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Religious Conversion and Sharia Law

Author: Lionel Beehner
June 8, 2007
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

Malaysia is often held up as a model nation that blends modern secular institutions with a tolerant brand of Islam. Sharia, or Islamic law, is followed but in the context of a constitutional framework. A recent decision, however, by Malaysia’s high court refusing to recognize a Muslim woman’s conversion to Christianity has called into question the country’s freedom of religion and multi-faith identity. Similar cases in Afghanistan, Egypt, and Jordan also have aroused concern among Western-based rights groups about Islam’s compatibility with democracy.

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How does sharia law view religious conversion?

Conversion by Muslims to other faiths is forbidden under most interpretations of sharia and converts are considered apostates (non-Muslims, however, are allowed to convert into Islam). Some Muslim clerics equate this apostasy to treason, a crime punishable by death. The legal precedent stretches back to the seventh century when Prophet Mohammed ordered a Muslim man to death who joined the enemies of Islam at a time of war. However, because apostasy is not a crime under the criminal codes of Muslim states, generally the murtad (apostate) is not subject to any criminal sanction. “The Quran contains a provision that says ‘he who has embraced Islam and then abandons it will receive punishment in hell after Judgment Day,” says M. Cherif Bassiouni, an expert on Islamic law at DePaul University College of Law, and therefore there is no punishment on earth. But traditional scholars, in Bassiouni's opinion, misinterpreted early practices of the Prophet Mohammed and consider apostasy a crime punishable by death. They give religious converts a grace period of up to ten days to reconsider their decision before the judgment is entered.

In most Muslim states, matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance, and other personal-status areas are handled by sharia courts, whose judges tend to be conservative. Yet some experts say these courts' interpretation of sharia law is outdated. “Sharia judges are usually educated in academic institutions which do not favor intellectual independence,” Bassiouni says. They are taught “to memorize the Quran and the hadith (traditions related to words and deeds of Prophet Mohammed)...consequently, if there is a misinterpretation, they will simply automatically apply it.” Other legal experts say sharia judges are simply upholding an interpretation of Islamic law favored by the majority of the world’s Muslims. Most Muslim states have different bodies of law that apply to such matters as criminal, civil, commercial, labor, and tax matters, which, with a few exceptions, are handled by lay judges who are educated in secular law schools. In some states, there are sharia-trained judges who deal with matters personal status (i.e. marriage). Only in a few states, like Saudia Arabia, Sudan, and Pakistan, will sharia enter into other areas of the law.

How do most Muslim states treat apostasy?

A vast majority of them no longer prescribe death for apostates but mete out some lesser form of punishment. But some states, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, still do hand out death sentences. Perhaps the best-known modern example involved author Salman Rushdie, whose 1988 novel The Satanic Verses offended many devout Muslims. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then-Supreme Leader of Iran, declared Rushdie an apostate and condemned him to death. Another case involved Nasr Abu Zayd, a professor whose writings Egypt’s highest court found were evidence of apostasy and in violation of sharia law (though a previous judge rejected the case on the grounds that apostasy does not violate Egypt’s civil code). In 1993, the court ordered that Zayd be divorced from his Muslim wife. Only in rare cases have Muslim courts actually sentenced someone to death for apostasy.

What are the facts of the Malaysian case?

Lina Joy, born an ethnic Malay Muslim, appealed to the nation’s highest court to be recognized as a Christian, the faith of her Indian boyfriend. The forty-three-year-old Joy took up the Catholic faith in 1990, was baptized eight years later, and changed her name to Azlina Jailani in 1999. The next year, Joy sought to remove the word “Islam” from her identification card—that way, she could legally marry her boyfriend—but the lower civil courts ruled that only sharia courts could officially sanction her conversion. Under sharia law in Malaysia, Joy could face criminal prosecution for apostasy, punishable by imprisonment, a hefty fine, or time spent at a “rehabilitation” camp. Last year, she fled into hiding worried for her safety. Malaysia, though a multiconfessional state whose constitution guarantees religious freedoms, has seen rising religious tensions in recent years between its Muslim Malay majority (about 60 percent of its population) and its mostly Indian and Chinese Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian minorities. Hundreds of Muslim demonstrators flanked the federal court building during the decision, shouting “God is great.”

What is the significance of the Malaysian court’s verdict?

The case reveals long-standing contradictions and gray areas inherent in many Islamic legal systems, experts say. “This has been going on for a long time but only recently is getting news attention,” says Nathan Brown, an expert on Islamic law at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The trouble in much of the Muslim world, he says, is that religious conversion does not just define one’s personal beliefs but also one’s legal category. “It’s like saying you used to be Canadian and now you’re Mexican,” says Brown. “It’s taken to be socially breaking your bond with your community and betraying one for another.” The growing role of Islamic law—especially judiciaries’ strict interpretation of sharia—is a matter of contention in secular states like Malaysia or Indonesia.

The Lina Joy case raises legal questions as to what role Islamic law should play in Muslim societies. “Now, the prospects of sharia and civil law peacefully coexisting have grown dim,” writes Angela C. Wu of the Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in the Wall Street Journal. Non-Muslim groups across the Muslim world increasingly complain that their rights are being infringed upon by Islamic courts. While constitutions in Muslim countries usually guarantee freedom of religion, they also bow to Islamic law. Iraq’s constitution, for example, states Islam is the official religion and “a source of legislation”—not the sole source of authority—but adds that the government may not enact a law “that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam.”

How have other sharia courts treated religious converts?

Not favorably. For instance, in February 2006 an Afghan court struck down a motion by Abdul Rahman to convert to Christianity. He was sentenced to death for apostasy. The court, dominated by religious conservatives, later reversed its decision under international pressure and released Rahman, who then fled and sought asylum in Italy. Opinion surveys at the time showed that most Afghans, given their tribal history and religious conservatism, supported the death sentence for Rahman. The case, writes A. Rashied Omar of the University of Notre Dame, also highlights the controversial role (PDF) of Christian missionaries in Muslim societies, particularly given Islam’s own sense of dawah, or obligation to convert non-Muslims to their faith. 

Other recent cases in Jordan, Egypt, and Kuwait were handled in a similar fashion, with the converts serving jail time. “Usually what happens in this case is it’s politically embarrassing and [the authorities] just find some way not to deal with it,” says Brown. However, often Islamic vigilante groups take the law into their own hands and kill converts, as they did in the case of a Bangladeshi Muslim-turned-Christian evangelist in 2003.

What impact do these verdicts have on secular Muslim states?

It’s unclear. Brown says the case, while important, may not reverberate throughout the world’s increasingly dispersed Muslim communities or necessarily indicate a trend in court verdicts blurring the church-state line in secular Muslim states. “It’s more symbolic,” he says. “Like the O.J. [Simpson] trial, it may not be really significant but it attracts attention and gets people’s nerves up because of the emotional issues it hooks into.” Some experts say the biggest impact of these sharia rulings may be the backlash they engender from secular Western societies.

How common is religious conversion in the Muslim world?

While conversions to Islam are commonplace and widely reported, conversions out of Islam are generally kept more hush-hush. In the West, experts estimate thousands of Muslims switch to Christianity every year but keep their conversions secret for fear of retribution. “Converts from Islam, especially those who become involved in Christian ministries, often use assumed names, or only their first names, in order to protect themselves and their families,” writes Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a Washington-based terrorism analyst in Commentary. Pockets of Christian minorities are scattered throughout the Arab world. Intermarriages between Christians and Muslims in some majority Muslim countries, such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, have not been uncommon, though Muslim spouses rarely formally convert to Christianity.

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