I read a news story not terribly long ago that relates to some of the themes I discuss in my new book as it relates to Islamic law that I thought was worth exploring.
Not all that long ago, a boy was killed in Syria by Islamic extremists controlling rebel Syrian territory on the grounds that he had insulted the Prophet. What he actually said, to some guy demanding coffee, was that he would not sell this person coffee, even if the Prophet came back to life.
I actually have a hard time finding the insult to the Prophet. I can see the attempt by the kid to insult the prospective coffee buyer, essentially trying to tell him he wouldn’t sell him a cup of coffee under any conditions. It is rather incoherent because it’s hard to see how the Prophet’s highly unlikely return would lead him to be more likely to lead the boy to sell a cup of coffee anyway. More coherent would be if the boy was understood to say that even if the Prophet returned and asked the boy to sell the prospective buyer a cup of coffee, he wouldn’t do it. That I suppose could be understood as insulting, though again the prospective buyer receives most of the insult. (i.e I hate your ugly face so much that even if the Prophet himself reappeared to me this instant and demanded from me this instant that I sell you the coffee, I’d refuse to do it, because my love for him, immense as it is, is less than my deep and fundamental hatred of you). Moreover, even that rendition is not so much an insult to the Prophet as a threat to insult him under a hypothetical set of affairs so remote in terms of its likelihood that it is hard to regard as imminent. After all, he hasn’t actually told the Prophet he won’t sell the coffee, he has merely expressed an intent to do so if the Prophet appears, which of course he won’t.
Naturally, this doesn’t seem to have mattered much to the brute half brained extremist thugs that populate so much of the Syrian opposition these days, so much so that I’ve switched from being the only Shi’i I knew who broadly supported the rebels to one who throws his hands up and has no damn idea what to do there. Bashar the butcher or this crew, God help us all. In any event, they decided the kid insulted the Prophet and killed him, offering no opportunity for repentance.
Ironically, the BBC article linked to above seems to point the lack of an opportunity for repentance as an example of their ignorance of Islamic law. Actually, that’s probably the only piece they got right, at least as a rendition of traditionalist understandings of Islamic law rather than the more liberal modern and progressive interpretations of the Qur’an I endorse of course, discussed further below. For reasons that I’ll leave the classical experts to explain, the historic medieval juristic texts are relatively clear that sabb al nabi, or insulting the Prophet, offers no opportunity for repentance while most schools do allow repentance for blaspheming against God. Go figure.
Anyway, these high profile news stories are attention grabbing, but distorting the real underlying problem in places like Iraq. My guess is in the relatively limited number of places in the Islamic world where classical apostasy is actually applied by judges, and not half brained thugs who can’t think further than they can shoot, they’d be able to avoid any capital punishment by merely finding the statement a non-insult, for the reasons laid out above. Would some gang end up beating the guy up and killing him anyway? In Pakistan, quite possible. In Saudi, no. But again, that’s just a question of the level of state control rather than the state application of a penalty.
No the deeper problem in the Islamic world in terms of the state and its relationship to apostasy isn’t these high profile cases, whenever they do arise, it is the lower level ones. In Egypt or Iraq, for example, judges don’t execute anyone for apostasy. There is no such punishment for any such crime. But the historic Islamic crimes do have their salience.
In Egypt, you might be a professor who says things that are somewhat unorthodox, and you might then be deemed an apostate and forcibly divorced from your wife, who cannot be married to a non-Muslim man. If you want to stay married, you live the rest of your life in exile.
And in Iraq, in cases I describe in my book, you might be a Christian woman who is seventeen years old. So you’re a minor under modern law in Iraq or elsewhere (though you wouldn’t be a minor under any conception of Islamic law, as the dead 14 year old Syrian boy discovered). If your dad converts to Islam, so do you, derivatively, without choice. And then you’re a Muslim. Turn 18 and want to convert back? That’s apostasy. Nobody will kill you, as noted before there is no such crime in the Iraqi code. But you won’t be recognized as a Christian. Your Christian relatives won’t inherit your estate. you can’t marry a Christian man. There are significant legal effects that do a fair amount to screw up your life. And that’s current Iraqi case law, again read my book, notwithstanding freedom of religion clauses in the Constitution. Clauses which at least as concerns this individual, forcibly converted to a different religion and unable to change back, are rendered entirely meaningless.
(Important aside is that this isn’t the rule in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where under a similar set of facts a different interpretation of Islamic law developed, one that regarded freedom of religion as guaranteed by the Qur’an and that regarded historic punishments of apostasy at least as performed by the Prophet as being a political crime–i.e. joining the enemy in the midst of battle–rather than a crisis of conscience. Under this reading changing one’s religion is acceptable and indeed protected under Islamic law, even as it is supposed to be under the Iraqi constitution. Others including the famed Hashim Kamali and the more radical Mahmoud Taha have adopted this view. It is appealing to increasing numbers of modern Muslims. But it remains by and large marginal in all too much of the Muslim world).
But of course these litigants whether the professor in Egypt forced into exile or the Christian of Baghdad forced into Islam was not killed by any court. Nobody lashed them in the street, beat them senseless, shot them dead in full public view and declared all who insulted the Prophet would suffer the same fate, as happened with the Syrian boy. So the story slips under the radar, or at least the Iraqi stories do. But they shouldn’t. As a Muslim, and a proud one, I find it sufficiently horrible that I think it deserves greater attention.