May there never be compulsion in religion

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Religious freedom is truly one of the great ideas to be expressed by the enlightenment. Though we can trace those ideas to other thinkers before, it was this movement which went beyond speaking and acting as freethinkers to actually challenge orthodox organised religion’s monopoly on thought and explanation. Humanism, emboldened by empirical observation and reasoning beyond scriptures, came out of the shadows of being an act of religious reflection. Humanist thought became a way of understanding the world, morality, ourselves and the cosmos without strict adherence to the confines of the divine or preceding tradition. Natural philosophy, and the scientific method ushered in a new era.

Whilst this age of reason is one to celebrate, one of the challenges to the notion of religious freedom is the consequence of leaving a faith – being an apostate. Here I am trying to lay out the battle for the idea of where it comes from and means now in Islam. The reason this matters is quite simply the death penalty that exists, or the process of being excluded by family and other believers, if someone renounces the faith they grew up in. Let alone principles of free speech and freedom of expression which together with freedom of religion are classed as universal rights.

Apostasy matters now

As my good friends at the Council of Ex Muslims Britain Forum (CEMB) observe:

Countless individuals accused of apostasy and blasphemy face threats, imprisonment, and execution. Blasphemy laws in over 30 countries and apostasy laws in over 20 aim primarily to restrict thought, expression and the rights of Muslims, ex-Muslims and non-Muslims alike. [CEMB]

In my critique of Islam I mentioned concern that by cherry picking the Koran and Hadith it gave cover for Islamists to kill apostates. For example:

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; take not to yourselves any one of them as friend or helper.”

Bukhari (52:260) – “…The Prophet said, ‘If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him.’ ” Note that there is no distinction as to how that Muslim came to be a Muslim. [Ibid]

When discussing this with Sam Harris he made these observations:

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A modern retelling

In Abdul-Azim Ahmed’s article for the Rationalist Association, he explains why as a Muslim he fully supported the Apostasy project using Koranic quotes to justify:

“The Truth is from your Lord; so let him who desires believe and let him who desires disbelieve.” – 18:29

“If they accept Islam, then indeed they follow the right way; and if they turn back, your duty is only to deliver the message.” –3:20

“And if your Lord had pleased, all those who are in the earth would have believed, all of them. Will you then force people till they are believers?” – 10:99 [Rationalist Association]

It would be amiss of me not to point out that Ahmed stresses European Colonialism as having a theological impact on punishment for apostasy in response to machine guns and missionaries. Regrettably, death for apostasy existed way before the British Empire ever attempted to prevent the sun setting on it.

Yet sociological and political factors are playing a part. Acceptance of principles like pluralism and secularism mean challenging concepts such as apostasy. In the battle of ideas some modern theological thinkers are pointing out the subjective spin put on death for apostasy in the past, though often stating such a view is controversial to the point of putting a bullseye on your thinking cap even now.

As Usama Hassan mentions in a concept paper:

There is no explicit sanction in the Qur’an and Sunnah (teachings of the Prophet Muhammad) for the criminalisation and punishment of blasphemy: in fact, the opposite is the case; the few scriptural texts that are misquoted in this regard all refer to wartime situations, and the harsh, mediaeval Islamic jurisprudence on blasphemy was developed centuries after the Prophet himself.[Quilliam Foundation]

The War of Apostasy, also known as Ridda Wars shortly after the death of Mohammed suggests that violence was sadly a means of preventing dissent which was considered a threat to cohesion let alone future territorial ambitions on Persia and beyond. Conquest existed way before modern European colonisation.

The title for this post will be familiar to those aware of The Koranic verse, “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256). A critique of the context of that verse can be found on the CEMB forum site. That rather than a call for tolerance it is the manifest destiny that Islam is the faith for us to follow when quoted in full:

“There is no compulsion in religion; truly the right way has become clearly distinct from error; therefore, whoever disbelieves in the Shaitan and believes in Allah he indeed has laid hold on the firmest handle, which shall not break off, and Allah is Hearing, Knowing.”

Still that is a hallmark of a particular religion that it is the right way. The narrative given in the Quilliam Foundation concept paper: NO COMPULSION IN RELIGION: AN ISLAMIC CASE AGAINST BLASPHEMY LAWS is certainly an answer to Sam Harris’ earlier remarks.

It is the practise of political Islam by Islamists which concern all of the people mentioned above. Where we differ in belief we would uphold the values of pluralism, free speech and free expression. An inherent inalienable right we would agree is religious freedom. I am delighted to see that the Quilliam Foundation takes the radicalisation of people by some within Islam very seriously and looks to challenge that.

Maybe not in the next world

As mentioned in the past I wish we did not have to argue over interpretations of sacred texts but could move beyond them. That is not the world we live in. As such we will continue to debate and argue with each other over such things.

The bare minimum is that none should be put to death for the argument, and dissent from others beliefs should not just be tolerated but considered a cause for celebration in a pluralistic and free society.

Those who believe, those who follow the Jewish scriptures, and the Sabians, Christians, Magians, and Polytheists,- God will judge between them on the Day of Judgment: for God is witness of all things. – Koran 22:17

I hope mothers and fathers can embrace their children no less just because they no longer follow their religion. It really is a matter of free thought and not a reflection on them. However, the fear of the next life is one that still grips people. Apostasy will still concern people even in a free society.

Perhaps until we are free of the fear of death freedom of religion will not be absolute in this life when people consider the stakes are eternity and the blessings of the Almighty are available even now if all follow His will.

My thanks to Sam Harris, CEMB, Maajid Nawaz, Usama Hasan, and the Rationalist Association UK (and Abdul-Azim Ahmed) for known or unknown assistance in writing the above article (which is written by me and not necessarily endorsed by the above) and to @yakuza72 for passing on the cartoon.

Please support the Apostasy Project

My Apostasy Story

Update 18/6/2013: Tribune article on blasphemy in Pakistan

Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog

Follow @JPSargeant78

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8 Comments

Filed under atheism, Council of Ex Muslims of Britain, Philosophy, Religion, Sam Harris, secular

8 responses to “May there never be compulsion in religion

  1. tamimisledus

    You seem to be ignorant of one fundamental truth about the koran (among many related other facts). It may be of course that you do know the truth but are actually deliberately failing to revealing it, although I doubt it. This truth totally undermines your *argument*.
    BTW, a cartoon might make something funny, That is a very, very long way from making it true.

  2. tamimisledus

    I do not need to read all you have written to analyse the failure I referred to previously – it is readily apparent.
    You on the other hand take whatever confirms your prejudices (http://rationalist.org.uk/articles/4187/let-him-who-desires-disbelieve) as absolute truth. In this case, comments on that page by CEMB give the total lie to your analysis. Of course you can find some petty pretext for rejecting the CEMB rebuttal, just like some of those that allah has provided for muslims, but that won’t change the truth. So how much checking did you do?

    • That is what I mean about reading what I have written – even if only what you are commenting on.

      Where do I reject the CEMB rebuttal? An organisation whose inauguration I attended and who I support.

      You miss the article was an attempt to see if there was a theological basis in Islam for honouring apostates, in my discussion with Sam Harris.

      Talking with Maajid Nawaz found Hasan’s concept paper. Which is what it is – a concept paper. At no point have I said it is absolute truth. If you knew my writings I never refer to things that way. No anti-theist like myself would.

      The issue discussed on Twitter which led to the post here was whether a theological alternative to death to apostates existed among contemporary Islamic theologians, and could hope to rival the death penalty that exists in theocratic Islamic states.

      The original meaning of texts can change – both of us would hope in a secularised way.

      The article was clearly lacking in prejudice – so much so that you failed to realise that I support CEMB. They agree that challenging the existing theology is as important as challenging theocratic Islamic states. Allies are not just ex muslims in this.

      CEMB assisted in my research and RT the finished article. That suggests you might have misunderstood both myself and the above article.

  3. tamimisledus

    As your comments do not merit serious examination, for the time being I will just leave you with this.
    Hope (in your case), positive outlook (in my case) that is fine. But, never forget that islam, the doctrine to which all muslims subscribe, means submission of all to the will of allah. So as well as hoping (for the best), we must also remember to plan for the worst – and that worst is that islam, through its adherents using any means possible, will (as its unchangeable source texts demand) achieve those very aims. To plan for anything else would be pure folly. For after all, islam has, as the saying goes, got serious form. And before anyone says it, that’s not just to be laid at the door of the convenient fiction of *political islam* either.

  4. Pingback: In An Ideal World Gays Must Be Executed says Abdul Qadeer Baksh | Homo economicus' Weblog

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