A pocket-size translation of the Quran has already landed six men in prison in Afghanistan and left two of them begging judges
to spare their lives. They're accused of modifying the Quran and their fate could be decided Sunday in court.
The book appeared among gifts left for the cleric at a major Kabul mosque after Friday prayers in September 2007. It was a translation of the Quran into one of Afghanistan's languages, with a note giving permission to reprint the text as long as it
was distributed for free.
Some of the men of the mosque said the book would be useful to Afghans who didn't know Arabic, so they took up a collection for printing. The mosque's cleric asked Ahmad Ghaws Zalmai, a longtime friend, to get the books printed.
But as some of the 1,000 copies made their way to conservative Muslim clerics in Kabul, whispers began, then an outcry. Many clerics rejected the book because it did not include the original Arabic verses alongside the translation. It's a particularly
sensitive detail for Muslims, who regard the Arabic Quran as words given directly by God. A translation is not considered a Quran itself, and a mistranslation could warp God's word. Translated editions of the Quran abound in Kabul markets, but they
include Arabic verses.
The country's powerful Islamic council issued an edict condemning the book. Police arrested Zalmai as he was fleeing to Pakistan, along with three other men the government says were trying to help him escape. The publisher and the mosque's cleric, who
signed a letter endorsing the book, were also jailed.
Afghanistan's court system appears to be stacked against those accused of religious crimes. Judges don't want to seem soft on potential heretics and lawyers don't want to be seen defending them, said Afzal Shurmach Nooristani, whose Afghan Legal Aid
group is defending Zalmai.
The publisher was originally sentenced to five years in prison. Zalmai and the cleric were sentenced to 20, and now the prosecutor is demanding the death penalty for the two as a judge hears appeals.
Judges are also likely to err on the hard line side, they are so nervous about annoying the Ulema council and being criticized that they tend to push the Islamic cases aside and just defer to what others say," said John Dempsey, a legal
expert with the U.S. Institute of Peace in Kabul. Deferring to the council means that edicts issued by the group of clerics can influence rulings more than laws on the books or a judge's own interpretation of Shariah law, he said.
Update: Unappealing Islam
26th February 2009. See article
On February 15, Zalmai and his cleric friend were in court to hear their fate in an appeals court. Though they barely escaped the death penalty, the three-judge panel upheld a lower court sentence of 20 years in prison for each man.
When reading out the sentence, the chief judge reiterated that under Islamic Shariah law, He who commits such an act is an infidel and should be killed.