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Myth-Conceptions Pt III: Apostasy

The next Islamophobic myth that I will attempt to demystify and debunk, is the belief that Apostasy is punishable by death. Apostasy is the act of renouncing a religion. The claim is that a Muslim that turns their back on Islam should be executed under Sharia law. A recurring theme of intolerance and absence of freedom is obvious when looking at the accusations directed at Islam. Everything we’re led to believe about Islam tells us that it is a rigid, conservative and barbaric doctrine, with any act deemed a crime in Islamic law punishable by beheading, hanging, stoning to death or the removal of limbs.

But some of these things do happen in Muslim majority countries don’t they? Unfortunately, they occasionally do. Countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, and Somalia have been the subject of attention fairly recently for this reason.

But it must be stressed that these sickening acts have no basis in Islamic texts, and in most cases carried out in areas under Taliban control, or by vigilante groups. Amina Lawal was freed on appeal, while the sentence of Ashtiani is under review and has been the subject of intense international pressure. Also, none of these cases were pertaining to apostasy. But I feel it’s necessary to give the full picture in order to put things into context, and establish where the perceptions stem from. Let’s also remember that supposedly civilised Western societies and non-Muslim countries prescribe the death penalty for certain crimes. The view can be somewhat clouded from the moral high ground.

As with any of the subjects under scrutiny, there is no shortage of material available at the click of a mouse button. It makes you wonder why Islamophobes can’t seem to find it doesn’t it? I will reference and credit every source as usual. Let’s get into it.

Where does this misunderstanding come from? Must be the Qur’an. Right Dr. Ibrahim B. Syed?

The Qur’an is completely silent on any worldly punishment for apostasy.

But I’ve seen the verse. “WHOEVER CHANGED HIS RELIGION, KILL HIM.” Bukhari Volume 9, Book 84, Number 57

It is this quote from the Prophet that forms the basis of the said ruling, and the sole Tradition that forms the basis of rulings is open to many interpretations. But this is a weak foundation because this hadith was only transmitted from Muhammad (pbuh) by one individual.

So it’s not in the Qur’an but the Hadiths. (The hadith are narrations concerning the words and deeds of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Hadith are regarded by traditional Islamic schools of jurisprudence as important tools for understanding the Qur’an and in matters of jurisprudence. Hadith were evaluated and gathered into large collections during the 8th and 9th centuries. These works are referred to in matters of Islamic law and history to this day.) So surely it forms part of Sharia law?

It was not confirmed by a second person. According to Islamic law, this is insufficient confirmation to impose the death penalty. The Shari`ah has not fixed any punishment for apostasy.

Sounds a bit wishy washy, but carry on.

The hadith is so generally worded that it would require the death penalty for a Christian or Jew who converted to Islam. This is obviously not the prophet’s intent. The hadith is in need of further specification, which has not been documented. Many scholars interpret this passage as referring only to instances of high treason. (e.g. declaring war on Islam, Muhammad (pbuh), God, etc.). There is no historical record, which indicates that Muhammad (pbuh) or any of his companions ever sentenced anyone to death for apostasy. Scholars argue that the death sentence is not for “simple apostasy” (mujarrad al-ridda), but for apostasy accompanied by treason and sedition, or by the abuse and slander (sabb) of the Noble Prophet.

Right, so we’re relying on interpretation? Isn’t that dangerous? Shouldn’t there be some sort of law making it concrete?

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Perfect. Why can’t the Qur’an be more tolerant like this?

“Let there be no compulsion in the religion: Surely the Right Path is clearly distinct from the crooked path.” Al Baqarah, 2:256.

“Those who believe, then disbelieve, then believe again, then disbelieve, and then increase in their disbelief – Allah will never forgive them nor guide them to the path.” Surah An-Nisa’, 4:137.

“Let him who wishes to believe, do so; and let him who wishes to disbelieve, do so.” (Al-Kahf: 29)

The quotation from Surah An-Nisa’, 4:137, shown above, seems to imply that multiple, sequential apostasies are possible. That would not be possible if the person were executed after the first apostasy.

“There is no compulsion in religion..” (2:256) and “For you is your religion and for me is mine” (109:6).

Oh, I see. That’s more like it, much more reasonable. I’d like a second opinion though if that’s alright. There are still a few issues I need explained. If there is no compulsion why make such an issue of treason? Why make it worth killing for?

Asghar Ali Engineer

There is no question of any compulsion in the matter of belief. In fact this is very important principle because for genuine faith one has to choose it freely.

There are other verses in the Qur’an which negate coercion or compulsion. The Qur’an greatly stresses freedom of choice for genuine faith. For example in the verse 49:14 it becomes quite clear. When some Bedouins became Muslims and called it aamanna (i.e. accepted faith), Qur’an said no they have not accepted faith but have only submitted (aslamna).

The whole verse (49:14) is as follows: “The dwellers of the desert say: We believe. Say: you believe not, but say, We submit; and faith has not yet entered into your hearts.”

One can become true believer only when faith enters ones heart and that can happen only by exercise of genuine freedom, not because of social pressure or coercion or convenience.

The Qur’an proved very right: many dwellers of desert (Bedouins) had submitted to Islam and genuine faith had not entered their hearts and so when the Prophet (PBUH) died they thought Islam had lost its power and went back to their old faith. It is referred to riddah (going back) in the history of Islam. The Caliph Abu Bakr declared war against them which is called war of riddah i.e. war against those who went back on their faith.

Now the war of riddah was not a religious but a political act. Many people had renounced Islam collectively and it had created instability and turmoil in the nascent Islamic society. It was a serious threat to social order. It was not a punishment for a person renouncing faith. Thus it was not an act of a person but a political rebellion, which called for political action to stabilise the nascent society. If it had not been put down it would have not only shaken the very foundation but would have restored pre-Islamic tribal order and shattered the unity created by Islam.

The Qur’an does not accept the principle of coercion in matters of faith.

“Clear proofs indeed have come to you from your Lord; so whoever sees, it is for his own good; and whoever is blind, it is to his own harm. And I am not a keeper over you.” (6:105)

“And say: The Truth is from your Lord; so let him who please believe, and let him who please disbelieve. We have prepared for the iniquitous a Fire, an enclosure of which will encompass them.” (18:29).

It is for Allah to punish, not for any human being. And there is complete freedom to believe or not to believe.

The Qur’an also says, “If Allah so desired all those who are in the earth would have believed, all of them. Will you then force people till they are believers?” (10:99).

Ok, so let me summarise what I’ve learnt so far. The Qur’an, the official word of Allah, allows freedom of faith. The only punishment for renouncing Islam would be in the afterlife, much the same as Christianity. Killing in the name of Islam is only allowed for acts of treason. Not only turning your back on Islam, but also attacking it?

Dr. Louay M. Safi

Despite the Qur’anic emphasis on the freedom of conviction and moral autonomy, many classical jurists contend that a person who renounces Islam or converts to another religion commits a crime of ridda (apostasy) punishable by death. However, because the Qur’an is unequivocal in supporting religious freedom, classical jurists relied, in advocating death penalty for ridda (renouncing Islam), on two hadiths (Prophetic statement), and the precedent of the Muslims fighting against Arab apostates under the leadership of Abu Bakr, the first Caliph. Although the two hadiths are reported in Bukhari and are considered authentic, they are both shaky and do not stand to close scrutiny: “Kill whoever changes his religion”, and “Three acts permit the taking of a person’s life: a soul for a soul, the adultery of a married man, and renouncing religion while severing ties with the community”.

Now both hadith statements cannot stand as credible evidence because they contravene numerous Qur’anic evidence. According to most established juristic schools, a hadith can limit the application of a general Qur’anic statement, but can never negate it. In addition, the hadiths even contradict the practices of the Prophet who reportedly pardoned Muslims who committed ridda. One well-known example is that of Abdullah bin Sa‘d who was pardoned after Osman bin Affan pleaded on his behalf.

Abdullah was one of the few persons appointed by the Prophet to write the revealed texts. After spending a while with the Muslims in Madina, he renounced Islam and returned to the religion of Quraysh. He was brought to the court of the Prophet by Osman, who appealed for his pardon. He was pardoned even though he was still, as the narration indicates, in a state of ridda and was yet to reembrace Islam. If ridda was indeed a hadd (plural hudud), neither Osman would be able to plea for him, nor the Prophet would pardon him in violation of the shari`a law. Therefore, I am inclined to the increasingly popular view among contemporary scholars, that ridda does not involve a moral act of conversion, but a military act of rebellion, whose calming justifies the use of force and the return of fire.

I see. Not only is the violence restricted to what is essentially an act of war, but as previously established, is only permissible in Islam when in self defence. One thing though. I keep thinking of the hadith that’s only relayed by one apostle. The really damning one: ‘Whoever changed his religion, kill him.'” This still doesn’t sound like something from the alleged religion of peace. It seems like it’s being swept under the carpet on a technicality.

Davi Barker

Well… this Hadith is unreliable for a number of reasons… first we’ve gotta read the whole thing:

Bukhari Volume 9, Book 84, Number 57:

Narrated by ‘Ikrima:

Some atheists were brought to ‘Ali and he burnt them. The news of this event, reached Ibn ‘Abbas who said, “If I had been in his place, I would not have burnt them, as Allah’s Apostle forbade it, saying, ‘Do not punish anybody with Allah’s punishment (fire).’ I would have killed them according to the statement of Allah’s Apostle, ‘Whoever changed his religion, kill him.'”

This Hadith appears, with minor variations, in all the major hadith collections (Bukhari, Tirmidhi, Abu Da’ud and Ibn Majah), but always with the same chain of narration. The hadith is narrated only ‘Ikrima in the second generation, and only by Ibn ‘Abbas in the first generation. The only person in the chain who ever met the Prophet is Ibn Abbas, who was 10 years old when he converted and 13 when the Prophet died. Further, examining the reliability of the narrators you’ll find the many scholars considered Ikrima a liar, or at the very least untrustworthy. He was known to sympathize with the extremists of his day known as the Khawarij, who despised Ali.

So, to believe that this was an authentic teaching from Muhammad you’d have to believe that he gave a law prescribing the death penalty to a child, and no one else, not even Ali, who had been his companion for 23 years. And you’d have to believe that the boy tells no one except a liar…. and this is how the law is transmitted. But it’s not even transmitted well. In this narration the word for atheists is “Zanadiqa” which is not Arabic but Persian. In another it says, “those who abandoned Islam” and in another it says, “people from al-Zatt who worshipped idols”. These narrations of the same event are irreconsilable. An atheist can not be an idol worshiper. It’s far easier for me to believe that Ikrima invented this out of whole cloth to discredit the authority of Ali.

This becomes obvious if you read the same Hadith in the collection of Abu Da’ud, which ends differently.

Abu Da`ud 3787

Ayyub informed us from ‘Ikrima that that ‘Ali, peace be upon him, burned some people who abandoned Islam. This reached Ibn ‘Abbas and he said: I would not have burnt them with fire. Indeed, the Messenger of God said: ‘Do not punish with the punishment of God.’ I would have killed them in accordance with the word of the Messenger of God. For, surely the Messenger of God said: ‘Whoever changed his religion kill him’.” This reached ‘Ali, peace be upon him, and he said: ‘Woe to Ibn ‘Abbas’.

It’s a Hadith about a rumor that Ali has been burning apostates (which never happened by the way) and when the rumor reached Ali, he says “woe” to the person spreading the rumor. Ibn ‘Abbas was vindicated however. It was reported by Abdullah bin al-Harith that when he visited ‘Ali, he was shocked to find ‘Ikrima bound to a post outside the door of ‘Ali’s house. When he asked ‘Ali regarding this ‘Ali explained by saying: “This wicked man attributes false traditions to Ibn ‘Abbas.” This Hadith is now what it was then… a vicious rumor.

Right. Let me get this straight.

A) Islam allows freedom of religion.

B) Only Allah decides the fate of apostates, after they have died.

C) When killing apostates is mentioned in the Qur’an, it is in the context of a war against Islam and only in self defence.

D) There is evidence to suggest that Bukhari Volume 9, Book 84, Number 57, is a lie or rumour.

So why do we still hear of instances like that of Abdul Rahman?

Rehman Faiz

Abdul Rahman was detained two weeks ago (2006) when his relatives reported to the police about his conversion to Christianity which is forbidden under Islamic Sharia law. Supreme Court Judge Ansarullah Mawlavizada has persisted that Abdul Rahman, is in police custody and that he could face the death penalty if he refused to become a Muslim again.

But that’s just insane!

It is important to note here that the strict Sharia law was introduced and implemented by Taliban, who confronted strict criticism by the secular states especially by the West governments and if sentenced to death, the man will be the first to be punished for conversion since the dismissal of the Taliban regime.

The Sharia law has been criticized due to its clash with the known and recognized global standards of human rights especially its clauses relating to blasphemy, Hudood, Qisas or Diyat issues. These clauses have harshly been used in many of the Muslim countries mostly to set personal scores against minorities, and to badly violate the minorities’ and women’s rights.

The accretion of discriminatory religious legislation in many Muslim countries has fostered an atmosphere of religious intolerance, which contributes to acts of violence directed against Muslim and non Muslim minorities groups like Hindus, Christians Ahmadis, Zikris, and Shias. Even if the Government does not encourage sectarian violence, there are instances in which the Governments failed to intervene in cases of societal violence directed at minority religious groups. In this regard it is considered that the separation of religion from the state is crucial in order to grantee equal and just rights for all.

The basic Islamic ideology in the Quran ensures freedom of religion: “Surely, those who believe, those who are Jewish, the Christians, and the converts; anyone who (1) believes in God, and (2) believes in the Last Day, and (3) leads a righteous life, will receive their recompense from their Lord. They have nothing to fear, nor will they grieve”. 2:62] “Let there be no compulsion in religion” [2:256]

It is important to note here that the Quran authorizes death penalty for murder and other horrendous crimes, not for apostasy: “You shall not kill any person – for GOD has made life sacred – except in the course of justice. If one is killed unjustly, then we give his heir authority to enforce justice” [17:33]. Another Quranic verse states: “For this reason did We prescribe to the children of Israel that whoever slays a soul, unless it be for manslaughter or for mischief in the land, it is as though he slew all men; and whoever keeps it alive, it is as though he kept alive all men” [5:32].

Rahman was released on March 29th 2006 as the Afghan authorities claimed he wasn’t mentally fit to stand trial.

This is probably a rare occurrence due to the fact that conversion from Islam is rare in countries such as Afghanistan. What would happen if it occurred on a more frequent basis? The outcome of this case suggests that intense scrutiny from the international community would be enough for the Government to intervene. This still doesn’t address the fact that the influence of conservative clerics means that freedom of religion is not observed as the Qur’an intended, and is a strong case for the separation of church and state.

Just for balance let me ask you to read the following extracts, compare them to what’s been printed above, and think for a moment. Maybe an expert can shed light on whether they have been taken out of context, or whether there are varying interpretations.

“If your brother…or your son or your daughter….entice you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and worship other gods’…You must kill him…you must stone him with stones, that he die.”

(Deuteronomy, 13:6-10).

2 Chronicles 15:13 which reads: “All who would not seek the LORD, the God of Israel, were to be put to death, whether small or great, man or woman.”

If Western society can operate without taking the above literally, and if the purest word of Allah is one of freedom, tolerance and pluralism. It becomes clear that something has been corrupted at some point in history. I hope to address this complex issue at a later date. Hopefully that will go some way to explaining contradictory attitudes and claims of clerics and scholars, and why such an enormous disparity exists. Whether the perception of Muslim majority countries as primitive, insular, impoverished and barbaric societies is accurate, and if so, why?

I will nudge you in the direction of Egypt as an example of a Muslim majority country that united to end an oppressive and undemocratic regime. Look at Tunisia, and now Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and of course Lybia. I’ll leave the last words to Hasan Zillur Rahim.

While Rahman’s travails remind us that we still have ways to go before the interpretation of Islam is loosened from the grips of dogmatists, we can also take some satisfaction at the progress that has been made.

Implementing Sharia, as the Taliban defined it, became synonymous with beatings and killings. Is it any wonder that anytime patriarchal clerics talk of implementing Sharia, it sends shivers down the spines of Muslims in the affected area, particularly Muslim women?

Hopefully, killing for apostasy and stoning to death (only women need apply) for adultery will soon be a thing of the past as absolutist clerics realize that their hold over Muslim minds and hearts is rapidly dissipating. In the Age of the Internet, ideas travel with the speed of light and millions of Muslims are taking advantage of it to deepen their understanding of Islam and mobilize support for progressive and humane causes. Even Muslims in traditional societies are beginning to see that faith is far more a matter of personal responsibility than a consequence of authoritarian decree. The days of any religious leader thundering “I am right, you are dead” will soon, let us pray, be over once and for all.

To read the full articles, and the case of Fathima Rifqa Bary who’s story is often invoked by Geller, Spencer et al in relation to apostasy, the links are below. I have also included links to what the other major religions say about apostasy for balance.


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