Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Apostacy and Freedom of religion in Islam

04/22/2008 11:52 pm
This posting started as a response to good comments made by 2 readers following my last postings. You can read their comments here and here. I responded to the first under the same posting here, but the second response (by GF) got so long that I preferred to post it as a main entry. Their comments was detailed, documented and challenging. I hope my response clarifies some of the issue.
First, I am surprised that GF would take exception with the Egyptian Grand Mufti’s edict. I would imagine any one worried about Islam being a violent ideology should be happy that the most senior cleric of the most prestigious Islamic University in the world establishes that the proper Islamic response to apostasy (Redda or reversion away from Islam) is not a violent one, but a position of freedom of choice. That should be a solid argument against extremist Muslims who advocate violence. It brings down their position from one of ‘establishing God’s word’ to being ‘in violation of God’s word’.
The Ignoramuses of the world (be they Muslim, Christians, Jews, etc) will continue to do whatever they want no matter what clergy tell them. The moderate majority now knows the violent ones are wrong.
No interpretation of a holy book is considered divine no matter how famous their authors may be. As I mentioned in previous response, all the commentaries and legal interpretations in Islam are tools for those who wish to read them, but they are not God’s word, and denying their correctness or validity, or understanding them in the historic and political context they originated in does not make one an apostate.
I cannot help change the fact that some Muslims understand things differently. Diversity in understanding the Book of Revelations is an example in point on the Christian side. But I look as Holy books this way: God revealed His holy books on chosen Messengers but aiming at lay, mostly illiterate people. The Messengers did not select who followed them, and did not perform any ‘pre-admission’ testing for the believers. And in Islam God, definitely, did not mandate that scholars explain God’s words to His followers.
Actually one of the recurring Quranic criticisms for the early People of the Book (an Islamic term for Christians and Jews) at the time of Quran revelation was that they accepted the interjection of scholars and clergy between God and the believers. Yet, Muslims quickly (i.e., after few decades after the Prophet’s death) fell in the same trap. It is human nature, I guess.
But Islam is truly a lot simpler than most scholars would like us to believe. Unfortunately most believers want to rely on someone else telling them what God wants rather than make some effort on their own.
I was lucky that Arabic as my mother tongue. I can read the Quran easily. I can understand the very vast majority of the verses at face value. It is simple and easy to understand, as God himself promised four times in different verses (54: 17, 22, 32 and 40, “Hence, indeed, We made this Quran easy to bear in mind: who, then, is willing to take it to heart?”) As for the few verses that may have a word or two not in common use today, the overall meaning of the verse is more than obvious if one is too lazy to look up the exact meaning.
I have a strong feeling that GF understands enough Arabic. I suggest to he/her to read the verses mentioned in the comment made, and forget about the ‘famous interpreters’ that GF repeatedly mentioned. They occasionally help, but most of the time, they are just the way. Of course, there are other interpreters (modern and not so modern) who would understand the verses differently, but that makes my point stronger: we all need to do the homework ourselves understanding the original words of God, and we should not take anyone’s interpretation for granted, even if we end up sometimes wrong. Otherwise, taking someone’s else’s words for what God really wants may be convenient, but it makes that person almost ‘God’ for us.
A famous quote from one of the early Scholars (I do not remember exactly which one) was “If you do not know our proof, you should follow our conclusion”.
The reader listed some verses to make his point, and this is where this posting gets a bit technical (and possibly boring) for some readers, so forgive me. But an elaborate comment requires a detailed response.
The reader agreed that verses 6:96 and 4:90-91 are already interpreted by modern scholars in an agreeable way, i.e., punishment for apostasy is in the hereafter, not capital punishment in this life. This is how the text reads in Arabic anyway, so I will skip those.
The verse GF sees as problematic is 2:217. I read the Arabic, and I read the English translation of M Asad, and I see no indication that it carries capital punishment for apostate.
  • “… [Your enemies] will not cease to fight against you till they have turned you away from your faith, if they can. But if any of you should turn away from his faith and die as a denier of the truth - these it is whose works will go for nought in this world and in the life to come; and these it is who are destined for the fire, therein to abide.”
Clearly, in Arabic as it is in this near literal translation, this is not talking about capital punishment, but about bad outcome on the Day of Judgment. Hell fire has never ever been mentioned in the Quran as a reference to punishment in this life. No commentator, regardless of their prestige or stature can tell other wise.
Regarding Verse 4:89
  • 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“.
please read the preceding verse (4:88, and subsequent verses 4:90) before making judgment on this verse.
The word ‘they‘ in this verse refers to a group mentioned in the preceding Verse 4:88 as the Hypocrites, a group of Muslims that got in alliance with enemies of Muslims engaging in active acts of war. Finding and killing them was for their act of treason at time of war, not for apostasy
And despite this, the following verse 4:90 gives them the way out of the punishment as it states clearly: arriving and seeking protection with others (Muslims or otherwise) with which Muslims have a covenant OR coming back to the Muslims declaring their desire not to FIGHT Muslims - They were not required to declare their reversion to Islam. If they come back in peace “God does not allow you to harm them
The full text of verse 4:90 is here:
  • “unless it be such [of them] as have ties with people to whom you yourselves are bound by a covenant, or such as come unto you because their hearts shrink from [the thought of] making war either on you or on their own folk - although, if God had willed to make them stronger than you, they would certainly have made war on you. Thus, if they let you be, and do not make war on you, and offer you peace, God does not allow you to harm them.
I really do not see how anyone would interpret this as mandating capital punishment. If a commentator opted for that for historic or political reasons, this is definitely not binding for us, especially when God made His words so clear and unequivocal.
Verse 5:54 is the ONLY verse that talks specifically about the apostate (Murtadd, or those who abandon their faith as the verse describes them). It does not even mention death in any way:
  • “O you who have attained to faith! If you ever abandon your faith,’ God will in time bring forth [in your stead] people whom He loves and who love Him - humble towards the believers, proud towards all who deny the truth: [people] who strive hard in God’s cause, and do not fear to be censured by anyone who might censure them: such is God’s favour, which He grants unto whom He wills. And God is infinite, all-knowing.”
Let me conclude by some Quran verses that explicitly commit to the freedom of faith. These teach the Prophet, and us, Muslims, how to behave when someone refuses to accept Islam, at any stage. They require no comment from me or anyone else.
  • (2:256) THERE SHALL BE no coercion in matters of faith. Distinct has now become the right way from [the way of] error…
  • (3:20) … Ask those who have been vouchsafed revelation aforetime, as well as all unlettered people, ‘Have you [too] surrendered yourselves unto Him [God]?’ And if they surrender themselves unto Him, they are on the right path; but if they turn away - behold, thy duty is no more than to deliver the message: for God sees all that is in [the hearts of] His creatures.
  • (5:29) … if you turn away [from God’s way], then know that Our Apostle’s only duty is a clear delivery of the message [entrusted to him]
  • (5:99) No more is the Apostle bound to do than deliver the message [entrusted to him]: and God knows all that you do openly, and all that you would conceal.
  • (6:70) And leave to themselves all those who, beguiled by the life of this world, have made play and passing delights their religion
  • (6:107) Yet if God had so willed, they would not have ascribed divinity to aught beside Him;_’ hence, We have not made thee their keeper
  • (9:129) But if those [who are bent on denying the truth] turn away, say: ‘God is enough for me! There is no- deity save Him.
  • (10:99) And [thus it is:] had thy Sustainer so willed, all those who live on earth would surely have attained to faith, all of them: dost thou, then, think that thou couldst compel people to believe,
  • (16:082) BUT IF they turn away [from thee, O Prophet, remember that] thy only duty is a clear delivery of the message [entrusted to thee].
  • (23:117) Hence, he who invokes, side by side with God, any other deity* for whose existence he has no evidence - shall but find his reckoning with his Sustainer: [and,] verily, such deniers of the truth will never attain to a happy state!
A point made by reader Logus referred to early (Mecca) chapters being softer and gentler than later chapters (Medina). It is the same incorrect point made by the Pope while referring to the conciliatory verse 2:256 listed above as being Mecca verse in a speech last year that causes a lot of distress to Muslims. The Pope was wrong as chapter 2 is a chronologically late (Medina) chapter although it is early in the Quran text arrangement, which does not follow chronological order. And so are some of the chapters used above (3, 5 , 6, and 9). Actually chapter 5 is the last long chapter of the Quran and has a special status as the final part of the revealed word of God. So the argument about gentle verses being early in Islam when there were fewer Muslims, while violent chapters came late, after Muslims became numerous enough to fight, is invalid.
All these verse, and many more, stress one key message: people choose whether to believe or not. God did not aim for all people to have the same faith. The Prophet (and his followers) are not to compel anyone to believe. Their job is to deliver the message. The rest, is our own personal choice.
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