Jewish Journal


April 24, 2009

Muslim apostates and capital punishment



Remember last year when an op-ed in The New York Times claimed Barack Obama would be killed by Muslim fundamentalists because he was an apostate? The argument was far from valid, but it raised an interesting question about just what the appropriate punishment is for apostasy. Care to guess?

Harvard’s Muslim chaplain recently outlined the answer in an e-mail to a student. And now the chaplain is at the center of something ugly. Here’s the story from The Forward:

Taha Abdul-Basser, stated that most traditional authorities on Islamic law agree that in countries under Muslim governance, the proper punishment for apostasy — that is, rejection of Islam by a former Muslim — is death. The e-mail was subsequently published online, and although Abdul-Basser has distanced himself personally from that position, the remarks have stirred a flurry of controversy and debate.

Abdul-Basser’s e-mail was circulated through an e-mail list and subsequently posted April 3 on the blog Talk Islam, from which it was picked up by several other blogs. On April 14, The Harvard Crimson, a student-run daily, published an article about the controversy. One week later, on April 21, it remained the paper’s most viewed, most commented-upon article online.

The issue being debated is anything but academic: Apostasy is outlawed in a number of Muslim countries, including Afghanistan, Malaysia, Iran and Algeria. In 2006, an Afghan named Abdul Rahman faced trial, with a potential sentence of death, for converting to Christianity, before being granted asylum in Italy. The issue has attracted a great deal of attention from such international human rights groups as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

In his original e-mail, Abdul-Basser appeared to put himself at odds with the international human rights community, which includes a number of luminaries who teach at Harvard. After a lengthy discussion of the positions of various Muslim authorities, he concluded by writing that “there is great wisdom (hikma) associated with the established and preserved position (capital punishment), and so, even if it makes some uncomfortable in the face of the hegemonic modern human rights discourse, one should not dismiss it out of hand.”

In a subsequent statement sent to the Forward, however, Abdul-Basser said that he was simply explaining to a student the traditional position of Islamic legal scholars, not advocating their viewpoint.

Read more from The Forward here and from the Harvard Crimson here.

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