KHARTOUM, Sudan — At what point is it time to draw the line between respecting a nation’s culture and upholding a specific vision of morality for all human beings?
Sudan’s decision to sentence the pregnant Meriam Yahya Ibrahim, 27, to a hundred lashes — and subsequently to death for marrying Daniel Wani, an American national — evoked this delicate question. According to the Sudanese government, the crime on Ibrahim’s hands is adultery.
In Sudan, a nation highly influenced by its primary religion — Islam, Ibrahim’s marriage to Wani, a Christian, is illegitimate and therefore adulterous. It is not only Ibrahim’s marriage to Wani that had prompted her sentence but also the fact that in Sudan, the conversion of a Muslim citizen to another religion is punishable by death.
These verdicts are based on Sharia law, the main body of Islamic law. Unlike most Western bodies of law, Sharia law is not only concerned with an individual’s legal and civil obligations, but also with his or her ethical and religious duties. With that notion, religious staples such as the Five Pillars of Faith are central and often intertwined with Sharia law.
For instance, fasting and pilgrimage are not only contained within the realms of the Quran, the Islamic holy book, but extend into the legal sphere as well.
In many cases, this body of law serves as a legal guide and also a code of how individuals in these societies should conduct themselves in order to uphold Islam in every public and private aspect of their lives. Therefore, not only has Sudan ruled Ibrahim guilty of adultery, she is also guilty of apostasy — an act that is committed when an individual renounces their faith or previous loyalties.
In Sudan, apostasy is decreed illegal according to Article 126 of its criminal code. The court gave Ibrahim four days to abandon Christianity and pledge to Islam, but she refused to disavow her faith despite the morbid consequences. In response, Sudan has decided to keep Ibrahim — a month away from giving birth — locked away in prison under harsh conditions with her 20-month old son Martin as she awaits her sentence.
Wani, who has not been permitted to visit his wife, has stated that Ibrahim is being held in harsh conditions without medical attention despite her pregnancy. Also, rather than allowing the child Martin to stay with his father, the government has decreed that Wani is unfit to raise the child since he is Christian.
According to Amnesty International, Ibrahim and her young son have been held in the prison since February. However, since Ibrahim is pregnant, the Sudanese government has decided to postpone her punishment for two years so that she can birth and wean her new baby. Sharia law decrees that a mother must nurse her child for two years before any impending punishment may be executed.
Although the government claims that Ibrahim is Muslim, Ibrahim herself vows that, although she was born to a Muslim father and a Christian mother, she was raised as a Christian since her father had abandoned her family.
Sudan’s harsh sentence has stirred notable uproar throughout the international community. According to Amnesty International’s Sudan researcher Manar Idriss, “The fact that a woman could be sentenced to death for her religious choice, and to flogging for being married to a man of an allegedly different religion, is abhorrent and should never be even considered.”
Although there is vast variation in religious beliefs throughout the world, the rallying of the international community for the release of Ibrahim has displayed a remarkable sense of unity, with members of the global community setting aside their religious differences in order to preserve a sense of humanity and the unalienable freedom of religion.