I wrote in a recent blog about the need for authoritative Muslim voices to take a stand on the question of whether it is acceptable for Muslims to convert to other religions. As I noted, there are different interpretations of the Muslim sacred writings on this point, some giving emphasis to the Koranic injunction that there can be no coercion in matters of religion, others citing passages from the Hadith (accounts of the life and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) that condemn conversion as a crime.
To be compatible with international norms of human rights, it is clear that the weight of authoritative opinion within the Islamic world must move toward the Koranic injunction on noncoercion. To date, such movement has been slow and often ambiguous. And in many parts of the Muslim world, movement has been in the opposite direction.
But now comes good news out of Norway. According to an Associated Press report, the Islamic Council of Norway this week signed a joint declaration with the Church of Norway Council on Ecumenical and International Relations supporting the right to convert to another religion without fear of punishment or recrimination. Indeed, the declaration affirms this right as a fundamental religious freedom.
Big deal, skeptics may say. Just because a few Muslims in Norway do the right thing doesn't mean the House of Islam is moving toward a more humane and liberally informed approach to interpreting scriptural sources. But skeptics shouldn't have the last word. First of all, it is a bold, unequivocal statement coming from the secretary general—Shoiab M. Sutlan—of a group that speaks for many of Norway's some 72,000 Muslims. More important, it is a clear challenge to leaders of Muslim organizations throughout the western world to take equally clear and unequivocal stands. Will others follow suit in seeing Islamic Sharia not as a set of narrow prescriptions and punishments laid out with formulaic exactitude (as Wahhabis and other puritan literalists do) but as a broad moral ethos that must be interpreted by every generation of Muslims and used as a guideline for worldly constitutions and civil codes? If they see it as the latter, Muslim leaders and scholars will help restore Islam to a former greatness as a source of civilized spirituality and moral reflection. And they will also clarify that Islam is a religion thoroughly at peace with universal principles of human rights.