Affirming the Freedom of Faith
Freedom of faith is essential to Islam. Prophets and Messengers of Allah along with their communities had to struggle for their freedom of faith. That Islam is by choice is unambiguously stated in the Qur'an and reflected in the Prophetic legacy. However, throughout history, the issue has been clouded due to intermingling the issue of apostasy with treason. One of the most widely used tools of anti-Islam/anti-Muslim propaganda is based on the issue of apostasy, claiming that Islam does not uphold the freedom of faith. Even Muslim youth are getting confused and many are quietly rejecting our wishy-washy position on as fundamental an issue as freedom of faith/religion.
Undeniably, the traditional position of Muslim scholars and jurists has been that apostasy [riddah] is punishable by death. The longstanding problem of the traditional position, as held by Classical jurists or scholars, can be explained and excused as not being able to see apostasy, an issue of pure freedom of faith and conscience, separate from treason against the community or the state. However, the accumulated experience over the history in terms of abuse of this position about apostasy even against Muslims as well as the changed context of a globally-connected, pluralistic society should help us appreciate the contemporary challenges in light of the Qur'anic norms and the Prophetic legacy. In this context, while the classical misunderstanding about this issue of apostasy is excusable, the position of some of the well-known contemporary scholars is not.
Sayyid Abul A'la Maududi (commonly known as Maulana Maududi), the late founder and leader of Jamaat-e-Islami and a leading independent, revivalist Islamic personality of 20th century, is frequently referred to for his ardent argument for capital punishment for apostasy. He argued that there is a broad agreement of the leading jurists on this issue. He claims:
"To copy the consecutive writings of all the lawyers from the first to the fourteenth century A.H. would make our discussion very long. Yet we cannot avoid mentioning that however much the four Schools of Law may differ among themselves regarding the various aspects of this problem, in any case all four Schools without doubt agree on the point that the punishment of the apostate is execution." 1
Such a sweeping claim is misplaced because the alleged agreement is about apostasy-cum-treason, not about solely apostasy. Furthermore, any claim of consensus (ijma) on almost anything should be taken with a great deal of circumspection. 2
Another well-known Muslim scholar and jurist of our time, whom I also generally hold in high regard, is Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi. He asserts: "The duty of the Muslim community - in order to preserve its identity - is to combat apostasy in all its forms and wherefrom it comes, giving it no chance to pervade in the Muslim world." Similar to Maulana Maududi, he also claims ijma on this: "That is why the Muslim jurists are unanimous that apostates must be punished. ... apostasy is a criminal act." 3
Dr. Al-Qaradawi also fails to separate apostasy from treason. It is unfortunate that such scholars of high repute have shown such serious lapse in recognizing that, as Dr. Irfan Ahmad Khan, a scholar and Qur'anic exegete, argues: "Freedom of faith and religion is meaningless without the freedom to change one's faith."
Then, also there are scholars, enjoying the freedom of faith in the West, who are either wishy-washy or ambivalent in regard to their positions. Some are too much beholden to the traditional views held in the past, right or wrong. Views and positions of scholars and leaders, such as Maududi and al-Qaradawi, not only provide powerful ammunition for propaganda against Islam and Muslims, but also confound the mind of our own community, including our youth, whose discerning mind sees through the double-standard or self-contradiction quite transparently.
While many contemporary Muslim scholars have expressed their views affirming the freedom of faith, the collective voice of Muslims is still feeble and little known. There is a new Blog Apostasy and Islam, where we have collated opinions and positions of various Muslim scholars, academics, intellectuals, imams, professionals, community leaders and others on this issue. Even young students are voicing against the double-standard that contradicts the Islamic values and principles.
These voices, representing a broad spectrum of Muslim community, are tipping the scale of the discourse on this issue in favor of affirming and upholding the pristine Islamic principle about freedom of faith. It also debunks the claim of unanimity (ijma), which was not quite true in the past, and it is even less true in the present.
You are invited to visit the Blog. Some additional explanatory notes: (a) Views of some of the early scholars might not be categorical or without variant reports. However, the excerpts included can be basis for identifying them as the precursors of the contemporary views on this issue. (b) There are (or have been) many scholars, early and contemporary, who hold that in case of apostasy capital punishment is not warranted, but have sanctioned or kept open the possibility of other punishments. Their views have not been included here. (c) There are also scholars who believe that punishment of apostasy is not hadd (mandatory, specified punishment based on the Qur'an or Sunnah), but it is subject to ta'zir [discretionary punishment, determined by the proper Islamic judicial system]. In this collection, their views have not been included either.
While the readers are invited to visit the Blog, two brief statements about apostasy in the Qur'an and in hadith are in order.
a. Punishment of Apostasy in the Qur'an
As presented at the Blog in excerpts from numerous sources and links to works available online, there is no worldly punishment solely for apostasy [i.e., changing of one's faith/religion] mentioned in the Qur'an.
b. Punishment of Apostasy in Hadith
Readers are invited to explore a vast amount of resources presented at the Blog, where scholars authoritatively have shown that none of the hadiths about apostasy is without problem or weakness. Also, there is no hadith confirming punishment or retribution solely for apostasy. In every single case, where punishment has been meted out, riddah involved treason or rebellion. The following is an example of how the Prophet dealt with solely apostasy.
A bedouin gave the Pledge of allegiance to Allah's Apostle for Islam. Then the bedouin got fever at Medina, came to Allah's Apostle and said, "O Allah's Apostle! Cancel my Pledge," But Allah's Apostle refused. Then he came to him (again) and said, "O Allah's Apostle! Cancel my Pledge." But the Prophet refused Then he came to him (again) and said, "O Allah's Apostle! Cancel my Pledge." But the Prophet refused. The bedouin finally went out (of Medina) whereupon Allah's Apostle said, "Medina is like a pair of bellows (furnace): It expels its impurities and brightens and clears its good. [Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 9, #318]
Notably, as Dr. M. E. Subhani explained in his book: "This was an open case of apostasy. But the Prophet neither punished the Bedouin nor asked anyone to do it. He allowed him to leave Madina. Nobody harmed him." 4
At the Blog we present a unique compilation of 100+ notable Islamic voices, who have expressed their views on punishment of Islam. As mentioned earlier, opinions of those scholars, who have vehemently rejected or repudiated capital punishment of apostasy but have left room for punishment - discretionary or otherwise - of apostasy, also have not been included here. It is worthwhile for Muslims to educate themselves about this discourse by studying the resources presented at the Blog. My own essay "Apostasy, Freedom and Da'wah: Full Disclosure in a Business-like Manner" is also available at the Blog.
As a Muslim, do you believe in freedom of faith - freedom to accept and freedom to change - as a pristine principle of Islam? If your answer is in affirmative, you are invited to add your voice to that of other Muslims affirming the same. Their affirmation is based on a Statement: "Muslims uphold the Freedom of Faith", which was drafted by a number of Muslims from scholarly, academic and professional background. You can read the statement at the Blog. If you agree and would like to add your voice in support of this Statement, send an email indicating your agreement to [email protected] with your name, affiliation/occupation, highest degree/field, and country of residence. You can also add your comment at the Blog.
Do you feel strongly enough about this to do more? You can do the following. (a) Is the name of the Imam or the Leader of your community not on the list at the Blog? Ask them if they unequivocally affirm the freedom of faith in Islam, and if they do, encourage them to add their voices by following the same procedure mentioned above. (b) Contact 10 more Muslims with some academic, professional or religious standing to add their voices to this effort. Instead of 100+ signatories, soon the Blog will indicate 1000+ signatories, insha'Allah.
Let us add our collective voice for the world to know that Islam is by choice and only by choice.
 The Punishment of the Apostate According to Islamic Law
 Ahmad Hasan. The Doctrine of Ijma': A Study of the Juridical Principle of Consensus [New Delhi, India: Kitab Bhaban, 2003].
 Apostasy in Islam (New Delhi, India: Global Media Publications, 2005), pp. 23-24.
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