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Non-Muslims under Islam

March 2006 | by Patrick Sookhdeo

Last month we asked why Christians suffer where Muslims dominate. Among other things I explained the concept of dhimmi – the ‘protected’ status historically accorded to Jews, Christians, Sabeans and Zoroastrians who submit to Islamic rule and pay a special poll tax.

But not all non-Muslims under Islam can be accorded dhimmi status. For example, those who have left Islam to embrace another faith are not entitled to any protection. The shari’a specifies that adult male Muslims who embrace another faith are guilty of apostasy and must be killed.


There are several references to apostasy from Islam in the Qur’an. The three main ones can be found in Sura 3:86-91, Sura 16:106-109 and Sura 88:23-24. All three references indicate that converts will be punished.


… but such as
Open their breast to Unbelief,
On them is Wrath from Allah,
And theirs will be
A dreadful penalty.


However, no Qur’anic verse specifies whether this punishment will occur in the afterlife or whether it is to be carried out by the Muslim faithful before death. Neither does any specify exactly what the punishment will be.

However, the hadith — traditions recording the words and deeds of Muhammad and his first followers and which constitute the secondary source for shari’a after the Qur’an — contains many references to apostasy from Islam. They all agree that converts from Islam should be put to death.

This makes the death sentence for apostasy a well-attested part of orthodox Islamic law and teaching — not a distortion or later addition by extremists. Death for apostasy is still practised today.


Capital punishment


Dr Y. Zaki, a leading British Muslim, has succinctly explained the reason: ‘Islam is not just a religion, it’s a state, and Islam does not distinguish between sacred and secular authority … apostasy and treason are one and the same thing’. Since treason is punishable by death, he argues, so too is apostasy.

There is some disagreement amongst the various schools of law concerning the treatment of a female apostate (typically she should be imprisoned until she returns to Islam) and also about a range of lesser punishments concerning property, inheritance etc. which presupposes that the apostate has been permitted to live.

Capital punishment for apostasy is the law in some Islamic countries today. In Saudi Arabia, Sadiq Abdul-Karim Malallah was publicly beheaded in September 1992 after being convicted of apostasy and blasphemy for converting from Sunni to Shi’a Islam. It is reported that a Saudi convert to Christianity was executed earlier this year.

In Iran, Hussein Soodmand was hanged for apostasy in 1990. In 1993 Mehdi Dibaj was sentenced to death for apostasy, but was released after international protests (only to be abducted and killed in mysterious circumstances the following summer).

Mahmoud Mohamed Taha was a renowned Islamic scholar, moderate and reformer who was executed in Sudan in January 1985 for apostasy because he published a leaflet calling for the reform of Islamic law. Qatar also has the death penalty for apostasy, but it is not known to have been enforced.

Even where the death sentence for apostasy is not the law of the land, converts from Islam may be murdered by zealous Muslims who believe they are pleasing God and fulfilling his law.

In recent years this has increasingly been by beheading — as in the killing in 2004 of Abdul Gani, a medical doctor in Bangladesh who had converted from Islam nine years earlier.



Closely related to the Islamic understanding of apostasy is Pakistan’s modern blasphemy law, which has been made increasingly severe. The crime of defiling, damaging or desecrating a copy of the Qur’an is punished with life imprisonment — while ‘defiling the name’ of Muhammad carries a mandatory death sentence (Sections 295-B & Cof the Pakistan Penal Code).

Since ‘defilement’ is not defined in the law, many are vulnerable to malicious accusations. Dozens of Christians have been accused of this crime. Although no one has yet been officially executed for blasphemy, several have been murdered before or during the legal process by zealous extremists.

Those who survive the legal process must go into hiding permanently. In October 1997 a Lahore High Court judge was killed by Islamic gunmen for acquitting two Christians on blasphemy charges.

Often the family of the accused, or even the whole local Christian community, also receive threats and are forced to leave their homes and move in secret to a new area as their lives may be in danger.

There are voices in Bangladesh calling for a similar blasphemy law to be introduced there. Even in the UK, some Muslim leaders have made it clear that they hope the proposed new law banning incitement to religious hatred will be in effect a blasphemy law to protect Muhammad from any criticism.



(Islamic law)


The regulations laid down in theshari’a cover political, military, social, economic and family matters, indeed every aspect of life. The cornerstone of conservative Islamic beliefs is a desire to return to the early days of Islam, with shari’a as the basis of all legislation.

This is the goal for which Islamic militants are fighting, and which many other Muslims are also working for by peaceable means.

In order to conform to shari’a, countries where extremists or conservative Muslims are in power or very influential — such as Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Iran — have introduced laws which by modern Western standards are illiberal and harsh.

Introducing such legislation has a knock-on effect, in that the general attitude of the Muslim majority to the Christian minority tends to become less tolerant and more contemptuous and hostile. As a result, the difficulties of the Christians increase not only in official and legal ways but also in terms of unofficial discrimination, sometimes leading to violence.

Even countries not ruled by extremists, such as Malaysia or Pakistan, have moved towards stricter legislation in line with shari’a in attempts to placate conservative Muslims.

In several lawless regions such as Somalia (and Chechnya during its de facto independence from Russia in the 1990s) Islamic militias and warlords imposed shari’a law bringing some order to regions in chaos, but also serious human rights problems.


Beyond the law


Sometimes this trend towards increasing strictness goes beyond what shari’a requires, for example, in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. In Muslim-majority Northern Nigeria, twelve states have moved from partial shari’a (covering family and inheritance matters for Muslims only) to full shari’a in the last six years.

The Christians of the region find themselves obliged to conform to regulations which should only apply to Muslims — affecting, for example, what they wear and how they travel on public transport.

In Iraq many Islamic militants have the avowed aim of ‘cleansing’ the country of Christians altogether; this is contrary to shari’a which does permit Christians to live in Islamic societies.

Similarly, the Laskar Jihad’s genocidal campaign in Indonesia in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries sought to ‘cleanse’ certain areas of Christians by killing them, expelling them, or forcing them to convert to Islam. Laskar Jihad did not offer the Christians the shari’a-sanctioned option of submitting to Islam and living as dhimmi.

The same now seems to be happening in Indonesia’s Aceh Province, which is ruled by shari’a, where many Muslims are attempting to prevent Christians who fled the December 2004 tsunami from returning to the province.


Calls for reform


The subjugation of Christians by Muslims is a phenomenon repeated around the world from the seventh century to the twenty-first century. Effectively, there is a cycle in which discriminatory laws reinforce discriminatory attitudes — which in turn calls for more discriminatory laws.

Unlike Christianity, Islam has no teaching about loving your enemy, nor that all human beings are of equal worth. So there is nothing to break this cycle — unless Islam itself can be reformed in line with modern concepts of human rights and religious liberty.

Although this is unthinkable to Islamic radicals, a small but growing number of Muslims are calling for reform. Their task is dangerous and lonely, and they could pay for it with their lives — whether executed by a radical state or murdered by a radical individual. But without their lead, it is unlikely that the plight of Christians under Islam will ever improve.


The concept of tolerance


Such a reformation should introduce to Islam the concept of genuine tolerance of non-Muslim minorities — understood to include equal status with the Muslim majority.

The oft-repeated myth of Islam being already a religion of peace and tolerance must be exposed as wishful thinking, for the more it is repeated the more the lines between truth and fiction become blurred.

Where Islam is a minority it favours tolerance (in the Western sense) and peace, but whenever it becomes a majority it moves into a position of domination and power, and imposes inequality.

No doubt there are those who will take issue with Barnabas Fund on this point. But what we are trying to do is to reflect the reality of daily experience for millions of Christians living in the Muslim world.


The author is International Director of Barnabas Fund

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