Recently, the saga of Meriam Ibrahim, the Sudanese woman who was imprisoned for “converting from Islam”, has come to a happy conclusion. Her story, however, brings up an obvious contradiction within Islam regarding forcing people to convert.

Meriam’s father was Muslim and mother Orthodox Christian. Her father abandoned the family when Meriam was very young and she was raised in her mother’s faith, having never practiced Islam. In 2011, Meriam converted to Catholicism and married an American citizen who is Catholic.   A year or so later, they had their first child, a boy, named Martin. In the meantime, Meriam’s Muslim half brother instigated charges against Meriam that she had been committing “adultery” by marrying a non-Muslim man.

In Islam, it is forbidden for a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man, but not a Muslim man to marry a non-Muslim woman. The reason for this is that the religion of the father becomes automatically the religion of the children (whether they consent to it or not.) Thus, under Sharia Law she was considered a Muslim and to be committing adultery with her Christian husband because of their “different” faiths.

Thus, in January of 2014, Meriam, then several months pregnant, was imprisoned with her year old son, Martin, her legs shackled to the floor of her cell. The pleas of her wheelchair-bound husband were ignored by the courts and US Embassy.

In May 2014, Meriam was sentenced to death and 100 lashes for “committing apostasy from Islam” and given three days time to repent and “return to the Islamic faith”. She was denied needed medical care despite a difficult pregnancy and obvious swelling of her feet and ankles from the shackles. Martin was constantly getting sick due to the lack of hygiene and bugs in the cell.

During this time, imams from the Muslim Scholars Association came to her cell and pressured her for days to convert to Islam by reciting verses from the Quran. Meriam relied on her faith in God to get her through this difficult time. Her daughter, Maya, was born just days after this experience. Meriam had been promised hospital care, but was now denied this and had her daughter on the floor of her prison cell with chains around her ankles.

When word of her plight reached the press, the International Community brought pressure to bear on the Sudanese government, and an appeals court overturned the death sentence and ordered her released on June 23rd. The next day, her half-brother tipped off the government that she and her family were about to board a plane for the U.S., and the Sudanese National Security Force, known as the “Agents of Fear” trapped her family at the airport. Meriam and her family were violently handled and their lawyers beaten and thrown out.

The Sudanese Foreign Ministry summoned the US Ambassador, describing his granting of an exit visa as a “criminal violation”. The American citizenship of the husband, combined with political and international pressure were enough for the Sudanese government to reverse course. Meriam and her family were released the next day and took refuge in the U.S. embassy. After a month of intense negotiations, she and her family were allowed to fly to Rome in an Italian plane where they met with Pope Francis and then on to the United States.

Why did these things happen to Meriam? Was it simply the product of a corrupt government attempting to appease extremists? Or was it a product of true Islam?

Islam defines an apostate as anyone who insults Allah, the angels, the religion, has voluntarily apostatized from Islam either openly or by mocking, ridicule, or belittlement. [i]

The punishment for apostasy is rooted in the Quran and Hadiths.

The Quran itself in the few verses that address apostasy does not clearly assert a punishment, but rather seems to promise punishment in the afterlife for anyone who leaves the Muslim faith. As an example:

“He who disbelieves in Allah after his having believed…he who opens (his) breast to disbelief – on these is the wrath of Allah, and they shall have a grievous chastisement.”[ii]

However, it is in the Hadiths, the “reports about Muhammad’s life” passed down orally until the eighth century, where a Muslim learns what it is that Muhammad actually did and what it is one should do if they want to be an exemplary Muslim, that we get clear guidance on the matter:

“Allah’s Apostle said, ‘The blood of a Muslim who confesses that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that I am His Apostle, cannot be shed except in three cases: In Qisas for murder, a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse and the one who reverts from Islam (apostate) and leaves the Muslims.’”[iii]

“Ali burnt some people and this news reached Ibn ‘Abbas, who said, ‘Had I been in his place I would not have burnt them, as the Prophet said, ‘Don’t punish (anybody) with Allah’s Punishment.’ No doubt, I would have killed them, for the Prophet said, ‘If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him.’”[iv]

“A man embraced Islam and then reverted back to Judaism. Mu’adh bin Jabal came and saw the man with Abu Musa. Mu’adh asked, “What is wrong with this (man)?” Abu Musa replied, “He embraced Islam and then reverted back to Judaism.” Mu’adh said, “I will not sit down unless you kill him (as it is) the verdict of Allah and His Apostle.”[v]

The hadiths are very clear and the Sudanese government was acting in accord with Islamic Sharia law when it condemned Meriam to death. Her case is not abnormal as the majority of Muslim nations have laws on the books punishing those who leave Islam with death, imprisonment, caning, “rehabilitation”, forced marital annulment and removal of children and personal belongings as well as stripping of any rights to inheritance.[vi]

Within Islam, there is no real separation of Church and State. Morality, politics, and religion are all intermingled to varying degrees, and thus an offense against Allah is an offense punishable by the state. Moreover, it is not simply the governments of these Islamic nations, the belief that apostasy is punishable by death. Rather, this view is shared by many Muslims around the world. A Pew poll released in 2012 showed that 86% of Egypt’s population favored that view, followed by Jordan at 82%, Afghanistan at 79%, Pakistan at 76%, Palestinian Territories at 66%, and on down the line. Middle Eastern and South Asia Muslim countries generally favored the view while Muslims in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and Europe generally did not.[vii]

With such clarity from the Hadiths and the general Muslim population, the surprise of this case is not that Meriam was condemned to death, but rather why we in the West were surprised by it.

[i] See Islamic Fatwa Council of Jerusalem, February 10, 2009

[ii] 16:106

[iii] Sahih al-Bukhari, 9:83:17

[iv] Sahih al-Bukhari, 4:52:260

[v] Sahih al-Bukhari, 9:89:271

[vi]http://www.loc.gov/law/help/apostasy/apostasy.pdf

[vii] www.pewforum.org/2013/04/30/the-worlds-muslims-religion-politics-society-beliefs-about-sharia/ accessed 9-20-2014

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