Apostasy in Islam 1

Apostasy in Islam 1

This text first explains the view about faith in God and whether or not Islam can be forcefully imposed on others; then comes the Islamic view on the choices a person has after he has willingly joined the Islamic faith. Next, the discussion on the issue of apostasy and its two categories; followed by the religious sources for the punishment of an apostate. The treatise ends with a discussion on some Qur'ãnic verses and some relevant issues about minorities in the Muslim countries.

Introduction

The issue of apostasy (irtidād) and the punishment that Islam has prescribed for an apostate is one of the least known and understood part of the shari`ah (Islamic laws). After the concept of jihād, apostasy is most frequently cited by Christian missionaries as a negative dimension of Islam. (1)  In 1997, a question was forwarded to me by the Aalim Network of Ahlul Bayt Discussion Group (ABDG) about the punishment given to an apostate. I could sense the plea for understanding the law of Islam and the rationale behind that law.

And since, it is a very complex and sensitive issue, I wrote a detailed answer using the notes I had from a talk that I had given in Toronto in May 1990. Few months after this answer was circulated via the internet to the ABDG subscribers, I wrote another article in June 1998 giving further details from the jurisprudential point of view.answer was circulated via the internet to the ABDG subscribers, I wrote another article in June 1998 giving further details from the jurisprudential point of view.

What you see in your hand is the collection of these two articles. First we shall explain our view about faith in God and whether or not Islam can be forcefully imposed on others; then comes the Islamic view on the choices a person has after he has willingly joined the Islamic faith. Next, we shall discuss the issue of apostasy and its two categories; followed by the religious sources for the punishment of an apostate. The treatise ends with a discussion on some Qur'anic verses and some relevant issues about minorities in the Muslim countries.

Faith in God: a Natural Instinct

According to Islam, every child is born with the innate ability to know and believe in his Creator; this cognition has been placed by God into his nature (fitra). The Qur'ān describes the human soul in a very beautiful way. After swearing by the most majestic signs of God's creation, it says:  "...and by the soul and He who perfected it! Then He inspired to it (the ability to understand) what is good for it and what is evil for it. Successful is he who purifies it, and failure is he who corrupts it." (2)

Almighty Allāh has made our souls such that we are able to distinguish between what is good and what is evil. But for human soul to function on its fitra, there is a condition--it must be kept pure, it must be immunized against spiritual corruption. The soul is like a bulb which can give light provided it itself is not surrounded with a thick cover or dust; every human being has that light in his soul; however, those who keep it pure can enlighten their path with it while those who allow the `spiritual dirt' to gather upon it cannot see the path towards Allāh. (Incidentally, kufr (infidelity) literally means a cover, and so it implies that kufr prevents the inner light from showing the right path.)

The Prophet of Islam emphasized the same point when he said, "Every child is born with the believing nature (al-fitra),it is his parents who make him into a Jew or a Christian."(3) Besides this fitra, Allāh has also provided us with various means to know Him and believe in Him; He sent prophets and messengers, He revealed the scriptures, and above all He created thousands of signs in the nature which remind us of Him. "Soon We shall show them Our signs on the horizon (āfāq) and in themselves (anfus), until it becomes clear to them that this is the Truth." (4)

Can Islam be forced on others?

Having accepted that from the Islamic point of view, faith in God is ingrained in human nature, and that it is only the parents and the society that corrupts the soul and divert it from the Right Path, the question comes: Can Islam be imposed forcefully on non-Muslims? Or we may even ask: Is the minor jihād a means of imposing the faith of Islam on non-Muslims? I do not intend to get into the issue of the minor jihād; but, briefly stated, the majority of Sh`iah jurists (mujtahidin) do not believe in initiating a jihād without the clear permission of an infallible (ma`sum) Imam. Even those who allow the initiation of jihād, do not believe that jihād can be used to impose Islam on non-Muslims.

At the most, they say that jihād can be initiated to remove tyranny and oppression from a non-Muslim society in order to eliminate the factors that prevent the Divine message from reaching to the masses. Jihād cannot be used for imposing Islam on others; it is just for putting an end to the aggression on Muslims or for helping the oppressed non-Muslims. (The history of Muslims bears out this idea; an unbiased historian can clearly separate the spread of the Muslim rule over areas outside Arabia āby military mightā and the spread of Islam āwithout forceā in those same regions.) (5)

The Qur'ān clearly says that: "There is no compulsion in the religion." (6) What this verse actually means is that: "There is no compulsion in (accepting) the religion (of Islam)." Why? The verse continues: "Surely the Right Path is clearly distinct from the crooked path." So Muslims can always show the difference between the right and the wrong paths, but not force the non-Muslims to accept Islam. The Prophet of Islam has also been mentioned as a reminder, not as a person who forces Islam upon others. "Therefore, you remind (them), for you are only a reminder; you are not a watcher over them." (7)

In many other verses, the Prophet is described as: "a bearer of good news and a warning of God's punishment." (8) His role was just to remind the people about their natural instinct of believing in God. Force is not needed because the right way is clearly distinct from the crooked way. Even during the conquest of Mecca, the idol-worshippers were given a grace time of four months to study Islam, and thereafter either become Muslims by their own choice or leave the sacred city. (9)

What after submission?

What we have said above was about accepting Islam, coming into the fold of Islam. We have made it very clear that no one can be forcefully brought into the fold of Islam; Islam cannot be imposed on any person or society. This was all about a person who is outside the fold of Islam. Now we move on to the next step. If a person is raised in a society which protects his soul from the impurities of atheism (kufr) and polytheism (shirk), or if a person is shown the Right Path and accepts it willingly -- can such a person reject the Islamic faith? Is he allowed to apostate (become murtad) and renounce Islam? Can he declare that he does not believe in God or Prophet Muhammad or the Day of Judgment?

Once a person enters into the fold of Islam, the rules change. As soon as you become a Muslim by your own choice, you are expected to submit yourself to Allāh totally and completely.  "O you who believe! Enter into submission, kāffatan!"(10) Kāffatan gives the sense of "all" and "completely". Once a person becomes a believer, he surrenders the right of making decisions to Allāh and the Messenger: "No believing man and no believing woman has a choice in their own affairs when Allāh and His Messenger have decided on an issue." (11)

Even the question of apostasy, irtidād or deserting of one's faith, for a Muslim, is a religious (shar`i) issue and even in this issue he is governed by the laws of Islam. And Islam clearly says: No! You cannot become an apostate. After coming into the fold of Islam, rejection of the fundamentals is not tolerated. If there are doubts in your mind about the fundamental beliefs of Islam, then question, discuss, debate, study, and solve them BUT you are not allowed to leave Islam or desert your own fitra!
 
On the issue of openly rejecting Islam, Islam cannot just stand aside and see one of its followers going astray. It would allow discussions to understand and solve the problems, but not allow its followers to lower themselves from the sublime status of "surrendering to the will of Allah--Islam" to the status of those "who have hearts but do not understand, ears but do not hear, and eyes but do not see." On the issue of openly rejecting Islam, Islam cannot just stand aside and see one of its followers going astray.

It would allow discussions to understand and solve the problems, but not allow its followers to lower themselves from the sublime status of "surrendering to the will of Allah--Islam" to the status of those "who have hearts but do not understand, ears but do not hear, and eyes but do not see."

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NOTES:

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1. These missionaries seem to forget the infamous Inquisition, witch-hunting and witch-burning rituals perpetuated by their forbearers when Christian rule prevailed in post-Muslim Spain.

2. (The Quran 91:1-10) 

3. Al-Kulayni, al-Usul mina 'l-Kāfi, vol. 2, p. 13; al-Bukhāri,Sahih, vol. 2 (Beirut: Dār al-Fikr, 1401) p. 104; for its Arabic edition with English translation, see vol. 2 (Beirut: Dār al-`Arabiyya) p. 262.

4. (The Quran 41:53)

5. See Ira M. Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies (Cambridge: CUP, 1988) p. 243-244; M. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, vol. 1, p. 199. For more details, see my "How Did Islam Spread? By Sword or By Conversion?"

6. (The Quran 2:256)

7. (The Quran 88:21-22)

8. (The Quran 2:119)

9. See Chapter 9 of the Qur'ān.

10. (The Quran 2:208) 

11. (The Quran 33:36)

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