The Grand Mufti on Freedom of Conscience in Islam Print
Written by Sherry   
Thursday, 27 March 2008 06:14
Swirling hardly begins to describe the internet chatter about the whole topic of Muslims converting to Christianity. One topic that is discussed alot is whether or not the Grand Mufti of Egypt did state that a Muslim can choose a religion other than Islam?

So here's some information about the man himself and the text of the original essay in its original context.

The man:

Since 2003, Dr. Ali Gomaa has served as the Grand Mufti of the Arab Republic of Egypt, a position of religious authority second only to the Sheikh al-Azhar. As an Egyptian native and one of Islam’s most respected scholars of Islamic law, Dr. Ali Gomaa oversees Dar al-Ifta, Egypt’s highest body for delivering opinions on religious law. Prior to his appointment as Grand Mufti, Dr. Gomaa served as a Professor of Jurisprudence at al-Azhar University, where he specialized in usul al-fiqh, the science of religious law. There, he published over 25 books on various topics in Islam. He has also issued a number fatwas during his tenure on topics ranging from gender equality to democracy. The Grand Mufti sets himself apart from peers by having earned his first academic agree, a B.A. in commerce, from a secular institution. In addition to regular media appearances on Egyptian television, the Grand Mufti has been especially vocal in reaching out to non-Muslim media outlets as a means of promoting Islamic institutions in the non-Muslim world. Western media outlets have heralded Gomaa’s approach to Islam as anti-extremist and aware of modern realities.

The context:

This Washington Post forum - July 21, 2007

The relevant text of the Grand Mufti's essay:

Freedom of Religion in Islam

The essential question before us is can a person who is Muslim choose a religion other than Islam? The answer is yes, they can, because the Quran says, “Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion,” [Quran, 109:6], and, “Whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve,” [Quran, 18:29], and, “There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is distinct from error,” [Quran, 2:256].

These verses from the Quran discuss a freedom that God affords all people. But from a religious perspective, the act of abandoning one’s religion is a sin punishable by God on the Day of Judgment. If the case in question is one of merely rejecting faith, then there is no worldly punishment. If, however, the crime of undermining the foundations of the society is added to the sin of apostasy, then the case must be referred to a judicial system whose role is to protect the integrity of the society. Otherwise, the matter is left until the Day of Judgment, and it is not to be dealt with in the life of this world. It is an issue of conscience, and it is between the individual and God. In the life of this world, “There is no compulsion in religion,” in the life of this world, “Unto you your religion and unto me my religion,” and in the life of this world, “He who wills believes and he who wills disbelieves,” while bearing in mind that God will punish this sin on the Day of Judgment, unless it is combined with an attempt to undermine the stability of the society, in which case it is the society that holds them to account, not Islam.

The summary:

So freedom of conscience in this lifetime (It's not illegal) and punishment in the future life (its still a sin).

The caveat: Is this conversion undermining the foundations of the society? If so, it then becomes a matter for the state.

This is very important since it reflects creeping recognition of the rights of individual conscience at some of the highest levels of Islam. Christians in the aftermath of the Reformation also wrestled with the issue of freedom of religion vs."the foundations of society" - because just like many Muslims today, earlier generations of Christians found it difficult to imagine a stable society that was not united religiously.

Of course, there is always the cultural kicker.

Three weeks after the Mufti wrote those words, the International Herald Tribune carried this story of a real life former Muslim in Egypt who was trying to change his religion on his identity card so that his unborn child could be officially raised as a Christian, marry as a Christian, etc. since in Egypt the official religion of the father automatically becomes the religion of the son. (Consider how American assumptions that healthy adults reconsider and re-choose their religious identity, if any, after they are grown - per the Pew Survey - is dramatically at odds with Egyptian practice.)

The problem is that 25 year old Mohammed Hegazy was the first MBB to attempt to change his legal identity in Egypt and a huge storm developed.

An Islamist cleric has vowed to seek Mohammed Hegazy's execution as an apostate, his family has shunned him, and Hegazy raised a storm of controversy when pictures of him posing for journalists with a poster of the Virgin Mary were published in the newspapers.

Hegazy said he received death threats by phone before he went into hiding, in an apartment bare of furniture where he lives with his wife, who is also a convert from Islam and is four months pregnant. He would not say where the apartment was located.

"I know there are fatwas (religious edicts) to shed my blood, but I will not give up and I will not leave the country," Hegazy said.

There is no law on the books in Egypt against converting from Islam to Christianity, but in this case tradition trumps the law. Under a widespread interpretation of Islamic law, converting from Islam is apostasy and is punishable by death — though killings are rare and the state has never ordered or carried out an execution.

Most Muslims who convert usually practice their new religion quietly, seeking to avoid attention, or flee the country to the West. In Egypt, at the very least they face ostracism by their families, but if their conversion becomes known they can receive death threats from militants, or harassment by police, who use laws against "insulting religion" or "disturbing public order" as a pretext to target them.

The overwhelming taboo against conversion has made even trying to get official recognition unthinkable, leaving it unknown if a court would accept it. Christians who become Muslims are able to get their new religion entered on their ID and face little trouble from officials — though they too are usually thrown out by their families.

So much more powerful than the law is entrenched culture and taboo. And interestingly, it doesn't just cut one way, While Christians who become Muslim get little flak from officials, Egyptian Christian families also tend to regard conversion as an unforgivable betrayal and throw the defiant child out.

Cultural norms that transcend law and religion?