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Apostasy and the Challenge to Religious Freedom

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[This is the first in a series of my notes on the International Institute of Islamic Thought conference on iftaa and fatwa held in Herndon, VA. These notes are raw material for an edited report I will write on the conference and represents my perception of the discussion. The proceedings will be published by IIIT at a later time. The Minaret of Freedom Institute thanks IIIT for the grant that makes the publication of these notes possible. Responsibility for any errors in the notes is mine alone.]

Session 1. Moderator: Yakub Mirza
Paper Presentation by Abdullah Syeed (University of Melbourne, Australia)
“Apostasy and the Challenge to Religious Freedom”

Abdullah Saeed: IIIT has been at the forefront of Islamic thought.  Dr. Alalwani’s conclusions in la iqraha fi-dîn [No Compulsion in Religion] on apostasy, although independently derived, are similar to my own. We need to move away from the classical Islamic position on the death penalty for apostasy to something like the modern position on religious freedom. There is nothing in the Qur’an or the Prophet’s actual practice to support the classical position.

The standard of religious freedom that Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists are comfortable with is article 18 of the declaration of human rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” In general Muslims have no problem with this article except with “freedom to change his belief or religion.” Most Muslim majority countries today are in the company of countries like China, Burma, North Korea in terms of restriction on religion-and I don’t mean on non-Muslims, I mean on Muslims.

Historically, with the exception of particular atypical incidents, Muslims have been very tolerant not only of other religions, but of differences among Muslims. The freethinker ar-Razi died a natural death, and even al-Ghazali was unharmed as he went through periods of very different thinking in his life. You don’t have to go far into European history to find religious restrictions even beyond those now practiced in Muslim majority countries.

Even Muslim countries that have approved the declaration of human rights have expressed reservations about the freedom to change religion clause. At the time of its debate, the phrase was included at the insistence of the Lebanese delegate and objected to as unIslamic the by the Saudi delegate, but approved of by the Pakistani delegate.

Dr. Alalwani said that some of his colleagues urged him not to publish la iqraha fidîn while he was president of IIIT as it might adversely affect the institution. We have also seen ministers in Pakistan gunned down for challenging the anti-blasphemy laws.

It is important to rethink these laws because religion is the most important thing in our society. It is a fundamental human right in international and Islamic documents (like the Cairo document). To deny a person religious freedom is to deny him his humanity. Without religious freedom life in the U.S. would be very different. Without implying a casual connection, one must acknowledge the connection between religious freedom and gender equality, prosperity, and a host of other things.

Ridda means apostasy and the word and its cognates occur in the Qur’an as well as the hadith. Apostasy laws rely heavily on the hadith especially one hadith that “whoever changes his religion kill him” and there is remarkable agreement among the jurists, Sunni and Shi`a on the death penalty for apostasy. But such a law is counter-productive, turning apostasy into a political act. It allows authoritarian regimes to curtail all kinds of freedom of their Muslim majority. IIIT could not publish the books it publishes in such countries and leaders would likely be in prison.  I am not relying on any Western notion of human rights; I am relying on what the Qur’an literally says, although we can have debates on interpretation.

I make a clear distinction between what the Prophet did and assertions about what he said.  I shall focus on hadithic claims and claims of ijma`. There is no Qur’anic text supporting the death penalty for apostasy.

One hadith says whoever changes his religion kill him and another is similar. Both are in authentic compilations. We must question authenticity not only of the transmission chain, but of the substance of the text.  The number of verses in the Qur’an supporting freedom of religion is, according to al-Alwani, about 200 and I myself have identified a hundred and fifty. What could have abrogated these?

Imam Shafi tried to remove the distinction between sunnah and hadith. Others like Abu Hanifa did not just jump onto hadith, but applied reason. We must retain the role of hadith in our tradition, but bring new methods of approaching them.

There are many problems with “who changes his religion kill him.” First, with chains of transmission. It was transmitted by a student of Ikramah and is well known in the second century of Islam but was not well known in the early era. Some very senior Muslim scholars believed Ikramah was a liar, including Ibn Abbas the mentor of Ikramah. Imam Muslim would accept no hadith from Ikramah. Next there is the contradiction between this hadith and the actual practice of the Prophet. Some apostasized after night journey. There were a number of apostates in Medina, and even one of his scribes apostasized, but he killed none of them. Dr. al-Alwani said there is no evidence the Prophet ever ordered an apostate to be killed, a conclusion reached by other scholars as well. The principle that a saying of the Prophet should have precedence over the practice of the Prophet must be questioned.

Granting for the sake of argument that the Prophet actually said this, we still need to know the context. Classical jurists were aware of the issue of context but they never formalized it. There were conspirators who urged hypocrites to feign Islam and then repudiate it. If a Muslim in the context of the wars at that time left Islam he would literally go over to the enemy side. Religious and political identities are intertwined. Another hadith says the person who leaves his religion and separates himself from the community should be killed. What does this mean if not that one joins the enemy? Ibn Rushd and Mawardi make a close connection between apostasy and fighting on the side of the enemy. Yet, Mawardi discussed apostasy apart from the question of hadd. Both Abu Hanafa and Jafari exclude women from the death penalty for apostasy. Abu Hanafa says explicitly it is because women do not take up arms against the community.

This leaves the claim of ijmâ`(consensus). Of course, there is no ijmâ` on the concept of ijmâ` itself, but I claim there is no ijmâ` on this question either. When Umar heard of apostates being killed, Umar said “I did not order it; I had nothing to do with it,” indicating that he would have imprisoned them and encouraged them to return to Islam.  Hadd has been used to mean compulsory enforcement vs. ta`zîr (discretionary enforcement).

Given this, why did the jurists develop the death penalty? My theory is that under Mawiyya, Yazid, etc., the punishment was common.  “I see lots of heads in front of me ready for harvest” reflects the spirit of the time. It was also the period in which many hadith were fabricated.

Accountability is a personal, not a collective thing. The state does not drag us to paradise. Lâ iqrâha fiddîn is not a commandment against coercion in religion, but a negation of the very concept. For what was Hallaj killed? If it was for saying “I am the Truth” then there are many others who should be killed, including al-Ghazali.

The notion of protection of religion needs to be broadened. We need to keep a clear sense of the hierarchy of texts. Linguistic analysis is the starting point for understanding the text, but it cannot be the end. Context, chain of transmission, and evaluation of the text must all be considered. We must consider both the meaning of the text and how we can relate to it in the contemporary period.

Mahmoud Ayoub: There are people who are forced to feign apostasy. This is the Qur’anic verse “except for him who is coerced but his heart is full of faith.”  Lâ iqrâha fidîn is in the context of a young man who was converted by some Christian oil merchants from Syria and his father asked the Prophet if he would be held accountable for not preventing his son from conversion. The hadith in question is Abassi propaganda against the Alawis and should not be considered hadith at all. The alternative hadith gives three cases only in which capital punishment is authorized and does not use cognate of ridda.

The `uraina tribe is a complicating factor. Were they killed for apostasy or hirâba (war on society)? Bukhari has no chapter on ridda, only on hirâba. The case of Umar was when Mu`az ibn Jabar found a man who was a Jew who converted to Islam and then apostasized and Mu`az insisted he should be killed on the spot. Umar said he should have been given three days to repent and then be killed.

Kenneth Honerkamp: What is the downside of religious freedom? Most of the Ten Commandments are religious prescriptions that limit religious freedom. For Evangelists religious freedom means the right to proselytize anywhere in the world.

M. Ayoub: Zaffarullah Khan was the man representing Pakistan at the time of the debate on declaration of human rights and Jamil Barudi a Lebanese Christian represented Saudi Arabia.

Vinay Khetia: Patricia Crone in her Freiberg Lecture says Muslims love to talk about these things but have yet to implement them.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad: I find the speculation on the origin of the jurist’s acceptance of this hadith unconvincing.  Instead we should ask what are the jurists trying to achieve when they incorporate the hadith into their fiqh.

Daoud Nassim: The Qur’an is clear about the punishment of apostasy by God on the day of judgment.  The only question is whether it is punishable by people in this life.

M. Ayoub:  Umar used to beat an unrepentant alcoholic who converted to Christianity and Umar exiled him. The man joined the Byzantine army against the Muslims and Umar swore he would no longer exile people; so there is no doubt he was defending the death penalty against traitors.

Saeed: Having the freedom to convert is better than encouraging hypocrisy. In Medina this openness existed and the Prophet is the best example for us.

M. Ayoub: My belief is the third source of Islamic law is ijtihad. Both Shafi and Maliki jurists said this hadith is vague as it seems to require killing Christians who become Muslims. It is the other hadith that we need to address, because it does suggest that  an apostate could be killed.

Ahmad: The Prophet punished treason rather than apostasy.

Saeed: A new book by IIIT on authenticating hadith may be very helpful. Bukhari focused on chains of transmission only, which at that time was the primary concern.

Louay Safi: Historically the hadith were peripheral compared to the emphasis we find today.

M. Ayoub: Bukhari and Muslim are really fiqh manuals, organized topically.

Saeed: There was a hadith movement in early Islam with tension between them and other jurists, but over time they came to dominate. The question is confusion between hadith and sunnah.

Ahmad: The distinction between hadith and sunnah was addressed in a previous IIIT summer institute.  Imam Malik was concerned with the living sunnah, the practice of the people of Medina, rather than with hadith per se and his book is not one of the sittah (the six hadith collections of the Sunni).

Abubaker al-Shingieti: How should the legislators in Muslim countries deal with converts to Christianity who become propagandists against Islam?

Alexandre Caeiro: How do we think about hegemonic discourses? How do questions of religious freedom connect with geopolitical concerns.

Anwar Haddam: Was punishment for ridda or for actions by the apostates, not just as combatants, but as spies?

Ahmad: A hypocrite makes a better spy than an apostate.

Rashid Lamptey: There is a hadith that the blood of Muslims can be spilled in only three cases: the married person who commits adultery, the murderer, and the one who forsakes their religion and forsakes the community to take up arms against Allah. There are two categories of those who forsake Islam, the one who is born Muslim and the convert. The Zaidis believe that both classes should be killed immediately, but the Ibadis say the woman must be given life in prison so she might repent.

Safi: I would challenge this notion that the apostates go to Hell.

Saeed: It’s true the so-called Ridda wars are used as evidence for killing apostates, but it is a misnomer. Umar disagreed with Abu Bakr’s decision to fight these wars where some rebels were renegades, but others were simply tax resisters.

We love freedom of religion when we are the minority, less so when we are the majority.  Without religious freedom the authorities control everything in the name of religion, but the advice the Prophet got from God was only to communicate his message, and I am for reciprocity and freedom of belief for all.

Contemporary debates are colored by how Muslims see their position visa vis the rest of the world. It’s about our pride, not simply a theological or legal matter; but I didn’t have time to go into all of that. Even in the historical debate it was heavily political.

Apostasy may well be about treason or other political acts, particularly in the early period of Medina, but not so much later.

Imam Malik distinguishes the sunnah from hadith in clear terms. Shafi takes the hadith as the clear statement of the sunnah.

The Qur’an uses the term imân for belief and makes a clear distinction from Islam. This is about freedom. Lack of freedom is the problem we confront in the Muslim world.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

Please check out the following for more on the Quranic basis for the opposition of death for apostasy:   Death For Apostasy Is Un-Islamic and NOT in the Qur'an!

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