In Islam, apostasy and faithlessness are sins, but they are not worldly crimes. Those who claim otherwise are making a mistake.
There is a lot of confusion in the air regarding the thorny issue of conversion and “apostasy” in the Muslim world. From my secular position, freedom of conscience and belief are as close to sacred as my a-religious heart can muster. Despite what fanatical Muslims might claim, this is also the default Islamic position.
To clear things up, Egypt's Grand Mufti, the country's second authority on Islam, Ali Goma'a, wrote that Islam guarantees freedom of religion for its followers. This view echoes that of Sunni Islam's leading scholar Muhammad Tantawy, the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, Islam's most revered theological seat of learning.
“From a religious perspective, the act of abandoning one's religion is a sin punishable by God on the Day of Judgment. If the case in question is one of merely rejecting faith, then there is no worldly punishment,” the Mufti wrote.
This is a beautifully convenient arrangement for everyone. For devout Muslims, it provides solace that God will reward their acceptance and punish the rejection of others. For converts, the new version of God they embrace will protect them against the old version they abandoned. For non-believers, the wrath of a deity in which they do not believe is hardly likely to make them lose sleep.
Although his comments stirred a storm of controversy between liberals and conservatives in the Egyptian press, the Mufti's position was accurate. However, it touched a raw nerve in a society where religion is gradually becoming a divisive issue as conservative Islamism slowly gains ground.
For its part, the Egyptian state does not outlaw conversion nor outright abandonment of faith. However, it does not make it easy for those who openly choose to go against the status quo. One important tool in this regard is the “religion” field on personal ID cards and birth certificates. In addition, the only options are one of the three Abrahamic faiths (plus Bahi'ism, following a recent landmark ruling).
But Islamists have tried to take the law into their own hands through vigilante action and two farcical court cases reviving a long-dormant legal precept known as “hisbah” which sought to divorce forcibly a leading academic from his wife and a leading feminist novelist from her husband.
Those who claim that conversion or rejection of faith is punishable by death are effectively – and this ought to give their pious hearts pause for reflection – usurping powers reserved solely for God.
The Quran condemns irtidad (reversion), but does not specify a worldly punishment for it. In fact, the holy book seems to be most irked by ideological yoyos, ie “Those who believe, then disbelieve, then believe again, then disbelieve, and then increase in their disbelief”.
Referring to the two hadith in which Muhammad reportedly condemns apostasy as a capital offence, Maher Hathout, author of In Pursuit of Justice: The Jurisprudence of Human Rights in Islam writes: “both of them contradict the Quran and other instances in which the prophet did not compel anyone to embrace Islam, nor punish them if they recanted.”
One example is particularly illuminating in this context: Abdullah Ibn Saad was one of Muhammad's innermost circle of believers and was so trusted by the prophet that he was entrusted with the important task of copying down some of the verses of the Qu'ran. This man abandoned the Muslims in Medina – at one of the most vulnerable periods in Islam's history – and returned to Mecca to denounce Muhammad's entire revelation as a hoax. Although Ibn Saad's name was in a little black book of the “enemies of Islam” compiled by the faithful, Muhammad defied his followers and pardoned him upon his triumphant return to Mecca.
It strikes me as odd that stories like this are ignored by God's self-appointed moral judges, juries and executioners. Why do they not focus on what seems to have been Muhammad's core messages: humility, modesty, equality and generosity?
He never stopped stressing he was nothing more than a man. In his actions, there was an innate respect for others. He was always accessible to those who wanted to see him; he shunned materialism; and visited the sick daily. Like a people's Freud, he would interpret disturbing dreams. He mended his own clothes and, like today's metrosexual, did his share of the housework. Anas Ibn Malik, who served Muhammad in the decade before he died, once exclaimed: “He served me more than I served him.” Instead of playing moral arbiters and braying for the blood of those they disapprove of, fanatics should perhaps chill out and follow their prophet's example and darn a sock or cook dinner for their wife.
Although the rare cases in which “apostates” are threatened with capital punishment, such as the Afghan convert to Christianity, only half a dozen or so Muslim countries actually stipulate capital punishment for such a thought crime. One of those, Iran, has contradictory laws on the subject in its books.
For the vast majority of Muslims who drift from their faith or find another one, it is not death they fear but social rejection and being ostracised. Although I don't personally know anyone who has converted out of Islam, I do know a lot of people who have lost or discarded their religion. However, most of them avoid discussions on faith with their families, and their families do likewise. Even I smile through well-meaning attempts by relatives – and sometimes strangers – to salvage my lost secular soul.
The restrictive attitude that young people are born Muslim – or belonging to any other faith for that matter – urgently needs to be addressed. In Islam, it is based on another one of the prophet's reported sayings: “Every child is born with a true faith of Islam.” Although some evolutionary psychologists have suggested that humans have evolved a propensity for religion, it is not the same thing as saying we are all born Muslim. But no matter what the prophet said, he was human and reason should trump all. If the Quran says “Let there be no compulsion in religion,” then who are Muslims to say otherwise?
Although a devout Muslim herself, my mother expressed the opinion, during my last visit to Egypt, that it was about time that Muslim countries stopped regarding every new born as a default Muslim. “It would be better for the individual and better for society,” she opined.
By a happy coincidence, this corresponds nicely to what my wife, who is a non-Muslim, and I have been thinking for years. If we ever have children, we have agreed, we will educate them about the range of human ideas and encourage them to think independently. Then, when they are old enough, they can choose the philosophy which most appeals to them.
Perhaps such attitudes need to begin at home before they can be adopted societally. A more modest start in the case of Egypt would be to remove religious allegiance from identity documents. This would, at the very least, still the growing sense of sectarianism in such a normally homogenous society.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 2 August 2007.