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Apostasy Laws and Freedom of Religion According to Islamic Tradition

Evaluating the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Journalist, in the Istanbul Embassy of Saudi Arabia by the Saudi authorities, solely as a political murder means not being able to understand the actual problem. The problem pointed out by this political murder in question is that the Saudis are not respecting the freedom of religion, conscience, speech, and press which form the fundamental human rights, and also the possibility of hiding behind the religious terms while denying these fundamental rights. Thus, due to the fact that this approach is dominant within the state authorities in the countries where Muslims live, democracy cannot manage to bush out in one way or another, and the freedoms of the people towards religion, conscience, and speech are violated.

After describing this major problem, which was surfaced after the Khashoggi incident, we can easily confirm that the Muslim communities are very much confused about this problem.

One of the most basic reasons for this confusion is that while the death penalty was not imposed neither by The Quran, which is the main source of Islam,  nor by the practices of Our Prophet (PBUH) for an individual who abandoned Islam, how could it possibly have happened for individuals to face death penalties due to the fact that they had become an apostate, meaning they had abandoned Islam and started following other religions, or abandoned Islam completely? This practice became extinct with the Edict of Reform published in 1856 by Ottoman Rulers at the time. The diplomatic efforts of British Empire cannot be denied for this reform. But the question is, should the ruling in question was a command written in Quran, would the then caliph and shaykh al-Islam be able to suspend it? In this case, the ruling in question was not based on Quran, but it was based on a political decision. Therefore, we can consider that the suspended ruling was not a ruling based on Quran or the hadiths, but it was rather a political ruling.

The Imperial Reform Edict  which was declared on February 18, 1856 by the  Ottoman government
The Imperial Reform Edict which was declared on February 18, 1856 by the Ottoman government

However, it is obvious that the problem is not limited with the historical practice, but it also continues to be an issue at present. For example, the Saudi government included “atheism” under the concept of “terrorism”.

In the same manner, Directorate of Religious Affairs, which belongs to the Turkish Government, identifies the members of the Gulen Movement, who are most probably the most religious people on earth, as a deviated and twisted cult, and trying to legitimize their social decimation with religion.

Beyond any doubt, should they not repent, the punishment for apostates in all of the madhhabs, together with some nuances, is the death penalty. The hadith “who discards his religion, kill him'” attributed to The Prophet (PBUH) forms a substantial basis for these approaches. Death penalty for apostasy or conversion, meaning for abjuration of religion, is based on this hadith of Muhammad (PBUH), which is already validated as being an authentic hadith: “If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him.” However, this explanation seems to be contradicting many verses of Quran such as “There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion” [2/256] and “…so whoever wills – let him believe; and whoever wills – let him disbelieve.” [18:29]. So, what shall we do now?

This opinion, which has been consolidated throughout hundreds of years of Islamic history, will expose us to the danger of limiting the duty of Muhammad (PBUH) as a religious figure, who had ordered timeless rulings. Limiting the duty of Our Prophet (PBUH) like this will not only cause his many explanations and practices to be approached out of their context, but also will cause Islam to be seen as inconsistent, and discordant towards the social developments.

While Allah certainly guarantees the freedom of religion and conscience in Quran, invalidating somebody’s right to live, who discards their abstract religion, should not be the wish of Allah.  “And had your Lord willed, those on earth would have believed – all of them entirely. Then, [O Muhammad], would you compel the people in order that they become believers? And it is not for a soul to believe except by permission of Allah…” [Yunus: 99-100). “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” (Al-Hujurat: 13). Allah always orders to be just, and to take action righteously, not emotionally: “And let not the enmity and hatred of others make you avoid justice. Be just: that is nearer to piety. Help one another in Al-Birr and At-Taqwa; but do not help one another in sin and transgression. And fear Allah; indeed, Allah is severe in the punishment.” (Surah Al-Ma’idah: 2)

While the Quran sees the servants of Allah as equals, and values not the statue, relations, or fortune, but the social ethics, invalidating somebody’s right to live, who discards their abstract religion, should not be the wish of Allah.

So, without giving a chance to any inconsistencies, can we reconcile this and other similar hadiths with Quran, without rejecting the veracity of the hadiths within the transmission rules, which ensures that the hadiths are indeed authentic?

Considering the verses of the Quran which guarantees the freedom of religion and conscience, and how Our Prophet (PBUH) treated the individuals who embraced or rejected Islam, it is inevitable to know the historical context in order to interpret the hadith, which ordered the death penalty for apostasy.

About the statement of The Prophet (PBUH), “If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him”, the detail about “who” were being referred to enlightens the matter. Dr. Ahmet Kurucan explains this matter as follows:

“People came forward such as Abu Amir, who had wanted to divide the Muslims and had built Masjid al-Dirar a very little while before the passing of The Prophet (PBUH), Al-Aswad Al-Ansi and Musaylimah al-Kaddhab had made history by falsely claiming they are prophets, Hind bint Utbah, Abdallāh ibn Abī Sarḥ, Ikrimah ibn Abi Jahl, and Ibni Hanzala who had satirized The Prophet (PBUH) and provoked the people against him with the poems they wrote. The actions carried out by these individuals had found the least common denominator by revolting against the authority of the state, and disturbing the public eventually. The Prophet (PBUH) had adopted a particular attitude against these individuals, ordered sariyyah (expeditions he did not participate), issued death warrants for some of them, and forgiven some of them since they had straightened themselves.”

Dr. Ahmet Kurucan divides the concept of apostate into two in his doctorate study called ‘Freedom of Thought in Islam’. 1- An apostate who uses active violence and aggression in order to disturb the state and public peace. 2- The individual’s own choice to select any desired religion, which concerns the absolute conscience of the individual. Due to the fact that this distinction cannot be made, Kurucan states that in Islam, the death penalty given for apostasy, which had become a norm, is being decontextualized in order to be used for the purposes of destroying their opponents by the political authorities from time to time.

“A totalitarian perspective towards the incidents in question provides us the following result: None of the incidents occurred while The Prophet was still alive are examples of individual and passive apostasy, or hostility. On the contrary, a very serious revolt/rebellion had been in question, which had already been confirmed by intelligence and had been ready to act or had already gone into action. The decree of The Prophet (PBUH) “who discards his religion, kill him” was about these very individuals. In fact, The Prophet (PBUH) had never issued a penal sanction against the Muslims, who had only changed their beliefs individually by passive apostasy, meaning in an abstract way.“

“All of the fiqh rulings in Islamic law carry the effects and the conditions of the economic, social, political, and cultural background of the period where they were revealed as ideas and judicial opinions. Under such circumstances, evaluating the rulings in question independently, and categorize them as timeless or unalterable will mean that we attribute universality to them. This perspective will only produce wrong results.”

“Consequently, from the viewpoint of freedoms, it is possible to categorize apostasy according to being active or passive, and say that all of the active apostasies in history were politically motivated. Obviously, an active apostate must be evaluated separately from a passive apostate.”

“Freedom of religion is one of the rights given by Quran, which is irrevocable.  As we explained with evidences in the previous sections of our thesis, accepting or rejecting a religion are decisions which are up to the individuals’ free will. Any oppression within this respect is not approved by the divine will, and also does not have a place in the practices of The Prophet (PBUH). Otherwise, giving free will to the people, and correspondingly awarding and punishing them in heaven and hell in the afterlife will not have a meaning. It is obvious that compulsory faith shall not be sincere. A community, which is formed by the people who do not believe from the heart, is just like a bomb ready to explode. Besides, just like accepting blasphemy before the oppression is meaningless in the eye of divine will, faith must have a value attributed to it equally.“

“None of the verses in Quran about passive apostasy sets forth an earthly punishment. The only remark made about the apostasy is the offensive status before Allah and its ethereal punishment. Any opposite situation creates contradiction with the verses in Quran such as “There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion.”

“In the hadiths, the active and passive apostasies are clearly distinguished, no earthly sanctions were applied for the abstract apostasy, and a different attitude was maintained about the active apostasy. The hadith of The Prophet (PBUH) “who discards his religion, kill him” becomes the main topic of discussion in this matter. The people addressed in this hadith are not the ones who apostatized towards their abstract religious belief and started living in accordance with what their new religion required, but just the opposite, the people addressed are the ones who were about to take action against the Muslims with confirmed intelligence or the ones who already had taken action.”

“The rulings about the apostate in the classical law books were formed around the apostasy, in other words, around the collective revolt activities which had especially occurred during the caliphate of Abu Bakr.”

“The concept of apostate referred by the people who had lived in the 3rd century according to the Hijri (Islamic) calendar is different than the people of today. The most important detail about this fact is the dominating structure where the religion, community, and state relations were interbedded back then. Whereas in modern days, there is a disintegration between religion, community, and state. The relationship between them is a loose tissue. This necessitates the meaning differences attributed to the concepts. Without considering such differences, carrying the apostasy in the old days to the present day and state that this is the actual ruling, will mean distorting the matter from its axis.”

None of verses about apostasy (let me underline here, the apostasy mentioned is the one which is described as “passive apostasy” where only the religion is changed, and no hostile actions are taken against the Muslims) mentions anything about an earthly punishment. The only remark made about the apostasy is the offensive status before Allah and its ethereal punishment. This shows that an apostate is responsible only before Allah. Thus, the people, who approach the punishment of apostasy within the scope of these verses, clearly stated that there could be no earthly punishment given, otherwise, it would contradict the verses which read that there shall be no compulsion in religion.”

Therefore, the hadith about the death penalty is not about stopping to believe in Islam completely, but about the crimes containing violence which cannot be forgiven by repenting.”

On the other hand, Ustad Bediüzzaman states in his work “Mektûbat” that according to Islamic tradition an apostate cannot be entitled the right to live. “Therefore, a real infidel has the right to live in the sight of Islam. Even if he is excluded, makes peace, or excluded, gives jizya (non-Muslim tax), his life is protected according to Islam. However, an apostate does not have the right to live. Because, his conscience decomposes, and transforms into a poison within the social life.”

However, when looking deep into the perception of apostate of Ustad, it is understood that he describes rather a terrorist. In the 383rd page of his book “Emirdag Lahikasi”, an apostate is simply a terrorist.

“If a Muslim abandons the circle of Islam, he becomes an apostate and an anarchist, and transforms into a poison within the social life. Because anarchy recognizes no rights, and changes the characters of the people into the characters of the animals. Gog and Magog community which will arrive at the end of the world is pointed out as anarchists in Quran.”

In other words, it cannot be confirmed if Ustad suggests death penalty for an individual who was born a Muslim, and later converted to Christianity for example. It could be evaluated that Ustad envisions the apostates as being identified with the anarchists, if we consider the political conditions of the period, and also there were secret organizations which aimed to disturb the public peace. Again, the apostate/anarchist match-up of Ustad revives a dystopian pre-apocalyptic movie scene which will be experienced during the end of the world.

Alongside, Ustad refers to developing good relations with the US and Europe, and also establishing dialogs with the Christians, and also refers to a cooperation against communism and atheism in the context of the political conditions of the period. Ustad does not close doors to new interpretations and evaluations by stating that the best glossator is time, and does not claim that his words are universally absolute truths. Our part here is to show bravery towards evaluating Ustad’s interpretations, evaluations, and estimations apart from the religious faith and worshipping, together with the assessments and findings, as pointed out in Ustad’s sentence “time is the best glossator”. As a matter of fact, these matters are not absent of discussion points like the fundamentals of worshipping and faith within their scope. They are rather political and juridical matters.

Having said that, Mr. Fethullah Gulen in his book “Asrin Getirdigi Tereddutler” (Hesitations Brought by the Century), on page 167 of volume 4, remarks to the political and judicial extent of the matter and states in Islamic tradition an apostate was someone who was considered to have threatened the social and political contract of the time. So, what does that mean?

The two biggest tribes in Medina were engaged in a lengthy civil war that only ended when their allegiances were redefined from the tribal to the religious. If these new allegiances were jeopardized, it was highly likely to lead to civil strife and loss of life again. Hence, the hadith in question and the allegiance mentioned by Mr. Gulen points out to the political allegiance at the same time, and the death penalty does not exactly refer to abandoning Islam and choosing another religion, but rather to a political treachery as a modern term.

Since Islamic law has been evolved including both religious and political laws, awareness about a significant historical ruling if it is legitimate today is extremely important. For whatever reason, the 1856 Edict of Reform corrected the ruling by considering the national and international ties reached by the modern world.

In conclusion, accepting or rejecting any religion by any individual is a decision given by that individual’s free will. Any oppression within this respect is not approved by the divine will, and also does not have a place in the practices of The Prophet (PBUH). The consciousness of law and human rights acknowledged by the people nowadays reveals the necessity that the preference of religion must be guaranteed just like foreseen by the Quran. In this sense, the political administrations, which guarantee the freedom of religion and conscience can be identified as the administrations which interiorize this approach of the Quran. It is possible to evaluate the regimes, which are even memorialized next to Islam, and do not guarantee these most fundamental rights, slaughter the opponents without considering their choice of religion even if they do not resort to violence, as the farthermost regimes to the spirit of the Quran.

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Aydogan Vatandas / Editor-in-Chief
Aydogan Vatandas / Editor-in-Chief
Aydoğan Vatandaş is an investigative journalist from Turkey, specializing in Political Science and International Relations. He is the author of 13 books, many of which have become bestsellers in Turkey. 'Reporting from the Bridge' and 'Hungry for Power: Erdogan's Witch Hunt and The Abuse of State Power' are the first two books published in English in the U.S

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