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

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

By Dr. Mohammad Omar Farooq

April 2, 2007

This is Islam's unambiguous affirmation of freedom of faith, which also applies to changing of faith. The Qur'an illuminates before the humanity the two highways [90:10], one of which leads to salvation. Islam is an invitation to the highway toward salvation, but it is based on FREEDOM OF CHOICE.

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

Dr. Mohammad Omar Farooq

Upper Iowa University

April 2, 2007

Freedom of faith is essential to Islam. Prophets and Messengers of Allah along with their communities had to struggle for their freedom of faith. That Islam is by choice is unambiguously stated in the Qur'an and reflected in the Prophetic legacy. However, throughout history, the issue has been clouded due to mixing the issue of apostasy with treason. Now one of the biggest tools of anti-Islam/anti-Muslim propaganda is based on the issue of apostasy, claiming that Islam does not uphold the freedom of faith. Even our own children are getting confused and many are quietly disavowing our wishy-washy position on as fundamental an issue as freedom of faith/religion.

Undeniably, the traditional position of Muslim scholars and jurists has been that apostasy [Riddah] is punishable by death. The longstanding problem of the traditional position, as held by Classical jurists or scholars, can be explained and excused as not being able to see apostasy, an issue of pure freedom of faith and conscience, separate from treason against the community or the state. However, the accumulated experience over the history in terms of abuse of this position about apostasy even against Muslims as well as the changed context of a globally-connected, pluralistic society should help us appreciate the contemporary challenges in light of the Qur'anic norms and the Prophetic legacy. In this context, while the classical misunderstanding about this issue of apostasy is excusable, the position of some of the well-known contemporary scholars is not.

Sayyid Abul Aala Maududi (commonly known as Maulana Maududi), the late founder and leader of Jamaat-e-Islami and a leading independent, revivalist Islamic personality of 20th century, is frequently referred to for his ardent argument for capital punishment for apostasy. He argued that there is a broad agreement of the leading jurists on this issue. He claims:

"To copy the consecutive writings of all the lawyers from the first to the fourteenth century A.H. would make our discussion very long. Yet we cannot avoid mentioning that however much the four Schools of Law may differ among themselves regarding the various aspects of this problem, in any case all four Schools without doubt agree on the point that the punishment of the apostate is execution." [The Punishment of the Apostate According to Islamic Law]

Such a sweeping claim is misplaced because the alleged agreement is about apostasy-cum-treason, not about solely apostasy. Furthermore, any claim of consensus (ijma) on almost anything should be taken with a great deal of circumspection. [see The Doctrine of Ijma: Is there a consensus?]

Another well-known Muslim scholar and jurist of our time, whom I also generally hold in high regard, is Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi. He asserts: "The duty of the Muslim community — in order to preserve its identity — is to combat apostasy in all its forms and wherefrom it comes, giving it no chance to pervade in the Muslim world." Similar to Maulana Maududi, he also claims ijma on this: "That is why the Muslim jurists are unanimous that apostates must be punished. ... apostasy is a criminal act." [Apostasy: Major and Minor]

Dr. Al-Qaradawi also fails to separate apostasy from treason. It is unfortunate that such scholars of high repute have shown such serious lapse in recognizing that, as Dr. Irfan Ahmad Khan, a scholar and Qur'anic exegete argues: "Freedom of faith and religion is meaningless without the freedom to change one's faith."

Then, also there are scholars, even in the USA, who are either wishy-washy or ambivalent in regard to their positions. Some are too much beholden to the traditional views held in the past, right or wrong. Views and positions of scholars and leaders, such as Maududi and al-Qaradawi, not only provide powerful ammunition for propaganda against Islam and Muslims, but also confound the mind of our own community, including our youth, whose discerning mind sees through the double-standard or self-contradiction quite transparently.

While many contemporary Muslim scholars have expressed their views affirming the freedom of faith, the collective voice of Muslims is still feeble and little known. In this write-up we have collated opinions and positions of various Muslim scholars, academics, intellectuals, imams, professionals, community leaders and others on this issue. Even young students are voicing against the double-standard that contradicts the Islamic values and principles.

These voices, representing a broad spectrum of Muslim community/Ummah, are tipping the scale of the discourse on this issue in favour of affirming and upholding the pristine Islamic principle about freedom of faith. It also debunks the claim of unanimity (Ijma), which was not quite true in the past, and it is even less true in the present.

Some additional explanatory notes: (a) Views of some of the early scholars might not be categorical or without variant reports. However, the excerpts included can be basis for identifying them as the precursors of the contemporary views on this issue. (b) There are (or have been) many scholars, early and contemporary, who hold that in case of apostasy capital punishment is not warranted, but have sanctioned or kept open the possibility of other punishments. Their views have not been included here. (c) There are also scholars who believe that punishment of apostasy is not Hadd(mandatory, specified punishment based on the Qur'an or Sunnah), but it is subject to Ta'zir[discretionary punishment, determined by the proper Islamic judicial system]. In this collection, their views have not been included either.

Before the views and opinions of a broad spectrum of Islamic voices are presented below, two brief statements about apostasy in the Qur'an and in Hadith are in order.

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Punishment of Apostasy in the Qur'an

As presented in excerpts from numerous sources below, and links to works available online, there is no worldly punishment solely for apostasy [i.e., changing of one's faith/religion] mentioned in the Qur'an.

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Punishment of Apostasy in Hadith

Readers are invited/urged to explore a vast amount of resources/links presented at this blog, where scholars authoritatively have shown that none of the Hadiths about apostasy is without problem or weakness. Also, there is no Hadith confirming punishment or retribution solely for apostasy. In every single case, where punishment has been meted out, Riddah involved treason or rebellion. The following is an example of how the Prophet dealt with solely apostasy.

A Bedouin gave the Pledge of allegiance to Allah's Apostle for Islam. Then the Bedouin got fever at Medina, came to Allah's Apostle and said, "O Allah's Apostle! Cancel my Pledge," But Allah's Apostle refused. Then he came to him (again) and said, "O Allah's Apostle! Cancel my Pledge." But the Prophet refused Then he came to him (again) and said, "O Allah's Apostle! Cancel my Pledge." But the Prophet refused. The Bedouin finally went out (of Medina) whereupon Allah's Apostle said, "Medina is like a pair of bellows (furnace): It expels its impurities and brightens and clears its good. [Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 9, #318]

Notably, as Dr. M. E. Subhani explained in his book:

“This was an open case of apostasy. But the Prophet neither punished the Bedouin nor asked anyone to do it. He allowed him to leave Madina. Nobody harmed him.” [Apostasy in Islam (New Delhi, India: Global Media Publications, 2005), pp. 23-24.]

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Below we present a unique compilation of 100+ notable Islamic voices, who have expressed their views on punishment of Islam. As mentioned earlier, opinions of those scholars, who have vehemently rejected or repudiated capital punishment of apostasy but have left room for punishment - discretionary or otherwise - of apostasy, also have not been included here.

We will continue to update this collection. If you know of anyone whose publicly articulated position is missing from this compilation, please let us know [with relevant citation].

1.       Hadrat Umar Ibn Abdul Aziz [d. 97 AH/720 AD]

[Popularly known as Umar II and regarded as part of the Khulafa-i-Rashidoon]

Some people accepted Islam during the period of Umar bin Abdul Aziz, who is called the fifth rightful caliph of Islam. All these people renounced Islam sometimes later. Maimoon bin Mahran the governor of the area wrote to the caliph about these people. In reply Umar bin Abdul Aziz ordered him to release those people and asked him to re-impose jizya on them. [Musannaf Abdur Razzaq, pp. 171-10, cited in M. E. Subhani,Apostasy in Islam (New Delhi, India: Global Media Publications, 2005), pp. 23-24. Abdur Razzaq ibn Humama (d. 211 AH). This is the earliest Musannaf (a Hadith collection arranged in topical chapters) work in existence.]

2.       Ibrahim al-Nakha'i [d. 95 AH]

[A leading jurist and traditionists among the generation succeeding the Companions]

According to al-Nakha'i, apostate should be re-invited to Islam, but should never be condemned to death. [He] maintained the view that the invitation should continue for as long as there is hope that the apostate might change his mind and repent. [referred to in Chapter: Freedom of Religion in Mohammad Hashim Kamali’s Freedom of Expression in Islam Islamic Text Society, 1997]

3.       Sufyan al-Thawri [d. 161 AH]

[Known as 'the prince of the believers concerning Hadith' (Amir Al-Mu'minin Fi'l-Hadith) and is the author of two important compilations of Hadith, namely al-Jami' al-Kabir, and al-Jami' al- Saghir]

According to al-Thawri, apostate should be re-invited to Islam, but should never be condemned to death. [He] maintained the view that the invitation should continue for as long as there is hope that the apostate might change his mind and repent. [cited in Kamali, as above]

4.       Shams al-Din al-Sarakhsi [d. 389 AH]

[An eminent Hanafi jurist and author of al-Mabsut]

"The prescribed penalties (Hudud) are generally not suspended because of repentance, especially when they are reported and become known to the head of state (imam). The punishment of highway robbery, for instance, is not suspended because of repentance; it is suspended only by the return of property to the owner prior to arrest. ... Renunciation of the faith and conversion to disbelief is admittedly the greatest of offenses, yet it is a matter between man and his Creator, and its punishment is postponed to the Day of Judgment (Fa'l-Jaza' 'Alayha Mu'akhkhar Ila Dar Al-Jaza'). Punishments that are enforced in this life are those which protect the people's interests, such as just retaliation, which is designed to protect life." [al-Mabsut, X, p. 110, quoted in Kamali cited above.]

5.       Abu Al-Walid Al-Baji [d. 474 AH]

[a noted Maliki jurist; a contemporary of Imam Ibn Hazm]

... observed that apostasy is a sin which carries no prescribed penalty (hadd), and that such a sin may only be punished under the discretionary punishment of ta'zir ... [mentioned in Kamali cited above]

6.       Imam Abu 'Abdullah Al-Qurtubi [d. 1273 AD]

[Eminent Malike Scholar of hadith and fiqh]

"Al-Samara'i in his comment on this verse (an-Nahl:107) has quoted from Qurtubi's al-Jami the remark that the verse conveys an admonition that the wrath of Allah will be incurred by the apostate but there is no hint of any other punishment." [S. A. Rahman's Punishment of Apostasy in Islam, p. 47, referring to Nu'man 'Abd al-Razzaq al-Samara'i. Ahkam al-Murtadd fi al-Shari'at al-Islamiyyah, Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Arabiyyahya lil-Taba'at wal Nashr wal-Tauzi, 1968]

7.       Abu Hayyan al-Andalusi [d. 1355 AD]

[Maliki scholar and author of Qur'anic commentary Bahrul Muhit]

"Ibn Hayyan, a well-known exegetist, has expressly mentioned a definite opinion that no apostate can be coerced into rejoining the Muslim community." [mentioned in S. A. Rahman,Punishment of Apostasy in Islam, India, Kitab Bhaban, 1996, p. 55]

8.       Ibn al-Hammam al-Hanafi [14th century AD]

[Eminent scholar]

"There is no punishment for the act of apostay, for its punishment is greater than that, with God." [mentioned in S. A. Rahman, Punishment of Apostasy in Islam, India, Kitab Bhaban, 1996, p. 45, citing Sharh Fath al-Qadir with commentary by Chalpi on Fath al-Qadir, Vol. IV, pp. 388-9]

9.       Shaikh Rashid Rida [1865-1935]

[Eminent Islamic scholar; disciple of Afghani/Abduh]

"This verse reaffirms the one which occurs in Surat al-Baqarah (II:256), and both proscribe compulsion in religion. Both of these passages proclaim and uphold that people are free to pursue religious beliefs of their own choosing. No one is to be compelled to abandon the religion he professes nor must anyone be exposed to punishment and torture for the sake of religion." [quoted in chapter Freedom of religion by Dr. Mohammad Hashim Kamali's Freedom of Expression in Islam, Islamic Text Society, 1997]

10.     Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar [1878-1931]

[Indian author, scholar and a leading figure of the Khilafat Movement]

"M. Muhammad Ali Jauhar had, it seems, sponsored the thesis that Islam did not sanction any punishment for apostasy." [mentioned in S. A. Rahman, Punishment of Apostasy in Islam, India, Kitab Bhaban, 1996, p. 6]

11.     Shaikh Mahmud Shaltut [1893-1963]

[A prominent Egyptian Islamic scholar. He was the shaykh or grand imam, i.e. the leader, of Al-Azhar Islamic Institute in Egypt from 1958 to 1963]

"Mahmud Shaltut analyses the relevant evidence in the Qur'an and draws the conclusion that apostasy carries no temporal penalty, and that in reference to this particular sin, the Qur'an speaks only of punishment in the hereafter ..." [mentioned in chapter Freedom of religion by Dr. Mohammad Hashim Kamali's Freedom of Expression in Islam, Islamic Text Society, 1997., Shaltut, al-Islam ‘Aqidah wa-Shari’ah, pp. 292-93; al-Samara'i, Ahkam al-Murtadd fi al-Shari’ah al-Islamiyyah, p. 114 f]

12.     Subhi Mahmassani

[An outstanding Islamic scholar and jurist from Lebanon; author of The Philosophy of Jurisprudence in Islam, 1961]

Mahmassani has observed that the death penalty was meant to apply, not to simple acts of apostasy from Islam, but when apostasy was linked to an act of political betrayal of the community .The Prophet never killed anyone solely for apostasy. This being the case, the death penalty was not meant to apply to a simple change of faith but to punish acts such as treason, joining forces with the enemy and sedition. [Arkan Huquq al-Insan fi l-Islam (Bases of Human Rights in Islam), Beirut: Dar al-‘Ilm li-l-Malayin, 1979, cited in Kamali, as above]

13.     Shaykh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi

[Grand Imam of al-Azhar since 1996]

"Shaykh Tantawi's ruling on the subject of a Muslim apostasizing has certainly shed new light on this subject, while making the non-Muslims realise that Islam is a religion of moderation. To Shaykh Tantawi, a Muslim who renounced his faith or turned apostate should be left alone as long as he does not pose a threat or belittle Islam. If the Muslims were forced to take action against the apostate, he said it should NOT be because he or she had given up the faith but because he or she had turned out to be an enemy or a threat to Islam. Shaykh Tantawi, in his views, shows clearly how simple and moderate Islam is, a religion that is tolerant and not coercive on anybody. Shaykh Tantawi repeatedly stresses the need for Muslims to acquire traditional Islamic knowledge as well as the modern ones so that they could add to the strength of the Muslim community to defend the religion." [Introduction of Grand Imams of Al-Azhar]