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:
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