Can Islam convert to another religion

main menu Restrictions on converting or turning away from a religion or belief

Several states prohibit conversion from one religion to another, or the abandonment of a religion. These laws are hereinafter understood as anti-conversion laws. Unlike blasphemy laws, laws to prevent conversion are not just about the outward expression of an opinion or conviction. The aim of these laws is to regulate the mere holding or changing of religious beliefs. Anti-conversion laws are often directed against those trying to convince someone of a different belief. In some cases, however, they also sanction the person who changes faith himself. Sometimes the change of faith is also interpreted as "apostasy" (falling away from the faith), so that the persons are treated as apostates.

99 states have laws in place that penalize efforts by religious groups to persuade other people to convert.125 In 12 countries (Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen) it is even legally possible to punish conversion with the death penalty.126 In addition, converts in many countries are often victims of social ostracism and are exposed to social violence, harassment and discrimination.

In Nigeria, for example, freedom of religion is enshrined in the constitution. In some states, however, it is possible to punish people who renounce their religion with death.127 In Malaysia, conversion from Islam to another religion or belief requires approval from a Sharia court. Sharia courts, however, rarely allow such concerns. Penalties for unauthorized conversion vary from state to state, ranging from fines to the death penalty, although it has not yet been used.128 The case of Roneey Rebit in 2016 could therefore set a relevant precedent in Malaysia. Roneey Rebit's parents converted from Christianity to Islam when he was a child. As an adult, he wanted to convert back to Christianity. A state court authorized him to change his religion because "the right to choose his religion lies with the applicant himself and not with the religious community". The Kuching Supreme Court also found that Roneey Rebit had never practiced Islam. The fact that not a Sharia court but a civil court approved the conversion of Ronney Rebit shows that, due to parallel judicial structures, it is still unclear whether a practicing adult Muslim or a practicing adult Muslim in Malaysia can change his or her religious status.129 

In Afghanistan, turning away from Islam can be punished with death, whereby the person concerned can escape the punishment by revoking it and turning back to Islam.130 In addition to state sanctions, terrorist organizations such as the so-called Islamic State or the Taliban attack clergy and religious scholars whom they see as "apostates". In June 2018, a suicide bomber attacked religious scholars who had come together for a meeting to condemn suicide bombings.131 The situation in Iran is similar to that in Afghanistan. While conversion to Islam is possible, conversion from Islam to another religion threatens to be charged with “apostasy”, which can result in sanctions up to the death penalty.132 

Saudi Arabia has and implements strict anti-conversion laws. Even children can be sentenced to death for crimes including "apostasy".133 The Saudi authorities systematically apply anti-conversion norms, although no death sentence for "apostasy" has been carried out in recent years.

In Sudan, converting from Islam to other religions is punishable by death, and the convert can escape the penalty if he or she revokes the conversion. The authorities seem to be implementing the law on a case-by-case basis.134 For example, Meriam Yahya Ibrahim was arrested in 2014 and sentenced to death for "apostasy". However, the verdict was overturned as a result of international protests. She was released in 2014 and was able to leave the country. In 2017, the Sudanese authorities charged Mohammad Salih with “apostasy” after he asked whether his identity card could be “non-denominational” instead of “Muslim”. However, the case against him was dropped because a psychiatrist classified him as "mentally unresponsive".135 In March 2020, however, the interim government of Sudan announced that it wanted to abolish the death penalty for "apostasy".136 Yemen by law prohibits the conversion of Islam to other religions and world views with the death penalty, although those accused of "apostates" have the opportunity to "revoke" their "apostasy" and thus avoid punishment.137 

The individual case listed below exemplifies the problematic effects of the anti-conversion and “apostasy laws” on the human right to freedom of religion and belief. It also shows that conversion is sometimes equated with “apostasy”, which is severely punished in some countries.

Conversion case study: Youcef Nadarkhani (Iran)

Youcef Nadarkhani was born in 1977 in Iran to Muslim parents. He converted to Christianity at the age of 19 and became a pastor. The Iranian authorities arrested him in 2006 on charges of "apostasy" and "evangelization", ie spreading his faith, but released him shortly afterwards. He was arrested again in 2009 and sentenced to death in 2010 for "apostasy". He reportedly refused to convert back to Islam on several occasions. The execution warrant for the death sentence was issued in February 2012.

In view of the international outrage, Youcef Nadarkhani was acquitted of "apostasy" in a new trial in 2012 and found guilty only because of the "evangelization" of Muslims. Since he had already served time on it, he was released.

Youcef Nadarkhani and three other Christians, Yasser Mossayebzadeh, Saheb Fadaie and Mohammad Reza Omidi, were arrested again by the authorities in 2016. They were accused of having acted against "national security" as well as being guilty of "Zionism" and "evangelization". You were sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2017. They have been in custody since July 2018.138 Freedom from forced conversion

The international human right to freedom of religion and belief postulates that no one may be subjected to coercion "that would impair his freedom, a religion or belief of his choice", Article 18 paragraph 2 of the UN Civil Covenant. The ban on forced conversion is absolute.

The anti-conversion laws discussed in the previous chapter can de facto result in forced conversions. If states allow converts to be exempt from punishment, provided that they convert back to Islam, this can be equivalent to indirect coercion.

Another form of coercion is the denial of basic rights for minorities, which are only granted to them on condition that they convert. Likewise, the deprivation of certain rights associated with a conversion or turning away from belief can represent an indirect coercion. In Brunei, for example, the mother receives primary custody of their children. However, she loses it when she renounces her belief.139

Forced conversion can also be the result of actions by individuals or groups. Boko Haram, for example, kidnapped children in Nigeria and forced them to convert to Islam.140 Islamist groups similarly forced Yazidis in Syria and Iraq to convert.141 In Pakistan, it is estimated that around a thousand women and girls from religious minorities are kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam every year. After the forced conversion, they are often forcibly married to their kidnappers.142 

The threat of forced conversion can also result in displacement and flight. NGOs report, for example, that local civil servants in Indonesia have threatened members of the Ahamadiyya religious community with death threats to convert to Sunni Islam. The Ahmadis, whose religious community is not recognized in Indonesia and which is often described as heretical, saw themselves forced to leave their home areas and flee because they did not want to give up their faith.143 Restrictions on the spread of one's own religion or worldview (mission)

The right to change (or maintain) a religion or worldview is complementary to the right to spread one's religion or worldview or to pass it on to others. Many human rights instruments are mandatory, and the UN Human Rights Committee believes that the right to profess one's religion includes taking actions to persuade others to believe in a particular religion.144 As part of the “outwardly directed” freedom of belief, the right to spread a religion can be subject to state restrictions that must comply with the applicable human rights restrictions (in the context of the UN Civil Covenant, for example, Art. 18 Paragraph 3). In particular, the protection of the religious freedom of others can play a role.

Some states prohibit any dissemination of religion or belief, regardless of which religion or belief is involved. So forbid Cambodia, Indonesia, Uzbekistan145 and Nepal the spread of religion or belief in general. In Nepal, the constitution states that no one may “convert a person from one religion to another”.146 The Penal Code of Nepal also states that "no one should convert anyone from one religion to another, or attempt or support such a conversion". The sentence varies from a fine to five years in prison.147 The law is also applied in practice, as the case of the Indonesian couple Rita Gonga and the Filipino Richard De Vera shows. Both spouses were pastors in Nepal and were fined and deported in 2018 for allegedly converting Hindus to Christianity.148 General bans on dissemination are problematic because they can prevent forms of expression of a religion or belief that are non-coercive and therefore legitimate.

Discriminatory effects are intensified in those countries in which the dissemination of a religion or belief is forbidden to members of certain religions. In these cases, the prohibitions are particularly applied against minority religions or beliefs.149 Several Muslim-majority countries explicitly prohibit attempts to convince Muslims to adopt another belief.150 Brunei, for example, sanctions any person who persuades or encourages a Muslim to change to a religion other than Islam or to leave Islam with up to five years in prison.151

In some countries only followers of a certain religion are allowed to spread their faith. This regulation can also be discriminatory. In the Maldives, for example, it is forbidden to spread a belief other than Islam or to try to convert a Muslim to another religion.152 There is a similar ban on the spread of “foreign” religions in predominantly Buddhist countries such as Bhutan.153 In some cases, states prohibit the spread of the religion only by certain religious groups. Indonesia, for example, bans Ahmadi Muslims from spreading their religion with a sentence of up to five years in prison.154 In Pakistan, Ahmadis can be imprisoned for up to three years for promoting their religion.155 

Some states do not prohibit all forms of dissemination of religions or beliefs, but only those that involve certain elements of coercion, such as the offer of material or social advantages in the event of a conversion, attracting new members to a religious group, or the exertion of pressure to people in need.

In India, several states prohibit conversions obtained through “coercion” or “deceit”, or through “lure” and “inducement”. Penalties for breaking the law range from fines to several years in prison. Although the laws in India do not generally prohibit conversion, but aim at conversion under duress or pressure, critics such as the Catholic Church fear that the anti-conversion laws could be abused to the detriment of Christians and other minorities.156

The individual case listed below exemplifies the difficult effects of the restrictions on missionary activities on freedom of religion and belief. It shows that religious minorities in particular can be affected by the restriction of the spread of their own faith.

Case study for spreading one's own faith: Sisters of the Holy Cross of the Third Order of St. Francis in Menzingen (Sri Lanka)

In 2003, Roman Catholic nuns - the Sisters of the Holy Cross of the Third Order of St. Francis in Menzingen, Sri Lanka - applied for registration to the Sri Lankan authorities. In July 2003, the Order submitted an application for incorporation, which is carried out in Sri Lanka by enactment. This listed the goals of their activities in more detail, such as teaching in schools, serving in nursing homes and spreading knowledge about the Catholic faith. After the decree was published in the government gazette, an objection to the constitutionality of two clauses of the decree in conjunction with the preamble was filed on July 14, apparently by a private individual.157 The court then checked it again.

The Sri Lankan Constitution protects freedom of expression and freedom of religion and belief. This includes the right to express one's own religion. It protects all religions and worldviews, but gives priority to Buddhism.158

According to the Sri Lankan Supreme Court, "[the provisions of the Order's application] create a situation that combines the observance and practice of a religion or belief with activities that would provide material and other advantages to inexperienced, vulnerable, and vulnerable people in order to adopt a religion propagate". Mixing these activities would inevitably put "unnecessary and inadequate pressure on their freedom of thought, conscience and religion and their freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of their own choosing".159 In addition, the Constitutional Court stated that the propagation and dissemination of Christianity, as it was postulated in the order of the order, “would not be permissible because it would damage the existence of Buddhism”.160

The UN Human Rights Committee, which subsequently dealt with the case, criticized the constitutional court's decision. Among other things, this does not contain sufficient evidence for the assessment that the nuns would propagate religion through coercion or other inappropriate means of pressure by providing material and other benefits for vulnerable people. Conclusion on restrictions on the right to convert or convert others (mission)

Although conversion and “apostasy” are guaranteed by international human rights standards, both rights are among the most competitive in the area of ​​freedom of religion and belief. These rights are still being disregarded and violated by numerous states, many of which have already not accepted them and not recognized them as binding due to corresponding reservations under international law.

Conversion, "apostasy" (apostasy) and mission are sanctioned in some states with severe penalties, sometimes even with the death penalty. In the view of the Federal Government, punishing people who renounce their religion or who change their religion is incompatible with the universal human right to freedom of religion and belief. Another problem is that many states equate conversion and "apostasy" or that the boundary between the two provisions is blurred. For example, converts in predominantly Muslim states are often accused of "apostasy" when they have converted from Islam to another religion. By equating conversion and “apostasy” it is de facto made impossible to change one's faith without becoming an apostate.This is problematic insofar as it makes it impossible for people under national law to orientate themselves towards a religion other than Islam or no religion.

According to international human rights standards, nobody should be forced to convert. Nevertheless, in practice, people are encouraged or compelled to change their religion. For example, some states offer converts impunity should they choose to return to their original religion

The right to spread one's religion (mission) is closely linked to the right to conversion. Nevertheless, numerous states prohibit the spread of their own religion, even if it is practiced without compulsion.


125 Report of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief (2019). A / HRC / 40/58. March 5, 2019. Paragraphs 30 and 31; Humanists International (2018). The Right to Apostasy in the World.; The Law Library of Congress (2014). Laws Criminalizing Apostasy in Selected Jurisdictions.
126 Humanists International (2018). The Freedom of Thought Report; End Blasphemy Laws (2019). Brunei.
127 Humanists International (2018). The Freedom of Thought Report.
128 UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (2018). Concluding observations on the combined third to fifth periodic reports of Malaysia. CEDAW / C / MYS / CO / 3-5. March 14, 2018. Paragraph 53; MalayMail (2017). Malaysia can't enforce, but penalty for leaving Islam is death, mufti reminds apostates. August 8, 2017. ;
129 Moustafa, T. (2018). Constituting Religion: Islam, Liberal Rights, and the Malaysian State. P. 83.
130 See Articles 3 and 130 of the Afghan Constitution; Hussain, A. (2017). Afghanistan’s Constitution between Sharia Law and International Human Rights. Constitution blog. May 22, 2017.;
131 Mashal, M. and Sukhanyar, J. (2018). Bomber Attacks Afghan Scholars Gathered to Denounce Violence. New York Times. June 04, 2018.
132 Art. 167 and Art. 220 of the Criminal Code of Iran.
133 UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (2016). Concluding observations on the combined third and fourth periodic reports of Saudi Arabia. CRC / C / SAU / CO / 3-4. October 25, 2016. Paragraph 24.
134 Human Rights Committee (2018). Concluding observations on the fifth periodic report of the Sudan. CCPR / C / SDN / CO / 5. November 19, 2018. Paragraph 49.
135 The New Arab (2017). Sudanese activist accused of apostasy released after psychiatric examination. May 13, 2017.
136 Humanists International (2020). Sudan Plans to Scrap Death Penalty for Apostasy; March 20, 2020;
137 Humanists International (2018). Freedom of Thought Report.
138 Comité de soutien aux droits de l'homme en Iran (2019). La répression contre les convertis chrétiens s'intensifie en Iran. February 23, 2019.; Iran Human Rights Monitor (2018). Iranian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani arrested after police raid his home. July 23, 2018. home /
139 Islamic Family Law Brunei, Art. 88, Para. 1, Art. 90d.
140 Report of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict in Nigeria (2017). S / 2017/304. April 10, 2017. Paragraphs 32 and 70.
141 Cockburn, P. (2018). Yazidis who suffered under Isis face forced conversion to Islam amid fresh persecution in Afrin. Independent. April 18, 2018.
142 Ackerman, R. (2018). Forced Conversions & Forced Marriages In Sindh. Pakistan. University of Birmingham; Committee against Racial Discrimination. (2016). Concluding observations on the combined twenty-first to twenty-third periodic reports of Pakistan. CERD / C / PAK / CO / 21-23. October 3, 2016. Para. 31; Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (2013). Concluding observations on the fourth periodic report of Pakistan. March 27, 2013. CEDAW / C / PAK / CO / 4. Section 37.
143 Amnesty International (2018). Indonesia: State Officials Complicit in Attacks against Ahamadiyya Religious Minority. June 1, 2018;
144 OHCHR,
145 Cambodia: Order to Control External Religions 2003 and Decree on Proselytism of the Ministry of Sects and Religions 2007; Indonesia: Guidelines for Propagating Religion. Ministerial Decision No. 70/1978; Uzbekistan: Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations Act (1998). Art. 5 (3).
146 Art. 26 (3) of the Constitution of Nepal.
147 Section 158 of the Penal Code of Nepal.
148 Sapkota, R. (2018). Two deported on proselytization charge, The Himalayan Times. July 10, 2018.
149 See e.g. International Commission of Jurists (2018). Challenges to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Nepal. A briefing paper. 15th
150 See Temperman, J. (2010). State-Religion Relationships and Human Rights Law: Towards a Right to Religiously Neutral Governance pp. 219-220; Fox, J. (2015). Political Secularism. Religion and the State p. 193.
151 Brunei's Criminal Code of 2013. Art. 120.
152 Article 6 of the Protection of Religious Unity Act (1994).
153 Pollock, D. (2018). Is there a Right to Freedom from Religion? In: Scharffs, B.G., Maoz, A., Woolley, A.I. (Ed.). Religious Freedom and the Law: Emerging Contexts for Freedom for and from Religion (2018); Fischer, M.G. (2018). Anti-Conversion Laws and the International Response. Penn State Journal of Law & International Affairs. Pp. 1-69.
154 Marshall, P. (2018). The Ambiguities of Religious Freedom in Indonesia. The Review of Faith and International Affairs. Pp. 85-96. Here p. 90;
155 Article 298C of the Pakistani Criminal Code; see UK Home Office (2019). Country Policy and Information Note Pakistan: Ahmadis. March 16, 2019.; Pp. 28-31.
156 Vatican News. 2018. India: Another state curtails religious freedom. May 5, 2018. Indien-religionsfreiheit-regierungspartei-christen-muslime.html
157 Sister Immaculate Joseph and 80 Teaching Sisters of the Holy Cross of the Third Order of Saint Francis in Menzingen of Sri Lanka v. Sri Lanka, Communication No. 1249/2004, U.N. Doc. CCPR / C / 85 / D / 1249/2004 (2005).
158 See Articles 9, 10 and 14 (1) of the Sri Lankan Constitution.
159 Quote from the Human Rights Committee (2005). Sister Immaculate Joseph and others v Sri Lanka (2005). Communication No. 1249/2004. CCPR / C / 85 / D / 1249/2004. November 18, 2005. Paragraph 2.2, 2.3.
160 Ibid.