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
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.
26th February 2009. See
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.