Politics & Policy

Freedom from Islam

God and man in the Koran.

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty from W.W. Norton & Company.

If your Lord had pleased, surely all those who are on the earth would have believed, all of them; will you then force men till they become believers?

 — Koran 10:99, Shakir translation

In March 2006, a modest Afghan citizen named Abdul Rahman made global headlines with an unpleasant story. The poor man was on the verge of execution for the “crime” of converting from Islam to Christianity. His prosecutors, who called him a “microbe,” were pretty straightforward in their indictment: “He should be cut off and removed from the rest of Muslim society, and should be killed.” The court, which did not hesitate to agree, gave Abdul Rahman three days to rethink and recant. If he still insisted on apostasy, he would be sentenced to a public hanging.

Miraculously, Abdul Rahman survived. Under heavy pressure from foreign governments, the court returned his case to prosecutors, citing “investigative gaps.” Meanwhile, he was released from prison and escaped to Italy, where he was granted asylum.

This infamous story, however, was just the tip of an iceberg. As noted in a 2008 report by a Christian human-rights organization, “Apostates from Islam to another religion suffer a host of serious abuses from their families, communities and nations.” These renegade Muslims may well face the death penalty in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Sudan, and other forms of oppression in many other Muslim societies.

The reason for this systemic violation of religious freedom is, unfortunately, religious. Most classical schools of sharia law consider apostasy from Islam a crime punishable by death. A hadith attributed to the Prophet Muhammad is quite clear on this: “If somebody [among Muslims] discards his religion, kill him.” The implication is that Islam is a religion with free entry but no free exit.

For this reason, some Muslim countries have had difficulty accepting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948. Among its provisions is the “freedom to change [one’s] religion or belief.” Spokesmen for Saudi Arabia, in particular, have consistently opposed this clause, noting that it “might be interpreted as giving missionaries and proselytizers a free rein.”

As an alternative to this “free rein,” the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), of which all Muslim-majority states are members, adopted in 1990 a Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in Islam. It denounced efforts “to exploit [one’s] poverty or ignorance in order to convert him to another religion, or to atheism.” Deserting Islam was not welcome, nor was calling for its desertion.

The disparity between the UDHR and the “Islamic” version still exists, and this thorny issue of apostasy is the biggest obstacle to resolution. It even has led some conservative Muslims to condemn the UDHR as evil. Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, for example, denounced it as “mumbo jumbo by disciples of Satan.” He explained his reasoning explicitly: “When we want to find out what is right and what is wrong, we do not go to the United Nations, we go to the Holy Koran.”

I have to admit that, as a Muslim, I can understand why the grand ayatollah put the Word of God above a declaration of men. I just don’t understand why he dismissed the possibility that there might be no contradiction between the two. 

Revisiting Apostasy

Yes, there might be no contradiction between the modern idea of religious freedom and the Koran, for the latter includes nothing that penalizes apostasy. It threatens apostates and other unbelievers with divine punishment in the hereafter, to be sure, but it decrees no earthly retribution.

Quite the contrary, in fact. There are Koranic verses that seem to suggest that rejecting Islam is a matter of free choice. “The truth is from your Lord,” a verse reads, “so let him who please believe, and let him who please disbelieve.” Another verse speaks about “those who believe then disbelieve, again believe and again disbelieve, then increase in disbelief,” implying that there were people who could go back and forth between Islam and disbelief during the time of revelation.

One of the interesting figures who stressed the leniency of the Koran on this matter was Stratford Canning, the longtime British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the mid-19th century. While trying to persuade the Ottoman statesmen to annul the sharia laws on apostasy, Canning referred to the Muslim scripture. “We have researched this matter,” he said to Sultan Abdülmecid. “There is no clear Koranic basis for execution.”

However, the Koran defined only a small part of the mainstream Islamic tradition. And the earthly punishment for apostasy came as part of the post-Koranic literature, namely the hadiths.

Some scholars think that this late invention was born out of the political needs of the early Muslim community. Right after the Prophet’s death, when Abu Bakr became the first caliph, the first problem he faced was the rebellion (ridda) of a few Arab tribes who had formerly sworn allegiance to Medina. In fact, the rebel tribes had not renounced their loyalty to Islam; they just declared that with the death of the Prophet, their commitment to Medina as a city had ceased. In particular, they were no longer willing to pay zakat, which they had been paying to Muhammad’s envoys to finance military campaigns and to be distributed to the needy.

Different opinions surfaced in the face of this rebellion, and some, including Umar, who would soon become the second caliph, thought that the rebellion should be tolerated. Abu Bakr, however, insisted on imposing zakat on the rebellious tribes and then launched military campaigns to subdue them. The later jurists who interpreted these events understood ridda not just as a political rebellion against the state but also as a rebellion against Islam as a religion. It was this interpretation that “transferred the punishment for apostasy from the hereafter to this world.”

The concept also proved to be politically useful, as despotic caliphs of the Umayyad and later the Abbasid dynasties could get rid of their critics simply by accusing them of apostasy. The hadiths that order the killing of apostates were probably put into circulation at this time, more than a century after the Prophet’s death. They were, in other words, “apocryphal” narratives made up later to justify what the political authority had been doing.

On the other hand, there were other hadiths suggesting that the Prophet in fact did not consider apostasy to be a crime. One of them is a narrative about a Muslim named Husayn, whose two sons were converted to Christianity by Byzantine merchants who had come to Medina to sell their goods. Following their conversion, the two sons left for Syria with the merchants. When this happened, their father asked the Prophet to pursue them and bring them back, apparently in order to make them embrace Islam again. On this occasion, the tradition holds, the famous Koranic verse, “There is no compulsion in religion,” was revealed. Consequently, the Prophet did not send anyone to pursue the two converts.

Because of these complexities in the hadith literature, and the total lack of any Koranic earthly punishment for apostasy, Muslim scholars have disputed the mainstream view on this matter for centuries. In the eighth century, Ibrahim al-Nakhai, a prominent jurist, and Sufyan al-Thawri, a hadith expert, wrote that the apostate should be reinvited into Islam but should never be condemned to death. The noted Hanafi jurist Shams al-Din al-Sarakhsi also disregarded any temporal punishment for apostasy. The death penalty, these scholars noted, deprives the apostate of the right to reconsider his decision, which can happen at any moment during his lifetime. The Prophet, the same commentators pointed out, had never ordered anyone put to death for apostasy alone.

Even Ibn Taymiyyah, the 13th-century scholar regarded as strict and militant on many other issues, argued that the hadith stating, “Whoever changes his religion, kill him,” was meant to address high treason against the political community — i.e., joining forces with a deadly enemy — and not apostasy as such.

In the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire made it uncomplicated for its citizens to abandon Islam and accept another religion. Modernist thinkers such as Rashid Rida openly argued that the death penalty for apostasy should be abandoned. Two months before his death in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, a liberal cleric who fell out with the regime for his defense of human rights, argued in a BBC interview that an apostasy based on conviction was different from “desertion of Islam out of malice and enmity toward the Muslim community” — and that the former deserved no punishment.

The list of Muslim scholars, clerics, and thinkers who challenge the classical notion of apostasy can go on and on. Yet the problem remains. Apostates from Islam, or unorthodox Muslims who apostatize from orthodox interpretations, still face the death penalty in some countries, vilification in others. Despite the Koranic injunction, “There is no compulsion in religion,” a great deal of compulsion still occurs.

It is crucial to recognize that the earthly punishment for apostasy is not Koranic but post-Koranic. The latter reflects a historical context in which one’s religious affiliation also determined his political allegiance. No wonder other civilizations of the time, such as the Sassanids and the Byzantines, also punished apostasy with death. The early Muslims merely adopted the norms of their time.

Now, of course, we live in a very different world with very different norms. Religious affiliation and political allegiance are regarded as totally separate. Insisting on keeping a medieval notion of apostasy is pointless. It is also damaging, for it leads to the persecution of innocent people (such as the Afghan convert Abdul Rahman) as well as the portrayal of Islam as a tyrannical religion.

Here Muslims also need to think how they would respond if, say, Christians ordered death sentences for their apostates who chose to accept Islam. What would they think, for example, if someone like Yusuf Islam — formerly Cat Stevens, who became a Muslim in 1977 — had been put on trial in a British court and given three days to recant before being executed?

Converts to Islam don’t face such treatment in the Western world, because the West has embraced freedom of religion, which includes freedom from their own religion as well. Muslims need to do the same. 

Revisiting Blasphemy

If one aspect of freedom from Islam is the right to apostatize from it, another is the right to criticize it. And this “criticism,” sorry to say, can sometimes come in the form of satire, mockery, and even insult.

Insult, of course, is never acceptable. When a non-Muslim curses God, the Koran, the Prophet, or any other sacred value of Islam, he is, at the very least, being disrespectful. Muslims would be considered disrespectful, too, if they insulted other people’s faiths. “Do not curse those they call upon besides God,” the Koran warns them, “in case that makes them curse God in animosity, without knowledge.”

If we were living in an ideal world, everyone would listen to this fair advice and respect each other’s religion. In real life, however, people do satirize, mock, and insult each other’s religion. Moreover, what other people put forward as a fair criticism sometimes might sound offensive, simply because of the differences between perspectives and cultures. What, then, should Muslims do?

This matter has grown testy in the past few decades, as some Muslims’ reactions to real or perceived insults to Islam have made global headlines. In 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death fatwa on author Salman Rushdie for his contentious novel, The Satanic Verses. In 2004, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered by a militant Muslim who was offended by van Gogh’s film Submission. A year later, Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, published a series of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist, sparking attacks on Danish embassies and death threats to the newspaper and its cartoonists.

In all these cases, the Muslims who reacted with anger and violence probably were sincere in their zeal to defend their faith. Yet, alas, the practical result of their actions was to vindicate the very accusation brought against them — that Islam is an intolerant and aggressive religion. So, if they really want to change that negative perception about their religion, they must begin by changing their course of action.

But, common sense aside, one needs to accept that those Muslims who react violently against perceived offenses are not devoid of religious justification. Traditional schools of the sharia have a concept called kufr (blasphemy), which is considered a crime punishable by death. It is this concept to which angry Muslims who want to “behead those who insult Islam” refer.

To put matters in perspective, one should recall that other Abrahamic traditions also used to follow the same concept. The Torah clearly states that those who speak blasphemy “shall surely be put to death.” St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that blasphemy, “a sin committed directly against God, is more grave than murder.” Yet, in modern times, both Judaism and Christianity have abandoned earthly punishment for blasphemy, whereas Islam, as with some other aspects of sharia that we have examined, has remained largely unchanged.

Of course, adapting to the modern world simply because it is the modern would not make sense to a Muslim — or to anyone else who believes in a moral law unbound by the fluctuations of time. But the same believer does not have to insist on preserving the elements of his tradition that are historical rather than divinely mandated.

In the case of Islam, these two separate categories, as we have seen, roughly correspond to the Koran and the post-Koranic tradition. All elements of the latter are somehow “man-made.” And, tellingly enough, on the issue of blasphemy, as with the matter of apostasy, the Koran is surprisingly lenient. Its verses threaten blasphemers with God’s punishment in the hereafter but do not impose on them any earthly punishment.

As with apostasy, the punishment for blasphemy comes from certain narratives in the hadith literature and the way they were interpreted by classical scholars. These narratives are about certain individuals, mostly satirical poets, who mocked the Prophet Muhammad during his mission and claimed that the Koran was a fraud. Some of them, the narratives go, were executed by the nascent Muslim community for being “enemies of God and the Prophet.” But besides the fact that the very accuracy of these historical accounts can be challenged, they can also be regarded as limited by their specific context. As Muslim scholar Mohammad Kamali shows, the executions of the satirists were political, rather than religious, events. At a time when the early Muslim community was battling for survival with hostile pagans, mockery had become a part of war propaganda. But “blasphemy today can in no sense threaten the existence or continuity of Islam as a great religion, a legal system and a major civilisation.”

Just “Do Not Sit with Them . . . ”

Beyond the hadith literature, a response to blasphemy that is more compatible with the liberal standards of the modern world actually comes from the Koran. The Muslim scripture not only lacks any suggestion of earthly punishment for blasphemy, it also advises a nonviolent response: “When you hear God’s revelations disbelieved in and mocked at, do not sit with them until they enter into some other discourse; surely then you would be like them.”

What is described here is a clearly peaceful form of disapproval: Muslims are not supposed to be part of a discourse that mocks Islam, but all they have to do is stay away from it. Even then, the withdrawal should last only until the discourse changes into something inoffensive. Once mockery ends, dialogue can restart. (We should note that this verse is from a chapter of the Koran that was revealed in the “Medinan” phase. In other words, it reflects a time when Muslims had political and military power. So its nonviolent character can’t be explained, and explained away, as resulting from necessity.)

A few other Koranic verses, too, order similar acts of nonviolent disapproval in the face of blasphemous talk. “When you see those who enter into false discourses about Our communications,” one of them commands the Prophet, “withdraw from them until they enter into some other discourse.” Another verse describes Muslims as quite nonconfrontational: “When they hear idle talk they turn aside from it and say: We shall have our deeds and you shall have your deeds; peace be on you, we do not desire the ignorant.”

I believe that the Muslim response to blasphemy in the modern world should be based on the spirit of these verses. For example, Muslims can boycott anti-Islamic rhetoric by refusing to join conversations, buy publications, or watch films and plays that mock the values of their faith. They can also organize peaceful protests. All of that is right, but trying to silence the anti-Islamic rhetoric with threats and attacks is not.

Meanwhile, the Muslims who are willing to resort to violence in the face of mockery should reflect on the source of their motivation: a genuinely religious commitment or a nationalistic zeal? The latter option comes to mind because of a curious pattern. In the modern era, the Muslim response to mockery has been most zealous when the subject is the Prophet Muhammad, rather than other prophets and, most strangely, God. According to the Koran, though, Muslims should “believe in God and His messengers, and make no distinction between any of the messengers.” Therefore, they should stand up for Abraham, Moses, or Jesus Christ as passionately as they do for the Prophet Muhammad. And, to be sure, they should stand up most passionately for none other than God Most High.

I suspect that the selective attention to the Prophet Muhammad comes from the fact that he is revered only by Muslims, which makes him an exclusive symbol of the Muslim community. In other words, the offense to the Prophet Muhammad comes off as an offense to the Muslims’ own selves. A reaction to such a personal offense certainly is an understandable human phenomenon, but it is a secular phenomenon, not a religious one — and one that has the tendency to go to extremes, especially in the Orient. The secular Turkish Republic, for example, used to have laws banning “insulting Turkishness,” and the courts prosecuted intellectuals — such as the novelist Orhan Pamuk — for offending the honor of the nation simply by making critical remarks about its history. Some ultra-nationalists in Turkey have even assassinated liberal critics for the same “crime.” All this nationalist zeal looks quite similar to that of the Muslim militants who attack those who offend the Prophet. Their motivation, one might say, is just another form of nationalism — the nation being the umma.

On the other hand, more theologically minded Muslims have reacted to insults to other sacred figures as well, and they have done this peacefully. When a blasphemous picture of the Virgin Mary was painted in Adelaide, Australia, in 2007, a representative of Muslim communities voiced a protest, with restraint and civility, receiving praise in Turkey from none other than Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.

Besides all that, those Muslims who are prone to react with fury to criticism or mockery should also see that this only helps portray them as immature and insecure. If all they can do in the face of an antagonistic book, film, or cartoon is to destroy it by brute force, then what they really display is a lack of self-confidence. They will serve Islam much better if their response is solemn and sensible. The power of any faith, after all, comes not from its coercion of critics and dissenters but from the moral integrity and the intellectual strength of its believers.

Will Islam Conquer the World?

Finally, we should rethink what the ultimate goal, and the destiny, of the umma should be on this earth.

The answer given by the Islamist movement is often a triumphalist one: Islam will simply conquer the whole world; sooner or later, the whole world will be Muslim.

Yet this ambitious rhetoric might be reflecting the ambitions of the people who happen to be Muslims, rather than the intentions of the Divine. The Koran, in fact, clearly states that the whole world will not be Muslim. “What has been sent down to you from your Lord is the Truth,” a verse tells the Prophet, “but most people have no faith.” Another verse refers not to the lack of faith but to the variety of faiths, explaining that this diversity is exactly what God desired for mankind:

And We have sent down the Book [the Koran] to you with truth, confirming and conserving the previous Books. . . . We have appointed a law and a practice for every one of you. Had God willed, He would have made you a single community, but He wanted to test you regarding what has come to you. So compete with each other in doing good. Every one of you will return to God and He will inform you regarding the things about which you differed.

This striking Koranic passage clearly describes a world in which Islam is one religion among others, not the only one. The differences between them will be reconciled only in the afterlife. Meanwhile, people of different faiths — Muslims, Christians, Jews, and all others — are expected to “compete with each other in doing good.”

To be able to realize this pluralist vision, what we would need is a world in which all faiths could freely express and advance themselves.

Granted, such a pluralist world sounds different from the ideal of the medieval Muslim scholars — the Abode of Islam. This term referred to lands ruled by Muslims and governed according to sharia. Only such places then looked safe for practicing Islam. The rest of the world was either hostile (an Abode of War — i.e., lands ruled by non-Muslims) or only conditionally safe (an Abode of Treaty — i.e., lands ruled by non-Muslims who made treaties with a Muslim state).

Yet none of these medieval categories can explain the modern world. Today, in fact, some Muslims seem to find it easier to live by their religion in the non-Muslim countries of the West, which grant more safety and freedom than some of the Muslim-majority countries with dictatorial regimes.

So it is time to stop seeing the world as divided between an Abode of Islam and an Abode of War. Rather, what exists now is an Abode of Freedom versus an Abode of Tyranny. The former is what Muslims should seek.

In this free world, there surely will be ideas that Muslims, including me, will not like. What we need to do is to respond to them with reason and wisdom — an effort that might help us revitalize the intellectual dynamism of our earliest generations, as in the way the Mutazilites dealt with the challenges, and the contributions, of Greek philosophy.

In this free world, there also will be people with lifestyles that we will find misguided and abhorrent. We need to try to share with those people the values that we uphold. How they will react is not our business. “If they become Muslim, they have been guided,” God told the Prophet. “If they turn away, you are only responsible for transmission.”

And, ultimately, we need this free world for our individual selves. Each of us has a personal life to live — an amazing journey that starts with our birth and continuously unfolds while we grow up to experience a mind-boggling drama. We learn and discover, we achieve and enjoy, and we fail and suffer. For the believer, none of these ups and downs of life are devoid of meaning — all are meant to be lessons to make us more mature and wise and, we hope, more godly.

Liberty is what every individual needs to be able to live such a fulfilling life, based on his own choices and decisions, successes and failures.

Liberty is, you could also say, what everyone needs to find God.

— Reprinted from Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty by Mustafa Akyol. Copyright (c) 2011 by Mustafa Akyol. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


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