Apostasy in Sudan

Islam and Apostasy


The sad case of Meriam Yehya Ibrahim Ishag in Sudan has once again raised the vexed issue of conversion and apostasy within Islam.  The news that she has given birth to a baby girl in jail coincides with a lecture by Tim Green tomorrow (May 29th) at the Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies on the subject of Issues Faced by Converts to Christianity in Pakistan.

Meriam was apparently born to a Muslim father but in his absence raised as an Orthodox Christian by her mother.  After she married a Christian man she was arrested and charged with ridda (apostasy) and also with zinā (adultery) as her marriage is considered invalid under Sudan’s interpretation of shari‘a.  The latter charge carries a penalty of 100 lashes reportedly to be administered when she recovers from giving birth.  The former charge could result in her execution in two years time after she has weaned her child.

The episode raises many questions about identity, who should be considered a Muslim and inter-religious marriage.  However, it raises the greatest concerns about the treatment of apostates.  Sudan follows the hanafi school of shari‘a although in fact “punishment by death in the case of apostacy (sic) has been unanimously agreed on by all the four schools of (Sunni) Islamic jurisprudence” (Abdur Rahman Doi, Shari‘ah: The Islamic Law, 266).  For instance, one online hanafi fiqh (jurisprudence) website says, “The repentance of an apostate whether male or female is necessary according to the majority of scholars and is recommended according to the Hanafis. One is to be asked to repent three times before being killed”.  And a Saudi-linked hanbali website says, “If the punishment for murder and espionage (also known as high treason) is death, then what should be the punishment for the one who disbelieves in the Lord of mankind and despises and rejects His religion? Is espionage or shedding blood worse than leaving the religion of the Lord of mankind and rejecting it?”

Despite all these injunctions in reality many Muslims choose to stress freedom of thought and conscience and indeed will be extremely upset

That said many Muslims today do not agree with such rulings in the law schools and the death penalty for ridda – which is not mentioned in the Qur’an – is a controversial topic.  Some have different rulings for men and women.  Some distinguish between conversion and treason, or minor (low-key) and major (high-profile) apostasy (e.g. Yusuf Qaradawi).  Others point out that the punishment in the Qur’an is left to the hereafter (Surah al-Nisā (the Women) 4:137-8, Surah al-Naḥl (the Bees)16:106), whilst it is the Hadith that mandate execution (e.g. Sahih al-Bukhari Volume 9, Book 84, Number 57: Narrated ‘Ikrima: Some Zanadiqa (atheists) were brought to ‘Ali and he burnt them. The news of this event, reached Ibn ‘Abbas who said, “If I had been in his place, I would not have burnt them, as Allah’s Apostle forbade it, saying, ‘Do not punish anybody with Allah’s punishment (fire).’ I would have killed them according to the statement of Allah’s Apostle, ‘Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him.'”).  Despite all these injunctions in reality many Muslims choose to stress freedom of thought and conscience and indeed will be extremely upset and saddened by Meriam’s story believing it to misrepresent their faith (see for instance Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra’s joint statement on this story for the Christian-Muslim Forum).

Sadly it is not only in Sudan that those choosing to leave Islam face such dangers.  In Pakistan also converts from Islam face many challenges which Tim Green will be addressing tomorrow.  He will look at some of the social science research on identity and conversion to help both Muslims and Christians grapple with this difficult topic.  In the meantime we must not forget Meriam nursing her newborn baby in a Sudanese prison.


Dr Richard McCallum, Fellow, Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies

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