Another View on Apostasy in Islam

March 27, 2006

Many people have heard of Capt. James Yee, former US Army Muslim Chaplain who ministered to the prisoners in the US military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and who was arrested on charges of espionage and aiding the enemy, and later released and honorably discharged from the military. He was visiting my college yesterday to speak about his experiences in the military, his spiritual journey to Islam, his Guantanamo ministry days (particularly disturbing in terms of the details of how the prisoners are treated at the base), and his arrest and subsequent release by the US military (Read The Strange Case of Chaplain Yee for a good summary.)

After his talk, the chaplain was on hand for a brief discussion session with the Muslim students here over some cheese pizza with chai. I asked what he thought about the case of the Afghan convert to Christianity who was facing the death penalty. He said that in the early days of Islam, when apostasy was made a crime punishible by death, it was not simply to execute those who abandoned Islam for their change of belief. Though it is often portrayed as such in the media nowadays, and though it is interpreted as such by literalists and conservative clerics, apostasy in and of itself is not a crime punishible by death. Rather, apostasy as taken in the historical context of the early Muslim community at the time of the prophet, when the community of the believers also constituted a polity, often implied more that simply a change of religious belief, and also meant sedition and treason. The chaplain pointed to how these crimes (of treason and sedition) were still regarded as capital crimes (including in the West), and the allegations brought against him were a case in point. If the court in Kabul was prosecuting the convert simply on the grounds that he had converted to Christianity, they were ignoring important preconditions for the criminality of apostasy in Islam, and hence in effect acting outside the Shariah law.
This is the sort of thing that I have not often read in the news in relation to the apostasy case in Afghanistan. This is the sort of thing that people in the West have to pay attention to as much as the clerics and judges ruling on this case.

A while back when the apostasy case first surfaced I did a search about apostasy and came across the Iranian cleric who is out of favor with the regime, Ayatollah Montazeri’s opinions on this subject. According to him (a significant Shi’a religious authority), a simple reversion of belief when grounded in an informed and educated decision to leave Islam (and when not undertaken out of malice and enmity towards the Muslim community- essentially similar to sedition and treason) is not apostasy at all. (See “Ayatollah Montazeri: Not Every Conversion is Apostasy“.)
I found Chaplain Yee’s comments mirroring the position taken by Ayatollah Montazeri, and I found both somewhat reassuring. Yet the case in Afghanistan has demonstrated that when conservative temperaments flare and blood needs to be spilt, there are always ways to bend the rules…

Just a stranger in the bus…

March 27, 2006

Awake in bed early this morning, a copy of the New York Times in hand, I was getting increasingly distressed reading about the case that I just wrote about in the previous post: that of Abdul Rahman’s conversion to Christianity, and the hysteria surrounding it.

After all, this is a serious subject. People everywhere are treating it seriously, and rightly so; from the leader of the free world to that of a recently freed portion of it, from the Pope to the Mullahs, and from the blogsters that form my virtual intellectual classroom, to the college students who people my real ones.

But seriousness, as that great prophet of immorality once put it, is nothing but the sign of indigestion and bad metabolism. And of all things, especially seriousness about a subject like this one. Religion. God. What God? Which God? The Right God, or the wrong God? The one that we know, or the one that belongs to them?

I fell asleep reading the story in the paper. Early morning sleep while I should be in class: what joyful abandon! Whoever said that anything was better than twilight sleep? Especially prostration with an aching back before an unbeknownst and contradictory semitic fantasy…

I woke up later to the sound of my radio alarm, and fittingly, a female voice was singing:

What if God was one of us
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger in the bus
Trying to make his way home…