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Posted Online on Saturday, 8 March 2006 03:53 IST

Muslim Islamic NewsAn issue of Conversion: The Case of Abdul-Rahman the Afghan

By Dr. Abidullah A. Ghazi

The Milli Gazette Online

7 April 2006

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.

It appears from several news reports that Mr. Abdul-Rahman may not have altogether been a mentally stable individual. There are reports of that prior to and after his conversion to Christianity he maintained an abusive relationship with parents. He also he failed to support, both financially and emotionally, his children, they very same children which he had now, after 16 years, sought custody over. In 1990 Mr. Abdul-Rahman left his wife and children in Afghanistan and began working for an international Christian aid group in neighboring Pakistan. There are contradictory reports regarding the location of his conversion, although at this point such information seems to be immaterial detail. Mr. Abdul-Rahman could have stayed in Pakistan, where laws against conversion from Islam exist on the books but are rarely (if ever) implemented, he chose to move to Germany, where he remained for nearly ten years having little contact with his family. The aforementioned Christian social workers might have saw fit to train Mr. Abdul-Rahman while he resided in Europe for a suitable profession in order to eventually unite him with his family but this did not happen. In 2002 Mr. Abdul-Rahman decided to return home following the collapse of the Taliban regime. From all accounts, embracing the Christian faith did not seem to have made him a better person. His return only aggravated all the family problems that were their before. He began to insist on gaining custody of the children he left sixteen years earlier, and at one point even physically attacked the children's grandfather when the family refused to hand them over. Mr. Abdul-Rahman gave the impression that he took pleasure in using his conversion as a weapon to further aggravate the already strained relationship as the family was obviously distressed at the man's conversion. Yet Mr. Abdul-Rahman reportedly took great relished in rubbing the fact in their faces. The family, though disappointed with his change of faith, nevertheless dismissed his claim as prank designed to exact revenge and they urged Mr. Abdul-Rahman not to make a public issue out of it. However when the family refused to hand over the children Mr. Abdul-Rahman saw fit to go public with his conversion, conceivably to humiliate his familial adversaries. He went to the local police and forced the issue of his conversion, ostensibly in hope of provoking confrontation. It has been reported that those police officers at the neighborhood station who were present during Mr. Abdul-Rahman's announcement of apostasy endeavored to persuade Mr. Abdul-Rahman to go home and not bring trouble on his head by making it a public issue, but the man was unrelenting and he managed in the end to bring worldwide attention to himself.

The law in Afghanistan, as well as in several other conservative Muslim countries, stipulates the death penalty for any Muslim who converts out of Islam. In spite of this seemingly zealous and archaic law we also find that Afghanistan has been, and continues to be, on many levels a hospitable society that accepts a remarkable degree of religious diversity. There is a large Shi'ite population in the central part of the country, and into modern times sizeable Sikh and Hindu communities have resided in Jalalabad, Kabul and other major cities and have done so for centuries. Most of these Hindus and Sikhs are Afghan nationals and have freedom to practice their religion. They also have their own places of worship.

However conversion of a Muslim to other religion (especially if it is publicized) is not really part of the story about the tolerance of religious minorities. Whether or not Mr. Abdul-Rahman's public announcement of conversion to Christianity was done out of a sincere desire to witness for his faith or out of sheer spite is irrelevant when we look at the wider issues. Yet within any traditional society a change of faith (or lifestyle) is more than just an issue of finding a more satisfying theology; it is toying with societal norms of reputation and loyalty, virtues that are even more perceptible in Afghanistan's heavily tribalized society. In much of Afghan society honor killing and retribution are accepted norms, irrespective of their clear prohibitions in Islam. Even as the justices pondered their verdict, Mr. Abdul-Rahman's family certainly would have preferred his execution if for no other reason than to save them from public humiliation and shame.

The conversion of Abdur-Rahman has now grown from being a personal choice of faith to an international predicament. Many Muslims and non-Muslims view this as an embodiment of the confrontation between modern values of freedom of conscience and the code of Islamic Shari'ah. Despite its long history of religious intolerance, issues of faith in Western societies are now primarily a personal matter. The constitutions of secular societies around the world guarantee freedom of conscience and freedom of religion as inalienable human rights. Secular constitutions provide equal guarantees and opportunities to all religions within the state's borders to practice, teach, publish, convert and establish institutions. Muslims living in Europe, North America and even India have been great beneficiaries of such freedoms.

The phenomenal growth of the Muslim community in North America, both through immigration and conversion, as well as the establishment of Muslim institutions, speaks volumes to the tolerance and acceptance of religious diversity in the midst of a primarily Christian society. In company with the constitutionally authorized equality of all faiths is the great level of tolerance Americans possess for religious diversity. Mainstream Christian and Jewish organizations have opened avenues of dialogue and cooperation with Muslim groups in the country. Here in America the mental ghettoes of religious separatism are disintegrating and we can see ourselves entering an age of discourse and mutual respect. The instances of mutual respect and cooperation afforded those Muslims living in North America are too numerous, while incidents of impudence and intolerance, seemingly inspired by the Shari'ah code, have displayed the exact opposite in several Muslim-majority lands.

It must also be understood by the reader that the socio-political situation in each Muslim-majority land varies from place to place. Despite the seemingly intolerant atmosphere in several, many positive inter-faith and cross-cultural exchanges are becoming increasingly visible in others. Muslim countries are mosaic of social and cultural diversity. There has also existed historically a long tradition of acceptance diversity of culture and faith in Islamic civilization, a fact that has to be remembered by those wishing to jettison this value in favor of insularity and narrow-mindedness.

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 draghazi@aim.com

 

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