Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 August 2007
Issue No. 857
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

'Whosoever will, let him disbelieve'

With the media abuzz over a Muslim wanting to convert to Christianity, Nashwa Abdel-Tawab investigates the challenging issue of apostasy

In what was being described as an unprecedented step, an Egyptian Muslim last week filed a suit at the Administrative Court asking that his religion be changed on legal documents from Muslim to Christian.

Claiming that he had embraced Christianity in secret nine years ago, married a Muslim woman with the same inclination, and is about to have a baby, 25-year-old Mohamed Ahmed Hegazi wants to become legally Christian in order that the couple's child will be registered as a Coptic Christian in identity papers.

The freedom to change his religion was a human right, Hegazi said.

The story became even more sensational when in speaking to the press, Hegazi's father said that his son had told him that he had been subject to "pressures" and financial inducements from Coptic preachers to convert to Christianity. Hegazi's father also claimed that his son was still a Muslim at heart. Coptic lawyer Mamdouh Nakhla also said he quit the case after he became certain that Hegazi only seeks to become a celebrity.

In Port Said, Hegazi's home city, some 300 intellectuals, poets and lawyers later issued a statement entitled, "Take your hands off the Sacred Religions", urging both Muslims and Christians not to give Hegazi attention or support because "he's a long way from both Islam and Christianity."

Hegazi said that he had a strong case, and that he would use views expressed by Grand Mufti Sheikh Ali Gomaa in a recent article that appeared in The Washington Post, arguing that the grand mufti's views were as good as a fatwa (religious ruling) on the subject.

In the article, Gomaa said that "the matter is left until the Day of Judgement, and it is not to be dealt with in the life of this world. It is an issue of conscience, and it is between the individual and Allah."

In the "On Faith" online forum of both the Washington Post and Newsweek magazine, which published Gomaa's views on Islam and apostasy on 21 July, the mufti said that, "the essential question before us is can a person who is Muslim choose a religion other than Islam? The answer is yes, they can because the Quran says, 'Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion,' [Quran, 109:6], and, 'Whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve,' [Quran, 18:29], and, 'There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is distinct from error,' [Quran, 2:256]."

"These verses from the Quran discuss a freedom that God affords all people. But from a religious perspective, the act of abandoning one's religion is a sin punishable by God on the Day of Judgement. If the case in question is one of merely rejecting faith, then there is no worldly punishment," Gomaa wrote.

However, Gomaa also warned that if conversions undermine the "foundations of society" then they must be dealt with by the judicial system, whose role is to protect society.

Despite Gomaa's views, Muslims who convert to another religion are considered apostates in Egypt and in most Muslim countries, and they can be subject to capital punishment.

Attempts by Muslims in Egypt to convert to other religions in the past have been hindered by the state's refusal to recognise the change in official documents, and in some cases they have led to arrests or imprisonment.

When asked by Al-Ahram Weekly how he viewed the Hegazi case, Gomaa said the case "is in the hands of the judicial system. Each apostasy case differs from another, so if the government wants our opinion, we will reply in a way suitable to the case in question."

Gomaa's remarks on the "On Faith" forum were picked up by Egyptian papers, but since these focussed on the question of freedom of religion they gave the impression that leaving Islam was a comparatively trivial matter.

On the contrary, "nothing could be more serious," Gomaa says. "In order to maintain the balance of the original article, my press team sent out a statement emphasising responsibility and that apostasy is a grave sin, and, when combined with sedition, it is punishable in both this world and the next."

"This balanced opinion is one that I have held for years, and I have included it in my books and lectures. It is a position that I have never retracted."

Debate on freedom of religion and its relation to human rights has taken place in Muslim communities throughout the world, one major issue being the question of whether apostasy should be punished and if so how.

Many Muslim scholars think that an apostate should be asked to recant his apostasy, and, if he insists on it then he should be executed, though for treason, not for deserting Islam.

Others, however, are of the opinion that since the Quran affirms freedom of religion, apostasy is a matter for the individual as real accountability will come on the Day of Judgement.

Still, others, while considering apostasy a crime and a potential threat to the stability and integrity of a Muslim society, do not find definitive evidence that the apostate should be executed. At most, he may be subject to a discretionary punishment depending on the harm he has caused to society.

The well known Muslim scholar and jurist Sheikh Youssef El-Qaradawi, for example, asserts that "the duty of the Muslim community -- in order to preserve its identity -- is to combat apostasy in all its forms and wherever it comes from, giving it no chance to pervade the Muslim world."

By contrast, Sheikh Irfan Ahmed Khan, a scholar and Quranic exegete, argues that "freedom of faith and religion is meaningless without the freedom to change one's faith."

According to Sheikh Gamal Qotb, former head of the Fatwa Committee at Al-Azhar, "being an apostate is a sin, but the preponderance of evidence from both the Quran and Sunna indicates that there is no firm ground for the claim that apostasy in itself deserves a mandatory fixed punishment [ hadd ], namely capital punishment."

"There is no hadith confirming punishment or retribution solely for apostasy. In every case where punishment has been meted out, apostasy involved treason or rebellion," Qotb told the Weekly.

"The prophet's hadith, 'If somebody [a Muslim] discards his religion, kill him,' can be considered a legal policy determined by the time when the prophet advocated it as head of the Muslim state in wartime. He himself did not kill the hypocrites, who were among his companions."

Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, imam of Al-Azhar since 1996, has also ruled that a Muslim who renounces his faith or turns apostate should be left alone as long as he does not pose a threat or belittle Islam.

If Muslims are forced to take action against the apostate, it should not be because he or she has given up the faith, but rather because he or she has turned out to be an enemy or a threat to Islam.

In Hegazi's case, it seems likely that the government will either consult the grand mufti for a ruling on the matter, or quietly give him his new papers to close the case.

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