The Social Laws and Customs of Islam


1. The Penalty for Apostasy in Islamic Law and History.

Any Muslim contemplating conversion from Islam to Christianity will know that the step will not be without reaction from his own community. At best he can expect to be ostracised by his people and disowned by his family. At worst he could become a martyr for the faith in a very short time.

From early times it has been taught that the penalty for the apostasy of any individual from Islam is death. There does not seem to be any Qur'anic authority for this extreme form of punishment, one which allows a Muslim no degree of freedom to discover the true revelation of God independently for himself. The Hadith, however, openly state that Muhammad demanded the death sentence for those who turn their backs on Islam, whether for another faith or not.

There are evidences in Islamic history showing that this penalty has often been enforced, occasionally by public authority but usually by relatives and others taking the law of Islam into their own hands. Many of the jurists of Islam have held that the murtadd (apostate) should be given three days or three public opportunities to return to Islam and is only to be put to death if he refuses to do so.

The Qur'an, on the other hand, not only does not seem to authorise the death penalty for apostasy but also makes statements that appear to have the contrary effect. One verse has the following to say about those who forsake Islam:

A Muslim writer comments: "The verse clearly envisages the natural death of the renegade after apostasy . . . the implication of the verse is unmistakable that the Qur'anic Scheme visualises an apostate dying a natural death and there is no hint here that he can be killed for his defection (Rahman, Punishment of Apostasy in Islam, p. 32) Another verse in the Qur'an dealing with apostasy is this one:

That the penalty spoken of here is not one to be put into effect this side of the grave is clear from verse 109 where it is simply said that such men will perish in the Hereafter. No other consequence is mentioned. Yet another verse in the Qur'an implying that there is to be no death penalty for apostasy is Surah 4.137 which speaks of those who believe, then reject faith, then return to the faith, only to once again commit apostasy. It concludes that God will neither forgive them nor guide them aright. The very possibility of a sustained double-mindedness and a repeated turning from Islam implies that the ultimate penalty is not applicable to one who commits an initial act of apostasy.

If Muhammad did command the death penalty for renegades from Islam it could only have been towards the end of his life when it became expedient for many Arabian communities to profess Islam. It took very little for these groups to revert to paganism at the first opportunity and the early Muslims suffered casualties at the hands of at least one tribe near Medina who initially professed Islam and thereafter forsook it and attacked the Muslims. Shortly after Muhammad's death a widespread defection from Islam took place and his successor Abu Bakr, faced with an imminent crisis threatening the very survival of Islam, had to resort to a number of campaigns to re-enforce Muslim rule in Arabia. It is possible that the traditions we have quoted are based on commands of Muhammad, not to put to death every individual who forsakes Islam, but rather to destroy those who, once having professed Islam turn away from it and in doing so gather together with the purpose of annihilating the Muslims. The only passage in the Qur'an which speaks of killing those who turn their backs after believing in Islam occurs in this very context:

It is significant that this passage is found in one of the last surahs to be revealed and it supports the suggestion t at the death penalty for apostasy applies only to those who become active rebels against Islam, taking up arms against it.

2. Implications and Effects of the Law of Apostasy.

There are some Muslim writers who say that the death penalty is an appropriate consequence for apostasy as the public image of Islam is allegedly shamed and weakened by such defections. "An act like this is a kind of mockery and a practice which misleads the pious" (Tabbarah, The Spirit of Islam, p. 390). As a Christian missionary once put it to Samuel Zwemer, "Yet there is always the deep-rooted idea in every one brought up in Islam that to leave Islam for another religion is an awful and unpardonable sin" (Zwemer, The Law of Apostasy in Islam, p. 26). It is, in any event, hard to see how the execution of converts from Islam restores its image. The former Chief Justice of Pakistan, however, has a far more balanced attitude in this case:

A Christian writer has also expressed similar misgivings about a religion that has to confirm and retain the allegiance of its adherents through forceful means and the threat of dire, immediate consequences for those who dare to express their disillusionment with it:

Freedom of religion is Islam has, all too often, only meant the freedom to become a Muslim. No one is free to leave Islam of his own free will and choice. Even though a swift martyrdom may be less likely today than it was in earlier times, the convert, especially in solidly Muslim lands, still faces a harrowing future. Zwemer quotes from a letter written by an Egyptian convert from Islam to Christianity, one which reflects the experiences of many Christians in Muslim lands:

3. The Ahmadiyya Attitude to the Law of Apostasy.

In the next chapter we will briefly outline the development and tenets of the Ahmadiyya Movement, a sect which has arisen within Islam which is denounced by the orthodox and one which, for reasons which will be given, hardly endears itself to Christianity. One must give credit where it is due, however, and the one redeeming feature of those who follow this sect is their attitude to this subject. They teach quite openly that there are to be no earthly reprisals against those who forsake Islam and base their attitude on the Qur'anic dictum Laa ikraaha fiid-diin. Qattabayyanar-rushdu minal ghayy - "There is no compulsion in religion. The right way stands out clearly from the way of error" (Surah 2.256). They claim accordingly that Islam adopts a very tolerant attitude in matters relating to the subjective faith of each individual, not seeking to compel the allegiance of those who, as we would say, have not "seen the light". One says:

This refreshing attitude, while running contrary to the Hadith and the laws of orthodox Islam as taught and practiced by the fuqaha of Islam over the centuries, is nevertheless sound from a rational point of view and one not opposed to the teaching of the Qur'an. This approach is found in all the Ahmadiyya works and another writer from this sect says:

The Movement's lead has been followed by some of the more enlightened modern Muslim writers. Rahman's book quoted in this section is a typical example of this spirit now developing even within orthodox Islam itself, but there is a long way to go. Hopefully there will be more such writers who will have the sense to distinguish between individuals who, out of freedom of conscience and personal conviction, choose to leave Islam for another religion (invariably Christianity) and whole communities who desert Islam with the treasonable intention of taking up arms against it. There surely must be a distinction between genuine religious conviction and widespread political revolution. Even though many of the teachings of the Ahmadiyya Movement are obnoxious and distasteful to Christians, its lead in this matter should be appreciated. Another Ahmadiyya writer has this to say (in a paragraph from an article written on apostasy in Islam):

In the meantime, however, every convert from Islam will continue to be faced with ostracism, rejection, various forms of persecution, and possible martyrdom. As this section has shown, such a reactionary approach toward those who leave its fold hardly commends or credits Islam.

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