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Apostasy

By:
Oliver Leaman
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The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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Apostasy

Apostasy is rejecting one 's religion, and the word in Arabic is either linked to disbelief, kufr, or more directly irtidād. The apostate is one who refuses to accept the grace of God, turning away from God. apostates are people who were appropriately guided but rejected the guidance they had been given and were influenced by Satan (Qurʿān 47:25) and will suffer eventually for their choices (Qurʿān 3:86–91, 106; 4:115, 137; 5:5, 54; 16:106; 39:65). God will certainly receive them back if they repent quickly but not if they repent after frequent denials of God (3:90). For those who do not repent, hell is the eventual outcome (Qurʿān 2: 161; 3:91; 47:34, 2), and God will not pardon them. But the Qurʿān specifies no earthly punishment for them, perhaps surprisingly, given the significance of their offense and the space devoted to punishments for other offenses.

It is noteworthy that the ways in which apostasy are described in the Qurʿān become intensified in the ḥadīth. There are many reports that suggest that the Prophet recommended death for apostates. It may have been that in the period after his death it was felt necessary to shore up the Islamic community by pursuing severe punishments for those who strayed from the path. Under most of the schools of law apostates have three days to repent, but if they do not do so, they may be killed (generally by sword) and their property forfeited to the state. In classical law, a private individual may kill an apostate without incurring punishment himself. Although there is no verse in the Qurʿān explicitly prescribing execution for apostasy, verse 2:217 seemed to īl-Shāfīʿī, ninth-century jurist and founder of one of the four schools of Islamic legal reasoning, to clearly advocate the strictest sanction. The wife of an apostate has to leave her husband, because a Muslim woman cannot be married to a non-Muslim man. According to all schools of legal thought except the Ḥanafīs, women who apostatize are also to be killed.

In modern times the relevance of these severe sanctions has been questioned by some in the Islamic world, especially by those seen as modernists, including Ahmad Khan, Muḥammad ʿAbduh, Rashīd Riḍā, and Muḥammad Iqbal, as well as more recent Islamist thinkers such as Ḥasan al-Turābī of Sudan and Muḥammad al- Ghannūshī of Tunisia.

One aspect of the debate emphasized by these thinkers was the impact of the strict punishment on freedom of expression. The threat of capital punishment effectively obliges thinkers to remain within the limits of what is regarded as orthodoxy in a particular country. It has been easy for theologians to broaden the charge of apostasy to include the writings and teachings of individuals with which they do not agree, thus creating a restriction on debate and discussion. Those who are opposed to such restrictions argue that Islam promotes freedom of religion and legitimately persecute those who exercise such freedom, either personally or by making public their views. They also argue that the basis for the severe penalties for apostasy rests on flimsy evidence, none of which is based in the Qurʿān. The ḥadīth in question are often based on just one utterance, and there are often other ḥadīth that point to more lenient sanctions and indeed defend freedom of expression.

On the other hand, defenders of the existing sanctions point out that apostasy has a disturbing influence on the social order. The conflicts that broke out in Arabia in the time of the Prophet as he was establishing his control of the area are called the “wars of apostasy,” yet they do not seem to be appropriately so described, because many of the communities against which the Prophet fought had not yet been Islamicized. This brings out the idea of apostasy as not so much an individual decision about belief, but more as a political stand opposing Islam, and the nascent religious movement felt the need to defend itself robustly while surrounded by enemies. One favorable example of this interpretation is the Ḥanafī position on female apostates, which was not to kill them, because it was assumed that women would not be a danger to the Islamic community, whatever their errant beliefs.

This issue has come to the fore in countries where Muslims are a minority or where they are a majority coexisiting with substantial non-Muslim communities, such as Malaysia. Some Muslims do abandon their faith, and although far more non-Muslims convert to Islam, how the former should be treated has become a controversial issue. Calling someone an apostate, like calling someone an unbeliever, is a potent charge and can have life-threatening consequences when someone feels the need to carry out a death sentence on those so accused. See alsoKUFR.

Bibliography

  • Ayoub, M.“Religious Freedom and the Law of Apostasy in Islam.”Islamo-Christiana, 20 (1994): 75–91.
  • Kamali, Mohammed Hashim. Islamic Law in Malaysia: Issues and Developments. Kuala Lumpur: Ilmiah, 2000.
  • Saeed, Abdullah, and Hassan Saeed. Freedom of Religion, Apostasy, and Islam. Aldershot, U.K. and Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2004.
  • Friedman, Yohanan. Tolerance and Coercion in Islam: Interfaith Relations in the Muslim Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
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