Vol. 5 Num 657 Mon. April 03, 2006  

Lessons from the case of the Afghan apostate

Islamic pluralism 1, Religious dogmatism 0. That is how I greeted the news that Abdur Rahman has been spared execution and freed by an Afghan court. He is the Afghan who converted to Christianity from Islam 16 years ago. When his apostasy came to light last week after a family squabble, a prosecutor threatened to execute him as mandated by what he claimed to be Afghanistan's Sharia law.

Many Muslims have already pointed out the absurdity, illegality and immorality of apostasy-killing as the hapless Rahman's impending fate filtered out of Afghanistan. The most powerful indictment comes, of course, from the Quran: Let there be no compulsion in religion (2:256).

By citing an extremely dubious hadith ("kill whoever changes his religion"), one that goes against the message of love and compassion that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) preached and practiced throughout his life, a handful of Afghanistan's frozen-in-time, post-Taliban clerics sought to impose the death penalty on Rahman. The Prophet himself said that his sayings had to be interpreted in the light of the Quran, and that if he were to say anything that went against Quranic injunctions, they were to be ignored. Besides, neither the Prophet nor any of his companions ever compelled anyone to embrace Islam, nor did they ever sentence anyone to death for renunciation of faith.

Worldwide outrage and a fledgling democracy's resolve under President Hamid Karzai to do the right thing forced the Afghan court to withdraw its threat of execution.

While Rahman's travails remind us that we still have ways to go before the interpretation of Islam is loosened from the grips of dogmatists, we can also take some satisfaction at the progress that has been made.

Consider what would have happened to Rahman if the Taliban were still in power. Remember the harrowing video of the woman who was killed in cold-blood in a soccer stadium in Kabul, "cowering beneath a pale blue all-enveloping burqa?" Can anyone doubt that Rahman would not have met the same fate, given the Taliban's record in these matters, particularly the record of its "Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice."

Implementing Sharia, as the Taliban defined it, became synonymous with beatings and killings. Is it any wonder that anytime patriarchal clerics talk of implementing Sharia, it sends shivers down the spines of Muslims in the affected areas, particularly of Muslim women? (This is not to say that everything has come up roses for Afghanistan since the America-led intervention to oust the Taliban in 2002. Far from it, but that's another topic.)

Consider the issue of stoning to death (unmarried) people guilty of adultery. This too is attributed to a weak hadith that is exploited by misogynist clerics. Remember the case of the Nigerian woman Amina Lawal, charged with conceiving a child while single? A Nigerian Sharia court declared in 2002 that for her adultery, she was to be stoned to death. The court couldn't be bothered about the man who was her "partner in crime." He was nowhere to be found in the Katsina district in Northern Nigeria where the Sharia court held sway and was also absent from any theological discussion!

The Quran mentions stoning five times: 11:91, 18:20, 19:46, 26:116 and 36:18, but it is directed against Prophet Shuaib, People of the Cave, Prophet Ibrahim, Prophet Noah, and Companions of the City, respectively. When these prophets and the righteous servants of Allah began preaching monotheism, the polytheistic people threatened them with stoning. That is as far as the Quran goes.

International outrage by both Muslims and non-Muslims forced the Nigerian court to spare Lawal's life in 2003.

Hopefully, killing for apostasy and stoning to death (only women need apply) for adultery will soon be a thing of the past as absolutist clerics realize that their hold over Muslim minds and hearts is rapidly dissipating. In the Age of the Internet, ideas travel with the speed of light and millions of Muslims are taking advantage of it to deepen their understanding of Islam and mobilize support for progressive and humane causes.

Many new avenues of thought are opening up. One example is the complex relationship between mosque and state in modern times, as opposed to the reflexive and traditional view that the two must be conflated in Islam. Another is the importance of Ijtihad in the practice of our religion. The Arabic word Ijtihad means informed independent thinking about theological issues, particularly in the context of the times. Many of us are often content to practice Islam based on derivative knowledge, blindly following this sheik or that imam. It is critically important that we think about Islamic issues ourselves first and then perhaps seek opinions and guidance from religious leaders. That way, at the very least, we can engage in meaningful and enlightened debates with them, thus practicing a religion that is more resonant with our intuition, reason and spiritual longings.

Even in conservative societies, Muslims are beginning to realize that faith is a matter of personal responsibility and not a consequence of authoritarian decree. The days of religious leaders thundering: "I am right, you are dead" will soon, let us pray, be over once and for all.

Hasan Zillur Rahim is a freelance contributor of The Daily Star.