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.