Saturday, April 01, 2006

Freedom of Religion and the Middle East

Associated Press had an insightful article on the freedom to choose one's religion in the Middle East and North Africa . Unlike India, Japan, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Thailand, almost all states in the Middle East and North Africa criminalize Christian missionary activity. Algeria, Tunisia and Turkey are the only three countries in the region that permit an individual to convert from Islam to any other religion.

Lebanon is a secular state that once had a Christian majority. The Christian population appears to have now declined to 35% due to an exodus. Muslim religious authorities forbid the change of religion in Lebanon and will not legalize a marriage between a Christian man and a Muslim woman. The reverse is allowed since the Prophet Mohammed had 12 wives, one of whom was a Christian. Muslim Lebanese women travel to Cyprus to marry a non-Muslim man and register this marriage upon their return to Lebanon.

The Shari'ah considers the conversion of any Muslim as apostasy that is punishable by death. According to Palestinian law, Muslim women who seek to divorce their husbands who convert to Christianity have only to report the matter to a Palestinian court to have the marriage nullified. Muslim women who wish to divorce the husbands in Jordan who converted to Christianity can report the matter to court and the courts will convict the man of apostasy. A Muslim man who adopted Christianity in 2004 was convicted, fired from his job and had his marriage annulled.

The law of Israel forbids organized Christian missionary activity amongst Jews.

Sa'udi law forbids conversion from Islam and does not permit the public practice of any religion but Islam within the kingdom. Missionaries are not allowed entry and the law forbids the construction of churches in Sa'udi Arabia. Riyadh has a different scale of compensation for those murdered depending on the religion of the victim. Families of Muslim male victims are entitled to maximum compensation under the law while the families of Hindu women victims are paid the least - a fraction of the compensation received by a Muslim male's family.

In May, 2005, a Muslim who converted to Christianity in Egypt was charged for contempt for religion, a charge that entails a jail sentence of 5 years. The man however has not been charged and remains in indefinite custody. A court convicted a Shi'ite Muslim who adopted Christianity in Kuwait but did not punish him since the criminal court did not spell out a punishment. Sudan enforces the death penalty for Muslims who convert to Christianity. A Sudanese Muslim who allegedly converted in Khartoum but denied it upon arrest remains in prison and has been tortured according the United States Department of State.

The case of Abdul Rahman, the 41year old Afghan who converted to Islam and was referred to an Afghan court for possible execution hit the world headlines in the last fortnight. Even Amin Farhang, the Afghan Economic Minister who had lived in Germany for 22 years before returning to Kabul had defended possible prosecution arguing that Afghanistan can not switch suddenly from one extreme to the other" and the added that the right to convert was impossible in a land that continues to uphold the Islamic punishment for apostasy.

Afghanistan was forced to release Abdul Rahman given the avalanche of international criticism. As Bush had remarked on March 22, "It is deeply troubling, that a country we helped liberate would hold a person to account because they chose a particular religion over another". Or as the New York Times put it, "If Afghanistan wants to return to the Taleban days, it can do so without the help of the United States". The Anglican Archbishop of Canada had mentioned "I'm absolutely horrified to think that this kind of fanatical literalism would be applied to this time and age". The Milan-based newspaper - Corriere dell Serra - added that "western states helping Afghanistan should launch a movement to reform Islam there".


cynical nerd said...


A well-timed post. The Abdul Rahman case has come after the case of one Hindu Malaysian Moorthy's Islamic buriyal.

I would like to add some points. Looks like the Koran itself does'nt say anything about apostasy:

"There is no compulsion in religion" (al-Baqarah, 256); is one of the most quoted phrases from the Koran to back up freedom of belief.

The Sharia interepretation on apostasy is based on the sayings of Mohammed - the hadith.

BBC link.

Some 'moderate' scholars interpretate that the hadith was given during war time - i.e., anyone not following Islam was identified as defecting to the enemy clan, a treacherous act which deserves death penalty at that time.

What is sorely lacking is a modern version of 'itjehad' - that of logic and reasoning in the debate within Muslim scholars. Without that there cannot be any hope for any insider reform per se. Irshad Manji wrote about this.

Having said that I think the Abdul Rahman issue may be a signal that fissures are finally opening up - under external pressure. The trend may be if Islam does'nt moderize by itself - it would by made to, by outsiders. American tax payers who helped over the Taliban would obviously shun any fundamentalist regimes coming back in place. This might also have a ripple effect elsewhere (especially in Pakistan which also recieves lots of US money). We need to watch out for further signs.


Jaffna said...

Cynical Nerd,

Like any religious text, be it the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Manu Dharma Shastra and the Pali canon, the Quran has its fair share of contradictions. You quote Surah Al Baqarah Ayat 256 of the Quran to mention "Let there be no compulsion in religion".

However, I can refer to Surah 2 Ayat 193 which states "Fight against them until idolatry is no more and Allah's religion reigns supreme". Furthermore, the Shari'ah is not based on the Quran alone. The Hadith influenced it. The Shari'ah clearly bans apostasy i.e. the renunciation of his faith by a Muslim.

The idea is to jettison religious literalism and to question the tenets of ones religion while being faithful to the overall tradition. This is a time to critique religious texts in a spirit of reverence. Buddhists, Christians and Hindus have done so since the 1800s. It is time for Muslims to join.

Ijtihad means religious reasoning. It comes from the Arabic to "struggle intellectually" and shares the same root as "jihad". The gates of Ijtihad were closed in Islamic tradition in medieval times. I am not sure how one could reopen it. As one Pakistani mentor of mine, a devout Muslim, told me - "where on earth are the gates of Ijtihad to reopen?"

I therefore prefer the Protestant "textual criticism" to the nebulous concept ijtihad. The former is guided by reason and scientific history - the latter remains circumscribed by textual literalism.

Best regards

cynical nerd said...


Your point on Hadiths influencing the Sharia is well taken and so is the highlighting of Koran's contradiction.

You may be right about gates being closed. It was since 12th CE. I agree that the classical interpretation of 'itjihad' is independent intellectual struggle of the Koranic texts rather than the questioning of the texts themselves.

However I prefer this as a starting point because:

- this will not alienate the faithful since it has existed before.
- independent interpretation means means that the faithful will starting the book in their own languages rather than repeat without understanding the classical Arabic text.
- it also means that you cut-off the middlemen, i.e., the mullah who often has his own agenda than preaching the koran. This in my opinion will be the biggest benefit.

The Protestant Reformation that you allude to started with Martin Luther - who I think argued for a stricter intepretation of the Bible. Luther saw the Roman Catholic Church as corrupt and printed the now popular Die Luther Bible using the j. His intention was not 'moderate' the Church but rather to take it to its origins.

But Gutenberg's printing press (invented just before the period of Luther) helped spread Luther's German (and other European languages) version than Vatican's Latin version.

I see a parallel with the Internet and the present information revolution.

"may a hundred flowers bloom a hundred schools of thoughts blossom" comes to mind.


Jaffna said...

Cynical Nerd,

Thank you for the feedback. It is food for thought and appreciated.

Ijtihad did not necessarily mean "individual, independent interpretation". It was the opportunity for jurists trained in the religious texts to apply their own reasoning to interpret the law. It still remained the domain of the learned ulema, not of the individual believer. The middle man therefore remained.

Since this resulted in a plethora of conflicting and confusing legal opinions, al-Shafi'i - a learned scholar - strove to deny individual interpretation altogether.

Now to Christianity. Martin Luther replaced the reliance on church authority to interpret scripture with the believer's own right to think for himself. This was a major innovation that Islam has not had. An individual had the right to read the Bible for himself and to interpret it himself. The Bible was translated into the vernacular. It no longer remained the preserve of the church.

This led to the textual criticism of the 19th century when Protestant theologians re-examined Christian scripture in the light of history, linguistic theory - where many went back to the original Hebrew and Greek - and reason. The science of textual deconstruction had its beginnings in this instance.

India witnessed in the deconstruction of the Sanskrit and Pali canon as well. The Orientalists started it but the process continued by Hindus. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Dayananda Saraswathi "re-interpreted" Hindu scripture to make it accord with "modernism". One can argue that M.K. Gandhi and Vinobhe Bhave did likewise.

This deconstruction of scripture is still lacking in Islam.

Best regards

Anuj said...

My apologies for posting out of context. Please forgive.


When: April 7, 2006

Time: 12:30 p.m. – 5:30 p.m. (Reception to Follow)

Where: Kellogg Center
15th floor, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University
420 W 118th St, New York, NY 10027

Students: $5, All Others: $20 (cash or check payable to “Columbia University")



12:30 pm – 1:00 pm: REGISTRATION

1:00 pm – 1:15 pm: WELCOMING REMARKS

Dean Lisa Anderson
Dean, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University


Walter Andersen
Associate Director of South Asia Studies, SAIS, Johns Hopkins University
Former Chief of the State Department’s South Asia Division

Honorable Neelam Deo
Consul General of India, New York

Anil Padmnabhan
New York Bureau Chief, India Today

Congressman Frank Pallone
Sixth Congressional District of New Jersey

Sanjay Puri
Chairman, US India Political Action Committee [USINPAC]
CEO, Optimos Inc.

3:00 pm – 3:45 pm: KEYNOTE ADDRESS

Ambassador Frank G. Wisner
Vice Chairman, American International Group
Former US Ambassador to India


Hassan Abbas
Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University

Salman Haidar
Former Indian Foreign Secretary

Daisy Khan
Executive Director, ASMA Society

Joydeep Mukherji
Director, Sovereign Ratings Group, Standard and Poor’s

Dr. Rahul Pandit
Director, Indo-American Kashmiri Forum (IAKF)

5:45 pm – 7:00 pm: CLOSING REMARKS & RECEPTION

IndianXian said...

Martin Luther's theses rejected ecclesiastical authority especially in matters of salvation because the Catholic Church was selling "indulgences" to people so that they could go to heaven. Luther spoke out against this practice and rejected papal authority for which he was excommunicated from the Catholic church. He believed in the "eternal priesthood of all Christians" and was heavily influenced by Humanism. "Reason" however was part of the Catholic Church dogma long before Martin Luther - Thomas Aquinas is the most famous proponent of this neo-Aristotlean school of thought. During the Reformation, it was not just Martin Luther but also Erasmus, Zwingli, Calvin (and earlier Wycliff and Jon Hus) that were influenced and used it heavily in their Reformation movements.

The irony is that many of Aristotle's works were lost to the Western world until the fall of Moorish Spain. The early Church was heavily influenced by neo-Platonism and Aristotle's works were not preserved in the Western Church. The Moors had discovered Aristotle and had the entire corpus in Arabic in their libraries in Spain. After the fall of Spain, these texts were translated from Arabic to Latin and spread throughout Europe.

Latin was used by Universities in the middle Ages, the language of all learned people but not the common man. The original Theses were written in Latin and nailed to the door. These were translated to the common man's language and then reproduced all over Europe thanks to the printing press. The first book Gutenberg printed was the Bible in Latin.

I don't think the Ulemas are going to give up their authority to interpret the Islamic scripture or laws. If anything, we already have one Ulema issuing fatwas contrary to another, so there are different interpretations of the same text although they are still being made by Ulemas. But then Martin Luther was a priest too. Perhaps we are seeing history in the making?

Jaffna said...

Indian Xian,

Thank you. I agree with you. The clarification you provided on the pre-protestant tradition of reason that Aquinas and other church father represented is indeed correct.

I would add that this scholastic tradition was present in classical Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam as well. This could well be the meeting point of the major religions.


history_lover said...

As a Muslim,I don't think that the importance of the Ulema will come to an end.
Recitation of the Quran (in Arabic)in masjids and in homes throughout the world is not going to end although there may be marginal communities here and there.
As for Ijtihad,it has been going all the time.At a time muslims through out the world are feeling that they are under siege,it is more likely that will cling closer to tradtional understandings than to move to West supported modernizers.In fact one could argue that the Salafi/Wahabi tradition has been an attempt to "reform" Islam and to decrease the importance of the Ulema and the Spiritual master(the Sufi).
Unfortunately these days people (both muslims and non muslims) do not treat the Quran as a scripture but as a kind of engineer's manual.
Hence comments like " but Section 2.2.1 contradicts Section 3.6.6".
As for would be modernizers like Irshad Manji,I doubt they will gain widespread legitimacy in Muslim thought.

doubtinggaurav said...


I can not understand Christianity.
I have given up.
Frankly speaking I think Hindus should also proletyse to counter missionaries, just like Arya Samaj used to at one time



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