Islamic apologist Stephen Schwartz, who has responded with intemperate hostility in the past to my attempts to open a serious dialogue, has misrepresented Islamic apostasy law, specifically that of the Shafi’i school of Islamic jurisprudence, in a new column, “Death Lists and Dissenters.”
Why does this matter? Because any number of people will read Schwartz’s column and come away with a more sanguine view of Islamic apostasy law than is justified by the facts. This is in microcosm the same kind of misapprehension that has deformed American response to the global jihad. We cannot fight an enemy that we are afraid to name, and we cannot defeat one whom we do not understand. Inaccurate statements about Sharia by Schwartz and others have led the American government to tolerate, even to sponsor, Sharia regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. The disastrous consequences of this were demonstrated by the Abdul Rahman case, the implications of which no one in Washington has yet faced. In the wake of that case, the last thing we need is more inaccuracy about Sharia, especially from those who preen about their access to those in influential positions.
Shafi’i Sunni jurisprudence, a school of shari’a which remains widespread in Arab countries and Southeast Asia, defines apostasy as straying from the religion, rather than leaving it or joining another, and recommends repeated mercy and opportunities to correct alleged errors. The Maliki school of jurisprudence, which is established in northwest Africa, is severe on those who change religions, demanding capital punishment. This may reflect the history of formerly-Islamic Spain where, during periods when territory passed from Muslim to Christian rule, Muslims who had converted from Christianity to Islam returned to their earlier faith.
Reading that paragraph, you would get the impression that Malikis call for death for apostates, while Shafi’is are more merciful. And that in itself would be reassuring, as it would give the impression that the Shafi’is are perhaps a moderate group that might one day prevail over the extremist elements in Islam. But there are several things wrong with this. One is that Schwartz doesn’t mention the two other principal schools of Sunni jurisprudence, the Hanbali and Hanafi. Both call for death for apostates.
So does that leave the Shafi’is as the only ones who are more merciful? Not quite. The Shafi’i manual ‘Umdat al-Salik, certified by the foremost exponent of Shafi’i fiqh, Al-Azhar University in Cairo, as “conform[ing] to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni community,” is quite clear that apostates must be killed:
Someone raised among Muslims who denies the obligatoriness of the prayer, zakat, fasting Ramadan, the pilgrimage, or the unlawfulness of wine or adultery, or denies something else upon which there is a scholarly consensus…and which is necessarily known as being of the religion…thereby becomes an unbeliever (kafir) and is executed for his unbelief…(f1.3)
When a person who has reached puberty and is sane voluntarily apostasizes from Islam, he deserves to be killed. (o8.1)
What about what Schwartz says about trying to get the apostate to repent? Oh, that’s all true. Immediately following the sentence above, ‘Umdat al-Salik continues:
In such a case, it is obligatory for the caliph…to ask him to repent and return to Islam. If he does, it is accepted from him, but if he refuses, he is immediately killed. (o8.2)
What Schwartz has essentially done is tell you the first half of Shafi’i law concerning apostates. For some reason he leaves out the second half, and then proceeds to busy himself with irrelevancy:
I have personally and extensively observed Islamic customs in which the faith of Muhammad has fused with Christian elements (in the Balkans), Buddhism and shamanism (in Central Asia), and local folk religious traditions (in Indonesia). In the first two cases, syncretism or religious merging attracted no criticism from mainstream Muslim clerics, who considered porous borders between faiths a natural phenomenon. In Indonesia, however, Muslim clerics influenced by the Wahhabi sect in Saudi Arabia have preached against such variations from the standard Sunni way, and recently have incited violence against those who diverge from their path.
Ah, yes, it’s all the Wahhabis’ fault. But even before this, syncretism does not equal apostasy, and so all this is simply irrelevant.
However, under the great Muslim empires, accusations of apostasy were often pretexts for the suppression of political and intellectual dissent, and that is how such charges are typically employed today in such countries as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, and Pakistan. The Prophet Muhammad is said to have warned against accusations of apostasy, according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, which is prevalent from the Balkans to India. The Prophet, it is said, opined that when one Muslim accuses another of disbelief, the accuser is the unbeliever.
Correct. Schwartz is referring to this hadith:
It is reported on the authority of Ibn ‘Umar that the Messenger of Allah (may peace and blessings be upon him) said: Any person who called his brother: or unbeliever (has in fact done an act by which this unbelief) would return to one of them. If it were so, as he asserted (then the unbelief of man was confirmed but if it was not true), then it returned to him (to the man who labeled it on his brother Muslim). (Sahih Muslim, book 1, no. 117)
But he doesn’t mention this one:
Narrated Ikrima: Ali burnt some people and this news reached Ibn ‘Abbas, who said, “Had I been in his place I would not have burnt them, as the Prophet said, ‘Don’t punish (anybody) with Allah’s Punishment.’ No doubt, I would have killed them, for the Prophet said, ‘If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him.’ ” (Sahih Bukhari, vol. 4, bk. 52, no. 260)
You can see that the first hadith doesn’t simply have Muhammad saying that any accusation of apostasy is itself an act of apostasy, but only a false accusation.
Why would Schwartz misrepresent the first hadith and not mention the second? Why did he state only half of Shafi’i fiqh on apostasy? Rather than sweeping unpleasant material under the rug, wouldn’t a more effective path to genuine Islamic reform be to confront and repudiate the elements of Islamic tradition that give rise to the violence we see everywhere in the world today, and to the murderous harassment of people like Abdul Rahman?
Schwartz concludes his article:
Nevertheless, issues of conversion from Islam to Christianity remain a major issue in the threatened clash of civilizations. Aside from general religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, which is an immediate necessity, a global Islamic consensus with contemporary attitudes about freedom of religious conscience will have to be developed by Muslim authorities in a long series of colloquies inspired by the utmost seriousness and intellectual weight. There is no simple answer to these questions. Still, the intent of the April 10 death list was not to clarify religious views, but to intimidate dissenters. This must not be tolerated by Western authorities, who must assist those threatened by such aggression, especially those residing in the democracies.
I am glad that he opposes such intimidation, and I am happy to stand with him in that opposition. But I wonder why there is “no simple answer” to questions about “freedom of religious conscience.” Why not? Why no call for unrestricted freedom of religious conscience, and for an end to coercion, violent intimidation, as well as to attempts by proselytizers to induce conversion by offering material rewards of various kinds? Why should there be any restrictions at all on the religious conscience?