Barack Obama and Religion

The following editorial contains excerpts from Michael Jerryson’s interview with Ahmad Atif Ahmad, professor in Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara on March 19, 2008.

Was Barack Obama ever a Muslim? If so, would his conversion to Christianity negatively affect his influence in the foreign policy
arena, especially when it comes to the Middle East and countries such as Indonesia?

The answer to both these questions is no, but this has not stopped the speculators or speculations. Both questions periodically reappear in news articles and web blogs and have generated a variety of responses. What is unfortunate is that in almost every instance, the author writing has little to no background or training in Islamic jurisprudence, theology, or culture.

Just as in the case of Christianity and its myriad schools from Greek Orthodox to non-denominational evangelical Protestantism in the United States, Islam involves a vast range of practices and beliefs for its over one billion adherents. This variety makes overarching generalizations of Islamic practices and beliefs difficult, if not untenable. This is especially evident in the discussion of Muslims converting to other religions, otherwise referred to as apostasy. In an attempt to receive a more informed perspective on this subject, we have contacted Ahmad Atif Ahmad, Assoc. Professor in Religious Studies and an expert on apostasy in Islam.

This short piece is meant to supply readers with some background to the overall discussion on Senator Barack Obama and religion.

Michael Jerryson: There have been insinuations that Barack Obama was a Muslim or at least practiced Islam at some point before he converted to Christianity. I know that in recent times countries like Iran have issued fatwas (declarations) for people like Salman Rushdie who have written things they feel is heretical to Islam. I do not know if you can speculate about a country in these respects, but would an action like that of Barack Obama’s conversion to Christianity be equivalent in any way to something that Salmon Rushdie performed?

Ahmad Atif Ahmad: Well in regards to assuming Barack Obama is Muslim, we have a problem. People who argue this think of Islam as an ethnicity, like Judaism. You don’t become a Muslim by having a Muslim father. You have to embrace Islam. Muslim jurists agree that apostasy must include two elements. You must have a known history of being a Muslim, and you must convert to another religion. There is no known history for Obama being a Muslim, so end of case.

The Ayatollah Khomeini was actually a very experimental guy and changed his mind many times. And in the case of Salman Rushdie, it was definitely both a political and angry statement…. But the Khomeini case is not to be generalized, it is a very specific case. And there are apostasy cases now inside Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or Afghanistan. These are their own phenomena; they are not a continuation of pre-modern Islamic legal history. Because there is a lot of improvisation there.

Michael Jerryson: So it would be fair to say that of all the Islamic countries around the world, there is no uniform belief about what is apostasy?

Ahmad Atif Ahmad: That’s actually true. Let me elaborate. What is an apostasy exactly? What constitutes that violation of beliefs or practices of Islam that requires some correction from the government whether it is imprisonment as some have suggested, or capital punishment? It is always a matter of disagreement and this is the most significant piece of apostasy. The range or spectrum or continuum of violation of Islamic law, including heresy, if you use the word heresy, meaning someone believing or doing something that is not orthodox, heresy in Islam could be doctrinal or could be practice. So if someone violates the law practically, they would be committing heresy. So the continuum is conveniently vague intentionally, as in Muslim jurists like the fact that it is hard to make a final decision over what makes an apostate and what makes a heretic….

So the big critique for any generalization of apostasy is number one to raise the question: Can you give me a list of things a person can do to become an apostate? And the answer, is no.

And the answer no is intentional, since Muslim jurists didn’t want it to happen. So this raises another question. So how do you decide? You need an individual judge, you need discretion by the judge, and if you believe the judges are there to get people, then you are going to believe the judges are going to be there to execute apostates. For the most part though, and this is perhaps the one correct generalization probably about Islamic legal history, that individual cases of apostasy did not concern jurists much.

They were not afraid of it much. Why? Because of story of the rise of Islam religiously and politically is mostly a story of successes up to the last few centuries. Individuals did not threaten the state that much, did not threaten jurists much. Collective cases of apostasy existed and these cases are what provoked debates that go back and forth… Not very different from the kind of tolerance you would find in any modern state.

Ahmad Atif Ahmad received his doctorate from Harvard University and has published works in both Arabic and English. His recent publication soon to be released is called Islam, Modernity, Violence and Everyday Life. He is widely regarded as an expert on Islam and apostasy.