Is APOSTASY A Capital Crime?

By Alig, Ramadan | Islamic Horizons, January/February 2008 | Go to article overview

Is APOSTASY A Capital Crime?


Alig, Ramadan, Islamic Horizons


Dr. Jamal Badawi (professor, Saint Mary's University, Canada and member of the Fiqh Council of North America and the European Council for Fatwa and Research) offers the Islamic view of apostasy. BY RAMADAN ALIG

A landmark Malaysian Superior Court decision handed down on May 30, 2007, declared that the constitutional right to freedom of worship does not apply to Muslims and that the civil court has no jurisdiction over Islamic matters. The verdict denied official recognition to Lina Joy, a Muslim who converted to Christianity a decade ago, and told her to appear before a Shari'ah court to renounce Islam, ironically an offense in Malaysia that carries a three year jail sentence. Forbidden to marry her Catholic fiancé, she is reportedly seeking asylum in Australia.

This calls to mind another case in March 2006, when Abdul Rahman, an Afghan who had converted to Islam while living abroad, was arrested for apostasy while in his homeland. He now lives in Italy, which granted him asylum. And so once again, the international media is having a field day claiming that Islam is not a tolerant and compassionate religion.

Dr. Jamal Badawi (professor, Saint Mary's University, Canada and member of the Fiqh Council of North America and the European Council for Fatwa and Research) offers the Islamic view of apostasy.

Apostasy (riddah) literally means to defect or backslide. In Islamic legal terminology, it refers to a Muslim who renounces Islam. For 1,400 years, most Muslim scholars have considered this a capital crime, as it threatens the integrity and stability of the ummah and the state.

Examining and evaluating these opinions must be done in light of the principles of Islamic jurisprudence ('ilm usui al-fiqh). There are a few fundamental rules: No Muslim's action is to be equated with normative authentic Islam, which is the criterion for determining if the action is consistent with Islamic principles and to what degree. In addition, normative authentic Islamic teachings are primarily based on the Qur'an and then the hadiths (sometimes used interchangeably with "the Sunnah"). For more information, see Subhi al-Salih's '"Ulum al-Hadith wa Mustalahuh" (Beirut: 1981), 3 and 11.

What the Qur'an Says. God mentions how apostates will be punished in the Hereafter (2:217 and 4:137) but does not prescribe an earthly punishment. In fact, 4:137 mentions repeat offenders who "grow stubborn in their denial of truth" and yet were not executed (see also 3:62,86,90; 5:57; 9:75; 16:106; and 47:25). More revealing is the overwhelming evidence of the freedom of conscience, belief, and worship (18:29; 3:20; and 88:21-22), for the Prophet (salla Allahu 'alayhi wa sallam) was only to deliver, not enforce obedience to, God's message (2:256). This is consistent with Islam's meaning: to attain peace with God, one's self, and all of creation through the voluntary submission and acceptance of His grace and guidance. This cannot come about through external force or by ignoring a person's right to embrace and/or leave Islam voluntarily.

There is no proof that 2:256, which bars coercion, was abrogated or, more correctly, superseded. Any such claim must be carefully examined. Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti quotes Ibn al-Hassar: "It is not acceptable, in the matter of naskh (abrogation), [to accept] statements of the interpreters of the Qur'an, not even the ijtihad (reasoning) of the mujtahidun, without authentic reports or clear evidence, since it involves removing a ruling and affirming [another] ruling that occurred during the Prophet's lifetime. What is acceptable here is the narration and history, not opinion or ijtihad."

Al-Suyuti says that only nineteen verses were abrogated. Other scholars, such as Shah Waliullah Dahlawi and Subbi al-Salih, narrowed them down to a lower number (Subhi al-Salih, "Mabahith fi 'Ulum alQur'an" [Beirut: 1982], 272-74.). Noneofthe cited verses are claimed to abrogate 2:256 or any similar verse.

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