April 9, 2006
Islam Apologists Tell a Partial StoryBy James M. Arlandson
On April 2, 2006, M. Cherif Bassiouni, a professor and the president of the International Human Rights Law Institute at DePaul University College of Law, wrote an op—ed in the Chicago Tribune on apostasy (leaving a religion), asserting that it is not a capital crime in Islamic law.
He wants to clarify for the public what Islam really says in light of the Abdul Rahman case in Afghanistan. Rahman was being prosecuted for leaving Islam and converting to Christianity, a 'crime' that carries the death penalty. After an international outcry from free governments around the world, Rahman safely arrived in Italy.
What Bassiouni published in the mainstream media says too much and too little at the same time, depending on whether he makes Islam appear positive or omits facts that make it appear negative. Since the publication of these highly selective articles in the national media is on a rapid rise, they must not go unchallenged. The purpose of my reply is not to put down Islam, but to expose all of it to the public—the unpleasant parts that Bassiouni left out and that have a secure basis in the sound and original source documents of Islam, especially the Quran.
For clarity, I have divided up my reply into six main sections with my own subtitles that are not found in the editorial.
In with the old and the new
Starting off, Bassiouni writes:
(1) Bassiouni says that apostasy is not a crime in Islamic law; however, this implies that it rises above executing apostates, but it does not. As we shall see, some Islamic constitutions declare that their source of legislation is Shari'a. This is sacred law rooted in the Quran and hadith or traditions and developed in the classical period. The science of interpreting and applying Shari'a is called fiqh. It is this area that may be reformed more easily than Shari'a.
To begin with, the School of Law founded by Shafii (d. 820) is today 'prominent in Egypt, Palestine, and Jordan, with a significant following in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Hejaz (western Saudi Arabia), Pakistan, and India, and Indonesia' (Oxford Dictionary of Islam). Thus, its influence is extensive.
So what does this School say about apostates? The following medieval manual compiled mainly by Ahmad ibn Naqib al—Misri (d. 1368), Reliance of the Traveler: A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law, (rev. ed., trans. Nuh Ha Mim Keller, Beltsville, Maryland: Amana, 1994), summarizes rulings in the Shafii School. Here are only four reasons out of twenty that constitute apostasy, which demands death:
This last law leaves no room for ambiguity about the ultimate goal of Islam:
Such interpretations of the Quran and hadith may be considered archaic or may be questioned today by modern Muslim legal scholars (as Bassiouni implies), but these kinds of stringent interpretations still guide conservative judges and legalists, like the ones who were prosecuting Abdul Rahman. So it must be exposed. But no one should quarrel with Bassiouni if he knows that moderates are in fact challenging these archaic interpretations that are 'established in seventh and eighth century constructs.' This reform is especially important outside of the comfortable and free US and inside Islamic nations, where oppression really occurs. But the next two points do not promise optimism for change.
(2) Bassiouni writes that many constitutions around the Islamic world guarantee freedom of religion. But these two constitutions, to cite examples of the nations that he lists as permitting religious freedom, say that their main source of legislation is sharia:
To his credit, Bassiouni has insightfully described conflicting ideologies, old and new. Various other Articles in Islamic constitutions seem to guarantee religious freedom. But Shari'a, on the other hand, is embedded in these constitutions if not explicitly, then by centuries of custom and practice. Egypt and Syria say that it is the principal 'source of legislation.' How can they eliminate this ancient foundation? Recall that this sacred law is taken directly from the Quran and sound traditions about Muhammad himself and is therefore set in concrete, so Islamic nations are reluctant to leave it behind. However, as we shall see below, the Quran and the sound hadith are extreme in many matters like executing apostates. How will the old and the new be reconciled? Can they be if this involves leaving the Quran and hadith behind?
(3) This brings to our next point, the most important one. The Quran itself is also filled with seventh—century 'doctrinal constructs.' Does Bassiouni have any suggestions about that? Yes, but not one that I had hoped for. He says that his holy book comes down from God (see 'Last of God's revelations?' below). If Islamic law must be based on it, then why should we be hopeful that Muslim countries will improve their constitutions, legislation, and human rights? How this ideological competition (old v. new) will be resolved in the final analysis is anyone's guess.
(4) Bassiouni says that 'States that recognize [apostasy] as a crime punishable by death include Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. However, there are no known cases in recent times in which someone charged with apostasy in these countries has been put to death.'
In reply, however, this report says that 150 Muslims charged with converting to Christianity have been detained in maximum security prisons—in Egypt, the nation that Bassiouni extols as guaranteeing religious freedom:
It is true that they have not suffered death (so far), but why is it good to be technically correct when humans are actually suffering imprisoned in Islamic countries? Why is freedom of religion and of conscience even a debate in Islamic nations today? The answer goes back to the Quran itself, the traditions (hadith), and classical Shari'a, none of which guarantee freedom in religion, as the Quranic verses and the hadiths cited below will demonstrate.
(5) Bassiouni writes that in strict nations like Iran 'there are no known cases in recent times in which someone charged with apostasy has been put to death.' However, Reverend Soodmand was hanged in 1990:
(1) One of the most excessive aspects of Islamic law derived from the Quran and the hadith is its punishments for crimes like highway robbery and theft, and for sins like adultery. I have already written on most of the topics in Bassiouni's quick list. The following punishments are derived from the Islamic holy book and the sound hadiths.
(2) Bassiouni quotes Sura (Chapter) 5:35 as if it were the only verse in the Quran that deals with apostates. But here are other verses: Suras 2:217; 3:72, 86—87, 90; 4:137; 5:54; 16:106; 33:14; 47:25—27; 73:11; and 74:11. He notes, correctly, that 5:35 says that punishment for apostates is reserved for Judgment in the Last Day. It must be conceded that these other verses also leave punishment in Allah's hands.
However, two verses put punishment in Muhammad's hands. The so—called hypocrites embraced Islam with reservations. Sometimes they supported Muhammad from a geographical and religious distance, for example, in saying prayers the Muslim way. At other times, they seemed to help the enemies of Islam (see Abul A'La Maududi, The Meaning of the Quran, vol. 1, pp. 361—62, notes 116—117).
In Sura 4:88—89 Allah tells the Prophet how to deal with these particular hypocrites.
We should note two facts from these verses. First, Allah himself made the hypocrites go astray, yet he orders them killed. Second, the Arabic verb qatala is used (root is q—t—l), and this word means exclusively to fight, kill, war, battle, or slaughter. Its meaning is much narrower than that of jihad, though this latter word also includes bloodshed.
Verse 90 goes on to say that if these nominal Muslims seek peace, not war, then Allah has not opened a way for Muhammad to fight them. He must allow them to live in their state of hypocrisy. However, as verse 89 says, if they turn back both from emigrating and Islam, then they shall be battled. So there is no ambiguity about Muhammad's policy on full apostates—death.
For other passages in the Quran that permit Muhammad to punish apostates, go here.
What the sacred Traditions actually say
Analysis: Bassiouni by ommission of the others almost implies that there is only one case of apostasy in the Sunnah. But the following hadiths, representing many others, say nothing about an apostate joining the enemies of Islam at a time of war.
(1) Malik (d. 795) was the founder of a major School of Law and taught Shafii. Malik is widely used among Sunnis, so says the Oxford Dictionary of Islam. He is also considered a highly reliable collector of hadith. He records this straightforward tradition:
(3) In this hadith accepted by Bukhari, Muhammad sends a Muslim to go on an inspection tour of Yemen. The Muslim envoy notices a Jew in chains. Why?
This legal decision was reached during Muhammad's lifetime, and this envoy and judge says that execution for apostasy 'is the judgment of Allah and His Apostle.' This Jew had not joined the enemies of Islam at a time of war.
(4) If the envoy and judge in Yemen understood Muhammad's policy while the Prophet was alive, what about Muhammad's family, specifically Ali (his son—in—law) and Ibn Abbas (his cousin and highly reliable transmitter of the traditions)? What did Ali do to some 'atheists'? He burned them alive. What would Ibn Abbas have done?
Thus, the Islam of Ali and Ibn Abbas, Muhammad's family, would not tolerate freedom of religion. Only Allah may punish someone with fire—in hell (see Sura 5:35, above, quoted by Bassiouni).
(5) Finally, after Muhammad dies of a fever in AD 632, the tribes in Arabia revolted against Islam. Evidently, they honored this religion only because the Prophet grew in military prowess. But shortly after he died, they dropped their allegiance to him. However, his right—hand companion Abu Bakr was appointed successor or Caliph upon Muhammad's death (ruled AD 632—634). This is how he deals with the revolt.
Umar questions his policy, but Abu Bakr explains why it is just to fight apostates.
Zakat is the forced 'charity' tax that flows into Islamic coffers. Thus, besides theological reasons for fighting the 'apostates,' Abu Bakr has both eyes trained on their resources, down to their last she—kid.
For more hadiths that are not cited here, see this article.
Only tolerance and forgiveness?
(1) Bassiouni quotes from the overused but obsolete Sura 2:256, which says that there is no compulsion in religion. This sura (chapter) is regarded as the earliest one after Muhammad emigrated from Mecca to Medina in AD 622. Muhammad wanted to be accepted by all peoples, so the verse reflects this desire. But Bassiouni fails to mention an unpleasant verse in Sura 9 (and there are many). This sura is the last one to be revealed in its entirety, and many Muslims believe that it abrogates or cancels earlier verses that seem to promote only tolerance. Verse five in Sura 9 unveils Muhammad's violent policy against polytheists. They either convert or die.
So there is compulsion in Islam, after all.
(2) Bassiouni cites a tradition in which Muhammad forgives a grieving man who threw a spear at Allah. It should be carefully noted, however, that Muhammad never changed his legal policy on apostasy in this sad case. Rather, he simply disagreed with the man's accusers. The man still believed that Allah existed; otherwise, why bother throwing a spear at him? But what would have happened if Muhammad had agreed with the man's accusers? The five hadiths quoted in the previous section remove any doubt. The man would have been killed.
The last of God's revelations?
(1) Bassiouni asserts that the Quran is 'the last of God's revelations.' Though I am neither a Sikh nor a Latter—Day Saint (Mormon), these two religions have holy books that appear long after the Quran. Nanak, founder of Sikhism, has the Guru Granth Sahib, and Joseph Smith has the Book of Mormon, believed to be brought down by an angel. Bassiouni is entitled to declare his beliefs, but members of other religions are equally entitled to disagree.
(2) He quotes Sura 2:136, which teaches that Islam recognizes various prophets from the Old Testament and even Jesus himself. Thus, Islam is open—minded about Judaism and Christianity—never mind that the Quran erroneously demotes Jesus to a mere prophet. (Go here for the New Testament's teaching on Christ). However, it is not hard to find polemical and intolerant verses in the Quran, near each verse that seems to preach 'peace and love.'
For example, the very next verse (Sura 2:137) reveals which message is the best one (Islam):
Thus, the Jews and Christians are in schism—not Muhammad and his Muslims. As the later religion, it may be fairly said that Islam is in schism. But for Muslims, Islam must come out on top. It may be true that Biblical Christianity regards later revelations as suspect, but Bassiouni implies that Islam rises above such quarrels, and this is inaccurate.
To go beyond Sura 2, these verses lump Jews and Christians or People of the Scripture (= the Bible) together with polytheists, and their destiny is the fires of hell, as 'the worst of created beings' (verse 6).
Also, Sura 9:29 says that Muhammad should fight against the People of the Scripture.
This verse says nothing about a real and physical harm done to Islam. Nonetheless, Muhammad gave three options to the Christians and Jews in the north during his Tabuk Crusade to fight against Byzantine Christians in late AD 630: (1) fight and die; (2) convert; (3) or submit and pay the second—class—citizen jizya tax for the 'privilege' of living under Islam.
So why should a Christian or Jew trust the seeming 'peace and love' verses in the Quran?
(3) Moreover, the claim that Islam is a continuation (read: improvement) of Christianity is empirically and demonstrably false, as far as Jesus and the New Testament are concerned. The Quran ordains and endorses the following policies and practices. Chapter and verse follows each point.
This list is all about physical acts here on earth, not about abstract doctrines. These acts and legal decrees can be measured and evaluated with our own eyes and sound reason, and how do they come out? Not very well, to say the least.
Further, it may be fairly asked: Did Jesus and his Apostles and the New Testament authors say or do these things? Not even close. If the Quran is 'the last of God's final revelation' to humanity, then God must hate us, especially women. Truthfully, humanity can do a lot better than the Quran. It is filled with seventh—century 'doctrinal constructs' (Bassiouni's words), so we must leave it far behind us in the new millennium.
If readers suspect that these verses have been taken out of context, they may click on the following articles that in turn have long and several supporting articles behind each item on the list: here, here, here, and here . These verses are clear and unambiguous. Does the Old Testament command some severe punishments? Yes, but there are not practiced anywhere today. And go here to find out why they no longer apply in the New Testament.
Analysis: Bassiouni must be commended for exhorting his fellow Muslim scholars to address controversial issues like executing apostates, 'long established in tradition.' But the word 'tradition' implies that these issues are not found in the Quran or Islamic law, but they are.
(1) Be that as it may, he offers two reasons why Islamic scholars 'do not sufficiently address controversial issues long—established in tradition,' both abroad and in the US.
First, it is 'for fear of having to face the wrath of the traditional religious establishments in the Muslim world.'
In reply, no one should have a quarrel with his first reason. Moderates may have to pay with their lives. So their fear is understandable.
Second, 'And they are also reluctant to do so in this country, because of consistent attacks against Islam by certain religious and political groups who have their own agenda. The media have regrettably abetted this agenda by negative portrayals of Islam and Muslims.'
In reply, however, this is odd logic. Muslim moderates will be attacked here in the US if they challenge harsh Islamic laws and even the violent verses in the Quran? No one should doubt that all Americans and others citizens of the whole world would applaud and support moderate Muslims if they did this.
(2) Bassiouni also says that the violence coming out of the Islamic world lends credence to the negative portrayal in the media: 'the jihadists in Iraq, indiscriminate bombings, aerial attacks in the U.S., suicide bombings in Europe and Israel.'
Who could disagree with this? It is indeed the violence that comes first, the media portrayal, second.
(3) Bassiouni concludes with these words:
Let's hope that the Muslim response to negativism comes in a way that tells the violent radicals to stop. Condemning their acts is a first step. Let's also hope for many Muslim reformers to go out and change Islamic countries.
In the meantime, in his editorial, Bassiouni left out too much and put too much in his editorial—both of the wrong sort. The Quran itself—let alone the traditions and Islamic law—has bigoted and intolerant verses that command killing the tolerant and unbigoted. The Quran itself has too many harsh laws that are established in seventh century 'doctrinal constructs.' It is good if moderate Muslims reform and update Islamic law, but what about the Quran itself? It is good for Bassiouni to challenge his fellow Muslims to respond, but if they cannot see the true source of the problems (the Quran), then how can reform move forward?
On the other hand, how can moderates renounce verses in their holy book when they believe that it is 'the last of God's divine revelations,' and when they also blithely believe that it benefits humanity?
The problem with Bassiouni's editorial is that it does not disclose all of Islam. Too many uninformed readers may accept its peaceful countenance or facade. But it hides a sword behind its back.
For the sake of truth and peace, if Bassiouni would like to do the right thing, then he should expose the sword of Islam for the whole world to see. But his editorial leaves the sword hidden.
Contact James Arlandson
Here is a longer article written by me on apostasy.
If the readers would like to see verses in the Quran, they may click on this website, which has multiple translations.