Religions Oppressive? Look to the Sources

From the Code of Hammurabi to the Code of Maimonides, most major systems of law have affirmed that apostasy must … Continued

From the Code of Hammurabi to the Code of Maimonides, most major systems of law have affirmed that apostasy must be punished.

In the renowned code of the Roman emperor Justinian (483-565 CE), corpus juris civilis – the basis of all Roman canon law and of modern civil law — apostasy was “to be punished by death” and there was “no toleration of dissent”.

The Biblical codes stipulate that the “one who doubts or ridicules one word of the Torah— or of the rabbinical authors — is a ‘heretic’ in the fullest sense, an infidel … and there is no hope for him.” The laws concerning such an unbeliever are very strict: “he may be killed directly,” or as Maimonides, the 13th century Andalucian rabbi and philosopher, advised regarding navigating the abeyance of apostasy law in his era, “his death may be caused indirectly.”

Islamic law (shari‘a) likewise stipulated killing in cases of established public apostasy. Though there is little literature on the emergence and application of apostasy law in the early periods of Muslim history, its actual application usually depended upon whether its declaration was public or private. Within the Islamic state, what minorities — religious and otherwise — did in their private lives was left to their discretion, even if it may have been technically termed “deviant” or against Islamic teaching.

Shari‘a, like all religious law, governs rites of worship and codes of individual and communal conduct and ethics. Contrary to stereotypical notions of religion, the earthly realm within shari‘a is in fact pragmatically understood to be essentially secular.

From the point of view of religion, the fundamental nature of the human being is to yearn to worship God unencumbered. The private realm of apostasy had thus always reflected more complex dimensions that make ultimate human judgment impossible. The mysteries of the heart and mind are as beyond theology as they are barely fathomable to neuroscience.

It is our creative encounter with earthly, secular life that reveals our capacity for usefulness to others, and it is the premier instrument by which our own spiritual station is elevated. Authentic, sincere worship ultimately becomes the daily barometer of our spiritual state.

Free, rational debate had always been accommodated within the religious context of shari‘a. This was a uniquely Islamic phenomenon, as true in European Cordoba as it was Arabian Baghdad. Neither the theological abstraction of the Mu‘tazilites, a 9th century group of philosophers, nor the appropriation unmitigated foreign dialectics by the secretive 10th century group, Brethren of Purity, for example, was ever grounds for removing one from the fold of Islam.

The most salient evidence for not punishing “private” apostasy in Islam is the perennial existence of the so-called hypocrites amidst Medinan society despite grave Qur’anic passages against them. Moreover, private “heretical” thought was neither censured — nor censored: as long is it was not publicly preached, it was not condemned as such, nor were there articulations of a need to suppress it.

Outward or visible stability in the earthly domain is what allows the institutions of civil society to continue.

The non-violent resistance of the Prophet Muhammad in Mecca and his diplomacy during the Treaty of Hudaybiyah taught his companions a similar lesson. Under this Treaty, the Prophet allowed people to emigrate without any reprisal, despite the fact that they were abandoning Islam in the process (some having only adopted the new religion for reasons of self-interest).

No prophet was ever given the license to pass judgment over the faith of a human being – as the Qur’an repeatedly reiterates, judgment is ultimately with God alone. Hence, constructive service of our sacred traditions lies in showing their relevance as a vehicle of infinite creativity, not in demoting them to preoccupation with judgment of contemporary culture.

We need to acknowledge and affirm that diversity and difference are part of the divine intent for creation — that we were made as nations and tribes so that we may “learn about and be enriched by the ways of each other” (Qur’an, 49:13). Provincialism and relativism will always challenge diversity — especially when the latter is disguised as tolerance; and not because people are inherently incapable of living together, either.

We need a renewed devotion to the truth, and to seeking it freely through our established non-sectarian, scholarly institutions. Thomas Jefferson exhorted: “truth is … the proper and sufficient antagonist to error.” It is only through respectful free argument and debate that ideologies can be judged and challenged on their own merits.

The reformation that is direly needed — across the entire globe — is the honest reassessment of the original sources of all our oppressive cultural myths and tyrannical modes of thinking.

As Muslims, we need to establish a higher barometer for what constitutes competence in the service of the scholarly disciplines of shari‘a. This would equip us with greater clarity and confidence and prevent us from thoughtlessly demonstrating in passionate protest every time a passing wind seems to challenge our faith.

As religious leaders of all faiths, we need to acknowledge our responsibility for much alienation and estrangement among the faithful around the world. This would begin to re-establish the credibility of our institutions, which would eventually re-ignite the religious imagination of the masses.

Lastly, we need a renewed commitment to focus on an ethos of compassionate, selfless service as a public trust; and this is certainly more becoming of the example of the Blessed Messengers that we claim loyalty to.

Shaykh Abdallah Adhami is an Arab-American imam and a leading scholar of Islam. He is currently working on an exploration of the linguistic implications of apparently problematic verses in the Qur’an. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service.

Written by

  • Stephanie Hutchinson

    I read the posting very carefully. It seems to me to be a much needed call for understanding and tolerance. But it does not address the reality that death is a current punishment for leaving Islam for another faith. That idea gets lost somewhere in the middle of the essay. One of the things we need now is the understanding that all people have the right to learn about all faiths and select the one that they believe will provide a path to Heaven, even if that means leaving one religion for another, and to do so publically if we desire. I believe we all have the right to answers from Heaven when we ask with faith. If we cannot really know the heart of another, how can we say they are wrong to change? The right to discuss freely is important but not enough. We must also have the right to follow the answers to our prayers.

  • AgentG

    I agree with Stephanie Hutchinson. The author was unable to recognize the fruits of the humanistic enlightenment, such as basic civil rights and value of the human individual. The reassessment the author cites has taken place in the western world: we called it the Renaissance. The author, like many religious fundamentalists, appear stuck in a pre-historic value system, based on literal interpretations and teachings of religious texts. These religious documents are simple inapplicable to describe our current moral and cultural values: for example, democracy or human rights. What is needed is a true reformation, with new versions of the Bible and the Koran, written by scholars in view of the modern, and post-modern, world.

  • Ainen-Asalen Gracen

    Excuse me, but I think your time would be better spent preaching to your co-religionists who are bombing their way through Iraq’s markets, staging riots ON BEHALF OF a chum of Theo van Gogh’s killer who himself stabbed two police officers multiple times before being shot dead, and who killed upwards of 1,600 people from five religions during Ramadan.We’re not the ones “misunderstanding” Islam. We’re very clear about what is going on, and I, for one, am tired of being given “instruction” on how I should think about Islam when the REALITY OF WHAT IS GOING ON IS SCREAMING ALL THE TIME.You have a violent subset that none of YOU is willing to get over to the Middle East and fight. So we have to do it, while we also have to listen to this tripe about Islam is a religion of peace and try to square the cognitive dissonance with the latest suicide bomb that kills 85 children in a Baghdad market.Enough. Go fight your real enemies. (If you’re confused, that’s NOT us.)

  • almaden

    Man is a Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion–several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother’s path to happiness and heaven….The higher animals have no religion. And we are told that they are going to be left out in the Hereafter. I wonder why? It seems questionable taste. “The Lowest Animal” — Mark Twain

  • Pablo

    Are you kidding? Qur’an 9 is an indictment against Trinitarian Christians. Your prophet Muhammad spoke those words to his scribe. Then there is the issue of intimidation and contradiction in the Qur’an. If there is “no compulsion in religion” then why does Qur’an 9:5 say the following? 9:5 Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush. But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free. Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.”If the repent” in other words convert then the infidel can be spared death. Do you call that “no compulsion?”

  • Lucifer

    Humans go through constant mental development. In spiritual development it a gradual curve,the problems come when those that hold authority of power in administration,as religious teaching, be unwilling to work,as serve in regard to the whole,but rather use position of trust for self material empowerment…when progress is held back for a (short time)with effort all working together it can be brought back to balance in a resonable period of time.. when progress held back for a longer period then we have serious problems…Be such at present times for western nations,spiritual development,its progress be in a dire state…for the Muslim it be a very bad state…..Of course one can go into depth,then as try to justify such causes for situation,but such reasoning an poor substitute for practical understanding as experience be thus transformed. One of the problems as with christians,not being in agreement with their ideas beliefs, then one accused of being sent by the devil,we have the similar situation with Islam ….the servants of Allah as the Almighty come to aid progres…the result be they are threatened by death,such the present situation,in christian as Muslim realm. In truth all should hang heads in shame before God as Allah,for behaviour that of appalling nature,untoward servants of Allah as Almighty. We having division amongst muslims,where,it be praising of Allah but an front used in gaining personal wordly wealth, as power,such appalling the behaviour which causing death as suffering as destruction which being beyond measure. The same creatures whom cause such horror,then in public bow before Allah, offering their empty hearts giving in praise but their empty words. (Equal the conduct in christians unto Almighty) It not for the servants of ALLAH as ALMIGHTY to give judgement but to serve…yet for servants to advise unto,CHRISTIAN as ISLAMIC world,that abuse of power having replaced,true compassion understanding as mercy,in their place be malice, torture,death as destruction.To such levels in material the planet for a period be unable to sustain human life…In the spiritual that the human form as,with its awesome capability,that through brain heart,be understanding experience of the creation.The human form a gift that have not received with the gratitued it be deserving. A diamoned,which being sold,priced as glass…

  • Abid

    I left Islam because I no longer wanted to insult God by associating a flawed prophet and his man made god Allah with God. All thinking Muslims should leave this God-insulting cult.

  • Abid

    What proof is there that the fundamental nature of humans is to worship God unencumbered? I do not worship any God and I have been happier since I left Islam which forced me to worship a man-made god named Allah. I admit the possibility that there is a God or Gods but to associate Allah with God is a grave sin.I cannot imagine a true God needing or demanding worship. Allah demands worship and that is why Allah is false god.

  • Hrolfr

    Please,Your religionists have brought our world the edge of an apocalypse.Please step away from the koolaid.It isn’t about BEING stupid, ignorant, immoral or a combination thereof; it is about REMAINING so.The rest of us are tired of cleaning up the dead bodies you leave littering the streets, the innocents you leave in misery, the planet for which you have no respect.

  • Hrolfr

    Please,Your religionists have brought our world the edge of an apocalypse.Please step away from the koolaid.It isn’t about BEING stupid, ignorant, immoral or a combination thereof; it is about REMAINING so.The rest of us are tired of cleaning up the dead bodies you leave littering the streets, the innocents you leave in misery, the planet for which you have no respect.

  • Chris Everett

    The message of every article in On Faith is clear and consistent: Religion is insane. It’s followers are blind to actual reality. Their delusion causes them to make choices which, even if somehow moral within their delusional framework, nevertheless cause suffering in the real world.Those who call for religious reform are missing the point. They wish to replace a delusion that is not to their liking with one more in sync with their emotional needs. However, they have no desire to abandon delusion itself, so they will maintain the disconnect with reality that is the real source of destructive behavior.The only non-insane stance on religion is to recognize that what cannot be established empirically cannot be known as true, in terms of any consensus standard of truth. The sane response to this ignorance is to appreciate its mystery and respond with curiosity, humility and a sense of humor about the peculiar nature of the human condition. The response of religion is the exact opposite: to assert as most true that for which there is the least evidence (and consensus); to stifle intellect and curiosity in a effort to prevent anyone from noticing the disconnect between nature and religious dogma; and to wage war against opposing views (religious or not) in the recognition that war is the only compelling form of religious argument.On Faith… poppycock. I say get Off Faith!

  • Chris Everett

    Here’s a short sentence from the article that illustrates the fundamental insane disconnect of religion:”Free, rational debate had always been accommodated within the religious context of shari‘a.”What the heck is this supposed to mean?! A prisoner is free within the walls of his cell? This sentence is an obvious absurdity. It offends the intellect, celebrates hypocracy and is an apologia for tyrrany.

  • nivea

    all religious people are crazy.

  • Mustahsin

    These harsh criticisms of religion and Islam are based on the ignorance about how a religious Islamic society works. Religion is blamed for being dogmatic, but are the rival systems of law and thought not dogmatic? For example, one of the secular dogmas is that religious Muslims do not have the right to live in a society whose laws are based on the legal rulings in the Qur’an and the practice of the Prophet, but that they have to live in a secular society where these religious principles are denied to be practiced.As the article explains, an Islamic society does not care about the private beliefs of individuals. The ruling about killing the apostates is mainly a political tool that was designed to protect the Islamic social order from being overthrown by dissenters who would first come together freely in enmity to Islam and then act to overthrow it. Mainly, it is a penalty for treason.And no, the secular social order is no more legitimate than the Islamic order. The secular order is based on the premise that nothing that cannot be empirically observed can be legitimately assumed correct. You cannot prove this premise and it is a secular dogma. Many will legitimately object to it, saying that God, the primordial consciousness and the conscious creator, cannot be observed empirically but can be proven to exist rationally. This will be followed by the inference that this primordial (and ultimate) consciousness could not have remained indifferent to the human society that He created; hence the belief in His guidance of humanity through the Messengers that He sent. A society does have the right to be based on this line of thinking.

  • Mustahsin

    These harsh criticisms of religion and Islam are based on the ignorance about how a religious Islamic society works. Religion is blamed for being dogmatic, but are the rival systems of law and thought not dogmatic? For example, one of the secular dogmas is that religious Muslims do not have the right to live in a society whose laws are based on the legal rulings in the Qur’an and the practice of the Prophet, but that they have to live in a secular society where these religious principles are denied to be practiced.As the article explains, an Islamic society does not care about the private beliefs of individuals. The ruling about killing the apostates is mainly a political tool that was designed to protect the Islamic social order from being overthrown by dissenters who would first come together freely in enmity to Islam and then act to overthrow it. Mainly, it is a penalty for treason.And no, the secular social order is no more legitimate than the Islamic order and is not more worthy of being imposed on an entire society than the Islamic one. The secular order is based on the premise that nothing that cannot be empirically observed can be legitimately assumed correct. You cannot prove this premise and it is a secular dogma. Many will legitimately object to it, saying that God, the primordial consciousness and the conscious creator, cannot be observed empirically but can be proven to exist rationally. This will be followed by the inference that this primordial (and ultimate) consciousness could not have remained indifferent to the human society that He created; hence the belief in His guidance of humanity through the Messengers that He sent. A society does have the right to be based on this line of thinking.

  • heba

    regarding agentG’s post:The Quran cannot be written because it is the word of God. Every alphabet in it counts towards it’s miracle, eg. the number of verses in the chapter of Iron, hapens to be the weight of an iron atom as calculated by Mendeleev.What we do have are commentaries or interpretations of it by any author who cares to, even Salman Rushdie.

  • Nicolas

    I want to thank Sheikh Abdullah Adhami for this article and I think that it has much good to say. It appears that those who find beef with what he is saying will find so with what any religious person would write, regardless of the topic at hand.We do need, as Sheikh Adhami says, a free, open, and respectable debate. We also need to really look into the sources of our planet’s beliefs, examine them and allow them to speak for themselves. If we find ourselves convinced of their truthfulness, then we have every right to follow them; if we are not convinced, we have every right to stay away.In regards to the issue of capital punishment for apostasy, this is only 1) if made public and 2) in an established Islamic state. There is no vigilante justice in Islam. In the United States, for example, the penalty for treason–actively working against the country–is punishable by death. It is important to note that in the early Islamic community, when people apostated publicly, it was with the intention of doing harm to/fighting against the society. Like the article noted, the shari’a does not care about one’s private doings/beliefs. Public teachings, announcements, manifestations, etc., are a different animal altogether. In such a context, every society, secular or religious, has the right to defend itself.

  • Nicolas

    I want to thank Sheikh Abdullah Adhami for this article and I think that it has much good to say. It appears that those who find beef with what he is saying will find so with what any religious person would write, regardless of the topic at hand.We do need, as Sheikh Adhami says, a free, open, and respectable debate. We also need to really look into the sources of our planet’s beliefs, examine them and allow them to speak for themselves. If we find ourselves convinced of their truthfulness, then we have every right to follow them; if we are not convinced, we have every right to stay away.In regards to the issue of capital punishment for apostasy, this is only 1) if made public and 2) in an established Islamic state. There is no vigilante justice in Islam. In the United States, for example, the penalty for treason–actively working against the country–is punishable by death. It is important to note that in the early Islamic community, when people apostated publicly, it was with the intention of doing harm to/fighting against the society. Like the article noted, the shari’a does not care about one’s private doings/beliefs. Public teachings, announcements, manifestations, etc., are a different animal altogether. In such a context, every society, secular or religious, has the right to defend itself.

  • Thomas Baum

    TO EVERYBODY: I have been glancing at some of the postings here and I have a few comments: First, God is Real and He is a Trinity, He is Love, a Consuming Fire of Pure Love. God-Incarnate was a Man but God is not a male, a female or an it, I say “He” because there really isn’t an appropriate pronoun to use. Second, some of the people that know God’s Name, that seems to be about the only thing that they know about God. Third, it does matter what you do and why you do it and what you know. Fourth, it is really sad that some of the people that believe in the True, Living, Triune, Triumphant God seem to believe that God asked us to be more godly than God Himself. Fifth, God has a Plan which at least some of the people that call themselves “christians” don’t seem to approve of. Sixth, people that call themselves “christian” should maybe actually become christian instead of telling other people to become one. Seventh, God is a searcher of hearts and minds, not of religious affiliations or lack thereof. Eighth, if you don’t know didly-squat about God maybe you should admit it. Ninth, knowing God’s Name is not some kind of magic as some people seem to think, does hate-filled, judgemental, condemning people calling themselves “christians” come to mind? Tenth, we are “ALL MADE IN GOD’S IMAGE”, this is addressed to the bible thumpers that seem to hate page one and have conveniently ripped it out. Eleventh, God wins, satan loses, a tie is unacceptable, the captives shall be released and the dead shall rise whether you agree with God’s Plan or not. 12th, we will all be judged, since we are responsible for what we do, considering that we are the ones that do what we do, free will, what is the big deal? Take care, be ready, see you in the Kingdom. Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • Thomas Baum

    TO NICOLAS: You wrote, ” Like the article noted, the shari’a does not care about one’s private doings/beliefs. Public teachings, announcements, manifestations, etc., are a different animal altogether. In such a context, every society, secular or religious, has the right to defend itself.”This is absolute hogwash, God gave us free will and nobody has the right to tell anyone what to believe and to have the right to kill that person for believing something different.islam is a religion of world domination and you know it. Any country that enacts sharia law is jamming down people’s throats their beliefs with the death penalty to enforce it. Don’t sugarcoat the obvious. As you, yourself, so plainly wrote, “In regards to the issue of capital punishment for apostasy, this is only 1) if made public and 2) in an established Islamic state.” You also wrote, “We do need, as Sheikh Adhami says, a free, open, and respectable debate”, as you should know and also as you have stated, this is absolutely impossible in a state with sharia law, do you have a comment about this? Take care, see you in the Kingdom, God wins and God’s Kingdom is for ALL OF HUMANITY. Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • saleem

    Excellent and intellectual article

  • saleem

    Excellent and intellectual article

  • Thomas Baum

    TO NICOLAS: You wrote, ” You also don’t have to live in an Islamic state.” Well it seems pretty obvious that if someone lives somewhere and people come in and set up what they think is a theocracy, then what is your choice? Actually by your own statements you spell it out very clearly that islam is a religion of world domination, don’t you see what you write? No matter what you write, if religion is a government that demands that you believe what they tell you to believe or you are either killed or treated as less than human then it definitely is not from God. The True, Living, Triune, Triumphant God is a God of Pure Love, He is not a tyrant. God has a Plan and it is for ALL OF HUMANITY to eventually be in His Kingdom. Too many people seem to think that because someone says that they are a “christian” that means they are a “christian” well that is not necessarily true, it might mean that they know God’s Name and that is about all that they know about God. By the way, do you know why the Jews are the “Chosen People”? In case you don’t know why, it is because God chose them and formed them, it doesn’t mean that they are better or nothing like that, it just means they are the “Chosen People”. God needed to chose and form a people with at least some of them obeying out of love to make this fallen world safe enough for The Second Person of the Trinity to become a human being. God’s Plan is still unfolding and like our Brother, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, God-Incarnate, said, “Be ready, night is coming when no man can work”, that will be the night of the sixth day but don’t worry, the seventh day, the one that “God Blest, Rested and Made Holy” will also get here. One of the things that I included on my posting of 10-26-2007 at 12:04PM I will repeat here, God is a searcher of hearts and minds, not of religious affiliations or lack thereof. Take care, see you in the Kingdom. Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • Ibraheem

    To AbidWow, thank you for demonstrating the least intelligent tautology I have ever read in my life. I was inspired to reject your very existence because of it on the following basisI cannot possibly imagine someone to write a tautology that bad, therefore people such as you must be false people.