Freedom of religion and apostasy: The Muslim perspective

“Are there limits to religious freedom? A Muslim reflects on law and ethics”
A lecture delivered at Christian Muslim centre Oxford 23rd of October 2014
Musharraf Hussain
Whilst Islam is predominantly a religion of duties and carrying the responsibility of being divine representative on Earth it is also a religion that gives individuals generous rights and confers privileges too. One of those fundamental rights is the freedom of religion. The purpose of freedom of religion is; the vindication of truth and the protection of human dignity.[1] This being the case, how does one explain the anomaly of death penalty for apostasy? Since early Islamic history the Muslim jurists have supported the law of death penalty for apostate. They claim this is based on the verbal Sunnah and consensus. In this talk, I wish to explore the epistemology of this law.
In this talk, I want to explore how this opinion has come about and whether this law applies to both religious apostasy and political apostasy. So is apostasy a capital crime? In order to answer these questions the central questions that need to be asked are:

  1. Is apostasy an expression of person’s individual opinion or is it an act of aggression against the whole community?
  2. Is there really a consensus on death penalty for apostate?
  3. Do the individual’s personal views and beliefs take precedence or the communities right to preserve its identity?

The relationships between the Muslim world and the West have deteriorated considerably since 9/11 and anything no matter how positive it is, if it has any Western influence will not be accepted by Muslim masses. So on the one hand the West sees Islam as the most hostile religion in the world to freedom and human rights and on the other hand, the Muslims see the West as bent on destroying their religious identity. So the most thoroughly westernised secularised Muslim elite like Imran Khan are now equally hostile to the West, a very sad state of affairs. In light of this growing tension between West and Muslim world it is important to understand the issue dispassionately.
What is Apostasy?
The cardinal Quranic doctrine is; Humanity has been given the freedom of choice, to freely choose their religion a God given freedom and it serves as the basis for human responsibility and being accountable on the day of judgement. The Arabic terms Al-Riddah and Al-Irtidad both mean apostasy, the noun for apostate is Murtad.  This means to retreat, abandon and to turn back. Implying that when he believed he was facing Allah and travelling in the direction that will take him to Allah, at the point of apostasy he turned back and abandoned the path to Allah. His life turned 180° pointing him in the opposite direction. Apostasy in Quran reflects a person’s mental state as being anxious, lost, un easy and giving up the resolve to carry on the journey towards God someone who has failed.
Apostasy as mentioned in the Quran
Apostasy renders one’s good deeds worthless; 2;217
“If anyone turns away from his faith and dies as disbeliever of the truth- their works will be rendered worthless in this world and the Hereafter. They will remain in hell fire forever.”
Apostate is deprived of Allah’s love 5;54
” O believers, if ever you abandon your faith, instead Allah will bring people whom he loves and who love him.”
In these Quranic verses the apostate is reprimanded by God, warned of severe punishment in the hereafter and reminded that his good deeds will be worthless and he will be assigned to hell fire for ever. It also makes it clear that the apostate will not be able to harm God, his messenger or his religion. These verses also urge believers to remain steadfast in their faith and not to follow the route of the apostate. Interestingly, none of these verses mention a punishment for apostasy, nor treat it as a crime. There is no implicit or explicit reference to kill.
Religious freedom in Quran
Religious freedom is one of the most important objectives of the Shariah. The concept of belief in one God, Tawheed is to free people from subservience to others whether they are idols or feudal lords. It is to embolden humanity to be fearless of other human beings and to be true devotees and worshippers of God alone the Creator of the universe. Islam frees humanity from bondage of others.
“There is no compulsion in matters of religion since the truth is manifestly clear from error and whoever rejects the evil and believes in God has held indeed firmest hand hold, one that would never break. Allah is all hearing all knowing.”
Commenting on this verse, the former chief justice of Pakistan SA Rahman said ‘this is one of the most important verses in the Quran … Sadly some Muslim scholars have attempted to whittle down its broad humanistic meaning’. [2]
The background to revelation of this verse
Rida in his commentary on Quran Al Manar states ‘women, whose children had died sometimes made a pledge that, if a child survived, they would convert him or her to Judaism. When the Jewish tribe of banu nadir was expelled from Medina there were children of the  Ansar among them, and they said  ‘we will not allow our children to remain Jews ’ after which Allah revealed ‘there is no compulsion in religion ..’. Other commentators have identified Al husain, a Muslim himself but two of his sons were Christians. He asked the Prophet ‘shall I not compel them to embrace Islam? ’After which this verse was revealed.
The issue of apostasy has more to do with politics than religion. After all, what is faith? It is in voluntary submission, with heart and mind. It cannot be achieved by coercion. It comes through arguments and proofs. This is why the verse continues ‘since the truth is manifestly clear from error’. God makes it clear that matter of doctrine and belief cannot be subjected to compulsion no matter how concerned a person is for someone’s belief and salvation. God says ‘yet how ever strongly you may desire most of the people will not believe in this revelation ’ (12;103).
The Quran gives people absolute and unbounded religious freedom, and only God has the right to make a judgement about an individual’s s salvation.

  1. Apostasy during the Prophet’s life

A fundamental principle of Islamic jurisprudence is; the Quran is the foundation and the principal source of all doctrines, laws, systems principles and rules which make up the Shariah,  because the Quran is the divine revelation and every word of it is regarded as the word of God Almighty. The Sunnah of the Prophet is a secondary source that is regarded as the clarification an explanation of the Quran. We have shown clearly that the Quran gives unqualified religious freedom to humanity.
During the prophets time there were literally hundreds of people who professed to believe and then became disbelievers then there were those who were hypocrites. When Omar asked permission to kill a hypocrite he said ‘people would say Muhammad kills his companions ’. The list of apostates during the prophets time is long; Abdullah ibn Ubayy, those who apostatised after the Prophet’s night journey, two of the Muslim emigrants to Abyssinia became Christians.
Did the messenger of God ever put an apostate to death?
According to imam Ashafi ‘never did the Prophet failed to respect the bounds set by God in relation to anyone who lived in his day. In fact, he was the most steadfast of all people in observing the limits that God had imposed on him… Some people believed, then committed apostasy, then professed belief. However, the messenger of God did not put them to death’.
The two ahadith about apostasy
A widely known hadith is ‘if anyone changes his religion, put him to death’.(Ibn Abbas in Musnad Ahmed, Bukhari). It is beyond the scope of this talk to give details of the problems associated with this Hadith, here is a summary;

  1. There are problems with the chain of narrators
  2. The Hadith is a general command (‘Amm) and needs specification (takhsis).
  3. it is a solitary hadith, hadith ahad and not mutawatur.
  4. This is a political in nature and aimed at confirmed enemies of Islam[3]
  5. This is not merely about religious apostasy but about high treason or hirabah, that is when apostasy is accompanied by hostility and rebellion against the community and legitimate leadership[4]
  6. Hanafi jurists have excluded women apostate from this punishment since the Hadith uses masculine pronominal suffix (whou,)[5]

The second Hadith
The second Hadith often quoted in support of death penalty for apostasy is; the messenger, peace be upon him said ‘the blood of Muslim who professes that there is no God but Allah and that I am his messenger is sacred except in three cases: married adulterer a person who has killed another human being; and a person who has abandoned his religion, while splitting himself off from the community (Mufariq lil jamaah). ’(Muslim)
The apostate is described as ‘boycotts the community and challenges its legitimate leadership ’ in another version of the Hadith, so in this Hadith the apostate is specified as one who creates political turmoil, that may lead to sedition, Hirabah.

  1. Muslim jurists views on the penalty for apostasy

The jurists used two arguments, one is the two ahadith mentioned above and secondly claim that there is a consensus for the death penalty for apostasy. With regards to the ahadith we have shown that they cannot serve as a base for such an important legislation. Al alwani claims that ” Umar the second Caliph, d;644 ce and famous scholars like Ibrahim Al Nakhi d; 811 and Sufyan Al thawri d; 777, his title is leader of the believers in the science of Hadith,  did not support the death penalty for apostasy.” This shows that there was no consensus in the early two centuries of the Islamic history.
There appear to be two critical factors which encouraged Muslim jurists to propose death penalty for apostasy and they are;
first, as the Islamic conquest spread rapidly. It came across different cultures, religions, customs and legal systems, and this is where they came across laws about rebellion against political establishment and they influenced Muslim Jurists.
Secondly, ‘the wars of apostasy’ during the reign of first Caliph Abu Bakr (632-34 CE). Although they were politically motivated wars, Abu Bakr said ‘I will wage war against anyone who separates ritual prayer from the zakah ’. It appears that I Abu Bakr had a comprehensive vision for religion, which included legislation, authority, public order and governance all were included under the rubric of shariah  and there was no clear division between doctrine and law.
We have clearly shown that the Quran grants absolute and unqualified freedom of religion to every individual. Otherwise humanity would not be responsible and answerable to God on the day of judgement. The verse ‘there is no compulsion in matters of religion ’is categorical in this regard.
It appears that the jurists who affirmed the death penalty for apostasy generally did so based on the fact that in the ages in which they live apostasy in the sense of a change in personal beliefs was frequently the result of a comprehensive shift away from allegiance the Muslim community and rejection of its associated systems laws and culture.
[1] Kamali p1
[2] SA Rahman, the punishment of apostasy p21
[3] cited by Kamali  p94
[4] Al Ewa , punishment p55
[5] this is in line with the principle of interpretation in Usul al Fiqh that once a decisive (qati) ruling of a text has been specified in some respect, the path which remains unspecified becomes speculative (zanni) and as such is open to further interpretation and in need of specification (takhsis)