Apostasy explained and the case of Marian Ibraheem

The word apostasy is from the Greek word “apostasia” and is very much like renouncing or disassociating oneself from a particular religion or certain religious beliefs. 

In Islam, apostasy is taken very seriously, and has the death penalty attached to it.

Apostasy not only applies to former Muslims who have renounced Islam to join another religion or become non-religious, but also applies to Muslims who have questioned or denied any “fundamental tenet or creed” of Islam such as the divinity of Allah, prophethood of Muhammad.

Apostasy also applies to those who have mocked Allah, worshipped one or more idols, reject Sharia courts, or knowingly believed in an interpretation of Sharia that is contrary to the consensus of ummah (Islamic community). 

The term ‘apostate’ has also been used for people of religions that trace their origins to Islam, such as Bahá’ís in Iran, and Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan and Indonesia.

Apostasy in Islam is a crime punishable with the death penalty, typically after a waiting period to allow the apostate time to repent and return to Islam.


Meriam Yahya Ibraheem a 27-year-old woman in her ninth month of pregnancy and mother of a 20 month old son, was convicted on the 11 May 2014 of apostasy and adultery under the 1991 Sudanese Penal Code.

Meariam was convicted of apostasy after marrying a Christian in 2011. Although raised by her Christian mother, her dad is Muslim, and according to Sharia law observed in Sudan, children must follow their father’s faith.

Ms. Ibraheem was convicted after the Al-Haj Yousef Criminal Court declared her church marriage invalid on account of her Muslim faith and upbringing, based on the court testimonies of a number of her family members. She was detained together with her 20 month old son and pregnant with her second child. 

Muslim women are also banned from marrying anyone outside their religion. This law, however, does not apply to men. Sudan’s penal code also forbids Muslims from converting to other religions, a crime punishable by death, recognised as apostasy.

Ibraheem was given an opportunity to avoid the death sentence by renouncing her religion and returning to Islam. She refused, and was sentenced to 100 lashes and then death by hanging for defying the court – while nine months pregnant. She was given three days to recant her faith or face death. 

She was then sentenced on 15 May, 2014, after she confirmed her Christian faith and declared she had never committed apostasy.

Ms. Ibraheem’s only ‘crime’ was her religious conviction. 

Her first child, who is younger than 2, lived with her in prison because her husband suffers muscular dystrophy and is wheelchair-bound. She gave birth to her second baby while in prison.

Last year, there was successful international outcry on behalf of Meriam Ibraheem, who was a prisoner of conscience, and she was released from detention, although her freedom was short lived. 

Meriam Ibraheem’s initial freedom came after several foreign diplomats pressured Sudan authorities to let her go.

Meriam Ibraheem and her family subsequently tried to leave Sudan for their safety. Meriam was held back along with her husband and two small children, one born behind bars, at Khartoum’s airport in June of 2014 – while the family tried to leave Sudan.

It was through the advocacy of various international human rights advocates last year that the case of Meriam Ibraheem highlighted Sudan’s neglect of their responsibility to protect the rights of women, minorities and disadvantaged groups, and the major regression of human rights principles in apostasy laws, contrary to all standards of international law.

The law applied in the case of Meriam Ibraheem allows the state- to sanctioned torture and the death penalty – and restricts the fundamental rights to equality and non-discrimination of minorities – which is unjust and must be over-hauled.

It is absurd that a court of law may impose the unlawful penalties of state sanctioned torture and the death penalty for religious beliefs – contrary to international standards of human rights and the right of all persons to their freedom of religion.

These violations of international human rights law requires urgent legal reform to protect fundamental human rights and freedoms in Sudan. 

Since Meriam’s case last year, unfortunately, things have not changed at all for persecuted minorities in Sudan, and in fact, the persecution of minorities has recently increased, exemplified by the recent imprisonment of the two Pastors Michael and Peter in Sudan. 

Mark Warren reports that, as of 2005, Human Rights Watch estimated that 300 individuals were on death row in Sudan. We know that at least 65 individuals were executed in 2006. 

According to the Pew Research Centre, the following countries still have Apostasy laws in place:

Mauritius, Nigeria, Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Somalia, Iran, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Malaysia, the Maldives and Comoros. 

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