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Islam and its Apostates

A recent article in the Times about Muslim apostates – those who renounce Islam – discusses a Dutch organisation called the Committee for Ex-Muslims and speaks of their mission in a supportive manner. Since I once considered myself an atheist, … Read More

By / September 18, 2007

A recent article in the Times about Muslim apostates – those who renounce Islam – discusses a Dutch organisation called the Committee for Ex-Muslims and speaks of their mission in a supportive manner. Since I once considered myself an atheist, the question of how one leaves Islam – and how one might be punished for it – has long fascinated me.

It is deplorable to me that vast parts of the Islamic legal corpus, and vast numbers of Muslims, actually believe that Islam sanctions killing its apostates. In a pamphlet that I previously wrote, I developed an Islamic legal argument that there is no penalty for leaving Islam.

Furthermore, a Muslim of conscience must recognize all Quranic verses which themselves show that God did not want that Muslims kill anyone for leaving the faith. The operative verse here is 4:137: “Behold, as for those who come to believe, and then deny the truth, and again come to believe, and again deny the truth, and thereafter grow stubborn in their denial of the truth – God will not forgive them, nor will He guide them in any way.” If God wanted apostates dead, then why in this verse does God entertain the prospect of repeatedly choosing and alternating between belief and disbelief? Yes, God is saying that he will not forgive such people, but he is not saying that they ought to be killed by humans in this world. Every time the death threat for apostasy shows up, this verse must be used in rebuttal. Repeatedly. Repetition teaches even the donkey. Other verses that support this verse include 2:217, 2:108, 3:90, 16:106.

The pamphlet then goes on to discuss the various hadith-narrations which are used to support the death penalty, countering each of them and undermining their authority on the basis of recognized hadith scholars.

My argument was not rooted in an appeal to universal human rights, but rather in the Quran. My assumption was that an extremist Muslim is not likely to be swayed by appeals to natural law, but has more chance of reacting favourably to Islamic law. It was written in a conversational style, and I would advise any public figure who is a Muslim but wishes to renounce Islam to put in in his or her rhetorical arsenal. It cites all Quranic verses which unambiguously counter the extremist view about the death penalty for apostasy, while also undermining the various hadith narrations which are used to justify it.

In one respect, the Times article paints too rosy a picture because it discusses only apostates in the west. Here, no one recognises a punishment for apostasy, and therefore, any violence against those who abandon Islam is already illegal. The real battle over the death penalty for apostasy is in the Muslim world. There, apostates aren't winning; they aren't even close to starting to show their faces. The Muslim world suffers from institutionalised violence against apostates. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia and Egypt all have laws on the books that punish apostasy with death.

Reading about a 22-year-old in a western country publicly renouncing Islam – and living to tell about it – is good. But, quite frankly, for every Ehsan Jami in a western country, the Muslim world is replete with hundreds and thousands of closet apostates: people who, but for the violence that the state promises them for leaving Islam, would not be Muslims; people who are therefore forced to live a life of extreme duplicity and mental stress.

I suppose I feel strongly about the social hypocrisy of being an apostate because at the height of my collegiate atheism I took a trip to Pakistan and had to engage in a series of dissimulations that took an immense metal toll. In any event, that the Muslim world needs to do more with respect to the apostasy issue.

But what does doing more even mean? How does one challenge an idea that become so entrenched? My suggestions are two-fold. First, the primary argument against the death penalty for apostasy needs to be an Islamic one. This makes sense from a pragmatic perspective because prosecutors and jurors are all Muslims. The case of Hussein Ali Qambar, a Muslim who openly converted to Christianity in Kuwait and was condemned even by liberals, demonstrates that until vast numbers of Muslims are educated about apostasy being OK from an Islamic perspective, even liberal Muslims will not be helpful to making headway in this area.

Couching the issue as an Islamic one also makes sense from an ethical perspective, because it has the effect of shaping the future of Islam in a positive manner. One useful effort comes from the Apostasy and Islam website, which is run by Muslims. It lists Muslim authorities from all eras of Islamic history that oppose the death penalty for apostasy (the number is more than 100 now) – and it includes some very impressive Muslim authorities.

While more Muslim jurists are now coming out against the death penalty for apostasy, they are – regrettably – simultaneously allowing the crime of "sedition" to be punishable. Sherman Jackson, a respected Islamic jurist in the US, buys into this position. He says:

What is developing into the going opinion among modern jurists is that apostasy carries no earthly sanction at all, unless it is engaged in as an act of sedition, where the point is not simply to assert one's freedom of conscience but to make a political statement with the aim of undermining the basis of Muslim society.

Muslim jurists ought to realise that a charge of "sedition" is going to be used against anyone who converts away from Islam, whether the intention was actually seditious or not. This is because almost all Muslim societies hold prejudiced views against converts and will punish such individuals at every opportunity. Unequal application of laws is a reality, and jurists have to be sensitive to that fact.

Muslim jurists also have to recognise that a person who wishes to convert should not have to live under the threat of being brought before a court. Conversion should be allowed as a matter of natural right. If "Muslim society" might be up in arms about a conversion, it is the society – not the person converting – that needs to be regulated.

Further, Muslim jurists have to be asked on what Quranic basis they are sanctioning the crime of sedition. There is no Quranic verse related to sedition. Are they basing it on a hadith? In which case they have to demonstrate why the hadith trumps the fact that the Quran has said nothing about sedition. Are jurists simply extracting the crime out of thin air? Are they relying on the "fasad fil ardh" (disorder in the land) verse of the Quran? If that is the case, how do they reply to the fact that under traditional Islamic law the "fasad" verse is supposed to apply to acts such as terrorism? Are they making the ridiculous argument that terrorism and conversion are one and the same? That position is not tenable under any interpretation of Islamic law.

My second suggestion for moving forward on the apostasy issue, is that commentators of all religions and ideologies the world need to become smart enough to recognise when a particular Islamic reform has the effect – somewhere down the road – of assisting in repealing the death penalty for apostasy. This way, these reforms can be celebrated and pushed in the the media for positive reinforcement.

I have written previously about one such reform in an article entitled Islam's organic liberalism: when the Mufti of Egypt came out and said that one's choice of religion was something between man and God. While the Mufti's fatwa did not go as far as I would have liked, I pointed out that it did create the conditions for later advancement in this area.

Another example about a reform that, down the road, will help in repealing the death penalty for apostasy is the Amman Message from the king of Jordan, which I have written about, too. The Amman Message created a massive list of heads of states and religious scholars the world over who said that one Muslim could not declare another Muslim out of the fold of Islam. The Message did not go so far as to say that people who renounce Islam should not be punished. But it did make a very positive push in the area of freedom of thought. Both the fatwa by the Mufti and the Amman Message should be celebrated by western media.

Unfortunately, western media coverage in this area is often very unhelpful. The Times article, for example, tries to show that the death penalty for apostasy is based in the Quran, citing a very inflammatory version of verse 4.89:

Whosoever turns back from his belief, openly or secretly, take him and kill him wheresoever ye find him, like any other infidel. Separate yourself from him altogether. Do not accept intercession in his regard.

That is simply wrong. First of all, the English translation is atrocious, with Pickthall, Shakir and Yusuf Ali all offering much clearer (and more honest) interpretations. Second, and most importantly, the verse refers to a particular set of deserters from Muhammad's army who were effectively engaged in treason. Third, that pro-death penalty interpretation of verse 4:89 is the doing of a Middle Age exegete named "Baidawi." His interpretation is not considered valid anymore. As already explained, the "going opinion" of Muslim jurists is not to consider 4:89 as part of the apostasy corpus.

If the Times' aim is to provide enlightenment on the issue of apostasy, it really should be more careful with its Quranic quotations. The lives of apostates are already under such duress that they do not need the media turning into unwitting promoters of regressive readings of Islam.

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