[Originally published in Turkish Daily News]
NEW YORK- Western governments and the international media focused on a bizarre court case in Afghanistan in February 2006. The accused was Abdul Rahman, a 41-year-old Afghan citizen, who was on the verge of receiving a death penalty. His crime was abandoning Islam and converting to Christianity.
Soon Rahman was saved thanks to international pressure on the Afghan government, but his story was only one of the many severe violations of religious freedom in the contemporary Islamic world.
Traditional Shariah (Islamic law) considers apostasy a major crime that deserves capital punishment. And this continues to be implemented. In some cases like that of Rahman, official courts sentence converts to death. In other cases, barbaric vigilantes attack converts from Islam to other religions such as, and most commonly, Christianity.
Persecution of Christians
Compass Direct News, an agency devoted to raising awareness of Christians worldwide who are persecuted for their faith routinely passes information on such apostasy cases. Ex-Muslims are consistently suppressed, harassed and attacked by their former co-religionists. As a Muslim, I feel ashamed to read such news.
But does it mean that Islam is a religion that is inherently at odds with human rights, as some critics argue? No. It just means that there are elements in the Islamic tradition, which were created by men in pre-modern times but should be discarded in the modern era.
What I mean by that is most obvious when we look at the origin of the Islamic ban on apostasy. To the surprise of many, this prohibition does not originate from the Koran, Islam’s one and only divine source. The Koran includes no earthly punishment for apostasy, and actually includes many verses, which cherish religious freedom.
There is no compulsion in religion declares a famous verse (2:256). There are also other ones, such as, “It is the truth from your Lord; so let whoever wishes have faith and whoever wishes be unbeliever.” (18:29). There is nothing in the Koran that would justify a forced belief in Islam.
And, of course, a forced belief in anything is a totally absurd concept. If someone becomes or stays a believer because he is forced to do so, then that faith will simply have no meaning. That can at best create a hypocrite, the character that the Koran denounces as the worst of men.
How then came the ban on apostasy? Well, it was a political, not religious, verdict that soon became a part of the religious canon. David Forte, professor of Law at Cleveland State University, explains this fact very briefly and vividly in his article titled Islam’s Trajectory.”The primary justification for the execution of the apostate is,” he notes:
That in the early days of Islam, apostasy and treason were in fact synonymous. War was perennial in Arabia. It never stopped. To reject the leader of another tribe, to give up on a coalition, was in effect to go to war against him. There was no such thing as neutrality. There were truces, but there was never permanent neutrality. It is reported, for example, that immediately after the death of Mohammed, many tribes apostatized. They said in effect, “the leader whom we were following is gone, so let’s go back to our own leaders.’ And they rebelled against Muslim rule. The first caliph, Abu Bakr, ordered such rebels to be killed.
Many scholars argue that the tradition that all apostates had to be killed had its origin during these wars of rebellion and not during Mohammed’s time. In fact, many argue that these traditions in which Mohammed affirmed the killing of apostates were apocryphal, made up later to justify what the empire had been doing.
A Natural Right
This shows two things: Apostasy cannot be considered as a crime in today’s world. It is, indeed, a natural right. People should have the right to believe or disbelieve in Islam.
The second thing that the origin of the apostasy ban shows is that Islamic sources need a serious reconsideration. What most Muslims attach themselves to as divine commandments are actually the political and cultural codes of the early centuries of Islam, which were, to be sure, man-made facts. The divine principles of a religion should remain eternally valid, but not its historical context.