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. James Savik

    The religion of peace and tolerance is at it again.

    October 8, 2011 at 3:04 am |
  2. Follow Me

    Teufel Hunden

    October 8, 2011 at 2:47 am |
    • Darth Vadik, CA

      Semper Fi

      October 8, 2011 at 2:58 am |
  3. Kazan

    Surprised? even in these days,different readers of contracts or agreements read certain lines completely different,all religions are man made and religious books are written by men. They create confusion, war and misery.

    October 8, 2011 at 2:31 am |
    • Darth Vadik, CA

      God made a man...

      ...man brought back the dinosaur...

      ...the dinosaur ate the man...

      ...woman inherited the earth...

      There, that Jurassic park line makes more sense than the Bible, Koran and Torah put together....

      October 8, 2011 at 3:05 am |
  4. plnsfrd

    Atheist and Muslims love to focus on the violence that bad people committed centuries ago in the name of Christianity. True Christians fought these barbarians and won. We overcame the ignorance of those who tried to twist the word of God to suit their own perverted ideas of what is right and wrong. The God of the Holy Bible, the Most High God, the only true God, is always in control. “Why are the nations so angry? Why do they waste their time with futile plans? … But the one who rules in heaven laughs. The Lord scoffs at them. Then in anger he rebukes them, terrifying them with his fierce fury… Submit to God’s royal son, or he will become angry, and you will be destroyed in the midst of all your activities- for his anger flares up in an instant. But what joy for all who take refuge in him!” Psalms 2

    October 8, 2011 at 2:25 am |
    • Atheist

      Peaceful Judaism and Christianity through Psalm 2 !
      Together with Islam they form the most peaceful coalition on earth !

      October 8, 2011 at 2:46 am |
  5. rhm

    f christianity, f islam, f hinduism, f judaism, f 'em all.

    October 8, 2011 at 2:03 am |
    • RusskiXian

      Keep dreaming, for now, 99% of the world are being f'd by the above it seems 🙂

      October 8, 2011 at 2:10 am |
    • JG

      I'm with this guy.

      October 8, 2011 at 2:11 am |
    • fouche


      October 8, 2011 at 2:24 am |
  6. C Robb

    On this article: Who cares. I think there is already too much interest in the middle east as is.

    October 8, 2011 at 2:02 am |

    Islam is terrible. This is the evidence that shows that we should never let Islam grows in the U.S.

    October 8, 2011 at 1:40 am |
  8. tony

    Islam is an evil religion: its founder is Satan. It has nothing to do with true God. This religion will kill everyone who doesn't conform with it.

    October 8, 2011 at 1:31 am |
    • petridish

      True God? Oh, you mean the one you happened to be indoctrinated with. Wake up from your self-delusional sleep!

      October 8, 2011 at 2:02 am |
    • JG

      A religion that will kill any who don't agree with it? You mean like the Crusades?

      October 8, 2011 at 2:17 am |
    • wakeup333

      I'm an atheist. I'm not pushing one imaginary invisible being over another. But don't fall into the liberal guilt trap apologizing for the Crusades, as if the West attacked Islam. The first Crusade was in 1095, hundreds of years AFTER Islam attacked & conquered the Mid East, north Africa and two thirds of Spain. Once and for all, the Crusades were a RESPONSE to unprovoked aggression by Islam, which began with Muhammad:

      “It has been narrated by 'Umar b. al-Khattib that he heard the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) say: I will expel the Jews and Christians from the Arabian Peninsula and will not leave any but Muslim.” (Muslim Hadith, Book 19, #4366)

      October 8, 2011 at 2:37 am |
  9. wakeup333

    The Quran is not the only source for Sharia. The Hadith and Sunna quote Muhammad and describe his acts. In Bukhari Volume 9, Book 84, Number 64, 'Ali narrates:

    No doubt I heard Allah's Apostle saying, "During the last days there will appear some young foolish people who will say the best words but their faith will not go beyond their throats (i.e. they will have no faith) and will go out from (leave) their religion as an arrow goes out of the game. So, where-ever you find them, kill them, for who-ever kills them shall have reward on the Day of Resurrection."

    October 8, 2011 at 1:23 am |
    • montyross

      jesus said that "the time will come when those that kill you think they are doing Gods will' and he said this hundreds of years before mohameda was born

      October 8, 2011 at 1:40 am |
    • RusskiXian

      Monty,did Buddha say anything on the subject of converting from Islam to Christianity? Hmmmm, wonder why....

      October 8, 2011 at 2:04 am |
    • RusskiXian

      You gotta lve the "no doubt" part... 🙂

      October 8, 2011 at 2:12 am |
  10. wakeup333

    Censorship test post.

    October 8, 2011 at 1:20 am |
    • RusskiXian

      True censorship test posts should be worded a bit more provocatively, like "let there be peace on earth" 🙂

      October 8, 2011 at 2:06 am |
  11. Peter

    Wait a minute............so the Quran said that apostasy is not punishable ......but Mohammad the "Prophet" look past it and decide otherwise. what kind of prophet is he?

    October 8, 2011 at 1:08 am |
  12. ProudMuslim

    Ok. Time for bed. I apologize to anyone if I hurt anyone's feels. Peace to all. Take care and be good.

    October 8, 2011 at 1:07 am |
    • ozbukes16

      And peace and good night to you too sir

      October 8, 2011 at 2:05 am |
  13. AJ

    Yet we to be "tolerant" of them invading out country and spreading their poisonous religion to our people.

    October 8, 2011 at 1:05 am |
  14. William

    Kill somebody for being the wrong religion or converting to another religion? How sick is that ! Same as the Inquisition. This is the problem with all the western religions. What good does religion do? How many wars have been fought over religions? And the whole concept of sin and original sin is absurd. God made us all bad so he could see if we could try to be good? Morality does not require a religious base. It is self-evident.

    October 8, 2011 at 12:55 am |
    • collins61


      October 8, 2011 at 1:28 am |
    • montyross

      rather how many people were killed over economics in the 20 century, Vietnam, soviet revolution, maos long march in china, korea, central america in the 70s and 80s, drug war in mexico, american revolution, what wars were about religion?

      October 8, 2011 at 1:46 am |
  15. Calvin Hobbes

    Forget it, these Islamics have nothing to do with God. There God has nothing to do with right or wrong. All that matters is who has a gun.

    October 8, 2011 at 12:55 am |
  16. John

    Proud Muslim,
    I'm a religious studies major because I love religion, it fascinates me and I truly believe in God and the Christian religion. I don't hate you, in fact I do love and care for you and every single person here. But know this, as someone who has studied religion (Islam in particular, very interesting). It is not the path to true happiness and being a good person for everyone. Remember that Christians, true Christians, love you as they love all of the carriers of God's great love.

    October 8, 2011 at 12:46 am |
    • Anon

      Screw Islam and Christianity. They're a tumorous brain cancer on human society.

      October 8, 2011 at 12:49 am |
    • ProudMuslim

      Thank you so much for your concern ma brotha.

      October 8, 2011 at 1:11 am |

      You don't hate people, but you probably are commanded to kill other people who don't believe in Islam. The Kafirs. Read your Koran dude. It is commanded in there.

      October 8, 2011 at 1:41 am |
    • Kuwait

      Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which spitefully use you, and persecute you! Matthew 5:44

      Because of Jesus love, I just send some money to the Muslim famine victims in Africa (evenI don't like how Muslim persecute Christain and other religion... I realize that some of the people I feed may turn around and kill Christian when they are well)

      May God forgive me!

      October 8, 2011 at 7:17 am |
    • Anon

      With just one rogue asteroid striking the Earth and you can say bye-bye to the Abrahamic desert blood cults.

      October 8, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  17. TestCase

    This is not a question about "religion" in general. Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot were murderous atheist monsters. The real question is this, does the belief itself encourage mankind to be hateful, violent, oppressive liars? In the case of Islam, its beliefs most certainly do do these things to mankind. Islam must be resisted, even unto death. Muslims must be converted to save them.

    October 8, 2011 at 12:45 am |
  18. Sharp

    The basic beef that Islam has with America is right there in the article. We Americans believe that your relationship with God is a private one & subject only to your own conscience. The Muslims, especially the Shiites, believe in a total Theocracy with your beliefs dictated to you on pain of death. This is why they call US the Great Satan. Actually we have a better case to say that about them.

    October 8, 2011 at 12:39 am |
  19. as0912

    According to Islam, it is not the the right of men to judge others on their beliefs.

    October 8, 2011 at 12:39 am |
    • Sharp

      We are guilty as sin ourselves. Remember the Inquisition.

      October 8, 2011 at 12:43 am |
    • TestCase

      Typical lie. "You shall not spare even your daughters for turning away from Allah"
      Three choices for non-believers: convert, submit to oppression, or violence.
      Mohammed was the perfect Muslim, and he was violent, oppressive, and aggressive.

      October 8, 2011 at 12:47 am |
    • Lewis

      "... traditionally in Shiite Islam, people have interpreted the scripture for apostates to be put to death ...."
      The religion of HATE. Islam should be outlawed.

      October 8, 2011 at 12:50 am |
  20. mmi16

    Religon is man's corruption of God's intent.

    October 8, 2011 at 12:32 am |
    • Anon

      Man made God, get over it.

      October 8, 2011 at 12:38 am |
    • vahellbilly

      Anon, you nailed it!

      October 8, 2011 at 1:30 am |
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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.