Earlier this year the contents of an email dealing with the Shari'a prescribed method for dealing with apostasy, authored by Harvard University's Muslim chaplain, Taha Abdul-Basser, began making the rounds.
Abdul-Basser's explanation of what is the appropriate penalty, if any, for Muslims who have left the faith is of interest given the high visibility of the Rifqa Bary case, in which a 17 year-old Christian convert has fled her family in Ohio, seeking asylum in Florida because she is fearful of being killed for her apostasy.
The chaplain's commentary is important because he seems to be the embodiment of what has become a trite phrase, a fully Westernized practitioner of "moderate Islam." It stands to reason then that his religious studies, combined with a record of having excelled in the Western academic system bestows a certain amount of gravity to his pronouncements on Islam, especially as it applies within secular societies such as ours.
Below, the text of his email in its entirety [source, http://www.campus-watch.org/article/id/7415]:
I am familiar with these types of discussions.
While I understand that will happen and that there is some benefit in them, in the main, it would be better if people were to withhold from _debating_ such things, since they tend not to have the requisite familiarity with issues and competence to deal with them.
Debating about religious matter is impermissible, in general, and people rarely observe the etiquette of disagreements.
There are a few places on the Net where one can find informed discussions of this issue (Search ["Abdul Hakim Murad"|Faraz Rabbani" AND "apostasy"]) . The preponderant position in all of the 4 sunni madhahib (and apparently others of the remaining eight according to one contemporary 'alim) is that the verdict is capital punishment.
Of concern for us is that this can only occur in the domain and under supervision of Muslim governmental authority and can not be performed by non-state, private actors._
Some contemporary thought leaders have emphasized the differing views (i.e. not capital punishment) that a few fuqaha' in the last few centuries apparently held on this issue, including reportedly the senior Ottoman religious authority during the Tanzimat period and Al-Azhar in the modern period. Still others go further and attempt to elaborate on the argument that the indicants (such as the hadith: (whoever changes his religion, execute him) used to build the traditional position apply only to treason in the political sense and therefore in the absence of a political reality in which apostasy is both forsaking the community and akin to political treasons in the modern sense, the indicants do not indicate capital punishment.
I am not aware of 'Allama Taqiy al-Din Ibn Taymiya's position on this issue but much is attributed to him by both detractors and supporters so one should be wary of accepting things attributed to him without asking experts. Perhaps you can ask Ustadh Sharif el-Tobgui or Shaykh Yasir Qadhi (I am copying both), both of whom are Ibn Taymiya specialists.
I would finally note that there is great wisdom (hikma) associated with the established and preserved position (capital punishment) and so, even if it makes some uncomfortable in the face of the hegemonic modern human rights discourse, one should not dismiss it out of hand. The formal consideration of excuses for the accused and the absence of Muslim governmental authority in our case here in the North/West is for dealing with the issue practically.
And Allah knows best.
So what is the import of the learned Abdul-Basser's take on apostasy and what impact might it have in evaluating Ms. Bary's claim?
The author asserts that in general, withholding from debating religious [we assume he is referring solely to Islam here] matters and principles is required in Islam because only religious scholars have the "requisite familiarity" with the issues and hence "the competence to deal with them."
This is fully consistent with Islamic scholars having abandoned the active process of ijtihad or religious re-interpretation, a thousand years ago. For mainstream Muslims then, the meaning of the Qur'an is what it was a millennia ago, when it was understood that a Muslim leaving his or her faith was a serious capital offense.
Explaining the harshness of such an interpretation is perhaps aided by understanding that the Islamic sacred text, the Qur'an, as opposed to the Jewish Torah or Christian Bible is looked upon by believers as consisting of the directly revealed word of God, merely transcribed by the prophet Mohammed on parchment, offering little room if any for quibbling.
With this in mind, Abdul-Basser's take on the matter of apostasy, is both refreshing and challenging at the same time; refreshing in the sense that he avoids obfuscating on a very serious issue and challenging because his acceptance - within specified parameters - of capital punishment as being the Shari'a prescribed method of dealing with apostasy is inconsistent with Western liberal political theory.
Implications for the Rifqa Bary case...
Much of the reporting on this matter has so far been hampered by many journalists' near total ignorance about Islam as well as being tainted by the multiculturalism so common in newsrooms.
Rather than diminishing the impact of the Harvard chaplain's words by the deft employment of apologetics, Abdul-Basser's email should be taken for exactly what it seem to be, an unambiguous pronouncement that the world's major religions differ markedly on theological matters.
As a result, people like Ms. Bary have every reason to believe that despite this being 21st century America, she as a Christian convert has much to fear from even a mainstream tenet of Islam, medieval in the ferocity with which it may be enforced.