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Muslim Leader Argues For Tolerance For Apostates From Islam

The ongoing Lina Joy case in Malaysia (see last two communiques) and the recent trial for apostasy of Abdul Rahman in Afghanistan has brought international attention to the issue of how Islam treats apostates. In both cases it has been notable that most Muslim scholars and leaders argued that a Muslim does not have the right to change his religion, and that leaving Islam should be punished with the death penalty. However, in a recent article a Muslim scholar, Dr Louay Safi, has argued that apostasy should be permitted.

Dr Louay Safi is based in America and is the executive director of the Islamic Society of North America's Leadership Development Centre. His article, "The Politics and Morality of Apostasy", attacks those scholars who argue that leaving Islam should be punishable by death. Dr Safi argues that "at the heart of the apparent conflict between Islamic traditions is a static and stagnant approach to understanding Islamic law. The conflict stems mainly from a literalist understanding of the revelatory sources, that is the Qur'an and the Sunnah (the Prophet tradition), and the body of Islamic jurispendence derived from them through exercise of juristic reasoning". Thus, scholars with literalist interpretations continue to argue that the punishment for apostasy and the role of Islamic shari'a law should be the same as it was during the classical period of early Islamic history. It is an essentially static model which cannot be changed to meet the demands of the modern world.

Dr Safi claims that this interpretation has taken hold across the Islamic world because autocratic rulers often align themselves to literalist scholars to "perpetuate a rigid and anti-reform agenda in Muslim societies." Dr Safi notes that scholars who are prepared to reject the literalist interpretation are being marginalised in Muslim countries, and even in the West where governments tend to ignore Muslims who are seeking to make Islam a more tolerant religion.

Dr Safi argues that the Qur'an does not support the death penalty for apostasy. Rather, it is based upon two hadiths (statements attributed to Muhammad) and the precedent of Muslims fighting against Arab apostates in early Islamic history. Dr Safi feels that the hadith statements "cannot stand as credible evidence" because he thinks they contradict the Qur'an, which he interprets as arguing for individual religious freedom.

The conclusion that Dr Safi reaches is that it is vital that Muslim scholars reconsider their attitude towards religious freedom:

"Although medieval Christian Europe practiced coercion to force reverse conversions to Christianity, modern societies recognise the freedom of religion of all citizens. Muslims scholars have the obligation to reconsider modern reality and reject any attempt to revive historical claims rooted in classical jurisprudence that are clearly at odds with Qur'anic principles and Islamic spirit, and with modern society and international conventions and practices. It would be a tragedy, for both social peace in Muslim societies and world peace in an increasingly diverse global society, if religious communities embrace practices that limit freedom of religion and adopt measures that rely on coercion to maintain the integrity of religious communities."

It can only be hoped that other Muslim scholars and leaders follow Dr Safi's lead and show the courage to argue that converts from Islam should have the right to change their religion without facing fear of death or persecution. While reformers such as Dr Safi are currently isolated and marginalised, it is imperative that everything possible is done to support them.

 

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