Reuters: On apostasy and the death penalty in Islam

Reuters: On apostasy and the death penalty in Islam May 16, 2014

A 27-year-old woman, Meriam Yahia Ibrahim, has been sentenced to death for the crime of apostasy by a Khartoum court. That fact, plus her marital and family status (pregnant mother with a 20-month-old child and a Christian husband) are about the only things about which the newspaper accounts agree.

Reuters’s account conflicts with those offered by some Christian NGOs and differ from the BBC and NBC, whose reports on the case appear to be based upon a press release provided by Amnesty International. Reuters also enters into this story with an assumption about Islamic law and the penalty for apostasy, writing as if all apostates from Islam are to be treated in the same way.

There is the shock value to Western eyes of the death sentence for apostasy. But this story should also trouble Muslim readers for what Reuters reports about Sudanese sharia law is at odds with Islamic jurisprudence. Not only is the sentence barbaric — but unjust from a Western and Islamic perspective.

The lede to the Reuters story as printed in the Daily Mail states:

A Sudanese court gave a 27-year-old woman who is eight-months pregnant with her second child, until Thursday to abandon her newly adopted Christian faith and return to Islam or face a death sentence. 

All accounts I’ve seen agree with Reuters up to the point where the wire service writes: “her newly adopted Christian faith.”

The key word here is “newly” — for this word controls Ibrahim’s fate under sharia.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide reports Ibrahim is not a new Christian.

Mrs Ibrahim was born in Western Sudan to a Sudanese Muslim father and an Ethiopian Orthodox mother. Her father left the family when she was six years old and she was subsequently brought up as a Christian by her mother. Under Shari’a law in Sudan, Muslim women cannot marry non-Muslim men. Moreover, since Mrs Ibrahim’s father was a Muslim, she is considered to be a Muslim, rendering her marriage to Mr Wani invalid.

Mrs Ibrahim testified before the court on 4 March that she is a Christian, showing her marriage certificate, where she is classified as Christian, as proof of her religion.

NBC reports her accusers say she was legally born a Muslim, reared as a Christian, became a Muslim as an adult and then returned to Christianity.

She told the court in the capital Khartoum that she had been raised by her mother as an Orthodox Christian, but the court said there was no evidence of this beyond 2005 and that she had recently converted from Islam.

Reuters offers conclusions of law, which are also questionable. It writes:

Meriam is a Muslim by default because she was born in Sudan.

That cannot be true. There is a Christian minority in the Sudan — Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians and members of African Independent Churches. In an article I wrote on sharia law in the Sudan a few years back I reported:

In a 12 Oct 2011 speech to university students in Khartoum, [Sudanese] President al-Bashir stated: “Ninety-eight percent of the people are Muslims and the new constitution will reflect this. The official religion will be Islam and Islamic law the main source [of the constitution]. We call it a Muslim state.”

A number of these Sudanese Christians have been driven into South Sudan or are refugees in Ethiopia and Egypt. They are Sudanese born and bred — and Christians. Christians are allowed to reside in Sudan, but they will be second-class citizens whose civil rights will be determined by their faith.

The imposition of sharia law is working itself out in the case of Ibrahim. Reuters explains:

Mariam Yahya Ibrahim was charged with apostasy as well as adultery for marrying a Christian man, something prohibited for Muslim women to do and which makes the marriage void. Thus, her marriage to a Christian is a criminal act.

On March 4th, Meriam was charged with adultery and apostasy. The adultery charge came with a punishment of 100 lashes. The apostasy charge came with a punishment of death. As it stands, Meriam will be put to death following the birth of her second child.

Note the two different spellings employed by Reuters for Ibrahim’s first name. Mariam and Meriam. That should have been caught by a copy editor. Also, the date of her execution differs in the Reuters account. The BBC and CSW report Ibrahim will have two years to recant her faith before she is executed. She will only be flogged (as if that is a consolation) following the birth of her second child. Hanging takes place later.

The claims about Islam by default should have been spotted by an editor also. I also question the execution for apostasy angle.

Islam’s five major schools of jurisprudence, the Madh’hab, call for the death penalty for those who leave Islam for another faith. However Islamic law distinguishes between apostasy of an adult and a child. The ‘Umdat as-Salik wa ‘Uddat an-Nasik (Reliance of the Traveler and Tools of the Worshipper), of the Shafi’i school of Islamic jurisprudence as practiced by the Al-Azhar in Cairo rejects the death penalty for child apostates, as does the Hidayah, the Hanafi code that guides Muslim jurisprudence in India and Pakistan.

Iran’s proposed Bill For Islamic Penal Law, for example divided apostates into two categories: parental and innate. Innate apostates were those whose parents were Muslim, made a profession of Islam—the Shahada-as an adult and then left the faith, while parental apostates were those born in non-Muslim families and converted to Islam as an adult, and then left the faith.

Sudanese Islamic jurisprudence follows the Shafi’i school, and its religious-civil code is similar to Iran’s. Iran’s code, like the Sudan’s, states “Punishment for an innate apostate is death,” while a parental apostate is given three days to recant their apostasy. If they continued in their unbelief, “the death penalty would be carried out.” Women apostates were spared the death penalty, but would have been jailed until they recanted.

The twist in this case is that the Sudanese court is treating her as a parental Muslim and giving her three days to recant — but treating her as a man, not a woman.

There are several holes in Reuters story, as noted above, and unasked and unanswered questions. Can she be called a convert or apostate from a faith she never practiced? Why is Ibrahim being treated as a man under Islamic law?

Which leads to the question, should the press flesh out these details about apostasy and sharia? Is answering this question necessary for arriving at an understanding of situation. And, readers, do you believe Reuters should correct their story?

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12 responses to “Reuters: On apostasy and the death penalty in Islam”

  1. So who accused her? A lot of the Pakistani accusations of blasphemy are about stealing land etc from Christians. And will Ethiopia get involved in her case, since she is essentially a Christian Ethiopian ethnic via her mother
    This also points to the problem of the Nigerian girls: If they “converted”, even under pressure, and later are rescused, they might indeed be killed for apostasy under local Sharia law in northern Nigeria if they allow Sharia imposed in the near future as part of a peace settlement.

  2. I’m not sure there’s anything for Reuters to correct. Just because its report seems to contradict your interpretation of Islamic law doesn’t make it so. That there are conflicting and confusing reports by western news organizations coming out of an African country ravaged for years by a civil war and religious and tribal wars is not surprising in the least. The fact that you assert what the true story is, and especially what the correct sharia law legal analysis is, without any backup IS actually surprising.

    If Reuters was wrong, of course they should correct themselves. So should you.

    • The false statement is that being born in Sudan makes one automatically a Muslim. That is demonstrably untrue.

      The contradictory statement is the assertion by Reuters of Mrs. Ibrahim’s recent conversion. This conflicts with the published reports of the other news agencies and CSW.

      I raise the question of Shariah Law citing the relevant codices and ask whether the question of whether Islamic law is being followed properly. The court held she was an innate Muslim — that she was born a Muslim and had a Muslim father. But its sentence of allowing three days to repent is for converts from other faiths to Islam. To my thinking this is a contradiction. As is the death penalty — which is for male apostates.

      The issue I had hoped to raise, but appears to have been misunderstood is the need to appreciate Islamic jurisprudence on its own terms. If the goal is sensationalism then a newspaper need not go beyond the barbaric penalty imposed. If the goal is to understand why, then it is important to understand the issues from the perspective of those imposing the penalty.

      Now I must admit that it has been many years since I studied West Asian languages and Islam as an undergraduate. I’ve forgotten all the Persian I ever learned. But I remember enough to ask questions. And this is what I have done.

      • I’m a lawyer and a Christian, so I’m concerned with reporting on both religion and law. If you had just raised questions in would not likely have had a problem.

        The linked Reuters/Daily Mail piece stated that “[a]ccording to the Sudan’s Public Order Criminal Code, she is a Muslim by default because she was born in Sudan.” (That’s a little different than what you quoted, which was that “Meriam is a Muslim by default because she was born in Sudan.” Perhaps their story was edited/updated?) You assert that this is “demonstrably untrue.” That’s not a question.

        Since the article is about a legal case, you might want to consider that the sentence was meant not as a truth statement about the woman’s faith status but rather a statement of law. That’s not much different from most (likely all) US state law that presumes a child born to a woman in a valid marriage to be the child of the husband. It may not actually be true but the law considers it true unless it is adjudicated otherwise. Similarly, Sudanese law may presume all Sudanese-born citizens to be Muslim unless they do something like register or have their status formally changed. In that case, the existence of Sudanese-born Christians and animists would not negate the Reuters statement at all.

        You cited a number of sharia law authorities, but gave no reason for a reader to assume that they were the “relevant” ones, especially since they were mostly from other countries and even included one from Iran that was only a “proposed” law. That sort of idea — that sharia law is just one thing — does not help anyone understand the nuances of sharia law or why this particular penalty was imposed. American law is largely based on English common law, but that doesn’t mean our law is identical.

        You seem to think the court made a mistake of law, but it appears from the reporting, and even your own analysis, that the court applied the correct law but didn’t get the facts of the woman’s life correct. I don’t think it’s any less sensational that the death penalty can be given for apostasy only for a certain subset of Muslims. It’s pretty outrageous regards of how or when the person became a Muslim.

        I admit also that it’s been a long time since my days studying international relations with a concentration in middle eastern affairs/history and I’ve forgotten all the Arabic I learned, but I do know legal analysis and that it’s not the same thing as evidence.

    • Julia — I wish that were true, but I’m pretty sure that headline is a bad translation from the Italian. The headline is meant to be a request to Sudan for a new trial and not a statement that Sudan has granted one. The text of the piece confirms that it’s a request to Sudan because it states that activists are “now hoping for a new trial.” When it quotes another person as stating that “some lawyers” told an NGO that the woman “will be given a new trial,” it’s just be a prediction by the lawyers, not an action already taken by the Supreme Court.

      • Thanks for your useful comment and observation.
        I think these bad translations are a pox on international understanding. In particular I notice translators trying to put things into English/American colloquialisms that don’t really fit. And the foreign colloquialisms are similarly not accurately translated with their real sense of meaning.
        Apart from this story – I think Francis is admirably trying to connect with the common man, but his use of informal, colloquial Argentinian lingo is causing a lot of problems. These idioms don’t translate well into other languages. And Italian slang isn’t being translated well, either. I’m guessing the translators are great with formal language but can’t be expected to understand all the slang and witty turns of phrase they are expected to present correctly to the world.
        In particular, I’m thinking about the use of the word “lobby” in English translations of stories about cliques and pressure groups in the Curia. “Lobby” has a specific meaning in the US which is not what the translators think it is.

        • You’re welcome. I agree translation issues can be a real problem. I live in South Florida where so many are fully bi-, tri-, and even quatra-lingual. I’m in awe! I’ve had to take a few depositions of witnesses through a translator. Once had a witness’ lawyer get into an argument with the translator because, while translator and witness and lawyer spoke the same language, they were from different countries where the same idiom meant something a little different and in that case the precise meaning of the disputed idiom was critical.

          Between having to read law cases that go back decades or even two or three centuries, and experiencing life in a multi-lingual world, I’ve grown more open to the idea that sometimes even the most well-intentioned and well-educated, not to mention Spirit-guided, bible translators have made errors or missed nuances, especially with layers of dead languages, the passage of millennia, and multiple sometimes conflicting cultures. But, speaking of idiom, that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms for a whole ‘nother day! 🙂

          • That calls to mind an experience of mine with an expert witness from Spain in an international custody case. I used a local Spanish teacher who was Cuban. But at a certain point the doctor witness who had flown in from Spain (courtesy of the Spanish government) was talking about medical matters and the translator was stuck. Luckily I had been a medical technologist and had studied Latin so I knew what Tinea Capitis was. The judge allowed me to be my own expert translator of Latin medical terminology – which is the same in the US and Spain. LOL Dead languages have their uses.
            In that international case it was interesting to read the findings and opinions of the Spanish court. For those translations, I got the help of a non-involved judge who had grown up in Argentina. In addition to no paragraphs, the sentences each ran on for pages with no punctuation – very difficult to decipher which clauses were referring to what preceding clause. Cultures really do differ.

          • Last thing, I promise. Try “vestibulista” as the Spanish translation of “lobbyist.” My professor burst out laughing when I made up that word in class because I couldn’t remember the correct Spanish one. It IS technically a literal translation, but it just has no meaning across cultures and political systems. 🙂

          • That’s funny. As I recall the word “lobbyist” came from the guys who hung around in the Willard Hotel lobby to get a chance to talk to lawmakers about either their problems/interests or those of people who hired them (constitutional right to petition re: our grievances). Is there really a word in Spanish or Italian that conveys that idea?

            I’ll end this conversation now, too. But it really is about the use of words in translated news stories – so probably legitimate here.
            Whoops. One last gripe. Yesterday I bought a wonderful National Geographic special booklet on the Medieval World. But it should have had a Catholic look over what they had written. Somehow, in the story on Barcelona, they seem to think that big churches are all “cathedrals”. No, Barcelona wouldn’t have lots of cathedrals – only one.

  3. Sudan is an injustice country, their law doesn’t represent the REAL Islamic law.

    The law of killing the apostate was applied ONLY in a period of the prophet Mohammed, it was a punishment for the hypocrites who betrayed the state.
    While there’s only one “Hadith” allowing the killing of the apostates, there are many verses in Quran which declare the freedom of belief such as:

    18:29 “The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills – let him believe; and whoever wills – let him disbelieve.”

    2:256 There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion.

    50:45 We are most knowing of what they say, and you are not over them a tyrant. But remind by the Qur’an whoever fears My threat.

    88: 21-22 So remind, [O Muhammad]; you are only a reminder. You are not over them a controller.

    74:38 Every soul, for what it has earned, will be retained

    73:19 Indeed, this is a reminder, so whoever wills may take to his Lord a way.
    Is it clear now Islam doesn’t force anybody to believe in it?

    And I wonder why those radical still want to focus on a hadith and ignore the previous verses.