We’re not the only religious faith undergoing scrutiny from within and without on the topic of apostasy and what it means to us individually and collectively. The case of Meriam Ibrahim sentenced to death for apostasy in Sudan has rightly received international attention.

Meriam’s case was recently discussed in the wider context of what apostasy means in Islam on the BBC radio 4 programme Beyond Belief, available online. Presenter Ernie Rae met with Naima Khan from the Inclusive Mosque Initiative; Abdullah al Andalusi from the Muslim Debate Initiative; and Sadakat Kadri: author of Heaven and Earth: A Journey through Shari’a Law and barrister who has done work for international human rights organisations. There was an inset interview with self-confessed non-believer and blogger Imtiaz Shams.

The events of the past week led me to listen to the programme again, and to ponder the differences and similarities in the dynamics that can lead to accusations of apostasy.

So what is the Islamic definition of apostasy? There were differing views expressed.

NK: I would call it the renunciation of ones beliefs. And in an Islamic context that would be a belief in the oneness of God and the prophet Mohammed as the last and final messenger. So apostasy is renouncing those beliefs, and in a legal sense it’s to declare them publicly.

AA: Well in short apostasy is defined or better defined in modern language as treason or sedition against a community and state and it encompasses many reasons including treason against the beliefs when backed up by sedition.

SK: Well apostasy does constitute the renunciation of God… It’s also been understood as rebellion against the constituted authority, the constituted religious authorities of the state.

Similarities: There does seem to be an attitude amongst some portions of the LDS membership that disagreeing with current leaders is tantamount to treason or rebellion, and that that is what constitutes apostasy.

Differences: Current leaders in Islam do not have the status of prophet. Mohammed was the last and final, so whilst open disagreement with interpretations of Mohammed’s teachings might constitute apostasy, disagreeing with current leaders over may be less of a problem. Certainly, none of these participants seemed at all chary about sharing their views. Not an attitude I’ve ever observed amongst those representing the LDS church in interview, sadly: who appear to be presenting the party line rather than saying what they think. We don’t tend to label those who simply lose their beliefs as apostate.

What does the Koran say?

ER: …The verse that I know is that “there is no compulsion in religion” Abdullah. That’s pretty unequivocal.

AA: Yes, it’s talking about compulsion, but apostasy, or the law against apostasy or against treason I think it’s better translated, is not to do with compelling people, nothing to do with compulsion. It’s about protecting a community of believers or state based on a belief from attack or sedition or from someone helping enemies attack that state. It’s about protection. It’s not about compulsion at all.

ER: So you can’t compel someone to believe in Islam, but neither can you compel someone to continue to believe in an Islam to which they were once committed?

AA: Yeah. Of course. You can’t compel anyone to continue to believe because belief is not a matter of anything that can be controlled by compulsion. It’s down to the choice of the individual person.

ER: Is there anything in the Koran that suggests a contradiction to that verse that says there is no compulsion in religion?

SK: Well there are verses which are considerably more bellicose… what the Koran doesn’t do is say that anyone who renounces apostasy is punishable on this earth. What it says is that they will face a great punishment in the hereafter.

ER: Abdullah?

AA: …the hypocrites, of those people who have secretly apostated but then it talks about what they.. how to treat them, depending on what they do. …Well here’s what it actually says “if they leave you alone and do not fight you and offer you peace, God does not offer you a way against them”. But before that it talks about if they do want to fight you then you have to seize them and obviously punish them.

And the Hadith?

ER: I want to move on to the Hadith, which is the traditions of the prophet, authenticated sayings that were not part of the Koran but were written down perhaps a hundred, two hundred years later. Is there anything in the Hadith, Naima, that would justify the death sentence for apostasy?

NK: I don’t think there’s anything that justifies it, I think there are definitely Hadith that say that apostasy is punishable. Whether you can use those to justify trialling people because they’ve renounced their faith, I don’t agree with. I don’t think that’s fair.

ER: Can you give me an example of something that says that you can execute somebody for apostasy?

AA: As I said the translation is the problem as to the word apostasy. In this modern day, it just means you leave your religion, whereas back then it was treason.

What justifications do we have in scripture? The couple I’ve seen flung around the bloggernacle the most are the one about plucking out the offending eye or severing the offending limb up against valuing the whole body.

What role does history play?

ER: OK. Let’s deal with this treason issue, because it is all about context Sadakat, it’s all about a small community, recently formed, living in Medina, feeling under threat. Now, just explain to me why apostasy or treason, in those circumstances might be thought punishable by death.

SK: The prophet relocated from Mecca to Medina in around the year 620, which is the first year according to the Muslim calender. For the next 10 years, there was a struggle between the people of Mecca and Medina, and then in the year 630 according to the Christian calender the Muslims were victorious. They conquered Mecca, and the rest of the Arabian peninsular effectively submitted to Islam. Then two years after that the prophet died. And a number of the Arab tribes people who had previously submitted to Islam renounced their allegiance to Islam and at that point the early Muslims of Medina and now Mecca waged a series of wars against them known as Wars of Apostasy. And they were bloody wars which eventually ended up in a Muslim victory. But because they were so seminal to the early history of Islam apostasy has occupied a very very important role in the DNA of Islam ever since.

AA: Yeah but a lot of those tribes, they didn’t actually leave Islam they still believed in it, they just said we don’t recognise the authority of a Khalif, a successor to the prophet Mohammed, a political successor to Mohammed not a theological successor.

SK: There are historical –

AA: And, and…

SK: – debates about it. The sources are very scant for the seventh century.

AA: Of course but Khalif Abu Bakr who was the one who took over from the prophet Mohammed in political leadership of the Muslim community said that if, that they refused to pay taxes to him, and if, any tax they gave to the prophet Mohammed they should also give to him, basically, so it was about issues of accepting and recognising his authority as a successor, as a political leader. It wasn’t an issue of they just changed their religion, but they also.., most of them challenged the authority of the state.

ER: What you seem to be suggesting is that apostasy was seen as a political and not a theological crime. It was a threat to the small fledgling state of Islam, and was regarded as treason. Therefore anything that threatened the community was punishable by death.

AA: It wasn’t just about the context. In essence, treason is treason no matter how secure the state is, so if I go to the United States today and I commit an act of treason just because the United States is very powerful and secure, it doesn’t mean that they won’t punish me for that. So if I was an American citizen that was.

ER: So, so the issue Naima would appear to be, it’s not about belief, it’s about politics and about safeguarding the state.

NK: Yeah. And I think that the examples that Sadakat gave are really great for this because he talked about in the early stages of Islam when the Islamic community was just establishing itself. And then also much later on when they were victorious in Mecca and so it was much stronger. And your question Ernie was why might it be thought that apostasy was this massive deal. I think when you’re dealing with any group trying to establish themselves, trying to establish an ideology as something superior to what already exists, something that is challenging what already exists then you want to protect that as much as possible. So in both situations when you’re just starting out in a very small group, and when you’re established with armies, this kind of understanding of apostasy or treason it makes sense to view it as a huge deal, a huge threat.

Similarities: Well it seems like early Islam also faced a succession crisis of sorts. The drawing of firm boundaries would seem to have been important. There were arguments about money.

Differences: Tentatively, in Islam the tussles are described as wholly political (though that may not be entirely clear from this distance in time) whilst for LDS early struggles were both religious and political, engaging both believers and non-believers.

Looking at parallels between the early struggle and modern times:

ER: Are there any parallels to be made between the early days of Islam and our modern world in the sense that is apostasy the same kind of offence now as it would have been then?

NK: I think so. I think that we’ve talked a lot about Islam and Muslims historically as kind of an empire growing and conquering. And I think that that mentality is still very very relevant in discourse among Muslims today. So the idea of protecting something that is, that can get one salvation if you like, is at the forefront, and Abdullah drew a really good distinction between the state and the grass-roots sort of discussion. I think it’s actually very similar on the ground. People are talking about, what does it mean to be a disbeliever and how dangerous that is for an established Muslim community. State-wise, it’s not the same discussion at all.

It’s at this point in the programme we get to listen to the interview with Imtiaz. Of Pakistani descent he grew up in Saudi Arabia. His parents were devout Muslims, but even as a 7 year old child Imtiaz recalls feeling uncomfortable with some of the religious teachings he was reading, but didn’t think about it too much.

IS: …there’s not one single moment for me where I thought OK that’s it. You have to kind of flip the question around. Why was I still Muslim? I was Muslim because I believed that there was a miraculous nature of the Koran.

As he grew older the dissonance increased, and when his family moved to Britain he came out as an unbeliever. The family dynamics that resulted would probably sound familiar to many LDS families and their family members who have left the faith. Relationships are strained. Initially he felt very isolated, but as is also the case with those who leave the LDS community, found support via the internet, and participated in building an underground support community. He is careful to remain extremely respectful of the beliefs of his many Muslim friends, and ignores the threats of keyboard warriors. He believes it would have been easier to apostatise in Saudi Arabia, having met many who have left the faith, but who have lived there all their lives. Perhaps this would be the Muslim equivalent of the jack Mormons I’ve heard live in Utah (never having been to Utah, or met anyone of that description, I couldn’t say, but it sounds like it to me). Imtiaz suggests it was harder to leave his faith in Britain.

IS: …I’ve known more openly apostatised people in Saudi Arabia who are relatively open about that within their community, not publicly of course than people in Britain. Because over here there’s a lot of historical narratives around them v. us, you know, and actually coming out here I think would probably be harder for me in my very immediate circle. But obviously, if I was to openly say I’ve left Islam, like I do, definitely in Saudi Arabia it wouldn’t be a good thing to do, it would be much more dangerous for me.

ER: So what you’re saying is in Saudi Arabia you can leave Islam as long as you don’t do it very publicly, as long as you don’t give overt offense.

IS: Exactly. The Saudi friends that I had, it doesn’t bother them so much. While here, I’ve had much more of a reactionary thing, where people will actually try to call me up and say ‘what the hell are you doing?’ But, while there’s more of a reaction there isn’t so much the threat of lets say gaoling or death or things like that.

Similarities: Clearly there’s a distinction here between being open about beliefs or lack of beliefs amongst those who know us, and being public about non-belief. Being public in Saudi could get you a gaol or death sentence, but being open amongst friends and colleagues doesn’t appear to be a problem. I think the LDS church also makes that distinction in most cases. Though I do have some concern that local leaders may be unclear on precisely where they can draw that line.
We also have those narratives of them v. us. I remember it being instilled growing up in Britain, us against the evil world. I rather fear instilling that narrative is the focus of youth events such as FSY (formerly EFY).

Differences: There are no LDS theocratic states. You aren’t going to be flung in gaol or executed. The worst that can happen is to be removed from the records of the church. For those who don’t believe that’s no punishment. For those who believe but are yet found to be guilty, it’s a bitter pill to swallow nevertheless.

What did the panelists make of the interview?

NK: I think Imtiaz is talking about the reaction that he had from his community, and it actually makes a lot of sense to me that in Saudi he would get a better response from his community than he would here. Here I think that we very much pit ourselves against mainstream society in an unhealthy way and an influence from previous generations, people who came here in the 60s and 70s as adults. I think that they really tried to hold on to what made us Muslim in this context, and apostates don’t help with that at all. In Saudi I feel like it’s different. I feel that the laws that they want to be established are established, that there’s an expectation that people will generally conform to those laws even if they choose not to believe, therefore it’s not such a big deal. Here, it’s like really trying to retain something that apostates challenge by leaving.

ER: And yet I imagine that he couldn’t have done an interview like that in Saudi Arabia.

SK: I doubt very much whether he could have safely done an interview like that in Saudi Arabia. But I agree with Naima about what’s happened with the Muslim community in this country and in the West generally. I’m old enough to remember the 1970s and 1980s and it’s really only since the 1990s that the very visible manifestations of Islamic identity, that are so common on the streets of cities in England today have re-emerged. The Muslim dress, the way in which communities will stick together. Integration is no longer the aspiration, communal identity is the aspiration. And it’s for fear of losing that communal identity that the anger against apostates has grown so much.

AA: …it’s not an issue of being angry or not. What you find in many different faith communities, where someone leaves them, everyone generally kind of either feels sorry for them or feels that there’s something wrong about this person, that made them leave their faith community or even national identity, depending on the situation.

ER: Naima

NK: I think also potentially it’s kind of a relief if somebody is going to do things that the community don’t consider to be Islamic enough or Muslim enough, that they do so while not calling themselves a Muslim. I think it’s more of a challenge to practice what you feel is Islam in a community, and still call yourself a Muslim in a community where people say no don’t do that in the name of Islam don’t call yourself a Muslim if you’re going to be like that.

Similarities: Those comments caused me to wonder. Was taking questions to Salt Lake the LDS equivalent of going public in Saudi Arabia? Is there a fear amongst church leaders as the church becomes increasingly more global that a communal identity is being lost? What is the value of a communal identity?

Differences: A religious community that believes in continuing revelation is by definition a community in which communal identity in terms of identifying beliefs is not static.

So what about Meriam and Sudan?

The overwhelming agreement of the panelists was that the sentence should never have been passed, she should never have been tried. She was first accused of adultery on grounds that her marriage to a Christian was invalid and then of apostasy, on the basis that her father was a Muslim. She, however, had been abandoned by her father whilst a young child and raised as a Christian. She was a Christian, not a Muslim, and however unfair the laws governing interfaith marriage and apostasy might be, ought not be accused and tried of either.

NK: As far as I’m aware this is a real tragedy for freedoms, both intellectual and religious. And I think there’s a lot there to do with sexual ethics. I think that the fact that the charge of adultery was brought against Meriam Ibrahim before apostasy is hugely significant and I don’t think this is an issue of religious justice.

ER: Because it does seem that most of these cases that we hear about, that become public issues, basically relate to the position of women and how they are treated Abdullah.

AA: Well no. We hear cases from Iran of men who were sentenced to, under apostasy laws, Iranian apostasy laws. And they’re men right. No one ever says this is an issue of the treatment of men in the middle east as men, so I don’t think necessarily it’s the sex per se, but rather in Sudan I think the law’s unfairly applied in her case. Completely unfairly applied. She wasn’t even Muslim to begin with. And she wanted to marry someone of Sudanese descent of whom the Sudan has had political issues with for South Sudan. So in this case it she was probably due to someone breaking the cultural taboos of a country because her father happened to be Muslim, but that’s not valid a reason Islam to sentence someone to apostasy.

ER: But it gives Islam a very bad name in the eyes of the world because the ostensible reason for why she was convicted and sentenced to death was that she had dared to marry a Christian. And she had apostatised, despite the fact that her father, who was the Muslim element in all this had left her at a very young age and she was brought up a Christian.

AA: Yeah. I mean it gives Islam a bad name if people use the word the name of Islam in the wrong way, which the Sudanese government has done. Rather, the Sudanese government has just found an excuse to kind of prosecute for the cultural taboos but we have to be very clear. She was never a Muslim. And so this whole case should have been thrown out from the get go, but..

ER: Would it have made a difference if she had been a Muslim?

AA: Marrying a Christian guy is not a case for apostasy anyway.

ER: Sadakat?

SK: Yeah. I think it’s too easy to say this has got nothing to do with Islam. Of course I believe that Islam has got some very very important merciful traditions and those are the traditions that should be focussed on. But the fact is that in Sudan this isn’t an isolated case. It’s a very rare case but there’s been a prosecution for apostasy before, where a 76 year old man was hanged in 1985 for apostasy. He was a political opponent of the ruler of the country at the time and religion was being used as a pretext there. There have also been other notorious cases, there was Gillian Gibbons who was threatened with imprisonment with lashing for blasphemy because she called a teddy bear Mohammed. There was also the case of Lubna Hussein who was threatened with flogging for wearing trousers. It’s often used as a pretext and it’s often used against women.

AA: Those cases are to do with the Sudanese government and not Islam, unless you’re trying to say the Sudanese government is Islam.

Given the reactions to the whole ‘Wear Pants’ event, as well as the more extreme responses to the current situation however, is now the time to be grateful there is no LDS theocracy? The discussion on gender continues, but as it veers away from apostasy temporarily I’m not covering it here.  Suffice it to say, that the point about men judging women has been made in the case of Kate Kelly. To continue:

AA: …what I do think is that there are legitimate problems to do with oppression. These governments are not Islamic governments, they are post-colonial secular hybrid governments. They have more secular laws than they have Islamic laws.

ER: They see themselves as Islamic governments.

AA: I don’t know. They give the justification under Islam to prevent people from uprising against them, but they are very much far from Islam, and they fear Islamic opposition as much as western governments probably.

ER: Sadakat?

SK: But the problem is that they do see themselves as Muslim governments and people come out in their thousands on occasion to demonstrate in favour of executing people for example in the name of Islam. Now I of course don’t believe that Islam does mandate that. Just as you don’t. But ones not looking at this with a clear eye, if one says that religion has nothing to do with it at all. Corrupted versions of religion do have something to do with it. And corruption full stop has something to do with it as well. Sudan is the fourth most corrupt country in the world according to Transparency International. The judiciary is well-known to be corrupt. I’m not saying anything about the judiciary in this particular case but there is a real danger that this woman isn’t going to receive justice, just as no one is going to receive justice.

NK; The place of religion that Sadakat mentioned, and also you said Ernie, about this giving Islam a bad name I think that’s really relevant because the way you framed it makes Islam sound like a brand, and I think that that is very much how governments such as the Sudanese one are kind of thinking of it. I think that that also has ramifications in the UK as well.

The comment about branding, and seeing religion as a brand was food for thought. Branding seems to be very much at the fore of LDS strategy over recent years. Concerns about bad press were expressed. The Islamic opposition that’s feared could be both from the more liberal and more conservative camps; the cries that such actions are not truly Islamic, but the form of Islam presented corrupt. While I would in no way suggest that Sudan and the LDS church are equivalent, I have seen accusations of corruption leveled by some towards the LDS church, and accusations that processes are not being followed in these proceedings. Greater transparency is one of the requests some members are making.

  • What do you make of the parallels and differences observed between LDS and Muslim attitudes?
  • Are there things we can learn?
  • Naima was asked whether she thought apostasy law was still relevant in today’s world, and replied: “No I don’t at all. I think that even historically it’s been an example of manipulation and I don’t think it has any place in a contemporary setting.” What do you think?


In closing, whilst we think, ponder and pray on the events of the past week, for Kate, John, and others, for their and our leaders, let’s not forget Meriam. Currently residing in a Sudanese prison with her two young children, one only a few weeks old, and who seems set to remain there until the baby is two years old, when in the absence of clemency or repeal, she faces death by hanging.

*This post was re-edited 20 June 2014.