I was recently asked by the Ex-Muslims Forum (@CEMB_forum) if I would write a piece on “murtadeen” or in English, “apostates”. Being the obliging type I readily agreed albeit with a degree of scepticism as to the motive underlying their request – I certainly didn’t want to provide sound bite material for distribution over Twitter. Oh and I inserted the cuddly toys part into the title at the last moment but I’ll let you know now that they don’t actually figure in the article. I just thought it’d soften the rather ominous tone of “Apostates”. Anyway, the issue of apostasy and apostates did not figure highly on the list of topics that I had planned to write about but on reflection I believe it proved a worthwhile endeavour. Notwithstanding my usual prolix style I hope it helps with understanding the Muslim psyche apropos of those who choose to leave our community.
I’d like to begin by stating what this article is NOT. It’s not a scholarly dissertation on the Islamic texts pertaining to apostasy. I will not be adducing scriptural references or the commentary and opinions of classical scholars. With respect to the statutory punishment reserved for apostasy I will confine myself to saying that it is already widely known across both the Muslim world and the West. It is a punishment agreed upon by the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence with there being no disagreement of any consequence between them on the issue, merely some minor differences pertaining to the method of its enactment. As with all Shariah punishments its enforcement and enactment is the sole preserve of the Islamic state via a duly authorised judiciary and penal authority none of which are existent today. In this article I’ll share some of my thoughts about what I believe are the root causes of apostasy amongst British Muslims and my personal views and attitudes towards apostates from Islam.
Historically the Muslim community has regarded irtidad (apostasy) as being, in addition to an act of spiritual rebellion against God also an act of sedition against the state. The legitimacy of the Islamic state and its ruler are predicated upon the rectitude of Islam as a faith. Therefore by declaring Islam to be false the apostate not only declares the state an illegitimate entity but also by implication renounces their pledge of allegiance (bayah) to the ruler – an act of high treason. Today the Caliphate (Islamic state) doesn’t exist – a situation millions of Muslim long to see rectified in the near future – but many of its successor states maintain laws that criminalise and penalise apostates from Islam. This article, however, is focussed on the case of apostates from within the British Muslim community.
As a Muslim, born and raised in the United Kingdom I was acutely aware throughout my childhood and adolescence of being a member of a minority group not only due to the darker hue of my skin but also because of the religious beliefs that my family espoused. The constant racial abuse I endured just about everywhere I ventured outside of my home left me in no doubt as to the former but as to the latter then in those days the distinctions between Muslim, Sikh and Hindu Asians were not something widely known to the indigenous White British population. No, the reminders for my distinct religious identity came from within my own home. Dietary restrictions, restrictions on the types of clothes I could wear, where I was permitted to go and where I was forbidden to go, what I could watch and listen to and even who I could associate with (no girls) were all justified (on the rare occasion a justification was deemed necessary) on the basis of Islam. My experience in this respect was probably fairly typical of most 2nd generation Muslims in the UK and as a generation we learned to adroitly navigate the daily pitfalls that arose from attempting to abide by the strictures of our faith whilst attempting to fit in with the rest of our peers. Children, however, do not remain children forever and at some point they begin asking the usual awkward questions e.g. where do babies come from? If you happen to be a Muslim child then at some point you’d probably also ask who made Allah and if you happened to be an adolescent Muslim girl then maybe you’d also question why one day your brother might bless you with four sister-in-laws yet by way of return you could only provide him with a solitary brother-in-law.
To the first generation immigrants, raised as they were in a society where blind obedience to one’s elders is inculcated from birth, the idea that their children might want to question their beliefs in any meaningful way or perhaps even reject them altogether was an anathema and quite simply unfathomable. While most of my generation were content to accept the often circumlocutory (and mostly evasive) answers to the common questions that arose as a result of growing up in a liberal secular society given to a tradition of free thought and critical thinking, some became increasingly disillusioned by the obvious dichotomy between the mores and values of society at large and those of their own community. As society has become increasingly agnostic or atheistic and the influence of traditional Christian morality has waned this dichotomy has become ever starker and its effects increasingly pronounced.
Speaking from my personal experience of apostates – which has admittedly been rather limited – as well as from reading numerous online testimonies it would seem that the cause of their disillusionment with Islam usually stems from one of two sources. Firstly there are those whose rejection lies rooted in the mistreatment they have suffered at the hands of other Muslims, most often their own family e.g. girls forced into marriage to abusive foreign born husbands. Often their abusers have justified their contemptible behaviour with reference to Islamic texts (albeit employing interpretations at odds with that of classical scholarship) leading them to conclude that Islam was an oppressive religion that lends itself to all manner of abusive behaviour. Some of these apostates find themselves drawn to other religions, usually Christianity, whereas some give up on the idea of religion altogether. Secondly, there are those who have sought to rationally justify the strictures and tenets of the Islamic faith but could not do so. Often this begins with an individual hukm (rule) being called into question subsequently leading to a closer examination of the Qur’an and its claim to inerrancy and ultimately to a loss of confidence in the divine origin of Islam.
In the end determining the reason for these acts of apostasy is moot. What is indisputable is that in a secular society where freedom of conscience is not only enshrined in law but also deeply ingrained in the psyche of the general populace such acts will occur and increasingly so given the passage of time. Given this fact the question then shifts to what should be the response and attitude of British Muslims towards those that exercise this freedom afforded to them in the West and leave the religion of Islam?
Whilst I’ve yet to hear of a case in the United Kingdom where an attempt has been made on the life of an apostate it’s certainly the case that some have suffered a violent backlash from their erstwhile coreligionists. In the most egregious instances (usually where the individual resides in an area with a large Muslim population) this backlash has resulted in them having to leave their home and move out of the neighbourhood. Clearly such behaviour constitutes criminality and those Muslims who engage in it are risking arrest, prosecution and the possibility of a custodial sentence. I categorically disavow such behaviour and can find no justification for it either textually or rationally. For those about to object to what I have just written please read again carefully the second paragraph of this article paying special attention to the penultimate sentence.
At the other end of the spectrum there are those Muslims who view apostates much akin to people who’ve decided upon a lifestyle change, no different to say adopting vegetarianism. So while they may be deserving of a great deal of pity and sympathy (just as anybody silly enough to adopt vegetarianism would be) the only reaction they will elicit is a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders and deletion from the Eid dinner invite list.
My personal stance lies somewhere between the previous two and is commensurate to the attitude of the apostate in question. There are some apostates who desire nothing more than to quietly pass through the door marked “Exit” and continue with the rest of their lives sans Islam. For such individuals from a spiritual viewpoint I feel deep pity and sadness and were I to know any on a personal level (I don’t) I might, depending on time constraints, feel inclined to engage with them in order to see if I could possibly dispel the doubts that caused them to leave. Those who proved obdurate in their apostasy my personal preference would be to cut off ties with them. Just as they lay claim to their right to choose their faith (or lack of) I’m sure they would acknowledge and accept my, and the wider Muslim community’s, right to choose who to associate with and disassociate from.
The second group are those apostates who on occasions and as a matter of conscience feel obligated to speak out against aspects of Islamic belief and/or law. While I understand that in a society that permits free speech it is their inalienable right to do so, they must in turn respect that it is also then the right of Muslims to answer them. Where the discourse remains at the level of intellectual debate without calls to place restrictions or prohibitions on Islamic rituals, practises or teachings then I am largely unconcerned by this group. As a Muslim I have no doubts about the truthfulness of my religion and believe that questioning and debating this only serves to further illuminate the fact.
Lastly, there are those ex-Muslims who seem to be consumed by a visceral bitterness towards Islam and have embarked upon an assiduous crusade against it much in the manner of a personal vendetta. They are the type people who, in the words of one notorious Islam hater, seek “to make conditions harder across the board for Muslims”. You will find them amongst the most vociferous voices of anti-Muslim demagoguery and they will waste no opportunity to excoriate Islam – its creed, laws and morals. So they will truculently oppose halal slaughter, the right of Muslim women to wear hijab/niqab, circumcision of muslim (male) babies and most recently the right of some Muslim women to sit apart from men during university Islamic society events. After all this they then utilise the (wholly unsurprising) resultant opprobrium from the Muslim community to buttress their claim to be a persecuted group. Needless to say I oppose such people in the same manner and with the same robustness as they oppose Muslims and Islam.
One of the most bizarre and hypocritical aspersions this group casts against their former community is that we are seeking to silence them. If answering their demagoguery and refuting their lies and aspersions is what they mean by attempting to silence them then I, for one, am guilty as charged. Their accusation is as meaningful as accusing, say, Ed Miliband of attempting to silence David Cameron; which of course is true at one level but wholly false on another. It is a vacuous criticism but an insidious one playing as it does on the canard of Islamic subversion and takeover of the West which they know in the current climate is accepted by millions with alarming alacrity. The hypocrisy lies in their own attempts to silence those who speak in favour of Islamic law and the sublime values it seeks to uphold by calling for bans on Muslim speakers and groups.
I’d like to finish off with some words of advice for my fellow Muslims. Today we live in a society that is increasingly irreligious, where belief in God is rapidly declining being displaced by the neo-religion of scientific atheism. We should not be surprised therefore that some in our community require more to convince them than an emotive appeal to familial religious continuity and conformity. Those who are experiencing doubts about the faith deserve lucid, erudite answers to their questions in order to dispel them and these will only be forthcoming if we have the requisite knowledge to provide them. So seek knowledge is my exhortation to the Muslim community for knowledge is the shield against disbelief.
May the peace and blessings of Allah (swt) be upon our Master, Muhammad. Ameen.