Al-Azhar is a major ideological force behind the propagation of Islam in non-Muslim countries
Al-Azhar is a major ideological force behind the propagation of Islam in non-Muslim countries (World Watch Monitor)

To convert away from Islam is “treason” that should carry the death penalty, according to Sunni Islam’s topmost religious authority.

“The penalty for an open apostate, departing from the community, is well stipulated in Sharia,” Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayyib declared on Egypt television last week.

“An apostate must be pressed upon to repent within a variable period of time or be killed,” el-Tayyib stated, reiterating Islam’s traditional position during a 16 June episode of a daily TV program featuring him.

Full Al-Azhar statement — Click here

The ‘Good Imam’ is broadcast every day during the Muslim month of Ramadan, a time of fasting, intense worship and increased zeal across the Islamic world. Shown over Egypt’s state TV, it is also broadcast by several private satellite channels across the Arab world and Muslim diaspora.

“Apostasy manifests itself as crime … that has to incur a disciplining punishment”

“[Preaching] apostasy stems from a hatred against Islam and a premeditated desire to work against it. As such it constitutes in my belief high treason and a departure from the community and what it holds sacred,” the official portal of Al-Azhar quoted el-Tayyib as saying.

Started over a millennium ago as a centre of Shiite power, Cairo’s Al-Azhar Mosque has since become renowned as “Sunni Islam’s most prestigious university”. Currently, it serves as a main ideological and logistical backer of worldwide Islamic missionary work.

‘Blind at heart’

“The broad consensus of Islamic theology, including the Prominent Scholars of [Sunni Islam’s] Four Schools, judge apostasy to be criminal,” el-Tayyib said. “They are all in agreement that an apostate must be pressed upon to repent within a variable period of time or be killed.

“One is to employ dialogue and debate in the hope the apostate would repent, which in itself speaks for a measure of flexibility in that an apostate is not killed outright,” el-Tayyib said, describing converts from Islam as “blind at heart” for leaving “the Religion of Original Nature”.

In el-Tayyib’s home country of Egypt, where Sharia is not fully implemented, converts to Christianity are not sentenced to death. Other charges are often levelled against them to keep them in jail for lengthy periods of time, as in the current case of Mohammed Hegazy, imprisoned since December 2013.

Liberal Muslim voices have found themselves cornered by Al-Azhar’s professed role as guardian of orthodox Islam. Last January, a TV presenter and researcher, Islam el-Behery, was sentenced to a year in prison for arguing against canonical texts of Islam on a number of issues, including apostasy.

It is the second time this Ramadan that a statement by Egypt’s religious establishment has caused widespread reaction among sectors of the Egyptian public, which is 90 percent Muslim.

Preceding the start of the Muslim fasting month, the country’s fatwa issuing authority (Darul-Ifta) said on 6 June that to eat or drink in public during Ramadan “cannot be included within the realm of personal freedoms, but is a type of anarchy transgressing the sanctity of Islam”.

Stressing that “in the Islamic world, apostates are not being strung from the gallows in public squares,” the Grand Imam stated that the issue was being handled with “a flexible theology that emphasizes creativity of thinking based on Sharia’s ethos.”

The published statement by el-Tayyib concluded by blaming the West for “repelling people away from Islam,” describing concerns over women issues, apostasy, and Jihad as “defamation of Islam and Muslims”.