The Penalties of Apostasy in Malaysia

By Kershaw, Roger | Contemporary Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

The Penalties of Apostasy in Malaysia


Kershaw, Roger, Contemporary Review


Editor's Note: On 21 November Malaysia's National Fatwa Council issued a ruling commanding all the country's Muslims to avoid practising yoga, as it was connected with Hinduism and could 'destroy the faith of a Muslim'. This article shows the complicated attitudes towards any form of 'apostasy' in that country.

AT a period of both religious resurgence in the Muslim world and an assertive human rights consciousness in 'the West', the Tslamo-phobia' of which Muslim spokesmen of any hue complain seems to be a label for both the fear and the criticism which are stimulated by violent jihad against the West and the coercive measures applied to less fanatical brethren within Muslim societies. These measures aim, not least, to secure conformity with rules of conduct and social organisation dating from the era of the Prophet, seventh century Arabia. Western human rights doctrine may have induced a greater interest in 'gender imbalance' (put bluntly, rules for control of women) than in other aspects of Islam's internal hegemony. But it should occasion no surprise that in anticipation of, or response to, resistance, attempts to abscond from that religious allegiance itself are also dealt with harshly, giving rise in turn to a new layer of external human rights concern and protest today: over the issue of 'right to life' or 'freedom to choose one's faith'. Spokesmen for Islam in Europe do not, of course, lack a capacity to invoke the protection of these same human rights principles for themselves, but upon examination it often turns out that what is being demanded is protection for the freedom to implement shariah: a somewhat ironical position, one may feel, given the intransigence of shariah precisely on the matter of renunciation of faith, with concomitant bans on Christian proselytization of Muslims in Muslim countries. The depth of the ideological divide will become especially manifest if we find that even Muslim regimes reputed to be 'moderate' and 'Western oriented' practise such denial of individual rights in the interest of the majority (or certainly of the regime itself), their interest being conceived as synonymous with total religious solidarity. Meanwhile, it will be manifestly frustrating for such a regime to discover that historic, non-religious inducements to solidarity, such as ethnicity, are becoming less effective in face of individual unwillingness to accept inherited religious identity as ineluctable - with the result that this traditionally complementary inducement to solidarity falls away, indeed may become a factor for positive alienation from it.

The clearest dictum of the Koran itself on the subject of apostasy is terse, but less so than many another Verse, and not without ominous implication for those who renounce the Shahada (declaration of faith).

Those who turn back as apostates after Guidance was clearly shown to them [in the Koran] - the Evil One has instigated them and buoyed them up with false hopes. [Surah 47, v. 25.]

Taking off from the absolute imperative of communal solidarity, expressed through a shared obeisance to Muhammad as 'the Messenger of God' in virtually equal measure with belief in God as such, the doctrine as it became elaborated and institutionalised in the early centuries of Islam was actually more indulgent towards infidels by birth than to infidels by defection.

  The rules for war against apostates are somewhat different and rather
  stricter than those for war against unbelievers. The apostate or
  renegade, in Muslim eyes, is far worse than the unbeliever. The
  unbeliever has not seen the light, and there is always hope that he
  may eventually see it. In the meantime, provided he meets the
  necessary conditions, he may be accorded the tolerance of the Muslim
  state and allowed to continue in the practice of his own religion,
  even the enforcement of his own religious laws. The renegade is one
  who has known the true faith, however briefly, and abandoned it. … 

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