Sisters in Islam views with concern the continuing attempt by the PAS Member of Parliament Tuan Haji Abdul Hadi Awang to move a private member’s bill in Parliament to impose the death sentence for apostasy. In recent interviews with the foreign press in particular, PAS has adopted the language of democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, justice and equality. How does the party then reconcile these principles with the call for the death sentence on Muslims it believes to be apostates?
This provision, which is also included in the Hudud Enactment passed by the Kelantan State Legislative Assembly in 1993, totally ignores a significant body of opinion among the ulama from the earliest Islamic history that apostasy is not a capital crime. Many prominent ulama throughout the centuries have held the view that apostasy is not a hadd (singular for hudud) offence. This view is founded on the fact that the Qur’an is completely silent on the death penalty for apostasy.
In fact, freedom of religion is a fundamental tenet of Islam. In Surah al-Baqarah, 2:256, Allah explicitly states: “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” This Medinan verse was revealed when some Companions asked the Prophet saw for permission to compel their relatives to profess Islam. It has been widely interpreted to mean that no one can be compelled to embrace Islam because religion depends upon faith and will, and this would be meaningless if induced by force. Islam itself means submission to the will of God; and the willing submission of the self to faith and belief must be attained through conviction and reason, not through coercion and duress.
Islam began by inviting and persuading people to embrace it on the merit of its rationality and truth. In Surah Yunus, 10:99, a verse revealed in Mecca at the advent of Islam, Allah says: “Had your Lord willed, everyone on earth would have believed. Do you then force people to become believers?” This and Verse 2:256, together with the norm of Shari’ah which affirms freedom of religion, have led many Muslim countries today, including Malaysia, to include in its Constitution an article on freedom of religion as a fundamental right.
In his book, The Punishment for Apostasy in Islam, the former Chief Justice of Pakistan, SA Rahman, noted that even though the subject of apostasy occurred no less than 20 times in the Qur’an, the Holy Book remained silent on death as a punishment.
Surah an-Nisa’, 4:137, states that “those who believe, then disbelieve, then believe again, then disbelieve, and then increase in their disbelief – Allah will never forgive them nor guide them to the path.” If indeed it was Allah’s intention to impose the death penalty for apostasy, then such occasion of repeated apostasy could have provoked such a punishment. But neither the first instance of apostasy, nor repeated apostasy brought about capital punishment.
Those who advocate the death penalty for apostasy based their reasoning on a hadith which proclaims, “Kill whoever changes his religion”. But this hadith is open to varying interpretations on several grounds.
First, this hadith is considered a weak hadith with just a single isnad (this means there is only one chain of transmission or narration) and thus according to the rules of Islamic jurisprudence, it is not enough to validate the death penalty.
Second, this hadith is also considered a general (‘amm) hadith in that it is in need of specification (takhsis); for it would otherwise convey a meaning that is not within its purpose. The obvious reading of the hadith would, for example, make liable the death punishment on a Hindu or Christian who converts to Islam. This is obviously not the intention of the hadith. According to the rules of Islamic jurisprudence, when a text is interpreted once, it becomes open to further interpretation and specification. Therefore, many scholars interpret this hadith to apply only to cases of high treason (hirabah), which means declaring war against Islam, the Prophet, or God or the legitimate leadership of the ummah.
Third, and most importantly, there is no evidence to show that Prophet Muhammad saw or his Companions ever compelled anyone to embrace Islam, nor did they sentence anyone to death solely for renunciation of the faith.
Based on these three reasons and the Qur’anic principle of freedom of religion, prominent ulama from the seventh to the twentieth centuries have come out with the position that there can be no death penalty for apostasy. According to Professor Hashim Kamali in his award-winning book, Freedom of Expression in Islam, two leading jurists of the generation succeeding the Companions, Ibrahim al-Naka’I and Sufyan al-Thawri, both held that the apostate should be re-invited to Islam, but should never be condemned to death. The renowned Hanafi jurist, Shams al-Din al-Sarakhsi wrote that even though renunciation of faith is the greatest of offences, it is a matter between man and his Creator, and its punishment is postponed to the Day of Judgement. The Maliki jurist Abul Walid al-Baji and the renowned Hanbali jurist Ibn Taymiyyah have both held that apostasy is a sin which carries no hadd punishment.
In modern times, the Sheikh of al-Azhar University, the late Mahmud Shaltut who was esteemed for his vast knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence and Qur’anic interpretation, wrote that many ulama are in agreement that hudud cannot be established by a solitary hadith and that unbelief by itself does not call for the death penalty. The current Sheikh of al-Azhar, who was Egypt’s former Grand Mufti, Dr Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, also declared that apostasy is not a capital crime.
Many scholars, including Ibn Taymiyyah, Shaltut and Tantawi, said that the death penalty was not meant to apply to a simple change of faith, but to hirabah, that is, when apostasy is accompanied by rebellion against the community and its legitimate leadership.
And yet, in its version of Islam, PAS has chosen the most extremist interpretation of this hadith as part of its effort to create an Islamic state and impose Shari’ah rule. If PAS is indeed offering itself as a viable alternative to the Barisan Nasional government and if it wishes to spread its support base beyond its traditional Malay heartland in the north, it must come to terms with the challenge of Islam and modernity in a complex, industrialising, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society like Malaysia. PAS, in several of its laws, policies and utterances has often chosen an interpretation of Islam that denies the plurality and diversity of the Malaysian heritage, the democratic principles and fundamental liberties most Malaysians believe in, and most importantly, Islam’s own principles of freedom, justice and equality.
In the Kelantan Hudud enactment, PAS instead chose to reproduce wholesale into statute format an 11th century classical law book by a Shafie jurist, without at all taking into account the realities of contemporary Malaysia and the existence of diverse opinion on the subject among Islamic scholars; opinions which would be more suitable for this society. PAS has disqualified women and non-Muslims, i.e. three-quarters of the population, from the right to be witnesses. An unmarried pregnant woman is assumed to have committed illicit sex eventhough she might have been raped. The diyat or compensation for death or injury to a woman is implied to be half that for a man; a marriage can be terminated by a husband’s accusation of zina against his wife (al-li’an), whether proved or not. Tuan Haji Hadi who chaired the drafting committee for the Hudud Bill, and other PAS leaders, had declared that Muslims who rejected the Bill were apostates and therefore, under the Hudud law, would be sentenced to death.
Those in the vanguard of the Islamic movement that wants to turn this country into an Islamic state must ask themselves: why would Malaysians support the concept of an Islamic state which assert different rights for Muslim men, Muslim women and non-Muslims and minorities, rather than equal rights for all? Why would those whose equal status and rights are recognised by a democratic system support the creation of such an Islamic state? If an Islamic state means a dictatorial theocratic political system that condemns those who question or challenge its authority as apostates or deviants, and then impose the death penalty on them, then why would those whose fundamental liberties are protected by a democratic state support such an intolerant concept of an Islamic state?
The vision of Islam among many caught up in the throes of Islamic revivalism, whether in government or in opposition, very often goes against fundamental Islamic principles of justice, equality, freedom and virtue. In these principles lie the dynamics needed for change within the Islamic framework. It is possible to make Islam relevant to the needs, challenges and problems of contemporary society, and yet remain authentic to the original message and spirit of the religion. The doors of ijtihad (independent reasoning based on the texts) must be opened again. While we all accept that the Qur’an is one, the human effort in interpreting the Qur’an has always led to diverse opinions. It is precisely because of this diversity that Islam has survived to this day in different cultures and societies – all could accommodate the universal message of Islam. And yet, in Malaysia today, as in many other Muslim societies, many in religious authority, whether in or out of government, not only reject that diversity in Islam, but condemn those who differ as deviants, at best, and infidels who should be sentenced to death, at worst. Such extremism and intolerance cannot provide a conducive atmosphere for Islam to thrive.
How can a society search for solutions to the problems facing the ummah when that search is conducted in ways that are so exclusive, limiting, intimidating and even life-threatening? In a modern, democratic nation-state, ijtihad has to be exercised in concert and through democratic engagement with the citizens. The experience of others who have been traditionally excluded from the process of interpreting, defining and implementing Islam must be included. The role of women who constitute half of the ummah must be acknowledged and included in this process of dialogue, of policy-making and law-making.
These are all important issues and questions that all Malaysians must engage in. For too long, liberal Malays and non-Muslims have shown little concern or interest in the development of Islam in this country. But Islam is increasingly shaping and redefining our lives and therefore defining the kind of Malaysia that we all live in. A major political party has chosen Islam as its political ideology and then, too often, hides behind the cloak of sanctity of religion to deny others the right to engage, criticise or challenge its interpretation of the religion. Now that that party is offering itself as an alternative to govern this country, we as citizens must exercise our civic duty to hold PAS, and also the Government which has turned to Islam for its political legitimacy, accountable for their words and actions done in the name of Islam.
We have to start a rational and informed dialogue on the kind of Islam and the kind of Malaysia we want to leave for our children. For too long, fear or ignorance, or political expediency, has led to a ready and willing abdication of civic responsibility and courage on matters of religion by so many in civil society, let alone our elected representatives.
If Muslims as believers want to live a life according to the tenets of their faith, a dogmatic, extremist, and intolerant Islam will not provide the answers to the challenges and realities of living in a country where almost 50 percent of the population are non-Muslims, where 47 percent of the women are working, where the majority of students in pre-university education, in government universities, and those studying medicine, law, economics, accountancy, management, pure and applied sciences, and allied health are all women.
Ijtihad in a modern nation-state cannot remain just an exercise in linguistics gymnastics and literalistic exegeses by an exclusive group of people who very often not only isolate the Text out of the socio-historical context in which it was revealed, but also isolate that Text from the context of the contemporary society we live in today.
Islam’s eternal commitment to justice, equality, freedom and virtue are universal principles that are valid for all times. It is these principles that should form the framework within which we seek to reconstruct society. To successfully do this, however, we need the intellectual vigour, moral courage and political will to open the doors of ijtihad and strive for a more enlightened interpretation of the Qur’an and hadith in our search for answers to deal with our ever changing times and circumstances. This is not heretical, but an imperative if religion is to be relevant to our lives today.
Sisters in Islam
22 July 1999
This letter was published in The New Straits Times, The Star, Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian.