This paper focuses on one of the basic human rights, 'freedom of belief', as it is dealt with in Islamic primary sources: the Qur'an, the sacred Scripture of Islam and the Sunnah (practice of the Prophet). In dealing with an issue like this, especially in a religious context like Islam, one needs to go back to the Scripture of Islam to see what is 'Islamic' and what is not. However, there is always the problem of interpretation of relevant parts of the Scripture. Each generation appears to look at the Scripture and Islamic tradition from its own perspective, and interprets them considering the generation's own circumstances and own experiences. In this process, what one generation understands from a particular section of the Scripture may be quite different from what another generation would understand from the same section in a different time and different circumstances. If this point about interpretation is correct, it could be said that there is no one 'correct' and 'final' interpretation of the Scripture, but possibly more than one, depending on the time, place or circumstances.
The following is an attempt to look at the issue of freedom of belief in Islam taking into consideration the current emphasis on human rights, the reality of modern nation-states, the pluralistic nature of the societies in these nation-states and the emphasis on harmony and tolerance among communities.
Freedom of belief
Freedom of belief is a basic human right: Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his [sic] religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his [sic] religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance (Humana 1992, p.383).
Article 18.2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights says: 'No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his [sic] freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice (Humana 1992, p.387).
Freedom of belief has become an international question. Today no state can claim that this freedom is merely ail internal political question. There are powerful forces, like National Human Rights Commissioners and Amnesty International, at work at local and international levels to safeguard this right. More and more communities, including some Muslim communities, are beginning to realise that freedom of belief is a fundamental human right. Today many countries, where Islam is the majority religion, allow their citizens the right to practise any religion of their choice (Humana 1992). Some Islamic states, however, do not allow practice of any religion but Islam openly, while in others, like Saudi Arabia, conversion from Islam to other religions is an offence punishable by death.
Since one-fifth of the world population is Muslim by faith and for them Islam provides the guidance in matters like this, it is important to look at what Islam has to say on this important issue. It must be noted that in looking at any issue from the 'Islamic' point of view, one must refer to the two prim~ sources of Islam, namely the Qur'an and the Sunnah.
Freedom of belief in the Qur'an
The Qur'an teaches that there is no compulsion in religion, and that it is entirely up to the individual to choose which religion he or she should follow. The Qur'an commanded Muslims not to force others to embrace Islam. It says:
There is no compulsion in matters of Faith. Distinct now is the way of guidance from error. He [sic] who turns away from the forces of evil and believes in God, will surely hold fast to a handle that is strong and unbreakable, for God hears all and knows everything (Qur'an 2:256).
The Qur'an also says that each person is given the capacity to discern right and wrong, and it is up to him or her to follow right or wrong (91:8-9). The Prophet's task is only to explain to people what is right and what is wrong, not to force people to become believers. The Qur'an (10:99) says: 'If it had been your Lord's Will, they would all have believed. Will you then compel mankind against their will, to believe!'.
As the Qur'an sees it, forced Faith is no faith. God has endowed humankind with various faculties which would allow each person to explore the religion he or she should follow. Each person is accountable only for his or her own actions (Qur'an 6:164,17:15,35;18,39:7,53:38). It is on the basis of this Qur'anic conviction that tolerance towards other religions is emphasised in many verses ofthe Qur'an. Each and every individual has the right to decide to follow the Truth or not to follow it. The reward or punishment will be in the life after death. The Qur'an says: 'Say [O Prophet!] "The Truth is from your Lord". Let him [or her] who will, believe, and let him [or her] who will, reject it'(18:29).
O people! Now Truth has reached you from your Lord. Whosoever is guided is guided only to his [or her] own gain, and whosoever goes astray, it is only to his [or her] own loss: and I am not (set) over you to arrange your affairs. (Qur'an 10:108).
The Qur'an not only gave people freedom of belief, but also recognised that different people followed different religions, and that these religions were dear to them (6:108). Religions, particularly the 'revealed religions' like Judaism and Christianity, are held in the Qur'an with respect. The Qur'an speaks highly of many religions, their prophets .and their scriptures. Not only does the Qur'an recognise this diversity in religion but also says that all those who believe in God and do good deeds will be rewarded handsomely by God (7:35). Also:
Those who believe, and those who are Jews, Sabeans, Christians, and all those who believe in God and in the Day of Judgement and do the good works, all of them have their merit with their Lord. They have no reason to fear nor will they grieve (Qur'an 5:69).
Recognition of diversity of religions is based on the concept of equality of humankind. Emphasising this equality among human beings, the Qur'an says: '0 men [sic], We have created you all of a male and a female. We constituted you in various tribes and nations that you may cooperate with one another. The better among you is only those who are pious and virtuous (49:13).
Freedom of belief and the Prophet's practice
The Prophet in his practice followed the principle of non-compulsion in the fullest sense of the term. Two examples will suffice here. When the Prophet was forced to migrate to Medina from Makkah (Mecca), among the first things he did was to conclude a peace treaty with the Jews of Medina, the most powerful religio-political group in Medina at that time, giving the Jews the right to practise their religion free from any obstacles. The treaty not only gave this right but also regarded the Jews as partners with Muslims (Watt 1956, pp.221-8).
Secondly, towards the end of the Prophet's mission, a delegation of Christians from Najran (southern Arabia) came to the Prophet in Medina to conclude a treaty between them and the Prophet. The treaty had the following terms:
To the Christians of Najran and the neighbouring territories, the security of God and the pledge of His Prophet are extended for their lives, their religion, and their property-to the present as well as the absent and others besides; there shall be no interference with [the practice of] their Faith or their observances; nor any change in their rights and privileges; no bishop shall be removed from his parish; nor any monk from his monastery, nor any priest from his priesthood, and they shall enjoy everything great and small as heretofore; no image or cross shall be destroyed; they shall not oppress or be oppressed (Ali 1955,
In the conquests that followed the death of the Prophet, his immediate political- successors, particularly Umar b. al-Khattab, concluded similar peace treaties with the conquered people giving them complete freedom of belief and practice of their religions (Salhab 1971, pp.310-14).
Evidence for this tolerance of other religions could be found also in the fact that, for instance, the majority of the populations of Syria, Iraq and Persia remained faithful to their religions long after the Muslim conquest of these places. In fact, the majority of these people did not profess Islam before the second and third century of Islam, that is 100 to 200 years after the conquest. The historian Hitti (1949) says: 'The number of Muslims in Syria in the first century after the conquest would not have increased over and above 200 000 out of a total population estimated as 3.5 million' (1, p.107). Had compulsion been used, the non-Muslim population would have accepted Islam soon after the conquest.
The discussion so far indicates that both the Qur' an and the Prophet gave people freedom to choose their religion, and tolerance was the norm, and compulsion was categorically rejected.
Freedom of belief for Muslims?
Muslim scholars generally do not question the existence of freedom of belief for non-Muslims as emphasised in the Qur'an and the Prophet's practice. According to them, non-Muslims may change their religion without any obstacles. The question now is: 'Is this freedom extended to the Muslims themselves?'. In other words, to what extent do Muslims have the freedom to change their religion?
Muslim scholars argue that once a person becomes a Muslim there is no way by which he or she can change his or her religion (AI-Jaziri, n.d, vol.5, pp.422-7). A Muslim, once he or she becomes a Muslim, loses his or her right to change the religion. This is based on the theory of apostasy developed in Islamic law. Apostasy has been defined as:
unbelief of a Muslim who accepted Islam by confessing the Unity of God and Prophethood of Muhammad of his [or her] own free will after having acquired knowledge of the fundamentals [of Islam] and made a commitment to abide by the rules of Islam (AI-Jaziri, n.d. vol.5, p.422).
A contemporary scholar, Al-Jaza'iri (1979, p.535) summarises ways by which a Muslim may become an apostate. His list, inter alia, covers the following:
- slandering God or a prophet or an angel;
- refusal to recognise that Allah is the true God or the prophethood of a prophet or belief that a prophet may come after Prophet Muhammad;
- rejection of an Islamic obligation (faridah) on which there is unanimous
- agreement like prayer, zakat, fasting, pilgrimage, kindness to parents or jihad;
- belief that an unlawful act such as adultery or consumption of alcohol or theft or killing of a person or practice of magic is lawful;
- rejection of a chapter of the Qur'an or a verse or even a letter of it;
- denial of an attribute of God like God's life, hearing, seeing or mercy;
- showing disdain to any religious practice, or throwing a copy of the Qur'an in a dirty place or stepping on it;
- belief that there is no resurrection or punishment or reward in the life after death, or belief that punishment and reward are merely spiritual;
- belief that saints (awliya') are better than prophets or that saints do not have to perform various acts of worship.
The first impression one has from this list is that it is drawn by some Sunnite Muslims emphasising their version of established dogma. Some of the items in the list are related to early controversies between Sunnites and their opponents, which in turn shaped Sunnite theology. For instance, some items in the list refer to the Mu'tazilite controversy over God's attributes, the Muslim philosophers' controversy over the nature of punishment in the Hereafter, the Shiite dispute over the alleged omission or alteration of certain verses of the Qur'an, and the Sufi (ascetic and mystical Muslim sect) conception of 'saint'. As to be expected, what the Sunnite scholars regard as apostasy may not be apostasy for their opponents. Such a list drawn by the opponents of Sunnites may be somewhat different to the one given here.
Punishment for apostasy and the Qur'an
The punishment for apostasy is death, as stated in Islamic law. Such a punishment, however, does not appear to have been based on a clear instruction of the Qur'an. The Qur'an does not specify any worldly punishment (death) for anyone who exercises the right of freedom to change from the Islamic religion. Several verses are used to support this point of view. About those Muslims who abandon their religion, the Qur'an says:
- Whoever of you abandons his [or her] religion and dies an unbeliever, his [or her] works will surely fail him [or her] in this world and the next (2, p.217);
In these and similar verses, which appear to be the most relevant verses to the issue at hand, there is no reference to a worldly punishment by death for rejecting Islam. In fact, the punishment is reserved in the Hereafter, just like the punishment of unbelievers is reserved in the Hereafter in many other verses of the Qur'an.1f a punishment was meant to be meted out, there should have been some reference to it in any of these or similar verses, as the Qur'an did in, relatively speaking, minor offences like adultery and theft (24:2; 5:37). More importantly, the extract from the Qur'an (4:137 above) clearly indicates that these Muslims had a series of defections from Islam, and yet they were allowed to remain free and lived to do as they wished several more times without mention of a punishment by death.
Punishment for apostasy and the practice of the Prophet
There is apparently no verse in the Qur'an which states that a Muslim who repudiates Islam should be punished by death. The theory of apostasy relies heavily on the Hadith to justify such a punishment. One Hadith which is commonly used in support of punishment of apostasy is: 'The Prophet reportedly said: "Whoever changes his religion, kill him!'" (Bukhari, n.d., istitabat al-murtaddin).
This Hadith is regarded as authentic (sahih). The Hadith, however, is rather general ('amm). On the basis of its literal meaning, it could be argued that once a person accepts a religion, he or she cannot change it whether it is Islam or Christianity or Judaism or other. Therefore, we need to look at other relevant Hadith on the issue to determine the meaning of this Hadith. According to one Hadith, the person to be killed is one 'who reverts from Islam to Unbelief' (Al-Bayhaqi, n.d, 8:194), wpile according to another, it is one 'who repudiates his religion and separates himself from the Community' (Al-Bayhaqi, n.d., 8:194).
The wording of the last Hadith is significant, which perhaps throws some light on the punishment of death stated in these Hadith. There appears to be some connection between the punishment mentioned in the Hadith and 'separating oneself from the Community', which means that the person to be killed not only repudiates Islam but goes on to join the enemy and works against Islam and the Community. The meanings of rebellion and rising against the Community and its leader also exist in it. If these meanings are correct, then, it suggests that the punishment of death mentioned in the Hadith is meant for those -who repudiated Islam, joined the enemy and worked to destroy the Community and Islam. For this reason, one may suggest that the issue of apostasy as is mentioned in the Hadith could be more a 'political' issue than a 'religious' one. The following points support this interpretation.
The young Islamic community of the Prophet required its members to express a strong sense of community feeling; belief in Islam was not sufficient. After the migration of the Prophet to Medina, Muslim converts in Makkah had to migrate to Medina where the Prophet and other Muslims lived, and take part in the struggle against the Unbelievers. Failure to do so would exclude them from the community even though they are Muslims, as was the case with the Muslims of Makkah who did not migrate to Medina. The Qur'an divided the Muslims into two groups: one group which is truly part of the Muslim Community, and the other which was formally not part of the Community. The Qur'an says:
Those who believed, and emigrated and fought for the Faith with their property and their persons, in the cause of Allah, as well as those who gave them asylum and aid, these are all friends and protectors of one another. As to those who believed but did not emigrate you owe no duty of protection to them until they emigrate (Qur'an 8:72). '
Stating that there is no duty of protection is another way of saying that they were not part of the community since anyone who is part of the community, according to the tribal customs of Arabs, was to be given protection. The Prophet worked to strengthen this community feeling among the Muslims throughout his lifetime. The Qur'an, in turn, often warned Muslims of the dangers of causing division within the Community (3:103) and stated on many occasions that supporting one another Was an important part of Islam.
Secondly, being part of the Community and obeying the Leader was a virtue. The Qur'an in several instances demanded this from Muslims (4:59). The Prophet reportedly said that if one separates himself or herself from the community a span (shibran), he or she would die the death of a person of pre-Islamic times (Shawkani, n.d., 7:356), that is, the death of a non-Muslim. Leaving the community and attempting to create division within its ranks was also regarded ~s treason. The Prophet reportedly said:
Whoever intends to create division in the community while they are in agreement [lit. together] chop off his head with a sword, whoever that maybe (AI-Bayhaqi, n.d.,8:168).
Thirdly, the Prophet followed a lenient policy towards the many nominal Muslims within the Community. A mere declaration of the confession entitled one to be a member of the Community of Believers. As long as the person did not openly rebel against the Community or the Leader, he or she was allowed to remain as a member of that Community. The Prophet's policy was to attract to the Community as many people as he could, not to drive people away from it. When some Companions suggested that the Prophet should consider killing some of the so-called hypocrites (munafiqin), the Prophet reportedly said: 'I hate that people may say that Muhammad kills his Companions' (AI-Bayhaqi, n.d.,8:198).
The Prophet also reportedly prohibited Muslims from killing a non-believer who says: 'I believe in Allah'. For instance, the Prophet reprimanded the Companion Usama b. Zayd for killing an Unbeliever after he had pronounced the first part of the confession: 'There is no god but Allah'. Even when Usama said: 'He said that for fear of the sword', the Prophet did not accept this as an excuse (Bukhari, Diyat).
If the above argument is sound, the punishment mentioned in the Hadith was not merely for a Muslim changing religion, but for rising against the community. Many Hadith indicate that a person who rises against the community and tries to create division within it should be killed (AI-Bayhaqi, n.d., 8: 168-9), a punishment similar to the one mentioned in the Hadith related to apostasy.
The main piece of evidence for this interpretation is, however, the Prophet's attitude towards the so-called hypocrites (munafiqin). They were Muslims who confessed that they believed in God and the Prophet Muhammad, but for one reason or another did not quite feel at home with Islam. They used every opportunity to discredit the Prophet secretly but tried to maintain outwardly that they were Muslims~ If we apply the criteria of apostasy as developed in Islamic law, we would find that these so-called hypocrites were the first apostates in Islam. The Qur'an is testimony to their beliefs and practices. For the Prophet and the Qur'an, there was no technical or legal difference between a hypocrite and an apostate, a distinction which was made in Islamic law at a later time. Referring to the hypocrites, the Qur'an says:
Of people there are some who say, 'We believe in God and the Last Day', when they are not believers. They seek to trick God and those who believe, but they trick none save themselves, though they perceive not (Qur'an 2:8-9).
The Qur'an calls these people 'liars' (2:10), 'corrupters' (2:12), 'fools' (2:13), 'hypocrites' (3:88) and 'unbelievers' (2:19). It is clear from the Qur'anic description of these people that they were not believers but were opportunists living among the Muslims constantly displaying their hatred of Islam, the Muslims and the Prophet. The Qur'an went on to say:
And when it is said to them, 'Believe as the people believe,' they say, 'Shall we believe as the fools believe?' Is it not that they themselves are the fools, but they know not? When they meet those who believe they, say, 'We believe.' But when they secretly withdraw to their devils, they say, 'We hold with you. We are only mocking' (Qur'an 2:13-4).
Yet, neither the Qur'an nor the Prophet ordered killing of a hypocrite. Every when some companions requested from the Prophet 'that certain 'hypocrites' should be killed the Prophet refused to do so (A1-Bayhaqi, n.d., 8:196-7); On the contrary, the Prophet treated them well to the extent that when the leader of the hypocrites, Abdullah b. Ubayy b. Salul, died the Prophet prayed for him on the day of his death.
That the Prophet tolerated those who repudiated Islam is evident more clearly in the Treaty of Hudaybiyya which the Prophet concluded with his Makkan opponents. One of the terms of that treaty was that if a Muslim repudiates Islam and wanted to be with the Makkans, he was permitted to do so (Ibn Hisham 1955, 2:317). If a punishment was to be meted out, the Prophet would not have permitted to include such a term in the treaty. It is difficult to contemplate that the Prophet would have compromised in matters of religion.
The above discussion indicates the lenient attitude of the Prophet towards those who either repudiated Islam openly but did not rise against the community, or were nominal Muslims without any strong conviction. The Prophet did not appear to have ordered harassing them, let alone killing them. It seems that the command to kill (in the Hadith) is only applicable when a Muslim repudiates Islam, rebels against the Community and attempts to create division in it. In any case, whether a person is a Muslim or not, rising against the Community is treason, and a violation which would incur severe punishment, possibly death (Shawkani, n.d., 7:338-56).
Theory of apostasy and persecution of opponents
Although the Qur'an did not command Muslims to kill those who changed their religion, and the Prophet had been lenient with those who did so, early doctors of Islamic law based their theory of apostasy on ahad hadith, which according to Muslim scholars do not indicate certainty of knowledge like a text of the Qur'an. This theory has been used in Islamic history by some religious authorities at times to persecute their opponents who held different beliefs. During the first century of Islam, the rebellious Kharijites declared all Muslims except themselves Unbelievers, while the mainstream Muslims declared Kharijites to be Unbelievers and each fought against the other endless battles. Mu'tazilite theologians backed by the political muscle of the Abbasid caliph al-Ma'mun persecuted their opponents because these opponents held rather different views on certain aspects of dogma. Those who affirmed the anthropomorphic attributes to God and those who negated them accused each other of apostasy. Several Sufi leaders were harassed or even killed after being accused of apostasy. Several Muslim philosophers were branded by the theologians as unbelievers and heretics. The list can go on and on.
Today, according to the theory of apostasy, one might be labelled an 'apostate' if he or she questions certain aspects of established dogma. For instance a call for giving equal rights to women could also be regarded as apostasy since that may involve 'reinterpreting' certain specific laws mentioned in the Qur'an in relation to women. Such a reinterpretation may be taken by conservative scholars as 'denial' of laws mentioned in the Qur'an. Religious or sectarian minorities could also be persecuted on the basis of the theory of apostasy as is happening in countries like Iran (as in the case of Baha'is). Pakistan (as in the case of Ahmadis) and Sudan as in the case of the followers of Mahmud Taha.
Freedom of belief is the rule, not the exception
The Qur'an is clear and unambiguous about the fact that religion, first and foremost, is a matter between God and the individual. Belief should not be forced; force is si1!lply not allowed. Whether a person wants to follow Islam, Judaism, Christianity or simply to be an atheist is a matter of choice for the person. The Prophet was always commanded by God to tell people the choices available for them (the right and wrong), and the consequences of following or not following each. This was the Prophet's duty. This attitude of no-compulsion is apparent even in religions that were propagated by prophets before Prophet Muhammad, about. which the Qur'an has had something to say. A prophet comes and tells people that they should live a life based on justice and morality. So long as the people did not attempt to cause any harm to the prophet or the people who followed the prophet, worldly punishment does not appear to have been imposed on the people. However, once the 'unbelief' goes beyond the unbeliever's mind and adversely affects others in the society then the matter no longer remains a purely personal matter but a social one. The stories of Moses and Pharaoh, Abraham and Nimrod, the destruction of the people of Lot, the people of Noah, and Prophet Muhammad and his opponents are all examples where the personal unbelief of the opponents was translated into destructive action against the Prophet, his followers and the society in general. Hence the punishment.
Freedom of belief is a right enjoyed by any human being. This does not mean that the person who exercises this right and changes his or her religion is always doing the right thing. That is not the issue. The issue is whether a person can exercise this right irrespective of the consequences. The answer apparently is 'Yes'. The Qur'an teaches that every human being has the capacity to discern right and wrong and understand the consequences. The Qur'an clearly stated that salvation is related to belief in God and that it is dependent on the person's God-consciousness and his or her continuous attempts to lead a morally correct life in the light of God's commandments. Each person shall work for his or her own salvation, and it is only that person who will be held accountable for his or her deeds in the life after death. No one can force another person to attain salvation. The choice of following or not following a particular religion is a matter entirely up to the individual to decide, and this choice should not be taken away from the person at any time in his or her life in this world. A thoughtful reading of the Qur'an with an eye on the history of the Prophet's lifetime appears to lead one to this conclusion.
Crimes for which worldly punishments are stated in the Qur'an are, first of all, acts in which one person deprives another person of his or her right to function in the society harmoniously. Some Muslim scholars recognised this important aspect of religion long ago when they related rights of a Muslim to 'rights of God' and 'rights of people'. To protect what is called 'rights of people', appropriate laws as well as punishments were to be enforced. As for infringing the rights of God, the punishment is not worldly but other-worldly, which can be enforced only by God. The Qur'an, for instance, set punishments for stealing even though the prohibition of theft is mentioned only once in the Qur'an. On the other hand, the Qur'an specified no worldly punishment for not performing prayer or for not paying zakat despite the fact that the Qur'an mentioned the term for prayer and its derivatives ninety-nine times, and zakat and its derivatives thirty-two times, mostly commanding Muslims to perform those obligations. All these indicate that worldly punishment is, on the whole, declared for acts which infringe the rights of other people, or have the potential for doing so (like theft, adultery and murder), and that worldly punishment has no place in the domain of belief.
What all this means is that Islam is not a draconian religion which is bent on persecuting all those who do not believe in it or who leave it for one reason or another. It is a religion which abhors such persecution, Islam recognises diversity of religion even though it does not approve of it. Islam regards life as a testing ground, and one of the most important aspects of this testing is freedom to choose a belief system and the way a person wants to live his or her life in this world as long as he or she does not encroach upon other people's rights. If this right to choose is taken away, the meaning of testing becomes purposeless and is quite incomprehensible.
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