BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 01:02 GMT, Monday, 21 April 2008 02:02 UK

When Muslims become Christians

Church and mosque in Jerusalem

There's a widespread belief that the penalty for leaving Islam is death - hence, perhaps, the killing of a British teacher last week. But Shiraz Maher believes attitudes may be softening.

Hakan (not his real name) was disowned by his parents when he converted from Islam to Christianity.

"They said 'go away, you're not our son.' They told people I died in an accident rather than having the shame of their son leaving Islam."

Shiraz Maher
Shiraz Maher (right) presents Could I Stop Being a Muslim? on Radio 4 on 22 April at 2000 BST, repeated 27 April at 1700 BST.
Or listen to it on the BBC iPlayer

Born and raised in Turkey, he decided to convert to Christianity after moving to university. He knew telling his parents would be a difficult moment even though they're not particularly observant Muslims, and he planned to break the news to them gently.

In the end, events overtook him. Before heading back to Turkey for the holidays, Hakan briefly visited a Christian summer camp where he was filmed eating a bowl of spaghetti.

The first his parents heard of his conversion was when they saw Hakan on the national news being described as "an evil missionary" intent on "brainwashing" Turkish children.

His parents decided they would rather tell people that he was dead than acknowledge he was a Christian. And Hakan, who now lives in the UK, is not alone in this experience.

Sophia, which is not her real name, faced similar pressures when she decided to become a Christian.

Coming from a Pakistani background but living in east London, 28-year-old Sophia spoke about the extreme cultural pressures her family put her under.

Hashem Aghajari
Hashem Aghajari, a history professor in Tehran (pictured), was sentenced to death for apostasy in Nov 2002
He had said Muslims should not follow clerics "like monkeys"
The sentence sparked off a month of student protests and was quashed by Iran's Supreme Court
Abdul Rahman began a new life in Italy after his trial for apostasy in Kabul collapsed

"They kept saying: 'The punishment is death, do you know the punishment is death?'"

In the end, Sophia ran away from home. Her mother tracked her down and turned up at her baptism.

"I got up to get baptised, that's when my mother got up, ran to the front and tried to pull me out of the water.

"My brother was really angry. He reacted and phoned me on my mobile and just said: 'I'm coming down to burn that church.'"

For Sophia and Hakan, a lot of the prejudice they faced seemed to be borne out of cultural ideas, which are particularly ingrained in the South Asian community relating to notions of family honour.

Student demos in Iran
Aghajari's death sentence sparked protests and a review

But it's too easy to say this is just a cultural problem. Dig a little deeper and you find that there is a theological argument which advocates the death penalty for apostates, which has serious implications for British society.

Last week, British teacher Daud Hassan Ali, 64, was shot dead in Somalia. His widow, Margaret Ali, said her husband was targeted by Islamists who "believe it is ok to kill any man who was born into Islam and left the faith".

Those renouncing their faith for atheism or agnosticism are viewed in a similar way to those who adopt another faith.

A poll conducted by the Policy Exchange last year suggested that over a third of young British Muslims believe that the death penalty should apply for apostasy.

Until recently, I would have shared that view, but since personally rejecting extremism myself, I've been re-examining the issues which I once regarded as conclusive.


I was staggered to learn that the Quran does not say anything about punishing apostates and that its proponents use two hadiths instead to support their view. Hadiths are the recorded traditions and sayings of the Prophet which, in addition to the Quran, provide an additional source of Islamic law.

The hadiths which relate to apostasy are linguistically ambiguous and open to interpretation. Distinguished scholars told me that the hadiths actually speak about a death penalty for treason, not apostasy. And even then, they stressed the punishment is discretionary.

I believe the classical law of apostasy in Islam is wrong and based on a misunderstanding
Usama Hassan
Scientist and imam

Dr Hisham Hellyer is a Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies at University of Oxford, and has researched classical Islamic law.

He believes the death penalty punishment is no longer applicable and should be suspended under certain circumstances.

Usama Hassan, a Cambridge-educated scientist and an imam, goes further and says the classical scholars were wrong in how they interpreted the Quran. He is unequivocal in denouncing those who advocate the death penalty.

"I believe the classical law of apostasy in Islam is wrong and based on a misunderstanding of the original sources, because the Quran and Hadith don't actually talk about a death penalty for apostasy."

Last year Egypt's Grand Mufti, Ali Gomaa, unequivocally told the Washington Post that the death penalty for apostasy simply no longer applies. It provoked a flurry of debate in Egypt and the wider Middle East.


The idea of killing apostates has become a resurgent theme in recent years, a fact closely-related to the increasing politicisation of Islam since 9/11.

It epitomises the "us and them" mentality felt by many Muslims between themselves and the West. And there's an uncomfortable conclusion to all this.

Muslim attitudes towards apostasy are a metaphor for the wider struggle taking place within Islam
Shiraz Maher

If there is a death penalty for treason, then who defines what treason is?

Earlier this year a group of men from Birmingham pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to kidnap and behead a British Muslim solider because they regarded him as a traitor. Joining the British army was to them treason against Islam.

So while the debate surrounding one aspect of apostasy continues, it is simultaneously throwing up an entirely new series of challenges around other issues including what should be considered treason against Islam.

We talked to researcher Ziya Meral about experiences of apostates, as he was just finishing a report called No Place to Call Home. He had interviewed 28 apostates in six different countries as part of a year-long research project.

His report found that although the death penalty is rarely applied through the courts, apostates still face gross and wide-ranging human rights abuses at the hands of the state, radical groups and local communities."

It seems that Muslim attitudes towards apostasy are a metaphor for the wider struggle taking place within Islam, between those who argue for a progressive form of Islam and those who argue for more dogmatic interpretations.

Attitudes to apostasy may be a useful barometer for judging where it's headed.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I have a friend at church who came to the UK from the Sudan because he was threatened with being stoned to death following his conversion from Islam to Christianity. Even though some areas of the Islamic world may be moving away from the death penalty for apostasy, it still remains in force in some countries.
Sophie, UK

I was also born into Islam but have since become a Christian. My family never passed any such penalty on me or any of my siblings who had converted. We are still very much part of the family and never taken as outcast, which leads to believe that the penalty is more a Middle East cultural believe than Islamic law. I am from Nigeria and in fact from a very strong Islamic community, rather than pass any sure 'Death penalty' they are looking for ways to lure us back to Islam which is definitely not possible again.
OD Balogun, Grays

I really feel for the Muslim community who by and large are decent, ordinary people. They suffer so badly when things like this come up in the media. Unfortunately, individuals are going to read into any religious text exactly what they want to and give everyone a bad name it doesn't matter what religion it is. The saying is "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely", when one person is given the power to speak for their God there is always going to be misinterpretation and megalomania.
Tori Law, Thurso, Scotland

The freedom of religious worship should be absolute, and any faith that still refers to a death sentence on those who convert away has no place in modern society. The Islamic faith is in the same position as the Christian faith was in the 1500s, namely in need of reformation and modernisation.
Ian Taylor, Lincoln, UK

A true Muslim would never ever change his/her religion. A Muslim who understands the true values of Islam would never disgrace it by converting. Islam is a religion of peace and harmony. It forbids its followers to even hurt an animal so the excessive propaganda against Islam needs to end now. The Holy Prophet S.A.W said; "Be kind to those who are on earth and He in the heavens will be kind to you"

My point is anyone abandoning Islam is destroying his life hereafter [life after death] and is his/her own enemy.
Lubna, Pakistan

The thing that puzzles most of non-Muslims about this article will be how insecure they are in their own religion. Why are they so scared of other religions? Basically they should grow up and learn to live in the real world and not the Stone Age.
Laurence, Edinburgh

If you have read the Quran then maybe you would know different, if you haven't then you do not see the dire consequences in changing your religion.
Waseem, England

The "over one-third" of British Muslims who believe converts should be put to death are potentially guilty of inciting religious hatred. Will the police investigate? When are they going to be arrested?
James Rigby, Wickford, Essex

Your e-mail address
Town/city and country
Your comment

The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.

Print Sponsor

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific