Debate over treatment of Christians has deep roots

Saturday, January 26, 2002

Should converts from Islam to Christianity be threatened with execution? Should Christians be barred from sharing their beliefs with Muslims? Should Christians be permitted to maintain churches, schools and charities on their own terms?

Such questions are matters of serious discussion in parts of the Muslim world.

Although Muslim policies affect various religions, the Christians' situation is distinct because of their vocal complaints of spiritual suffocation, and because the Quran gives them a more favorable status than other faiths.

The theological debates pit strictly conservative and militant Muslims -- citing tight restrictions from Islam's early centuries as precedents -- against reformers who think the limits on non-Muslim faiths applied only to specific situations.

"The problem is, the sources exist, and the schools of theology exist, so whenever there is a militant or fundamentalist understanding they can reach into the sources" to defend their position, explains Abdullahi An-Na'im of Emory University's law school, a Muslim scholar advocating religious freedom.

"You can argue for either position" from the Quran, the traditions and contemporary writers, says the Rev. J. Dudley Woodberry of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.

Seeing both sides

He saw the debate close up. As a missionary, he led the only Protestant churches that won permission to operate openly in Afghanistan and in Saudi Arabia, only to watch both nations outlaw them.

The Quran declares: "Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from error" (2:256).

But militants often say such pro-tolerance verses were abrogated by later revelations in the Quran, or that their position is supported by the Hadith (authoritative traditions from the life of the Prophet Muhammad) and classical law.

Early Islam generally allowed Christians to maintain their own practices, on condition that they acquiesced to Muslim rule and paid extra taxes as a tribute.

Militants cite a treaty between the revered early caliph Omar and conquered peoples in Syria and Palestine "as a blueprint for how Christians are to be treated," An-Na'im says.

According to tradition, the pact prohibited the building of new churches and other Christian buildings, repair of older buildings, conversions and any public expression of Christianity. Violators were guilty of sedition.

Also, Islam has always regarded abandoning the faith as unthinkable. Christianity, its most ardently evangelistic competitor, has set up continual conflicts on this point.

In one Hadith report, Muhammad prescribed execution for murderers, adulterers and the person who "reverts from Islam and leaves the Muslims" (Sahih Bukhari collection, IX, 83, 17). Later law gave apostates three days to repent or be executed, notes Khaled Abou El Fadl, a Muslim reformer who teaches law at UCLA.

Execution has rarely been applied in practice, says Yale University's Lamin Sanneh, who converted to Roman Catholicism in heavily Muslim Gambia. But unlike the West, he explains, the Muslim world knows no separation between the religious and civic realms, so "converts from Islam to Christianity are viewed as socially rebellious and deserving of public action."

Still, the Muslim Web site says that Muhammad's death order was "temporary law." The Quran never orders punishment for converts and leaves judgment to God in the afterlife, it says.

Complicating the debate over the place of other faiths relative to Islam is an argument among Muslims over what constitutes religious law.

Abou El Fadl follows Islam's flexible Usuli school, which says only a tenet in multiple collections of Hadith is mandatory. That eliminates the execution saying.

The opposing Ahl al-Hadith school obeys a tenet from a single source. The stricter view is part of the puritanical Wahhabi movement that, to his dismay, is gaining worldwide sway under Saudi Arabia's sponsorship and shaped Osama bin Laden.

Regardless, Muslims should set aside classical dictums that are "inconsistent with the message of the Quran," which is tolerance, Abou El Fadl believes.

He further insists that "justice demands reciprocity." Since Christianized lands let Muslims freely practice their faith, he argues, it's unethical for Muslims to restrict minority Christians when they hold power.

As An-Na'im reads history, attempts to impose strict Muslim law have been failures that proved "drastically catastrophic for Muslims. They always led to famines, severe hardship and civil war."

Today, religious repression that results from strict Islamic law is not only "morally indefensible," he contends, but "politically untenable."

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