Apostasy – A

July 8, 2021

Apostasy – a

The notion that apostasy is forbidden and that apostates will be punished by death has often been used by political authorities and the religious establishment to suppress freedom of religion. For centuries the threat of the death penalty has been hanging over the heads of those who dare to question the fundamental doctrines of Islamic scholarship or who want to explore religions other than the one he or she was born into.

This section shows that the death penalty is a fiction of Islamic fiqh concocted in order to discipline Muslim-Believers and to punish political dissent. Our aim is to reinvigorate the very lenient attitude of Allah’s Book towards apostasy and to leave behind the political, military, and ideological baggage of the past that the fiqh concept of apostasy has carried over into modern times.

We start by looking at the Arabic term for apostasy in the Book.

ridda is derived from the three-radical verb radda (r-d-d ) that occurs, in its different cognates, fifty-nine times in the text.

In general, the verb radda (r-d-d ) touches on a variety of thematic clusters, two of which are of particular interest for our study of apostasy:

  1. radda meaning: to ‘return to’, ‘restore’, or ‘turn back to’ regarding something lost:

Thus did We restore him [radadnahu] to his mother, that her eye might be comforted, that she might not grieve… (Qasas:13)

Quite a number of the people of the book wish they could turn you (people) back [ yaruddunakum] to infidelity after you have believed… (Baqara:109)

Then when they opened their baggage, they found their stock-in-trade had been returned [raddat] to them… (Yusuf:65)

  1. radda meaning: to ‘avert’, ‘prevent’, or ‘hold back’ things:

Nay, it may come to them all of a sudden and confound them: no power will they have then to avert it [raddaha], nor will they (then) get respite. (Anbiya”:40)

…if God inflicts harm on you, no one can remove [radda] it but Him … (Yunus:107)

…but if He wills harm on a people, no one can ward it off [maradda]… (Ra’d:11)

‘O my people! Enter the holy land which God has assigned unto you, and turn not back [wa-la tartaddu] ignominiously, for then will you be overthrown, to your own ruin.’ (Ma”ida:21)

Two verses in the Book specifically address the issue of apostasy:

They ask you concerning fighting in the prohibited month. Say: “Fighting therein is a grave (offence); but graver is it in the sight of God to prevent access to the path of God, to deny Him, to prevent access to the sacred mosque, and drive out its members.”

“Tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter. Nor will they cease fighting you until they turn you back from your faith if they can. And if any of you turn back from their faith and die in unbelief, their works will bear no fruit in this life and in the Hereafter“ (Baqara:117)

O you who believe! If any from among you turn back from his faith, soon will God produce a people whom He will love as they will love Him—lowly with the believers, mighty against the rejecters, fighting in the way of God, and never afraid of the reproaches of such as find fault… (Ma”ida:54)

Based on these two verses, we shall define apostasy as any form of human behavior that expresses a ‘turn back’ from faith. In contrast, belief is a form of human behavior that expresses a ‘turn towards’ faith. On the Day of Judgement, Allah issues either reward or punishment for human behavior in this world, which He will assess by weighing people’s acts ‘towards faith’ against their acts ‘back from faith’.

(‘On that day will men proceed in companies sorted out, to be shown the deeds that they (had done). * Then shall anyone who has done an atom’s weight of good, see it! * And anyone who has done an atom’s weight of evil, shall see it’, Zalzala:6–8).

These verses assure us that every human being, by consciously choosing either to turn towards faith or back from it, determines his future destiny an whether he will be rewarded or punished ‘on that day’.

The word apostasy literally means ‘to stand clear’ or ‘to stay away’. The question is away from what? The Book says it means to stay away from ‘religion’ (din), which is defined as a form of universal human behavior that is characterized by faith in God, His angels, His books, His messengers, the Last Day and doing Good Work. The lower limit of religion is marked by belief in God, the Last Day, and doing Good Work (= the minimum requirement for embracing Islam), and the upper limit of religion consists of the pillars of Eman, that is, prayer, alms tax, fasting, and pilgrimage.

In between the upper and lower limits people decide to follow God’s orders and abstain from what He has forbidden. While the witness that ‘there is no other god but God’ defines the realm of Islam, the witness that ‘Muhammad is the Messenger of God’ defines the realm of Eman. In both realms, people are obliged to implement the highest moral ideals and act correctly in their daily conduct. Given these definitions, apostasy means to stay (altogether) away from religion, that is, a transgression of its lower limit, the first shahada (‘there is no other god but God’), implying the complete abandonment of Islam.

It does not, however, mean to leave a religious community. If someone parts from a monotheistic Abrahamic community, such as that of Muhammad’s followers, of Jews or Christians, or from a non-monotheistic religious community, it is not defined as apostasy. It would only mean to withdraw from membership to a specific religious community, not from a ‘religion’ as such, because there is only one religion and that is Islam.

If apostasy occurs how are we supposed to respond to it? Should we punish apostasy and punish the apostate?

Looking up the Book, we learn that there are two forms of punishment for apostasy:

  1. impotence of actions in this world and the Next, and
  2. a withdrawal of God’s love.

The first punishment is stated in 2:217: ‘And if any of you turn back from their faith and die in unbelief, their works will bear no fruit in this life and in the Hereafter,’ and the second in 5:54: ‘God will produce a people whom He will love as they will love Him’.

These punishments must be treated as the upper limit of penal law, similar to the other so-called hadd/hudud punishments mentioned in the Book (for murder, adultery, theft, false accusation of fornication, etc.). The existence of a punitive boundary implies that there is no absolute and once-and-for all fixed punishment for apostasy, only a description of an upper limit for possible legislation concerning it.

Apostasy – b is next