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. lalos

    you can read the quran either way you want.

    Surah Al Bagrah (2:256)

    There is no compulsion in religion. Right has become distinct from wrong. So whoever rejects evil and puts faith in God has grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold that never breaks. And God is hearing, knowing.

    Quran 4:89
    "They but wish that ye should reject Faith, as they do, and thus be on the same footing (as they): But take not friends from their ranks until they flee in the way of Allah (From what is forbidden). But if they turn renegades, seize them and slay them wherever ye find them"

    So go ahead and choose what ever you want to do. It's ok in allah's eyes

    October 8, 2011 at 7:07 am |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      Or you can pee on it any way you want, or wipe your ass with it. The Bible makes good tissue paper too.

      October 8, 2011 at 7:13 am |
    • lalos

      Yeah it may, but it makes much better reading C.S. You should try it before you grow ito an old bitter man.

      October 9, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
    • lalos

      reading the Bible that is.

      October 9, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
  2. Loya

    The pastor will walk free. Islam has not burnt the women and men at stake like Christians Europe in Middle Ages and Inquisition gimmicks of 14th Century. This story has become a media circus to degrade Iran not Islam..

    October 8, 2011 at 7:05 am |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      No Loya, but they tolerate extremists who burn young girls' faces with acid and murder women by stoning them to deatth as a spectator event. Sick fuks.

      October 8, 2011 at 7:12 am |
  3. Thoughtdog

    For those of us that only have a view of Islam from the media, it appears to be a most violent way of life. The idea that a god that punishes his or her creations because they no longer believe is not a great deal different that Christianity. There are many other similarities, but I believe they are all predicated by man and not by GOD.
    The evil is not in the religion, but in those that administer the faith to those who don't have a clue. Sadly it seems that they are a majority........follow your faith.......not man!

    October 8, 2011 at 6:58 am |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      "I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own – a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we can dimly perceive and to try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in Nature."

      A E

      October 8, 2011 at 7:01 am |
  4. jo jo

    Separation of church and state. Sounds real good, doesn't it ? Anybody who converts to Islam should beware. These are not nice people. Yes , I know, don't forget-the inquisition. The religious intolerance that was practiced in our country when it was under British Rule. However, we moved on as a nation and recognized that Religious persecution / under a religious state would only destroy our country. Many church doctrines have changed, but not Muslim. It must hold some allure for converts to that religion. Maybe the discipline. Other religions have that too, if you choose !

    October 8, 2011 at 6:51 am |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      @jo jo
      The religious right wing in this country discriminates and persecutes anyone who is gay, atheist or agnostic. There is no tolerance in this country. If there was, an atheist could realistically run for political office, or an “out” Gay. The Dems/Lefts fall in line because they know they are powerless. We live in a broken society presided over by idiots.

      October 8, 2011 at 7:00 am |
    • tad pole

      No offense, but when you mentioned how the US was only religiously intollerant while it was under brittish rule it almost made me think you were trying to be humorous. If you believe in freedom, and religious freedom, then a muslim (or a mormon) would have just as much chance as getting elected as a catholic, because it would be about the issues, and not about their religion. We all know that isn't going ot happen though.

      October 8, 2011 at 7:07 am |
  5. W.G.

    These people are NOT doing Gods bidding . they have their own evil agenda .

    October 8, 2011 at 6:49 am |
  6. rs1201

    None of the world's major religions are "bad"...it's the people who interpret these religions who are morons. The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust...all catastrophic events perpetrated by people...evil people at that. Just be a decent, moral human being and keep your religion to yourself and certainly don't even try to impose your beliefs on anyone else...the world would be such a happy, peaceful place if people followed this simple advice.

    October 8, 2011 at 6:33 am |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      Works for me, but sadly that is not the way it is.

      October 8, 2011 at 6:35 am |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      When athiests and agnostics are no longer discriminated against and can run for office without having to lie about their belief system to satisfy Christians, then, and ONLY then will we be on the right track. Right now the whole system is broken.

      October 8, 2011 at 6:38 am |
    • james

      the problem with this is that as humans we define ourselves by conflict. we must have it or feel like we do not belong to anything. everyone just wants to feel like they belong. to bad that we can not see we all belong to the human race, we really don't need to break it down any further than that.

      October 8, 2011 at 6:47 am |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      But james I know you understand, Religious people DO have to break it down. If you don't think as they do, they take the moral high ground. Then then the put their faith (and money) in false prophets and the rest is history. U.S.A. / Islam et al.

      October 8, 2011 at 7:05 am |
  7. omokaro

    My religion does not kill and does not judge but it forgives and it a religion of liberty that was given to us from the begining of creation which is called FREE WILL to choose for urself ....

    October 8, 2011 at 6:09 am |
    • Jason

      sounds like Buddhism :>)

      October 8, 2011 at 6:12 am |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      What is your religion? (Buddhism is not a religion)

      October 8, 2011 at 6:15 am |
    • Staszek (short for Stanislaw)

      clearly, a Catholic

      October 8, 2011 at 6:36 am |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      Yes, clearly.

      October 8, 2011 at 6:44 am |
  8. gliese42

    We have Aisha Bibi, a paki christian who is in prison for slandering Islam although there is no proof, coptic christians in egypt who convert to Islam are now barred returning to their old religion and this is practiced all muslim nations and Pastor Youcef is just a tip of the iceberg

    October 8, 2011 at 6:01 am |
  9. M. DaSilva

    There is no outrage among Muslims regarding what is happening to Youcef Nadarkhani or what happens to people of any faith in countries dominated by Islam. That tells me everything I need to know about them.

    October 8, 2011 at 5:19 am |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      Well said.

      October 8, 2011 at 5:21 am |
    • SurroundedByIdiots

      And the fact that Im pretty sure you have no idea how any muslims feel about this tells me alot about you... You are just as arrogant and pigheaded as those who condemn Nadarkhani for converting religions and Im sure if one of your family members converted to Islam you would probably off him/her yourself...There is no god, there is no afterlife! These are things that only divide...

      October 8, 2011 at 6:17 am |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      Who are you addressing? I know I am an idiot, but at least I point at the person I am insulting.

      October 8, 2011 at 6:43 am |
  10. Central Scrutinizer

    "I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own – a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we can dimly perceive and to try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in Nature."


    October 8, 2011 at 5:17 am |
  11. studdmiffins

    Executing this man puts them on par with the old Spanish method for conversion.

    October 8, 2011 at 5:09 am |
    • gliese42

      Spain did that in South America in 1800's but guess what....the Bolivian Indians are going back to their old religion and nobody gets a death sentence. Everybody cares for freedom but not the middle east religious bigots

      October 8, 2011 at 6:05 am |
  12. PD

    You need to put your faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.

    October 8, 2011 at 4:39 am |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      Who does? Why? Sorry, late getting in here. Couldn't sleep.

      October 8, 2011 at 5:06 am |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      Dammit PD! Quit leaving me in suspense! WHO needs to put their faith in God? Who??

      October 8, 2011 at 5:19 am |
    • Martha

      Yeah right, and I bet you also believe in Santy Claus and Easter Bunny ??

      October 8, 2011 at 6:14 am |
    • lalos

      Sorry to reply on behalf of PD, But Jesus Himself says in John chapter 14 verse 6, "No one can come to the Father but by Me". So according to Jesus anyone who wants a relationship with God must go through Him. The apostle Paul tell us in Romans Chapter 10 verse 9, "If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved". Saved from What? the penalty of our own sins, which is eternal separation from God, Hell.

      Martha, believing in evolution takes even more faith than believing that God actually created the entire universe.

      October 8, 2011 at 6:54 am |
    • Atheist

      ........ and in e.g. Inquisition

      October 8, 2011 at 6:59 am |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      Thanks for clearing that up. Now how does that apply to me? I am a Temporal Agnostic. Standing by.

      October 8, 2011 at 7:08 am |
    • lalos

      C.S. it applies to you since you like everyone else in this world sins. See the 10 Commandments for examples. God does not want to punish us for our sins so he sent Jesus to pay the penalty for them. All you have to do is sincerely talk with God. Tell Him that you accept the payment Jesus made for your sins. Tell Him that you accept Jesus as your Lord. Do this believing that God raised Jesus from the dead as evidence that He had the authority to pay for our sins. I hope this takes the A out of agnostic for you.

      October 9, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  13. Ahmed Sachedina

    As a Muslim, I've always had a reservation with the apostacy law. The Quran is very clear that there shall be no compulsion in religion. Muslims must acknowledge that blind faith has no meaning. There is no sense in forcing someone to remain Muslim when their faith and heart has changed especially when a person has converted to a monotheistic Abrahamic faith. The total renounciation of God would be a different matter altogather.

    October 8, 2011 at 4:27 am |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      "had a reservation with the apostacy law"

      Shouldn't the fact there even IS one be a red flag genious?

      October 8, 2011 at 5:14 am |
    • Willow Brook

      I'm sorry, but why would the total renunciation of God be a different matter altogether? People, ALL people, should be free to believe, or not believe in GOD, if they choose... Religion is such a scam, people walk around all their lives fearing and worshiping something that is probably not there. So absurd.

      October 8, 2011 at 6:28 am |
    • lalos

      I disagree with you, It mattes not, even if that person wanted to worship the entire pantheon of Hindu gods. God allows free will here on earth. In the afterlife he will judge us. We may disagree with how or what a certain person worships but that is their own business. There should be no problem with sharing what we feel to be the truth with an individual, as long as it is done in love.

      October 8, 2011 at 6:41 am |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      "I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own – a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we can dimly perceive and to try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in Nature."


      October 8, 2011 at 6:47 am |
  14. AnnihilateISLAM

    Why should a religion b impose on somebody against his/her will? Islam should b annihilated...

    October 8, 2011 at 4:25 am |
    • Indep3

      According to your reasoning, then, Christianity and Judaism should also be annihilated.

      October 8, 2011 at 5:00 am |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      Cool! When can we start?

      October 8, 2011 at 5:10 am |
  15. Whatzin Aname

    This whole discussion is stupid. Islam is not a religion and Mohammed was a pedophiliac idiot. People following him do not have intelligence enough to be called human.

    October 8, 2011 at 4:14 am |
    • Indep3

      Your ignorance knows no bounds.

      October 8, 2011 at 5:01 am |
  16. mila

    There are so many varieties in Islamic law: hanging, stoning......or even being pardoned! Honestly this is a case for Amnesty International – how can we discuss about something which clearly is part of Human Rights around the world. All scholars discussing about Human Rights in a free world should get off on ground of insanity.

    October 8, 2011 at 4:04 am |
  17. Dee

    islam is not a religion.
    islam is a terrorist support organization !

    October 8, 2011 at 3:42 am |
    • Crouching Tiger Hidden Firefighter

      Got that right.

      October 8, 2011 at 3:58 am |
    • gliese42

      it is a political party

      October 8, 2011 at 6:08 am |
    • Atheist

      Remember (peaceful) christian terrorism that produced inquisition and murdered the original population of the Americas and of Australia. It was the basis of religious wars that hit Europ for centuries.

      October 8, 2011 at 7:06 am |
  18. Right Guidance

    Well every soul has a will to choose which is right and wrong, but whoever leaves Islam will surely regret eternally at the time of death and there is no turning back, If anyone chooses any other belief other than Islam will not be accepted and his destination will be Hell where he will not live or die and will be a greatest loser in the Next Life.

    October 8, 2011 at 3:38 am |
    • oxocubes

      Charming. What a nice god

      October 8, 2011 at 4:01 am |
    • OMFG

      Monotheistic religions are so-o FUN! "If you're not with us, you're against us." EVERY monotheistic religion sets up an us vs. them mentality; they are all antagonistic and lead to nothing but pain and suffering in the long run. Islam, Christianity, same thing, different pile, if you get my meaning.

      At least the rest of us non-religious or polytheistic types don't believe in any of that "you'll burn in HELL" stuff...so comments/threats about that deserve nothing more than a quaint smile, a pat on the speakers head and a soft "Oh, that's nice dear, no go along and play pretend with your friends."

      October 8, 2011 at 4:11 am |
    • Shibu

      Hmmmm. let me think...
      oh no. I will pass,
      Just because US govt. may hang me for converting from Christianity to Islam
      Oh, but wait... US is not crazy like Iran.
      Thinking again....

      October 8, 2011 at 4:23 am |
    • Wylie

      How does that quote justify clerics directing the killing of apostates? Or is it considered After Friday Prayers Entertainment?

      October 8, 2011 at 5:20 am |
    • Willow Brook

      @ Right Guidance

      and that's what it's all about...fear, always putting fear in the hearts of idiots who will follow a "religion" like islam just because they have absolutely no critical thinking skills. How sad.

      October 8, 2011 at 6:34 am |
  19. Charly StJames

    Sorry dear Lord, none of us really understand your love and greatness but your Word is true and we have to believe it and make it real in our lives then maybe and just maybe other persons we'll see the truth of your power and love trough us...

    October 8, 2011 at 3:24 am |
    • Fire

      Nope, I`ll pass on this one. The last time I interveened in such matters I rescued some whöre from getting stoned to death, and told her to sin no more.

      And now a few thousand years later I see whöredom everywhere, as they aparently took it as token that it was ok to be whöring, witch I clearly stated not to do.

      So, no, let this dude become a Martyr for Christianity if he wish. Fine by me. And if he is a true Christian, it is probably fine by him as well.

      October 8, 2011 at 6:39 am |
  20. scott

    Why do we need to rely on books written over a thousand years ago to tell us right from wrong? In no other disciplines (math, history, science) des an archaic writing hold water. Reigion is nothing but a movement from great, big things (lightning and thunder and mountains, to animals - the great bear, whale or wolf - to personal gods - Zeus, Isis, or ST. So-and-so, to monothesitic religions - Jesus, Mohammed, etc. The evolution of religion is always coming closer to ourselves - the individual.Someday, hopefully, we will realize that WE are the deciders and ALL responsibillity and decision-making rests within. In other words, WE (each of us) is god. WAKE UP!

    October 8, 2011 at 3:19 am |
    • Joshua

      Yea, you're God. k

      October 8, 2011 at 3:38 am |
    • wg

      hmmm where have i heard that we shall be like gods before? hmmm...oh yeah...it was when satan lied and deceived eve....cmon! the power is in us? ahaha we live on a planet among millions of galaxys and we are in control? really?

      October 8, 2011 at 3:59 am |
    • Shibu

      Yep. We are GOD, who can't control what will happen to us, a minute later.
      Sucks being GOD.
      No sir, I would rather believe, there is another guy (GOD) who controls everyone's life/death, and it is not Obama or Osama.

      October 8, 2011 at 4:27 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.