Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics

By Ann Elizabeth Mayer | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
Freedom of Religion in Islamic Human Rights Schemes

International Human Rights Law and the Shari'a Rule on Apostasy

In the West, people do not tend to think of the freedom to change religion as the central concern of provisions guaranteeing religious freedom. There, the right to freedom of religion is most often conceived of as a guarantee against religious persecution and protection from the kinds of discriminatory treatment meted out to disfavored religious minorities. Although such discrimination was common until recently, government-imposed constraints on conversion from one religion to another and the concept of apostasy as a criminal offense have virtually vanished in the West.

In Muslim milieus the perspective is different, and the question of whether there should be freedom to convert is alive. Muslim attitudes are still influenced by the premodern shari'a that forbade Muslims to convert from Islam. Under the interpretations of the medieval jurists, apostates were to be given an opportunity to repent and return to Islam, but if they refused, they were to be executed if they were male and imprisoned until they changed their minds if they were female. Premodern shari'a rules also provided that apostasy constituted civil death, meaning, among other things, that the apostate's marriage would be dissolved and the apostate would become incapable of inheriting. Naturally, the shari'a imposed no penalties on converts to Islam from other faiths. Given this background, when one evaluates Islamic versions of human rights with respect to religious freedom, it is particularly important to see whether the schemes contemplate the retention of the shari'a ban on apostasy.

International human rights law allows no constraints on a person's religious beliefs: Freedom of religion is an unqualified freedom. One of the most influential statements of this freedom is in Article 18 of

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