Sudan: A misconception of apostasy

Sudan’s recent apostasy death sentence is a manifestation of the wrongful use of religion in politics.

A Sudan court sentenced Mariam Yahia Ibrahim to death for apostasy [EPA]

Apostasy – a term one would normally associate with times past – has recently seen a surge in its use and application.

Sudan has had its fair share of controversies over the past years from “trousergate” to the “blasphemous teddy bear“, but the latest case has upped the ante. A Sudanese court found Mariam Yahia Ibrahim, a pregnant Christian mother, guilty of apostasy and adultery and sentenced her to lashings and death, unless she renounces Christianity and reverts back to Islam.

Mariam was born to a Christian Orthodox mother and a Muslim father, who abandoned the family when she was six years old, whereon Mariam was brought up by her mother as a Christian. Three years ago she married a fellow Christian man. They have an 18-months-old son together, but their marriage has been deemed illegal under Sudanese law. The eight-months-pregnant medical doctor was sentenced last week in a Khartoum court to 100 lashings for committing adultery and death by hanging for marrying a non-Muslim, but was given a four-day grace period in which to recant her faith, repent and potentially be saved from death. That grace period ended and Mariam refused to repent.

The outcry over the case has naturally been ferocious, with both local and international rights groups and movements, governments and the media condemning the sentence and calling for the immediate release of Mariam. Amnesty International stated that Mariam is a “prisoner of conscience” and that “Adultery and apostasy are acts which should not be considered crimes at all. It is flagrant breach of international human rights law.” The Sudanese youth movement Sudan Change Now issued a statement denouncing the case as a violation of her human and civil rights, an invasion of her privacy and reflects the ruling regime’s continuing “crimes of social discrimination against women, social groups, and [the] religious sects to which Mariam belongs.”

Sudan woman gets death sentence for apostasy

Governments like that of Omar al-Bashir’s love to use religion to legitimise their authority and call themselves and believe to be Islamists. It appears that whatever directive is taken, be it legal, social or military, it uses religion as the underlying justification and legitimisation for it. But as with all like-minded, undemocratic governments, such rulings are based on twisted truths and the bending of religious teachings to suit political needs.

In his “Islam, Saudi and apostasy” article, Mohamed Ghilan notes that it’s a “commonly held belief that Islamic law dictates the death penalty as an absolute punishment for apostasy.” He points out that this perception restricts the role of the Prophet to that of a religious figure issuing decrees. Furthermore, the Hadith that this belief is based on is sahih (“authentic”) but it seemingly contradicts verses in the Quran guaranteeing freedom of belief. Other similar verses in the Quran state that the Prophet Mohamed should “remind” people of religion, not force them into it: “Therefore, you remind (them), for you are only a reminder; you are not a watcher over them (88:21-22).”

At the heart of Mariam’s case is an important issue: Can any entity, whether a state, a religious institution or a social group, dictate what an individual should or should not believe in? Religion is a highly private matter and it should stay such. Regardless of the fact that Mariam’s father is Muslim (Sudanese law states that children must follow their father’s religion), she herself identifies as a Chrisian woman and it is her decision to make. When asked by the presiding judge why she was insistent on abandoning Islam and embracing Christianity, Mariam replied: “I am Christian and I never committed apostasy.”

Article 126 of Sudan’s Criminal Code states that “(1) Whoever propagates the renunciation of Islam or publicly renounces it by explicit words or an act of definitive indication is said to commit the offence of Riddah (apostasy).” Yet, Article 38 of the Freedom of Creed and Worship in Sudan’s Bill of Rights overrides it: “Every person shall have the right to the freedom of religious creed and worship, and to declare his/her religion or creed and manifest the same, by way of worship, education, practice or performance of rites or ceremonies, subject to requirements of law and public order; no person shall be coerced to adopt such faith, that he/she does not believe in, nor to practice rites or services to which he/she does not voluntarily consent.”

So besides the fact that Sudan’s constitution “protects” one’s right to choose faith, in Mariam’s case she did not renounce Islam simply because she never was a Muslim. Presumably she never lived her life as a Muslim, never declared she was one, nor that she was leaving her faith and finding solace in another. Mariam is a Christian and definitely not a “former Muslim”.

Sudan’s ruling regime prides itself in a constitution that “preserves the rights of non-Muslims”, but Mariam’s case completely goes against that claim. In addition, Sudan is a signatory to a number of African and international treaties that “protect privacy and absolutely prohibit corporal punishment and the use of the death penalty in these contexts”. The fact that the Sudanese regime does not acknowledge its international commitments is not surprising. After all, al-Bashir’s government is responsible for continuous rights violations and atrocities against the Sudanese people in general, since seizing power back in 1989.

There has been talk that the case of Mariam and the clampdown and arrests of students and activists is another tactic by the government to divert attention from the high profile case of officials’ embezzlement and corruption. As a result, a pregnant mother is now facing death because of a political situation that she never should have been involved in. The government has ruled that individuals can no longer choose nor decide for themselves; only the government can judge and decide for the Sudanese citizens. Government officials seem to have forgotten that  Islam teaches that only God can judge.  

Dallia M Abdelmoniem is a Sudanese journalist who has covered both Egypt and Sudan. Her work has appeared in various publications such as Your Middle East, Africa Review, The Citizen and Analysis Africa.

Follow her on Twitter: @dalliasd