NO COMPULSION IN RELIGION: ISLAM AND THE FREEDOM OF BELIEF

Bismillah.  Here is the full text of a publication from July 2013, available with better formatting here.  It is an updated version of an earlier text from October 2012, but with the addition of an Appendix discussing the death penalty for apostasy in Sharia: http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/publications/free/no-compulsion-in-religion-islam-and-the-freedom-of-belief.pdf

 

NO COMPULSION IN RELIGION:
ISLAM & THE FREEDOM OF BELIEF

Dr. Usama Hasan, Senior Researcher in Islamic Studies, Quilliam

 

Introduction

Following the international furore in 2012 over the amateurish, inflammatory and offensive film, Innocence of Muslims, there were calls around the world to introduce[1] or strengthen rules that would become akin to global blasphemy laws.[2]  Dozens of people were killed during violent protests in Muslim-majority countries, including US Ambassador Stevens in Libya by a terrorist attack under cover of anti-film protests, and a Pakistani minister placed a $100,000 bounty on the head of the film-director.

 

For many of us, this felt like a case of “Here we go again.”  From books and films to cartoons, teddy bears and desecration of copies of the Qur’an by a handful of American fundamentalists and soldiers, the story is the same: instead of ignoring material insulting and offensive to Islam, or forgiving their authors as the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) would have done, some immature Muslims resort to violence that ends up killing people who had done more than most to actually help Muslims or Muslim-majority countries.  Furthermore, the poor-quality “offending” material receives far more publicity than it deserved, and the image of Islam is dragged through the mud yet again, to the exasperation of the vast majority of ordinary, decent Muslims.

 

In the 1980’s, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, an expletive-laden, largely-unreadable book was catapulted, along with its author, into international fame by an Islamist campaign of “raising awareness” by publicising its satirical insults towards holy figures of Islam, culminating in Ayatollah Khomeini’s notorious fatwa ordering Rushdie’s murder.  The same story was repeated, two decades later, with the Danish cartoons satirising the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him): these were largely unknown when first published, until a Denmark-based Egyptian cleric began a campaign publicising them.  Surely, to love the Prophet and his disciples means not to publicise gross insults directed at him.  If people insult our loved ones, such as parents, children or siblings, would we broadcast those offensive comments or depictions to the whole world?

 

In all these cases, dozens of ordinary people died in riots and protests around the world: this is extremely ironic, when the Prophet himself is said to have taught that the destruction of the Ka’bah, the holiest site of Islam, is lighter in the sight of God than the taking of a single life.  The following represent particularly horrific incidents during 2011:

 

a)      a number of UN staff who had endured much hardship to help Afghanistan, an overwhelmingly-Muslim nation, were beheaded after a violent mob protest against the burning of the Qur’an by a negligible handful of US evangelicals.[3]

b)      Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab province in Pakistan, was murdered by one of his own bodyguards who later accused Taseer of “insulting the Prophet” by intervening to secure a presidential pardon in the case of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman sentenced to death under blasphemy laws in a situation suspected of involving neighbourly feuds with Muslims.

 

 

The Case for Freedom of Belief and the Relaxation of Blasphemy Laws

 

It is important to condemn attempts to provoke religious or anti-religious hatred and bigotry, violence in response to provocation and mindless violence and rioting upon the pretext of taking offence.   However, this paper outlines an Islamic case for Freedom of Belief, opposes the idea of strengthening blasphemy laws and supports the reconsideration of such laws around the world, based on the following arguments:

 

  1. Blasphemy is difficult to define in a global context: one person’s blasphemy may be another’s freedom of belief
  2. Blasphemy laws are notoriously open to abuse, and are used by repressive governments to enforce discrimination against religious minorities
  3. From an Islamic perspective, the prohibition of compulsion in religious matters is a fundamental Qur’anic principle: true faith is based on free will and free choice 
  4. Religious faith and practice under coercion is clearly not genuine, and therefore counter-productive 
  5. There is no explicit sanction in the Qur’an and Sunnah (teachings of the Prophet Muhammad) for the criminalisation and punishment of blasphemy: in fact, the opposite is the case; the few scriptural texts that are misquoted in this regard all refer to wartime situations, and the harsh, mediaeval Islamic jurisprudence on blasphemy was developed centuries after the Prophet himself
  6. The Islamic scriptures promote faith and respect for sacred symbols; any penalties for violations of these are spiritual and other-worldly, and not the business of worldly legislation and punishment
     
  7. The Qur’anic spirit is to freely discuss and debate matters of faith and religion to enable people as free, moral agents to make informed choices about such matters
     
  8. Debate and discussion should ideally be polite, respectful and civilised: when it is not, the Muhammadan character is to respond to insults, uncivilised behaviour and violence with patience, forbearance, forgiveness and compassion

 

 

The above considerations are now discussed in more detail:

 

1.      The difficulty of defining blasphemy

Blasphemy is difficult to define in a global context: one person’s blasphemy may be another’s freedom of belief.

 

Due to the nature of religious belief, one person’s faith often implies that another’s is wrong and perhaps even offensive, constituting blasphemy.  For example, the major world religions often have very different formulations and beliefs concerning God, Muhammad, Jesus, Buddha and the Hindu deities, as well as about various ethical and social matters.  There are intellectual and religious approaches to reconciling the major world religions, such as via mystical traditions and perennialist philosophies, but these tend to be marginalised from public discourse.

 

Critics of a particular religion or of religion in general, as well as converts from one religion to another, may thus be easily accused of blasphemy and discriminated against on that basis, perhaps even being subject to criminal codes.[4]

 

Ironically, Muslims are often the worst offenders when it comes to blaspheming against other religions, yet the most vociferous in taking offence when their sacred symbols are insulted.  For example, offensive tirades against Jews are commonplace in Egyptian society and media, whilst incitement of hatred against Christians has directly led to violent, mob attacks in Egypt[5], Pakistan and Indonesia.[6] 

 

Another example of this is the Qur’anic story about an Israelite community tested with regard to Sabbath law: the tolerant Islamic tradition has always read this introspectively, drawing lessons for Jews, Christians and Muslims.  However, Muslim fundamentalist hate-preachers regularly misquote this story to justify referring to Jews (and occasionally, Christians) as “apes and pigs.”[7]

 

It should be noted that inconsistent behaviour like this is condemned in the Qur’an:

 

Woe to those that deal with double standards: those who, when they are owed by others, exact full measure but when they have to reciprocate, give less than due.  Do they not think that they will be called to account? On a Mighty Day, a Day when all humanity will stand before the Lord of the Worlds! (83:1-6)

 

2.      The prevalent abuse of blasphemy laws

 

Blasphemy laws are notoriously open to abuse, and are used by repressive governments to enforce discrimination against religious minorities.

 

There are numerous documented cases of these.  A recent report by a human rights NGO details examples of how blasphemy laws:

 

(i) stifle discussion and dissent in the public sphere,

(ii) spark outbreaks of mob violence,

(iii) violate freedom of religion, thought, or belief and

(iv) are used as a weapon to settle private disputes.[8]

 

The vast majority of the dozens of cases documented in the above report involve allegations of blasphemy against Islam in Muslim-majority countries, although there are a handful of exceptions to this dominant pattern.

 

3.      The Qur’anic principle of “No Compulsion in Religion”

From an Islamic perspective, the prohibition of compulsion in religious matters is a fundamental Qur’anic principle: true faith is based on free will and free choice.

 

(i)                 The Qur’anic verse, “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256) is proverbial and regarded as expressing a fundamental Islamic value, especially as it occurs immediately after the “Verse of the Throne” (2:255) that is devoted to the majesty of God and was described by the Prophet Muhammad as “the greatest verse in the Qur’an.”

Significantly, Ibn ‘Abbas, a cousin and disciple (Companion) of the Prophet Muhammad and one of the foremost authorities in Qur’anic commentary, explained that this verse (2:256) was revealed regarding examples where the Companions had children who had converted to Judaism and Christianity; the Companions were forbidden, on the basis of this verse, from forcing their children to convert to Islam.[9]  Thus, this verse not only prohibited converting people to Islam by coercion, it also allowed people to leave the faith of Islam voluntarily.

(ii)               Another crucial and clear Qur’anic verse in this regard is the following, addressed to the Prophet Muhammad, “If your Lord wished, everyone on earth would have faith: all of them, together.  Will you then force people to become believers?” (10:99)

Ibn Kathir, a leading commentator, explains this verse with reference to many others affirming that matters of faith are between individuals and God: no other person can intervene.[10]

(iii)             A similar verse quotes Prophet Nuh (Noah) rhetorically asking his people, “Shall we force you to accept this message unwillingly?” (11:28)

The traditional commentators confirm that this verse means, again, that there is no compulsion in religion.  Tabari and Ibn Kathir also quote Qatada, an early authority, as saying, “By God, if Noah was able to force his people to have faith, he would have done so, but that was not within his power.”[11]

 

4.      Faith under coercion is invalid

Religious faith and practice under coercion is clearly not genuine – this has been noted by Islamic theologians and jurists over the centuries since the early days of Islam.

 

This obvious consideration follows logically from the previous one.  Ghazzali, one of the most famous theologians of Islam, emphatically asserted that faith and non-faith involve active belief or unbelief, rather than a passive state or coercion.[12] 

 

Therefore, it is never in the public interest to attempt to force belief and faith on other people and restrict their right to question, criticise and explore.  Incitement to hatred and violence is a different matter, of course, but that is not limited to religious settings and can be covered by general, civil laws.

 

5.      The scriptural sources of Islam do not criminalise blasphemy

There is no explicit sanction in the Qur’an and Sunnah (teachings of the Prophet Muhammad) for the criminalisation and punishment of blasphemy: in fact, the opposite is the case; the few scriptural texts that are misquoted in this regard all refer to wartime situations, and the harsh, mediaeval Islamic jurisprudence on blasphemy and apostasy was developed centuries after the Prophet himself.

As noted earlier, the Qur’an affirms freedom of faith and religion[13], with some verses revealed specifically to safeguard this principle for Jews and Christians, even though some of the latter’s beliefs would constitute blasphemy (kufr or unbelief) from a Muslim viewpoint: e.g. rejection of the Prophethood of Muhammad, rejection of the Christhood of Jesus and deification of Christ. 

 

Some of the verses in this regard are as follows:

 

(i)                 Those who believe, and those who follow the Jewish scriptures, and the Christians and the Sabians,- any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. (2:62 & similarly 5:69)

This verse has a clear universal message that favours inclusivist interpretations, where salvation is open through a variety of sincere religious endeavours, over exclusivist ones, where the criteria for salvation are understood to be fulfilled only by faithful Muslims.

(ii)               Those who believe, those who follow the Jewish scriptures, and the Sabians, Christians, Magians, and Polytheists,- God will judge between them on the Day of Judgment: for God is witness of all things. (22:17)

This verse does not guarantee salvation to all the religious groups mentioned, but reiterates that Divine Judgment amongst them will be manifested in the afterlife.  It suggests an obvious, reasonable, practical and pragmatic Islamic approach to peaceful coexistence amongst different religious groups: each religious community is entitled to follow its own path without harming others, perhaps believing and arguing that it is better than others, and God will judge between them all in the Hereafter.

 

The often-misquoted verse, “Kill them wherever you find them” (2:191, 4:89 & 4:91) refers to pagan enemies and treacherous Muslims in wartime.  It does not refer to Jews, despite the repeated false claims of writers such as Melanie Phillips. This is clear from preceding verses such as “Fight, in the way of God, those who fight you but do not transgress: God does not love transgressors.” (2:190)

 

It is true that, according to Islamic tradition, one or two pagan poets were killed for mocking the Prophet, but these were in the context of war: in the 7th-century Arabian culture dominated by an oral tradition, poetry was used for propaganda and psychological warfare, and was indeed employed effectively by the Prophet Muhammad himself, with Hassan bin Thabit and Abdullah bin Rawaha amongst his most skilful composers of verse: “Your verses hurt them far more than our arrows,” as the Prophet observed to Hassan.[14]

 

6.      God alone can judge and punish sacrilege

The Islamic scriptures promote faith and respect for sacred symbols; but any penalties for violations of these are described as spiritual, other-worldly and reserved for the life after death: they are not the business of worldly legislation and punishment.

 

This is true even for mocking God, the Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an that entails blasphemy against Islam.  There are many verses that make this point, for example:

 

(i)                 Say, “Mock! But God will bring to light all that you fear.”  If you question them, they declare, “We were only joking and playing.” Say, “Was it God, His Signs and His Messenger that you were mocking?”  Make no excuses: you have rejected Faith after you had accepted it. If We pardon some of you, We will punish others amongst you, for that they are in sin. (9:64-66)

For mocking faith, this verse mentions both divine forgiveness and punishment: the latter is understood to occur in the hereafter, as stated by classical commentators.

(ii)               God and His angels send blessings on the Prophet: O believers! Send blessings on him, and salute him with all respect.   Those who annoy God and His Messenger – God has cursed them in this World and in the Hereafter, and has prepared for them a humiliating Punishment.  And those who annoy believing men and women undeservedly, bear on themselves a calumny and a glaring sin. (33:56-58)

These verses have always inspired the dignified Muslim response in the face of provocation: to worship God and revere the Prophet, but to leave offensive behaviour against God, Muhammad and the believers to God to deal with in the Hereafter.  The only exception to this is criminal violation of the life, property and honour of living people, for which laws are required to facilitate just redress.

 

7.      The Qur’anic spirit is to freely discuss and debate matters of faith

The Qur’anic spirit is to freely discuss and debate matters of faith and religion to enable people as free, moral agents to make informed choices about such matters.

 

Important but lesser-known Qur’anic verses in this regard are:

 

(i)                 Announce the Good News to My Servants!  Those who listen to the Word and follow the best meanings in it: those are the ones whom God has guided, and those are the ones endued with understanding. (39:17-18)

The renowned commentator Zamakhshari confirms that this verse may be interpreted as follows: people are entitled to different interpretations of scripture (and therefore, of Islam and religion in general), and to follow whatever makes most sense to them.[15]  Qurtubi quotes Ibn Abbas as widening the meaning of this verse further, by explaining “the word” to mean all speech, not just the Divine Speech recorded in scripture.[16]  This Qur’anic principle, where people listen to each other and follow what they regard as best, provides a further Islamic basis for peaceful coexistence amongst different religious communities and sects.

(ii)               Whatever you disagree about, its judgment belongs to God (42:10)

One traditional view of this verse is that it refers to the Day of Judgment, similar to 22:17 that was discussed above[17], i.e. that humans need to defer judgment on their disagreements to God in the Hereafter.

(iii)             Say, “Who gives you sustenance, from the heavens and the earth?” Say, “It is God. Truly, either we or you are on right guidance or in manifest error!” (34:24)

This verse, as is clear from its Meccan context, is part of a debate between Islam and the pagan idolatry and polytheism prevalent in Arabia during Muhammad’s lifetime.  The Qur’an reiterated on numerous occasions that Islamic monotheism was far superior to the primitive, Arabian idolatry.  However, in this verse, for the sake of argument, the Prophet was instructed to adopt a neutral stance: let’s present our arguments – either of us may be right or wrong.  This Qur’anic principle was one of the inspirations for the rich Islamic tradition of free thought, debate and discussion.

 

 

Free debate in Islamic history

 

In Islamic history, some of the caliphs actively encouraged high-level, interfaith, theological debates about core issues of belief.  Some of these debates were held in the courts of the caliph himself with leading Rabbis, Bishops and Islamic theologians.  Furthermore, leading Muslim thinkers, philosophers and poets openly expressed “heretical” views without facing prosecution.  For example, the greatest Muslim scientists and philosophers such as Al-Kindi, Al-Razi, Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) were denounced as heretics and accused of blasphemy by “orthodox” Sunni Muslim theologians such as Ghazzali and Ibn Taymiyyah.  In fact, the leading “orthodox” figures were often denounced as heretics and accused of blasphemy in their own lifetimes by others, and even subjected to imprisonment, flogging and mob violence: this is true, for example, of some of Sunni Islam’s greatest figures such as Abu Hanifa, Ahmad bin Hanbal, Ashari, Bukhari, Ghazzali, Qadi Abu Bakr, Ibn Arabi, Ibn Taymiyyah, Subki and Ibn al-Qayyim.

 

The state-sponsored rationalist (Mu’tazilite) mihna or inquisition (827-847) instituted by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mamun against traditionalist beliefs and teachings such as those of Ahmad bin Hanbal was eventually abandoned by later caliphs after two decades.  Mainstream Islam generally learnt from this experience about the folly of attempting to enforce religious beliefs upon others, given the wide diversity of traditional, jurisprudential, legal, rational, intellectual, philosophical and theological interpretations of Islamic scripture that had blossomed within two centuries of the Prophet Muhammad.  According to one contemporary Christian academic, this explosion of thought within such a short time-span was unparalleled in human history.[18]

 

Other examples of free thought, including satirising contemporary religious practice, are provided by Muslim poets.  For example, a leading poet during Abbasid times was Abul Atahiya (748-828), who famously commented, less than two centuries after the Prophet, that:

 

There are only two types of people amongst mankind:

Those of mindless faith, and those of faithless mind.

 

Atahiya was accused of heresy but never prosecuted for this: he was only imprisoned for upsetting a caliph by writing love poems about one of the caliph’s concubines.

 

Another example is the 12th-century poet Omar Khayyam, whose Rubaiyat has been known and loved throughout the English-speaking world ever since the 19th-century publication of its translation by the Victorian poet Edward Fitzgerald.  In the Rubaiyat, Khayyam famously pours scorn on following religious paths or worrying about mysteries such as heaven and hell, life after death and fate, and sings the praises of drowning one’s confusion by regularly getting drunk on wine. 

 

Although devout Muslims still abhor some of the sentiments expressed by Atahiya and Khayyam, it is a fact of Islamic history that they were commonly expressed by poets during their times, i.e. 900-1200 years ago.

 

 

8.      Forbearance in the face of provocation

Debate and discussion should ideally be polite, respectful and civilised.  When it is not, the Muhammadan character is to respond to insults, uncivilised behaviour, provocation and violence with patience, forbearance, forgiveness and compassion.  Those who claim to be following Islam and the Prophet Muhammad should be showing such characteristics rather than being provoked into mindless acts of violence and bloodshed, or into attempts to close down freedom of thought and expression.

 

The following Qur’anic verses are just some of those that extol the virtues of forbearance and forgiveness in response to provocation and insult:

 

(i)                 Hold to the path of forgiveness; enjoin goodness; turn away from the ignorant. (7:199)

(ii)               The servants of the All-Merciful are those who … when addressed by ignorant people, they reply, “Peace!” (25:63)

(iii)             We know indeed the grief which their words do cause you (O Muhammad). It is not you they reject: it is the signs of God that the unjust deny. Rejected were the messengers before you: with patience and constancy they bore their people’s rejection and wrongdoings, until Our victorious help did reach them.  There is none that can alter the words and decrees of God. Already, there have come to you some stories of those messengers. (6:33-34)

(iv)              We do indeed know how your heart is distressed at what they say. But celebrate the praises of your Lord, and be of those who prostrate themselves in adoration. And serve your Lord until there comes to you the Hour that is Certain. (15:97-99)

 

The following incidents from the life of the Prophet, taken from the most authentic Hadith literature that represents canonical Islamic tradition, illustrate how Muhammad practically manifested the sublime teachings of the Qur’an about patience, restraint, forbearance and forgiveness:

 

(i)                 The Prophet’s enemies in Mecca referred to him as Mudhammam (“the oft-cursed”), an inversion of Muhammad (“the oft-praised”).  The Prophet simply stated, “Their words do not apply to me, for they are using a false name, whereas I am Muhammad.”[19]

(ii)               When the Prophet went to the mountainous town of Taif to preach his message, its people rejected him and incited their youth to throw stones at him, leaving his feet bleeding.  The Archangel Gabriel came to him and offered to crush the people of Taif between the mountains, having the power to do so.  Muhammad replied, “Don’t do that: I hope that one day, their descendants will worship the One God.”  Within a decade or two, the entire population of Taif had converted to Islam.

(iii)             The Prophet was asked repeatedly to curse his enemies who had persecuted, tortured and killed Muslims and were trying to obliterate them.  He replied, “I was sent as a mercy to people, not as one who curses them.”

(iv)             A group of people came to the Prophet’s house and greeted him with as-samu alaykum (“Death be upon you”) rather than as-salamu alaykum (“Peace be upon you”).  Aisha was provoked by this and replied, “May the curse of God be upon you!” Muhammad reprimanded her saying, “God is gentle, and loves gentleness.”

(v)               The Prophet owed a Bedouin some money.  The latter came to angrily ask for repayment and pulled the Prophet’s cloak violently in such a way that his neck was bruised.  When his disciples demanded retaliation, he replied, “Leave him alone, for a creditor is entitled to have his say.”

(vi)             The Prophet once distributed some spoils of war amongst the Muslims.  One of them accused of him of not being just, and of showing favouritism.  Although the Prophet rebuked him verbally, he took no further action against him, despite the fact that accusing the Prophet of injustice is tantamount to blasphemy.

(vii)           The Prophet taught, “The strong person is not the one who throws his opponent during a wrestling match: the strong person is one who controls himself when angry.”

(viii)         A man came to the Prophet and repeatedly requested him, “Please advise me.”  The Prophet replied every time, “Do not become angry.” Muslim scholars have explained that this advice includes avoiding any situation that is likely to make a person unnecessarily angry.  This certainly applies to viewing offensive films, cartoons or books about the Prophet or other sacred symbols.

(ix)             Abdullah bin Ubayy was the leader of the Hypocrites of Madina: they had converted to Islam because of its dominant position there compared to the Jewish, Christian and polytheist communities.  However, the hypocrites constantly betrayed the Muslims, including their last-minute withdrawal from the Muslim army on the eve of the Battle of Uhud.  After yet another incident of treachery, Umar bin al-Khattab and others insisted that the traitors should be executed, a step that was well within the rules of war at the time.  However, the Prophet famously replied, “Leave them alone, lest other people say that ‘Muhammad kills his companions’.”

This incident shows that the Prophet was extremely concerned about the reputation of Islam and Muslims.  Today’s angry fanatics who scream “blue murder” at every insult to Islam, real or imagined, would do well to learn from the Prophet’s example of restraint, especially when there is now a significant difference: the calls for revenge often break the laws of the societies where these are made.

 

Conclusion

 

Islam historically had a strong tradition of tolerance and freedom of thought and debate, even regarding fundamental aspects of faith.  Discussions of faith, and even religious belief itself, necessarily entail statements that may be offensive to others and interpreted as blasphemy.  The Islamic response to provocation is based on spirituality, dignity and forgiveness.  This tradition of openness and generosity desperately needs to be revived in Muslim-majority countries and societies today, especially given the appalling amount of violence generated by religious intolerance and bigotry.

 

 

APPENDIX: The Mediaeval Sharia Law on a Death Penalty for Apostasy from Islam

 

Regrettably, mediaeval interpretations of Sharia law are dominated by the idea that apostates from Islam, i.e. Muslims who leave their faith and/or convert to another, must be killed.  This rule, found in all the major texts of mediaeval jurisprudence that are still taught in Islamic seminaries and universities around the world, blatantly contradicted the Qur’anic principle that “There is no compulsion in religion,” and was based on a few hadiths (traditions ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad, rightly or wrongly) found in the major, canonical Hadith collections. 

 

 

Analysis of major hadiths cited to support a death penalty for apostasy

 

There now follows a brief discussion of the two most well-known hadiths in this regard:

 

A. The first of these hadiths is especially well-known due to its inclusion in the popular, short collection of fundamental Prophetic traditions, the Forty Hadith by Imam al-Nawawi (1234-1278).  The text of this hadith is as follows:

Abdullah bin Mas’ud narrated that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said, “The blood of a Muslim may not be legally spilt other than in one of three [instances]: the married person who commits adultery; a life for a life; and one who forsakes his religion and abandons the community.”[20]

Note that the primary sources of this hadith, Bukhari and Muslim, are regarded as the two most authentic hadith collections in Sunni Islam, and numerous commentaries have been written on these. 

In a representative example of classical scholarly views, the 13th-century Syrian scholar Imam Nawawi comments on the relevant part of this hadith thus: “It applies generally to every apostate from Islam, whatever the type of apostasy, such that it is obligatory to kill him if he does not return to Islam.  The people of knowledge say that this also includes everyone who leaves the community through heresy [bid’ah], rebellion [baghy] or such like.  It also includes the Rebels [Khawarij].”[21]

Similarly, the 15th-century Egyptian scholar Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani approvingly quotes both Nawawi and his contemporary Ibn Daqiq al-‘Id, who said, “There is consensus that apostasy legalises the killing of a man; the case of the woman is disputed.”[22]

As expanded upon below, contemporary Muslim thinking has rejected this view, reading the “abandonment of community” in the hadith as placing a condition of serious treason for any punishment to be applied in earlier times.  In such ancient times, faith-allegiance often equated to political allegiance and therefore, leaving one’s faith was akin to political treason, especially in situations when different faith communities lived effectively in a state of war.

 

B. Abdullah bin ‘Abbas related that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “Whoever changes his religion, kill him.” (man baddala dinahu fa’qtuluhu) – related by Bukhari and others

The context of this hadith will be discussed later.  In an extreme example of traditional jurisprudence, Imam Nawawi, in the commentary on Hadith A above under his own Commentary on the Forty Hadith, quotes Hadith B to defend his Shafi’i school’s literalist position that anyone who changes their religion must be killed, including “a Jew who converts to Christianity and vice-versa”!  This literalist position holds that all converts from one religion to another must be killed, except for converts to Islam.  The 20th-century scholar, Muhammad Rashid Rida, in his notes to the Commentary on the Forty Hadith, criticized Nawawi for supporting this position.  In Rida’s view, Hadith B must be understood in the light of Hadith A, which clearly applies only to converts from Islam.

Both Rida and Nawawi take a literalist approach: the problem with such an approach is highlighted by the extreme conclusions drawn by Nawawi and other Shafi’i authorities.  Contemporary Muslim thinking would agree with Rida that Hadith B should be understood in the light of other texts such as Hadith A, and that the changed modern context as well as the original Islamic spirit necessitates the abolition of any death penalty or punishment for apostasy.  Contemporary Muslim thinking thus seeks to reconcile these hadiths with the Qur’anic passages quoted earlier.  Reconciling texts is a traditional principle of jurisprudence.

Context of the hadith

The contemporary scholar Taha Jabir al-‘Alwani disputes the authenticity of this hadith but also argues that, even if it is authentic, it referred to treacherous plots by non-Muslim enemies of Islam to pretend to convert to Islam and then leave the faith in the hope of persuading some believers to follow suit, as mentioned in the Qur’an (3:72).[23]

Traditional and mediaeval jurists’ views on a death penalty for apostasy[24]

 

1)      The Hanafi school held that that adult, male (but not female) apostates from Islam must be put to death on the basis of the second hadith discussed above.

2)      The Maliki school held that all adult apostates, male or female, are to be put to death due to the danger that they may take up arms and wage war against the Muslim community.  This is after they have been given an opportunity to repent.  For example, Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr claimed that “There is no disagreement over the death penalty for apostasy.”[25]

3)      The Shafi’i school held that apostates are to be put to death since polytheism and unbelief (kufr) are sufficient reason to kill people; the only exception to this is dhimmis, non-Muslims who are protected by Muslim authority in return for payment of a per-capita tax, the jizya.[26]

4)      The Hanbali school held, similarly to the Malikis and Shafi’is, that male and female apostates are to be put to death after giving them three days to repent.

5)      The Imami (Twelver Shia) school held that born Muslims who apostasise are to be executed without being given an opportunity to repent.  Apostates who previously converted to Islam from another faith are to be given an opportunity to repent.  Unrepentant female apostates are not to be killed, but imprisoned.

6)      The Zahiri (Literalist) school, represented by Ibn Hazm, held that all apostates are to be executed.  Ibn Hazm declared that the Qur’anic verse, “There is no coercion in religion,” is either abrogated or only applies to specific people.  The contemporary scholar Alwani describes Ibn Hazm’s discussion and stance as intransigent, self-contradictory and embroiled in confusion.

7)      The Zaydi and Ibadi schools held that all apostates, male and female, are to be executed since their apostasy amounts to a potential or actual declaration of war on the Muslim nation.[27]

 

Modern Muslim jurisprudence on apostasy

 

The mediaeval jurisprudence on apostasy has been developed significantly and progressively in more recent times, although many contemporary traditionalist Muslims appear to be unaware of such developments, of which the following are examples:

 

1)      Ottoman reforms:  The Ottoman Sultanate is regarded by all modern Islamists as the only legitimate Caliphate of its time.  The Gulhane Decree (Hatt-i-Sharif) of 1839 promised many reforms, including the total abolition of jizya or any other poll-tax on non-Muslims and giving equal citizenship status to Jews, Christians and Muslims.  This was followed by a new penal code in 1843 that attempted to follow the rest of Europe in modernizing and updating its mediaeval religious heritage.  In 1844, the death penalty for apostasy from Islam was abolished.  The Ottoman Penal Code of 1858 was based on the 1810 Napoleonic code, and put aside traditional Islamic punishments.[28]

Sheikh Abdal Hakim Murad (aka Dr. Tim Winter), a prominent British Muslim scholar, comments on the Ottoman reforms thus, “The Ottoman Caliphate, the supreme representative of Sunni Islam, formally abolished this penalty in the aftermath of the so-called Tanzimat reforms launched in 1839. The Shaykh al-Islam, the supreme head of the religious courts and colleges, ratified this major shift in traditional legal doctrine. It was pointed out that there is no verse in the Qur’an that lays down a punishment for apostasy (although chapter 5 verse 54 and chapter 2 verse 217 predict a punishment in the next world). It was also pointed out that the ambiguities in the hadith (the sayings of the Prophet) suggest that apostasy is only an offense when combined with the crime of treason.”[29]

2)      In the second half of the 20th century, Al-Azhar of Egypt, the millennium-old institution that is currently one of the Islamic world’s most influential religious authorities, followed the Ottomans regarding a death penalty for apostasy.  “The debate triggered by the Ottoman reform was continued when al-Azhar University in Cairo, the supreme religious authority in the Arab world, delivered a formal fatwa (religious edict) in 1958, which confirmed the abolition of the classical law in this area.”[30]

3)      Even the European Council for Fatwa and Research, a contemporary body of traditionalist jurists including some leading Islamists, has endorsed the understanding of the hadiths quoted above to mean that only apostasy accompanied by political treason is punishable.[31]

 

Implications of these developments include:

 

(i)         The claim that there is a consensus on a death penalty for apostasy is false.

(ii)        Those who claim that changing such a death penalty is “kufr (blasphemy)” contradict themselves by recognising the Ottoman Caliphate as “Islamic.”

(iii)       This debate was settled by the Ottomans as well as al-Azhar, only to be re-opened by modern fundamentalists and Islamists who thus rebelled against tradition, rather than reviving it.  In April 2013, Morocco’s Supreme Council of Religious Scholars reportedly called for the death penalty to be reintroduced for apostates from Islam.[32]

 

Key points

 

1)      The mediaeval death penalty for apostasy is clearly opposed to the Qur’anic principle, “There is no coercion in religion.”

2)      This was eventually recognised by leading Islamic authorities such as the Ottoman Caliphate and Al-Azhar, who repealed this death penalty in the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively.

3)      The popular Forty Hadith of the 13th-century scholar, Imam Nawawi, is taught worldwide to beginners as well as advanced students of Islam.  However, it contains a hadith that is often used to justify a blanket death penalty for apostates.  It is a duty of all current teachers of the Forty Hadith to explain that the basic, universal Qur’anic principle of freedom of religion and belief overrides all other interpretations, and that the mediaeval death penalty for apostasy has been formally abolished by the Shaykh al-Islam of the Ottoman Caliphate as well as by al-Azhar of Egypt.


[1] e.g. Anglican Bishops in the Middle East wrote to Mr. Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations, asking for a declaration that outlaws “intentional and deliberate insulting or defamation of persons (such as prophets), symbols, texts and constructs of belief deemed holy by people of faith.” (Anglican Communion News Service, Anglican leaders condemn anti-Islam film and violence, 19th September 2012,  http://www.anglicancommunion.org/acns/news.cfm/2012/9/19/ACNS5185 )

 

[2] Cf. Statement by The Permanent Representatives of the OIC Member States to the United Nations, OIC Group in New York Condemns the Release of the Anti Muslim Video, and Calls for Collective Action against Provocations and Systematic Incitement to Hatred, 22nd September 2012, http://www.oic-oci.org/topic_detail.asp?t_id=7189 )

[3] “UN staff were hunted down and slaughtered in Afghanistan,” The Daily Telegraph, 3rd April 2011 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/afghanistan/8424805/UN-staff-were-hunted-down-and-slaughtered-in-Afghanistan.html

[4] For examples, see Compass Direct, ‘Blasphemy’ Laws in Egypt, Sudan Threaten Converts, May 2011, http://www.compassdirect.org/english/country/egypt/article_112328.html

[5] Ibid.

[6] Human Rights First, Blasphemy Laws Exposed: The Consequences of Criminalizing “Defamation of Religions”, Updated March 2012, http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/wp-content/uploads/Blasphemy_Cases.pdf

[7] See Usama Hasan, When Words Are Immutable, The Guardian’s Comment Is Free, 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/feb/26/quran-translation-tafsir for more details

[8] Human Rights First, Blasphemy Laws Exposed: The Consequences of Criminalizing “Defamation of Religions”, Updated March 2012, http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/wp-content/uploads/Blasphemy_Cases.pdf

[9] See the commentaries on Qur’an 2:256 by Tabari, Qurtubi and Ibn Kathir, also available online at http://quran.al-islam.com

[10] Ibn Kathir’s commentary on the Qur’an, 10:99

[11] See the commentaries on Qur’an 11:28 by Tabari, Qurtubi, Ibn Kathir and Jalalayn, also available online at http://quran.al-islam.com

[12] See Hamza Yusuf, Who are the Disbelievers?, Seasons Journal, Zaytuna Institute, USA, Spring 2008, pp. 30-50.  Available to read online at http://sandala.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Who-are-the-Disbelievers.pdf

[13] The only exception to this, according to many authorities, was the case of the Arabian mushrikun (idolaters or polytheists) because they continuously persecuted the Muslims and waged war on them with a view to eliminating them entirely.  That particular historical rule has long been obsolete since the Islamic conquest of Arabia in the 7th century CE.

[14] Sahih Muslim

[15] Zamakhshari’s commentary on the Qur’an 39:17-18, Al-Kashshaf, Dar al-Kutub al-‘Arabi, n.d.

[16] See the commentary on Qur’an 39:18 by Qurtubi, also available online at http://quran.al-islam.com

[17] See Tafsir al-Jalalayn, commentary on Qur’an 42:10, also available online at http://quran.al-islam.com.  See also Zamakhshari’s commentary on the same verse.

[18] Wael Hallaq, Introduction to Ibn Taymiyya Against the Greek Logicians, Clarendon, 1993.

[19] In The Satanic Verses (1988), Salman Rushdie used a mediaeval, anti-Islamic Christian corruption of the Prophet’s name for the main figure in his novel: Mahound.  The above hadith suggests an obvious Prophetic answer that may be paraphrased as, “Don’t worry, since that is not my name anyway!”

[20] An-Nawawi, Forty Hadith, trans. D. Johnson-Davies & E. Ibrahim, Islamic Texts Society, 1997, Hadith No. 14.

[21] An-Nawawi, Sharh Sahih Muslim (Commentary on Sahih Muslim), under the hadith under discussion, Kitab al-Qisas wal-Diyat (Book of Retaliation and Blood-Money), no. 1676; also available at http://hadith.al-islam.com/Page.aspx?pageid=192&BookID=34&TOCID=772.  The original Khawarij were devout but extremist Muslims whose excessive piety led them to excommunicate and kill other Muslims, including Imam Ali, the fourth Caliph of Islam.  The term is often used to describe extremist political and religious sects that emphasise rebellion against “un-Islamic” authority and indulge in the excommunication (takfir) of Muslims who do not agree with them.  Ironically, Imam Nawawi here endorses the killing of anyone whom “orthodox Muslims” deem to have left the faith of Islam.

[22] Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari (Commentary on Sahih Bukhari) under the hadith under discussion – Bukhari, Kitab al-Diyat (Book of Blood-Money) no. 6878; also available at http://hadith.al-islam.com/Page.aspx?pageid=192&BookID=33&TOCID=3788

[23] For more details, see T.J. al-Alwani, Apostasy in Islam – A Historical & Scriptural Analysis, The International Institute of Islamic Thought, London/Washington, 1432/2011, Chapter 4

[24] Al-Alwani, Chapter 5

[25] Al-Alwani, pp. 77 & 101-4

[26] Al-Alwani, pp. 104-9; see also Recep Senturk, Sociology of Rights: Human Rights in Islam between Communal and Universal Perspectives, Emory University Law School, 2002 for a brilliant exposition of the fundamental differences between the communal (Shafi’i) and universal (Hanafi) approaches to human rights in Islam, as well as a history of the Ottoman developments regarding human rights and democracy based on the universalist Hanafi approach.

[27] For the last five schools summarised, see al-Alwani, pp. 109-116

[28] Ishtiaq Hussain, The Tanzimat (1839-1876): Secular Reforms in the Ottoman Empire, Faith Matters, 2011, also available at: http://faith-matters.org/images/stories/fm-publications/the-tanzimat-final-web.pdf

[29] Abdal Hakim Murad, On Faith: Muslims Speak Out – What Islam Really Says About Violence, Human Rights and Other Religions, Washington Post / Newsweek, July 2007, reproduced at: http://ageofjahiliyah.wordpress.com/2007/09/01/abdal-hakim-murad-on-jihad-apostasy-rights-of-muslim-women/

[30] Murad (2007)

[31] Fatawa al-Majlis al-Urubbi lil-Ifta’ wal-Buhuth (Fatwas of the European Council for Fatwa and Research), available in printed form as well as online at http://www.e-cfr.org/

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5 Responses to “NO COMPULSION IN RELIGION: ISLAM AND THE FREEDOM OF BELIEF”

  1. Funny Clash of the 'ash'arites: GF Haddad Vs. TJ Winter...who wins for them? Apostacy laws - Page 2 Says:

    […] { googletag.display('div-gpt-ad-1326644231210-2'); }); NO COMPULSION IN RELIGION: ISLAM AND THE FREEDOM OF BELIEF | UNITY Here is usama's referencing of the article by TJ, interesting I Re-read this by TJ and I wonder at […]

  2. Islam and Freedom of Belief | Blackwatertown Says:

    […] written an interesting paper called No Compulsion in Religion: Islam and the Freedom of Belief. I reproduce some of it here. I’ve cut a lot for brevity and scrapped the footnotes. So I […]

  3. blackwatertown Says:

    Howdy – I enjoyed reading this and I’ve lifted large parts of this (not the full piece) for my own blog and linked back to you. Hope that’s OK.

  4. sarah Says:

    KNOW ABOUT THE RULINGS OF APOSTASY IN THE LIGHT OF QURAN & SAHIH HADEETH!

    watch this video for clarification [its made using the Quran and sahih hadeeth]

  5. Sohail Ahmed Says:

    Reblogged this on Sohail Ahmed and commented:
    A must read for any Muslim out there.

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