Khutbah – 30 May 2014 – Apostasy in Islam

Khutbah – 30 May 2014 – Apostasy in Islam

In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Dispenser of Grace

Friday 30th May 2014 / 30th Rajab 1435
Imam Dr. A. Rashied Omar

On Tuesday 27th May 2014, a Sudanese woman who had been sentenced to death because she allegedly committed apostasy by converting to Christianity gave birth in prison with her legs shackled by heavy iron chains. She is currently being held in a Sudanese prison for women with her newborn baby as well as her twenty month year old son, Martin, since their father is not permitted to have custody because he is a Christian. Her inhumane situation and more particularly the harsh court ruling has provoked international condemnation and reignited a longstanding debate about the correct Islamic legal position on apostasy.

In this khutbah I would like to reflect on the merits of the court case and elucidate the proper Islamic ruling on converting from Islam to another religion. It might be useful to commence by briefly apprising ourselves of the facts of the case.

The Merits of Case of Apostasy against Meriam Yahya Ibrahim

On 15 May 2014, a court in Khartoum sentenced a twenty seven year old woman, Meriam Yahya Ibrahim, first to 100 lashes for marrying a non-Muslim, which constitutes adultery under Sudanese law. Then she was sentenced to death by hanging for refusing to renounce her Christian faith and reverting to what the court regarded as her original faith, Islam. At the time of her sentencing Meriam was eight months pregnant with her second child.

According to the court records, in 2011 Meriam, a qualified medical doctor, married Daniel Wani, an engineer and a Christian from Southern Sudan who also has US citizenship. Two years later, in August 2013, while on a visit to the Sudan, Meriam’s brother laid a charge of apostasy against her claiming that she had been raised as a Muslim and had subsequently converted to Christianity. Meriam was promptly arrested and charged with apostasy and adultery.

In her defense, Meriam informed the court that she was raised by her mother, an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian. Her Muslim father separated from her mother when she was six years old, so her mother raised her as a Christian. Notwithstanding her personal testimony that she was never a Muslim, under Sudanese law Meriam Ibrahim is considered a Muslim because her estranged father was a Muslim.

Before the sentence was announced, a Muslim scholar tried to persuade Meriam in the dock for half an hour to embrace Islam. After refusing to do so, judge Abbas al-Khalifa, pronounced his ruling by saying: “We gave you three days to recant but you insist on not returning to Islam. I therefore sentence you to be hanged to death.”

We strongly reject and condemn the decision to sentence Meriam Yahya Ibrahim to 100 lashes for adultery and death for allegedly converting to Christianity from Islam. We believe that the merits of the case are equivocal and mitigating. As far as the charge of illicit sex goes, an impartial Muslim court would almost certainly have applied the doubt rule: which denotes that if there are any grounds for exoneration – such as the fact that the woman thought her marriage was valid – the punishment would be averted. The same legal maxim would have been applied in the case of the ruling on apostasy. How can a child whose Muslim father abandons her and was raised by her Christian mother be coerced by a court of law to be a Muslim even against her own testimony that she never regarded herself as being a Muslim?

Elucidating the Proper Position on Apostasy in Islam

Islam is designed to be a religion of conviction. When one utters the shahâdah, the profession of faith that makes one a Muslim, it is not sufficient to say, “There is no god but God. Muhammad is the servant and messenger of God.” Before each of these statements it is necessary to declare, “I bear witness.” Conscious assent is the foundation of faith in Islam. But consent cannot be forced. Not only is a coercedshahâdah, profession of faith impermissible in terms of the shari`ah but it is actually impossible. As a famous hadîth puts it, “the heart is between the two fingers of the All-Compassionate God, and God turns it howsoever God pleases.” Our state of heart, or conscience, is by the Grace of God. And a shahâdah of the tongue that is not a shahâdah of the heart is inadmissible according to Islamic law.

Furthermore, among the core principles of Islam enunciated in the Glorious Qur’an, is surah al-Baqarah, chapter 2, verse 256 in which Allah, the Most High, proclaims:

لَا إِكْرَاهَ فِي الدِّينِ

‘Let there be no compulsion in religion’ (Q2:256).

This verse establishes the importance of one’s own personal religious convictions and that such matters of conscience cannot be forced upon by anyone. The context for the revelation of the verse provides great clarity with regards to its true import and deep meaning. The classical Qur’anic scholar, Al-Wahidi (d.1075) in his famous Asbab al-Nuzul informs us that Q2:256, was revealed about the two sons of the Ansari companion, Abu al-Hassan, who converted to Christianity in Madina. Abu-Al-Hassan’s two sons had become fascinated by Christianity and very devoted to it. Their father was greatly distressed that his sons had become Christians and so he sought the following advice from the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh):

 “O Messenger of God! What can I do to these sons of mine who have become Christians? Whatever I have tried, still they do not return back to accept Islam. Do you give me permission to force them to leave their religion and become Muslims again?

It was in response to Abu-al-Hassan’s question to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as to what he should do about his two sons who had committed apostasy by converting to Christianity that Allah chose to send down this verse 256 of chapter 2, ‘Let there be no coercion in matters of faith’.

It is my considered view that Qur`an 2:256 should be the lens and hermeneutical key through which all other verses pertaining to religious freedom in Islam should be interpreted. While the Qur’an does warn that those who profess Islam and then leave it attract divine displeasure and will be held accountable in the next life (Q3:86-89; Q4:137; Q18:29) it nowhere states that such people are liable to worldly penalty. This silence is significant in itself, since the Qur’an does deal closely with social transgressions that are potentially felonious and thus punishable.

Given the plain evidence I have presented thus far how then do we make sense of the ruling of the Sudanese judge which unfortunately is a position supported by several Muslim jurists, both classical as well as contemporary, that the penalty for converting from Islam technically known as irtidad or riddah is death?  As we have already alluded to, the evidence for this harsh position is nowhere to be found in the Glorious Qur’an, the most primary source of Islamic guidance. This view relies at the core of it on a prophetic tradition (hadith) recorded in the hadith collection of Imam Bukhari in which the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is reported to have said, “Whoever changes his religion kill him.” This hadith, however, contradicts Qur’an 2:256 as well as numerous other verses in the Qur’an that guarantee freedom of belief.

Now while we acknowledge along with the overwhelming majority of Muslim scholars that the hadith corpus is an important source of Islamic teachings, we also affirm along with all traditional scholars that the hadith sources are a secondary source in relation to the Qur’an. Unlike our primary source the Glorious Qur’an, whom all Muslims believe to be qat’i i.e. unequivocal in their authenticity, thehadith literature should not be regarded as such. Moreover, even if the chain of narrators (the isnad) of a hadith can be confirmed to be authentic(sahih), if the meaning of a hadith text (the matn) conflicts with clear principles enunciated in the Qur’an as is the case with hadith on apostasy then these ahadith must be interpreted in the light of the Qur’an and not the converse.

Such an enlightened approach to the sources of Islamic teachings is not new but finds resonance in the genre of hadith literature  known as mawdu`at i.e. rejecting the authenticity of hadith because their meanings contradict explicit meanings contained in the Qur’an. A number of renowned scholars have contributed to this sub-field of hadith scholarship, including Ibn al-Jawzi (d.1201), Ibn Taymiyya (d.1328) and Muhammad al-Shawkani (d.1834). It is our considered view that a careful recovering of this critical strand in hadith scholarship will assist in emancipating us from obscurantist interpretations of Islam.

Thankfully, in recent decades, there has emerged a growing community of scholars whohave argued for more lenient and humane positions on apostasy, and they have marshalled strong support. (The website has already accumulated 117 scholarly voices including mine on the topic, and the number is growing.).These contemporary scholars contend that choosing and/or changing one’s religion is not a crime at all. On the contrary, it is a basic human right. They furthermore argue that the hegemonic classical Muslim position failed to separate the issue of simple apostasy from treason. The statement rejecting the Sudanese court ruling on apostasy issued by Louay Safi of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) on Tuesday 27 May 2014is representative of this new progressive trend. Safi has elsewhere declared unequivocally that a “Muslim who converts to Christianity is no more a Muslim, but a Christian, and must be respected as such.”

While the case of Meriam Ibrahim is played out in the specific context of the Sudanese legal courts, my reflections pertains to any case of apostasy. In our local context, we find cases of Christians converting to Islam, especially when they marry Muslims, and we accord them and their families the necessary respect. We also expect their Christian families to accept their conversions to Islam. But we are much less tolerant if the conversion were to be the other way around. If a Muslim converts to Christianity out of conscience we are quick to condemn and disown them. Such duplicitous behavior regarding apostasy needs to be remedied in light of the clear evidences that I have provided in this khutbah.


In conclusion, it is my considered view that no state or government should intervene nor criminalize the personal choice of religion. We call on the Sudanese judiciary to dismiss its case and judgment against Dr. Meriam Yahya Ibrahim and release her and her two babies, unconditionally. This recent and widelypublicized incident of apostasy once again highlightsthe urgent need for Muslim scholars to seriously reexamine traditional fiqh rulings on leaving the fold of Islam.The task is daunting, but it is already underway. We pray that Allah, the Lord of Mercy and Compassion, will ease our way in this critical task of reforming our legal positions in the light of the authentic sources and teachings of Islam while applying it judiciously to contemporary conditions.

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