03/27/2006, 00.00
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Killing apostates not in Qu'ran but a strongly held view in the masses

by Bernardo Cervellera
Fundamentalist theologians have led people to believe that apostasy undermines the unity of the Ummah, the Muslim community. But for Prof Francesco Zannini, who teaches at the Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies, the issue is hotly debated amongst Muslims.

Rome (AsiaNews) – The recent case of Abdul Rahman, a Christian convert from Islam threatened with the death penalty, has re-opened the debate over the practice of enforcing capital punishment for apostasy in Muslim countries. For Francesco Zannini, professor of Modern Islam at the Pontifical Institute of  Arabic and Islamic Studies (PISAI), the death penalty is not prescribed in the Qu'ran even though people believe it is. What is clear though is that fundamentalists are fanning the flames on this issue and that Muslim governments acquiesce.

Is the death penalty for apostasy applied in all Islamic cultures?

Support for killing a convert to another religion is strong at a popular level in some countries that enforce the Sharia like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and states within Malaysia. But elsewhere in the Islamic world, there is a debate over whether it is right to kill an apostate or not.

It must be first said is that the Qu'ran does not provide any precise guidelines in the matter. Indeed, it says: "There is no compulsion in religion. Verily, the Right Path has become distinct from the wrong path" (Sura, 2: 256). Even though other verses in the Qu'ran can be interpreted as justification for killing since they speak of making war against the enemies of Islam, most suggest that anyone who rejects Islam after accepting it will be punished at the end of his life in the Last Judgement.

The hadith (the collected sayings of the prophet) that deal with the issue carry little weight. Some fundamentalists like [sheikh Yusuf] al-Qaradawi, who speaks on al-Jazeera, claim that killing an apostate is right so long as there is a single hadith that orders it. Others say instead that we cannot rely on the hadith to impose the death penalty.

The debate over apostasy has become more complex. Muslims are still discussing how to define it, whether renouncing Islam has to be done in words, in deeds or just in the heart.

Some intellectuals like Egyptian Nasr Abu Zaid and Bangladeshi Taslima Nazrin have been declared apostate in ways that seem to reflect a desire to get rid of people who dissent from the dominant way of thinking.

Whatever the case, the legal and theological bases of apostasy are rather weak, and the debate surrounding it is heated. On the one hand, we have people like Muhammad al-Ghazali, a modern fundamentalist who defends the death penalty for apostates. On the other, there are Egyptian human rights groups who are critical of the practice. Many Lebanese, Syrian and Egyptian Muslims also believe that no one can use the Qu'ran to draw the inference that killing apostates is necessary.

Does the death penalty go back to the origins of Islam or has it emerged in recent decades with the rise of fundamentalism?

In the beginning apostasy got mixed up with politics, namely with what to do with non Muslims who might be spies for the enemy. This ruthless attitude got worse under Abu Bakr, the first caliph. His successor however, Omar, did not even apply the rule on Islam's enemies. Afterwards there was an attempt to codify the practice but it was never easily accepted in Islam.

Why is support for killing apostates so widespread at a popular level?

Because there is a strong consensus among Muslims that one cannot abandon one's faith (and this is stressed in the Qu'ran). This led to the persecution of heretics and apostates. Al-Hallaj, one of the great Muslim mystics died a martyr's death at the hands of his fellow Muslims. In this sense, the political use of apostasy by rulers was important in manipulating popular attitudes.

What drives Muslims to want to kill anyone guilty of apostasy in the name of their religion, relatives included?

There are two factors that come into play; one that is spiritual and the other that is linked to their sense of community. Since Islam is seen as a totality, leaving it is seen as damaging its growth. It is not a matter of faith, but one of the Ummah or community. An apostate, a Muslim who converts, is seen as someone who is undermining the social cohesion of the family itself. For example, in Malaysia, people are talking about what to do with modernised Muslims, i.e. those who "do not act like true Muslims" as defined by the tradition. Some Qu'ranic scholars insist that they should be sentenced to death. By contrast, in Indonesia, where the principles of Pancasila recognise freedom for five religions, families can have members who are Muslim, Christian, Hindu, etc.

It is also important to make a distinction between the Sharia, which is divinely ordained, and Fiqh, i.e. Islamic jurisprudence, which is based on human intellect. Hence, some Muslims ask why, since there is no divine ruling [about apostasy], man should assume the right to pass laws?

How strong are liberal voices who defend religious freedom in the Islamic world?

Tolerance is present in the constitutions of Muslim countries except for Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan. The Saudis have gone so far as to refuse to sign the Charter on Human Rights because they do not accept religious freedom.

Other Muslim countries recognise religious freedom but do not protect it, partly because they have mixed constitutions. Some sections are inspired by the Sharia; others refer to international treaties. And in all, Islam is seen as the basis and inspiration for law-making. This opens the door to manipulation.

Among the masses, fundamentalism, which must protect itself from the attacks of the West, has been growing. Fundamentalist theologians manipulate the Qu'ran. They refer to Muhammad's struggle against Pagans (during his stay in Makkah) and view the fight against apostasy as part of the fight against Paganism and idolatry. This is why killing a Westerner, a Christian, or even a moderate Muslim is seen as justified.

Aren't Muslim governments a bit too shy in asserting the independence of their constitutions vis-à-vis Islam?

Of course they are. Muslim governments are afraid of the masses and of fundamentalists. Their constitutions assert that sovereignty is vested in the people, but then say that Islam is above everything. This misunderstanding leaves people secure in their traditional view of things, which fundamentalists like to heat up as part of their dream to see the entire world under Islam.

What can we do? The Pope and many governments have demanded clemency for Abdul Rahman…

The West faces a problem. There is not accountability for the funds invested in education and culture. More often than not, the money goes to governments who use it to strengthen their power bases and not to moderate voices.

None the less, whatever is done, it must avoid the use of force. Muslims by and large believe that Islam is in danger. If changes are pursued through force this fear can turn into closure.

Our appeals must be based on humanitarian grounds and connected to the fate of Muslim intellectuals to show that Islam itself defends religious freedom.

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