What is apostasy? In simple terms, it’s the abandonment or renunciation of one’s faith. This is usually in reference to leaving behind a religious belief. It’s a subject that cause controversy, for in some faiths, the punishment for apostasy is death. Indeed, this penalty is outlined in the Old Testament of the Bible, Deutronomy 13:6 – 13:11…
6 If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, 7 gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), 8 do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them. 9 You must certainly put them to death. Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people. 10 Stone them to death, because they tried to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 11 Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again.
It may be argued by Christians that the New Testament supersedes the Old, and I don’t for one second believe every Christian will share exactly the same viewpoint on this, but the fact remains, to many Christians, the Bible is the Word of God, which means, to me at least, that God felt the need to very harshly clamp down upon anyone who did not worship God anymore, for… well, figuring out why an almighty, omnipotent, omnipresent being needs to be worshipped to the point of such savage laws on the books is a great mystery.
However, Christianity is not the focus of this particular post, but rather, an intriguing article posted at Blogging Theology, though not written by anyone active on that site (that I know of). This article was posted by Paul Williams, but I don’t know if he shares the article’s views, or was merely sharing it. It was written by Bassam Zawadi, and as means of a disclaimer, I do not consider the article to represent the views of every Muslim. It is however, an article worth dissecting. I won’t be reproducing the entire article (it would make this post far too lengthy), but you can click the link to see it if you wish.
Elements of Mr Zawadi’s article will be in purple, and in Italics, for clarity.
There seems to be a problem with many “modernist and liberal” Muslims out there who would like to “sugarcoat” the religion of Islam by distorting what it really teaches. There are those that go at length to deny that Islam teaches that apostates must be killed. They either deny the explicit hadith that speak about this or reinterpret it to only refer to those apostates that would fight the Muslims.
This is false. I am not going to spend time in this article trying to prove that Islam does call for the killing of apostates and the rules and conditions behind killing apostates (e.g. the apostate must be interrogated first in order to refute what doubts he has for three days, etc.) for I am assuming that my readers already adhere to and have knowledge of the orthodox position regarding the matter. What I want to speak about in this article is the reason for Islam ordering the killing of apostates.
Before I proceed, let me make it clear that when I speak about apostates that must be killed I am only referring to those apostates who live under an Islamic theocratic state and have openly declared their apostasy. What this means is that no Muslim has a right to go to America or Europe for example and start killing ex-Muslims, for he has no such authority to do so.
Naturally, I cannot speak for liberal Muslims, or indeed, any Muslims, I can only interpret these words via a different lens. Every religion has looked inward, and some of the faith have tried to move with the times, whilst others have resisted change. When there are laws on the books that call for killing, it’s hardly unreasonable to expect people to be unnerved and uneasy. Islam does indeed have such laws, though in practice they are not widely used. The question is why they need to exist, something Mr Zawadi explains…
People find it difficult to grasp why apostasy is a crime that is so great that it would call for a punishment (i.e. execution) that is more severe than say fornication (i.e. flogging), deliberate and preplanned theft (i.e. cutting of the hand), etc. However, with careful contemplation and a realization of the reality of the issue at hand, the matter should be easy for one to swallow.
If someone tells you that the state executed a man who was guilty of murdering someone by stabbing him repeatedly, would you shout “This is injustice! Why did you execute this man! His crime wasn’t that great!”?
I believe that many of us would not say so. I believe many of us would say that the murderer deserved to be executed because of the gravity of his heinous crime. Not too many of us would sympathize with such a man. This man made his innocent victim suffer greatly each time his knife penetrated his flesh. He caused him so much physical pain that the man suffered greatly even though it was only for a matter of a few minutes.
We’ll leave aside the detail that I do not agree with the extreme punishments for fornication and theft, and that I am generally opposed to the death penalty as well. I can see where this argument is going.
Now let us come to the apostate. A person who would openly declare his apostasy affects the people around him. The people around him might ask themselves “Why on earth did this Muslim leave Islam? Is he out of his mind? Or maybe he discovered something wrong with Islam? Maybe Islam isn’t that clear after all!” These people would then start to doubt their religion. If they seriously doubt their religion, they cease to be Muslims. If they cease to be Muslims that would very likely land them up in the blazing fire of Hell for eternity.
In the previous example, we saw that the murderer was executed because he caused his victim so much physical pain even though it was only for a matter of a few minutes, however with the apostate we see that he could cause the people around him so much spiritual damage by destroying their souls that these people could land up in the blazing fire of Hell for eternity.
With all honesty, which crime is worse? Stabbing a person for a few minutes or making him burn for eternity? The answer is obvious and we know that it is the latter. If the latter crime is much worse, why are we insisting that it is difficult to grasp why Islam would call for the killing of apostates then?
Yes, which is worse? Taking a life, or saying ‘I don’t believe anymore’. If the act of saying ‘I renounce my beliefs’ is enough for others to question theirs, that suggests there’s not a lot of underlying confidence in that faith to begin with, and threatening the death penalty for the apostate is simply the use of fear to keep others in line. It’s no different to the hard-line stances in countries like North Korea, where sedition is punished by death.
We see a little more of this mindset later on…
Lack of faith or no faith at all in the truth of Islam
Many Muslims with weak faith still fail to fully comprehend the seriousness and gravity of kufr (disbelief). They fail to recognize its deadly results (i.e. Hellfire) because the crime of the apostate towards his victims won’t be displayed or shown in this life, but in the after life (i.e. you would only realize the pain that the apostate will go through in the next life and not in this one, thus you don’t see the seriousness of apostasy with your own eyes now), therefore they find it difficult to accept the fact that apostates must be punished in this life. However, if one has strong faith (especially in the fact that apostates will go to hell if they don’t repent) and the correct understanding of the seriousness of Kufr then it only takes common sense to figure out why apostates must be killed.
I’ve underlined what I feel to be a telling sentence. If people have strong faith, then someone else saying ‘I don’t believe anymore’ shouldn’t be a test. If people are devout, and confident in their beliefs, then what someone else has to say about them – be they a Muslim who has publicly left their religion, be they an atheist, or someone from another faith – should be of no concern and no consequence. Imposing the death penalty to rapidly clamp down upon anyone leaving Islam is the mentality of a lack of confidence – a lack of faith.
Further along, Mr Zawadi claims the arguments made against these laws by atheists are subjective, emotional judgements, because they lack objective morality (see here for why that notion has been debunked). It is apparently entirely right for God to call for the deaths of disbelievers (something enshrined by both Christian and Islamic teachings), and it is apparently not right to question this. The Biblical God and the God of the Qu’ran share this implacable need to be worshipped, and in a very specific way, otherwise there is Hell to pay – literally. All these rituals and codes – which are designed to apparently let us live happy lives – are simply forms of control. Just look at the punishment on the books for saying ‘I don’t believe in Islam’. Look at the history of Christianity and the wars for control of the Holy Land.
Nor can we confine this to Christianity and Islam, for there are punishments for apostasy in other religions as well. What we have are several religions, and several interpretations of those religions, all declaring to be the one true faith, and all promising punishment for not believing. It’s a narrative that’s entirely about control.