Does Islam say that believers who abandon the faith should be punished, even executed? The answer depends, of course, on whose interpretation of Islam you consult. Conservative literalists in many parts of the world choose texts from the Koran and the Hadith (accounts of the life and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) to support the view that apostasy is to be punished severely. Reformists seeking a more enlightened reading emphasize texts that say there can be no coercion in matters of religion. Does either side have more authority or influence in the Islamic world?
The answer, if one is ever forthcoming, will go a long way in determining whether Islam is compatible with the regime of universal human rights set forth in important international charters and agreements. But recent and not-so-recent cases have been neither conclusive nor encouraging. Consider last year's famous Abdul Rahman case, which could have resulted in the Christian convert's execution. Instead, it ended up with Afghanistan's Supreme Court dismissing the charges, supposedly because of problems with the evidence—good news for Rahman, who moved to Italy, but a nonresolution for a country that was coming to terms with the role of Islamic principles (and their interpretation) in its new Constitution. And only last May, Malaysia's Lina Joy lost her six-year struggle to be registered as a non-Muslim when the highest civil court ruled that matters of apostasy were to be decided by Malaysia's courts of religious sharia law.
Such courts uniformly reject all efforts to leave Islam and impose punishments, including prison time, on those who try. How such rulings square with the commitments to human rights that all members of the United Nations are supposed to support is, to put it mildly, far from clear.
But on July 21, a ray of hope came shining out of Cairo. Ali Gomaa, Egypt's Grand Mufti and one of Islam's leading scholars, declared in a posting in Newsweek that Muslims could leave the faith for another religion and that there was no "worldly punishment" for doing so. This was an astonishingly straightforward statement and, coming from such an authority, gave hope to Muslim reformists everywhere.
Only three days later, though, Gomaa issued a clarification that to many seemed a reversal, or at least a bewildering obfuscation of his original declaration. He reportedly now said that apostasy was a crime that called for punishment. But according to blogger and commentator Ali Eteraz, the mufti was misquoted. In a valuable parsing of the original opinion, Eteraz shows that it was more nuanced than people at first took it to be. What Gomaa did say, emphatically and clearly, is that there could be no death penalty for apostasy. But he also said that state courts could impose punishments on people who take their apostasy public and thereby threaten the foundations of society.
If this opinion leaves wide open the question of what qualifies as ostentatious apostasy—two or three other people knowing about it?—at least it says that executing anybody for leaving the faith is out of the question. And that must be counted as a step in the right direction.