Vol. 5 Num 97 Mon. August 30, 2004  

Freedom of belief in Islam

The Quranic declaration: "Let there be no compulsion in religion, truth stands out clear from error"(2:256) ensures tolerance, freedom of belief, and absence of compulsion in Islam. We can find such declarations throughout the course of the Prophet's (SM) stay in Makkah as well as during the time he spent in the different political environment of Medina. Furthermore, verses like the following:

"Those who believe, then disbelieve, then again believe, then disbelieve and thereafter go on increasing in disbelief, Allah will never forgive them, nor guide them to any way of deliverance"(4:137)

proclaim that not only the doors to enter the circle of Islam are open for everyone but also the doors to depart from it are open. One would think that these references from the Quran should be able to establish the freedom of belief in Islam without any reservations.

Ironically, the freedom of belief, particularly the issue of apostasy, is still one of the major sources of confusion and contradiction among contemporary Muslims.

Why is that? According to Dr. Jamal Badawi, a member of the European Council for Fatwa and Research and the Fiqh Council of North America:

"There are scholars who distinguish between apostasy on a personal level, which is not punishable by death, and apostasy that is accompanied by what we call today high treason, in which case the punishment is for high treason, not for apostasy."

The truth, however, is that many of the traditional/classical interpreters do not distinguish between these two types. This is where the contradiction begins.

In the era of communication revolution, the world is growing ever more interdependent. The lines between foreign and domestic policy are becoming less distinct. The freedom of belief in Muslim societies is no longer an internal issue alone. It also impacts on the Muslim world's relationship with other states, cultures, and peoples. Thus this issue needs to be clarified and articulated unambiguously if Muslim society is to establish itself

as a transparent and just society and to coexist with other nations peacefully.

Any such effort will be incomplete without the consideration of the major scholarly work, namely, Towards an Islamic Theory of International Relations: New Direction for Methodology and Thought by Dr. Abdul Hamid Abu Sulayman. According to the author, the traditional opinion regarding apostasy has two problems. One is a disregard of the space-time factor; the other is conceptual confusion. Similar view

is hold by Dr. Hashim Kamali, another major contemporary scholar, who explained the issue in details in his work Freedom of Expression in Islam.

What is the space-time factor? During the time of prophet the issue of apostasy related to the hypocrisy and conspiracy of some Jewish groups as mentioned in Quran.

"A faction of the People of the Book say: Believe in the morning what is revealed to the believers, but reject it at the end of the day; perchance they may turn back. And believe no one unless he follows

your religion." (3:72-73)

One can imagine how badly this can affect the morale of the young Muslim community and how big a threat it can pose to it while surrounded by extremely hostile forces. Imposing a death sentence on any of these people, is an exception rather than the rule for apostasy, where apostasy is accompanied by grievous crimes such as conspiracy and rebellion. Prophet Muhammad (SM) sentenced the hypocrite Abu Sarh to death, but this judgement was later waived at the desperate request of Uthman ibn Affan. This is

the lone example of capital punishment for apostasy during the prophet's lifetime, which was not even executed. Accepting such punishment as a basic law would mean ignoring the space-time considerations that played an important role in determining the gravity of the punishment.

The second problem, i.e. the conceptual confusion, was created by the classical jurists when they took any prophetic act at its face value rather than for the meaning or purpose it conveyed. They mixed up political conspiracy with the exercise of freedom of belief, a basic human right. Thus apostasy to them meant the death penalty with little concern for any deeper analysis.

This kind of erroneous interpretation goes against the very spirit of Islam, which advocates peace, tolerance and justice. It also destroys the confidence of Muslims with genuine concern for the welfare of humanity in general.

So what is the conclusion? In Abu Sulayman's words: "It is very important for Muslims to keep in focus the basic and central values of individual moral responsibility and freedom of belief and conscience in Islam and not to be lost in formal, legalistic, and short-sighted academic arguments about details and textual materials. Ideological freedom is a basic necessity for any constructive, peaceful and humane ideology, both internally and externally."

Syeda Sultana Razia, PhD, is an Assistant Professor at BUET.