Frequently, the Iranian government uses the act of heresy (Ertedâd) as a scapegoat in order to impose the death sentence. Particularly, in those cases, where the criminal nature of the act, that has been committed, is unclear and questionable to begin with. Since the term of President Ahmadinejad, the legal punishment for heresy is the death sentence. The approval of the law was questionable to begin with as it was introduced to the Parliament by the Judicial branch when it should have been introduced to the Executive Branch by the Ministry of Justice first. Since then, this harsh penality for acts of heresy has created fear and tension among Iranian citizens as accusations are arbitrary and at times difficult to retrace.
Today, heresy can be defined as holding a belief or an opinion that is contrary to an established religious and/or belief system. For instance, changing one’s religion can be deemed as an act of heresy, particularly when the abandoned religion is the dominant one. As such, the Iranian government deems Moslems who convert from Islam to another religion as criminals and, in many cases, sentences them to death. It is of note that only non-Moslems can receive the death penality in Iran. Imposing a sentence that is based on heresy offers an easy solution to this conundrum as a heretic is deemed as a non-Moslem and can therefore easily be prosecuted and judged (1).
This essay aims to investigate Ertedâd by examining the following three questions:
1. What is the definition of heresy according to the Quran?
2. Does the Quran define heresy as a crime?
3. And if so, what punishment does the Quran propose?
The Definition of Heresy in the Quran
There are two Surahs that address the topic of Ertedâd, namely vers 217 of Surah 2 and verse 53 and 54 of Surah 5. In order to understand how these two verses relate to the topic of Ertedâd, we must first examine the context in which they occurred as a meaningful interpretation is otherwise impossible.
Several events led up to the occurrence of the verse 217 of Surah 2, which constitutes an answer that Mohammed gave in response to a question by his followers. During the time of Mohammed, it was common practice among the tribal clans to rest their ongoing battles during one month each season, named Shahar Ul Haram. During this time, it was forbidden to carry out any fights or battles. Instead, people dedicated themselves to the sacred rituals.
While Mohammed and the Meccan tribes were in a state of ongoing clashes, Mohammed had tried to visit the sacred city (al-Masjid al-Haram) in order to pursue his pilgrimage but was denied access. The situation became more precarious as Mohammed and his followers were attacked by their Meccan enemy shortly before the onset of one of the Shahar Ul Harams. These events led up to and paved the way for the emergence of Verse 217 of Surah 2, which states:
They ask you about the sacred month – about fighting therein. Say, “Fighting therein is great [sin], but averting [people] from the way of Allah and disbelief in Him and [preventing access to] al-Masjid al-Haram and the expulsion of its people therefrom are greater [evil] in the sight of Allah. And fitnah is greater than killing.” And they will continue to fight you until they turn you back from your religion if they are able. And whoever of you reverts from his religion [to disbelief] and dies while he is a disbeliever – for those, their deeds have become worthless in this world and the Hereafter, and those are the companions of the Fire, they will abide therein eternally.
While these verses do address the consequences of Ertedâd, they do not define Ertedâd as a crime. Given that other Surahs clearly define certain acts and behaviors as crimes, we can assume that if Ertedâd would have indeed been deemed as such, it would have been explicitly stated so in the Quran. Instead, the Quran simply lists the consequences of committing the act of Ertedâd. We can therefore negate the second and third question and carry on to explain the consequences of Ertedâd.
Dr. Azmayesh explains that the Quran touches upon the Karmic consequences of Ertedâd. Karmic consequences differ from legal consequences as the latter one is defined by societal values and norms, which can vary from culture to culture, country to country. Karmic consequences, in contrast, are universal laws that affect our individual destiny. They do not have to be imposed by any human being as they unfold as a natural consequence to an action, just as a stone that falls into the water causes waves to ripple along the water’s surface. This consequence is part of the law of physics and does not depend on anyone to cause or prevent it for that matter.
This princple applies to Ertedâd as well. That is, committing Ertedâd will result in Karmic consequences due to the connection that has been established between the astral bodies of those involved in the pact. However, there are cases, where the Karmic consequences of Ertedâd can be reversed. For instance, genuinely repenting the breaking of the pact before death lifts the Karmic consequences. Therefore, spiritual masters do not judge over anyone because anyone has the chance and possibility to repent before death. Another case, where the consequences of Ertedâd become nullified is when someone denounces the religion of Islam due to the wrongdoing of an religious authority and, as a result, mistakens this wrongdoing with the religion itself. In this case, there would be no Karmic consequences, explains Dr. Azmayesh.
To make a pact, however, is a serious matter, which carries weight. Yet, as can be inferred from above, in the end, Ertedâd should only be of concern to the person who committed it, because he or she has to bear the Karmic consequences. It has to be of no concern to the person with whom the pact has been broken with. There is no action that he or she must take as life will take care of the matter by itself. Moreover, there is no legitimacy for religious authorities to punish acts of Ertedâd in the name of God. Indeed, according to the Quran, God will be loved by others and God is the only one who will take care of any consequences, associated with the act of Ertedâd
Surah 5 Verse 54: O you who have believed, whoever of you should revert from his religion – Allah will bring forth [in place of them] a people He will love and who will love Him [who are] humble toward the believers, powerful against the disbelievers; they strive in the cause of Allah and do not fear the blame of a critic. That is the favor of Allah; He bestows it upon whom He wills. And Allah is all-Encompassing and Knowing.
Dr. Azmayesh explains that in the end, only God knows the state of people’s heart. As such, we can infer that no religious, state, or any other authority should have the power to judge over these matters, as it is a private matter. Perhaps it is time to examine the behaviors of religious authorities and state governments who believe that they possess the authority to judge over the case of Ertedâd.
Interview with Dr. Seyed Azmayesh by the International Organization to Preserve Human Rights (IOPHR)
(1) Interestingly, Christians and Jews are not deemed heretics as their religion predates the emergence of Islam. In contrast, Baha’is are by default deemed as heretics as the religion was founded by Moslems who had seperated from Islam.