Friday, November 27, 2009

The Islamic Law of Apostasy

The Islamic Law of Apostasy: join our campaign for its abolition
Throughout 2009 Barnabas Fund has been running a campaign for the abolition of the Islamic apostasy law, which imposes very serious penalties on Muslims who choose to leave their faith. All schools of Islamic law specify the death sentence for apostasy, and converts face a range of other punishments, including the loss of their families and property. The law also provokes powerful hostility to apostates among Muslims.

But change is possible. Some progressive Muslim scholars have argued that the apostasy law should be abandoned, so that people can leave Islam without fear of reprisals. And in a very encouraging development, just last month a group of mainstream Muslim leaders in Britain declared that no-one should be coerced into remaining a Muslim: “It is important to say quite simply that people have the freedom to enter the Islamic faith and the freedom to leave it” (Contextualising Islam in Britain, Cambridge: Centre of Islam ic Studies, 2009, p.75). These brave voices will be strengthened by non-Muslims also calling for repeal of the law.

Below you will find an important article by Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, which explains how Christians should respond to the issue of apostasy (and blasphemy) in Islam. In response to this, we invite you to sign our petition against the apostasy law, and to encourage your church and Christian friends to sign it too. The more signatures we have, the more impact we can have.

Dr Patrick Sookhdeo
International Director, Barnabas Fund







Apostasy and Blasphemy in Islam: What should Christians Do?
From the Foreword to Freedom to Believe (McLean, VA: Isaac Publishing, 2009). Also published in Barnabas Aid Novemb er/December 2009.

Michael Nazir-Ali


The Rt Rev Dr Michael Nazir-Ali

The Qur’an is fierce in its condemnation of apostasy (ridda) and of the apostate (murtadd). Theirs, according to it, will be a dreadful penalty (‘adhbun ‘azmun). This sentiment, which occurs in Sura 16:106, is re-expressed in other ways in other suras (chapters of the Qur’an). The interesting point to note is that the various threats of judgement and of punishment seem to relate to the next world or to life after this earthly one, rather than to this world and to this life.

Against this, we have the unanimous position of the various schools of Islamic law (fiqh) that shari‘a lays down the death penalty for adult male Muslims in possession of their faculties who apostatise. Some schools also prescribe a similar punishment for women, whilst others hold that a woman apostate should be imprisoned until she recants and returns to Islam. In addition to this, should an apostate somehow escape the ultimate penalty, his property becomes fai’, i.e. it becomes the property of the Muslim community, which may hand it over to his heirs; his mar riage is automatically dissolved and he is denied Muslim burial.

How then did such a major difference arise between the prima face teaching of the Qur’an and the provisions of shari‘a as codified by the various schools of law? The answer is that the death penalty for apostasy is to be found in the hadith, the various collections of traditions about the Prophet of Islam’s sayings and doings, and it is also found in the sunna of Muhammad and of his closest companions, the reports about their practice.

Commentators on the Qur’an, both ancient and modern, sensing this tension, have attempted to find passages that could be interpreted as teaching the death penalty for apostates. Thus 2:217, which speaks of the barrenness of an apostate’s life and work, in both this world and the next, is interpreted as meaning that apostates will be punished both in this world and in the next. Similarly, passages such as 4:88-89 are taken as justification for inflicting capital punishment on apostates.

On the other hand, there are those who take as their point of departure the Qur’anic silence on penalties in this world for apostasy. They either minimise the force of the traditions that require it or reject them altogether. It is said, for example, that the traditions that speak of the death penalty for apostates are weakly attested or from an unreliable source. If they contradict the Qur’an they are to be rejected as an accurate account of what Muhammad may have said. They are also to be rejected if they do not cohere with other accounts of his behaviour or speech.

Others point to the supposed practice of the second Caliph ‘Umar, who disliked the extreme penalty for apostasy and was followed in this by some of the early fuqaha or lawyers. More recently, this view has gained currency in some circles close to Al-Azhar As-Sharif, the premier place for Sunni learning, located in Cairo, Egypt. According to these scholars, the traditional time given to an apostate to repent must be extended to the whole of his life.

Many scholars claim that the punishment for apostasy in the time of the Prophet and of his Companions arose because rejection of the Islamic faith was linked to rebellion against the nascent Islamic state. So the punishment was not so much for apostasy as for treason. The well-known scholar, Sheikh Qaradawi, whose opinions are widely studied and followed, relying on the medieval jurist and reformer Ibn Tamiyya, distinguishes between the greater and the lesser apostasy. The lesser apostate, whilst being subject to civil penalties, would not be put to death but those who proclaim their apostasy, thus destabilising Islam and the Muslim umma (or nation), would be. This may be a useful distinction to make but is hardly a manifesto for freedom of expression or of belief.

Although apostasy is punishable by death in only a few countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Sudan (Iran seems to be drawing back from putting it on the statute book, at the time of writing), in fact jurists will sometimes directly invoke the authority of shari‘a to sentence apostates to death. This has happened in both Iran and in Afghanistan. In addition to judicial process, those accused of apostasy can be killed in prison, through torture or poisoning, or by mobs attacking their home or place of work, or even by relatives!

Whilst apostasy, and its penalty, are applicable to Muslims, the offence of Sabb, of insulting the Qur’an or the Prophet of Islam, can also be applied to non-Muslims. Blasphemy against the Prophet is punishable by death, though the method of execution varies from one authority to another. It is this that led the Federal Shari‘a Court in Pakistan to rule out any other penalty but death for blaspheming Muhammad. The so-called “Blasphemy Law” has caused considerable grief for Christians and other non -Muslim minorities since even the expression of their belief can be construed as insulting the Prophet. The Law has also become a way of settling personal scores by accusing one’s adversary of blasphemy. There have been numerous convictions in the lower courts, though fortunately the higher courts have invariably, so far, overturned these verdicts. In the meantime, the family is left destitute and the community from which the accused comes left vulnerable to harassment and intimidation.

The irony is that Muslims claim that their prophet forgave those who insulted him and there are a number of stories to this effect in the sira (life of Muhammad) and in the hadith (there are also other stories that describe how those who insulted him were punished). Which of these attitudes is to prevail in contemporary Muslim societies?

A number of administrative and judicial attempts have been made to ease the lot of those accused of blasphemy and to make it mor e difficult to file charges of blasphemy against someone. None of these has been wholly successful. The law returns again and again to haunt the political establishment and the judiciary. The only solution is for a government to have the courage to repeal it or to abolish or suspend the death penalty altogether, thus leaving other penalties for dealing with alleged cases of “insulting religion” or blasphemy, as indeed existed before the current law was promulgated. Some of the ‘ulama (Islamic scholars) are bound to object to such steps, if the government takes them, and there may well be “popular” movements to resist the repeal or amendment of the law. Such resistance needs to be faced down and genuine objections, such as the claim that Islamic law prescribes qisas or retaliation for murder and that therefore the relatives of the murdered person have the right to seek life for life, or alternatively compensation, will have to be met. It is already the case that qisas cannot be carried out by an individual or group but must be left to the state. If the death penalty were to be abolished or suspended for all serious crime, could not the state order and enable compensation to be paid instead of the death penalty as part of its judicial and executive responsibility? These issues need further exploration but it is clear that the present blasphemy law is neither just nor compassionate and needs to be dealt with while there is opportunity.

Most Muslim countries have subscribed to international treaties, such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights, but they subordinate such agreements to the provisions of the shari‘a, which, in many cases, negates the effect of these documents. In this connection, it is interesting to compare the UN Declaration with the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam. In the latter there is no equivalent to Article 18 (on freedom of thought, conscience and religion) of the former and all provisions are, ultimately, subject to shari‘a. This approach has resulted, again and again, in important rights under Article 18 of the UN Declaration being denied to people in Islamic countries on the grounds that they contravene the provisions of shari‘a. This situation has caused much frustration to human rights activists, constitutional lawyers and even progressive regimes as any provision in law can always be trumped by an appeal to shari‘a.

If the impasse created in this way is to be avoided, it is necessary for leading institutions in the Islamic world to undertake a major reform of shari‘a so that the principles of amelioration and of movement, which exist in at least some of the madhahib, or schools of law, are not only recognised but actually acted upon in both religious and other courts, as there is need. There is also, of course, the urgent task of ijtihad, i.e. a fundamental examination as to how the principles of law to be found in the Qur’an and other sources of Islamic law can be brought into a fruitful relationship with present-day conditions and requirements. This is the case, for example, in the areas of finance, family law, penal provisions, jihad and the treatment of non-Muslims in an Islamic state.

Christians, of course, in the context of dialogue with Muslims and with Islamic religious and political authorities, will encourage those who are struggling to maximise fundamental freedoms in Islamic contexts. They will also be active in advocacy for those who have fallen foul, both materially and spiritually, of traditional understandings of laws and customs regarding apostasy and blasphemy. It remains important to raise awareness of what is happening in so many parts of the world so that people can learn from, pray for and give to those who have become victims of these draconian laws and customs.

The Rt Revd Dr Nazir-Ali was until recently Bishop of Rochester.




“When I am visiting a country where Christians are under pressure, quite often a minister or a lay person will ask quietly whether I know about Barnabas Fund. When I say, ‘Yes,’ their eyes light up and they tell me how Barnabas has encouraged them with a church building, a school or medical assistance. It is this kind of ministry that needs to be supported by prayers and by generosity so that the situation of our brothers and sisters is eased a little by our love.”


Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali



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