If we step into the Way Back Machine to the year 1988, we might recall the enormous uproar concerning an author named Salmon Rushdie. He became a household word because of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses
, in which the depiction of Muhammad so enraged the Muslim world that a fatwa
(religious edict) was issued the following year by Ayatollah Khomeini. Accusing Rushdie of blasphemy on Teheran Radio, Iran’s spiritual leader publicly offered a bounty for the death of the author.
While it grabbed headlines and some mild attention (and sent the writer into hiding for more than a decade) it was more of a distant curiosity to Westerners at the time, living as they were in what we now call the “9-10” world. After the attack on the Twin Towers in New York, we would dust off these disparate memories and expand our Islamic vocabulary to include jihad
, Sunni, Shi’a
and a host of other formerly unknown words. But was the attack itself an anomaly or part of a larger threat that we must take seriously?
we looked at the case of Rifqa Bary, a teenager who has fled her family after their violent reaction to her conversion to Christianity. This follows on the heels of a rash of honor killings in the West, more fatwas
and a host of legal disputes in which the status of Islamic observance in non-Muslim countries is drawing attention to the question: What is it about Islam that makes them treat people this way?
First of all, we must recognize that while Islam holds sacred the Qur’an
— its one holy book — the interpretation of that book varies widely. It would not be out of line to compare it to the Protestant world, which similarly honors the Bible as the revealed Word of God.
That same book is used by Amish and Unitarians, by Baptists and Mormons with wildly varying outcomes.
Thus the first pillar of Islam, the profession of faith (Shahadah
): “there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet,” leads the Muslim faithful to the next set of writings, the hadith
(or traditions) which shed more light on the intentions of Muhammad through anecdotes about his behavior and words of his earliest followers.
Thus, various schools of thought have grown over the centuries, leading observers to discuss and debate what Islam really requires of its followers.
In order that a given society might completely reflect the will of Allah as he made himself known to Muhammad, a practical application of Islamic belief to everyday life has been constructed, which is called shari’a
. This legal framework, whose name means “path to the water source” regulates all elements of public and private life and names a host of capital crimes, which include insulting the prophet or leaving Islam. Both blasphemy and apostasy are punishable by death — and if we’ve learned anything about Muslims since 2001, we’ve seen that fervent believers take their responsibility towards Allah very seriously.
How are we affected by the ways that Muslims interpret their scriptures as long as we don’t live under shari’a
itself? To begin with, we must understand that while not all Muslims accept the same strict interpretation of the Qur’an
, those who do will fight to the death for its tenets to be honored. That means that when we hear of death threats and charges of blasphemy we cannot dismiss them as unfounded. Rifqa Bary has been dumbfounded by the response in the media and the courts to her fears for her life. To understand the legal demands of Islam concerning her conversion to Christianity is to realize she isn’t simply acting paranoid.
David Rusin writes in Islamist Watch
All major schools of Islamic jurisprudence stipulate that a sane adult male must be put to death for abandoning Islam, though varying interpretations persist on whether females should be killed or merely imprisoned. Many Islamic states outlaw apostasy and seven list it as a capital offense. However, freelancers such as angry relatives present the greatest danger to ex-Muslims, as Sunni
scholars largely agree that Shari’a
empowers individuals to punish converts. This tradition has followed Muslims to the Western world.
So the question isn’t whether she can leave Islam behind. The only debate is whether to kill or imprison her -– and an alternative to the latter is to bundle her off to her native Sri Lanka and marry her to a man who will then own her.
But there’s one more element –- the protests of her family, their lawyers, the Islamic representatives who are standing before the cameras and insisting that this is all an enormous misunderstanding. This is sanctioned by the faith as well. The Qur’an
allows its followers to mislead and lie as long as the ultimate goal is to promote the faith, saying, “any one who, after accepting faith in Allah, utters Unbelief — except under compulsion, his heart remaining firm in Faith — but such as open their breast to Unbelief, on them is Wrath from Allah, and theirs will be a dreadful Penalty” (16:106). This is universally understood to mean that when there would be consequences to telling the truth, one is required to lie and it will not be held against him.
Duplicity of this sort has been widely used to lure “blasphemers” or “apostates” back to their families, who promise to receive them calmly –- only to be ambushed shortly after arrival. Thus, Rifqa’s wariness over her father’s promises of tolerance and peace must be understood in context of a faith and culture that prize conformity to the will of Allah over family bonds, over the truth and over life itself. As she noted tearfully,
You guys don’t understand. Islam is very different than you guys think. They have to kill me. My blood is now halal
, which means that because I am now a Christian, I’m from a Muslim background, it’s an honor. If they love God more than me, they have to do this.
We pray for those who have converted to Christianity and are now in hiding, for those suffering persecution around the world and for those called to martyrdom for love of Christ. The ultimate sacrifice has been demanded often throughout history, but it’s hard to watch it unfold here where so many come to escape persecution. Last week’s hearing has allowed her to remain in Florida until the end of the month. After that, her fate is known to God alone.
That edict was publicly reconfirmed in 2005 by Ayatollah Khamenai, and the Iranian state reminds Rushdie yearly of his status.
What differentiates Catholics is the authority given to the Magisterium to interpret the Scriptures, which are combined with Sacred Tradition for our understanding of the will of God.
One might also refer to the mishna
, the codification of Jewish oral traditions, which augments the Torah with the wisdom of the sages over the centuries.
This is significantly different from the Catholic understanding of “mental reservation,” which is strictly defined and usually related to avoiding death or injury.
[originally published 9.10.09]