOKE!!! It is no wonder you are longer considered a news service!

    October 8, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
  4. Mr Everyman

    Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani should not be executed or punished for apostasy or the subsequent cover-up charges. Allah over rules Mohammed. That Mohammed was simply a man is often pointed out. "There shall be no compulsion in religion." is a statement of the Quran. All other writings in Islam are the works of fallible men. Iran should let the Quran control here. The Quran says there is freedom of conscience and choice by saying "there shall be no compulsion" and offers no punishment for non-belief. Pastor NadarKhani should be freed. There is also another problem here that I would like to point out. Pastor NadarKhani probably would not agree with me on this. Islam claims to be the original faith of Abraham, Moses and Jesus restored by Mohammed. As such, a so called conversion to Jesus Christ is a conversion to an older form of Islam, not apostasy. In Christianity Jesus Christ is a revelation of Allah, The Awesome One. Jesus the man is an ordinary man like Mohammed. There is an interplay between Jesus Christ and Jesus the man that subsequent scholars have never fully comprehended or explained. In Islam Jesus is a Messiah or Christ to the Jews at the time of his ministry. By his instructions as Jesus Christ, Jesus is Messiah to humanity too. If current Islamics can accept these instructions from a Prophet of Islam, then Islam and Christianity become one faith. There can be many cultural traditions in a faith. Pastor NadarKhani has simply gone to another part of Allah's house. Men must not try to limit The Awesome One's presence, awareness or, power. It is a big house with millions of stars and millions of galaxies.

    October 8, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
    • Anglican

      Like. Peace.

      October 8, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  5. ou.uo

    An NPR employee writes an article defending Sharia? Unheard of.

    I would love to see him write an article about the nuances of the death penalty in the US.

    October 8, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
    • Mark A. Baker

      Sharia is a complex legal tradition similar in some ways to the British Common Law. The article merely seeks to bring out something of that complexity of viewpoint which is part of understanding sharia. It is simplistic to imagine that sharia is not subject to the sort of richly varied interpretation found present in other legal systems. All the more simplistic for a person who has never studied sharia to imagine they fully comprehend it and are therefore qualifed to 'judge' it.

      October 8, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
  6. Please Just Leave Me Alone

    Eskimo: "If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?"

    Priest: "No, not if you did not know."

    Eskimo: "Then why did you tell me?"

    October 8, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
  7. Cecilia

    Jesus said: you should understand it is through compassion an not that you worship The Father

    October 8, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • Cecilia

      Jesus said: it is through compasión and not sacrifice that you worship The Father

      October 8, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • Revisionist

      Jesus said, were all gonna get laid!

      October 8, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
  8. Abi

    i put up a smart comment not siding with any religion and with no animosity and CNN pulled it down. Guess they just love watching people fighting and insulting each other, makes for better news.

    October 8, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • Abi

      Thanks for putting it back.

      October 8, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • Revisionist

      Too many words. Take it down.

      October 8, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
  9. rabid doggish

    Belief is not a revelation nor human delusion is coming from sane God. We all knew the world and universe was created by nothing and nothing as well in our mind produce when we impose unfounded beliefs. Many have projected and imposed their unfounded beliefs thinking that all such mind trotters can convince anyone who got the guts and scientific and true religious values. Beliefs is talking about falsehood either you espouse Pseudo-Christianity or Islamism. When you believe something it must be back be a million of evidences from those who got the information from above, The Real Prophets who reported with genuine beliefs called Revelation. Religion without Relelation is dogwash, a waste of time and effort. Like shouting and screaming in the middle of the desert during summer time, need help, no help will come, but sudden death!

    October 8, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
    • Revisionist


      October 8, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • Anglican

      Who is 'we"?("we all know") You seem so sure about the origins of the universe, and why we inhabit this place.

      October 8, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
  10. Abi

    I'm so fed up with reading about muslims or hearing about muslims and how backwards and evil they are. Its so constant I'm starting to care less and less. I'm sure they're writing about Christians and Jews in exactly the same way on their own soil but of course we don't see it. Who gives a s**t. ANYBODY that uses religion as an excuse to cause death and destruction and the most extreme disturbance is a fool. Unless you are GOD himself you – a human being- are NOT allowed to carry out Gods judgement on his behalf, because you are not GOD, right!!!

    Anyone here who uses their religion to justify anything is fool. After thousands of years of doing the same thing that clearly doesnt work. Watching all of you is so pathetic and just so so pitiful. Whilst all of you are too busy fighting and not getting along people like me are walking past taking your things and taking care of you children who also watch on, convincing them to never be like you. By the time you stop to take a breath from fighting you realise that everything is gone and all you are left with absolutely nothing but your hate and the cloths on your back.

    You're more than welcome to disagree but the truth is hard to swallow.

    October 8, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • Revisionist

      Muslims are backwards and evil.

      October 8, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • Dun

      Abi, you've an abusolute right to say that nobody should be punish anyone on behalf of God. But what is the source of your claim? is there a maybe like a Law that states what you said? What if the God Himself told them to do so.

      October 8, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • Abi

      The truth to you must feel like swallowing a porcupine whole LOL

      But what is the source of your claim? is there a maybe like a Law that states what you said? How can anyone prove they are actually listening to God speak. What sort of voice are they hearing that is telling them to kill another person without provocation, without the immediate treat to their life. How insane must someone be to think of killing another because "they dont like the things I like." How childish and foolish.

      October 9, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
  11. Geoff

    A faith that has to protect itself through murder and intimidation cannot be the making of Just and loving god. Like all the organized religions Islam is a sick cult of mean spirited people. God may still be out there in some shape or form but you won't find him/her/it in a church, a mosque, a synagogue or a temple... keep looking.

    October 8, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • Abi

      Yeah!! God is not religious as he doesnt worship his self

      October 8, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  12. santorodp

    Yet more evidence that Islam is a religion of peace.

    October 8, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • Revisionist

      Are you going to eat those tots?

      October 8, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
  13. Notoislam


    October 8, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
  14. tonny


    October 8, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
    • Andyvon

      Shhhhhh Tonny, don't shout.

      Really? You make some interesting points to say the least Tonny. You don't seem to like 'Christian' do you?

      October 8, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • TruthPrevails

      Wow, in the real world we called it delusional...in order to make such a claim and have it make sense, you need evidence!

      October 8, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • ketsui

      idiot post from tonny, so many dummies in this world its sad

      October 8, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • Hugh Allen

      Listen tonny. The fact of the matter is that this is just your belief and there is no factual standard of objective proof. You believe, but you don't know. Step away from such fanaticism and start to think for yourself. That's why God gave you a brain.

      October 8, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  15. Darketernal

    Islam is trash anyway.

    October 8, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • ALi

      shame on yew

      October 8, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • Dun

      Is that all what you are? say something sensible.

      October 8, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
  16. Guest

    I find this rather shocking: A Christian is about to be put to death for his belief and instead of condemning this atrocity in the sharpest words possible, CNN does a thoughtful piece about the religious and philosophical nuances behind this decision!

    October 8, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
    • stern

      what do you expect ? 90% of their sponsers are from muslim countries

      October 8, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • David Johnson


      If this fellow chooses to die for his stupid belief, then I say, "Go For It"! Lots of Muslims are put to death in Middle East countries. Why are Christians special? Neither belief is anything but wishful thinking.


      October 8, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • Hugh Allen

      Well, Guest, it makes a refreshing change that a news organisation treats its readership with such respect, instead of pandering to prejudice and tribe. Of course CNN thinks it's ludicrous and barbaric, but saying so doesn't help.

      October 8, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
  17. LittleLordHoseaComethUntoU2Say

    Hey! ...you feel better since you took a dump on this page? that's the biggest steamy pile of hooha I've seen on a single 8.5x 11 in sometime partner, you've strained something loose, you might want to see a doctor about that extra bit, eh.

    October 8, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • Revisionist

      I can recommend a good brand of toilet paper. The Qur'an. The bible is good too.

      October 8, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
  18. Miguel Baca

    Continue on brother, may God strengthen you as you stand for The Lord : )

    October 8, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • foreverseptember

      god is fake. there, I said it. an excuse for you to pretend that someone in authority actually approves of you. you guys just keep on "supporting" one another. it's like trying to climb yourself to get higher.

      October 8, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
  19. Todd

    Too many Americans naively believe that America will be able to handle Islam successfully, in a way that no other part of the world that Islam has tainted has been able to. Those Americans are in error. Islam is not a religion. It is a fascist political ideology forever bent on world domination. It's goal is to turn dar-al-Harb into dar-al-Islam. Anyone who thinks otherwise is ignorant of history. Look up the term "taqiyya" – it is a tactic being used on Americans by CAIR every day.

    October 8, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  20. Lilly

    When you have to force people in to a belief system then that system has failed. I would be embarrassed to be religious. I would be embarrassed to believe in a god. Humans are capable of devising such sophisticated systems and contraptions but we are weighed down with such crude beliefs. Why do we continue to let the human ape run our societies?

    October 8, 2011 at 11:44 am |
    • News Flash

      Agree completely. Many Western religions do exactly the same thing, but perhaps, figuratively. When they say, "you're going to hell", it is the same thing. It's compelling someone to be dishonest. What sort of god would do that ? It's all BS. The "salvation" paradigm is based on ancient "pay-back" schemes, requiring a (human) sacrifice to appease angry god(s). Way past time for Ho'mo sapiens to grow past the old formulae, and grow up.

      October 8, 2011 at 12:25 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.