In the Name of God: The Infinitely Merciful and Compassionate Beloved Lord
So much ink has been spilled about the now famous debate about Islam on Bill Maher’s show between bill Maher, Sam Harris, and Ben Affleck. As I read and watch and hear the back and forth, I’m exasperated at what is lost in the debate. Lost in this debate is the fact that, despite what various polls show – and there is a lot of nuance in those polls – many, if not all, of the alleged “Islamic beliefs” that horrify the likes of Maher and Harris are simply based on a total misreading of Islam and the Qur’an. Whenever I hear claims like “Islam demands the murder of apostates…” or “Islam claims the infidel must be killed…“, I simply shake my head in disbelief because, it is simply not true. And I go to the very scriptures themselves to back this claim up.
As an example, one of those “Islamic beliefs” that is mentioned time and again is the supposed death penalty for apostates, i.e., those who leave the faith of Islam. Now, polls, such as the Pew poll of Muslim attitudes, show that sometimes 80% of Muslims in this country or that believe that “Islam demands the death penalty for apostates.” Yet, Islamic Scripture completely rejects this belief, no matter how many Muslims believe it.
In fact, I have had this very discussion with a number of Muslims, and I simply cannot understand from where they get the notion that apostates are to be murdered. It is not because I am naive (although some may think so); it is not because I am lying (although some may claim so). Rather, it is because the Scripture is explicitly clear over the issue of freedom of faith.
Here are the scores of verses in the Qur’an that explicitly uphold freedom of faith:
There shall be no coercion in matters of faith. Distinct has now become the right way from [the way of] error… (2:256)
Say [O Muhammad], ‘The truth is from your Lord:’ Let him who wills believe it, and let him who wills, reject (it). (18:29)
If it had been your Lord’s will, they all would have believed – all who are on earth. Will you, then, compel the people, against their will, to believe? (10:99)
Have, then, they who have attained to faith not yet come to know that, had God so willed, He would indeed have guided all mankind aright? (13:31)
And [because He is your Creator], it rests with God alone to show you the right path: yet there is [many a one] who swerves from it. However, had He so willed, He would have guided you all aright. (16:9)
It is not required of thee (O Messenger), to set them on the right path, but God sets on the right path whom He pleases. (2:272)
But would you, perhaps, torment yourself to death with grief over them if they are not willing to believe in this message? (18:6)
God wants us to come to Him willingly. God wants us to follow His path by our choice, not under pain of death. The Qur’an says as much:
O you who have attained to faith! Respond to the call of God and the Apostle when he calls you unto that which will give you life…(8:24)
And If My servants ask you [O Muhammad] about Me, behold, I am near. I respond to the call of him who calls, whenever he calls unto Me. Let them, then respond unto Me and believe in Me, so that they might follow the right way (2:186)
Right and wrong do not make any sense if there is not total freedom of will. Reward and punishment do not make sense if there is not total freedom of will. Hence, the Qur’an does not proscribe a punishment for those who leave the faith.
Yet, more than just this, the Qur’an specifically speaks about apostasy, and no where is there mention that the one who leaves is to be harmed in any way:
… [Your enemies] will not cease to fight against you till they have turned you away from your faith, if they can. But if any of you should turn away from his faith and die as a denier of the truth – these it is whose works will go for naught in this world and in the life to come; and these it is who are destined for the fire, therein to abide. (2:217)
Verily, as for those who are bent on denying the truth after having attained to faith, and then grow [ever more stubborn] in their refusal to acknowledge the truth, their repentance [of other sins] shall not be accepted: for it is they who have truly gone astray. (3:90)
O you who have attained to faith! If you ever abandon your faith, God will in time bring forth [in your stead] people whom He loves and who love Him – humble towards the believers, proud towards all who deny the truth: [people] who strive hard in God’s cause, and do not fear to be censured by anyone who might censure them: such is God’s favor, which He grants unto whom He wills. And God is infinite, all-knowing. (5:54)
Any one who, after accepting faith in God, utters unbelief – except under compulsion, his heart remaining firm in faith – but such as open their breast to unbelief, on them is wrath from God, and theirs will be a dreadful penalty. This because they love the life of this world better than the hereafter: and God will not guide those who reject faith. (16:106-107)
Now, no doubt, the text is harsh against those who leave the faith. The text threatens these people with eternal punishment. Indeed, the verses in the Qur’an that speak harshly about apostasy are akin to this Biblical verse:
Ye shall not go after other gods, of the gods of the people which are round about you; (For the Lord thy God is a jealous God among you) lest the anger of the Lord thy God be kindled against thee, and destroy thee from off the face of the earth. (Deut. 6:14-15)
Harshness towards apostasy seems to be an Abrahamic religious thing. But, again, the Qur’an does not say the apostate is to be killed. The fate of the apostate is left up to God in the Hereafter. There is no punishment whatsoever to be meted by anyone in this world.
Why, the Qur’an even speaks about “serial apostasy”:
Behold, as for those who come to believe, and then deny the truth, and again come to believe, and again deny the truth, and thereafter grow stubborn in their denial of the truth, God will not forgive them, nor will He guide them in any way. (4:137)
No where does it mention that a hair is to be touched on this person’s head, let alone killed. Given all this Scriptural evidence, I simply do not understand how anyone can claim the Qur’an demands death for the apostate.
In fact, diversity of faith is part of God’s plan for this earth. And the Qur’an itself says so:
Unto every one of you have We appointed a [different] law and way of life. And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but [He willed it otherwise] in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto you… (5:48)
For had God so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community; however, He lets go astray that wills [to go astray], and guides aright him that wills [to be guided]; and you will surely be called to account for all that you ever did! (16:93)
Moreover, one of the reasons that armed conflict is sanctioned in Islam is to protect religious freedom:
If God had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another, [all] monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques – in [all of] which Gods name is abundantly extolled – would surely have been destroyed. (22:40)
A more detailed analysis and explanation - citing Islamic sources including Prophetic tradition – of apostasy and Islam is available for those who want to read more. It is beyond the scope of this post here.
And it must be said: there is one Scripture that calls for the death penalty for apostates. The Bible (emphasis added):
If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth; Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. (Deuteronomy 13:6-10).
Bottom line is this: Freedom of faith is paramount in Islam. Period. Freedom of faith is fundamental to the very essence of Islam itself. Period. No doubt, the belief that apostates must be put to death is prevalent among a distressingly large number of Muslims. But, Islam has nothing to do with this. Bill Maher and Sam Harris are simply wrong about this issue.