CROISSANTS & CRESCENTS:
The myth of forced Islamic conversions
- M J Akbar 25 May 2008
An insidious debate has been initiated in the United States as conservatives watch, with obvious horror, the ascent of Barack Obama. Their campaign to label him a closet Muslim failed. Could he, however, be rebranded as the world's most powerful, and hence vulnerable, apostate — a few notches ahead of Salman Rushdie? Edward Luttwak, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote recently: "In Islam...there is no such thing as a half-Muslim...As the son of a Muslim father, Obama was born a Muslim under Muslim law as it is universally understood. It makes no difference that, as Obama has written, his father said he renounced his religion...(Obama) chose to become a Christian...His conversion, however, was a crime in Muslim eyes; it is 'irtidad' or 'ridda' (apostasy)...the recommended punishment is beheading at the hands of a cleric."
The point is sharp; it can only be blunted by an answer.
Three weeks ago, in early May, the Shariah High Court of the northern Malaysian state of Penang ruled that Siti Fatimah Tan Abdullah, a 39-year-old Chinese cake-seller, could return to her original faith, Buddhism. She had converted in order to marry an Iranian, but argued that she had never become a true believer. The Shariah court accepted her plea and blamed her husband and the religious authorities for failing to educate Siti. "I am very happy," said Siti, "I want to go to the temple to pray and give thanks."
The only surprise is that anyone should be surprised. Contrary to the fire-and-sword image that has been constructed, forcible conversion is prohibited in Islam. Even conversion based on an inadequate understanding of the faith is unacceptable, as in the case of Siti. You cannot be a believer if you do not believe, and belief cannot be forced down your throat.
Verse 256 of the second Surah is unambiguous: La iqraha fi al-deen (Let there be no compulsion in religion). Abdullah Yusuf Ali, whose translation of the Quran is recognized across the world, explains, "Compulsion is incompatible with religion because religion is based upon faith and will, and these would be meaningless if induced by force..." A second verse of the Quran reinforces the message: La qum din a qum wal ya-din (Your religion for you and my religion for me).
It is axiomatic that no new faith can grow without conversion; only Sikhism is younger than Islam. Equally, every faith discourages the faithful from abandoning their beliefs: this is why there is a persistent demand by some Hindu leaders for a ban on conversions in our country. Verse 106 of Surah 16 promises the "Wrath of Allah" and a "dreadful penalty" upon "anyone who, after accepting faith in Allah, utters unbelief". But it is vital to note that there is no earthly punishment for apostasy in the Quran. Judgment is left to Allah, the ultimate arbiter. Another verse (2:217) sends apostates to hell, but, as the Encyclopedia of Islam confirms, "In the Quran, the apostate is threatened with punishment in the next world." In a specific case, the Prophet consoled and welcomed back a Muslim called Ammar, who had, under severe torture, uttered a word that could be construed as recantation.
There is no Quranic case, therefore, for inflicting any harm upon Obama. His father lived among Muslims even after he had renounced his faith. As a product of Yale in Kenya, his father was hardly an unknown figure. But there is no record of any fatwa ordering the beheading of Obama's father at the hands of a cleric.
So where is the problem? The problem lies among some — not all — jurists who used one narrative (known as traditions) from accounts of the Prophet's life in which it is said whoever changes his religion shall be put to death. As Rafiq Zakaria points out (Muhammad and the Quran, Penguin, 1991) this "contradicts the tenor of a mass of other traditions and, therefore, cannot be relied. It also contradicts the verses in the Quran that speak of freedom of worship".
The faith often has to be rescued from the excesses of the faithful.
The overwhelming majority of Muslims will react to a President Obama on the basis of how he manages to take his nation out of the war that George Bush launched across wide swathes of the Muslim world, founded on false assumptions and fuelled by false rhetoric. If Barack Obama finds more comfort in Christianity than Islam, he is more than welcome to his convictions: Your religion for you, President, and my religion for me.
Appeared in Times of India, 25th May 2008