In the furor throughout the Islamic world over the publication of negative caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in Danish newspapers, and more recently giving the name Muhammad to a teddy bear, the earlier anger about author Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses was rekindled. The critical difference, of course, is that Rushdie was condemned not only for blaspheming the Prophet but for leaving Islam as the faith he was born into. This issue of apostasy — leaving Islam — resurfaced a year ago in the case of an Afghan man named Abdul Rahman, who proudly claimed he had converted to Christianity. Several Islamic nations, including Afghanistan regard apostasy as a crime and impose the death penalty for this.

The issue seems to be simple; it is egregious to any modern notion of human rights and Islamophobes are quick to dredge up a long history of Islamic legal rulings that legitimize such a death penalty. In point of fact no contemporary Islamic nation state follows all the ascribed shari’a penalties to the letter of the law. Even when constitutions state that the laws are based on the shari’a, it is the state itself which takes over many of the functions once given to Islamic judges. What might have worked (and we know that laws were always unevenly applied) at some point in the caliphate is not working today.

Unfortunately, the death penalty for apostasy is one of those aspects of traditional Islamic law that survives, even if rarely applied. Books of legal prescriptions (fiqh) usually include a section on apostasy (ridda). An example is The Reliance of the Traveler, written by Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri, who died in 1368 — more than a century before Columbus discovered the New World or the Ottomans conquered Constantinople. Here is how al-Misri dealt with the legal problem of apostasy:

(Leaving Islam is the ugliest form of unbelief (kufr) and the worst. It may come about through sarcasm, as when someone is told, “Trim your nails, it is sunna,” and he replies, “I would not do it even if it were,” as opposed to when some circumstance exists which exonerates him of having committed apostasy, such as when his tongue runs away with him, or when he is quoting someone, or says it out of fear.)

When a person who has reached puberty and is sane voluntarily apostasizes from Islam, he deserves to be killed.

In such a case, it is obligatory for the caliph (or his representative) to ask him to repent and return to Islam. If he does, it is accepted from him, but if he refuses, he is immediately killed.

If he is a freeman, no one besides the caliph or his representative may kill him. If someone else kills him, the killer is disciplined (for arrogating the caliph’s prerogative and encroaching upon his rights, as this is one of his duties).

There is no indemnity for killing an apostate (or any expiation, since it is killing someone who deserves to die).

If he apostasizes from Islam and returns several times, it (i.e., his return to Islam, which occurs when he states the two Testifications of Faith), is accepted from him, though he is disciplined…

(Among the things that entail apostasy from Islam (may Allah protect us from them) are:

(1) to prostrate to an idol, whether sarcastically, out of mere contrariness, or in actual conviction, like that of someone who believes the Creator to be something that has originated in time, Like idols in this respect are the sun or moon, and like prostration is bowing to other than Allah, if one intends reverence towards it like the reverence due Allah;

(2) to intend to commit unbelief, even if in the future. And like this intention is hesitating whether to do so or not: one thereby immediately commits unbelief;

(3) to speak words that imply unbelief such as “Allah is the third of three,” or “I am Allah” — unless one’s tongue has run away with one, or one is quoting another, or is one of te friends of Allah Most High (wali) in a spiritually intoxicating state of total oblivion (friend of Allah or not, someone totally oblivious is as if insane, and is not held legally responsible), for these latter do not entail unbelief;

(4) to revile allah or His messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace);

(5) to deny the existence of Allah, His beginningless eternality, His endless eternality, or to deny any of His attributes which the consensus of Muslims ascribes to Him;

(6) to be sarcastic about Allah’s name, His command, His interdiction, His promise, or His threat;

(7) to deny any verse of the Koran or anything which by scholarly consensus belongs to it, or to add a verse that does not belong to it;

(8) to mockingly say, “I don’t know what faith is”;

(9) to reply to someone who says, “There is no pwoer or strength save through Allah”: “Your saying ‘There’s no power or strength, etc.’ won’t save you from hunger”;

(10) for a tyrant, after an oppressed person says, “This is through the decreee of Allah,” to reply, “I act without the decree of Allah”;

(11) to say that a Muslim is an unbeliever (kafir) in words that are uninterpretable as merely meaning he is an ingrate towards Allah for divinely given blessings;

(12) when someone asks to be taught the Testification of Faith (Arabic Shahadah, the words, ‘La ilaha illa Allahu Muhammadun rasulu Llah’ (there is no god but Allah, Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah) and a Muslim refuses to teach him it;

(13) to describe a Muslim or someone who wants to become a Muslim in terms of unbelief (kufr);

(14) to deny the ogligatory character of something which by the consensus of Muslims (ijma’) is part of Islam, when it is well known as such, like the prayer (salat) or even one rak’a from one of the five obligatory prayers, if there is no excuse;

(15) to hold that any of Allah’s messengers or prophets are liars, or to deny their being sent;

(n: ‘Ala al-din ‘Abidin adds the following:

(16) to revile the religion of Islam;

(17) to believe that things in themselves or by their own nature have any causal influence independent of the will of Allah;

(18) to deny the existence of angels or jinn, or the heavens;

(19) to be sarcastic about any ruing of the Sacred law;

(20) or to deny that Allah intended the Prophet’s message (Allah bless him and give him peace) to be the religion of the entire world.)

There are others, for the subject is nearly limitless. May Allah the Most High save us and all Muslims from it.

When these lines were written the caliphate was already in shambles, after the Mongols had abruptly ended Abbasid rule in Baghdad. Legal works continued to recite penalties for certain offenses, but the power of a legitimate state to enforce these was rarely in place. During the colonial era, most governments in the region created civil codes for many offenses previously handled by Islamic judges. Al-Misri, for example, also discusses stoning for fornication and sodomy, cutting off the right hand of a thief, forty lashes of the whip for drinking an intoxicant (even if medicinal). Apart from the Taliban and Wahhabis, few Islamic nation states resort to these strict penalties any more. In al-Misri’s time it was also legal to own slaves. Yet, I do not think anyone would want to return to slavery as something sanctioned by Allah. An appeal to earlier legal precedent in this case is more a can of worms that a reform-minded Muslim Diet of Worms.

The subject of apostasy is one that many Muslims are reluctant to engage, which leaves the field open for Islamophobes. Liberal voices on this issue, which point out that the Quran itself does not mandate a death penalty for apostasy, are easily drowned out. There are such voices on blogs, but they are not in the majority. Meanwhile, Christian missionaries have used the case of Abdul Rahman as a point for pressing more conversion. Even Bible-toting teenagers have been urged to use the case as a witness. For more information, there is an interesting case study for Kuwait by Anh Nga Longva.

Daniel Martin Varisco