Apostasy and Islam: many hurdles on the way towards tolerance

While there are Muslim authors putting forward arguments supporting a tolerant social order regarding Muslims who apostatize, the dominant view remains restrictive and represents a major challenge when it comes to religious freedom in Muslim countries, writes historian and political scientist Johannes Kandel (Berlin) in his analysis of a book in German by Islamic Studies expert Christine Schirrmacher in the journal Materialdienst der EZW (September). In the early times of Islam, apostasy was considered a severe sin. This view inspires contemporary Muslim authors who plead for the death penalty for apostates and equate apostasy with treason—the argument also sometimes used for putting opponents into a difficult position. The accusation of apostasy may even come to target an entire community seen as departing from its Islamic roots, such as members of the Ahmadiyya Movement or of the Bahá’í faith. There are eight Muslim countries where law allows for death penalty for apostates: Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.

The famous Egyptian-born preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has lived in Qatar since 1961 and pays special attention to finding practical ways of living a Muslim life in various environments, including non-Muslim ones, does not deny the principle of the death penalty against apostates. He does, however, attempt to mitigate it with a number of requirements, thus allowing him to spare it for those who do not express apostasy publicly and thus leave a way open for repentance. But this concession remains far from an acknowledgement of human autonomy and religious freedom as understood from a human rights perspective. On the other hand, Abdullah Saeed, an academic who was born in the Maldives and now teaches at the University of Melbourne, Australia, pleads for rejecting the traditional approach towards apostasy, arguing from the Quran that punishment, if it is to be applied, is to take place in the afterlife, and not by the hands of men. This interpretation goes along with an understanding of Islam compatible with contemporary principles of religious freedom as well as recognition of the private sphere of individuals. But his views, while well known in academic circles (one of his books was reviewed in RW in August 2005), still fail to get wide support among the Muslim masses.

More widely received remains the strict position of the late, very influential Pakistani ideologue Abul A’la Maududi (d. 1979), who envisioned an Islamic state and a social model in complete contrast with a secular understanding of human rights and religious freedom, since Islam is understood as a complete system for human life under God’s sovereignty. In his views there are no discussions that apostates should be put to death. According to Schirrmacher’s assessment, the dominant, classical view is the one represented by Qaradawi that practically reduces religious freedom to internal freedom of conscience.

(Materialdienst der EZW, Auguststrasse 80, 10117 Berlin, Germany – www.ezw-berlin.de)