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. truths

    Islam is a cult created by a psychopath. It cannot be reformed. It must be eradicated. Islam must be eradicated not because the Quran says Earth is flat or the shooting stars are missiles that Allah fires at the Jinns who climb the heaven to eavesdrop on the conversation of the exalted assembly. These stupid tales could even amuse us. Islam must go because it teaches hate, it orders killing of non-Muslims, it denigrates women and it violates the human rights.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
    • Anon

      Christianity is basically the same.

      October 7, 2011 at 11:06 pm |
  2. kimsland

    I agree he is crazy for converting from Islam to Christianity.

    There is no god.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
    • Emma Soland

      I hate this kind of articles. This piece is trying to intellectualize religious bigotry. No one needs to hear from Islam "intellectuals" on what the Qur'an prescribes for the sin of apostasy. It doesn't matter if the Quran is for or against the death penalty for apostasy. That is irrelevant. A man is being tried and put to death for a thought crime. That is a crime by itself.

      October 7, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
    • kimsland

      'thought crime', I knew that was inevitable one day.
      I think I'll continue to ridicule these religious nuts

      October 7, 2011 at 10:13 pm |
    • Anon

      He just converted from one crazy religion to another equally crazy religion.

      October 7, 2011 at 10:55 pm |
  3. John Geheran

    While the quote "There is no compulsion in religion" is accurate it needs to be pointed out that this "pre Medina" revelation was "abrogated" by later "post Medina" passages in the Qur'an, ahadith as well as other authenticated Islamic literature. Anyone who has studied Islamic doctrine knows full well that the perscribed punishment for apostasy is death.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:46 pm |
    • Opie

      Newsflash. Robert spencer has no clue as to Islamic theology. Abrogated verses? Please.

      October 7, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
  4. Lisa

    Religion is DUMB!!!!!

    October 7, 2011 at 9:44 pm |
    • Wanderer

      No, religions are not dumb. All religions have no brain. They were created by ignorant who didn't know God for dumb believers. Can we prove the non-existence of God? Yes, the non-existence of God is just right on the tip of our nose. Can the believers prove the existence of God? No, they can’t because they don’t have a clue about who, what, or where God is. They just talk about God based on their own interpretation or delusion.

      October 7, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
    • Anon

      No, it's really simple. Your imaginary abrahamic god Yahweh/Jesus/Jehovah/Allah is a psychotic piece of $#!T.

      October 7, 2011 at 11:02 pm |
  5. USA in Decline

    Islam, Nazis, Commies, Pol Pot, Mao, genocide.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:44 pm |
    • Mike

      JFK. Blown away. What else do I have to say?

      October 7, 2011 at 10:09 pm |
  6. gregg

    Humans are so bizarre.
    If there is a supreme being (and there is not) he or she would be embarrassed at how we all turned out. and I mean “al”l no matter which god you chose to believe in.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
    • Loren

      So if I'm wrong I will be embarrassed. But what if you're wrong?

      October 7, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
    • jon

      you should be careful with that statement Gregg. Regardless of what world view any of us hold, to emphatically state that you know as fact God does not exist is in essence stating that you have absolute knowledge of the universe to declare there is no one with absolute knowledge of the universe, thus making you God – the very thing you declare does not exist 😉

      October 7, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
  7. Tom

    religion is one of the scourge's of mankind, not to mention mankind itself. How can an aduilt with half a brain beleive in such hocus pocus nonsense?

    October 7, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
    • Mikej

      The one who knows how to spell believe.

      October 7, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
  8. Kuwait

    Tabari IX:113 "Allah permits you to shut them in separate rooms and to beat them, but not severely. If they abstain, they have the right to food and clothing. Treat women well for they are like domestic animals and they possess nothing themselves. Allah has made the enjoyment of their bodies lawful in his Qur'an."

    I gave up Islam.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:36 pm |
  9. LV

    Most of the Middle East is stuck in the Middle Ages. We need to call them what they are, and deal with them as the enemies they have chosen to be, permanently.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
  10. Spain

    Pastor- you remain in our thoughts and prayers. Almighty God is with you.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:23 pm |
  11. nobody

    this islam is a brbaric religion if it puts people to death based on what they believe...but then how far are we as a nation from them if we put people to death as well...Our last pesident was good at killing people in Texas...and some of them were incocent as discovered after their death..it is easy to see brutality of others while comitting the same exact atrocities here in USA.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:23 pm |
  12. Kuwait

    I gave up on the child rappist Muhamad... and his evil teaching!

    October 7, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
  13. allasia

    About Quran and Sharia being crap - I was just quoting Chris Christie, the NJ Governor.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
  14. Free the Pastor

    This is the 21st Century there is no place for your barbaric behaviour.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
  15. allasia

    Quran and Sharia are just crap.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:10 pm |
  16. Allen Maui

    I thought this Pastor has repeatedly stated that he has never been a muslim. He was sentenced under a decree that his ancestors were muslim then so should he.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:05 pm |
  17. Mauro

    screw religion.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
  18. Brendan Murphy

    This is not entirely correct. Medieval Islam was remarkably tolerent of Christian and Jewish communities, as long as they payed taxes like everyone else. Read Ibn Jubayrs' account of his journey from Spain to Egypt, Mecca and Sicily, written in 1183. He notes that although Saladin, the leader of the Islamic world, is at war with the Christian Frankish Knights occupiyng parts of Lebanaon and Sicily, it's still business as usual for Christiain traders, who are free to come and go as they please. It would seem that the so-called Islam enforced in present day Iran is a travesty and bears little relationship to true Islamic teaching. As an Irish Catholic I'm quite familiar with religious travesties.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:01 pm |
  19. SteveB

    as usual CNN is being criticized for accurate reporting as opposed to giving opinions. I know this isn't popular but I prefer to hear all sides of an issue rather than just the one I want to hear! Then I can think and form my own opinions rather than have them told to me by a talking head.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:01 pm |
    • truthhurts

      Nice comment. More need to take this perspective.

      October 7, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
    • M

      Accurate reporting, they neglect history, and they neglect the Haddiths and the Sunnah, For instance where in the Quran does it say you can't draw the prophet. For centuries their was no disagreement about what should happen to apostates. Cnn is saying this so as not upset the muslim community. I bet you cnn would have an article about how Islam guranteed marriage rights to gays.

      October 7, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
  20. Gary

    Since its creation, Islam has been used by many to conquer and subject. The Muslims wiped out the vibrant Christian communities of North Africa crossed over the Straits of Gibralter, conquered Spain and moved into France. Let's face it, if it hadn't been for the victory over the Muslims by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in 732 AD, France would have been Muslim. It took Spain another 700 years to reclaim their country. Also, Constantinople and all the Christian civilizations in the eastern part of the Mediterranean were wiped out by the Muslims too. The religion was used to suppress and control. The Muslims keep bringing up the Crusades. The crusaders were a blip on the chart compared to the march of Islam. The treatment of the pastor is not surprising. Of course they want to silence him. Christ really is the only hope to free them from their chains. The ayatollahs will do all they can to keep control over the souls of the Iranian people.

    October 7, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
    • gregg

      Ya, we should go conquer them and kill them in the name of Christianity. That will teach them to be civil.
      The only group, club more hypocritical than Christians are politicians.

      October 7, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
    • Opie

      Oh. Sort of like how Christianity has been a plague on western/Hellenic civilization since it's inception. Ruining our learning from Spain to Egypt. Yeah, sorry, not buying it. All abrahamic religion is damaging,

      October 7, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
    • Anon

      We've probably would've been better off with the Hellenist religion. Instead today we're still stuck with the three Abrahamic desert blood cults.

      October 7, 2011 at 11:14 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.