Apostasy in Malaysia: The hidden view

By Joshua Woo

Published in National University of Australia – New Mandala website on November 10th, 2011

The two banners displayed at the Shah Alam Stadium during the Himpunan Sejuta Umat (Gathering of a million faithful) assembly on 22 October 2011 read “Say no to apostasy, don’t challenge the position of Islam” and “Together let’s prevent apostasy”.

The chief organiser of the assembly, Mohd Azmi Abdul Hamid, remarked that the gathering is meant to gather Muslims together to make a stand against the threats of apostasy.

The organizers and the participants of the assembly saw apostasy as serious threat even though, according to the Islamic Renaissance Front, “there has yet to be any well researched agreement on the actual number of apostates in Malaysia. The suggested numbers have ranged anywhere from 135 (according to Ustaz Ridhuan Tee) to 260,000 (according to Tan Sri Dr Harussani Zakaria).” In addition, the population census provided by the Statistic Department indicates that there “has not been a single Malay convert or apostate.” If this is true, then it is obvious that there is no substantial threat of apostasy to the Muslim community in the country.

Nonetheless, I wonder whether apostasy is univocally forbidden in Islam, as we are so often told by local Muslim politicians.

To find out, we conduct a literature review of the question, “should apostates be punished and apostasy from Islam disallowed?

Some Muslims, by referring to Qur’anic passages (such as 5.33, 5.54, 9.11-12, 16.106, and 22.11) and the Hadith (i.e. Sahih al-Bukhari), tell us that apostates should be punished and apostasy from Islam should be forbidden. Is this the only Islamic understanding on the issue without alternative?

In response to this, Abdullah Saeed, the Sultan of Oman Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne, and his brother, Hasan Saeed, the Attoney-General of the Maldives, comment that, “The overall picture that emerges from a variety of verses in different contexts in the Qur’an is that apostasy is a ‘sin’ for which there is no temporal punishment.” [i] These Qur’anic verses and Hadith passages are referring to criminals who waged war against the early Muslim community in the ancient Arab, and not to any apostates.[ii]

The former Secretary General of the International Union for Muslim Scholars, Salim el-Alwa, representing the guild of Islamic scholarship remarks similarly, “We do not find in the texts of the noble Qur’an related to apostasy any temporal punishment [specified] for the apostate. However we find therein repeated threats and strong warnings of punishment in the Hereafter. […] Apostasy in the view of the Qur’an is a major sin even though Qur’anic verses do not impose a temporal punishment.”[iii]

Shabbir Akhtar, who once lectured at the International Islamic University, writes in his recent book, “In Muhammad’s day, private apostasy was commonplace; the Quran specifies no worldly penalty for it.”[iv]

Specifically on the Hadith, Mohammed Hashim Kamili, the Founding Chairman of the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies who was also Professor of Islamic Law and Jurisprudence at the International Islamic University from 1985 to 2004, comments that, “Hadith makes clear that the apostate must also boycott the community (mufariq li’l-jama’ah) and challenge its legitimate leadership, in order to be subjected to the death penalty.”[v]

To these Muslim scholars, there is a world of difference between mere apostates who renounce Islam and those who actively raise military campaign against the ancient Muslim community. The injunction to punish ‘apostates’ in the Qur’an and Hadith are referring to the latter, not the former.

Such distinction has been noted by various Islamic intellectuals such as Al-Shawkani, the famous Yemeni Muslim scholar[vi]; Abdul Mouti Bayoumi from Al-Azhar University and the Islamic Research Academy (currently known as the Academy for Islamic Jerusalem Studies); Nurcholish Madjid, a prominent Indonesian Muslim intellectual[vii]; Subhi Mahmassani, the Muslim scholar who authored the significant study on Islamic law ‘The Philosophy of Jurisprudence in Islam[viii]; Hasan Al-Turabi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood (also known as the Society of the Muslim Brothers) in Sudan[ix]; Rashid al-Ghannushi, a Tunisian Islamist[x]; and Tariq Ramadan, HH Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University.

So, does this mean that Muslims can renounce their faith if they want to?

The Grand Mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa, who was Professor of Juristic Methodologies at Al-Azhar University, is reported to have said that Muslims can leave Islam to embrace other religion. “[T]hey can because the Quran says, ‘Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion,’ [Quran, 109:6], and, ‘Whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve,’ [Quran, 18:29], and, ‘There is no compulsion in religion.’ [Quran, 2:256].”

Initially some Muslims have doubted the Grand Mufti’s statement. And this has led the Grand Mufti to issue a subsequent clarification: “I have always maintained the legitimacy of this freedom and I continue to do so. […] I discussed the fact that throughout history, the worldly punishment for apostasy in Islam has been applied only to those who, in addition to their apostasy, actively engaged in the subversion of society.”

This understanding coheres well with Sayyid Tantawi, the late Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque and Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar University. He is known to attest that “a Muslim who renounced his faith or turned apostate should be left alone as long as he does not pose a threat or belittle Islam.”The other prominent Muslim scholar who took similar stand was Mahmud Shaltut, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University from 1958 to 1963.[xi]

The Council on American-Islamic Relations’ public statement—drafted with the consultation of the Fiqh Council ofNorth America—states the same position: “Islam advocates both freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, a position supported by verses in the Quran [10.99, 18.29, 42.48, and 2.256]. […] Religious decisions should be matters of personal choice, not a cause for state intervention. Faith imposed by force is not true belief, but coercion. Islam has no need to compel belief in its divine truth. As the Quran states: ‘Truth stands out clear from error. Therefore, whoever rejects evil and believes in God has grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold that never breaks.’ (2:256)”

Irfan Ahmad Khan, the President of the World Council of Muslims for Interfaith Relations, who served as Professor of Philosophy at Aligarh Muslim University, points out that it is self-contradictory to bar Muslims from leaving Islam. Here is a lengthy quote from him: “[T]here are people who stand for freedom to change one’s religion only when someone is entering into their own faith community. These people would not allow the members of their own faith community to convert to any other religion—even if they would do so out of their own free will. From the perspective of ‘freedom to change religion’, their policy involves a double standard. A self-contradictory principle is inherent in this policy […] It is a matter of principle that in choosing one’s religion, every individual should be free of all external pressures and temptations. In fact, it is due to this freedom that one is responsible for what one believes. […] Therefore, no one has any right to use pressure of any kind to make a person change or stop from changing his/her religion. An individual out of his/her own free will should himself or herself do entering into a religion or coming out of a religion.”

For similar reasons, Ibrahim B. Syed, the President of Islamic Research Foundation International, comments that, “[T]here is no bigger misconception—strengthened with misunderstanding of Islamic beliefs over the years—other than the belief that Islam doesn’t tolerate apostasy. […] The Qur’an is completely silent on any worldly punishment for apostasy and the sole Tradition that forms the basis of rulings is open to many interpretations.”

In his interview with the Prospect Magazine, Tariq Ramadan, Islamic professor from Oxford University, commented that, “Many around the Prophet changed religions. But he never did anything against them. There was an early Muslim, Ubaydallah ibn Jahsh, who went with the first emigrants from Mecca to Abyssinia. He converted to Christianity and stayed, but remained close to Muslims. He divorced his wife, but he was not killed. It is different for someone who becomes a Muslim during a war with the purpose of betraying Muslims. They are committing treason. This is why the context is so important because the Prophet never killed anyone because he changed religion. From the very beginning, Muslim scholars understood this. Islam does not prevent someone from changing religion because you feel that this is not right for you, or if you are not happy.”

The literature above are remarks made by some of the world’s top Islamic scholars. These are faithful Muslim intellectuals who affirm the truthfulness of the Qur’an and the Shahadah just like every other Muslims—they are not liberal scholars or secularists who have no commitment to the religion.

Of course, there are other Muslim scholars who disagree with those mentioned above. However, that is beside the point. The point is this: In view of these other voices that are no less Islamic, why do Malaysian Muslim politicians tell us only one perspective?

Do these politicians think that Malaysians, particularly local Muslims, are not intelligent enough to decide for themselves which perspective is correct?

Isn’t it more appropriate for every citizen, of every persuasion, to discern on religious matters for his or herself, as these are issues of utmost sensitivity and personal?

Politicians can certainly facilitate the process of discernment in this area. In fact, I would argue that they should. However, militantly enforcing their own preferred interpretation of Islam—to the extent of silencing other similarly valid interpretations—onto the people through threats of punishment is hardly facilitation. It is dictation.

Joshua Woo Sze Zeng is currently reading theology at Trinity Theological College, Singapore. He blogs at http://szezeng.blogspot.com  and http://friendsinconversation.wordpress.com  


[i] Abdullah Saeed and Hassan Saeed, Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam (UK: Ashgate, 2004), p. 56. Emphasis added. See the discussion from page 59 to 66 on other implicated Hadith passages.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] As quoted in Abdullah Saeed and Hassan Saeed, Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam (UK: Ashgate, 2004), p. 81.

[iv] Shabbir Akhtar, Islam as Political Religion: The future of an imperial faith (USA: Routledge, 2011), p. 280, n. 5. See also Abdullah Saeed and Hassan Saeed, Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam (UK: Ashgate, 2004), p. 96.

[v] Mohammad Hashim Kamali, Freedom of Expression in Islam (Malaysia: Berita Publishing Sdn Bhd, 1994), p. 93. Emphasis added.

[vi] Ibid, p.92.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Abdullah Saeed and Hassan Saeed, Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam (UK: Ashgate, 2004), p. 95.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid, p.97-98.

[xi] Abdullah Saeed and Hassan Saeed, Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam (UK: Ashgate, 2004), p. 95.

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