Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc.
Seeking Advancement of Knowledge through Spiritual and Intellectual Growth

International ConferenceAbout IRFIIRFI CommitteesRamadan CalendarQur'anic InspirationsWith Your Help

Articles 1 - 1000 | Articles 1001-2000 | Articles 2001 - 3000 | Articles 3001 - 4000 | Articles 4001 - 5000 | Articles 5001 - 6000 |  All Articles

Family and Children | Hadith | Health | Hijab | Islam and Christianity | Islam and Medicine | Islamic Personalities | Other | Personal Growth | Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) | Qur'an | Ramadan | Science | Social Issues | Women in Islam |

Islamic Articles
Islamic Links
Islamic Cemetery
Islamic Books
Women in Islam
Aalim Newsletter
Date Conversion
Prayer Schedule
Q & A
Contact Info



Tradition and truths

When it comes to interpreting between Islamic teachings regarding apostasy and historical practice, change, if it is to be sustainable, comes from within, or not at all.

By Hisham Hellyer, April 1, 2008



It used to be that the media (whether Muslim or non-Muslim) would cover Islam in reference to the well-known ‘three H’s’: hijab, halal and haram. It has now changed somewhat such that the focus is on hijab, apostasy, shari’ah and hate (preachers of). Doubtlessly from the point of view of a religion that abjures intoxicants, this creates a rather unfortunate acronym.

On the second subject, apostasy, there has been a renewed interest, if a rather uninformed one. In the Washington Post last year, the Mufti of Egypt, Shaykh Dr Ali Gomma’, made his own point of view quite clear: the renunciation of Islam has dire spiritual consequences, but not necessarily many worldly ones. When one considers that the majority of medieval Sunni Muslim jurists (fuqaha) have considered riddah (commonly translated as ‘apostasy’), questions do arise. Has the Mufti, famous for his commitment to Sunni orthodoxy become somewhat inventive? Or is the orthodox tradition (turath) of Sunni Islam more complex than the media commonly supposes?

Catholic canon law details at least five different types of apostasy; perfidi (when a Christian relinquishes his faith for another one); ab ordini (when a cleric rejects the rules of the ecclesiastical life); monachatus (when one leaves the religious life); iteratio baptismatis (the repetition of baptism); and inobedienti (disobedience to a lawful authority).

A majority of Muslim jurists in the medieval period (and there were a minority of jurists who thought otherwise, which is where contemporary non-jurists such as Dr Tariq Ramadan derive their own approach from) considered that the act of riddah was necessarily a combination of perfidi and inobedienti. In other words, the murtad (the one who commits riddah) did not simply reject an internalised faith, but was assumed to be a radical bent on subverting the established social order. On this point, there was little objection, despite the Qur’anic exhortation that ‘la ikraha fi-l-din’ (there is no compulsion in religion). The jurists were obviously not unaware of the Qur’anic verse, and had no reason to ignore it. Their conception - and that of the society around them - was that, generally speaking, the punishing of the murtad was not ‘compulsion’, as it was necessarily bound up with other sins.

One should recall that in classical Muslim political theory, the state is practically libertarian, and has minimal rights or responsibilities (quite the contrary, it should be stated, to most contemporary Muslim states). It goes against the very grain of Muslim political theory for there to be grounds for any type of ‘Islamic Inquisition,' as the privacy and independence of the individual is held to be paramount (sometimes, impracticably so).

As such, while the Catholic Inquisitions claimed many lives over many centuries in practice, the punishment in Islamic law for riddah has historically almost never been carried out. Where it has been carried out, it was generally a façade, to cover up the 'real reason' of wanting to selfishly eliminate a threat. One example of this was the famous case of the Sufi saint, al-Hallaj. Another example would be the conviction of Ibn Taymiyya of apostasy, a great irony when one considers that many of his contemporary fans (though only a minority) are some of the most stalwart in proclaiming that all kinds of apostasy should be punished by death.

Ibn Taymiyya’s subsequent amnesty by the political authority underlines a key point that deserves to be explored further. While it is clear that the majority of the jurists agreed for such issues to be kept on the books, it is equally clear they agreed that the execution (or suspension, commutation or amnesty) of these punishments is the absolute prerogative of the political/executive authority in question. The political authority - and only the political authority - had the right or the responsibility to carry out any punishment dictated by Muslim public law. No individual could carry it out - to do so would be a grave and terrible sin [in this, the Muslim jurists predict the motto of the medieval Hellyer clan: pro republica sempar].

That authority could be a ‘caliphate’, a ‘sultanate’, a ‘mamlaka’ (kingdom), a democracy, or whatever happens to be the political/executive authority of a given geographic area. Despite the obsession over terms like ‘caliphate’ in contemporary media (whether non-Muslim or not), the reality is that, in Islamic law, the issue is whether or not Muslims have self-determination over their own affairs. If they choose to exercise such self-determination through calling such a state of affairs a ‘caliphate’ or a ‘democratic republic’, it is immaterial. What matters is how the state is run. Should a minority of Muslims still demand to have a caliphate, they have the option to migrate to Morocco immediately, and pledge allegiance to the ruler there, who remains the sole remaining genuine claimant to this ancient office.

The jurists also recognized the extremely strict standards of evidence and the procedural matters required for the process of conviction (yet another reason the punishment has not been carried out in Muslim history). However, they could never reject them in principle. Doing so would amount to an assertion that their legislative predecessors, including the Prophet, were collectively in error. This does not halt the political authority from intervening even after a successful conviction, if the authority deems carrying out such an execution against the public interest.

The theoretical case where the medieval ruling on riddah as defined by the majority of medieval Muslim jurists might be applied:

  1. When an individual who had been Muslim subsequently left Islam
  2. When someone was convicted of such by an authorised court of Islamic law (how many of those continue to exist today?)
  3. When the political authority in question judged it in the best interests of the state and community, and implemented it (i.e., there is no room for vigilante action)

In the contemporary era, for a broad variety of reasons, the political authorities of the Muslims across the Muslim world has introduced further legislation that makes it invariably impossible to fulfil such a procedure - a right they have under Islamic law. Such reasons include the signing of international declarations that were to the benefit of the Muslim states, and, perhaps more importantly, the distinction between civic and religious obligations in the modern world. In this world, even the theoretical threat of capital punishment pertains when the offense against God includes an offence against the community and the state through.

Now, other muftis and authorities could argue otherwise, but they will also point out that the implementation of any such punishment is the sole prerogative of the political/executive authority. Eventually, it is likely that they too will incorporate into the books of taught & applied Islamic law that the theory itself is outdated. That would not be in contradistinction to classical notions of Islamic law. Indeed, it has happened many times before, and jurists have recognized as legitimate when it is in the public interest and is the prevailing public practice.

Or, to put it in another way, it is when the maqasid (overall aims) of Islamic law are not abrogated. Those maqasid, however, are defined not by liberal political elites, but by contemporary specialists in Islamic law, such as the aforementioned Mufti. Other contemporaries exist, but their opinions hold sway among Muslims only because of their their chains of scholarly inheritance connecting them to the Prophet himself. And therein lies the rump - change, if it is to be sustainable, comes from within, or not at all.

Cartoon courtesy of Khalil Bendib. Larger version here.


Dr. Hisham A. Hellyer is Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies at the University of Oxford. As founder-director of the Visionary Consultants Group, a Muslim world-West relations consultancy, his advice and commentary has been sought by the Home Office & Foreign Office (UK) as well as the Brookings Institution (US) and the Washington Post (US).

Please report any broken links to Webmaster
Copyright © 1988-2012 All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer

free web tracker