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On Apostasy and Islam: 100+ Notable Islamic Voices affirming the Freedom of Faith - Part 3


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

By Dr. Mohammad Omar Farooq

April 2, 2007

31.     Dr. Sheikh Mohammed Ali Al-Hanooti

[Mufti of Greater Washington]

"The issue of apostasy falls under the umbrella of man’s free will, freedom of expression and belief. The Holy Qur’an states unequivocally that nobody can be compelled to either become a Muslim or remain one. In Surah 4: 137, Allah says, “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.” This ayah very clearly shows that even after rejecting Islam twice, no punishment is prescribed for the apostates.

The punishment for apostasy mentioned in Islamic literature is derived from Hadiths whose authenticity is not certain (as these Hadiths are Ahad -from one source, but not Mutawatir- from a consensus of sources). Even among those scholars who accept them as authentic, there is vast difference of opinion on the interpretation and elaboration of the Hadiths. Such Hadiths have been traditionally cited as justification for executing apostates, but these were circumstantial rulings where legal authorities of that time deemed the punishment justified, as the act of apostasy in question, or in some cases, mass apostasy was comparable to treason or to an organized crime outfit, where the apostates would ally themselves with the opponents of the state.

Such Hadiths, which have, in the past, been cited to justify punishment for apostasy, therefore, cannot stand against the Qur’an, which provides no textual evidence for such action. On the contrary, the Qur’an states in Surah 10: 99: “If it had been the will of your Lord that all the people of the world should be believers, all the people of the world would have believed! Would you then compel them against their will to believe?”

In conclusion, the Qur’an is the definitive clear authority for protecting the rights of an individual in expressing himself in faith and supersedes any of the distorted interpretations of the Hadiths in question. Executing a person because of conversion to another faith contradicts the Qur’an, the ultimate source of Shari’ah." [The Ruling on Apostasy]

32.     Dr. Mahmoud Ayuob

[Professor of Islamic Studies, Temple University]

Summary: After determining what constitutes apostasy (Riddah), defined as 'an act of rejection of faith committed by a Muslim whose Islam had been affirmed without any coercion', the author looks at the understanding of Riddah in the Qur'an and the Tradition. From this study he concludes that there is no real basis for the Riddah law in either of these sources. ["Religious Freedom and the Law of Apostasy in Islam," Islamachristiana, Vol. 20, 1994, pp. 75-91]

33.     Islamic Centre of Long Island, New York

"The Quran states categorically and unequivocally, there shall be no coercion in matters of faith. (2:256). This cornerstone tenet of Islamic faith is violated when an individual is put on trial for converting away from Islam. This verse, very clearly teaches that faith is a personal matter between the individual and God." [Islamic Centre of Long Island’s Position Regarding Apostasy]

34.     Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer

[Director, Institute of Islamic Studies, India]

"No wonder than that Qur’an not only does not prescribe any punishment for apostasy it is against any such punishment. … In view of such clear exposition how can one maintain that one who becomes apostate (murtad) should be punished with death? Such a punishment goes completely against the principle of freedom of faith laid down in the Qur’an. Since according to the Qur’an human beings are responsible for their acts, they have been created free and only a free agent can be held responsible for ones acts, good or bad. This is quite clear from the story of Adam who was warned not to go near a tree in paradise but was left free to decide and he decided to test the fruit of the tree and as a result was expelled from it. This story itself is sufficient to establish principle of freedom of choice in the Qur’an. … Today human rights are of vital importance and modern scholars are also engaged in the project of showing these rights as quite compatible with Islam. And, if some ‘Ulama insist on death sentence for apostasy it is not only crime against freedom of conscience and democratic rights but also serious disservice against Islam." [Islam and Punishment for Apostasy]

35.     Dr. Abdullah Saeed

[Director, Centre for the Study of Contemporary Islam, University of Melbourne, Australia]

"This book argues that the law of apostasy and its punishment by death in Islamic law is untenable in the modern period. Apostasy conflicts with a variety of foundation texts of Islam and with the current ethos of human rights, in particular the freedom to choose one's religion. Demonstrating the early development of the law of apostasy as largely a religio-political tool, the authors show the diversity of opinion among early Muslims on the punishment, highlighting the substantial ambiguities about what constitutes apostasy, the problematic nature of some of the key textual evidence on which the punishment of apostasy is based, and the neglect of a vast amount of clear Qur'anic texts in favour of freedom of religion in the construction of the law of apostasy.

Examining the significant challenges the punishment of apostasy faces in the modern period inside and outside Muslim communities - exploring in particular how apostasy and its punishment is dealt with in a multi-religious Muslim majority country, Malaysia, and the challenges and difficulties it faces there - the authors discuss arguments by prominent Muslims today for an absolute freedom of religion and for discarding the punishment of apostasy." [Book Intro: Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam, Ashgate Publications, 2004]

36.     Dr. Mohamed Shahrour

[Islamic Thinker and Scholar, Syria]

“Let us consider how the history of Islamic jurisprudence has dealt with the issue of freedom and justice in relation to apostasy (al Riddah). We have to distinguish between two types of apostasy: that of politics and that of creeds and beliefs. To rebel against the government and attempt to oust it and rule in its stead is political apostasy. … when we persuade or coerce people into believing or disbelieving, we are actually disregarding and belittling God’s Word. … I wish to emphasize that Islamic respect for freedom and Muslims’ awareness of its value cannot be established by force and coercion, for the enforcement of any democratic ideal would be no different from the ‘just tyrannical’ leadership.” [The Concept of Freedom in Islam]

37.     Dr. Irfan Ahmad Khan

[A respected scholar of the Qur'an, president of the World Council of Muslims for Interfaith Relations and Chair of the Interreligious Engagement Project. He is also a trustee of the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions. He is the author of a new Qur'anic translation and commentary, Reflections on the Quran: Understanding Surahs Al-Fatihah & Al-Baqura. Chicago, Illinois]

“[N]o one has any right to use pressure of any kind to make a person change or stop from changing his/her religion. An individual out of his/her own free will should himself or herself do entering into a religion or coming out of a religion.” [Freedom to Change Ones’ Religion]

38.     Dr. Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad

[President/Director, Minaret of Freedom Institute, Maryland, USA]

"Discussions of Islamic law by non-Muslims (and, all too often, by Muslims as well) suffer from confusion between the concepts of apostasy and treason. The majority view is that the death penalty applies only to treason during wartime, including providing aid and comfort to the enemy, rather than mere conversion. According to the Constitution [Article III, section 3], treason consists only 'in levying war against [the United States], or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.' That Muhammad shared this view can be seen in the fact that he never executed apostates except when they made war or propaganda against the Muslims." [On the American Constitution from the Perspective of the Qur'an and the Madinah Covenant by Dr. Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad]

39.     Dr. Mohammed Fadel

[Faculty of Law, University of Toronto, Canada]

"It is certainly true that the vast majority of Islamic legal scholars in the middle ages prescribed the death penalty for apostates, after an appropriate period for the defendant to repent. This was not, however, a universal position, as an early (and quite respected and important authority, Ibrahim al-Nakha'i, argued that an apostate has the rest of his natural life to repent. More importantly, the origin of the crime of apostasy is political/military treason, not freedom of conscience. Early works of Islamic law make this clear. Almost inevitably, questions of apostasy are raised in the context of a Muslim 'defecting' and joining the ranks of the enemy.

This should not be too surprising given the religious nature of polities in that day and age. In today's world, polities are not religion-based, but based on citizenship, and accordingly, the original logic behind the rules of apostasy have lost their force. For that reason, many, but not all, contemporary Muslim thinkers reject the notion that apostasy should be a capital offense. Of course, that does not mean that, in times of crisis, demagogues cannot abuse obsolete rules to wreak havoc." [Interview]

40.     Shaikh Dr. Taha Jabir al-Alwani

[Former Professor of Fiqh and Usul al Fiqh at Imam Muhammad b. Sa'ud University in Riyadh Founding member, the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in the USA in 1981; founder-member of the Council of the Muslim World League in Makkah; , a member of the OIC Islamic Fiqh Academy in Jeddah since 1987; and President of the Fiqh Council of North America since 1988.]

"Apostasy is not a simple act. It has several parts. We cannot simply say that someone left the religion. We must look at the reasons and actions that come before leaving the religion. Suppose one becomes an expatriate and fights against the U.S, (for example). This person would be tried and convicted of treason and usually killed. But if one leaves a religion without causing harm to others or engages in treason, then there is no punishment. The Qur'an is blatant about the fact that there is no compulsion in religion. Some people at the time of the Prophet would convert in the morning and leave Islam at night. The Prophet then announced that those joining in Islam in good faith are welcome, but those who join only to then leave and discredit Islam and then encourage others to fight Islam, that is considered treason and treated as a crime in the same way as U.S. law." [Interview]

41.     Dr. Mohammad Omar Farooq

[Associate Professor of Economics and Finance, Upper Iowa University]

"Indeed the Qur’an specifies no worldly punishment for apostasy. Hadith refers to only those cases that involved political treason, not apostasy. Also, these hadiths are not mutawatir and thus do not yield certainty of knowledge. In addition, there is no ijma or consensus on this. On the contrary, even some Classical jurists have rejected such punishment.

Of greater importance is the fact that the Qur’an is explicit and insistent about the freedom of faith for all. If Islam upholds the freedom of choice in faith and if “Let there be no compulsion in deen” means anything, then orthodox position on apostasy is unacceptable and unIslamic. There is no ambiguity about it. In this world we make precious choices. Muslims should propagate their faith to the best of their ability: Islam in its essence represents the ultimate truth. Nonetheless we are also to respect each other’s right to choose in this world. Muslims’ responsibility is sincere and capable propagation. And most assuredly there is no provision for compulsion of faith in Islam – before embracing the faith or after." [Apostasy, Freedom and Da’wah: Full Disclosure in a Business-like Manner]

42.     Dr. Louay Safi

[Executive Director of ISNA Leadership Development Center; Ex-President, Association of Muslim Social Scientists]

“Traditionalist scholars have long embraced classical positions on apostasy that consider the rejection of Islam as a capital crime, punished by death. This uncritical embrace is at the heart of the drama that was played in the case of the Afghan convert to Christianity, and which would likely be repeated until the debate about shari’ah reform and its relevance to state and civil law is examined and elaborated by authentic Muslim voices. … Indeed, one cannot find in the Qur’an any support for the apostasy (ridda) penalty. … I am inclined to the increasingly popular view among contemporary scholars, that ridda does not involve a moral act of conversion, but a military act of rebellion, whose calming justifies the use of force and the return of fire. … A Christian or a Jew who converts to Islam is no more a Christian or a Jew, but a Muslim and must be respected as such. By the same taken a Muslim who convert to Christianity is no more a Muslim, but a Christian and must be respected as such.” [Apostasy and Religious Freedom]

43.     Dr. Ingrid Mattson

[President, Islamic Society of North America; Professor of Islamic studies at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut]

"Given the importance to her of individual choice, Mattson is well aware of the major questions Westerners have about religious freedom in Muslim countries - and whether Muslims have the right to convert to other faiths. A few converts have had their children taken away or have been persecuted as a result. A specialist in Islamic law, Mattson says this is an area that is now being widely examined and contested.

'Many scholars have convincingly argued that apostasy is not a crime, while treason is, based on cases from the early days of Islam, where people who left the community for other religions were not punished, while those who left the political community and betrayed it were.'

What happened historically in some Muslim societies, she says, was that no distinction was made between community affiliation and religious affiliation. But today's world makes other demands, and she supports the case being made for separation of the two." [Muslim convert takes on leadership role]

44.     Dr. Zaki Badawi

[Principal of the Muslim College; Chairman of the Imams and Mosques Council UK;, Chairman of the Muslim Law (Shariah) Council UK;, Vice-Chairman of the World Congress of Faiths;, and a Director and Trustee of UNICEF UK]

... forcing people to believe things just makes them hypocrites. The Koran has no compulsion, no punishment for going away. ... [Inter-faith meeting March 2005]

45.     Organization: Muslim Public Affairs Council

“... [T]he Quran mandates that religious freedom be respected. Furthermore, the Prophet Muhammad himself never sentenced an apostate to death. 'While apostasy may be a sin in the eyes of God, it is not considered to be criminal behavior,' Dr. Maher Hathout writes in his recent book 'In Pursuit of Justice: The Jurisprudence of Human Rights in Islam' (available through

'We strongly oppose the state's use of coercion in regulating Islamic belief in such a manner, since faith is a matter of individual choice on which only God can adjudicate.'" [MPAC Joins Calls for Release of Afghan Christian]

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