Another View on Apostasy in Islam

Many people have heard of Capt. James Yee, former US Army Muslim Chaplain who ministered to the prisoners in the US military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and who was arrested on charges of espionage and aiding the enemy, and later released and honorably discharged from the military. He was visiting my college yesterday to speak about his experiences in the military, his spiritual journey to Islam, his Guantanamo ministry days (particularly disturbing in terms of the details of how the prisoners are treated at the base), and his arrest and subsequent release by the US military (Read The Strange Case of Chaplain Yee for a good summary.)

After his talk, the chaplain was on hand for a brief discussion session with the Muslim students here over some cheese pizza with chai. I asked what he thought about the case of the Afghan convert to Christianity who was facing the death penalty. He said that in the early days of Islam, when apostasy was made a crime punishible by death, it was not simply to execute those who abandoned Islam for their change of belief. Though it is often portrayed as such in the media nowadays, and though it is interpreted as such by literalists and conservative clerics, apostasy in and of itself is not a crime punishible by death. Rather, apostasy as taken in the historical context of the early Muslim community at the time of the prophet, when the community of the believers also constituted a polity, often implied more that simply a change of religious belief, and also meant sedition and treason. The chaplain pointed to how these crimes (of treason and sedition) were still regarded as capital crimes (including in the West), and the allegations brought against him were a case in point. If the court in Kabul was prosecuting the convert simply on the grounds that he had converted to Christianity, they were ignoring important preconditions for the criminality of apostasy in Islam, and hence in effect acting outside the Shariah law.
This is the sort of thing that I have not often read in the news in relation to the apostasy case in Afghanistan. This is the sort of thing that people in the West have to pay attention to as much as the clerics and judges ruling on this case.

A while back when the apostasy case first surfaced I did a search about apostasy and came across the Iranian cleric who is out of favor with the regime, Ayatollah Montazeri’s opinions on this subject. According to him (a significant Shi’a religious authority), a simple reversion of belief when grounded in an informed and educated decision to leave Islam (and when not undertaken out of malice and enmity towards the Muslim community- essentially similar to sedition and treason) is not apostasy at all. (See “Ayatollah Montazeri: Not Every Conversion is Apostasy“.)
I found Chaplain Yee’s comments mirroring the position taken by Ayatollah Montazeri, and I found both somewhat reassuring. Yet the case in Afghanistan has demonstrated that when conservative temperaments flare and blood needs to be spilt, there are always ways to bend the rules…

15 Responses to Another View on Apostasy in Islam

  1. hatif says:

    hi ,
    thanks for writing more and more actively. yes,apostasy, like many other things, has a context -dependent meaning in much of Islam’s earlier periods. the meaning was altered later when Muslim rulers became pretty confident that Islam would stay there any way, even with a message void of any good spirit. look at the Islam practiced by our Foqahah now. they do not find themselves in need of any justification for any thing. because they know that Islam no longer needs any justification.When they shout, with a sort of bravado, that Islam will not be influenced by any attack from outside or any treason from inside, they are sure that they are right. truth does not mean any thing to them. identity is what they are fighting for, and that is some thing that has long been formed and fortified among the lay followers.
    by the way, thanks for commenting on my blog. you are always helpful.

  2. jamal says:

    Ignoring the points that Afghanistan does not even implement a full unequivial Shariah, I offer the following.

    “The blood of a Muslim who professes that there is no god but Allah and that I am His Messenger, is sacrosanct except in three cases: a married adulterer; a person who has killed another human being; and a person who has abandoned his religion, while splitting himself off from the community (muifariq lil-jamaah)”

    Imam Ibn Taymiyyah explaining the aforementioned hadith of the Prophet (pbuh) inferred that “the crime referred to in the hadith under discussion is that of high treason (hirabah) and not apostasy. The Prophet’s saying about apostasy is a short statement pronounced within the context of war conditions. Muslims were greatly affected to see one of their companions desert his faith and join the ranks of disbelievers. They were not sure if they should kill him or spare his life because he was a Muslim once. The Prophet, peace be upon him, explained that one who abandons his religion and deserts his fellows should be killed. Regrettably, people of the subsequent generations have taken the Prophet’s saying out of its historical context and generalized it. In so doing they deny one of the basic truths of Islam: the freedom of faith…The saying is related to the case of the Muslim who deserts his fellows and joins the enemies of Islam. Such a person will either be killed or kill someone else

    Regarding this apostasy, historically the punishment was originally put into force following the Jewish conspiracy against Islam. The details of that conspiracy were simply mass conversion to Islam and then mass apostasy. The main ill aim was to cause confusion and to lead people astray. Thus, the punishment was set as a precautionary measure to stop all these offenses. The Qur`an and authentic ahadith teach us to treat apostates like other kuffar, whose treatment varies from kindness to killing depending on the circumstances and on the degree of hostility they show towards Islam and Muslims. Therefore the punishment was not for Apostasy, but for Apostasy and the treason and sedition that were regarded as capital crimes, as they are some places in the West past and present.

    With reference to my own understanding, there is not a single authentically recorded instance that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) did treat apostasy as a prescribed offence under hudud (capital punishment) only for leaving Islam. No one was sentenced to death solely for renunciation of faith unless accompanied by hostility and treason, or was linked to an act of political betrayal of the community. As a matter of fact the Qur’an is completely silent on the question of death as a punishment for apostasy which does not qualify for temporal punishment. The following is provided based on Ahmad Ibn Naqib Al-Misri’s ‘The Reliance of the Traveller’ (from IslamOnline) with some amendments);

    “In addressing the issue of apostasy it is important to keep in mind the time, circumstances and the conditions that existed at the time of a particular ruling or judgment. Most modern governments do not apply Shari`ah law. However, this does not justify individuals taking it upon themselves to kill people if they apostatize from Islam. If this were to happen, such reckless action would only lead to a vicious circle of murder and homicide in which case a great deal of innocent people would be injured. As it stands presently, the means for dealing with apostasy are appropriate. Muslims should know that Almighty Allah has promised the apostate a severe punishment in this life, and an even greater punishment in the next life.”

  3. Ahmad Khalid says:

    Scholars are divided over interpretation of apostasy in Islam. But, as you pointed out, I think it is more than just coverting to other religion. Although I’m not very sure, I remember the term first emerged when a group of people in the times of Prophet Muhammad apparently accepted Islam for conspiracy. But then after carrying out their acts of sedition and treachery, they recoverted from Islam. What was important in the case of Abdul Rahman was that it showed how weak and inefficient the Afghan judiciary is.

  4. GazanKhan says:

    You write so well my friend, I honestly wonder why you don’t have very many visitors? May be it’s a good idea to comment on some crowded blogs so people know about this blog, like you let me know yours and I’m glad you did that.
    For instance you can visit this blog:
    It’s a good one and has many visitors from Iran Europe the US and all over the world I think.
    P.S. Is that your real name: Hamesha? I have always liked Afghani names and I like the good poet GOLROKHSAAR, I wrote about her romantic experince a few months ago; she had seen those books in the grave. She said: FAGHAAN MIKARDIM, and I liked that very much.I guess you know her better anyway.

  5. I suspect that the historical contextualization of death for apostasy in Islam will have little effect in convincing those that are baying for blood to change their mind and let Abdul Rahman live. Like so many other things in Islam, this is a matter of contention and whatever your respective position in the debate, you carry – let’s say – a certain attitudinal disposition that is exclusive of the others position and will likely carry into women’s rights and other issues.

    That this is mere theatrics, I have no doubt, though the implications extend beyond that.

    Of course, I have one paramount concern (if hypothetical): What if this was unanimously accepted by Islam? Would we – the reformist Don Quixotes – stand on our reason if there was no escape hatch in contextualiztion?

  6. hatif says:

    hi hamisha jan,
    GazanKhan’s comment suggested that Gul Rokhsaar was an Afghan poet. In fact she is from Tajikistan and ,of course,she is famous there ,but little known in Afghanistan.

  7. GazanKhan says:

    Sorry Hatif, my mistake, you are absolutely right, it was a blunder actually

  8. Hamesha – This is the first time I am reading your blog, and I can tell this is one I will be hooked to. I hope you don’t mind, but I would love to add you to my blogroll! I look forward to keeping up with your blog regularly, and will search for the Farsi version of the poem you mentioned. Thanks for the comments!

  9. Great Blog, nicely shows the picture. I will be sure to keep coming back. thanks for stopping by on my blog and commenting. Hope to see more great writting from you.

  10. Zak says:

    I have been saying much the same..the existing debate is essentially between orthodox Islamists and people who reject Islamic arguments irrespective. Equating blasphemy in a Muslim state like afghanistan and in the West is apples and oranges. One should compare ideological the US it would be equivalent to committing treason..the punishment for treason is death in most nations of the world. It’s where there is a duality of apostasy and revolt against the state that apostasy comes in..not apostasy on it’s own..otherwise the list of people who would be executed in Muslim countries would be very long!

  11. UmmAli says:

    Lovely, piece. I would have loved to listen to Br. Yee speak. I heard his interview on Democrac now and I was most impressed. I wish that interview with Ayat. Montazeri were in English, though.

  12. sidrah says:

    thank you for the erudition, both in post and comments. this issue has been swirling around in my head for quite a few days, now.

  13. jilal says:

    Salam alaikoum from paris great blog keep it up

  14. Ikhlas1 says:


    I am no scholar on this issue but thank you for posting this very interesting article. I will have to look into it but I agree with how apostacy is compared with treason if that person actively acts against the state in Islamic Law. We also have to remember that Islamic governments shouldn’t be partially applying Shariah law which could be counterproductive. Another thing I wanted to mention is, putting this case in the global perspective, it would be in the interests of Islam if people were not killed for changing faith. We have to look at how the fastest growing religion in the world is Islam with large numbers of converts from NonMuslim countries. People in these countries would start thinking that we have double standards. Also, in the case of Abdul Rahmaan, he was working with a Christian aid group during a desperate time, shouldn’t that be taken into context.

    The final point I want to mention is concerning the uproar in Western nations about this case. I personally believe that every human beings or animal’s life is priceless and that we should defend every innocent person. But, I think that many of us have forgotten our own problems such as Abortion. Shouldn’t millions of Muslims and the global community start protesting against the taking of millions of innocent children’s lives?
    God Knows Best

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