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On Apostasy and Islam: 100+ Notable Islamic Voices affirming the Freedom of Faith - Part 5


" ... Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error ..." [2:256]

By Dr. Mohammad Omar Farooq

April 2, 2007

61.     Dr. Abidullah Ghazi

[Executive Director, IQRA International Educational Foundation, Skokie, IL; USA]

"The instances of mutual respect and cooperation afforded those Muslims living in North America are too numerous, while incidents of impudence and intolerance, seemingly inspired by the Shari’ah code, have displayed the exact opposite in several Muslim-majority lands. ...

There has also existed historically a long tradition of acceptance diversity of culture and faith in Islamic civilization, a fact that has to be remembered by those wishing to jettison this value in favour of insularity and narrow-mindedness. The question nowadays for the Muslim community in the West is how we want this very same culture of freedom and choice that we enjoy as minorities reflected in Muslim-majority societies. In the globalized reality of today, Western Muslims have a special duty to promote similar attitudes of respect for human rights, tolerance and mutuality in Muslim-majority societies. ...

While much has been made of the official Radd penalty in the Western media these days, the fact is that historically this penalty has been rarely enforced, and usually when it was, it was due to some unmitigated political upheaval caused by the said apostasy. ...

As a believing and practicing Muslim who is deeply involved in inter-religious dialogue and understanding, I call on all Muslim judicial systems and legislatures worldwide (where the radd law exists) to contemplate the decorum for this modern age in which we live and bring our age-old and well-tested values in line with universal values. It is high time that Muslims learn to respond to all such challenges intellectually and academically, not through passionate or repellent reaction." [An Issue of Conversion]

62.     Dr. Ziauddin Sardar

[A cultural critic, Muslim scholar, most prolific author, and editor of Futures: The Journal of Planning, Policy, and Futures Studies]

"Most Muslims consider the Shari'ah, commonly translated as ‘Islamic law’, to be divine. Yet, there is nothing divine about the Shari`ah. The only thing that can legitimately be described as divine in Islam is the Qur’an. The Shari`ah is a human construction; an attempt to understand the divine will in a particular context. This is why the bulk of the Shari`ah actually consists of Fiqh or jurisprudence, which is nothing more than legal opinion of classical jurists. The very term Fiqh was not in vogue before the Abbasid period when it was actually formulated and codified. But when Fiqh assumed its systematic legal form, it incorporated three vital aspects of Muslim society of the Abbasid period. At that juncture, Muslim history was in its expansionist phase, and fiqh incorporated the logic of Muslim imperialism of that time. The Fiqh rulings on apostasy, for example, derive not from the Qur'an but from this logic." [Rethinking Islam]

63.     Dr. Abdullahi Ahmed an-Naim

[Professor of Law at Emory University School; the director of the Religion and Human Rights Program at Emory; formerly the Executive Director of the African bureau of Human Rights Watch]

"To Muslims, Shari‘a is the 'Whole Duty of Mankind,' moral and pastoral theology and ethics, high spiritual aspiration, and detailed ritualistic and formal observance; it encompasses all aspects of public and private law, hygiene, and even courtesy and good manners. To attribute inadequacy to any part of Sharia is regarded as heresy by the majority of Muslims, who believe that the whole of Shari‘a is divine. This widespread view creates a formidable psychological barrier, which is reinforced by the threat of criminal prosecution for the capital offense of apostasy (Ridda), a real threat today in countries such as the Sudan." [Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim, Toward Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights, and International Law (Syracuse Uni. Press 1996), p. 11].

" ... although Ridda (apostasy) is condemned by the Qur'an in the strongest terms, the Qur'an does not prescribe any punishment for apostasy in this life. Nevertheless, the majority of Muslim jurists have classified apostasy as a Hadd punishable by death as prescribed in the Sunna. Such classification violates the fundamental right of freedom of religion, sanctioned by the Qur'an in numerous verses. Relying on the higher authority of the Qur'an for freedom of conscience, and arguing that the available Sunna imposing the death penalty can be explained by the special circumstances of the cases in question, some modern Muslim writers have maintained that apostasy is not a Hadd. This approach, however, does not address the other negative consequences of apostasy under Shari'a, under the discretionary power of ta'zir. To remove all constitutional and human rights objections, the legal concept of apostasy and all its civil and criminal consequences must be abolished. Whatever Sunna authority may exist for penal and other legal consequences of apostasy should be taken as transitional and no longer applicable in accordance with the evolutionary principle explained in Chapter 3." [p. 109]

64.     Dr. Jeffrey Lang

[Professor of Mathematics, University of Kansas, USA; author of three thought-provoking, must-reading books]

"The command, 'Let there be no compulsion in religion; truth stands out clear from error' (2:256), would seem to argue against a penalty for apostasy ouside of a manifest act of political treason. The majority trend of those traditions of the Prophet related to incidents of apostasy also point to this conclusion. In the first place, there are authenticated traditions in which no action was taken against apostates. ... Secondly, there are the group of traditions that associate apostasy with high treason. ... While the death penalty for apostasy still has important implications for Muslims in countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps Pakistan, it is of little immediate consequence to Muslims now living in western countries, where the idea of killing someone for having second thoughts about one's faith is highly repugnant. The evidence resorted to in classical texts to justify execution for a mere change of faith might better suggest limiting such a punishment only to cases of aiding and abetting an enemy of the state." [Struggling to Surrender, Amana Publications, 1994, pp. 210-211]

65.     Dr. Abdul Hakim Winter

[Professor of Islamic Studies, University of Cambridge, U.K]

"The issue of the punishment for apostasy is a fascinating example of debates unfolding in Islamic law. Islam has four orthodox schools of law, and traditionally the majority view in all four of them held that apostasy carries the death penalty. In recent years, however, many Muslim scholars have pointed out that even among the medieval writers there are leading figures who, on the basis of the Muslim scriptures, have contested this. An example, from the Hanafi school, would be al-Sarakhsi; and from the Malikis, al-Baji. The reason for the difference of opinion (hardly an uncommon phenomenon in Islamic law!), is that the Qur'an nowhere lays down a penalty for apostasy, and the Hadith texts have been interpreted in very contrasting ways.

For this reason, Shaykh Mahmud Shaltut, the highest religious authority in Egypt during the 1960s, issues an opinion to the effect that apostasy was not a criminal offence in Islamic law. This view has been followed widely in the Muslim world." [Online Dialogue: The Future of Muslims in the West]

66.     Dr. Amir Hussain

[Department of Theological Studies; Loyola Marymount University; California, USA]

Unfortunately, many Muslims and non-Muslims alike are unaware of the historical contexts that shaped the development of Islamic law. The harsh measures that some Muslims impose on those who leave the faith must be understood in light of Islam's beginnings as a persecuted tradition. Muslims were threatened by the polytheists in Mecca, and a series of battles occurred between Muhammad's community in Medina and the polytheists of Mecca. In that context the death penalty as a punishment for apostasy was not so much a matter of religious affiliation as a matter of political identity. By reverting back to polytheism after having converted to Islam, one would actively be siding with the polytheists of Mecca and would therefore undermine the Muslim community. In effect, apostasy was comparable to treason, an offence which still carries the death penalty in several jurisdictions in the United States, though no longer in Canada.

In the modern period, extremist Muslims seem almost to take delight in applying those early precedents to apostates today. The classical jurists of Islamic law, however, were hesitant to rule on cases of apostasy, however, precisely because of the capital nature of the offence. They preferred to let God decide the matter on the Day of Judgment. Indeed, the Qur'an is clear that ultimate judgment belongs to God alone: "Whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth belongs to God; God forgives whom God pleases and chastises whom God pleases; and God is Forgiving, Merciful" (3:129). This recourse to God's judgment is applied differently throughout the Muslim world; today some pacifist Muslims takes it so far as to renounce not only the death penalty but all violence in the defence of the faith. When Muslims take upon themselves God's role as judge of a person's faith, they flout the Qur'anic injunction given to the Prophet Muhammad himself, that he was to warn people but not force them to obey: "So therefore remind, for you [Muhammad] are one to remind, but you are not a warden over them. But whoever turns back and disbelieves, God will punish him with a mighty punishment. For to Us [God] is their return, and it will be for Us to call them to account" (88:21 - 26). It is therefore God who will inflict punishment when human beings return to God at the end of this life.

Of course, Muslims believe that human beings still need law, or else there would be chaos. Even those of us who value human freedom agree that certain conventions such as traffic signals should be obeyed. The difficult issue is the intersection of human justice in this world with God's justice in the world to come. ["Apostasy: turning away from Islam," in Oil and Water: Two Faiths, One God (Kelowna: Copper House, 2006), pp. 178-180]

67.     Organization: Muslim Women's League [MWL]

The Muslim Women's League ... [calls] for the release of the Afghan Christian convert recently on trial for apostasy. We follow the Qur'anic mandate that "there is no compulsion in religion" and hope that this case will be resolved justly, as required by Islam. [Calling for Release of the Afghan Christian]

68.     Imam Yahya Hendi

[Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University; Imam of the Islamic Society of Frederick; a member and the spokesperson of the Islamic Jurisprudence Council of North America; adjunct faculty with Evergreen Society of John Hopkins University’s School of Professional Development, MD.]

"I call on the government of Afghanistan to release Abdul Rahman, a man facing the death penalty for converting from Islam to Christianity. According to my understanding of Islamic law (Shari’ah), belief is a personal matter not subject to the intervention of the state. Shari’ah Law safeguards the right of every human being to choose his/her own faith and tradition. Shari’ah law should not and must not be used by politicians to justify inhumane and cruel treatment of converts and religious minorities living in so-called Muslim Lands.

What the Islamic Shari’ah terms Haddul-Riddah must be distinguished from the right to convert out of Islam. Haddul-Riddah refers to the original rulings of early Islamic scholars on apostasy, which were similar to rulings concerning treason found in legal systems worldwide and do not apply to an individual's choice of religion. ...

Let it be known by all humanity, both Muslims and non-Muslims that religious belief should be a matter of personal choice, not a cause for government intervention. Faith imposed by force is not true belief, but rather coercion." [Imam Yahya Hendi calls for the release of Afghan Christian]

69.     Dr. Azizah al-Hibri

["Azizah Y. al-Hibri is a professor at the T. C. Williams School of Law, University of Richmond; founder and president of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights.]

"The whole punishment for Muslims who leave their people is not about change of religion at all, whether Christianity or even lack of belief in God, because God guaranteed for Muslims freedom of faith and freedom of conscience. The whole idea was, if they were in a state of war and this person left and joined the enemy who is fighting them, then he becomes the enemy, and then you fight him like you fight the enemy. That's what needs to be understood." [CNN Interview]

70.     Dr. Radwan Masmoudi

[Founder, member of the Board, and President of the Centre of the Study of Islam & Democracy (CSID)]

"Freedom of religion is the only way to build a strong, moral society," says Radwan Masmoudi, "where people can deal with each other with dignity, respect, trust, and fairness." Progressive thinkers such as Masmoudi advocate "liberal Islam," which considers freedom of conscience a sacred right as well as a central democratic doctrine. They argue that Muslims must recover the Quranic teaching that human beings are created free, and that violations of basic liberties--including freedom of worship--contradict human nature and the will of God. [The Unmentionable Freedom]

71.     Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood

[British Muslim author and educator; authors of many books on Islam]

"As regards the common misconception about issuing the death penalty for leaving the faith (apostasy), or vilifying Allah (blasphemy), or speaking abusively about Allah or his Messenger (pbuh), this was never the case. The Prophet (pbuh) himself was frequently abused and hurt and jeered at, but exhorted his followers going through equal or greater suffering than himself to stand firm and accept the unpleasantness with patience, hating the evil, but never hating the people who had been overtaken by evil. The death penalty could be issued legally in cases of treason or murder, the treason being the cases of those who had once accepted the rule of Islam in an Islamic country, but had then not merely turned against it (which anyone might do - and be pitied for this tragedy rather than attacked; their actual judgment rested with Allah in the life to Come), but also actively led physical attacks upon it and coerced others into doing so." [On the Hijacking of Islam]

72.     Dr. A. Rashied Omar

[Research Scholar of Islamic Studies and Peace building, Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame]

“Contemporary Muslim jurists are uncritically transporting medieval juristic positions that were negotiated in radically different historical circumstances to present day realities. … Number of modern Muslim scholars have argued for more lenient and humane positions on apostasy, marshalling strong support for their views. … Notwithstanding these and other tolerant Islamic positions on religious conversion, Muslims engaged in interreligious dialogue need to be more honest and forthcoming about the enormous challenge they face in reforming the hegemonic traditional Muslim position on apostasy.” [The Right to Religious Conversion: Between Apostasy and Proselytization]

73.     Imam Farooq Abo-Elzahab

[Imam, Islamic Centre of Greater Toledo]

“A person cannot be forced into being a Muslim, and neither should someone be punished for peacefully abandoning the faith,” according to Imam Farooq Abo-Elzahab.

"The penalty is up to God in the hereafter, but there is no penalty on this Earth for apostasy," Imam Farooq said yesterday. He called the Afghan government's charges against Abdul Rahman "a kind of nonsense, a misinterpretation of Islam." [No earthly penalty for converts, local imam says]

74.     Imam Sadullah Khan

[Executive Director of Religious Affairs at the Islamic Centre of Irvine, California]

“There is not a single instance that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) did treat apostasy as a prescribed offence under Hudud (capital punishment) only for leaving Islam. The Prophet (pbuh) never put anyone to death for apostasy alone rather he let such person go unharmed.” [Freedom, Tolerance and the Shari’ah]

75.     Dr. Najah Kadhim

[Executive Director of the International Forum for Islamic Dialogue (IFID) and a senior university lecturer, London, United Kingdom]

“… why should we feel so insecure about the destiny of Islam and lose our self-confidence when dealing with other people to the extent of imposing Islamic ideas and beliefs by force? … We have not heeded the Qur’anic plea when it has appealed to our senses, asking us to reflect, to seek to understand the causes of phenomena, and therefore to be able to construct a great civilization. What we now have is social retardation, far removed from the civilization envisaged by the Qur’an. In our efforts to find solu¬tions to the problems that continue to arise day after day, we retreat into the past to seek readymade answers. The execution of the apostate reflects our distrust in the intellect and our blind adherence to the use of violence, which are the result of our yielding to inferior animal instincts and our imitating the shameful attitudes of other nations.” [Has the Time Come for a Serious Reflective Reassessment of the Fiqh of the Killing of an Apostate (and many other issues)?]

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