Persecution of the Saints: Meriam Yahia Ibrahim

By Kersley Fitzgerald

The story of Meriam Ibrahim has been all over the news the last few weeks. She is a 27-year old Sudanese doctor who has been convicted of apostasy and sentenced to death upon the weaning of the daughter she recently gave birth to.

Sudan is the largest country in Africa and sits south of Egypt, with whom it has a long, troubled history, and northwest of Ethiopia. Its ancient history is as convoluted as any African nation. Sudan was once known as Kush and it's been debated whether it is the "Cush" mentioned in the Bible or if the biblical Cush was actually on the Arabian Peninsula.

There are three general areas of Sudan — Sudan proper, right below Egypt and including the only coastline; South Sudan, which gained independence in 2011; and Darfur, to the west. Sudan proper is dominated by Arabicized Muslims. It holds the capital, Khartoum, and most of the wealth due to its heavy ties to the Middle East (the pipeline brings oil from South Sudan to the ports here). South Sudan is mostly populated by tribes of African descent who are a mix of Christian, Muslim, and animist. Darfur is a combination of Africans and African-Arabs, but nearly the entire population is Muslim.

Sudan History

The area has never been peaceful. If the Egyptians weren't invading, then the Sudanese were invading Egypt. In the 1821, Egypt invaded on behalf of the Turkish Empire; the Turks wanted minerals and manpower for their military. In 1869, the Suez Canal opened, and Great Britain wanted control over the area to protect trade routes to India. They finagled their way into Egypt and Sudan. The people responded by throwing their support behind the Mahdi — a Muslim fanatic who pushed out the Brits and brought in sharia law. The egomaniacal Mahdi integrated himself into Islam, claiming to be the messenger of Mohammad and saying to resist him was to go against Islam. Pilgrimages to Mecca were replaced by military service, and almsgiving became taxes. Christians, including Copts, were persecuted.

Six months after taking Khartoum, the Mahdi died of typhus.

In 1895, in a desire to control the region before the Belgians or French could, the Brits and Egyptians attacked again. They had control of Sudan by 1898. Besides opening the south to Christian missionaries, British rule also brought British law. The governor enacted a new civil law, adapted from the one used in India. Sharia was only used for personal status matters and only by Egyptian judges. British civil judges recognized that Sudanese culture must be considered, and tried to accommodate the culture, to the point that the law included the following: "In cases not provided for by this or any other enactment for the time being in force; the Court shall act according to justice, equity and good conscience." A little vague, but well-meaning.

In 1956, Sudan won real independence. Broken promises caused the south to promptly start a civil war. Sudanese judges were appointed; and politicians, in a wave of nationalism, sought to rewrite the law to rid itself of colonial influence. There were several opinions as to how to do this: 1. All Islamic sharia; 2. Use the Egyptian law, like other Arabic countries; 3. Pick and choose what was best for Sudan; 4. Don't fix anything that's not broken — which was the majority opinion. The government, meanwhile, see-sawed between civilian democracy and military control.

In 1974, the Minister of Justice took on the monumental task of codifying and stabilizing the laws of Sudan. He amended the law to include huddud and qisas.* This lasted until 1983 when, unable to keep the different factions together, the president declared sharia law, also known as the "September Laws." This did not go over well with South Sudan, who promptly started another civil war. The law included punishments for adultery (100 lashes if unmarried; execution if married as suggested in the Hadith) and aggressive kangaroo courts. The people rebelled in April 1985 and held onto democracy for four years.

In June of 1989, the National Islamic Front took over. Thousands of army and police officers, civil servants, and judges were dismissed. Political trade union leaders were detained for months or years; some were tortured to death. The manufactured "state of emergency" prevented any prosecution. Al-Bashir, who is still president, called the war against the south a holy war of jihad against infidel rebels. Young men and students were conscripted — including the sons of southern slaves working in the north, who were forced to fight their own people. The 1983 Code was replaced by the 1991 Criminal Law Act. South Sudan finally won independence in July 2011. On October 12, 2011, President al-Bashir announced he would change the Sudan constitution to reflect the Islamic majority of the population; Islam is to become the state religion and the main source of the constitution. This has not been accomplished yet — the current constitution allows for freedom of religion.

However, ridda, or apostasy, was added to the code. Article 146 declares that if the apostate refuses to revert to Islam, the punishment is execution.

Apostasy in Islamic Law

The definition of apostasy in Islam is much clearer than the punishment. According to at least some Muslim sects, in order to be charged with apostasy, a person must have committed all of the following:
1. Understand and have professed the shahada ("There is no god but God; Muhammad is the messenger of God");
2. Know the sharia law;
3. Be of sound mind;
4. Be an adult;
5. Consciously and deliberately reject or intend to reject as untrue either the shahada or those rulings of the sharia necessarily known by all Muslims;
6. Have publicly engaged in the obligatory practices of the [foreign] religion.

The recommended punishment for apostasy varies greatly and may include:
- If male, execution, unless he has a mental disorder or converted under duress; if female, execution or imprisonment until she reverts;
- Execution only if the apostate takes up arms against another Muslim;
- Enslavement;
- Punishment only if the apostate speaks against Islam;
- Nothing — the Qur'an allows for freedom of religion and an apostate will receive punishment in the afterlife.

It's interesting to note that some of the Islamic scholars who hold to freedom of religion have, themselves, been charged with apostasy. Also of note: a 2007 poll found that 31% of British Muslims believed abandoning Islam should be punishable by death.

Meriam Ibrahim is not the first in Sudan to be sentenced to death for apostasy. In 1985, civil engineer and politician Mahmoud Mohammed Taha was executed for apostasy after he distributed leaflets saying the sharia law was being misused and the constitution needed to be changed to combine social justice with freedom of religion. He also insisted women and non-Muslims should have equal status according to the Mecca Qur'an. Dr. Amin M. Medani's excellent paper "Criminal Law and Justice in Sudan" explains:
A special court was set up before which he refused to please or defend himself, convicted and sentenced him to death for committing a crime against the State under the Penal code. Instead of sending the verdict to the High Court, a Special Court of Appeal headed by an infamous Prompt Justice Court Judge, Judge Al Mikashfi, not only confirmed the sentence of death, but charged the victim of an offence of "Apostasy", which had not even been an offence under the Penal Code. This he did relying on another infamous September Law called "The Sources of Judicial Decision Act, 1983," which enabled judges, in the absence of a legislative provision, to apply their own opinions on Islamic jurisprudence and make their decisions accordingly. **
Despite the fact that four of his followers recanted and were pardoned, Taha greatly inspired the people's revolution. Taha's conviction and execution, however, was more political than religious — he never claimed to be anything other than Muslim.

Meriam Ibrahim's Apostasy

But the law begs the question, was Meriam Ibrahim ever Muslim? According to Islam, "Islam shall prevail." It means that Islam is the dominant religion of the world; Allah intended everyone to be Muslim, and all babies are born Muslim. Therefore, every child born with one Muslim parent is Muslim. After puberty, if the child chooses to abandon Islam, they are an apostate. So, Meriam is not considered a Muslim because her father, as opposed to her mother, was Muslim — she would be considered a Muslim if either parent was. And, therefore, her children are considered Muslim and should not be remanded to the custody of their Christian father.

How did Meriam get here? When Meriam was six years old, her Muslim father left her and her Ethiopian Orthodox mother. They moved to Khartoum for work and school. Meriam eventually graduated from the Khartoum University School of Medicine. Daniel Wani is also Sudanese, but became a US citizen in 2005. He has a biochemical engineering degree and suffers from muscular dystrophy. Daniel and Meriam met in church while he was visiting Sudan and married in 2012. Since that time, he has been trying to bring Meriam to the US.

It's believed that a relative of Meriam's opened a case against Daniel in Halat Kuku Court of Khartoum North. He was charged with adultery, since a marriage between a Muslim and a Christian isn't recognized. Authorities took his passport and forbade him to travel. Meriam was charged with adultery on February 17th, and taken to Omdurman Federal Women's Prison. Since the marriage is void, they are technically single, and the punishment for non-adulterous fornication is 100-lashes each. The charge of apostasy was added later and is punishable by death according to Article 146 of the 1991 Criminal Code. According to Islam, showing her marriage certificate, which lists her as Christian, and insisting that her father left means nothing; he was Muslim, so under the law, she was Muslim. If she is now Christian, then she is apostate. And according to the law, she should be executed.

God's Hands

Is there hope for Meriam Ibrahim? Not of this world. Any Christian influence in Sudan left with the South's 2011 secession. Months before Meriam's accusation, the chairman of the Islamic Centre for Preaching and Comparative Studies, Ammar Saleh, condemned the government for being lax with apostasy charges, saying they needed to "stand against Christianisation and come up with a long term solution to the problem." Al-Bashir's regime is not lenient. South Sudan fought for independence for decades before it was granted in 2011. Al-Bashir is the first sitting head of state to be charged by The Hague International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity. His war in the western Darfur region has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and displaced millions. His army bombs Christian hospitals, and his mercenaries, the Janjaweed, murder and rape their way across Darfur. The war has been going on for eleven years, despite continued involvement of African Union and UN forces and diplomats. And Darfur is predominantly Muslim and partially Arabic; there is no religious and little ethnic tension behind the war.

One Christian woman isn't going to concern him, no matter what international pressures appear.

Meriam gave birth to her daughter in prison. There is precedence in the Hadith to wait until a child is weaned before executing the mother. Muslim scholars have been visiting her, trying to convince her to revert to Islam and be forgiven. So far, Meriam has refused. "If they want to execute me then they should go ahead and do it because I'm not going to change my faith," she told her husband. She will not "pretend to be a Muslim" to save her life. She has about two years.

* The penal laws of Islam are called Hudud in the Hadith and Fiqh. This word is the plural of Hadd, which means prevention, hindrance, restraint, prohibition, and hence a restrictive ordinance or statute of God, respecting things lawful and unlawful.

Punishments are divided into two classes, one of which is called Hadd and the other Ta'zir. The Hadd is a measure of punishment defined by the Qur'an and the Sunnah. In Ta'zir, the court, is allowed to use its discretion in regard to the form and measure in which such punishment is to be inflicted.

Punishments by way of Hadd are of the following forms: death by stoning, amputation of a limb or limbs, flogging by one hundred or eighty strokes. They are prescribed respectively for the following offences: adultery committed by married persons, theft, highway robbery, drunkenness, and slander imputing unchastity to women.

The punishments described above are the maximum punishments for the above mentioned crimes. These can be reduced keeping in view the circumstances in which the crimes were committed, the nature of the evidence, and the motive of the criminal with which he committed the crime.

Center for Muslim Jewish Engagement; Kital-al Hudud

** Shades of the earlier British law.

Much of the information in this article is from Wikipedia and National Geographic. Mistakes are the author's.

Published 5-30-14