Question # 319: In a democratic country how a Murtad (defector from Islam or the by born Muslim acts against Islam) can be punished? As there is no Shariah law in force. In such country conventional political parties don’t sit idle till gaining the power rather go ahead with their agenda. So how to deal with Murtad?
Bismi-llahi r-raḥmani r-raḥīm,
Assalamu ‘laikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh,
All praise and thanks are due to Allah (سبحانه و تعالى), and peace and blessings be upon His Messenger (صلى الله عليه و سلم).
First of all, we implore Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) to help us serve His cause and render our work for His sake.
Shorter Answer: In all the schools of thought, the punishment for a Muslim apostate (murtadd) is death. However, it should be noted that the Shari’ah ruling on Muslims for ridda (apostasy) belongs to the Muslim ruler or political authority to implement based on the best interests of society. One must understand that the Shari’ah’s aim of punishing apostasy from Islam is to protect the communal faith and social order of a Muslim state rather than of policing individual beliefs in line with line with the ayah in the Qur’an “there is no compulsion in religion” (Al-Baqarah, 2:256). Hence, the necessity to punish apostasy with death stemmed from the threat it posed to public order and betrayal of the Muslim community by joining the ranks of its enemies; and not as punishment for the act of unbelief, because the greatest punishment for that is with Allah.
Even during the time of Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه و سلم) and the early Muslim community, ridda was understood not as meaning a personal choice of changing one’s religion but as the public act of political secession or rebellion against from the Muslim community. It was understood primarily as a threat to an overarching political order and not as a crime in and of itself. Hence, someone who repeatedly and insistently proclaimed their apostasy from Islam was akin to a violent criminal threatening public safety. Nevertheless, there is no reliable evidence that the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) ever executed anyone for apostasy; the same is true for the early Caliphs. However, some people were executed for apostasy in the early Islamic period when their apostasy was perceived as a threat to public order.
Hence, Islam does not punish disbelief (kufr) with death, rather fighting the Muslims, attacking them and trying to split them away from their religion, is punishable; hence, the punishment for apostasy can be compared to the modern crime of treason. Hence, a Muslim, who renounces their faith in a way that actively encourages others to do so or that undermines stability, is subject to the apostasy punishment; and the one who simply leaves Islam or embraces another religion privately is left alone.
Since Islam views religious identification as both a public category and an internal belief, an appropriate social and political environment is essential in order for people to live lives oriented towards Allah, good deeds, justice and away from unbelief and sin. In this context, Malaysia (with 40% Non-Muslim population) provides an interesting case that has tried to embody Islamic concerns over apostasy in a modern legal framework. Some of Malaysian states have enacted their own approaches to dealing with apostasy, for example, in Malacca, apostasy earns one up to 180 days of detention for rehabilitation, while in Negiri Sembilan, those willing to leave Islam apply for permission. After they have been interviewed to determine their seriousness, and counseled to try to convince them otherwise, they are allowed to apostatize.
In the end, keeping in view, the purpose of punishment for apostasy in Islam and its application during the time of Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم), matters relating to apostasy are only judged by the judiciary systems in Islamic countries only, and not by the individuals or non-Muslim/democratic countries.
Long Answer: The Shari’ah consists of some laws that remain the same regardless of changing circumstances and others that change with them. Most of the Shari’ah is up to individual Muslims to follow in their own lives. Some are for judges to implement in courts. Finally, the third set of laws is for the ruler or political authority to implement based on the best interests of society. The Shari’ah ruling on Muslims who decide to leave Islam belongs to this third group. Implemented in the past to protect the integrity of the Muslim community, today this important goal can best be reached by Muslim governments using their right to set punishments for apostasy aside.
…the traditional Islamic punishment for Muslims who leave their own religion [is] known as ridda or irtidad in Arabic, this is usually translated as apostasy in English (the generic act of renouncing or leaving one’s religion) …Though [in this discourse, ridda is referred to] as apostasy for the sake of convenience, as in so many cases, the heart of the matter lies in the simple act of translation. In the time of the Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه و سلم) and the early Muslim community, the Arabic noun ridda and the verb for engaging in it were understood not as meaning a personal choice of changing one’s religion but as the public act of political secession from the Muslim community.
Interestingly, this dimension of apostasy as betraying and opposing one’s community, missing in the normal usage of the English word ‘apostasy,’ is actually recovered in sociological studies of apostasy. Many studies looking at those who leave religious groups as well as communities defined by secular ideologies show that what distinguishes apostates from those who simply leave is that apostates become active opponents of their previous identity, more renegades than mere dissenters. Along the same lines, the problem with ridda in Islam was not that a person was exercising their freedom of conscience and choosing to no longer follow the religion. The problem was when such a decision became a public act with political implications.
Religion in the Pre-Modern World
In Islamic civilization, the order of the world under heaven was simple. Muslims believed that God had revealed His final message to mankind. Unlike previous prophets, this last prophet had been sent to all communities, and his message rectified the errors that had crept into the revealed teachings brought by earlier prophets. What was best for human beings was clear: the worship of the one God and following the religion of Muhammad (صلى الله عليه و سلم), which would promote “felicity in both abodes (al-saʿada fi al-darayn),” both this world and the next. But the Qur’an and the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) also gave people the right to reject this path and continue practicing their religion under Muslim rule. As Muslim scholars and rulers understood it, their mission was clear: extend the rule of Islam and God’s law as far as possible not so that everyone could be forcibly converted to Islam (this hardly ever occurred) but so “the word of God would be supreme” …and so that as many people as possible could live within God’s final order under heaven.
The order of this world was clear to the scholarly and political elite who shaped and ruled it …Non-Muslims, who were for many centuries and in some cases permanently the majority in Islamic civilization, could continue to live by their own religions and religious laws. Anyone who wanted could convert to Islam and join the ruling class of Muslims. But encouraging or publicizing, or even allowing, movement in the opposite direction, downward out of the ruling class, was a different matter.
In the logic of this order, questioning Islam’s primacy was to undermine the societal order itself. As a result, all pre-modern Muslim schools of law considered apostasy to be a serious crime. The majority of Muslim scholars considered it among the Hudud crimes (leading voices in the Hanafi school of law were exceptions to this), albeit with some important distinctions.
That apostasy was understood primarily as a threat to an overarching political order and not as a crime in and of itself is clear from how Muslim jurists described it. Apostasy differed from other serious crimes, such as fornication and murder, because on its own it did not transgress the rights of others. As a result, unlike other crimes, if someone who had left Islam decided to recant, the crime of apostasy vanished and no punishment followed. For a crime like murder, on the other hand, even if the perpetrator deeply regretted his act, the harm had been done and the victim and their family had a right to justice. Leaving Islam and embracing unbelief are great offenses, said the famous Hanafi jurist al-Sarakhsi (d. circa 1096 CE). “But they are between the human being (lit. the slave) and his Lord,” he added. Their punishment lies in the Hereafter. “What punishments there are here in this world [for apostasy],” he continued, “are policies set down for the common good of human beings (siyasat mashruʿa li-maṣalih taʿudu ila al-ʿibad).” Someone who repeatedly and insistently proclaimed their apostasy from Islam was akin to a violent criminal threatening public safety, al-Sarakhsi explained. The common good that apostasy threatened was the Shari’ah itself and the rights that it pledged to protect for all its subjects, Muslim or not: rights to physical integrity, property, religion, reason, family and honor (ʿird).
The word that al-Sarakhsi used to indicate ‘policy,’ siyasa, is crucial for understanding the functioning of Islamic law in general and issues like apostasy in particular. Siyasa can be translated as politics, governance, administrative law and even criminal law. Its functions varied, but what unified them is that, while most of Islamic law was applied by independent Muslim judges (in fact, it was jealously guarded by them in part out of fear of political abuse), siyasa fell under the purview of the ruler/political authority.
…Finally, there were areas of criminal law like violent theft or premeditated murder that Muslim jurists understood to be left to the ruler for final decision. According to al-Sarakhsi and many other Muslim legal theorists, this is where the topic of apostasy belonged… Apostasy differed from other Hudud crimes and crimes like murder in at least one important way. Once someone was found guilty of general Hudud crimes, the ruling authority had to carry out the punishment. [The] discussion here will show that dealing with apostasy, by contrast, fell wholly within the ruling authority’s discretion.
The Punishment for Apostasy in the Islamic Juristic Tradition
In the public and cosmic order of the ‘Abode of Islam,’ that grand fabric of diverse kingdoms and peoples bound together by a belief in Islam’s legal order and in belonging to the community (ummah) of Muhammad (صلى الله عليه و سلم), it’s not surprising that the official punishment for apostasy was severe… But mainly what shaped the Muslim juristic tradition’s position on apostasy from Islam was how it understood order and identity. This influenced the rules on apostasy more than any clear prescription in the Qur’an or the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم)’s teachings.
In all the classical schools of Sunni and Shiite Islam, the punishment for a Muslim apostate (murtadd) was death. The jurists also agreed that only the ruler could order this punishment carried out and that vigilantism would be punished (just as only a court or qualified judge can declare someone an unbeliever). The ruling on apostasy was based primarily on three ahadith in Sahih al-Bukhari. First, the Companion Ibn ʿAbbas (رضي الله عنه) reported that the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) said, “Whoever changes their religion, kill them.” Second, Muʿadh bin Jabal (رضي الله عنه) told another Companion, Abu Musa al-Ashʿari (رضي الله عنه), that executing the apostate was the ruling of God and His Messenger. And third, the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) said that a Muslim could only be executed for the crimes of murder, adultery, or apostasy.
These reports provide excellent examples of how ahadith must be read in light of external evidence. First, the command of the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) to ‘kill anyone who changes their religion’ cannot be taken on its face, since it’s obvious that people changing their religion to Islam was not a crime. It was laudable. And changing religions from Christianity to Buddhism, for example, was of no consequence. So, the hadith must be understood as warning only those who leave Islam.
Similarly, it was not a crime to outwardly renounce Islam out of fear for one’s safety as long as one still believed in one’s heart, as is clearly stated in the Qur’an (Soorah an-Nahl, 16:106). Finally, apostasy is only considered if the person doing it is of sound mind, an adult, and, for the Hanafi school of law and several opinions in the other schools, sober.
Such qualifications might seem obvious, but once it’s clear that statements like the above ahadith should not be taken categorically or according to their evident meaning, a host of interpretive possibilities are opened up. For example, Muslim scholars agreed that authorities should only concern themselves with external expressions of apostasy, not people’s private religious practice. This was clear from the overall Shari’ah principle that the law does not seek to know what is in people’s hearts. The Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) had warned Usama bin Zayd that he could not know if someone’s conversion was sincere unless he could “open up his heart.” (Sahih Muslim) The Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) himself is reported to have said, “I have not been commanded to search in the hearts of men or to open them up.” (al-Bayhaqi) Imam al-Shafi’i (d. 820) noted that the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) dealt with people according to their external professions of faith even when he knew they were apostates or unbelievers in their hearts. Even when God had given the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) direct knowledge of someone’s hidden apostasy, that person’s external adherence to Islam made their life and property inviolable. (al-Bayhaqi)
This principle became enshrined in the scholarly maxim that, “The rulings of the Shari’ah concern the evident and outward, and God concerns Himself with what is in the heart (innama al-ahkam bi’l-ẓahir wa Allah yatawalla al-sara’ir).” Purposefully overlooking the condition of individuals’ private faith fit under the larger Shari’ah principle of respecting privacy, avoiding tajassus (seeking out offenses done in private that don’t infringe on others’ rights), and providing satr (finding excuses for, or turning a blind eye to, private misconduct as long as it doesn’t violate the rights of others). These concepts were rooted in the Qur’an, which forbids tajassus (Soorah Al-Hujurat, 49:12) and the Sunnah, where the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) repeatedly ignores a man trying to confess to having violated one of the Hudud. (Ṣahih al-Bukhari) “If you seek out a people’s secret or shameful areas,” the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) warns, “You’ll ruin them.” (Sunan Abu Dawud) None of this meant that Islam did not value sincerity or people’s outward conduct stemming from their inner faith. But from the perspective of the law, it was only outward performances of faith that could be measured. Anything else is impossible to assess with any certainty.
Muslim scholars have disagreed on two other details of apostasy. The Hanafi school differs with the other schools of law in holding that women apostates are not killed but only imprisoned. They base this on a hadith considered reliable by Hanafis in which the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) banned killing women who left Islam. The majority of Muslim scholars, however, consider this hadith to be unreliable and instead follow the principle that men and women are treated equally in Hudud punishments.
Second, scholars disagreed on whether a Muslim who had renounced their religion should be given a chance to repent. Three Sunni schools of law required giving them a chance, and the Hanafis considered it recommended. (Al-Mawsuʿa al-fiqhiyya) The vast majority of Muslim scholars held that this opportunity to recant should be given, based on a set of ahadith in which the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) mentioned giving apostates a chance to change their minds, as well as on the precedent of the caliph Umar. Most legal scholars gave a period of three days, or three chances, and Ibn Hanbal (d. 855) and Abu Hanifa (d. 767) gave opinions that the accused person should be given a month to repent. The famous scholar Ibn Hazm (d. 1064) reports one opinion that the apostate should be asked if they want to recant until… forever (yustatabu abadan wa la yuqtalu), on the basis of a statement by Umar and a ruling by the early jurist al-Nakhaʿi (d. 717; though al-Nakhaʿi probably meant that a repeat apostate should be given a chance to repent every time). (Ibn Hazm, al-Muhalla)
Apostasy and the Practice of the Early Muslim Community
The way that the early Muslim community seems to have understood apostasy differs strikingly from the decisive rulings of the later schools of law. This is most clear in the rulings of the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) himself. There is no reliable evidence that the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) ever executed anyone for apostasy, as was observed by the famous scholar of Cordoba, Ibn al-Ṭallaʿ (d. 1103). When one of the Companions, ʿUbaydallah bin Jahsh left Islam and became Christian while the Muslims were seeking refuge in Ethiopia, the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) did not order him punished. (Sira of Ibn Ishaq) The Treaty of Hudaybiyya, which the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) concluded with the Quraysh, stated that if anyone decided to leave the Muslim community in Madinah no harm would befall them. There was no mention of a punishment for apostasy. In fact, when a man who had come to the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) just the day before to pledge his loyalty to Islam wanted to be released from his oath, the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) let him go. (Ṣahih al-Bukhari) Imam al-Shafi’i himself notes how, during the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم)’s time in Madinah, “Some people believed and then apostatized. Then they again took on the outer trappings of faith. But the Messenger of God did not kill them.” (Al-Bayhaqi)
This is equally clear in the conduct of the early caliphs. When six men from the Bakr bin Wa’il tribe apostatized during a campaign in southern Iran, the leaders of the army had them killed. When the caliph Umar (رضي الله عنه) was informed of this, he upbraided the commanders. Had he been making the decision, the caliph explained, he would have offered the men “a way back in from the door they took out,” or he would have put them in prison. (Sunan of Saʿid bin al-Manṣur) When the pious Umayyad caliph ʿUmar bin ʿAbd al-ʿAziz (d. 720) was told that a group of recent converts to Islam in northern Iraq had apostatized, he allowed them to revert to their previous status as a protected non-Muslim minority. (Abd al-Razzaq al-Ṣanʿani, al-Muṣannaf)
Of course, some people were executed for apostasy in the early Islamic period. Yet, in instances where details are provided, what stands out is their public nature. The apostasy occurs not in private but comes with a very public announcement by the person in question. This is exemplified in the famous story of the caliph Ali (رضي الله عنه) reportedly executing a man named al-Mustawrad al-ʿIjli for converting to Christianity. Although reports of this event overall are unreliable according to most Muslim scholars, what seems to have condemned al-Mustawrad was not converting but rather rubbing this in Ali’s face publicly. (Muṣannaf of ʿAbd al-Razzaq al-Ṣanʿani, and al-Albani declared it weak)
Reconsidering Apostasy in the Modern Period
The tremendous changes in how the role of religion is viewed in societies strongly influenced by nationalism and Western secularism have led some Muslim scholars to investigate the Shari’ah heritage on apostasy. The notion that the crime of apostasy in Islam was more a matter of protecting a state and social order than of policing individual beliefs was articulated in the 1940s by the South Asian Muslim activist intellectual Abul Ala Mawdudi (d. 1979). Modern scholars such as the Egyptians Mahmud Shaltut (Shaykh al-Azhar, d. 1964) and Yusuf al-Qaraḍawi, as well as the late Iraqi-American scholar Ṭaha Jabir al-ʿAlwani (d. 2016), have reconsidered how apostasy should be viewed in contexts in which religious identity is not a state matter. They have concluded that what was criminal about apostasy was its public dimension and the threat it posed to a public order built on confessional identity. It is this public element, they argue, not the question of a person’s private decision to follow their conscience in changing their religion, that Islamic law should focus on.
Far from being hidden or unrealized in Islamic legal history, it was precisely this aspect of apostasy-as-public-threat that explained why Muslim jurists and states had so little interest in people’s private religious choices. It also explains why centuries of Muslim jurists all affirmed a ruling that seems to clash so clearly with the Qur’an’s repeated statements on the freedom of religious choice. The Qur’an warns those who abandon Islam after embracing it that their good deeds will mean nothing in this life or the next (Soorah Al-Baqarah, 2:217). It mentions no worldly punishment. Even “those who believe, then disbelieve and then (again) believe, then disbelieve, and then increase in disbelief” are not given any earthly punishment by the Qur’an. Instead, God warns only that He “will never pardon them, nor will He guide them unto a way” (Soorah An-Nisa’a, 4:137). The Qur’anic verse that strikes the most stridently dissonant note with the death penalty for apostasy is the declaration that, “There is no compulsion in religion. Wisdom has been clearly distinguished from falsehood” (Soorah Al-Baqarah, 2:256).
The choice by Muslim jurists of where to place the topic of apostasy in books of law further reveals that what concerned them was the public nature of apostasy and how they saw it affecting the political order. A foundational textbook in the Shafi’i school of law (the Muhadhdhab of Abu Ishaq al-Shirazi, d. 1083) listed ridda not under criminal punishments (Hudud) but under the chapter on dealing with rebellion (al-Bughat). Famous jurists of the Hanafi school including al-Sarakhsi, Ibn Humam (d. 1457) and Ibn al-Saʿati (d. 1295) dealt with apostasy in the chapter on interstate politics (kitab al-siyar), not alongside criminal punishments. Ibn Humam spells this out clearly when he explains, “It is necessary to punish apostasy with death in order to avert the evil of war, not as punishment for the act of unbelief, because the greatest punishment for that is with God.”
Shaltut and the other scholars found strong confirmation for their thesis in the very same ahadith that had long been used as evidence for punishing apostasy with death. What the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) considered punishable by death was not the personal decision to cease believing in and practicing Islam but rather the betrayal of the Muslim community by joining the ranks of its enemies. One of the main pieces of evidence for the death penalty for apostasy is the hadith narrated by Ibn ʿAbbas (رضي الله عنه) that the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) ordered “Whoever changes their religion, kill them.” This hadith is invoked by Ibn ʿAbbas in the context of a group of Muslims who had rejected Islam and then began preaching and even setting down in writing “heretical” ideas (these apostates are described as zanadiqa, or heretics), seeking to challenge the caliph Ali. (Musnad Ahmad Ibn Hanbal; Ṣahih al-Bukhari) The Arabic word used to describe what they had done, irtaddu, was understood in the early Islamic period to be a public act of political secession from or rebellion against the Muslim community. Hence the famous two years of the Ridda Wars fought during the caliphate of Abu Bakr (632-34 CE), the very name of which shows the conflation of ridda as apostasy with ridda as rebellion and secession from the Muslim polity (in ahadith the word was used with both meanings). (Ṣahih al-Bukhari)
The second main piece of hadith evidence for the apostasy ruling leaves a similar impression. When the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) says that a Muslim cannot be killed except as punishment for murder, adultery or leaving Islam, he qualifies the apostate here as one who “leaves his religion and forsakes the community (al-tarik li-dinihi al-mufariq li’l-jamaʿa).” (Ṣahih al-Bukhari) Or, in another version, one who “makes war on God and His Messenger.” (Ṣahih al-Bukhari)
The only hadith evidence that does not include a specific political dimension for the crime of apostasy is the discussion between the Companions Abu Musa al-Ashʿari and Muʿadh bin Jabal (رضي الله عنها) over a Jewish man who had converted to Islam and then left it. But this is only because the report has no real contextual information at all. Moreover, there is evidence that the caliph Umar was later informed about Abu Musa’s and Muʿadh’s decision and expressed his displeasure. “Could you not have imprisoned him for three days, fed him each day a loaf of bread, and asked him to repent?” asked Umar. “He might have repented and returned to the command of God.” (Muwaṭṭa’)
Looking at this evidence, Shaltut explained that Islam does not punish disbelief (kufr) with death. What is punishable by death, he concluded, is “fighting the Muslims, attacking them and trying to split them away from their religion.” (Mahmud Shaltut, al-Islam ʿaqida wa shariʿa) Scholars like Yusuf al-Qaraḍawi have therefore compared the punishment for apostasy to the modern crime of treason. Al-Qaraḍawi explains that there is no punishment for an individual’s decision to stop believing in Islam, since the Qur’an makes clear that “there is no compulsion in religion” (Soorah Al-Baqarah, 2:256). Only those who combine their leaving Islam with a public attempt to undermine the stability of the Muslim community can be punished for ridda. Al-Qaraḍawi introduces the distinction between ‘transgressive apostasy (al-ridda al-mutaʿaddiyya)’ and ‘non-transgressive apostasy (al-ridda al-qaṣira).’ The former, in which a Muslim renounces their faith in a way that actively encourages others to do so or that undermines stability, is subject to the apostasy punishment. One who simply leaves Islam or embraces another religion privately is left alone.
How Should Muslims Think about Apostasy Today?
In an important sense, the question of how Muslims should tackle the issue of apostasy shows how much ‘Muslim’ issues are really global, human issues. Over half a century ago the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, … either alone or in community with others and in public or private…” (Article 18). Yet Article 29 of the same declaration mandates that the human rights it sets forth can be restricted for purposes of “meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.” Religious freedom is incredibly important, but it can be restricted. How does one know when this would be allowed, and how will differences in culture, political systems, and religious tradition affect this decision?
What is surprising is that from a broad, theoretical perspective, the pre-modern Islamic tradition and the modern human rights vision are structurally similar; they both view the preservation of public order and morality as a just basis for some restriction on religious liberty. In the case of the Shari’ah, both public order and morality are themselves clearly derived from religious (specifically Islamic) sources. But because public order and morality in the West were historically contoured by Christianity, and because that influence continues to a certain extent to this day, this means that in many Western countries justifications for restricting religious liberties are often biased. They draw on notions of public order and morality that are shaped by Western Christian mores.
…the rulings of the Prophet, of the caliphs Umar and Umar bin ʿAbd al-ʿAziz, and the way that apostasy was conceptualized, certainly in the Hanafi school, show that the penalty for apostasy was not automatic. What the punishment should be and whether or not it should be applied was fundamentally a policy decision, and as such it fell to the discretion of the ruler after weighing the best interests of all involved.
What are the best policies today, and what are the best interests of Muslims? For Muslims living in states whose laws provide protection for freedom of religion, this issue is simple. It is thanks to such legal protections that Muslims have come to reside in these countries and to enjoy the protection of their laws. It would be totally unacceptable to violate the pact, implicit or explicit, made by our residence in these states by working to undermine the freedom of religion of other citizens.
As for Muslim-majority countries, are there grounds for legislating some legal restriction on converting out of Islam or punishing someone who does so? From the perspective of human rights law, almost certainly not, considering how essential that body of law views the right to choose one’s religion. It’s important to remember, however, that this perspective on human rights is very much tied to the Western Enlightenment experience and its decision to relegate religion to the private sphere and to remove the state from the business of religious control.
But what about countries that have not made the Western move to separate religion and state? Countries like Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, for example, declare themselves constitutionally Islamic states. And what about states that view religious belief, practice or expression as closely tied to concerns of public order, such as Russia? (One reviewer wrote that the country’s rulers “see faith not as a personal matter but as a public phenomenon, vital to national identity and security. Citizens, they believe, need protecting from the vagaries of individual choice”).
To further muddy the waters, what if we consider a case of apostasy that is not simply a person making a private religious choice but rather engaging in a very public declaration of why they had chosen to do so? Here the issue becomes more complicated. If the apostate publicly argues for leaving Islam or denigrates it, then the question grows from the realm of freedom of religion to that of the freedom of speech as well. Taking the European Court of Human Rights as an indicator, there has been a greater margin of appreciation granted to states to restrict the freedom of speech than the freedom of religion.
We should also remember that the separation of church and state, and the stripping of religion from core notions of order and security are not biological stages in human evolution that affect all societies equally. The resurgence of Orthodox traditionalism in Russia, a triumphant China’s hostility to ‘universal values’, and decades of the ubiquitous ‘Islam vs. the West’ tension demonstrate that this evolution reflects a particular Western Enlightenment experience. It’s not universal.
Neither is it consistent. As recently as 2015, the U.K. government was mulling laws punishing religious extremism, by which it meant “the vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.” So, could a Muslim country pass laws restricting conduct that it viewed as opposing its ‘fundamental values’? If the U.K. government views Muslims publicly calling on people not to vote as something worthy of legal sanction, what about a citizen in a Muslim country calling on others not to pray or not to honor the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم)? What if a citizen actively touting their apostasy from Islam and calling others to join them were seen as an ‘extremist’ act comparable to those worrying the British government? If all states can pass laws to protect the fundamental values of their societies, could a Muslim state pass a law against apostasy to do so?
Malaysia provides an interesting case of a country that has tried to embody Islamic concerns over apostasy in a modern legal framework. The country’s official religion is Islam, but its constitution guarantees that other religions may be practiced “in peace and harmony” (about 40% of Malaysians are not Muslim). Though they are controversial in a country in which race, religion and politics are all tensely interlinked, some of Malaysia’s states have enacted their own approaches to dealing with apostasy. In the Malaysian state of Malacca, apostasy earns one up to 180 days of detention for rehabilitation. The Malaysian state of Negiri Sembilan has taken another approach: those who want to leave Islam apply for permission. After they have been interviewed to determine their seriousness, and counseled to try to convince them otherwise, they are allowed to apostatize (between 1998-2013, 17% of applications were accepted).
The Consequences of Apostasy Law
What global policies should Muslims advocate today? Debates over freedom of religion are so contentious because different sides proceed from very different premises. The liberal ideal, so influential in the West, is that it’s wrong for governments to interfere in the question of what people believe for two reasons. First, because Europe’s bloody history shows that this all too often leads to tremendous violence. Second, because religious belief is seen as something that cannot really be forced on the private interior of a person’s heart, and God doesn’t want faith if it’s coerced anyway. It must be freely and sincerely offered.
The Islamic perspective differs because it views religious identification as both a public category and an internal belief. Certainly, the faith and intentions by which God judges us are housed in our hearts. They cannot be coerced and are meaningless if not sincere, hence the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم)’s declaration that, “Deeds are judged but by intentions.” But an appropriate social and political environment is essential in order for people to live lives oriented towards God, good deeds, and justice and away from unbelief and sin. And this social and political environment is fashioned by people’s outward conduct. So, encouraging public displays of individuals’ private, internal upheavals of conscience or loss of faith doesn’t promote sincere faith within a community. It risks tearing the threads of that community apart.
The themes of human rights and civil liberties are compelling to many around the world. But they are not necessarily compelling to those who do not share some of their premises or who disagree on how they should be implemented. Even if everyone in the world agreed that the freedom of religion was a basic right, there would be (and there is) significant disagreement over how that right should be balanced against concerns of public order and morality. Moreover, many outside the West dismiss demands for respecting human rights as proxies for Westernization and Western imperial ambition. It’s no coincidence that this is inevitably the opinion of those Muslims who uphold the death penalty for apostasy in Islam. For all these reasons, arguments framed in human rights discourse are unlikely to move the very Muslims whose opinions they are trying to change.
In the Shari’ah, the aim of punishing apostasy from Islam is to protect the communal faith and social order of a Muslim state. If punishing apostasy severely is driving Muslims away from their religion, then this policy is undermining its own purpose. It’s not clear what ‘order under heaven’ maintaining harsh punishments for apostasy would be upholding in our troubled world.
(The above is an excerpt of the Article ‘The Issue of Apostasy in Islam’ by Dr. Jonathan A. C. Brown, a Director of Research at Yaqeen Institute, and an Associate Professor and Chair of Islamic Civilization at Georgetown University)
[Keeping in view, the purpose of punishment for apostasy in Islam and its application during the time of Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم),] …matters relating to apostasy are only judged by the judiciary systems in Islamic countries only, and not by the individuals… [or non-Muslim/democratic countries.] (Fatwa of Dr. Hatem al-Haj, Member of the Fatwa Committee of Assembly of Muslim Jurists in America)
Allahu A’lam (Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) knows best) and all Perfections belong to Allah, and all mistakes belong to me alone. May Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) forgive me, Ameen.