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International: Book review - Apostasy in Islam

This book is an impassioned case against the dominant Muslim view on the punishment for apostasy.
The author, head of the faculty of Islamic Studies at the College of Education in Zanzibar, Tanzania, argues that the dominant Muslim position on apostasy as deserving death is, in fact, not sanctioned in the primary sources of Islam, the Qur'an and the Hadith, the traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad.

According to most traditionalist 'ulama and radical Islamists, the punishment for Muslim apostates is death. Leaving Islam for another religion is seen as a revolt against God because Islam is regarded as God's only chosen religion. Hence, the apostate is believed to merit nothing less than capital punishment. Islam thus comes to be reduced to a one-way street. While it ardently exhorts its followers to engage in missionary work in order to bring the whole of humanity in its fold, it sternly forbids, on the pain of death, abandoning it for other religions, which it regards as false. Or so most 'ulama and Islamist ideologues seem to believe.

Subhani's critique of the dominant Muslim position on the punishment for apostasy is framed principally in terms of the freedom of conscience. He quotes the Qur'an as laying down in a number of verses that there can be no compulsion in matters of religion and belief. According to the Qur'an, God has given human beings the choice of doing good or evil, of believing in Islam or rejecting it.

This is God's way of testing human beings. Nowhere in the Qur'an, Subhani notes, is the death penalty for apostasy mentioned. The Qur'an refers to apostasy in some ten verses, but the punishment for it is clearly suggested as being reserved for the afterlife, not in this world itself. Hence, Subhani argues, killing apostates simply because of their change of faith goes against the express commandments of the Qur'an itself. Forcing people to declare themselves as Muslims when they do not actually believe in Islam is nothing short of hypocrisy, which the Qur'an considers a heinous sin.

Not finding support for their position in the Qur'an, advocates of the death punishment for apostasy draw on the corpus of Hadith, traditions attributed to the Prophet. Subhani mentions a number of such traditions or ahadith in which the Prophet is said to have ordered the killing of apostates. He accepts some of these as genuine reports, but argues that they need to be seen in what he regards as their proper historical context. Further, he argues that they must also be understood in the light of the Qur'anic dictum 'There is no compulsion in religion'.

Subhani's point is that many of the ahadith that lay down death for apostates relate specifically to those Muslims who abandon Islam and actively engage in treason or what what Subhani calls 'conspiracies' against Islam and the Islamic state. These ahadith that do not apply to other apostates, who are free to choose any religion they want. This explains, Subhani points out, why, according to one hadith, the Prophet did not punish a certain Bedouin who had renounced Islam. Likewise, when the caliph 'Umar bin 'Abdul 'Aziz learnt of some Muslims who had abandoned Islam he ordered his governor, Maimun bin Mahran, to release them. Following in this tradition, Subhani tells us, a number of leading Islamic scholars from earliest times down to our own, have opposed the death penalty for 'non-aggressive' apostates, although these voices have been and continue to be in a minority.

In approaching the ahadith relating to apostasy Subhani advises great caution. He reminds his readers of the number of so-called ahadith, on a range of issues, that are either 'weak' (za'if) or simple concoctions and later fabrications. In this regard he cites two so-called ahadith that relate that women who accepted Islam and then renounced it. The Prophet, so these reports have it, announced that women should either repent and become Muslim again or else be killed. Subhani analyses the chain of transmitters of these narrations, and notes among them are certain individuals who are recognised by Islamic scholars as unreliable. One of them is even said to have earned notoriety for inventing stories which he falsely attributed to the Prophet. Hence, Subhani writes, a number of Hadith critics believe that these narrations are 'weak', and, therefore, are unacceptable.

To further back his argument against the dominant position on apostasy, Subhani cites the case of the apostate Abdullah bin Abi Sarh, who is said to have 'openly sided with the Arab pagans against the Prophet and his followers. However, at the request of 'Umar, he was forgiven by the Prophet. This suggests, Subhani writes, that 'it is not necessary that even a combatant apostate be necessarily killed' (p.42). While a non-combatant apostate is not to be killed, the punishment for a combatant apostate need not be death in all cases. The punishment is a matter of discretion for the judge, who can choose to sentence him to death or to imprisonment or even to pardon him.

Subhani is particularly dismissive of traditional Hanafi scholars, whom he castigates for adopting an uncritical approach to the corpus of Hadith, ignoring both the particular historical contexts of each narration as well as the fact of numerous 'weak' and concocted ahadith. It is this approach, he says, which explains why most Hanafi scholars continue to uphold the punishment of death for apostasy. Subhani locates what he sees as a logical fallacy in the dominant Hanafi argument on the issue. Under Hanafi law, a woman, as opposed to a male, apostate is not to be killed. Rather, her punishment is imprisonment until she repents and turns Muslim again or else dies a natural death. However, if she is also involved in promoting 'strife on earth' (fasad fi'l arz) and 'conspiring' against Islam and the Muslims, she is to be executed. Subhani does not argue against the death penalty for the latter crime, which he sees as also applicable to male apostates who engage in similar activities, provided the judge so decides.

At the same time, however, he points to the fact that the reason that the Hanafi scholars do not lay down the death penalty for general apostate women (as opposed to those who promote 'strife') is because such women are not regarded as a threat to Islam or the Muslim community. Using this logic of the Hanafis against the Hanafi position itself, he argues that this suggests that simple apostasy (out of spiritual or even worldly motives) on the part of a woman or even a man does not merit the death penalty, because such apostasy is not linked to any sort of 'conspiracy' against Islam, the Islamic state or the Muslim community. Hence, contrary to the dominant Hanafi position, the death penalty for 'ordinary' apostates, men as well as women, is actually wrong, their punishment, Subhani argues, being solely God's prerogative. As he puts it, 'People who do not want to fight against Islam and have changed their religion due to some reasons should not be touched' (pp.39-40).

Subhani's treatment of the controversial subject of apostasy is admirable, seeking, as it does, to argue from within an Islamic paradigm itself against dominant Muslim understandings on the question. However, while the distinction that Subhani draws between 'ordinary', 'non-aggressive' apostates and 'combatant' apostates is valid, he does not provide any criterion for deciding as to precisely what constitutes 'aggression' and 'conspiracy' against Islam, which he seems to argue merits the death penalty. Surely, these need to be clearly laid down and not left to arbitrary decision. Leaving the definition of 'conspiracy' or 'aggression' undefined and vague will certainly allow for all manner of abuse, leading even to the murder of apostates on the flimsiest of grounds. One must bear in mind that even so innocuous a matter as wearing shirts and pants or introducing English in the madrasas are sometime branded by some fringe groups as 'conspiracies' against Islam, and it is not un likely that the mere change of faith by a Muslim can be similarly construed.

This said, this book is a very welcome contribution to a debate that has been raging for centuries in Muslim circles. The case for freedom of religion and conscience that it makes is surely a major advance over the traditional position on the subject. Given the fact that several Muslim states heavily penalise Muslim apostates, some even laying down the death punishment for them, this book is not merely of academic importance.

Name of the Book: Apostasy in Islam

Author: M.E. Asad Subhani

Publisher: Global Media Publications, New Delhi (email: mail@gmpublications.com)
Year: 2004

Pages: 65

Price: Rs. 60 (India), $5 (Elsewhere)

ISBN: 81-88869-11-2

Reviewed by: Yoginder Sikand