In Memory of Pharbin Malik
Pharbin Malik was sixteen years old when she died on a street in Birmingham, England, in 1989. She was killed by her father because she did not follow his religion anymore.
We could find no photograph of her anywhere online, or in newspaper archives.
It seems the world has forgotten her. And yet, her story reaches forward in time to touch raw and exposed nerves today.
Like there is no picture we can associate with her, so it is that we who leave Islam are somehow faceless, erased from history and kept hidden away.
The absence of her picture, and the silence accompanying her death, reflect the experiences of many of us who choose to leave Islam, and for that choice are forced to live in fear and silence.
We only have the bare details of her story. We want to know more. We want to know her dreams, her hopes, what she held in her imagination. We would love to know what she loved to do, who her friends were, what made her laugh. What was her favourite song? Did she dream of travelling the world? Perhaps her favourite subject at school was English literature or Art or History. Did she ever watch birds sitting on the window sill and imagine what it would be like to fly away?
There is very little detail available online about what happened to her. The Associated Press
covered the story after the trial concluded:
AP , Associated Press Jul. 4, 1989 5:58 PM ET BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND BIRMINGHAM, England (AP)
A devout Moslem who cut his daughter's throat because she decided to become a Jehovah's Witness was convicted of murder Tuesday and sentenced to life in prison.
A jury at Birmingham Crown Court found Abdul Malik, 56, guilty of murdering his 16-year-old daughter, Pharbin, last November in front of her mother and two younger sisters.
Malik, who came to Britain from Bangladesh in 1952, had pleaded innocent to murder. Defense lawyer Michael Wolkind, seeking a manslaughter verdict, claimed Malik was provoked and blinded by his faith.
Prosecutor James Hunt said Malik's standing in the community, where he was on the committee of his mosque, meant more to him than his daughter's life. ''What he undoubtedly did was to sacrifice her for his religion,'' Hunt declared.
The defendant said in the two-day trial that he intended only to frighten his daughter with the 12-inch kitchen knife, but his mind ''went out of control.''
Pharbin had left the family home because of arguments over the Jehovah's Witnesses and her Jamaican boyfriend, the jury was told, but returned home the day before her death.
Hazzava Malik, 15, testified that her mother pleaded with Pharbin to recite a Moslem prayer to her father when he brandished the knife, but she refused and told him she would go to more Jehovah's Witnesses meetings. ''He grabbed her by the hair and pushed her to the floor,'' the sister said. ''He pulled her hair back. She had a lot of hair. This exposed her neck and he put the knife to it. He did that calmly. ''
He said he would not let her go to meetings, but she said she would. Then he cut her throat. He did it like he was sawing at the same spot. My mother tried to stop him and got cut.''
Pharbin, her jugular vein severed, managed to stagger into the street. She died on the sidewalk.
Hunt told the jury Malik had threatened several days earlier to kill his daughter unless she returned to Islam.
''It was no sudden decision,'' the prosecutor said. ''She refused his demands to acknowledge Allah, so he deliberately killed her as he said he would.''
In her book ‘The Cultural Defence’
academic Alison Dundes Renteln mentions Pharbin Malik briefly. There are a couple of paragraphs with some insight into what happened at the trial, found in the footnotes of the book.
“According to reports, Malik thought that Islamic law permitted him to put his daughter to death for apostasy, but experts at the Centre for Islamic Studies said he was mistaken as Bangladeshi Muslims who follow the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence did not put women to death for crimes of apostasy or adultery.”
“Dr Shabbir Akhtar submitted an expert report to the judge: ‘In my view the Koran....does not prescribe any penalty’, but later added: ‘The view is widely held that apostasy is a capital offence and this belief has been transmitted from generation to generation’”.
Regarding the teachings of the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence and the punishment of women who leave Islam that were cited to the court we can counterpoint the following précis from the book ‘Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam
’ by Abdullah Saeed and Hassan Saeed (p 52):
Apostasy of a Woman
All Islamic jurists in all the various Muslim schools proclaim that both men and women can become apostates if they no longer believe in Islam.
As for the punishment for no longer believing in Islam, the Hanafis argue that an apostate woman should not be put to death but instead she should be forced to accept Islam again. If she refuses, she should be beaten and imprisoned until she returns to Islam or dies. To support their view that an apostate woman should not be executed, the Hanafis claim that there is a general prohibition by Islam's Prophet that instructs Muslims not to kill women.
According to the other Sunni Islamic schools - the Malikis, Shafi’is and Hanbalis - the female apostate must repent within three days and accept Islam again, otherwise she faces the death penalty. However, the Malikis make some exceptions: they say that the death penalty on an apostate woman may be delayed due to certain circumstances, such as if she is breast-feeding.
The largest denomination of Muslims belong to the Hanafi school. The Hanafi scholars preach that there are circumstances in which a woman can be deemed worthy of death for leaving Islam. Apostate women are to be beaten and left to die while apostate men are to be executed. The relative leniency of punishment extends only so far as provisional beating, imprisonment and torture until death can be viewed as more progressive than immediate execution.
In 1989, Dr. Shabbir Akhtar, a Cambridge graduate with a PhD in the philosophy of religion, who had submitted an expert report to the trial for Pharbin's murder, published a book called “Be Careful With Muhammad!
”. This book is a reflection on the controversy over Salman Rushdie’s novel ‘The Satanic Verses’. Dr. Akhtar discusses apostasy and Islam, and brings up Pharbin's case in passing, although he does not mention her by name. He speaks of the reasoning given by jurists who believe that apostasy warrants death:
“The general view here is that conversion is a one-way traffic. While converts to Islam are welcome, any leakage from the vessel of faith cannot be tolerated....Female apostates are treated more leniently; indefinite incarceration until recantation. All apostates, male or female, are allowed a period of grace in which they can recant and repent of their decision.
Although many contemporary learned authorities reject the view that apostasy is a capital offence, there are religionists, particularly in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iran, who would opt for capital punishment. The view is that those born in the House of Islam cannot leave the realm of faith without bringing disgrace on the family of the apostate. Typically, the law of Islam rarely needs to be applied in such cases since the apostate’s family will take the law into its own hands and kill the apostate on account of the stigma thought to attach to the rest of the family. Particularly in Indian sub-continental contexts, a man’s izzat (roughly speaking, honour), is thought to be at stake if a family member converts to another faith. There is immense social pressure to disown the apostate if not to kill him or her. In Birmingham recently a Bengali father murdered his own daughter because she left Islam to become a Jehovah’s Witness”.
One of the members of the forum for the Council of ExMuslims of Britain grew up in the same neighbourhood as Pharbin Malik recalls hearing about her murder as a child, and reflects on what happened back then, twenty four years later:
"When I was in my early teens, none of us kids paid any attention to khutbas (sermons), mainly because they were said in a foreign language. But I recall clearly an incident that bothered me intensely as a teenager.
The khutba was about something that was in the local news.
A father had been sent to prison for killing his daughter by slashing her throat, the reason he did this was because she had converted from Islam to Jehovah's Witness.
It was a big story at the time in the community. So when I heard the Imam start to talk about it I concentrated so that I could understand.
I was shocked to hear him say that the father was justified in killing his daughter because she changed her religion and left Islam, I couldn't believe that this guy was condoning murder.
I looked at all the other teens in the back of the mosque. None were paying attention, which I guess is a good thing, it’s different now though, teens are lapping up this kind of stuff. Back then I thought that this imam must be misguided in his understanding of Islam, and that I should not pay attention to him. Now I know what Islam says about apostates, so it seems he was just explaining that to the poor deluded masses.
I would say that, as Muslim teenagers in the 1980's, religion was not so much at the forefront of our lives as it seems to be now for many teens. When the incident happened in our community, we were spared many of the details, which I have subsequently discovered, such as the gruesome level of violence that was involved.
I remember, when older members of the community used to speak of the matter, they were asking questions that any normal person would ask such as "How could someone do that to their own daughter?" and "Was he mentally unstable?"
So the blame seemed to be laid wholly on the father for what happened. When the issue of the daughter changing religion was brought up, the common consensus was that, it didn't warrant her to be killed, she should have been given a chance to return back to Islam.
The mosque that I went to for Friday prayers was run by deobandis. They probably didn't like how the community were putting all the blame on the father, so in the khutba they were saying that he was justified in killing his own daughter for changing her religion. I don't know if other mosques in the area such as the berelwis were saying the same thing.
I have tried to find out what has happened to the family, but no one seems to know much, I just know that they moved away from the area.
It's not a topic the community talks about. I have asked a couple of people what they now think of the incident, they still think the father was totally in the wrong and his actions could not be justified. I sometimes wonder if an incident like that happened now, how many people, especially from the younger generation, would make excuses for the murderer.
The Muslims I was brought up with and the Islam that I remember from my childhood would say that you allow the person their whole life to change their mind, as there may be a chance they will decide to come back to Allah on their death beds with their last dying breath. (It reminds me of something Tariq Ramadan said, that hadd punishments should not be implemented but discussed, in some kind of perpetual cycle therefore never actually getting around to doing it. There's no way he could bring himself to say the punishments are wrong.)
Alas, now I know that Islam is not like that, the Islam I knew would be viewed as being corrupted with plenty of bidah. So there's a push to get people to follow 'Quran and Hadith', which I keep hearing so often now. So they keep pushing and their pushing has made many of us just walk out"
We could not find a picture of Pharbin Malik. We can't even tell you what she looked like. She has almost been erased. She is a footnote in history, mentioned in passing in a couple of books by anthropologists and other academics. Killed by her own family, it seems nobody has any room for her in their memory.
But we memorialise her here, with this article.
We hear the echoes of her story as they resonate in our own lives and in the lives countless apostates of Islam today.
The stigma surrounding apostasy, leaving Islam and openly saying so, is difficult to understand for people who have never had to face these taboos.
Apostates are seen in Islamic canon as sub-human, as the lowest of the low. When an Islamic extremist wants to threaten a Muslim they often carry out takfir
, a pronouncement that their rival is no longer a Muslim, and is thus deserving of punishment and violence, and even death.
The taboo against leaving Islam and the ever present fear and threat of violence deny people the most basic right of free conscience. Because of the fear of being labelled an apostate, criticism of Islam is stifled from within Muslim families and communities, leading to the oppression of individuals, and the suppression of dissent and questioning within Islam.
We ask people to remember the stigma faced by ExMuslims, and the intimidation, ostracism, violence and death threats that so often pressure ExMuslims to remain silent and 'closeted'.
It is inaccurate and unethical to make triumphalist boasts about conversions to Islam while leaving Islam is stigmatised and ExMuslims are living under constant threat.
Is it too much to ask that discussions in the media about conversions to Islam mention the apostasy taboos of Islam?
Is it too much to ask that people from Muslim families be allowed to enjoy the same privileges as their fellow citizens, the privileges of free conscience and secular values?
We believe that the issue of ExMuslims is central to debates about Islam in the modern world, and that it is a problematic omission to discuss conversion to Islam without showing the teachings on apostasy in the major Islamic schools, as well as the lived reality and experiences of how ExMuslims are treated. Evangelism to convert people to Islam whilst the apostasy taboos are suppressed, ignored and denied is not only arrogant and sinister but deeply unethical.
We hope that ex-Muslims can be supported by all those who believe in free conscience and secularism.
Muslims can also face this issue through open discussion and empathy. We do not believe this issue can be hidden or ignored any longer.
There can be no pluralism, liberalism, cosmopolitanism or diversity without the freedom to leave, question and criticise religions.
This is a silence that must be broken.
We know from personal experience the stunted lives and the suppressed conscience that Islam’s apostasy taboos have imposed on so many people. Numerous types of abuse, violence and threats of violence hang over the head of too many people who question and want to leave Islam and be open about it. We think of all those who have had their free conscience snuffed out by this unexamined taboo. We think of those in Britain and elsewhere who have experienced violence because of interlinked notions of collective 'honour' being insulted.
Let us remember Pharbin Malik. If only there had been a support system for her when she needed help and solace. Let us remember all victims of apostasy taboos, takfirism, and religious dogmatism.
In fighting for freedom of conscience, we hope to pay tribute to Pharbin's free spirit. She has not been forgotten. We may not know what she looked like, but we can imagine what she went through. It is not that far from what most ExMuslims go through. No matter who wants her memory erased, we won't let it happen.
We will never forget Pharbin.