I don’t understand why Abdul Rahman, the man held in Afghanistan for converting to Christianity, is facing the death penalty.
First of all, his prosecution violates the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Afghanistan is a signatory. Some nations may be able to flout such international commitments with impunity, but Afghanistan, heavily dependent on foreign help, is not one of them.
Second, it violates the golden rule, which is to say, it is objectively immoral. Islam, along with all other religions, endorses this as the essence of morality: Do unto others as you would have them do to you. Islam is itself active in seeking converts, from Christianity as much as any other religion. It must therefore accord Christians the same right. This is no minor concern, as Islam is preeminently an ethical religion.
Third, it violates the Afghan constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion. So whether there is a statute prohibiting conversion does not matter; it is itself illegal under Afghan law.
Fourth, it violates the Qur’an. The Qur’an apparently says nothing about punishment for apostasy. Instead, it states in at least four separate passages that conscience is free, that, in its own words, “there is no compulsion in religion.”
‘If it had been the will of your Lord that all the people of the world should be believers, all the people of the earth would have believed! Would you then compel mankind against their will to believe?’ (10:99)
‘(O Prophet) proclaim: 'This is the Truth from your Lord. Now let him who will, believe in it, and him who will, deny it.'’ (18:29)
‘If they turn away from thee (O Muhammad) they should know that We have not sent you to be their keeper. Your only duty is to convey My message.’ (42:48)
‘Let there be no compulsion in religion.’ (2:256)
(Credit here to the Council on American-Islamic Relations for pointing out these passages).
Sharia, traditional Islamic law, prohibits conversion away from Islam, true. But the legal authorities apparently base this on hadith, not the Qur’an. Unlike the Qur’an, hadith are not completely reliable; they are merely accounts of what Muhammed did and said in his lifetime, based on the claimed authority of specific witnesses and scholars. They are not divinely inspired; they are historical documents and, like any historical documents, can be wrong.
This being so, traditionally, hadith are to be relied upon only in matters on which the Qur’an is silent. In this case, the Qur’an is not silent, and the hadith seem to contradict it. Therefore it seems to me at least that Islam properly demands the Qur’an, not the hadith, be followed.
In any case, it seems to me the hadith are ambiguous. They have Muhammed calling for execution of those who have renounced Islam, true, but it needs to be remembered that, in Muhammed’s time, “Islam” had a political as well as a religious significance. “Renouncing Islam” in this context also involved the civil matter of rejecting Muhammed’s authority as ruler. It may well be this, not the change in religious faith, that called for such punishment. If a lesser chief, having once accepted Muhammed’s rule, then renounced it, he would have been guilty of civil rebellion, if not treason.
In the case of an individual Muslim today changing his religion to Christianity, civil rebellion or treason has nothing to do with it.
Accordingly, Islam itself seems to require Abdul Rahman’s release.
Cynics might fear that, if Muslims were allowed to convert, Islam would suffer decline. But to believe this, surely, one must believe that Islam does not have God’s backing; for otherwise God himself would surely protect it. Given an even playing field, he would surely make the truth apparent to those with a sincere heart.
Now let’s consider what is likely to happen if the Afghan and Muslim authorities insist on pressing these charges. Suppose it is the position of Islam, enforced by Muslim governments, that conversion to Christianity is punishable by death. Then, both legally and morally, Western nations would be obliged by their own laws to accept any Muslim who converts as a legitimate refugee facing persecution if he remains in a Muslim country. In practical terms, that means any Muslim renouncing Islam gets a free ticket to permanent residency in Western Europe, North America, or Australia.
That, surely, would be a bigger temptation to the faithful of Islam in poor countries like Afghanistan than any current missionary activity.
So, even in purely pragmatic terms, holding Abdul Rahman is madness.