At least 21 OIC members have laws at a national or state level penalizing apostasy, or leaving Islam. Eleven are Arab states, including Sudan and Saudi Arabia, while the rest are in Asia (Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Malaysia, Maldives, Brunei) and Africa (Mauritania, Nigeria, Somalia, Comoros).
Last Thursday a Sudanese court sentenced 27 year-old Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag to death by hanging after refusing to recant her Christian faith in the prescribed three days since her conviction for apostasy.
Ibrahim, who is eight months pregnant and is incarcerated together with her 20 month-old son, was also sentenced to 100 lashes for “adultery.” The Sudan Tribune explained that since under Sudan’s shari’a law her marriage to a non-Muslim was considered invalid, the relationship was therefore deemed to be adulterous.
The governments of the United States, Canada, Britain, France and the Netherlands are among those that have publicly condemned the conviction and sentence.
U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Chairman Robert George called it “a travesty for religious freedom and human rights in Sudan.”
“International attention to this case is critical to holding the Sudanese government accountable for its constitutional provisions and international commitments to protect and respect freedom of religion or belief not only for Mrs. Ibrahim, but all Sudanese, regardless of faith,” he said.
(The USCIRF also pointed out that Ibrahim insists she did not convert from Islam to Christianity but was in fact raised a Christian: Her mother was a Christian and her Muslim father left the family when she was a young girl.)
The OIC, the 57-member Islamic bloc whose Saudi-based secretariat regularly issues statements on matters of concern relating to the Muslim world, has been silent on the case so far.
Five years ago the OIC’s International Islamic Fiqh Academy, which issues global religious edicts on the OIC’s behalf, met to discuss contentious issues including that of apostasy, but scholars at the conference disagreed over ruling out the death penalty for offenders.
The meeting issued a fatwa that affirmed support for the traditional view of apostasy while at the same time invoking conditional religious freedom.
“Avowed apostasy constitutes a danger to the unity of the Muslim community and to the Muslims’ belief. It also encourages non-Muslims or hypocrites to use it as a means whereby to cast doubts,” it said. “A person who does so deserves to be punished for apostasy, which is only to be meted out by the judiciary. This is to ward off the danger posed by such a person and to protect society and keep it safe. This ruling does by no means contradict religious freedom that is ensured by Islam for whosoever respects religious sensitivities and the society’s values and general order.”
The fatwa did not spell out the punishment for an unrepentant apostate.
Three days to repent
Several Islamic states impose the death penalty for apostasy.
Article 146 of Sudan’s criminal code says that a Muslim who renounces Islam must be put to death unless he or she recants within three days.
Mauritania’s criminal code also provides for a three-day period of reflection and repentance for any Muslim found guilty of apostasy. “If he does not repent within this time limit, he is to be condemned to death as an apostate and his property will be confiscated by the Treasury,” it says.
Saudi Arabia placed apostasy on a par with rape, murder and drug trafficking as offenses punishable by death.
Iran’s treatment of apostates drew international attention with the case of Youcef Nadarkhani, a pastor sentenced to death for apostasy more than a decade after his conversion. After a lengthy legal battle he was eventually acquitted in September 2012.
In Afghanistan, a Christian convert named Abdul Rahman was sentenced to death in 2006 for apostasy, but after the U.S. and other Western members of the coalition forces there brought pressure to bear on the Karzai administration, he was freed and allowed to seek asylum abroad.
Five years later another Afghan convert to Christianity, Said Musa, found himself in a similar plight. Again, international condemnation saw him freed and able to leave the country.
Just last month Brunei, a small sultanate in Southeast Asia, became the latest OIC state to introduce the death penalty for apostasy, among other shari’a-based punishments including stoning for adultery and limb amputation for theft.
As has happened on past occasions when an apostasy case has gained international attention some Islamic advocacy groups sought to distance the latest incident in Sudan from Islam.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) drew attention to a position statement on apostasy first issued in 2009, which says, “Islamic scholars say the original rulings on apostasy were similar to those for treasonous acts in legal systems worldwide and do not apply to an individual's choice of religion.”CAIR cited several verses from the Qur’an, including one saying “let there be no compulsion in religion” (sura 2:256)
But scholars defending the death-for-apostasy view point to the Islamic canonical tradition called the Hadith, which does contain references to execution for apostasy, including one in which Mohammed commands, “Any [Muslim] person who has changed his religion, kill him.”
That view still carries significant support in some Muslims countries, opinion surveys indicate.
A Pew Research poll in 2010 found large majorities in Jordan (86 percent), Egypt (84 percent) and Pakistan (76 percent) voiced support for the death penalty for apostates from Islam.
Three years later, Pew found majority support for that view in Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, Malaysia and the Palestinian territories.
Support was far lower in other Muslim countries, including Tunisia (29 percent), Indonesia (18 percent), Turkey (17 percent) and Kazakhstan (4 percent).