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Does Islam condemn people who leave the faith?

Here is a question from a viewer, Jack Lundy, from Italy:

An important tenant of Islam is the absolute condemnation of any follower who deserts the faith for another religion. In your analysis, how far should this be understood? Some fundamentalists consider a deserter from Islam as a traitor who deserves the most extreme punishment. Why can't Islam be more flexible on this point?

It's not an important tenet in Islam at all. In fact, this has more to do with the political situation and the time when classical Islamic law was being elaborated. It's a misunderstood teaching. Jack is referring that in classical Islamic law, it was thought that if somebody reneges from the religion of Islam, that a person deserves to be put to death. That seems to have been a mistaken conclusion from some historical situations when the Muslims were at war with others, meaning that others were trying to root out this newfound religion and decimate the Muslim population. Muslims had to fight to retain their existence.

If somebody was a Muslim, that person was called to defend the frontiers of Islam, especially enabled-bodied men. From every family, a person could have like a Muslim soldier going out, not as a paid soldier, on a whim whenever there is somebody, that the community is under attack. That would mean the average individual knew some of the military secrets and the weaknesses of the Muslims. If one were to leave the community and go join another community, that one would be departing with such secrets.

In modern times, one can appreciate that a soldier may not be looked at with calm if he is associating with somebody who can leak military secrets. One wouldn't be drinking buddies with someone else. It depends on their level of clearance and what knowledge they are privy to. In that Islamic context, if somebody is going to leave the community, then that would be a matter of threat and danger to the existing Muslim community. They were dealt with harshly because they were seen as political traitors.

It wasn't just simply a matter of leaving the religion. Those who disagree. No, this is a requirement in Islamic law, which might cite a narrative of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). It is reported that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said, “If somebody changes this religion and leaves the community, then you should kill him.” However, they omit that last part about leaving the community. Currently, the world is like a global village and the communities are integrated. If one leaves the faith of Islam, he's not necessarily leaving the community in the same sense as it was in the past. He's leaving the Muslim community as a community of believers around the mosque or the world community of Muslims. Yet, it's no longer a political threat. It's not like taking up citizenship in another country. It is clear from the Quran that there should be no compulsion in religion. The Quran in Surah 2:256 says, “There is no compulsion in religion.” Quran [2:256].

It's a very strong statement. It is the statement grammatically in Arabic, it's of the same type of statement as our profession of faith, which negates by saying, “There is no God, but God.” The negating part is given in an absolute grammatical form. with the A-ending on the word for God, Allah instead of "Allahu,” it's "Allah". This grammatical ending means in Arabic an absolute type of negation. When it says with the same A-ending, this is an absolute negation. There is no compulsion in religion. When it's so absolutely negated.

On the other hand, if you are compelling a person to remain a Muslim in pain of death, then you're doing compulsion. One is going against what the Quran says. The classical commentators on the Quran, who thought that the apostates should be killed, have acknowledged that one has something to explain here, but they have their own way of explaining it. Generally, they go with traditions. This verse could not really mean that. There is an exception to this general rule that is abrogated by this one circumstance.

However, once one gives full force to the Quranic statement, which is so absolute in this negation of any compulsion in religion, it would be realized that one cannot really compel a person to remain a Muslim. A person is free to either belief or disbelief. Other verses of the Quran are along the same lines. For example, the 18th chapter of the Quran states, “Say, now the truth has come from your Lord: Let those who wish to believe in it do so, and let those who wish to reject it so.” Quran [18:29].

People have the full freedom to either believe or disbelieve.

There's an interesting verse in the Quran which indicates that there were people at the time who were not Muslims, but who were toying with the religion to cast doubt in the minds of the committed believers. They were saying to each other, according to the Quran, “Some of the People of the Book say, at the beginning of the day, believe in what has been revealed to these believers (the Muslims), then at the end of the day reject it, so that they too may turn back.” Quran [3:72].

Since somebody has embraced the religion, Muslims are saying, “Glory be to God.” The person that we feel fortified in our own faith because this is a kind of ratification. In contrast, if somebody leaves the faith, one starts wandering that something wrong with the faith. It puts doubt in one’s mind. This is what people were trying to do at the time. The Quran is referring to this practice, but the Quran does not continue by saying, “Deal severely with those people who are doing this.” Rather, the Quran shows that there should be a continuing dialogue, continuing preaching, pleading with them, and showing them evidence and proof and someone to bring them into the faith. If Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was killing people for the fact of leaving the religion of Islam, then these would have been the prime targets because the Quran is clearly saying that these people are leaving the religion of Islam. They're embracing it by morning and leaving it by afternoon.

However, those people continue to exist in society for quite a long time. That was possible because Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was not killing people for the mere fact of reneging on the religion of Islam. However, there are some reported incidents that should be interpreted. Unless these incidents are genuine. Since a report said that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) did something on a certain occasion. It's not necessarily genuine. It could be something that was invented later or mistakenly reported. Yet, if it happened, then it should be interpreted as indicating that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) dealt harshly with some people who posed a political threat, and they left the Muslim community. This is likely with knowledge of the Muslim whereabouts and where their weaknesses lay. Where they may be vulnerable to attack by the non-Muslim forces who were determined to wipe out this new religion and its followers.

Why do some people believe that apostasy or leaving the religion will just lead to death for the person? Why do Muslims believe that?

Some Muslims are following classical Islamic rulings. It was widely acknowledged among classical jurists because those jurists gave more credence to the narratives which are in Islamic tradition, outside of the Quran. Sometimes, they compress the meaning of the Quran to give space to those other traditions. Whereas this blog provided Quranic statements and an interpretation of the other narratives in a way that would not diminish what the Quran is saying. It's two different paradigms on how one would look at this perspective.

When one examines the classical paradigm, one sees apart from the difficulties. The Hanafi School of Islamic jurisprudence has a very interesting take on the question.

Only men who are apostates should be put to death. Likewise, women should be imprisoned, but not put to death. Why would the school give a different ruling? If apostasy is such a sin that requires death, because if one thinks of adultery, for example, which was also ruled on harshly in classical Islamic jurisprudence, and the same rule was for both men and women. Why would there be a different rule for women? Do they get off free by committing the same sin?

The only explanation is that the man may join another army. Whereas women, there isn’t danger because she's not going to join another army or her potential for leaking out the secrets of the Muslim army. Another example is the knowledge of the military secrets of the Muslim society may not be developed as that of the man who might've been one of the fighting soldiers. The man would be privier to the military secrets. Therefore, it shows that the real problem of apostasy was not the person leaving the faith. However, the person that is leaving the faith, and the community poses a threat to the physical existence of the Muslim community.

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