CAIRO: The Grand Mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa, has declared that Muslims may convert to other religions and that is a private matter between an individual and God.
The essential question before us is, can a person who is Muslim choose a religion other than Islam? The answer is yes, they can, Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa said in a posting on a Washington Post-Newsweek forum.
The act of abandoning one s religion is a sin whose punishment God will determine upon the Day of Judgment. If the case in question is one of merely rejecting faith, then there is no worldly punishment, he wrote.
While this new ruling may open up the possibility of Muslims converting to Christianity without retribution, it leaves space for apostasy to be punished by human hands if it threatens societal order.
“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, Gomaa added.
A spokesman for Dar Al-Iftaa, the body headed by Gomaa responsible for issuing religious opinions, told the Agence-France-Presse that the Mufti s stance has not changed. Notably, the opinion did not clarify the difference between conversion as a private matter and one which undermined the foundation of society.
An old fatwa that was listed on Dar Al-Iftaa website states that the penalty for those who leave Islam is death.
According to a 1979 fatwa issued by Sheikh Gad El Haq Aly Gad El Haq, leaving Islam (referred to as redda) is penalized by death. But since current laws don t allow death sentences in such cases, the fatwa continues, disciplinary measures should be taken since redda contradicts with general order. This falls under protecting the society, it adds.
Sheikh Ibrahim Atta El Fayoumi, Secretary General of the Islamic Research Center, told The Daily Star Egypt, “The words of The Grant mufti Ali Gomaa were misinterpreted. What he means is that if there is a traitor he should be punished and the same goes for a killer or a thief but when you convert and you didn’t harm anyone then you should not deserve to be punished by anyone.
Attempts by Muslims in Egypt to convert to other religions have been hindered by the state s refusal to recognize the change in official documents and in some cases have led to arrests and imprisonment.
But at least some are optimistic about this ruling.
“In our opinion, this does signify a shift in the position of the Mufti on this matter, said Hossam Bahget, head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told The Daily Star Egypt.
“We hope that the Egyptian government and specifically the Interior Ministry, which often suspends proper application of the law with regard to conversion from Islam to Christianity in the name of Sharia, will immediately end discrimination against converts from Islam to Christianity or any other religion.
Bahget stated the Mufti was moving towards a more modernist interpretation of Sharia, one which permits Muslims to leave Islam as the Quran does not proscribe a punishment for apostasy.
“There is no criminal law against conversion. The problem is that interior ministry officials violate this law and refuse to allow people to change their documents.
“This fatwa is very useful because it strips these officials of their pretexts.
Gomaa based his opinion on several verses of the Quran which appear to promote religious freedom. “Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion, [Quran, 109:6], “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].
This ruling comes along the heels of another major court ruling earlier this month upholding the right of Christians who converted to Islam to return to their original faith.