“If they had gotten rid of the apostasy punishment, Islam wouldn’t exist today…Opposing apostasy is what kept Islam to this day.” – Yousef al-Qaradawi
Religious scholar and Islamic apologist Reza Aslan has recently tweeted that the most “venomous” threats he receives are from atheists. This has kick-started a backlash in the form of the #AnApostatesExperience hashtag on Twitter and Facebook with many ex-Muslims detailing the harrowing threats and persecution they have experienced from the Muslim community upon renouncing their faith. The intent of this backlash has been to illustrate that however “venomous” these empty threats received by Reza Aslan may have been, they almost certainly pale into insignificance when compared with the widespread, real-world victimisation of Muslims that have had the temerity to abandon or even question their religious beliefs.
As a result of this, the entirely predictable response of Muslim apologists has once again been to instinctively leap to the defence of their faith rather than decry these horrific acts of abuse against former Muslims and their co-religionists who commit them. The usual “anything but Islam” arguments are once again trotted out in response to explicitly religious acts. The treatment of Muslim apostates is apparently nothing to do with Islam although quite why any other factor should result in a Muslim resentment of people abandoning Islam is never sufficiently explained.
Every time base and abusive acts are committed by Muslims citing Islam as their source the apologists start throwing around their tiresome and vague excuses. It’s economics. It’s politics. It’s education. It’s cultural. Which specific principles of economics, I wonder, are concerned with whether or not someone holds a certain kind of supernatural belief? Which specific culture is responsible for the persecution of those who discard these supernatural beliefs? It is almost too easy to point out that the only culture that resents the rejection of Islam is, by definition, Islamic Culture.
There is at least one passage in the Qur’an that can be interpreted as mandating death for apostasy.
Qur’an (4:89) – “They wish that you should disbelieve as they disbelieve, and then you would be equal; therefore take not to yourselves friends of them, until they emigrate in the way of God; then, if they turn their backs, take them, and slay them wherever you find them.”
Additionally, the Qur’an in Suras 3.90, 9.66 and 16.106 speaks disapprovingly of apostasy, indicating that the appropriate response to freedom of religion is to punish the apostate. This is compounded by a further seven Hadiths which explain the form that this punishment should take.
Bukhari (84:57) – [In the words of] “Allah’s Apostle, ‘Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him.'”
It is true to say there is plenty of debate among Muslims over the correct interpretation of these passages, over the context in which they were written and even over the definition of apostasy itself. It is also true to say that the Hadith is not viewed by Muslims as of divine origin the way the Qur’an is. However, both of these documents comprise the basis of Islamic Law. The legal systems of 23 Muslim-majority countries consider apostasy a criminal act and since Islam’s inception there has never been a system of Sharia in which capital punishment was not mandated for apostates. A 2007 poll of 1000 British Muslims revealed that 36% of 16 to 24-year-olds believe that if a Muslim converts to another religion they should be killed. This same view applied to 78% of Pakistanis according to the results of a 2009 Pew Poll on global attitudes. All four major schools of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence mandate the death penalty for apostates.
If these people are misinterpreting their religion then they are doing so by the masses, and this supposed misunderstanding very clearly has its roots in a religious text that is apparently perfect in theory but decidedly ambiguous and contradictory in practice. If a religious text that claims to be the infallible word of the creator of the universe cannot explain simple concepts in unambiguous terms, leaving no room for misinterpretation, then the responsibility for the misunderstandings of its adherents falls squarely upon the religion itself.
Imagine the difference in attitudes and behaviour that would exist among Muslims towards apostates had the afore mentioned passages been absent from their religious texts and in their place were passages forthrightly expressing Allah’s command that all are free to pursue unfettered investigation, to leave or join which ever religion they choose and that all people be free from persecution and punishment in retaliation. Some would say that Qur’an in Sura 2:256 leans towards this notion when it makes mention of there being “no compulsion in religion.” However, being that it is one of the earliest revealed Suras, this passage again falls victim to contextual analysis – the context in this case being the Qu’ranic principle of abrogation by which chronologically later verses are said to invalidate any contradictory verses previously revealed.
Using Sura 2:256 as an indication that Islam favours religious freedom is to take that verse completely out of context and to deliberately ignore the numerous, more authoritative passages of violence that supersede this apparently peaceful proclamation. It is a dishonest, one-way approach to the consideration of context.
More fundamentally though, the argument that punishment for apostasy stems from a misreading of the Quran and Hadith, is generally espoused by the same people that paradoxically wish to absolve Islam of any motivational responsibility at all. The entire argument is contradictory. The treatment of apostates at the hands of Muslims either has nothing to do with Islam or it is due to misunderstanding of Islamic theology. It clearly cannot be both.
It should go without saying that the concept of Islam has to exist in order for a rejection of those beliefs to exist. Religion is a prerequisite to apostasy and without it apostasy is impossible. Therefore, to suggest that religion plays no responsibility in the beliefs, behaviours and attitudes of its adherents towards apostates is demonstrably ridiculous and the repeated excuse-making by the far left and by the religious for inexcusable persecution in response to freedom of religion is frankly wearing extremely thin.
In a recent article, Muslim blogger Sameen Qazi made the following commendably honest criticism of this kind of disingenuous defensiveness:
“We, Muslims, love to comfortably deny any criticism thrown towards us regarding extremist elements by simply saying that it is an insignificant minority, and what that extremist minority does neither represents the true picture of Islam, nor do they have popular support for their actions. This brushing of issues under the carpet, which make us uncomfortable, neither helps us nor the image of Islam in the world…As Muslims, we need to stop brushing aside every criticism as Islamophobia, we need to listen to opposing voices, and deal with the rising intolerance in our societies.”
Rather than take this kind of criticism on board with maturity, acknowledge the negative impact that these religious edicts have on the lives of people the world over and work towards a reformation among Islamic literalists; Reza Aslan and his ilk instead engage in exactly the kind of dismissals that Qazi discusses.
In a remarkable display of unintentional irony, Aslan tweeted the following to author Sam Harris after deliberately and maliciously misrepresenting one of Harris’ statements:
“A little advice to @SamHarrisOrg – If you’re constantly having to explain way horrid things you’ve written, don’t write them in 1st place.”
Chastising Harris, as he does, for not speaking solely in infantile sound-bites, Aslan displays the same obliviousness to the importance of context that he and many other apologists so often accuse others of when the source is a religious text. Furthermore, Harris, to my knowledge, does not claim to be the infallible creator of the universe and does not make incontestable demands upon human behavior. Allah, it must be said, is rather less approachable than Harris and a fair amount harder to contact in the event that clarification of his words is needed. Allah, unlike Harris, is not in the habit of regularly reiterating, rewording and painstakingly explaining his statements, and his lack of willingness (or ability) to do so renders the correct interpretation of religious texts a debatable subject among those that view these words as divine in origin.
A misinterpretation of Harris’ words would not and does not reliably lead people en masse to persecute and murder those who decide they disagree with him. This is a vitally important distinction when comparing the misrepresenting of a prolific and contemporary author, with the misunderstanding of a Holy book written 1400 years ago. Aslan apparently sees a problem with the former and none with the latter.
The violent (mis)interpretation of Islamic scripture is responsible, not only for the horrific treatment of apostates, but a great many other human rights abuses and atrocities the world over. It is high time apologists like Reza Aslan stopped their tactless attempts at downplaying the plight of ex-Muslims and started acknowledging that the persecution of this particular minority has it’s basis in religious scripture and Islamic tradition.