Theology Thursday: Intellectual Apostasy: The Real Issue by Ibrahim Abusharif
Another fire to put out. This time an Afghani (formerly a Muslim) speaks of his religious makeover and, for a while, faced the penalty of death because of apostasy rulings found in Islamic sacred law - this according to an Afghani "judge." The story and its permutations have led the network and cable news and print behemoths, received comments from the White House and just about every Rev and collar in America and Europe, and provoked more rabid slurs trained on Islam. In a way, I understand the indignation: if a man wants to change his religion, so let him. This controversy raises some issues that outstrip one person.
As for apostasy laws, they do exist. But Islam is not the only religion in this regard, nor are they alien to secular systems. And you ask: So what? What kind of argument is that? Is this McApologetics? Good questions. I mention this because regrettably analogies of this kind are now a requirement, given the puerile handling of Muslim affairs, the pompous bloviations of media "experts," and a public seemingly sedated by its own sense of perfection. But it also adds perspective in the light of the monster-making process of all things "Islamic." When you believe that the patent to "issues," like violence and extremism, belongs to one folk, then the mind is doomed to delve into fear-fictions that permit legislatures to make all kinds of damned "laws" and wars. So, I make the analogy between apostasy in the early Islamic historical context with the American law of treason or sedition that is punishable by death.
The apostasy laws in Islamic legal tradition vary greatly and are often said to pertain more to "treason" and "sedition" than a spiritual choice. Back in the day, when Islam was young and enemies abound, those who didn't want to see their idols dethroned in the city of Abraham (Mecca) and those who felt intimidated that God would send a prophet from Ishmael's pedigree (especially in the post-Jesus world) tried to do anything to damage or destroy the small community of believers. They made alliances, attempted to assassinate the Prophet Muhammad (numerous times), waged battle, slandered galore, and other tricks to do the deed. There were hypocrites among "the believers"; they would be Muslim by day and plotting maniacs by night, allying themselves with those who, on their own accord, chose enmity as their reception to Islam and its folk. They would change their "faith" for political expedience and promises in order to do some impolite things to a budding religious community. Their aim was not subtle.
In the aftermath of the passing of the Prophet, some Arab tribes (especially in the eastern half of the Arabian Peninsula) decided to edit out a core tenet of the faith and withhold their charitable requirement, and thus impale the very economic basis of a contiguous people and nation. The battle against them was called the "War of Apostasy." Much has been made of this. It's comparable to a movement to refuse to pay taxes to the Feds while still claiming the right to live in America. Imagine that on a large basis, such that the very economic legs of the nation would not only wobble, but collapse and put an end to the American entity. Do we remember the Civil War and its economic rationale?
It's important to note that apostasy rulings have rarely been used in the heyday of Islamic civilization, a ranging world conglomerate stretching from the western frontiers of China, the Indian subcontinent, to North and Sub-Saharan Africa, eastern Europe, and the western shores of Spain. There's absolutely nothing in the élan or sacred paradigms of Islam that makes a religious choice an anathema to Muslims. Not one reference in the Quran that refers to people leaving the realm of faith suggests the penalty of death. The scripture does, however, state that in the Hereafter these scoffers will not find an easy remedy. The statements of the Prophet with regard to apostasy have been profoundly examined by scholars, most of whom have placed a high premium on context when adjudicating.
I mean, listen: read history by real historians. And if you have the money, fly out to North Africa and the Middle East and look at some of the oldest Christian and Jewish communities on the face of the earth. The relatively few episodes of animosity were a matter of human frailty (pandemic always) and not rooted in the deep soil of the Islamic way of thinking. The recent tensions of the last century in the Muslim world were inspired more by the "political" strains of the Palestinian issue or secular juntas of the Arab east, patterned after European fascist or socialist political systems (the Baath Party of Iraq is an example) than by Islam and its laws. Then compare that with Spanish extermination and expulsion of Muslims and Jews, sanctioned and approved of by Rome. There's more to cite, like the Catholic "response" to the early followers of Martin Luther; the conquerors in the New World, who were given the right to "subdue" the natives in the "name of Christ," which was permissible because the natives were unclean "infidels"; the slaughter of Mormons (heretics according to mainstream Protestant churches) in early American history; and others.
But that was history, and these minority communities in the Muslim east were originally of the Christian and Jewish milieu, although it's well known that there were converts among them (very few) from Muslim ranks. (Personally, I know of Christian Arabs who were once Muslim, who made the choice for their own reasons. And they live well in the Arab world.)
Now back to Afghanistan, a nation smitten in recent history by invasions, revolutions, extremists, and entrenched tribal logic. Anyone who has any awareness of the country will know that, like the so-called "honor killings" of India and Pakistan, this episode of apostasy "ruling" is informed not by Islamic sacred law or paradigms, but by a people poorly confronting their own ignorance and psychological traumas. Just like the destruction of the Buddhist statues in Afghanistan, which existed for centuries unmolested by the Muslim authorities that ruled the region (which once contained many centers of high learning, if one can imagine that), this Afghani fellow, a Muslim turned Christian, may be another victim of the contemporary Muslim "funk" and may add to the misunderstanding of Islam and lend further credence to questionable theories of civilizations and their inevitable clashes. (The devil wonders how many in the vocal bleachers were hoping to see this man become a martyr who would then inspire many a troubadour to sing elegies by which the missionaries can do their work.)
Now to preach: I'm not sure how these things happen, but they are damned when they do. There's hardly anything more dangerous than the mixture of religion with simplemindedness, or any people-moving philosophies mixed with the loss of intellectualism and critical thinking. Somehow the spiritual equation has been inversed. Too many folk interpret rigidity and strictness as signs of religious commitment and piety. Spiritual security, however, always leads to flexibility, lenience, and mercy, the qualities that ushered so many into Islam in the first place. A show of religiosity by way of gesture, a stage play of piety, is obnoxious and, on a larger scale, a disaster. One wonders where's the Muslim world clerisy on this underlying issue. Or is there one to speak of, an authentic intelligentsia cleansed of the automatic verbiage of expired "movements"?
Note: There are many academic treatises on the topic of apostasy rulings in Islamic law, and clearly there are ranging opinions among scholars of the classical age and modern. The intransigence of the Afghani "judge" of this controversy is out of step with the very legal tradition he believes he's upholding—a tradition that has survived because of important degrees of plasticity.
Ibrahim N. Abusharif is the editor-in-chief of the Starlatch Press, a Chicago-based publishing house. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his blog From Clay. This article appears on
Thursday, March 30, 2006