Some Zanadiqa were brought to ‘Ali and he burnt them. The news of this event, reached Ibn ‘Abbas who said, “If I had been in his place, I would not have burnt them, as Allah’s Apostle forbade it, saying, ‘Do not punish anybody with Allah’s punishment [fire].’ I would have killed them according to the statement of Allah’s Apostle, ‘Whoever changed his [Islamic] religion, then kill him.’“
Pursuant to such texts, it has long been the established consensus of the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence that the male Muslim who apostatises is, upon conviction and having been afforded opportunity to recant, put to death. There exists a difference of opinion on the question of obdurate female apostates – in their particular case, the Hanafi school deems indefinite imprisonment the appropriate punishment.
In light of the above I find it somewhat perplexing and not a little disheartening that otherwise seasoned Muslim activists and speakers adopt a diffident, almost embarrassed tone when the question of apostasy arises in front of Western [non-Muslim] audiences – it is almost as though they wished such an ordinance didn’t exist in the Shariah.
When discussing such juridical injunctions it is necessary to first pause, taking a moment to recall what it is that Islam denotes. The Arabic word ‘Islam’ is derived from the Arabic for submission, itself a form of the word for peace; submission being inextricably linked to peace as it is the former that heralds the end of turmoil and the onset of latter. Entry into Islam is predicated upon the acknowledgement of a divine transcendent power and authority (Allah [swt]) whose revelation constitutes a cynosure for mankind, providing the supreme authoritative reference point for the determination of right and wrong. The formulation of legislation in Islam is the result of a careful parsing and evaluation of the divine texts. On occasion the text will provide a rationale for the enactment of a particular ruling, in some instances such rationales whilst unstated are readily discernible, yet on occasion, despite the earnest ratiocinating of the human intellect, it will remain abstruse. Nevertheless, as Muslims we view such injunctions through the rubric of: “Allah knows but you do not know” and its corollary “we hear and we obey” (not “we hear but demand the Almighty furnish us with a detailed explanation before we’ll countenance obeying”).
The doctrine of divine omniscience lies at the heart of Islamic theology and while Western scholastics and philosophers long wrestled with the question of whether the deliverances of speculative reasoning and dialectics could ever supersede the pronouncements of scripture, the consensus of Islamic orthodoxy has always settled on the primacy of the latter. For if the derivations of the human intellect were authoritative above divine guidance, it would necessarily pose the question, “of what need was such guidance in the first place?”
I shan’t waste time herein refuting the spurious arguments of those who adduce a melange of (extraneous) texts in a vain attempt to satisfy Western audiences that Islam upholds “freedom of conscience/religion”. The sincere are at liberty to consult the relevant hadith commentaries by Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani and Imam Nawawi along with the extensive Quranic exegeses in order to acquaint themselves with the fallacies of such arguments. What I want to (very) briefly examine here is the nature of society, government, its purpose and ends, why ideological uniformity – or at minimum the absence of active opposition to its foundational one – is vital to ensuring the fulfilment of them and why no state truly permits ideological pluralism. In doing so it might help non-Muslim readers (and sadly even many Muslims who are clearly averse to the concept of “we hear and we obey”) better comprehend why the verdict of execution on an apostate can be viewed as just, humane and rational. Although again I must emphasise that as a Muslim my acceptance of this “controversial” ordinance is predicated upon my acceptance of the divine authority of the Qur’an and Sunnah – not upon the arguments advanced below.
Understanding the question of apostasy requires a detour into the realm of political science in order to understand the nature of society, states and governance. I will return to the specific issue of apostasy in the coda. Hopefully by the conclusion of this article it will become apparent to all except the most benighted why such a discussion is neither suited to 140 character Twitter exchanges nor even to Nicky Campbell’s ‘The Big Questions’.
Essentially a society may be viewed as a human collective subsisting permanently in a particular geographical location. For the purposes of this piece I will take the term nation to mean a society of sufficient size as to be autarkic, independent and delimited somehow from all others. The term state refers to a nation from the perspective of its governance and distinction from other similar entities. The distinguishing features of a society as opposed to the type of nomadic anarchistic freedom depicted in feature films such as “Mad Max” are: (i) permanency of dwelling giving rise to permanent relationships and interactions between the constituents (ii) a system of regulating such relationships and interactions and the arbitrament of disputes naturally arising thereof. Where a society grows to become a nation and adopts a particular form of governance it becomes a state.
Though post-Enlightenment Western thinkers and philosophers have proffered competing models of governance all concurred that the tranquillity and order afforded by a functional state is preferable to the chaos and anarchy entailed by its absence.
The primary function of the state and of governance is, broadly speaking to safeguard the property and life of the individual from assault – whether emanating internally or externally – by others and to provide an effective mechanism for the arbitrament of disputes (i.e. a judicial system). Note, however that the concept of “just” arbitrament will vary from society to society; what is central is that a mechanism is in place to dispense justice – whatever that society’s particular conception of it might be. As Marx adroitly observed (disapprovingly, of course):
“Security is the supreme social concept of bourgeois society, the concept of the police, the whole society exists only to ensure each of its members the preservation of his person, his rights and his property.”
Closely echoing the language of the French constitution of 1793:
“Security consists in the protection afforded by society to each of its members for the preservation of his person, his rights, and his property.”
The performance of such a function necessarily requires the relinquishment of a degree of autonomy by the individuals within the state and the arrogation by the state of certain rights (e.g. the right to punish and provide redress). When we talk of freedom therefore, we mean by it “freedom under the law” or more precisely freedom from the arbitrary exercising of force upon oneself by others.
The positioning of the boundary marker between the power of the state and the freedom of the individual has historically been the focus of much debate and contention between the great political thinkers of the preceding four centuries.
“In all governments, there is a perpetual intestine struggle, open or secret, between Authority and Liberty; and neither of them can ever absolutely prevail in the contest. A great sacrifice of liberty must necessarily be made in every government; yet even the authority, which confines liberty, can never, and perhaps ought never, in any constitution, to become quite entire and uncontroulable.” [David Hume]
“All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue and every prudent act is founded on compromise and barter. We balance inconveniences; we give and take; we remit some rights, that we may enjoy others;” [Edmund Burke]
Having established the necessity of some form of government to regulate society most political philosophers are in broad agreement that in order to establish its legitimacy it must have the consent of its constituents [note: this isn’t strictly true but such a discussion is out of scope here] or at least a significant majority of them. It is this consent that bestows upon the state the moral authority to exercise force and impose restraints (i.e. to enforce the law) upon its citizens.
Needless to say the above is an abstract of the views of thinkers such as Locke, Hobbes, Hume, Burke, Paine, Milton, Madison and others who between them were responsible for voluminous treatises on the subject of governance and its minutiae. It would be remiss of me not to point out the heated disputes over the precise nature of “valid consent” and its origins but suffice to say that a government/governmental paradigm despised and detested by the majority of the citizenry would never pass muster as legitimate. When the constituents of a society lose faith (or where they had none to begin with) en masse in the legitimacy of the governing ideology or the governing class/regime its failure and overthrow becomes an inevitability.
Having established the necessity of a state and the great benefits accrued from its existence what then of those who seek to disrupt and undermine the foundations upon which it is erected? Bear in mind that it is by virtue of the state’s existence that its constituents draw sustenance finding under its protective mantle the conditions propitious for commerce and material advancement. Rousseau argued that death was the appropriate punishment for one who made manifest their rejection of the social contract:
“Every criminal by attacking social rights becomes a rebel and a traitor to his country; by violating its laws he stops being a member of it—he even makes war on it. The state’s survival is inconsistent with his survival, and one of the two must die; when we put the guilty to death, we’re doing this not so much to a citizen as to an enemy. He has broken the social treaty—the investigation and trial show this, and the judgment declares it—so he is no longer a member of the state.” [Rousseau]
Locke contended that in a society whose social contract centred upon the Mosaic covenant the death sentence for idolaters was reasonable and just. Kant agreed that there was no justification for sedition as it is the state that provides law and order for all. In this respect, Islam’s political philosophy is not so dissimilar: the state affords the individual that which is necessary for a fruitful existence and in return demands obedience to its statutes – in the public arena at any rate. Those who reject the ideological underpinnings of the state must keep their rejection private and while the Islamic state makes no attempt to probe the individual’s ideological conformity it simultaneously demands, in the interests of the common good, that dissenters make no attempt to co-opt others to their viewpoint or to promulgate their opinions outside the confines of their private dwellings.
Needless to say contemporary Western understandings of the relationship between the individual and the state have progressed considerably from the discussions of two centuries ago and today most political thinkers would deem it an inalienable right of the citizen to voice, en clair, opposition not merely to the particular laws they find themselves in disagreement with but more fundamentally to the ideology upon which they are predicated and whence they emanate. Or at least so the theory goes.
In reality no society permits the aggressive presence of ideas that contravene its foundational ones and in this respect Western Europe and the United States are no different. In the 1950s the anti-Communist witch-hunt lead by US Senator Joseph McCarthy resulted in thousands suffering varying degrees of persecution including permanent loss of livelihood, false arrest and vexatious prosecution. Some committed suicide – effectively becoming victims of extra-judicial killings by the state. Today extensive infiltration and profiling programmes by the FBI (and local police forces) in combination with an ever deepening anti-Muslim hysteria (excited by an increasing number of politicians and journalists) has provided the United States with a new form of McCarthyism – with Islam the contemporary substitute for Communism. Closer to home recent pronouncements by politicians from the Prime Minister downwards have made abundantly clear that professing belief in an ideology (‘political’ Islam) antithetical to the state endorsed one (i.e. secular liberalism) will mark you as an enemy of the state:
“For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens ‘as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone’” [David Cameron]
“What we are proposing is a bill which will have certain measures within it, measures such as introducing banning orders for groups and disruption orders for individuals, for those who are out there actively trying to promote this hatred and intolerance which can lead to division in our society and undermines our British values” [Theresa May]
Numerous extant statutes deal with incitement to violence, solicitation for murder and racial hatred; Britain already has probably the most far-reaching and draconian anti-Terrorism laws in Europe. Quite obviously then, the focus of such measure must be fixed on something more fundamental. It would appear then that many politicians, of varying persuasions, are now openly advocating the creation of a new offense viz. that of “incitement to ideological hatred” or put another way: non-violent sedition. The much detested PREVENT strategy is nothing more than a flagrant attempt at a modern day ideological inquisition with a strong focus on the most vulnerable and malleable elements of society i.e. children. Why has all of this come about? Because once again (the UK previously had its own experience with anti-Communist persecution and blacklisting) the established ideology – and especially those most privileged by it – feels challenged by the presence of a rival. While today publicly rejecting the principles of secularism and the liberal viewpoints proceeding from it won’t earn you a place on the gallows or at the stake, it will most certainly prove detrimental to your financial and social well-being. We have already witnessed instances of children being removed from “extremist” parents and there are more than a few who wish to see this policy implemented on a far broader scale, utilising a much looser definition of “extremism”. In a similar vein employers will not look too favourably upon the votaries of “retrograde” precepts – as adjugded by the majority.
I’m aware that some will inevitably counter that while not perfect Western liberal democracy is at least a far sight better than the authoritarianism of North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia etc. If by such a statement they allude to the Western nations’ greater degree of latitude for dissent then I would readily concede their point. However, the measure of something is always determined by how resilient it proves when subjected to great stress. When discussions of Marxism were confined to the Islington literati the state exhibited minimal interest in interfering with their activities; by contrast the anti-Communist drive referenced above was born out of a fear that such Marxist ideals were metastasising across the working class (who form the bulk of the populace) succoured by the expansion of socialism across large parts of the globe. The spectral presence of an expansive, powerful industrialised communist state loomed large and in such a context the discussion, advocating or otherwise promotion of Marxist ideals was now viewed in an altogether different light. The parallels between the “Red Scare” of the 50s, 60s and 70s and the current sweeping tide of “Shariah takeover” hysteria, are in my opinion evident enough. When push comes to shove no ideological state will permit the unhindered public presence and promulgation of contrarian ideas. The question must focus then on where to delineate the boundary between prescribed conformity and permissible dissent.
“Because if you walk our streets, learn in our schools, benefit from our society, you sign up to our values: freedom; tolerance; responsibility; loyalty.” [David Cameron]
The terms of David Cameron’s social contract are somewhat more onerous in comparison to those offered to the citizens of an Islamic State which demands merely outward obedience to the law of the land in return for the panoply of benefits it affords its signatories. The Islamic state makes no such demand upon its citizens and in private and amongst closed groups people are free to believe what they will apropos of religion, constitution and governance; this includes the freedom to impart their beliefs to their offspring. Schools, nurseries, physicians, nurses, civil servants etc. will NOT be under a statutory duty to investigate the personal beliefs of all who enter their orbit; there will be no Islamic state equivalent to PREVENT. In his “Metaphysics of Morals”, Kant posited that a government can never force people to believe in the moral propriety of laws merely to require obedience to them and it is precisely such a position that would be adopted in the Caliphate (albeit the vast majority would).
All of this inevitably gives rise to the question of how a secular, liberal, democratic, pluralistic society accommodates an ideology which regards such ideas as anathema? How can a system supposed to accommodate and tolerate all viewpoints handle one which is absolutist, exclusivist and universalist? Slogans such as “intolerant of intolerance” might provide Tory MPs (Nadhim Zahawi) populist soundbites for Channel 4 News appearances yet ultimately are no more than platitudes bereft of any concrete solutions – something Krishnan Gurumurthy so painfully exposed (and John Humphrys even more excruciatingly so during his Radio 4 questioning of Home Secretary, Theresa May). A more honest answer, the one I suspect many politicians would actually love to proffer, would have been “ban the advocating of contrarian ideologies.” But then such a statement would of course be an admission of defeat, conceding that liberalism, compelling enough as academic discourse on the pages of political philosophy tomes, in reality functions only when the spectrum of opinion is confined to a relatively restricted bandwidth. In short, push liberalism too far and it breaks. So while slogans such as “ban Islam” were hitherto the preserve of (mostly) illiterate working class EDL/Pegida/Britain First types I have little doubt that such calls are now being embraced with growing alacrity across the socio-political spectrum.
An Islamic State is that state which is constituted solely upon the notion that there exists an omniscient, omnipotent God who demands a life of unfettered obedience to His commandments and dictates as embodied in the texts of the Qur’an and the Hadith. Its vitality and functionality, and by consequence the temporal benefits it imparts to its citizens, are dependent upon the preservation of this ideology. Although it derives the authority for its existence from God Himself nonetheless from a more sublunary perspective it can be said that its authority derives from the coherence of its citizenry upon the aforementioned notion.
In the liberal, democratic polities of the West the law professes to grant citizens the untrammeled right to scrutinise, challenge and lampoon the established system of governance. In theory even a complete reconstitution of the social contract is possible should enough citizens acquiesce (e.g. US constitutional amendments require a 2/3 majority in Congress). In reality those who would seek to do so become enemies of the state and subject thereby to an array of extra-judicial measures (of varying severity). The mantra of freedom extolled so vociferously by the West is nothing then but a form of deceit, a well painted trompe l’oeil whose illusion is revealed only upon closer inspection.
By contrast the constitution of the Islamic State makes explicit that it is indefeasible and not open to challenge or impugning under pain of prosecution; in doing so it establishes legal certainty upon this issue and prospective violators are suitably evinced aforehand of the deleterious consequences. In the particular case of apostasy – bearing in mind that Islam is not merely the majority religion but rather the constitution and raison d’etre of the state – it is considered an act of high treason and the most egregious and explicit renunciation of the social contract. By doing so – or more precisely by publicly doing so – the apostate, intentionally or otherwise, undermines the effective basis of the state thereby jeopardising the entitlement to security, prosperity and peace of other citizens. While the state would make no attempt to probe the individual’s conscience it would nevertheless require of those who could not reconcile theirs with the prevailing, established Islamic orthodoxy to suppress any public exposition of their views. Those who felt life would be rendered an insufferable gaol by the suppression of open apostasy, those who truly could not bear the sufferance of being prevented from screaming calumnies against the Prophets of Allah (swt) – peace be upon them all – such individuals would be best advised to migrate to an abode more in keeping with their ideals and mores.
In summary every society coheres around a particular fundamental viewpoint towards life. The rule pertaining to apostasy (as with those relating to theft and adultery) can only be understood in the context of a society founded upon the Islamic viewpoint. The sine qua non for the enactment of such a punishment is the presence of an Islamic State and to even consider it within the Western milieu is absurd. The Islamic state is not responsible for probing or enquiring into the private beliefs or practises of its citizens yet it is enjoined to safeguard the public sphere from iconoclastic opinions and the social discord that inevitably results thereof. By ensuring public conformity while permitting private freedom of conscience the state avoids the pitfalls of both liberalism and also of authoritarianism. The test of the Islamic system (as with any system of governance) will be in the confidence the people express in it. As the global secular/liberal capitalist system appears increasingly out of kilter and with Communism long since having perished as a viable alternative it is my firm belief that is to the ideology of Islam that millions are now looking to for the attainment of economic and social justice.
May the peace and blessings of Allah (swt) be upon our Master Muhammad. Ameen.