In August 2013 the Sudanese authorities arrested Meriam Ibrahim, daughter of a Sudanese Muslim man and an Ethiopian Christian woman, after a Muslim relative informed them of her marriage to Daniel Wani, a Catholic from South Sudan and an American citizen. The authorities considered Meriam to be a Muslim because of her Muslim father, even though she had lived her whole life as a Christian. And as Islamic law forbids a Muslim woman from marrying a non-Muslim man (although it permits a Muslim man to marry a non-Muslim woman), her marriage was not a marriage at all in Sudan, where matters of personal and family law are controlled by religious courts. She was therefore guilty of zina, or fornication.
If fornication was the pretext for Meriam’s arrest, prosecutors decided to charge her as well with a still more serious crime: irtidad, or apostasy. According to Islamic law, Muslims cannot change their religion. When Maher Al-Gohari attempted to change his religious affiliation in Egypt in 2009 after he was baptized and received into the Coptic Church, his request was rejected. From the perspective of Islamic law, individuals such as Meriam or al-Gohari who are born Muslims can never legally enter into another religious community. Their rejection of Islam, however, amounts to apostasy: a crime against God and the Prophet Muhammad which is punishable by death.
With this logic Meriam Ibrahim was convicted of both fornication and apostasy. On May 15, 2014 she was sentenced to one hundred lashes for fornication, and death by hanging for apostasy. That Meriam’s Muslim father had left her Christian mother in Meriam’s infancy, and that Meriam never practiced Islam, had no legal importance in the case.
Indeed the ruling against Meriam followed from standard principles of Islamic law. It was not idiosyncratic or aberrant and it was not about strange cultural taboos in Sudan over inter-faith marriages. It was not only about politics. It may well be that the government of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan decided to use this case to win the support of conservative Muslims, or that certain religious elements within the Sudanese judicial system saw this case as a way of flexing their muscles. Nevertheless this case emerged naturally from the system of religious jurisprudence that exists in Sudan and in many other Islamic countries.
Meriam’s case thus represents an important example of conflict between Islamic jurisprudence and ideas of religious freedom which are often taken for granted in the West. In response to this case David Cameron declared: “The way she is being treated is barbaric and has no place in today’s world. Religious freedom is an absolute, fundamental human right.” He was right, of course, but his notion of religious freedom is simply not that of Islamic jurisprudence, or of many Muslims. When asked about Meriam her Muslim brother Al Samani Abdullah explained: “It’s one of two; if she repents and returns to our Islamic faith and to the embrace of our family, then we are her family and she is ours. But if she refuses she should be executed.”
The logic of Islamic jurisprudence on apostasy emerges not from the Qur’an (which suggests in several passagese.g. Q 2.217, 5.54, and 47.25that it is God’s prerogative to punish apostates). Instead it emerges from two declarations, or hadith, of Muhammad which make apostasy a crime punishable by death. In one of these he declares simply: “As for he who changes his [Islamic] religion, kill him.” These declarations shape the doctrine of the traditional Islamic schools of jurisprudence: All four Sunni schools, and the standard Shi’ite school, agree that apostates are to be executed (although more and more Muslims today disagree).
It is because of this doctrine that certain Islamic countries objected to Article 18 of the 1948 International Declaration of Human Rights, which declares (among other things) that “everyone has the right . . . to change his religion or belief.” It is because of this doctrine that Islamic countries make apostasy a crime. These include Shi’ite countries like Iranwhere a Protestant pastor named Youcef Nadarkhani was sentenced to death in 2010 (and released in 2013) because he was born a Muslimand Sunni countries like Sudan. The 1991 penal code of Sudan (article 126, 2) makes apostasy punishable by death.
What made the case of Meriam Ibrahim particularly dramatic, and tragic, is that she was the mother of a young boy named Martin, and pregnant with a young girl (to be named Maya) at the time of her arrest. Since Martin was considered to be a Muslim, he could not remain with his Christian father but rather lived in (a bug-infested) prison cell with his “Muslim” mother (seen in pictures from jail with an Islamic headscarf). Moreover, Meriam was not admitted to a hospital to give birth but rather delivered Maya in that cell while she was shackled to the floor. When she was convicted, the religious court ruled that Meriam would be allowed to live for two more years in order to nurse her daughter. When Maya was weaned Meriam was to be hanged.
International pressure (particularly from the European Union) exerted on Sudan led to Meriam’s release on June 23. As her life would certainly be threatened by religious vigilantes (or by even by her own relatives) in Sudan, she and her husband and children immediately sought to leave the country. They were not allowed to depart for reasons which are still unclear. In light of the involvement of diplomatic forces in the case it seems likely that she will eventually be allowed to leave, but it is still possible that some new legal action will be brought against her.
The international community has celebrated Meriam’s release and rightly so, but there are also important lessons to be learned from her case. First, it should not be missed that Meriam’s lawyers were primarily Muslims, and that more and more Muslims today are speaking out against the traditional doctrine of apostasy. Second, the problem of apostasy will not go away with Meriam’s liberation. Christians of a Muslim backgroundwhether in Sudan or in other Islamic countrieswill continue to have their lives threatened either by the state or by vigilantes. Three, the Church has a responsibility to speak out with greater audacity on their behalf (including those who are not as famous as Meriam Ibrahim), no matter what Islamic law says about them. The Church has a responsibility to protect all of her children.
We all can learn from the example of Meriam Ibrahim. After her conviction in May, Meriam was given three days to embrace Islam and save her life. This would have been an easy choice to make, but Meriam refused, declaring: “I am a Christian and I will remain a Christian.” Those who wonder whether heroicand saintlycourage still exists can look to her.
Gabriel Said Reynolds is a professor of Islamic studies and theology at the University of Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter: @theologyGSR.