On Apostasy, Freedom of Belief, and Islam

By Danny Stoker

Earlier this week, Saudi Arabia hosted a forum of high profile Muslim scholars to discuss how they might counter Islamic extremist groups such as ISIS. At this forum Ahmed Tayyib, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, one the most well-respected seats of learning in the Sunni-Muslim world, argued that they must reform and reign in the religious education of Muslims and combat the ‘tendency to accuse Muslims of being unbelievers.” Days later, a Saudi Court sentenced a man to death after he renounced Islam in an online video. Earlier this year the Saudi authorities carried out the public flogging of activist Raif Badawi on charges that he insulted Islam. Among Badawi’s supposed crimes was apostasy for advocating for an individual’s right to “believe or not believe.” Sheikh Ahmed Tayyib is right, if the Islamic world is going to truly combat radicalism they must reform religious education, this includes reforming its views on apostasy and how they are to be dealt with.

In Islamic thought, there is a multitude of views and opinions regarding apostasy although most schools of Islamic thought tend to agree on strict punishment for those that choose to leave the faith. Islam’s most authoritative source, the Qur’an, condemns apostasy in numerous verses but it does not prescribe a punishment for the offense or even clarify if there is a punishment in this life. A small minority of scholars cite the oft quoted passage, “There is no compulsion in religion” to argue against capital punishment for apostasy, however the many scholars refute this interpretation saying that verses received later abrogate this passage.

The Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, provides the primary justification for capital punishment in cases of apostasy. While there are several Hadiths that explicitly sanction capital punishment in cases of apostasy, the Hadith does not hold the same weight as the Qur’an as they were collected well after the Mohamed had passed away and rely heavily on Isnad or a chain of narrators linking the material to the Prophet. Throughout Islamic history several prominent Islamic scholars and movements have criticized the Hadith arguing that it was gathered through guesswork and conjecture making it difficult authenticate. This view was held by the Mu’tazila, Syed Ahmad Khan, and Mohamed Iqbal among others. Due to the complexity of Hadith science disputes remain on the issue of capital punishment among scholars who view the Hadith as reliable and an authoritative source.

Gamal al-Banna, a liberal Islamic scholar and younger brother of the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder, rejected capital punishment in cases of apostasy arguing that in Islam every individual had the right to change his religion without fear of recourse. According al-Banna, early instances of capital punishment in cases of apostasy recorded in the Hadith were related to specific circumstances and were about more than just a personal crisis of faith but were political as well. In these early cases, al-Banna argues that apostasy was tantamount to treason and threatened the safety of the ummah. Perhaps the most surprising opponent of capital punishment in cases of apostasy is the 14th century Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyyah, who in many ways is the Godfather of Islamic fundamentalism. While Taymiyyah supported waging Jihad against Shi’a Muslims, forcing political leaders to institute Sharia, destroying pilgrimage sites, he argued that there should be no legal punishment in cases of apostasy. He contended that no one should question another’s faith since only God can know his heart and intentions. Despite the objections of certain prominent Islamic scholars and thinkers, capital punishment is still a widely accepted punishment in cases of apostasy.

The fact that apostasy is crime with severe consequences throughout much of the Middle East and the Islamic world is a problem not only because it infringes on the right to believe or not believe but also because accusations of apostasy are often used to silence well reasoned critiques of the religion by respected scholars. In fact, apostasy accusations have often been leveled against Islamic scholars, who see themselves as practicing Muslims, in an effort to marginalize their scholarship or delegitimize their views. Two prime examples of this are the stories of Mahmoud Mohamed Taha and Nasr Abu Zayd. Taha was a Sudanese engineer by training but after a period of prolonged religious seclusion developed an interpretation of the Qur’an that clashed with the religious and social trends in his country. His interpretation of Islam advocated religious freedom and gender equality and criticized many of the religious practices in Sudan. He was eventually convicted of apostasy and executed by the state in 1985.

While not as tragic, Nasr Abu Zayd’s case is equally frustrating. Abu Zayd, an accomplished professor of Islamic studies at Cairo University, was denied a promotion due to his liberal views on the Qur’an and was later declared an apostate by an Egyptian court. Abu Zayd argued that the Qur’an should be interpreted within the historical context of which it was revealed and it should be viewed as both a religious and literary text. He maintained that the Qur’an was a collection of discourses and was open for debate, criticism, and interpretation. Abu Zayd’s philosophy encouraged freedom of thought and was critical of those who tried to wield Islam for political influence. Abu Zayd immigrated to Germany after his conviction for apostasy nullified his marriage and radical Islamists called for his death.

The common theme in the teachings and thought of Badawi, Taha, and Abu Zayd is freedom of thought and belief. For these thoughts they all faced the same charge of being apostates and when the governments weren’t spearheading the persecution they were largely absent. If governments throughout the Islamic World want to defeat the virus of extremism that is spreading in their societies they must embrace Islam of Badawi, Taha and Abu Zayd, the Islam of freedom. This Islam empowers its adherents breeding creativity and hope but it pushes for social and political change. Unfortunately these are things that are of little interest to authoritarian governments of the Islamic World who are likely to continue to hide behind a coercive doctrine of apostasy while trying to sell the masses a stilted interpretation of Islam steeped in authoritarianism.