An issue of Conversion: The Case of Abdul-Rahman the Afghan
The issues emanating from the turbulence instigated by the insensitive Danish cartoons have yet to be settled, and we now find ourselves staring into the face of another, even more complicated ordeal: the apostasy case of an Afghan named Abdul-Rahman. While this case may seem to have global ramifications, the personal side to the matter of Mr. Abdul-Rahman deals with the safety as well as insistence of this individual to stand up for the faith of his choosing. While such matters are significant on a small scale, there is a far-reaching and more formidable issue hovering over the conversion of an individual from one faith to another, mainly its legality and propriety in today's world. An equally important matter is the position of the Shari'ah on the topic of radd, a term which denotes a Muslim's abandoning Islam and converting to another faith. To have a clearer analysis of Mr. Abdul-Rahman's plight we must look to all the three of these dimensions.
The question nowadays for the Muslim community in the West is how we want this very same culture of freedom and choice that we enjoy as minorities reflected in Muslim-majority societies. In the globalized reality of today, Western Muslims have a special duty to promote similar attitudes of respect for human rights, tolerance and mutuality in Muslim-majority societies. I firmly believe that this can be done within the strictures of our Islamic obligations and within the bounds of the Shari'ah.
The final, and most problematical, issue is the one that needs to be addressed and redressed above all else: the traditional understanding of radd. While much has been made of the official radd penalty in the Western media these days, the fact is that historically this penalty has been rarely enforced, and usually when it was, it was due to some unmitigated political upheaval caused by the said apostasy. While some may assert that Mr. Abdur-Rahman brought all of this public uproar upon himself, in doing so he has forced an important issue. It is time that we Muslims (both as minorities and majorities) reflect on the following points:
1. What is the basis of the radd law? Was it laid down for a specific situation and specific time or is it an immutable law based upon the Qur'an and the Sunnah, the tradition of the Prophet?
2. Should such a law now be appraised from the perspective of the Qur'an and Sunnah in order to bring it into harmony with new realities of global interaction?
3. What would be the power of such a law in societies where Muslims live as minorities?
4. Has the Muslim world (or any single Muslim country or a group of zealots for that mater) the religiously sanctioned authority to carry out a judgment or issue a fatwa for the execution of an apostate?
5. Should this issue be resolved on the basis of reciprocity? If Muslims have the freedom to convert others to their faith, shouldn't Muslims also have similar freedoms to be converted to other faiths?
6. If Muslims living in non-Muslim societies enjoy religious freedoms as well as the independence to establish their own Islamic intuitions, should non-Muslims also be given similar rights in Muslim countries?
These points are important for all Muslims to ponder, but they have special significance for those of us living in free and secular societies where we enjoy the protection of state laws. Having presented these questions I respectfully urge the Fiqh Council in North America as well as other Islamic scholars and theologians nationwide to respond to the subject of radd and the issue of religious freedom and to urgently provide a well thought-out statement of for an Islamic position on both matters. At the same time I urge various authorized Dar ul-Ifta (houses of religious decrees) worldwide to address this issue on a priority basis and review the Shari'ah in the light of the ever-shrinking world we live in.
As a believing and practicing Muslim who is deeply involved in interreligious dialogue and understanding, I call on all Muslim judicial systems and legislatures worldwide (where the radd law exists) to contemplate the decorum for this modern age in which we live and bring our age-old and well-tested values in line with universal values. It is high time that Muslims learn to respond to all such challenges intellectually and academically, not through passionate or repellent reaction. The world has reached a level of maturity where the majority of its people are prepared to hear whatever opinions we may voice and many would even argue our case, provided we also show a willingness to hear and respect theirs.
The author is Executive Director, IQRA International Educational Foundation, and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org