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. Rainer Braendlein

    I guess, we should wonder, what makes many people believing such a crap like the Islam?

    Here is the reason:

    A big part of the mankind believes in Muhammad, the wicked Koran and Allah, and thus keeps on living in infinite darkness.

    What is the reason why people believe such a medieval crap like the Islam?

    There is a demonic power behind the Islam. According to Holy Bible (Book of Revelation, Chapter 9), the true God (the Triune God) has woken up four evil angels or ghosts to demonize the ancient Arabs for a war against the Romans, which were bound at the river Euphrates. Like the ancient Arabs the today Muslims are demonized for a apocalyptic war against the Westerners. Aren't their evil deeds apocalyptic (suicide-bombers).

    Whe cannot overcome evil ghosts or demons by human power. That is only possible by divine power. We need a good shepherd, who is able to give a kick our enemies: The Lord-God Jesus Christ.

    October 8, 2011 at 9:41 am |
    • Bahn

      Your last statement summed it very well!

      October 8, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • Maude

      It's nothing but about their OIL. You need the black stuff to run your economy. We will do anything to get it. The devil is within you and your kind. You steal, you conive, you kill, you lie, you cheat. You killed all the indians in America and took their land. You killed if people didn't convert to your religion. You turned on eachother during world war 1. Pathetic soles your are.

      October 8, 2011 at 9:48 am |
  2. Maude

    This guy is a Christain spy. He died his hair and tanned his skin. He is white christian spy design to cause havoc in the Muslim world. Sadly he must be put to sleep. May allah have mercy on his sole. Ameen !

    October 8, 2011 at 9:37 am |
    • asyouaskforit

      Your obvious lying make you look stupid. Even arabs are becoming christians.

      October 8, 2011 at 9:43 am |
    • inigomontoya

      Um, no.

      October 8, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • Dave

      So someone dressing up and pretending to leave Islame causes "havoc in the muslim world"?? What a weak faith Islame must be. Any challenge is met with emotional irrational hysteria lest someone actually start tinking for themselves.

      October 8, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  3. puppo

    Yeah right all the professors you can find won't help, Islamic fringe groups pay no attention to logic, or morals. Just as the tea party and fringe neocon republicans pay no attention either.

    October 8, 2011 at 9:37 am |
    • Dave

      These aren't "fringe groups" pupoo. These views represent the vast majority of muslims throughout the muslim world. Even in "liberated" Egypt, the majority supports death for apostasy. And if you've fallen for the Democrats' propoganda demonizing the tea party in a transparent attempt to marginalize them politically, then YOU are the sort of lemming that will be wandering around Wall St. calling for the deaths of evil corporate jewish bankers and anyone else who challenges your myopic world view ... or at least too scared to challenge those who do (much like these "vast majority of peaceful muslims" thoughout the world).

      October 8, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  4. wasso

    Perhaps apostasy should be viewed from the perspective of a divorce. But in such cases, it may not necessarily be a divorce from God per se, but merely a divorce from a previous interpretation on how to reach out to God.

    October 8, 2011 at 9:34 am |
  5. Maude

    In the begining there was nothing, then god created turds like you. You pathetic animals you are. Pray for your sins and acknowledge god, bow before him and offer sacrafice. Muhammad and Moses both spoke to the burning bush up on the mountian. There in lies proof of god.

    October 8, 2011 at 9:34 am |
    • trixen

      God created my **** too. Why don't you suck on that for a while?

      October 8, 2011 at 9:37 am |
  6. SCAtheist

    Quit worshiping invisible nonsense and all this goes away.

    October 8, 2011 at 9:33 am |
    • Chris

      lol...Imagine all the people...yeah the atheistic communist regimes have shown their moral fiber through the years...

      October 8, 2011 at 9:43 am |
    • Aezell

      There has never been such a thing as an "atheist regime." Just leaders who were atheists. If you can't understand that distinction I suggest you go back and take a 6th grade social studies class. Even middle schoolers can figure out the difference.

      October 8, 2011 at 9:50 am |
    • Chris

      really? you're cute. Not real intelligent, but I'm sure God gave you good looks to make up for it.

      October 8, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  7. Zionists Christians agents

    I say put him in a stick and sheesh kabab him, let him be an example of those who hate islam.
    enough already with your islamphobia.
    he got what he deserve, dont tell me your going to invade iran because of this imposter.
    how much you pay them those cia agents in the middle east? seriously

    October 8, 2011 at 9:27 am |
    • asyouaskforit

      Islam – a crap and false religion that cant stand up on its on so they have to start killing. Mohammed is a pedophile , highway robber and a killer.

      October 8, 2011 at 9:33 am |
    • Steve

      So anyone that decides to leave Islam, "hates" Islam? Is that what your bigoted mind is trying to convey?

      October 8, 2011 at 9:37 am |
    • Dave

      It's almost hilarious how mentally stunted you islamists are. Being concerned about an ideology that promotes "sheesh kabob"ing anyone who steps outside the dogmtic groupthink is hardly a phobia. I would call it a very rational self-defensive action to hate islame.

      October 8, 2011 at 10:47 am |
  8. Zionists Christians agents

    suddenly he is Jesus hahahahaha

    October 8, 2011 at 9:25 am |
  9. Colin

    In the 21st Century, Muslims are debating whether or not to execute a man, based on his no longer believing in the same sky-god he once did! He didn’t kill, he didn’t ra.pe, he didn’t even litter. All he did was trade one Iron Age myth for another, and they want to kill him.

    The fact that this blog is not completely full of Muslims objecting and the fact that there are not daily marches in Tehran protesting this barbaric act speak volumes about how primitive and uneducated this poisonous religion is.

    Can you even imagine an atheist in London or San Francisco being hung for no longer believing in the Christian sky-fairy?

    October 8, 2011 at 9:20 am |
  10. rw

    @#$%#$#@@# Muslims.

    October 8, 2011 at 9:18 am |
  11. Jon

    Pray for all people who practice Islam. They have been guided by people not God. It is all they know and have not been enlightened. The man will die for his faith and be blessed by God. Pray for him and those that jail him.

    October 8, 2011 at 9:13 am |
  12. Eye625


    October 8, 2011 at 9:04 am |
  13. Jay Delgado

    Muhammed is called "the perfect man" and "a timeless example for all ages" by the god of Islam, Allah.

    Muhammed is quoted as saying: (From the Hadiths) Ibn Abbaas said : The Messenger of Allah said, “Whoever changes his (Islamic) religion, kill him.” Al-Bukhary (number 6922)

    Clearly, those who profess to practice Islam must kill those who are apostates...
    ...and that is why you see apostates being killed in Islamic countries.

    Anything else that a Muslim says to you is a lie. They are allowed to lie to non-Muslims in their religion because their god "Allah" tells them to, if it is in the interest of saving face for Islam (this practice is called 'Taqiyya', in Islam).

    Don't listen to what Muslims tell you in English: go and listen to what they say in Arabic, for it is when they are speaking Arabic to each other, that they discuss the murder of apostates freely.

    October 8, 2011 at 8:55 am |
    • Kevin

      As Jay says, Muhammeds words are just as important as the Koran itself. The softening of the reality by this articleto imply great nuance in islamic law is the same as a lie.
      From a Saudi website. (the would not allow misrepresenting Islam is SA.) answering the question about apostacy.
      Where is the nuance?
      3 – What is the ruling on the apostate?

      If a Muslim apostatizes and meets the conditions of apostasy – i.e., he is of sound mind, an adult and does that of his own free will – then his blood may be shed with impunity. He is to be executed by the Muslim ruler or by his deputy – such as the qaadi or judge, and he is not to not be washed (after death, in preparation for burial), the funeral prayer is not to be offered for him and he is not to be buried with the Muslims.

      The evidence that the apostate is to be executed is the words of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him): “Whoever changes his religion, execute him.” (Narrated by al-Bukhaari, 2794). What is meant by religion here is Islam (i.e., whoever changes from Islam to another religion).

      October 8, 2011 at 9:10 am |
    • Kevin

      dditionaly, this is the Website reference:
      This is not an anti-muslim site. It is an Islamic Q&A
      It gives answers many questions that muslims have about their own religion.
      Browse it please and read the TRUTH in their very own words.

      October 8, 2011 at 9:17 am |
    • Rainer Braendlein

      Of course, a true Christian recognizes the nonsense and dangerousness of the Islamic doctrine or the Koran by the light of the Holy Spirit.

      However, a big part of the mankind believes in Muhammad, the wicked Koran and Allah, and thus keeps on living in darkness.

      What is the reason why people believe such a crap?

      There is a demonic power behind the Islam. According to Holy Bible (Book of Revelation, Chapter 9), the true God (the Triune God) has woken up four evil angels or ghosts to demonize the ancient Arabs for a war against the Romans, which were bound at the river Euphrates.

      Whe cannot overcome evil ghosts or demons by human power. That is only possible by divine power. We need a good shepherd, who is able to give a kick our enemies: The Lord-God Jesus Christ.

      October 8, 2011 at 9:20 am |
  14. amjust

    This is truly unbelievable in this day and age. Decent and civilized people around the world should stand up and speak out against these barbarians and their evil acts in the name of their god. Where are our world leaders, why has no one spoken out. How about our own President who is quick to point out all of the flaws of the United States of America and Christianity. No religion is or people are perfect, but this is unbelievable. We are so busy being politically correct that we are afraid to stand up for what is just and right. Where is the left on this issue. Protesting when murderers or rapist are condemned, but not for this man who has done nothing but proclaim his faith

    October 8, 2011 at 8:51 am |
    • Maude

      He knew what he was getting into. Don't hide behind faith. If you walk into the lion's den converting them to vegen, come dinner time you will be served.

      October 8, 2011 at 9:27 am |
    • Scott

      @amjust, I agree. It is 2011 and this kind of thinking is still strong and it's appalling. I spent time in the Middle-East and the culture and mindset is incredibly ancient. Islam instructs government on what to do, government instructs the men of families on what to do and they instruct their wives and children within the household. It is this hierarchy (as in a military) that sustains control over a population. Is Islam a religion? Yes but I think it's been corrupted by politics to where its been misinterpreted and re-hashed to the point when its basic values and meanings are lost. Whatever Muhammed truly wanted for followers of Islam it is gone today. A tree is known by the fruit it produces and what Islam produces today, regardless of the nice and moderate Muslims around the world, tells us that the higher "men-in-power" in Islamic states will tolerate nothing of respecting anything except for everyone to be Islamic. That is the premise.

      October 8, 2011 at 9:44 am |
  15. Reasoning

    A religion that coerces people to convert to it and prohibits its followers to convert from it is a religion to be banned.All muslims will go to hell anyway

    October 8, 2011 at 8:49 am |
    • Capercorn

      You mean like every last religion on the planet?

      October 8, 2011 at 9:23 am |
  16. Rainer Braendlein

    When at last do we get able to condemn the Islamic doctrine? Do we still live in the dark age? Do we not want to overcome the dark age?

    Two plagues have tortured the mankind for centuries: The Islam and the papacy. Both the Islamic doctrine and the doctrine of papacy belong to the dark age (Middle Ages, 600 a. D. till 1500 a. D.).

    What made life so unpleasant during the dark age?

    Answer: The impact of papacy and Islam. Both are founded by the devil himself.

    Beginning with Emperor Constantine the civilized world (Roman Empire) became Christian, that means beginning with Constantine Christianity was protetected by the state and the most acknowledged religion of the Romans (equal to today Westerners). Constantine lived around 300 a. D.. Until 600 a. D. the Christian Church in the Roman Empire did not know any papacy and was autonomic (state and church were friends, but ruled two different realms, independent from each other).

    602 a. D. one of the greatest calamities of history occured: The wicked criminal Phocas became (Eastern) Roman Emperor. He didn't rule according to the Christian tradition of his predecessors, but was a very cruel godless ruler and committed a lot of crimes. The actually Christian Eastern Roman Empire was ruled by an anti-Christian tyrant (that is equal to Hitler's rule over the actually Christian Germany) for 8 years (from 602 to 610).

    Phocas' armies probably committed a lot of crimes in Near East (Syria, Palestine, Arabia). At this time Muhammad lived in Arabia. He has surely heard of the crimes of the Roman armies (whereby it is nearly sure that in Muhammad's eyes a Roman was a Christian and a Christian was a Roman). Thus, Muhammad got a very bad perception of Western Christianity and started to invent a new religion, called Islam (the Koran sees Christianity as a degenerated faith, which had corrupted the genuine faith of Abraham, which was Islam in Muhammad's eyes. Thus, Muhammad felt obliged to bring back mankind to the Religion of Truth or Islam). Of course, Muhammad made a big mistake, because the reason for the bad behaviour of the Romans or Westerners was not Christianity, but their disbelief (many Romans were baptized, but did not follow Jesus in daily life). Muhammad condemned the only religion, which can improve human lifes: Christianity.

    Furthermore Phocas established papacy: He made the Roman See the hightest on earth, which was a heavy crime, because God wants all sees to be equal. By this crime the Holy Spirit or God himself was displaced from the Roman Catholic Church and she corrupted totally, because she had no more divine teacher (the Spirit). The ridiculous pope became the "teacher" (better seducer) of the Roman Catholic Church. By the popes mislead the RCC has become a P I S S P O T of heresies and is guilty of the spiritual death of billions of people.

    Thus, Islam and papacy are the consequences of the crimes of one of the worst tyrants of history.

    How long do we still want to get fooled by the wicked Phocas (the devil incarnate)?

    It is high time to abolish Islam and papacy together.

    Of course our secularism is no substi-tute, but true Christianity. It is highly probably that the true God sent papacy and Islam as a judgement on the mankind, because we didn't want to accept true Christianity.

    The only way to get rid of Islam and papacy is it to believe in the true gospel, then God will stop his judgement.

    The gospel of Jesus Christ: Jesus has borne our sins on the cross. Believe it and get baptized (infant baptism is valid and mustn't be repeated; just refer to your infant baptism). At baptism the power of Jesus death and resurrection is dedicated to us. Our old man of sin dies together with Jesus and we resurrect together with Jesus (these are spiritual realities). By Jesus' divine power we can start a life in righteousness: Loving God and our neighbours. Details of Christian life we find in the Sermon on the Mount (Gospel of Matthew 5-7).

    Read the book "The Cost of Discipleship" by Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which is an interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount and much more.

    October 8, 2011 at 8:48 am |
    • Warren

      Yet the followers of Christianity have probably caused more deaths in the name of religion than any other religion on earth. See the Crusades (when Jerusalem was "liberated", i.e. conquered, the Crusaders killed everyone in the city, Christian, Mulsim or Jew and reportedly the soldiers had to wade through the blood running in the streets), see the forcible conversion of many peoples all around the planet in various areas – for instance the forced baptism of many Mexican indigenous peoples by the Spanish, who were killed after baptism so their souls would remain pure. See the persecution of Witches in the middle ages (Hint: If you were found guilty at the time, the Judge got ownership of your property in some European states), the wars between Catholics and Protestants that tore Europe apart, the many thousands killed for various "heresies", the thousands abused here in North America by the Government and society in general all because of trying to force Christian "virtues" on people against their will, etc, etc, right on up to the modern day when many American military personnel going over to Iraq viewed it as a Christian crusade – and I think even Bush called it a Crusade at one point (Of course, he was inspired by a dream that he felt came from God that he should invade Iraq apparently, and lied to justify it). All of the major religions have been responsible for huge death tolls at some point in their history, and while bringing happiness to some, have brought misery to others. I suppose Buddhism is a possible exception.
      Christianity and mass violence, abuse and cruelty go hand in hand throughout history I am afraid. Christianity may teach peace and understanding – but its followers have often chosen to ignore those teachings entirely it seems.

      October 8, 2011 at 9:06 am |
    • Malaysian

      Warren, You are saying that Muslims also had the rights to kill and murder like the old days of Christianity? If Osama can kill , Muslims also can kill? Where is your reasoning, compassion and logic?

      October 8, 2011 at 9:12 am |
    • hello

      READ: Caesar's Messiah.... The bible is a joke book....

      October 8, 2011 at 9:22 am |
    • Rainer Braendlein


      A big part of history is the history of the wars between the Western blasphemer (the pope) and the Eastern blasphemer (Muhammad).

      October 8, 2011 at 9:24 am |
  17. Todd

    Creeping sharia law, jihad by stealth, jihad by litigation, jihad by violence, jihad by demographics (mass immigration, mass reproduction). All the well-meaning but deluded liberals in America should be sat down and handed a copy of Ayaaan Hirsi Ali's books ("The Caged Virgin", "Infidel"). Islam is not a religion. It is a terribly dangerous fascist political ideology bent on world domination. Individual devout Muslims are not evil, their religion is. See also http://www.gatesofvienna.blogspot.com or http://www.jihadwatch.org.

    October 8, 2011 at 8:48 am |
  18. DerFred

    Us v Them

    Religion is our CHOICE, islam is their LAW, trouble is they don't know their own rules, such a mess.

    October 8, 2011 at 8:46 am |
  19. CSX

    WARNING: This is an article about a real Christian. How dare CNN allow an article about a real Christian?

    It is about a man who loves his creator and Father. A God worth dying for.

    Since this is the UnBelief blog made by the unbelieving, I thought I should warn you that his testimony may spread to you and it will change you eternally.

    God have mercy on this man in this situation.

    October 8, 2011 at 8:43 am |
    • Aezell

      Actually it is about a delusional man who believes in magical ancient barbaric sky people getting in trouble because his delusions don't conform to his societies delusions about THEIR ancient barbaric magical sky people.

      The whole ordeal is about on the same level of executing someone because you think the Smurfs rule the universe and they believe in Rainbow Bright.

      October 8, 2011 at 9:40 am |
    • Scott

      @Aezell; go back to your hole in the ground.

      October 8, 2011 at 9:46 am |
  20. CSX

    Law? What law? It is hate of Jews and Christians. They being pathetically backwards, must have an element of jealousy.

    October 8, 2011 at 8:39 am |
    • Maude

      No jealousy here. Just hatred for all the killings and subsequently changing the written history to hide the truth. You will go back to dust to dust and be nothing for evermore.

      October 8, 2011 at 9:42 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.