The very notion of apostasy has vanished from the West, where one would talk of being a lapsed Catholic or non-practising Christian rather than an apostate. There are certainly no penal sanctions for converting from Christianity to any other religion. In Islamic countries, on the other hand, the issue is far from dead.
The Arabic word for apostate is murtadd, the one who turns back from Islam, and apostasy is denoted by irtidad and ridda. Ridda seems to have been used for apostasy from Islam into unbelief (in Arabic, kufr), and irtidad from Islam to some other religion. A person born of Muslim parents who later rejects Islam is called a Murtadd Fitri — fitri meaning natural, it can also mean instinctive, native, inborn, innate. One who converts to Islam and subsequently leaves it is a Murtadd Milli, from milla, meaning religious community. The Murtadd Fitri can be seen as someone unnatural, subverting the natural course of things, whose apostasy is a willful and obstinate act of treason against God and the one and only true creed, and a betrayal and desertion of the community. The Murtadd Milli is a traitor to the Muslim community, and equally disruptive.
Any verbal denial of any principle of Muslim belief is considered apostasy. If one declares, for example, that the universe has always existed from eternity or that God has a material substance, then one is an apostate. If one denies the unity of God or confesses to a belief in reincarnation, one is guilty of apostasy. Certain acts are also deemed acts of apostasy, for example treating a copy of the Koran disrespectfully, by burning it or even soiling it in some way. Some doctors of Islamic law claim that a Muslim becomes an apostate if he or she enters a church, worships an idol, or learns and practises magic. A Muslim becomes an apostate if he defames the Prophet’s character, morals or virtues, or denies Muhammad’s prophethood and that he was the seal of the prophets.
It is clear quite clear that under Islamic Law an apostate must be put to death. There is no dispute on this ruling among classical Muslim or modern scholars, and we shall return to the textual evidence for it. Some modern scholars have argued that in the Koran the apostate is threatened with punishment only in the next world, as for example at XVI.106, “Whoso disbelieveth in Allah after his belief – save him who is forced thereto and whose heart is still content with the Faith but whoso findeth ease in disbelief: On them is wrath from Allah. Theirs will be an awful doom.” Similarly in III.90-91, “Lo! those who disbelieve after their (profession of) belief, and afterward grow violent in disbelief, their repentance will not be accepted. And such are those who are astray. Lo! those who disbelieve, and die in disbelief, the (whole) earth full of gold would not be accepted from such an one if it were offered as a ransom (for his soul).Theirs will be a painful doom and they will have no helpers.”
However, Sura II.217 is interpreted by no less an authority than al-Shafi’i (died 820 C.E.), the founder of one of the four orthodox schools of law of Sunni Islam, to mean that the death penalty should be prescribed for apostates. Sura II.217 reads: “… But whoever of you recants and dies an unbeliever, his works shall come to nothing in this world and the next, and they are the companions of the fire for ever.” Al-Thalabi and al-Khazan concur. Al-Razi in his commentary on II:217 says the apostate should be killed.
Similarly, IV. 89: “They would have you disbelieve as they themselves have disbelieved, so that you may be all like alike. Do not befriend them until they have fled their homes for the cause of God. If they desert you seize them and put them to death wherever you find them. Look for neither friends nor helpers among them…” Baydawi (died c. 1315-16), in his celebrated commentary on the Koran, interprets this passage to mean: “Whosover turns back from his belief (irtada), openly or secretly, take him and kill him wheresoever ye find him, like any other infidel. Separate yourself from him altogether. Do not accept intercession in his regard”. Ibn Kathir in his commentary on this passage quoting Al Suddi (died 745) says that since the unbelievers had manifested their unbelief, they should be killed.
Abul Ala Mawdudi (1903-1979), the founder of the Jamat-i Islami, is perhaps the most influential Muslim thinker of the 20th century, being responsible for the Islamic resurgence in modern times. He called for a return to the Koran and a purified sunna as a way to revive and revitalise Islam. In his book on apostasy in Islam, Mawdudi argued that even the Koran prescribes the death penalty for all apostates. He points to sura IX for evidence: “But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then are they your brethren in religion. We detail our revelations for a people who have knowledge. And if they break their pledges after their treaty (hath been made with you) and assail your religion, then fight the heads of disbelief Lo! they have no binding oaths in order that they may desist.” (IX: 11,12)
Here we find many traditions demanding the death penalty for apostasy. According to Ibn Abbas, the Prophet said, “Kill him who changes his religion,” or “behead him.” The only argument was as to the nature of the death penalty. Bukhari recounts this gruesome tradition:
Narrated Anas: Some people from the tribe of Ukl came to the Prophet and embraced Islam. The climate of Medina did not suit them, so the Prophet ordered them to go to the (herd of milch) camels of charity to drink their milk and urine (as a medicine). They did so, and after they had recovered from their ailment they turned renegades (reverted from Islam, irtada) and killed the shepherd of the camels and took the camels away. The Prophet sent (some people) in their pursuit and so they were caught and brought, and the Prophet ordered that their hands and legs should be cut off and that their eyes should be branded with heated pieces of iron, and that their cut hands and legs should not be cauterised, till they die.
Abu Dawud has collected the following saying of the Prophet:
“Ikrimah said: Ali burned some people who retreated from Islam. When Ibn Abbas was informed of it he said, ‘If it had been I, I would not have them burned, for the apostle of Allah said: ‘Do not inflict Allah’s punishment on anyone.’ But would have killed them on account of the statement of the Apostle of Allah, ‘Kill those who change their religion.’”
In other words, kill the apostates (with the sword) but certainly not by burning them, that is Allah’s way of punishing transgressors in the next world. According to a tradition of Aisha’s, apostates are to be slain, crucified or banished. Should the apostate be given a chance to repent? Traditions differ enormously. In one tradition, Muadh Jabal refused to sit down until an apostate brought before him had been killed “in accordance with the decision of God and of His Apostle.”
Under Muslim law, the male apostate must be put to death, as long as he is an adult, and in full possession of his faculties. If a pubescent boy apostatises, he is imprisoned until he comes of age, when if he persists in rejecting Islam he must be put to death. Drunkards and the mentally disturbed are not held responsible for their apostasy. If a person has acted under compulsion he is not considered an apostate, his wife is not divorced and his lands are not forfeited. According to Hanafis and Shia, a woman is imprisoned until she repents and adopts Islam once more, but according to the influential Ibn Hanbal, and the Malikis and Shafiites, she is also put to death. In general, execution must be by the sword, though there are examples of apostates tortured to death, or strangled, burnt, drowned, impaled or flayed. The caliph Umar used to tie them to a post and had lances thrust into their hearts, and the Sultan Baybars II (1308-09) made torture legal.
Should attempts be made at conversion? Some jurists accept the distinction between Murtadd fitri and Murtadd milli, and argue that the former be put to death immediately. Others, leaning on sura IV.137, “Lo! those who believe, then disbelieve and then (again) believe, then disbelieve, and then increase in disbelief, Allah will never pardon them, nor will he guide them unto a way,” insist on three attempts at conversion, or have the apostate imprisoned for three days to begin with. Others argue that one should wait for the cycle of the five times of prayer and ask the apostate to perform the prayers at each. Only if he refuses at each prayer time is the death penalty to be applied. If he repents and embraces Islam once more, he is released.
The murtadd of course would be denied a Muslim burial, but he suffers other civil disabilities. His property is taken over by the believers, if he returns penitent he is given back what remains. Others argue that the apostate’s rights of ownership are merely suspended, only if he dies outside the territory under Islam does he forfeit his property to the Muslim community. If either the husband or wife apostasizes, a divorce takes place ipso facto; the wife is entitled to her whole dower but no pronouncement of divorce is necessary. According to some jurists, if husband and wife apostasize together, their marriage is still valid. However, if either the wife or husband were singly to return to Islam, then their marriage would be dissolved. According to Abu Hanifa, legal activities such as manumission, endowment, testament and sale are suspended. But not all jurists agree. Some Shi’i jurists would ask the Islamic Law towards apostates to be applied even outside the Dar al-Islam, in non-Muslim countries.
Finally, according to the Shafites, it is not only apostasy from Islam that is to be punished with death, but also apostasy from other religions when this is not accompanied by conversion to Islam. For example, a Jew who becomes a Christian will thus have to be put to death, since the Prophet has ordered in general that everyone “who adopts any other religion” shall be put to death.
THE UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR,1948] states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”.
The clause guaranteeing the freedom to change one’s religion was added at the request of the delegate from Lebanon, Charles Malik, who was a Christian. Lebanon had accepted many people fleeing persecution for their beliefs, in particular for having changed their religion. Lebanon especially objected to the Islamic law concerning apostasy. Many Muslim countries, however, objected strongly to the clause regarding the right to change one’s religion. The delegate from Egypt, for instance, said that “very often a man changes religion or his convictions under external influences with goals which are not recommendable such as divorce.” He added that he feared in proclaiming the liberty to change one’s religion or convictions the Universal Declaration would encourage without wishing it “the machinations of certain missions well-known in the East, which relentlessly pursue their efforts with a view to converting to their faith the populations of the East”. Significantly, Lebanon was supported by a delegate from Pakistan who belonged to the Ahmadi community which, ironically, was to be thrown out of the Islamic community in the 1970s for being non-Muslim. In the end all Muslim countries except Saudi Arabia adhered to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
During discussions of Article 18 in 1966, Saudi Arabia and Egypt wanted to suppress the clause guaranteeing the freedom to change one’s religion. Finally, a compromise amendment proposed by Brazil and the Philippines was adopted to placate the Islamic countries. Thus, “the freedom to change his religion or belief” was replaced by “the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of his choice.” Similarly in 1981, during discussions on the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, Iran, under the new regime, reminded everyone that Islam punished apostasy by death. The delegate from Iraq, backed up by Syria, speaking on behalf of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, expressed his reserve for any clauses or terms that would contradict the Islamic Sharia, while the delegate from Egypt felt that they had to guard against such a clause being exploited for political ends to interfere in the internal affairs of states.
The various Islamic human rights schemes or declarations — such as the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (1981) — are understandably vague or evasive on the issue of the freedom to change one’s religion, since Islam itself clearly forbids apostasy and punishes it with death. As Elisabeth Mayer says, “The lack of support for the principle of freedom of religion in the Islamic human rights schemes is one of the factors that most sharply distinguishes them from the International Bill of Human Rights, which treats freedom of religion as an unqualified right. The [Muslim] authors’ unwillingness to repudiate the rule that a person should be executed over a question of religious belief reveals the enormous gap that exists between their mentalities and the modern philosophy of human rights.”
Islamic Human Rights Schemes are clearly not universal, since they introduce a specifically Islamic religious criterion into the political sphere, whereas the UDHR of 1948 places human rights in an entirely secular and universalist framework. The Islamic human rights schemes severely restrict and qualify the rights of individuals, particularly women, non-Muslims and those, such as apostates, who do not accept Islamic religious orthodoxy.
As for the constitutions of various Muslim countries, while many do guarantee freedom of belief (Egypt, 1971; Syria, 1973; Jordan, 1952) some talk of freedom of conscience (Algeria; 1989), and some of freedom of thought and opinion (Mauritania; 1991). Islamic countries with two exceptions do not address the issue of apostasy in their penal codes; the two exceptions are the Sudan and Mauritania. In the Sudanese Penal Code of 1991, article 126.2, we read: “Whoever is guilty of apostasy is invited to repent over a period to be determined by the tribunal. If he persists in his apostasy and was not recently converted to Islam, he will be put to death.” The Penal Code of Mauritania of 1984, article 306 reads: “…All Muslims guilty of apostasy, either spoken or by overt action will be asked to repent during a period of three days. If he does not repent during this period, he is condemned to death as an apostate, and his belongings confiscated by the State Treasury.” This applies equally to women. The Moroccan Penal Code seems only to mention those guilty of trying to subvert the belief of a Muslim, or those who try to convert a Muslim to another religion. The punishment varies between a fine and imprisonment for anything up to three years.
The absence of any mention of apostasy in some penal codes of Islamic countries of course in no way implies that a Muslim in the country concerned is free to leave his religion. In reality, the lacunae in the penal codes are filled by Islamic Law. Mahmud Muhammad Taha was hanged for apostasy in 1985, even though at the time the Sudanese Penal Code of 1983 did not mention such a crime.
In some countries, the term apostate is applied to some who were born non-Muslim, but whose ancestors had the good sense to convert from Islam. The Baha’is in Iran in recent years have been persecuted for just such a reason. Similarly, in Pakistan the Ahmadiya community were classed as non-Muslims, and are subjected to all sorts of persecution.
There is some evidence that many Muslim women in Islamic countries would convert from Islam to escape their lowly position in Muslim societies, or to avoid the application of an unfavourable law, especially Sharia law governing divorce. Muslim theologians are well aware of the temptation of Muslim women to evade the Sharia laws by converting from Islam, and take appropriate measures. For example, in Kuwait, an explanatory memorandum to the text of a law reform says: “Complaints have shown that the Devil makes the route of apostasy attractive to the Muslim woman so that she can break a conjugal tie that does not please her. For this reason, it was decided that apostasy would not lead to the dissolution of the marriage in order to close this dangerous door.”
Just to give you one recent example among many (others are discussed in my book, Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out (Prometheus Books, 2003):
A Somali living in Yemen since 1994, Mohammed Omer Haji, converted to Christianity two years ago and adopted the name “George.” He was imprisoned in January 2000 and reportedly beaten and threatened for two months by Yemeni security police, who tried to persuade him to renounce his conversion to Christianity. After he was re-arrested in May, he was formally put on trial in June for apostasy, under article 259 of Yemen’s criminal law. Haji’s release came seven weeks after he was given a court ultimatum to renounce Christianity and return to Islam, or face execution as an apostate. Apostasy is a capital offence under the Muslim laws of “sharia” enforced in Yemen.
After news of the case broke in the international press, Yemeni authorities halted the trial proceedings against Haji. He was transferred on July 17 to Aden’s Immigration Jail until resettlement could be finalized by the UNHCR, under which Haji had formal refugee status. One of the politicians who tabled a motion in July 2000 in the British House of Commons was David Atkinson. “Early Day Motion on Mohammed Omer Haji. That this House deplores the death penalty which has been issued from the Aden Tawahi Court in Yemen for the apostasy of the Somali national Mohammed Omer Haji unless he recants his Christian faith and states that he is a Muslim before the judge three times on Wednesday 12th July; deplores that Mr Haji was held in custody for the sole reason that he held to the Christian faith and was severely beaten in custody to the point of not being able to walk; considers it a disgrace that UNHCR officials in Khormaksar stated they were only able to help him if he was a Muslim; and calls on the British Government and international colleagues to make representations immediately at the highest level in Yemen to ensure Mr Haji’s swift release and long-term safety and for the repeal of Yemen’s barbaric apostate laws.”
Amnesty International adopted Haji as a prisoner of conscience in an “urgent action” release on July 11,2000 concluding that he was “detained solely on account of his religious beliefs”. The government of New Zealand accepted Haji and his family for emergency resettlement in late July after negotiations with the Geneva headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
However, charges of apostasy, unbelief, blasphemy and heresy, whether upheld or not, clearly go against several articles in UDHR of 1948, and the legally binding International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [ICCPR] of 1966, to which 147 states are signatories.
General comment No 22, adopted by the UN Human Rights Commission at its 48th session (1993) (HRI/GEN/1/Rev.6 of 22 May 2003, pp.155-56) declares:
Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief. The term “belief” and “religion” are to be broadly construed.