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. Stupidity of Man

    At the same time that the world commemorates the passing of Steve Jobs, a modern example of the growth in human thought and intelligence, we are reminded that humanity is still blinded by the myths and dogma of religion.

    October 8, 2011 at 8:35 am |
  2. greencook

    Talk about still living in the past. I guess the US, who supported the shah murdering his own citizens for decades, is partly to blame; chickens coming home to roost. But, when will Iran join the Modern World? Eventually, nobody will want to live in such a place once they internet shows them the Real World.

    October 8, 2011 at 8:29 am |
  3. stevie68a

    Christianity is in a dormant period, away from being the hateful religion it really is. Consider the Crusades and the Inquisition.
    When the american far right gets into power, expect murder and bloodshed. Just because christianity wears a cloak of "love",
    it's really mostly hate. Just your usual wolf-in sheep's-clothing. I say ridicule religion every chance you get, because it is a lie.

    October 8, 2011 at 8:29 am |
    • Greg

      ummm...replace Christianity with the work islam in your comments and you will have it just right, idiot.

      October 8, 2011 at 8:40 am |
  4. Central Scrutinizer

    What is God's name is that grotesque looking thing in front of him in the picture?

    October 8, 2011 at 8:25 am |
  5. Central Scrutinizer

    Finally, the sun is coming up....get naked, slather on some SPF 50 and go OUTSIDE. Turn your face to the sun and feel the warmth of the star. FEEL the power of the universe and rejoice. Getting naked is optional but if it feels good do it.

    October 8, 2011 at 8:22 am |
  6. Central Scrutinizer

    How about about we tax the holy bejesus out of churches and make them pay their fair share if they want to have any influence in this country. We could use the cash right about now.

    October 8, 2011 at 8:20 am |
  7. Central Scrutinizer

    How about we have a "don't ask don't tell" law for religion so athiests and agnostics, the smartest people in the country, can actually run for office without having to lie.

    October 8, 2011 at 8:18 am |
  8. Central Scrutinizer

    How about we mind our own business and kill terrorists.

    October 8, 2011 at 8:16 am |
  9. John Briffaux

    ....And then muslims wonder why the christian world trust less and less the muslim religion and its community. Why nationalism is rising and an anti-muslim sentiment is building around the world. Executing a person because they chose to follow one religion instead of another, or decides to change religion, will only push people to distrust Islam even more. Threats and violence will not convince people to be more tolerant.

    October 8, 2011 at 8:08 am |
  10. HugoCorv

    What is to be done to prevent such crimes against humanity? Pastor Yousef is not the only non-Muslim to be executed or coerced by force into accepting a religion in which they do not believe in countries like Iran.

    I think every that country should have a Reciprocity Law – "Your citizens do not get greater rights in our country than our citizens get in yours." (Yes, I know that Pastor Yousef is an Iranian in Iran, but non-Iranians in Iran are also coerced by the sword into converting to Islam). I think such a law would increase peace, tolerance and rights for all people in all countries.

    October 8, 2011 at 7:59 am |
  11. Dostun

    Shocked to see our liberals tip toeing around this issue and coming up with all sorts of theories to provide excuses for the mullahs to pass off as humans...

    Their crime is as bad, their hands as drenched with the blood of innocents as that of Iranian mullahs.

    Why can't they stand up and speak for humanity as they do when Christian rightwing offends their sensibilities? Do they believe that Iranians are barbaric and hence different standards should apply? Isnt that racism?

    October 8, 2011 at 7:56 am |
  12. harleydavidson

    Nowadays, the ONLY religion that condones murdering people IN THE NAME OF RELIGION is Islam. Calling it the religion of peace is delusional. I hope more Islam followers will wake up to this delusion and convert away from Islam. I don't care what they convert to...it could be to atheism...ANYTHING IS BETTER THAN ISLAM.

    October 8, 2011 at 7:49 am |
  13. chaad

    I found the tone of the article disingenuous, because Iran has a long, bloody tradition of executing apostates, especially Baha'i converts, since the state's inception with the Revolution, but going back to the Persian era as well, which leaves little doubt that the matter of whether such executions are "un-Islamic" has been firmly decided.

    There is no question that executing apostates is within the laws, codes, and principles of Islam.

    That is, however, not to call Islam barbarous. Just as there are many awful things in Christianity that have no place in modern society, and that been buried and forgotten, or simply changed and done away with, so to can Islam forget, bury, and change some of its features that are not amenable to modern life.

    But that's not the direction Islam is going. Muslims try to defend and write-off barbarous elements in the faith, calling them aberrations or untrue representations, rather than face their problems and admit they need to change. This is the condition that many find repulsive in Islam, and with scholars like the ones in this article trying to compare nuance in Islamic law to nuance in American law misses the opportunity to paint Islam as a modern religion that Americans and others in West can relate to rather than fear.

    October 8, 2011 at 7:48 am |
    • Rick Hammon

      Explain the barbaric Christian things that go on in this world today and for whats its worth the past comparing to Islam. While you prepare consider the salvation army and the american red cross. Both Christian organizations. Thats what christians do.

      October 8, 2011 at 8:16 am |
    • Reality

      And the koranic/mosque driven acts of terror and horror continue:

      The Muslim Conquest of India – 11th to 18th century

      ■"The likely death toll is somewhere between 2 million and 80 million. The geometric mean of those two limits is 12.7 million. "

      and the 19 million killed in the Mideast Slave Trade 7C-19C by Muslims.

      and more recently

      1a) 179 killed in Mumbai/Bombay, 290 injured

      1b) Assassination of Benazir Bhutto and Theo Van Gogh

      2) 9/11, 3000 mostly US citizens, 1000’s injured

      3) The 24/7 Sunni-Shiite centuries-old blood feud currently being carried out in Iraq, US troops killed in action, 3,480 and 928 in non combat roles. 102,522 – 112,049 Iraqi civilians killed as of 9/16/2011/, mostly due to suicide bombers, land mines and bombs of various types, http://www.iraqbodycount.org/ and http://www.defenselink.mil/news/casualty.pdf

      4) Kenya- In Nairobi, about 212 people were killed and an estimated 4000 injured; in Dar es Salaam, the attack killed at least 11 and wounded 85.[2]

      5) Bali-in 2002-killing 202 people, 164 of whom were foreign nationals, and 38 Indonesian citizens. A further 209 people were injured.

      6) Bali in 2005- Twenty people were killed, and 129 people were injured by three bombers who killed themselves in the attacks.

      7) Spain in 2004- killing 191 people and wounding 2,050.

      8. UK in 2005- The bombings killed 52 commuters and the four radical Islamic suicide bombers, injured 700.

      9) The execution of an eloping couple in Afghanistan on 04/15/2009 by the Taliban.

      10) – Afghanistan: US troops 1,385 killed in action, 273 killed in non-combat situations as of 09/15/2011. Over 40,000 Afghan civilians killed due to the dark-age, koranic-driven Taliban acts of horror

      11) The killing of 13 citizen soldiers at Ft. Hood by a follower of the koran.

      12) 38 Russian citizens killed on March 29, 2010 by Muslim women suicide bombers.

      13) The May 28, 2010 attack on a Islamic religious minority in Pakistan, which have left 98 dead,

      14) Lockerbie is known internationally as the site where, on 21 December 1988, the wreckage of Pan Am Flight 103 crashed as a result of a terrorist bomb. In the United Kingdom the event is referred to as the Lockerbie disaster, the Lockerbie bombing, or simply Lockerbie. Eleven townspeople were killed in Sherwood Crescent, where the plane's wings and fuel tanks plummeted in a fiery explosion, destroying several houses and leaving a huge crater, with debris causing damage to a number of buildings nearby. The 270 fatalities (259 on the plane, 11 in Lockerbie) were citizens of 21 nations.

      15 The daily suicide and/or roadside and/or mosque bombings in the terror world of Islam.

      16) Bombs sent from Yemen by followers of the koran which fortunately were discovered before the bombs were detonated.

      17) The killing of 58 Christians in a Catholic church in one of the latest acts of horror and terror in Iraq.

      18) Moscow airport suicide bombing: 35 dead, 130 injured. January 25, 2011.

      19) A Pakistani minister, who had said he was getting death threats because of his stance against the country's controversial blasphemy law, was shot and killed Wednesday, 3/2/2011

      20) two American troops killed in Germany by a recently radicalized Muslim, 3/3/2011

      21) the kidnapping and apparent killing of a follower of Zoraster in the dark world of Islamic Pakistan.

      22) Shariatpur, Bangladesh (CNN 3/30/2011) - Hena Akhter's last words to her mother proclaimed her innocence. But it was too late to save the 14-year-old girl. Her fellow villagers in Bangladesh's Shariatpur district had already passed harsh judgment on her. Guilty, they said, of having an affair with a married man. The imam from the local mosque ordered the fatwa, or religious ruling, and the punishment: 101 lashes delivered swiftly, deliberately in public. Hena dropped after 70 and died a week later.

      23) "October 4, 2011, 100 die as a truck loaded with drums of fuel exploded Tuesday at the gate of compound housing several government ministries on a busy Mogadishu street. It was the deadliest single bombing carried out by the al Qaeda-linked al-Shabab group in Somalia since their insurgency began. "

      October 8, 2011 at 8:25 am |
  14. Reality


    The Five Steps To Deprogram 1400 Years of Islamic Myths: (as prepared by yours truly)

    ( –The Steps take less than two minutes to finish- simply amazing, two minutes to bring peace and rationality to over one billion lost souls- Priceless!!!)

    Are you ready?

    Using "The 77 Branches of Islamic "faith" a collection compiled by Imam Bayhaqi as a starting point. In it, he explains the essential virtues that reflect true "faith" (iman) through related Qur’anic verses and Prophetic sayings." i.e. a nice summary of the Koran and Islamic beliefs.

    The First Five of the 77 Branches:

    "1. Belief in Allah"

    aka as God, Yahweh, Zeus, Jehovah, Mother Nature, etc. should be added to your cleansing neurons.

    "2. To believe that everything other than Allah was non-existent. Thereafter, Allah Most High created these things and subsequently they came into existence."

    Evolution and the Big Bang or the "Gi-b G-nab" (when the universe starts to recycle) are more plausible and the "akas" for Allah should be included if you continue to be a "crea-tionist".

    "3. To believe in the existence of angels."

    A major item for neuron cleansing. Angels/de-vils are the mythical creations of ancient civilizations, e.g. Hitt-ites, to explain/define natural events, contacts with their gods, big birds, sudden winds, protectors during the dark nights, etc. No "pretty/ug-ly wingy thingies" ever visited or talked to Mohammed, Jesus, Mary or Joseph or Joe Smith. Today we would classify angels as f–airies and "tin–ker be-lls". Modern de-vils are classified as the de-mons of the de-mented.

    "4. To believe that all the heavenly books that were sent to the different prophets are true. However, apart from the Quran, all other books are not valid anymore."

    Another major item to delete. There are no books written in the spirit state of Heaven (if there is one) just as there are no angels to write/publish/distribute them. The Koran, OT, NT etc. are simply books written by humans for humans.

    Prophets were invented by ancient scribes typically to keep the un-educated masses in line. Today we call them for-tune tellers.

    Prophecies are also invali-dated by the natural/God/Allah gifts of Free Will and Future.

    "5. To believe that all the prophets are true. However, we are commanded to follow the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him)
    Mohammed spent thirty days "fasting" (the Ramadan legend) in a hot cave before his first contact with Allah aka God etc. via a "pretty wingy thingy". Common sense demands a neuron deletion of #5. #5 is also the major source of Islamic vi-olence i.e. turning Mohammed's "fast, hunger-driven" hallu-cinations into horrible reality for unbelievers.

    Walk these Five Steps and we guarantee a complete recovery from your Islamic ways!!!!

    Unfortunately, there are not many Muslim commentators/readers on this blog so the "two-minute" cure is not getting to those who need it. If you have a Muslim friend, send him a copy and help save the world.

    Analogous steps are available at your request for deprogramming the myths of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Paganism..

    October 8, 2011 at 7:42 am |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      Reality, too many words again. 2 demerits.

      October 8, 2011 at 8:24 am |
    • Reality

      For the reading challenged:


      October 8, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  15. Kevin

    He has the right to do whatever he wants with his life. Personally, I would not die for any religion, but it's his life so I'm not going to criticize him for it. He's not hurting me.

    October 8, 2011 at 7:40 am |
  16. /Brandon

    Authoritarian or authoritative in article when referencing Harvard website?

    October 8, 2011 at 7:36 am |
  17. Derrique Stuckey

    Silly Muslim primates...

    October 8, 2011 at 7:34 am |
  18. Olwethu

    This shows how much Muslims hate Christianity and it's just a fact. God doesnt force anyone to believe in
    Him. God gave each human being a free will to choose whatever they want. He cant force anyone even though He has the power to do so. Islam operates on fear upon their followers.

    October 8, 2011 at 7:28 am |
    • pat

      Its not just christian these extremists hate, it is all religions that aren't islam. In Iran other religions are persecuted including Jewish, christian Bahia etc. The nuts of Iran has taken iran back to where Christianity was during the spanish inquisition backward lunatics control Iran government, courts and secret police...

      Only religion they hate more then Christians is Judaism.

      October 8, 2011 at 7:41 am |
  19. desert voice (troubledgoodangel or Nathanael or Voiceinthedesert)

    All Christians in the world should start praying right now for this courageous pastor! Islam is not bad, but it is undergoing the pangs of knowing itself. There are too many false teachers in Islam! I call on all people of good will, in Islam, and in all other religions, to defend thie pastor! For in doing so, they will in essence be defending themselves from "false" Islam!

    October 8, 2011 at 7:20 am |
  20. Geof

    Even a modernist scholar could demonstrate efinitively that the Quran opposes captial punishment for apostasy, it would not matter, because radical rereading of their own history is not what these folks are about. A long legal history of executing apostates gives them all the moral and spiritual mandate they need. To reputiate that history would be tantamount to rejecting the validity of all the scholars and commentators, Islamic tradition, from Mohammed until now. It would amount to a Protestant revolution within Islam. No, if this man is spared, it will be on some extraenous excuse that leave the principl, and therefore the integrity of the Islamic past, intact.

    October 8, 2011 at 7:08 am |
    • John Richardson

      I don't know. The very fact that barbarian traditionalists having been running amok of late leads me to suspect that a backlash within the Islamic world may well be in the offing. Perhaps not in this case, but soon.

      October 8, 2011 at 7:13 am |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      Smart people. Refreshing!

      October 8, 2011 at 7:18 am |
    • chaad

      Yes, a very sane understanding, and I hope that Richardson is right!

      October 8, 2011 at 7:50 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.