Understanding the mindset of Rahman Celcom

Posted on June 21, 2008


I know of at least two very senior Sessions Court judges who have declined appointment as judges of the High Courts.

Both are men and both profess Islam.

The common reason given by both : drug trafficking offences under section 39B, Dangerous Drugs Act, 1952, which carries the mandatory death sentence, are tried in the High Court.

Section 39B(2) of the Act reads : Any person who contravenes any of the provisions of subsection (1) shall be guilty of an offence against this Act and shall be punished on conviction with death.

‘shall be punished on conviction with death’ simply means the judge has no discretion in meting out the punishment.

There is no ambiguity in the language in the statute.

There is only one sentence available upon conviction.


One judge said he was troubled that there was no provision in Islam for the death penalty for drug trafficking. He said he might not be so troubled with the death sentence provided for murder under the Penal Code given that, as he understood it, this was permissible in Islam. Even so, he would have been more comfortable if it was not mandatory, but reserved for the worst instances of murder, as even Islam allowed for its remission in given circumstances.

The other judge said he just could not bring himself to pass the sentence of death over another person. He said that he simply would not be able to live with himself after.

What I want to observe here is the mindset of two men who were reluctant to accept an advancement in their judicial careers solely because they were not prepared to be put in a situation where the clear, unambiguous letter of the law required them to pass the sentence of death over convicted drug traffickers and murderers.


Rahman Celcom insists that apostates from Islam must be put to death.

He says this is God’s law.

God’s law, so he contends, made up by the Holy Qur’an and the the sunnah ( practices ) of the prophet.

As he has not gone into the sunnah to support his position in our recent discussions, I too will not.

From the Holy Qur’an, he hangs his entire contention on one verse : Surah 2 verse 54.

This translation is from Abdullah Yusof Ali, minus the words in brackets and the contentious words in the Arabic text and its translation in red. Rahman had quoted this in one of his comments.

And remember Moses said to his people: “O my people! Ye have indeed wronged yourselves by your worship of the calf: So turn to your Maker, and slay yourselves ( fa-qtulu anfusa-kum ); that will be better for you in the sight of your Maker.” Then He turned towards you; For He is Oft-Returning, Most Merciful.

I ask you to first note the unmistakable difference between ‘shall be punished on conviction with death” of section 39B(2) and ‘slay yourselves’ of Surah 2 verse 54.

In my view, the former, read in the context of the entirety of the section, is an imperative to a judicial authority to impose the sentence of death. This is what persuaded two judicial officers to decline a promotion.

The latter could, arguably, be read as a directive to commit suicide or to kill each other. However, in my view, there is nothing in the verse that would permit an interpretation that ‘slay yourselves’ could be read, like section 39B(2), as an imperative to someone in authority to impose the sentence of death.

Yet Rahman Celcom insists that it does.

This is the second point that I would ask you to note here.

Two Muslim judges want to avoid a law that unmistakably orders the passing of the death sentence. Why? Passing the death sentence troubles them.

Rahman Celcom, on the hand, insists that a verse that might, at best, be read as a directive to commit suicide or to kill each other, in fact sanctions some authority to pass the sentence of death.

In my ‘Judge ye the tree by its fruit’ post, I had asked Rahman Celcom to reconcile his obsession with killing the apostates against the following command of God :

‘Tell those who believe to forgive those who hope not for the days of Allah; in order that He may requite folk what they used to earn.’ – Surah 45 verse 14

My understanding of this verse is that those who believe should forgive those who do not believe, or more simply, the unbelievers of Islam.

And an apostate, in my view, comes within the category of such unbelievers.

This verse, as I understand it, allows no room for any punishment to be inflicted by a believer on an unbeliever of Islam, including an apostate, for God commands us to forgive them.

I would imagine that for a great many Muslims who may suffer a similar anxiety as the two Sessions Court judges with the death penalty, my understanding of this verse might prove to be a source of welcome relief. Check it by all means, but surely for one who finds the thought of taking the life of another quite dreadful, this verse might offer comfort.

Not so Rahman Celcom.

He replied, not by way of a comment to the post, but in a posting in his own blog.

This is what he said :

I struggle to find what this verse has anything to do with apostasy? The term “hope not for the days of Allah” could mean Muslims who are not prepared for the Day of Judgement.

Note that even as Rahman Celcom is prepared to read this verse as applying to Muslims who are not prepared for the day of judgment, he will not open his mind to the possibility that it would apply equally to all category of unbelievers of Islam.

Why is this man determined to pass a sentence of death by a convoluted reading of a verse that does not command a death sentence?

I think I found my answer in Rahman Celcom’s response to a commentary by Abdullah Yusof Ali to Surah 2 verse 54 that I had alluded to in the ‘Judge the tree’ post. I reproduce Yusof Ali’s commentary below, the relevant portion highlighted in red.

“Moses speech may be construed literally, as translated, in which case it reproduces Exod. xxxii 27-28 but in a much softened form, Old Testament says : “Go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, And every man his companion, and every neighbour…and there fell of the people that day 3,000 men.” A more spiritualized version would be that the order for slaying was given by way of trial, but was withdrawn, for God turned to them in forgiveness. A still more spiritualized way of construing it would be to take ‘anfusakum’ as meaning ‘soul’ not ‘selves’. Then the sense of Moses’s speech (abbreviated) would be : ‘By the worship of calf you have wronged your own souls,; repent; mortify (=slay) your souls now; it will be better in the sight of God.”

Rahman Celcom responded to this, not by way of a comment here, but in a post in another blog of his. This is what he says.

Haris quoted Yusuf Ali’s comment in his footnote. What Haris needs to ask is why has Yusuf Ali translated the part as ‘killing’ if he thinks that the verse actually carries another meaning. Plus, Yusuf Ali offers no justification for what he termed as “spiritualized way of understanding verse 02:54” since there is no such thing as that at all. If we want to understand the Quran in a spiritualized way, why do we need translation at all?

For Rahman Celcom, there is no spiritualized understanding of the Holy Qur’an.

Posted in: Digressions