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September 21, 2013

GLOBAL FAITHS: Muslim law decrees death for conversion

Most non-Muslims are aware of the Muslim law that says a Muslim who converts to another faith or religion is subject to the death penalty. To most non-Muslims this sounds like a harsh and unreasonable law. Where in the world did it come from?

Its roots are in the experience of Muhammad himself in the very origin of Islam. We may recall that Muhammad grew up and lived in Mecca when he began receiving revelations and began proclaiming them in Mecca, for which Meccans began persecuting him. When Muhammad got an invitation to come to Medina and was welcomed there as a prophet, Meccans felt threatened and attacked Medina. Four battles ensued between Mecca and Medina, of which Muhammad and Medina won the decisive two, and in the end Muhammad rode in triumph into Mecca to do worship at the Ka’aba and re-consecrate it to the worship of the one true God.

In the seesaw battles between Mecca and Medina some Meccans professed submission to Islam (Islam means submission) when the victory seemed to be going Muhammad’s way. But they recanted when victory seemed to be going Mecca’s way.

It was about these waffling hypocrites that Muhammad said, “Kill them.” And it was these words directed at hypocrites that Muslim writers of Islam’s law codes used 200 years later to write the law that even someone who ever so sincerely converts from Islam to another faith is an apostate and should be executed.

To kill someone Islam would call an apostate strikes some non-Muslims as inconsistent with other principles or articles of faith in Islam itself. For example, a famous and often-quoted verse in the fourth Sura of the Qur’an says, “There is no compulsion in religion.” Is the threat of the sentence of death not a compulsion? Then too, Muslim apologists argue that Islam is a rational faith, implying that Muslims hold to their faith because of rational persuasion rather than because of the fear of death.

Although some people who have converted from Islam to another faith have been executed, it must be admitted that most of those who do convert to another faith have not. The reason for this may be that most such conversions take place in non-Muslim societies in the Western world, where the law protects freedom of religion. In such societies the situation may in a sense be reversed. There may be a death penalty for murder of someone who follows Islamic law in killing another person for what his religion calls apostasy.

But even in predominantly Muslim societies, where not many people might leave Islam, the death penalty is rarely carried out on those who do, maybe because Muslims themselves have reservations about it. Most conversions would be to Christianity, and Christians, after all, are “people of the book,” who are “dhimmis,” that is, to be “protected” by Muslims.

For many years Christianity has sent missionaries to predominantly Muslims countries, and they have always bumped into this obstacle in their work — a law that threatens death for anyone who converts from Islam to Christianity. Sometimes converts emigrate. Sometimes they remain secret believers. Sometimes they develop a hybrid faith that allows them to remain Muslims with a special devotion to Jesus and a Jesus-inspired reinterpretation of their Muslim faith.

Christianity itself has an Old Testament that contains many gruesome death penalties, but Christianity recognizes a Jesus whose teaching has brought a new understanding of God’s law that leaves these Old Testament codes behind. Some people hope that such a “New Testament” era might come to Islam too.


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