Many breathed a sigh of relief after yesterday’s announcement of the release of Said Musa, an Afghan convert to Christianity faced with possible execution on charges of apostasy. Despite the happy outcome, his case highlights a problem for Muslims that refuses to go away. After the debacle of a case against another Afghan convert, Abdul Rahman, in 2006, we thought we’d seen the last of these kinds of headlines, at least for the time being. Whenever such cases emerge Muslims in the West come under extra scrutiny. Questions are inevitably raised about our ability to function, along with the rest of the world, under the umbrella of universal human rights and in line with those freedoms that we cherish.

Said Musa’s case highlights a major problem that Muslims today are facing. Conversion from and to Islam and other religions is taking place at an unprecedented rate and will almost certainly continue. If so, what should be done about the problem of conversion from Islam, known as apostasy? Should we Muslims continue to follow the age-old “law” of apostasy, punished by the death penalty, and force converts to come back to Islam literally on pain of death at a time when “freedom of religion” is considered a universal human right? If a person genuinely converts to another religion, what right do others have to force him or her to change their mind? Why should we human beings play God’s role in such an important and personal matter? At the end of the day, isn’t belief an issue between a person and God, as the Quran declares?

If there is a punishment for conversion it should be on the Day of Judgement and God is the only one who can make that decision. There must be a good reason why the Quran doesn’t specify a worldly punishment for rejecting Islam. Indeed, this would have gone against the Quranic idea that religious belief and conversion should come from within a person and be genuine, not through the use of force.

Although conversions from Islam to other religions do take place in many Muslim societies, we do not hear much about them. Some conversions take place pretty much in the open. Converts go around and live freely in society, just like any other fellow citizen. Their rights are protected by law and they remain free to practice their religion. Other conversions happen in secret. In these cases converts do not reveal their conversion for fear that fellow Muslims may not treat them well. They could be imprisoned or even executed in some countries. Although the vast majority of the 57 Muslim-majority countries have no specific laws against conversion and do not apply death penalty for apostasy, a handful of countries like Saudi Arabia still do.

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The situation with respect to conversion varies from country to country. Some Muslim-majority countries rely on the classical or pre-modern Islamic law of apostasy to execute converts, while others legally allow conversion. Still others do not apply the death penalty but criminalize associated acts like proselytization among Muslims or inducements to convert from Islam. Even so, most Muslim-majority countries are parties to the major international human rights covenants, such as ICCPR, which clearly declare that all people have the right to freedom of belief, including the right to change and manifest their religion. Most Muslims would also say that they are comfortable with the religious freedom that Islam gave people some 1400 years ago, summed up in the famous Quranic declaration “There is no coercion in matters of faith/religion.”

For many in the West this case again highlights how “Islam” appears to be in conflict with “our” values today—including freedom of religion. The common perception is that because of this law of apostasy and the death penalty associated with it, Islam restricts religious freedom and punishes converts from Islam with death. Many Muslims and non-Muslims mistakenly believe that the death penalty is “divine law,” based on the teachings of the Quran and the practice of Prophet Muhammad, the two most important sources of Islamic law and ethics. However, this interpretation is questionable at best.

It is true that in classical Islamic law there was almost unanimous agreement among the jurists that if a Muslim converts to another religion he or she should be punished by death. This position, however, is not based on either a particular text of the Quran or the overall practice of the Prophet. In fact, a vast array of Quranic verses specify—without ambiguity—that the question of faith and belief is a personal matter between the individual and God. Numerous verses in the Quran support absolute religious freedom, one being “There is no coercion in matters of faith/religion.” Others state that no one should be forced to follow a particular religion or belief.

There is, in fact, no single verse of the Quran that specifies any kind of worldly punishment for converting from Islam, let alone death. The opposite is true. Many verses assert that all human beings are free to believe or not to believe in God or in any particular religion. For example, “Let him who wills believe in it [Islam], and let him who wills, reject it.” Or, “Whoever chooses to follow the right path, follows it for his own good; and if any one wills to go astray, say [O Prophet, to him] ‘I am only a warner.’”

Other verses clearly state that the role of the prophets was simply to show people “the true path” and not to compel them to believe. The Quran in fact reminded Prophet Muhammad that he did not have the power to force people to convert to Islam: it is a choice that individuals should make for themselves. It also emphasised that different religious traditions will always exist, that there will always be believers in the One God and non-believers, and that forced belief is no belief at all.

The Quran’s very clear position on freedom of belief and religion was, however, sidelined in the development of classical Islamic law. Instead of emphasizing the Quran’s view, classical Muslim jurists interpreted some of the sayings of the Prophet to mean that a simple conversion from Islam should be punished by death, despite the fact that there is no evidence that Prophet Muhammad himself ever imposed this penalty for a simple conversion from Islam.

Because there is no significant support for the application of capital punishment for apostasy in the Quran or in the overall practice of the Prophet, several 20th-century Muslim scholars have argued that the classical position on conversion from Islam and its penalty should be discarded. Professor Hashim Kamali, a respected legal scholar based in Malaysia, says that “the Quran prescribes absolutely no temporal punishment for apostasy, nor has the Prophet, peace be upon him, sentenced anyone to death for it.” Another leading scholar of Islamic law, Professor Salim al-Awa from Egypt, argues that “the Quranic verses concerned did not prescribe any punishment for apostasy but simply declared it to be a great sin.”

Even a number of so-called political Islamists such as Hasan al-Turabi of Sudan and Rashid Ghannushi of Tunisia have argued that no one should be compelled to believe in any religion and that an apostate should not be put to death. Sayyid Qutb also argued that “freedom of belief is the first human right which gives the attribute of ‘humanity’ to the human being. Whoever robs a human being of freedom of belief in fact robs him of his humanity.”

Today, more and more Muslim thinkers and scholars are adopting the Quranic view of absolute freedom of belief and religion, with the result that in most Muslim-majority countries the classical Islamic law prescribing death for conversion is virtually ignored. Where the law exists it is also often used more broadly to suppress dissent, intellectual freedom and the religious freedom of certain minority Muslim groups. Afghanistan now finds itself being forced to decide whether it will continue down this regressive path.

Like many other issues Muslims are facing in the modern period, freedom of belief is intensely debated. While many still hold the classical position that restricts this freedom, others are openly challenging it, relying on the Quran and the practice of the Prophet Muhammad for support. For them, the classical laws concerning conversion and punishment are human interpretations that need to be re-examined in a way faithful to the Quran and to the example of Muhammad.

The existence of a clear, unambiguous, and direct instruction in the Quran that conversion from Islam is punishable by death would have made it difficult for Muslim scholars to legitimately undertake this re-examination. But its absence gives Muslims grounds to argue for absolute freedom of religion and belief as a fundamental human right, something that was granted 1400 years ago in the Quran but thereafter constrained by classical Islamic legal tradition.

The debate on apostasy and freedom of belief is thus just one dimension of a continuing process of renewal and reform in Islamic thought today. As part of this process Muslims should emphasise the Quran’s values of freedom of belief, compassion for all, and the need not to play God’s role in matters of belief.

Abdullah Saeed is the Sultan of Oman Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies and the Director of National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia. This summer he will be leading the Witherspoon Institute’s Islam and Religious Freedom Seminar (applications due March 15).