The case of Abdul Rahman, the Afghan man who converted to Christianity and was subsequently condemned to death, is not only further proof of differences prevailing between the West and Islam; it is also sparking a debate within Muslim society itself.
Sana'a (AsiaNews) To kill or not to kill those who leave Islam for another faith? A survey carried out in Yemen revealed that even imams do not all share the same views on the matter, even if the majority is for the death penalty. Still less convinced are Muslim businessmen and professionals, university students, and the head of the largest Islamic party in the Opposition, Mohammed Qahtan, who is persuaded that no Yemenite is in the same position as Rahman.
What is the status of the current Yemeni law regarding Muslim apostates?
MQ: The law currently reads in such a way that Muslim apostates should be killed; however, in practice this law is not enforced in our country.
Do you personally support this law?
Frankly, no. I am astonished at the teaching of so-called scholars who maintain that the apostate should be given three days to repent of his so-called 'crime' and then be executed upon refusal to do so. People who believe such things are stuck in time and need to wake up to modernity.
So, since you disagree with the current law, is it your purpose to change the law if your party were to take office?
Actually, we haven't even considered the issue.
It's irrelevant to the present realities in Yemen. The truth is that we don't have any cases of that sort right now and we have many other pressing problems that are of greater concern.
But Imam Khaled in Sana'a, one of the scholars with whom Qahtan would disagree, has no doubt that apostasy is a crime in Islam punishable only by death.
Do you think that Abdul Rahman should be granted amnesty and allowed to live freely as a Christian?
IK: No. He has committed a heinous crime against Allah and against the umma [Islamic society] and deserves to be killed.
Does the Qu'ran give any clear indication that such a person should actually be killed?
No! However, the Hadith or sayings [of the prophet] transmitted to us by Abu Dawud and Bukhari provide sufficient explanations for how to deal with the issue. One of the prophet's sayings recorded by Bukhari, for example, says: 'Whoever changes his Islamic religion, kill him.' Besides, no sane Muslim would ever leave the Islamic faith anyway.
So would you say that Abdul Rahman is insane?
Yes. He must be."
By contrast, among the business and professional sectors of the Yemeni society, interviewees were much more open-minded and progressive in their responses. Each of them explained very simply that there is no foundation in the Qu'ran or in the Islamic tradition for killing Muslims who convert to other religions. One of these qualified his explanation, saying: "The apostate should be killed only if he represents some kind of physical threat to the Islamic society. That was the sense of the Hadith on the subject. The teaching in Islam to kill apostates, therefore, refers only to those who would change their religion and then become spies or take up arms in the cause of the enemy."
Among university students, the issue was hotly debated. Some defended Abdul Rahman's right to change religion by quoting a Koranic verse which states that "there is no compulsion in religion" (Sura 2:256). Another group of students denounced this interpretation by arguing that the verse in no way defends a Muslim's right to apostasy but only that no one should be forced to change his religion. This latter group contended that several other Hadiths of the prophet, like the ones mentioned by the imam, clearly command that apostates like Abdul Rahman be killed.
To counter this point, the first group argued that the Qu'ran should supersede any supposed sayings of the prophet which have been recorded in the Sunna.
In any case, it is clear that the apostasy debate, like the cartoon controversy, is not merely being waged between the Muslim world and the West, as some would contend, but also within Islamic societies themselvesas the battle for religious freedom goes on and on.