Death or Freedom for the Apostates? The Counter-Fatwa of the Liberal MuslimsThe debate over how to deal with those who abandon their faith in Allah is growing more heated among Muslims. Jesuit Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, an Islamic studies scholar, analyzes the contending positions in a book on converts to Christianity
by Sandro Magister
ROMA, November 30, 2005 – Life is by no means easy for Muslims who convert to the Christian faith. On the contrary; their very life may be in danger. In the Islamic countries, they are viewed as apostates from “the best community that God has established among men,” and are singled out for ostracism, which in some cases can amount to legal condemnation and even the death penalty.
Even in the West, they run a great risk. A clandestine existence is the norm for most of them. They must conceal themselves from their community of origin, and they do not always find the support they were expecting from the Catholic Church. There is a widespread tendency within the Church not to encourage conversion from Islam to Christianity – ostensibly for reasons of “dialogue,” but in reality out of fear of the reactions.
But on a number of occasions, appeals for help have come from converts from Islam who, after their baptism, have felt that they were abandoned. In an interview with Italian television two years ago, then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said: “I know, and this pains me deeply. It is the drama of our Christian consciousness, which is unsure of itself. Naturally, we must respect the Islamic states and their religion, but we must also ask for freedom of conscience for those who wish to become Christian, and we must assist these persons courageously, if we really are sure that they have found the right answer. We must not leave them alone. Everything possible must be done so that they can experience, in liberty and peace, what they have found within the Christian religion.”
To lift the veil on the lives of these new converts, a book has been released in recent days: “I cristiani venuti dall’islam [From Islam to Christianity].” The authors are Giorgio Paolucci, the managing editor of “Avvenire,” the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, and Camille Eid, from Lebanon, a specialist in the Arab and Islamic world, who has recently written – among other things – a survey of the Christians in Iran, which was published by the Venice patriarchate’s magazine “Oasis” and reprinted last November 11 by www.chiesa.
The book recounts – for the first time – numerous stories about Muslims living in Italy who have encountered Christianity in a great variety of ways and, after converting, have received baptism.
In an appendix, the two authors also provide an overview of Muslim countries, giving the degree of danger – up to the death sentence – that awaits anyone who changes from Islam to another faith.
But, in an extensive preface, the book also examines how the question is discussed within Islam.
Because within Islam itself there is also a fiery controversy over how to deal with apostates, which leads into the wider debate over the interpretation of the Qur'an and the relationship between politics and faith. It is a debate fired by the "liberal" Muslims, who are opposed to the intolerant positions expressed by the "radicals."
The author of the preface is Samir Khalil Samir, an Egyptian Jesuit, professor of Arabic history and culture and of Islamic studies at the Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut and at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. He is also the founder of the Centre de Recherche Arabes Chrétiennes and president of the International Association for Christian Arabic Studies.
In his analysis of the debate taking place among Muslims, Fr. Samir finds that the positions of the intolerant Muslims are more fragile than they appear, and that on the contrary the liberals' positions have a better foothold now than they did before, and that the West and the Church should devote more attention and support to these positions.
Here follow the principal passages of the book's preface, by the kind permission of the authors and the publisher:
Apostasy in the Qur'an and the Debate among the Muslimsby Samir Khalil Samir, S.J.
The Arabic term that is usually employed to define the situation of a Muslim who denies Islam is riddah or irtidad. One who takes responsibility for this decision is called murtadd, apostate. A large part of Muslim public opinion maintains that the apostate must be killed by virtue of what is defined as "the scourge of apostasy," hadd-al-riddah. Over the centuries, this conviction became so deeply rooted that at times, in order to justify someone's being eliminated, he was accused – and is still accused – of apostasy.
The problem has come back with pressing and dramatic relevance over the last decades with the wave of the so-called "Islamic reawakening," because the radical Muslims have reevaluated this punishment and are asking that it be applied to those who convert to Christianity or other religious faiths, or become backsliders in their view. I have compiled a provisional bibliography of twenty-one recent writings by Syrian, Jordanian, Egyptian, Sudanese, Pakistani, and Iranian authors, or Muslims living in the West. The novelty is in the fact that the question is now being debated, not only by specialists in the fiqh, Islamic law, but also in the mass media. The authors are Muslim believers and thinkers, but are not necessarily jurists.
The affair of Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" acted as a detonator, suddenly taking on global proportions, an account of the accusation of apostasy launched together with a fatwa by Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, who exposed the Anglo-Indian writer to the risk of death. Other cases had more or less local repercussions, like that of the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, accused in 1994 of offenses against religion and forced first to live a clandestine life, and then to move to the West. In Egypt, we recall the 1992 assassination of the intellectual Farag Foda, and the failed attempt in 1995 against the life of the Nobel laureate in literature Naghib Mahfouz, both of which were the work of radical groups that accused them of apostasy. Even more significant was the affair that involved the university professor Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, who was condemned for apostasy in 1995 by a Cairo tribunal for having proposed an historical-rational interpretation of the Qur'an. As a consequence of this decision, his marriage was dissolved by judicial decree, because a Muslim woman is not permitted to retain a conjugal bond with an apostate. Afraid that he would be killed by some fanatic, he decided to emigrate to Holland, where he still lives with his companion. Also in Egypt, the accusation of apostasy was unleashed in 2001 against Nawal al-Saadawi by a radical Islamic lawyer.
The cases referred to above relate to accusations of betrayal of the Muslim religion. But the stories of conversion from Islam to other faiths, and in particular to Christianity, are no less significant. There are some deep questions underlying this whole matter: freedom of conscience, the relationship between religion and politics in Muslim society, and, in the final analysis, the very conception of Islam: is it possible to think of a "secular" Islam, in which religion and the state are distinct?
The problem is aggravated by the fact that apostasy seems to present itself as a crime within the context of the traditional interpretation of Islam founded upon the Qur'an and the sunna, the Islamic tradition. Bringing that into question means shaking the very foundations of Islam. Even more seriously, since this crime is described – according to the fundamentalists – in the Qur'an itself and in the hadith, the sayings of the Prophet, bringing it into question means committing an offense against the absolute value of the Qur'an, considered a system that governs the entire life of the believer, even in the civil sphere. Opening even the slightest breach would risk the collapse of the entire intellectual edifice of the fundamentalists, who have become increasingly influential in Islamic societies. Criticizing this hadd, this punishment prescribed by the Qur'an, in the name of modernity, means declaring implicitly that the sacred book is no longer valid for Muslims – and even less so for non-Muslims – in the modern age.
THE FOURTEEN PASSAGES OF THE QUR’AN
Both the radicals and the liberals expound their arguments beginning from the Qur'an. In it, there are two terms to indicate apostasy: irtadda and al-kufr ba'd al-islam.
The first term, irtadda, means renunciation, retracing one's footsteps, and it appears in three verses. One of the most frequently cited appears in the Cow sura, 2:217: "As for those of you who renounce the faith and die as unbelievers, their works will be in vain, both in this world and in the next: they will end up in the fire, and will remain there forever." The other two passages are in the Table sura, 5:54, and the sura of Mohammed, 47:25.
The second term, al-kufr ba'd al-islam, means a renunciation, lack of belief, or impiety after one has adhered to Islam. It is found in the Qur'an eleven times. The most frequently cited and discussed verse is this one, from the sura of Repentance, 9:74: "They swear by God that they have said nothing, but they have spoken as unbelievers and, after embracing Islam, have renounced it. They have sought to bring about a plan that did not succeed for them, and if they later gave it up, it is only because God, together with his Messenger, has lavished them with his favors. If they convert, it will be better for them; but if they turn their backs, God will punish them with a sorrowful scourge in this world and the next; and here on earth they will have neither patron nor defender." The other passages are in the Cow sura (2:108-109 and 1:161-162), the sura of the Family of Imran (3:90-91 and 3:177), the sura of the Women (4:137 and 4:167) the Table sura (5:73), the sura of Repentance (9:66), the sura of the Bees (16:106), and the sura of the Criterion (25:55).
So what is the punishment the Qur’an provides for apostates? Of the fourteen passages that allude to it, only seven speak of “chastisement,” and always in reference to something that will happen in the next world, never in this life. One instance (2:217) mentions eternal fire; another (2:61) mentions “the curse of God, the angels, and all men, all together”; and in four instances (3:91, 3:177, 5:73, and 16:106) there is mention of “a sorrowful chastisement.” Only one of the verses, in the sura of Repentance cited above (9:74), prescribes “a sorrowful scourge in this world and in the next.” And all of the commentators recognize the vagueness of this prescription with respect to the other penalties of the Qur’an. In fact, while in the case of theft or adultery the Qur’an indicates the punishment with great precision (for example, the number of lashes with the whip), it is astonishing that in the case of such a serious crime as apostasy there would be nothing more than the mention of “a sorrowful scourge in this world and in the next.”
Even the radical Islamists acknowledge that the Qur’an is not explicit on the punishment for apostasy. One of the most authoritative of the radical intellectuals, Muhammad Salim al-’Awwa, writes: “The holy verses do not make any allusion, either direct or indirect, to a punishment in this world prescribed by the Qur’an against those who apostasize from Islam. The sole exception is verse 74 of the sura of Repentance, which contains the threat of a painful torture in this world and in the next. In spite of this, the verse is of no help to us in determining the punishment for apostasy, because it speaks of the repudiation, ‘kufr,’ on the part of hypocrites after they have embraced Islam. But we know that there is no punishment in this world provided for the hypocrites, because they do not manifest their kufr, but deny and hide it. And the legal prescriptions of the Muslim system apply only to the manifestations of actions and words, not to what is hidden within the heart or concealed within the mind. […] From the preceding we conclude that the sacred Qur’an has not specified a punishment in this world for apostasy; but the verses that mention apostasy foresee the threat of a punishment for apostasy in the next world.”
Muslims of liberal tendencies have published, in recent years, various books condemning the recourse to legal proceedings against apostates. I point out, for example, the book by Egyptian sheikh Ahmad Subhi Mansur, entitled “The Punishment of Apostasy,” and the book by Syrian author Adlabi, entitled “The Killing of Apostates.” Many of the other public stances taken move in the same direction. And they all begin from the Qur’an to assert that its general orientation is favorable toward religious liberty.
Above all, the liberals cite the fact that the Qur’an criticizes every sort of religious constraint. Three passages are cited most frequently in regard to this, including in meetings between Muslims and Christians.
The Cow sura, 2:256: “Let there be no constraint in religion! The right way is well distinguished from error.”
The sura of Jonah, 10:99-10: “If your Lord had wished it, all the inhabitants of the earth would have believed. And do you wish to constrain men to become believers? No one can believe without God’s consent.”
The Cave sura, 18:29: “The truth comes from your Lord: let him who wishes to believe, believe, and him who does not wish it, not believe.”
The last two suras quoted are from Mecca, corresponding to the period before the Hegira, Mohammed’s passage to Medina. The first text, the most famous, comes from the beginning of Mohammed’s time in Medina, after the Hegira, and can be dated to around the year 623.
This detail is not devoid of importance. In fact, Muslim tradition has developed a theory of “the abolishing and the abolished,” al-nasikh wa-l-mansukh, according to which some of the verses revealed to the Prophet are supposed to have abolished others that were revealed to him earlier. The point is to understand whether these three verses in favor of religious liberty have or have not been abolished by the fourteen verses that speak of apostasy, and in particular the most specific of these (in the sura of Repentance, 9:74), which speaks of a punishment for apostasy both in the next world and in this world. This abolition has sometimes been sustained by great jurists in the past, in particular by Ibn Hazm of Cordoba (994-1063), who belonged to the strict Hanbali juridical school.
In more recent times, the former sheikh of al-Azhar, Muhammad Shalabi, commenting on Ibn Hazm, has written: “We do not force the apostate to return to Islam, to avoid contradicting the word of God: ‘No constraint in matters of religion.’ But we leave him the opportunity of returning voluntarily, without constraint. If he does not return, he must be killed, because he is an instrument of sedition, fitnah, and because he opens the door for the impious, kafir, to attack Islam and sow doubt among Muslims. The apostate is thus in open warfare against Islam, even if he does not raise the sword against Muslims.”
Shalabi means that the “verse of non-constraint” has not been abolished, but that the apostate must be killed all the same, in the name of another passage of the Qur’an, the one on sedition, fitnah, which the radical Muslims now refer to as “the verse of the sword,” ayat al-sayf, in the Cow sura, 2:191-193. This is what it says: “Slay them wherever you find them, and drive them out from where they have driven you out, because subversion (fitnah) is worse than slaughter. But do not fight them at the Sacred Mosque, unless they first fight you there; but if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of the impious. But if they cease, know that God is indulgent and merciful. So fight them until there is no more subversion and the religion of God prevails. If they cease, let there be no more hostility, except toward the ungodly.”
So except for a few exceptions, the commentators – even those aligned with the most radical positions – agree in saying that the three verses upholding religious liberty have not been abolished.
This is what induces the liberal Muslims to maintain that the main thrust of the Qur’an is favorable toward freedom of conscience. If the Qur’an sometimes speaks of apostasy, this cannot be opposed to the general approach, but must be understood within the overall context of tolerance.
THE TWO HADITH OF AWZA’I AND ‘IKRIMAH
But then what is practical Islamic tradition based on, if the Qur’an does not establish any specific punishment against apostasy?
It is based upon two sayings, or hadith, of the Prophet, which the radicals tirelessly repeat: that of the imam Awza’i, and that of ‘Ikrimah.
Both of these hadith belong to the category of the al-ahad hadith, the sayings related by a single person. In general, the ulemas consider these sayings as invalid in defining physical penalties and punishments, or hudud. Nevertheless, the radical Egyptian sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradwi, who is now one of the most popularly influential sheikhs in the Arab world, defends in principle this type of saying transmitted by a single witness, asserting that they are as valid as any other.
But what is the foundation for those who maintain that the two hadith should not be taken into consideration? I will summarize here the arguments of some authors, particularly the one presented by sheikh Ahmad Subhi Mansur who, in my opinion, has produced the best historical and juridical analysis of the hadith in question.
In regard to the hadith of Azwa’i, Mansur demonstrates that he fabricated a number of hadith in order to please those who held power. Born in Baalbek in 707, Azwa’i succeeded thanks to his ability to insinuate himself into the court of Damascus, not far from his hometown, becoming the jurist of the Omayyad caliphs. When, in 750, the Abbassids seized power and made their entrance into Damascus, killing all of the Omayyad leaders and their courtiers, Azwa’i was the only one who emerged unscathed from this bloody changing of the guard. We have the account of his meeting with the Abbassid general, which was related by the historian Ibn Kathir and reveals Azwa’i’s opportunistic nature. It is in this context that Azwa’i cites the famous hadith “al-nafs bi-l-nafs,” a life for a life, which he attributes to the Prophet: “The blood of a Muslim cannot be spilled except in one of these three cases: a life in exchange for a life, a married man who commits adultery, and someone who abandons his religion and separates himself from his community.”
According to Azwa’i, Mohammed thus affirmed that a Muslim can be killed only in one of these three cases. The first is the result of the application of the lex talionis: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. The second, that of adultery, is in flagrant contradiction of the Qur’an text reported in the sura of Light, 24:2, which explicitly provides for a punishment of one hundred lashes for adultery, but never the death penalty. The third case corresponds to apostasy.
Referring to this hadith – which is presented without any pedigree, something absolutely uncommon in the scholarly discipline of Islamic tradition – the Abbassids eliminated their political opponents.
I add that this hadith does not appear in the more than 800 pages of Awza’i’s collected writings, recently published in Beirut. Instead there is one that speaks of apostasy, which is also cited without even the slightest reference to sources. Very curiously, it concerns only women. It is number 1354: “If a woman separates herself from Islam, she must be killed.”
The second hadith to which the radicals refer, that of ‘Ikrimah, says: “If anyone changes religion, kill him.” This one is also rather unreliable.
‘Ikrimah, who died in 723, was the slave of ‘Abdallah Ibn ‘Abbas, a cousin of Mohammed. He was freed after the death of his patron. His fame comes from the fact that he took the risk of transmitting “traditions” attributed to Ibn ‘Abbas, who enjoyed great authority. But he belonged to the rebel political group of the Kharijit, and he is remembered by the scholars of the hadith for his lack of credibility and for the weakness of the chain of transmission he provided: in keeping with his habit, he traces this hadith back to Ibn ‘Abbas, to whom he attributes hundreds of sayings. Moreover, the content itself of the hadith in question is in conformity with neither the tradition, sunna, nor the Qur’an.
In conclusion, the two traditions upon which the radicals rely to justify the death sentence for apostasy are both very questionable.
AN HISTORICAL PRECEDENT: THE “WARS OF APOSTASY”
So if neither the Qur’an nor the sunna authorizes the radicals’ interpretation, what is it based on?
One of the radical Muslims’ arguments is of an historical nature. It refers to the events know in Muslim history as the “wars of apostasy.”
The liberals emphasize the fact that Mohammed never killed anyone in the name of the “crime of apostasy.” On two occasions when his faithful wanted to kill backsliders, Mohammed intervened to prevent it.
We know that Mohammed fought many wars, nineteen of them according to the official biography written by Ibn Hisham, not hesitating to kill his enemies or those who opposed his mission. So if he blocked the killing of backsliders twice, this is because he did not consider apostasy a reason for punishment in earthly life. This is the argument of the liberal Muslims.
The “wars of apostasy,” hurub al-riddah, which are invoked by the radical Muslims, are the wars conducted by Abu Bakr, the first caliph, who succeeded Mohammed after his death in 632 and died himself two years later. The facts are known: at the death of Mohammed, many Arab tribes were already subjected to the state of Medina founded by the Prophet, and paid a heavy tribute to Medina as a sign of vassalage. They took advantage of his death to stop their payments and regain their freedom. Abu Bakr conducted a fierce war against them, to bring them back into the fold of Islam. This attitude was criticized by many, in particular by Mohammed’s first companions, the Sahaba. Nevertheless, when the caliph succeeded with his plan to bring the majority of these tribes under his domination, everyone congratulated him. For Abu Bakr’s contemporaries, as for the Muslim historians, these wars had economic and political aims. Abu Bakr fought one after another of these tribes in order to bring them back to the bosom of the young Muslim state, and thus fill up his coffers.
His successor, Omar, who died in 644, was the first caliph to bear the title of “Commander of the faithful.” He did not continue with these wars, and the reason was clear: since he had already conquered extensive Byzantine and Persian territory, the return of a few Arab rebels would have been small potatoes. History even recounts that this caliph protected an apostate whose death had been demanded. This shows clearly that these wars had nothing to do with the problem of apostasy, but rather with that of the return of the Arab tribes to the new empire.
In short, the crime of apostasy and its sanction with the death of the apostate, which are presented as having an extensive foundation in Islam, do not in reality have a basis acceptable for Islam. They have no foundation in the Qur’an or the sunna, nor are there any hadith that justify them. Not even the history of the first years of the Islamic empire authorizes such an interpretation.
So what are the origins of what has become a commonplace widely shared in the Islamic world? The liberals maintain that this is an invention of the Muslim jurists, and that it was promoted for essentially political reasons. But then – they add – if this crime is a political problem, it must be treated politically. If apostasy is a threat to the nation – and if the apostate is judged as a threat to the state, an instrument of fitnah, or sedition – then this is a political problem that must be addressed as such, not a religious problem that must be managed by the Muslim authorities.
It is evident that, behind all of this, what is at stake is religious liberty. And this goes well beyond the cases of Muslims becoming Christian, or criticizing Islam. Viewing apostasy as a crime means opening the doors and offering a pretext for any sort of repression exercised by Islamic groups against all those who do not think the way they do. And it definitely means giving carte blanche to the terrorism that wants to cloak its actions with a religious justification.
So this is an overview of some of the problematic aspects raised by the current debate over the riddah, a debate that fortunately does not seem destined to exhaust itself over a brief span of time. It is thus important that the Western countries, which have often made themselves the vocal defenders of liberty, support the efforts of the Muslim intellectuals who are striving to reconcile the Islamic faith with the rights of man, and fighting for an Islam with a human face.