The Iranian authorities are busy these days with committing a terrible attack on religious freedom: They have just given a death sentence given to Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, a former Muslim, whose only "crime" is to choose Christianity as his faith.
Although the Iranian court that has tried the long-imprisoned Mr. Nadarkhani lately brought up new accusations against him -- ranging from being a "Zionist agent" to rape -- his last trial on Sep 25-28 makes the problem clear. The judges repeatedly asked from Mr. Nadarkhani to renounce his Christian faith, which would save him from the shocking verdict that "Islamic law" dictates on apostates: capital punishment.
This verdict is not just shocking to modern ears, but also humiliating for all those Muslims who believe in human freedom. For how can a faith be noble if it dictates itself on people and kills those whose conscience dictates another faith? And how Muslims can be proud of their religion if is a community with a free entry but no free exit?
These were some of questions I had in my mind when I began to make research on the ban on apostasy in Islam, for my newly released book, Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty. It was not too hard to see that, like most other coercive elements in classical Islamic law, this ban comes from not the Qur'an, the only divinely-mandated source of Islam, but the post-Qur'anic tradition, which carries the weight of medieval customs, practices and politics.
In fact, the Qur'an not only lacks any earthly punishment for someone who abandons Islam, it even includes verses that imply that such a change of heart should be a matter of free choice. "The truth is from your Lord," a verse reads, "so let him who please believe, and let him who please disbelieve." (18:29) Another verse speaks about "those who believe then disbelieve, again believe and again disbelieve, then increase in disbelief," implying that there were people who could go back and forth between Islam and disbelief during the time of revelation. (4:137)
However, the Qur'an defines only a small part of the Islamic law. The earthly punishment for apostasy comes from another source, namely the hadiths -- words and deeds attributed to Prophet Muhammad, but were canonized only two centuries after his death. "If somebody [among Muslims] discards his religion," reads a hadith in the collection titled Sahih Bukhari, "then kill him."
Yet hadiths are controversial sources, and, as many Muslim reformers have argued since the 19th century, some of them are apocryphal statements created long after the facts -- words put into the mouth of Prophet Muhammad according to later needs.
Many modern scholars think that this need was purely political: The early Muslim community often found itself at war with pagans or other groups, and "apostasy" in that context meant changing your side in battle. (That's why the Hanafi school of jurisprudence gave the death penalty to only males, assuming that they would become enemy combatants, whereas females were not expected to join any war effort.) Other scholars point out to the political uprisings that the Muslim leadership after Prophet Muhammad faced: "Apostasy" in that context really implied rebellion against the state.
In other words, whatever the true origin of the ban on apostasy, it was about political treason rather than a simple change of religion. But the two concepts got confused, and merged into one, and perhaps intentionally so. The despotic sultans of the Umayyad and later the Abbasid dynasties found the death sentence on apostasy very useful, for they could simply condemn their critics as heretics and got them executed.
Today, however, the Islamic world cannot afford to preserve this medieval notion of apostasy, which is at odds with not just the modern values of human rights, but also the very spirit of the Qur'an. Indeed, there are many fine scholars who argue for revising this rule and who affirm religious freedom, but more voices are needed. Instead of remaining silent in the face of executions such as the one that Yousef Nadarkhani faces, let alone condoning them, we Muslims should speak out against them forcefully.
If we are in doubt, we should then think how we would respond if, say, Christians ordered death sentences for their apostates who chose to become Muslims. What would we think, for example, if someone like Yusuf Islam--formerly Cat Stevens, who became a Muslim in 1977--had been put on trial in a British court and only given a chance to recant before being executed?
Finally, we should keep in mind that the power of any faith comes not from its coercion on critics and dissenters, but from the moral integrity and the intellectual strength of its believers. And we Muslims will be showing more of those virtues, when we, while rightly asking for freedom for Islam, also humbly respect the freedom from Islam.