It seems that the young Christian mother, Meriam Ibrahim, sentenced to hang by a Sudanese court for the crime of apostasy, may soon be freed. But as the Telegraph reports, we cannot be sure that Mrs Ibrahim is safe until such a time as she walks out of jail. By the time you read this, that may have happened. Let us hope so.
We all want the release of Mrs Ibrahim, and we are all concerned for her safety. But her personal safety is not the only thing at stake here. What is also at stake is that the Sudanese courts have assumed the right to pass judgement on religious matters; or more specifically that an Islamic court presumes to pass judgement on Christians according to Islamic laws. This is completely and utterly wrong. It is wrong because Mrs Ibrahim, like any other Christian, has not assented in any way to Islamic laws, and the force of any religious law lies in the consent of the participants in any legal process.
Consider our own Canon Law. This applies to Catholics who have reached the age of 14, and who are assumed to have consented to the rules and regulations contained in the Code of Canon Law. It is this consent to its ecclesial authority that gives Canon Law its force.
Similarly, let us imagine that two Muslims go to a Sharia court for arbitration on some matter. That is fine, as long as they both agree to recognise the authority of the court to arbitrate. It is not fine if one of the parties does not recognise the authority of Sharia. In that case the Sharia court turns into an instrument of oppression.
This is what has happened to Mrs Ibrahim: as a Christian, she does not recognise the authority of Sharia (how could she?) and yet she has been condemned by it. This violates the foundation of all civilised society: the principle of consent.
The Sudanese problem highlights a particular and peculiar Muslim problem (a problem for us, perhaps not for them). It is this: in theory nothing can override the authority of the Sharia. It is the supreme authority. It recognises no other sort of authority. It has no limitations: hence even Christians fall under its authority.
In practice, this is not always the case, even in very strict Islamic societies, where, in order to live life today, people have adapted the Sharia, accepted compromises, and recognised other authorities. The idea, that all knowledge is to be found in the revelation that they believe was made to Mohammed in the seventh century, has turned out to be unworkable.
No doubt some face-saving manoeuvre will happen in the present case. Let us hope so, for Meriam’s sake. She will be “pardoned”. But this obscures the essential issue: she has committed no crime in the first place. She should never have been accused, let alone condemned, because the law on apostasy is ridiculous and unreasonable. The only law that should apply to one’s choice of religion is the simple law of human reason, human God-given reason, namely that all people are in conscience free to choose their own faith. Could a Muslim accept that? I rather doubt it, though I am prepared to hear otherwise from experts. Meanwhile, any pardon given to Meriam Ibrahim, while welcome, is not good enough. What we want is an admission that the law on apostasy is in principle wrong.