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Islam, Saudi and apostasy

Does Islamic law really proscribe the death penalty for apostasy?

Last updated: 10 May 2014 12:55
Mohamed Ghilan

Mohamed Ghilan is a neuroscience PhD candidate at the University of Victoria, Canada, and a student of Islamic jurisprudence.
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According to polls, 5 percent of Saudis identify as atheists [AFP]

Just when we thought the term "terrorism" could not become more meaningless or manipulated, Saudi Arabia's government seems to have proved us wrong by recently adding atheism under the charge. Based on polls revealing that self-identified atheists constitute 5 percent of Saudi population, this makes for a staggering number of terrorists in the kingdom, most of whom maintain external religious observance in society while using online anonymity to express their true beliefs.

However, this matter is not so straightforward. Nesrine Malik highlights in a recent article an often-ignored distinction between the private, and public, more political forms of atheism. Indeed, as Malik points out, in an ultraconservative country like Saudi Arabia where religion, tribe, family and politics, are interlinked and of utmost importance, to take an antagonistic stance against Islam necessarily entails an antagonistic stance against the fabric of society.

It is a commonly held belief that Islamic law dictates the death penalty as an absolute punishment for apostasy. However, this reading of the Islamic Tradition relies on restricting the role of the Prophet Muhammad to that of a religious figure issuing timeless decrees. Such a restriction of the Prophet's role will undoubtedly give rise to numerous paradoxes, as it will decontextualise all his statements and actions in a way that not only makes Islam incoherent as a religion, but also incompatible with certain societal developments.

Interpreting the scriptures 

Muhammad al-Shawkani (d. 1834), an authoritative Muslim scholar and jurisprudent, outlines in his critical appraisal of the principles of Islamic legal theory that Prophetic actions fall into seven different categories, not all of which can be used to issue absolute legal rulings binding upon all Muslims for all times. Lest one think that al-Shawkani being considered a reformer was concocting this categorisation anew, he cites a number of eminent earlier scholars who had preceded him in doing so by several hundred years.

Hence, the Hadith about the death penalty is not about apostasy in the strict sense of no longer believing in Islam per se.

This is quite significant to take heed of in current discussions on Islamic reform. There is a tension between staying authentic to Islam while at the same time allowing for development of Islamic legal theory in a way that does not render claims of adherence to the religion meaningless.

The death penalty for apostasy relies at the core of it on an authentically verified Hadith from Prophet Muhammad who said, "Whoever changes his religion kill him."  This statement, however, would seem to contradict numerous verses in the Quran that guarantee freedom of belief, few of which include "There is no compulsion in religion" [2:256], and "Whoever so wills may believe and whoever so wills may deny" [18:29].

How could one reconcile the Quran with the Hadith in this issue without committing an inconsistency whereby the Hadith is rejected out of hand, even though the same transmission rules for accepting veracity of any other Hadith were applied to this one? Moreover, one could ask whether it is an Islamic objective to artificially inflate the numbers of Muslims by including those who would not be so if they had the option.

Although the above-mentioned Hadith is authentic, it is also established that Prophet Muhammad never ordered the death penalty to be carried out on people known during his time to have apostatised. Of such people was a Bedouin man who came to Medina (during a time of political and military power for Muslims) to announce his Islam, but apostatised and left the city a short period later without receiving any penalty for his subsequent rejection.

Given how the Prophet treated individuals who entered and left Islam, and the numerous verses in the Quran guaranteeing freedom of belief, the Hadith decreeing a death penalty for apostasy becomes more puzzling. This can be resolved by turning to another authentic Hadith where this penalty is mentioned, but with a qualifier: "…the one leaving his religion and abandoning the group". In addition, another verse in the Quran, which can further resolve this conundrum speaks to a strategy adopted by a rival sect in Medina in one of their attempts to create a schism within the nascent Muslim community by pretending to enter Islam in the morning, then leaving it in the evening [3:72].

Religion or politics?

It is interesting to note here that prior to entering Islam, 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 jeopardised, it was highly likely to lead to civil strife and loss of life again. Hence, the Hadith about the death penalty is not about apostasy in the strict sense of no longer believing in Islam per se. Rather, it is about what can be considered in modern terms political treason.

In his book The Empathic Civilization, social critic Jeremy Rifkin notes the evolution of human social units over time and how that affected our affiliations and allegiances. In our early history we began with blood ties, progressed to tribal allegiances, then to religious associational ties and finally today to national ties. Significantly, although the tribal allegiances in Medina were initially redefined on religious terms when Prophet Muhammad moved to Medina, he quickly commissioned the drafting of the Constitution of Medina, which forged a formal communal tie between everyone in the city irrespective of religious or tribal differences.

The role of Prophet Muhammad cannot be reduced to a strictly religious one that merely delivers decrees, which can be decontextualised as if they were issued in a vacuum. Islamic law includes religious and political domains of legislation, and one has to be cognizant of where a particular ruling would fit. Contemporary Muslim scholar Abdallah bin Bayyah previously commented on a problem in how modern Muslims approach scriptural sources where they "misunderstand the text, ignore the context, and thus misapply the ruling".

Those who support the death penalty for apostasy cite the 1978 overthrowing of Afghanistan's centrist government by left-wing military officers led by Nur Muhammad Taraki, whose new government formed close ties with the vehemently anti-religion Soviet Union. This new communist government in Afghanistan at the time began extensive land and social reforms that were resented by the devout Muslim population.

This led to a number of uprisings and internal fighting that eventually prompted the Soviets to invade the country in 1979 to try and set up their own satellite government in place. The country has ever since been in non-stop turmoil. Still, even with this concern in mind, it should be pointed out that the support for this penalty is not about a change in belief as much as it is about a change in political allegiances.

Whether these concerns are in the minds of the Saudi ruling family is yet to be established. Interestingly, their latest efforts to suppress political dissent come at a critical time for power transfer between the Al Saud family members while being surrounded by a turbulent political climate in the region. In anticipation of possible upcoming internal problems as a new generation of Al Saud takes over succession to the throne, it seems that the family is not sparing any measures to circumvent all possible means to creating unrest in the kingdom as they secure their future as its continuing rulers.

Mohamed Ghilan is a neuroscience PhD candidate at the University of Victoria, Canada, and a student of Islamic jurisprudence. He blogs here and has an active self-titled podcast on iTunes.

Follow him on Twitter: @mohamedghilan

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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