Chapter IV: The Theology on Apostasy

In order to understand Islamic doctrinal basis for the opposition and intolerant attitude to apostates from Islam, it is essential to examine Islamic scripture, doctrine and theological opinion; in order to understand where the justification for persecution – and in extreme cases death – originates from. This chapter aims to present the relevant verses pertaining to apostasy, from the Quran and Hadiths – Islam’s first and second Holy sources. The widely approved and recognised literature on the Hadith by Sahih-al Bukhari, heralded by all Muslim authorities including the spiritual heads of Mecca and Medina , Islam’s first and second holiest shrines will be utilised in order to establish the Prophet Muhammad’s beliefs regarding apostasy. Volume 9 of the Hadith is predominantly littered with examples of Muhammad addressing the fate of apostates.

The chapter will then outline prominent Islamic Schools of Thought and key Islamic figures throughout the Muslim world and diaspora communities, highlighting the debate between literalist and liberalist interpretation , the polarisation of which plays out in the current ‘Islam versus Islamism’ debates and rhetoric; of which the Cultural Defence has emerged from the latter. Although there is a fierce defence of the death penalty for apostasy, the chapter concludes that the majority of modern day Islamic thinkers believe apostasy to be taken out of context and irrelevant as coercion of belief is not permissible in Islam. The theological implications of scriptural verses pertaining to Islam will therefore subsequently be put to the test through the treatment of prolific ex-Muslims in a British context, in order to gauge whether freedom of religion truly exists, yet this will be discussed in Chapters 5 and 6.

 

4.1 Quranic verses pertaining to apostasy

The Muslim scholar Dr Muhammad Hamidullah (1957) states in his book Introduction to Islam that the custodian and repository of the original teachings of Islam is derived from the scripture of the Quran and Hadith – ‘the Quran and the Hadith are the basis of all Islamic law’ (Hamidullah 1957: 163). Furthermore, although

the Quran does not present the reader with a systematic theology on apostasy, its teachings on the seriousness of apostasy, and on non-Muslims became more severe in the verses revealed later in the Medina period. These verses differ from the earlier, Meccan period, which are more tolerant towards non-Muslims. It is widely believed that these later verses have abrogated the earlier ones (Meral 2008:20).

 

Quranic verses pertaining to apostasy

 1. [Your enemies] will not cease to fight against you till they have turned you away from your faith, if they can. But if any of you should turn away from his faith and die as a denier of truth- these it is whose works will go for nought in this world and in the life to come; and these it is who are destined for the fire, therein to abide (2:217).

 2. How would God bestow His guidance upon people who have resolved to deny truth after having attained to faith, and having borne witness that this Apostle is true, and [after]4all evidence of the truth has come unto them? For God does not guide such evildoing folk. Their requital shall be rejections by God, and by the angels, and by all [righteous] people (3:86-87).

3. Truly, as for those who are bent on denying the truth after having attained to faith and then grow [ever more stubborn] in their refusal to acknowledge the truth, their repentance [of other sins] shall not be accepted: for it is they who have truly gone astray (3:90).

4. They would have you disbelieve as they themselves have disbelieved, so that you may be all like alike. Do not befriend them until they have fled their homes for the cause of God. If they desert you seize them and put them to death wherever you find them. Look for neither friends not helpers among them… (4:89).

5. But as for him who, after guidance has been given to him, cuts himself off from the Apostle and follows a path other than that of the believers- him shall We leave unto that which he himself has chosen, and shall cause him to endure hell… (4:115).

6. They swear by God that they said nothing (evil), but indeed they uttered blasphemy and they did it after accepting Islam; and they meditated a plot which they were unable to carry out: this revenge of theirs was (their) only return for the bounty with which God and His Apostle had enriched them! If they repent, it will be best for them; but if they turn back (to their evil ways), God will punish them with a grievous penalty in this life and in the Hereafter: they shall have none on earth to protect or help them (9:74).

 

Quranic verses permitting freedom of religion

1.Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from error: whoever rejects Evil and believes in God hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And God heareth and knoweth all things (2:256).
2. And if they surrender themselves unto Him, they are on the right path; but if they turn away- behold, your duty is no more than to deliver the message (3:20).

 

3. Means of insight have now come unto you from your Sustainer [through his divine writ]. Whoever, therefore, chooses to see, does so for his own good; and whoever chooses to remain blind, does so his own hurt. And [say unto the blind of heart]: ‘I am not your keeper (6:104).

4. It rests with God alone to show you the right path: yet there is [many a one] who swerves from it. However, had He so willed, He would have guided you all aright (16:9).(Source Meral 2008: 20-33)

 

Hadith verses pertaining to apostasy

 

 1. Allah’s Apostle said, “The blood of a Muslim who confesses that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that I am His Apostle, cannot be shed except in three cases: In Qisas for murder, a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse and the one who reverts from Islam (apostate) and leaves the Muslims (Volume 9, Book 83, Number 17). 

2. Some Zanadiqa (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 Islamic religion, then kill him’ (volume 9 Book 84, number 57). 

3. Behold: There was a fettered man beside Abu Muisa. Mu’adh asked, “Who is this (man)?” Abu Muisa said, “He was a Jew and became a Muslim and then reverted back to Judaism.” Then Abu Muisa requested Mu’adh to sit down but Mu’adh said, “I will not sit down till he has been killed. This is the judgment of Allah and His Apostle (for such cases) and repeated it thrice. Then Abu Musa ordered that the man be killed, and he was killed (volume 9 Book 84, number 58).

 

 4. No doubt I heard Allah’s Apostle saying, “During the last days there will appear some young foolish people who will say the best words but their faith will not go beyond their throats (i.e. they will have no faith) and will go out from (leave) their religion as an arrow goes out of the game. So, where-ever you find them, kill them, for who-ever kills them shall have reward on the Day of Resurrection (Volume 9, Book 84, Number 64)  

 

Leading Mujtahid (Jurists’) Interpretation on Apostasy

The three main Islamic schools of thought – Malik, Hanbali and Hanafi schools categorically uphold the death penalty as the ultimate consequence for apostasy from Islam. The Malik school espouses that

 

‘whoever changes his religion should be executed. As far as we can understand this command of the Prophet means that the person who leaves Islam to follow another way, but conceals his kufr and continues to manifest Islamic belief, as is the pattern of the Zindiqs and others like them, should be executed after his guilt has been established. He should not be asked to repent because the repentance of such persons cannot be trusted. But the person who has left Islam and publicly chooses to follow another way should be requested to repent. If he repents, good. Otherwise, he should be executed’ (Malik 1994: 317).

 

Similarly, the Hanbali School adheres to the interpretation of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal who states that ‘any adult and rational man or woman who renounces Islam and chooses kufr should be given a three day period to repent. The person who does not repent should be executed’ (Mawdudi 1994: 17). The Hanafi School, followers of Imam Abu Hanifah offers no possibility for remorse for those well versed in Islamic doctrine: ‘the person who understands Islam well and deliberately renounces Islam, should be executed without any invitation to repentance’ (Mawdudi 1994: 17).

 

The Contemporary Islamic Scholarly debate on Apostasy

 

Islamic debate concerning the Apostasy Question dates back to the time of Muhammad yet there remains no single accepted consensus as to the treatment of ex-Muslims. Instead, the fate of apostates is contingent upon the literalist versus liberalist interpretation and contextualisation of Islamic doctrine pertaining to apostasy, a struggle that remains contemporary to the Muslim world.

 

The literalist interpretation of the Quran and Hadiths in relation to apostasy is adhered to by al-Shafi’i (767- 820 CE), who understands Quran (2: 217) as justification for the death penalty. Similarly, Abdul Ala Mawdudi (1903-1979), one of the founders of the Indian Islamic and politically conservative organisation Jamat-i Islami , stated in his book The Punishment of the Apostate that Islamic scripture permits the killing of those who desert the faith.

 

This literalist approach conflicts with liberal scholarly rhetoric, espoused by figures such as Shakyh Muhammad Sayyid Tantani, Grand Imam of al-azhar since 1996, in believing that those Muslims who renounce their belief should be left alone – unless he poses a threat to Islam. Additionally, the Islamic department of al-azhar university ‘has called for the penalty for apostasy to be null and void’ (Subhani 2005: 25), extending the timeframe in which the apostate can repent and revert to Islam, from three days to the apostates’ lifetime. Technically speaking therefore, this allows the apostate to renounce his faith repeatedly then revert back whenever he wishes to over the course of his life. Furthermore, Sheikh Gamal al-Banna, Egyptian thinker, author and journalist states in an article entitled No Punishment for Ridda: Freedom of thought is the backbone for Islam: ‘these verses are clear with regard to ridda in Islam; they make no mention of any torture, punishment for the murtadd in this world…the only dreadful and terrifying punishment is the rage of Allah’ ( Council of American-Islamic Relations 2015:1 ) .

 

Renowned European Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan, furthers this liberalist interpretation through highlighting case examples of Muhammad’s tolerance towards those individuals who left Islam during his lifetime, ‘such as Hisham and Ayyash, or who converted to Christianity such as Ubaydallah ibn Jahsh’ , indicating therefore that ‘the one who changes his or her religion should not be killed’ (Berkley Centre 2007:1). Moreover, the British anti-extremist Muslim think tank, Quilliam Foundation in its 2013 No Compulsion in Religion: Islam & Freedom of Belief report repeatedly asserts that the act of renunciation is between man and God, therefore the notion of an earthly punishment is against the teachings of Islam.

 

In conclusion, it is evident that a strong case for the death penalty emerges for apostates, particularly demonstrative in the acts of killing as outlined in the Hadith. Since there is no clear, structural passage on apostasy, those verses that address the issue of apostasy appear to contradict, some upholding the necessity to kill the disbeliever, whilst others upholding freedom of belief; it is essential then to turn to scholars of such Scripture to provide coherency and correction to confusion and confliction of Islamic doctrine concerning the fate of the apostate. Despite the majority of scholars opposing the death penalty for the ex-Muslim, the persecution of apostates continues to rise in the orthodoxy-heterodoxy context; thereby initiating doubt as to whether freedom of religion toward the apostate truly exists.

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