Saturday, February 26, 2011

Struggling for peace in interpreting religious texts (the "law of apostasy" in Islam)

There is much public debate and these days about whether Muslims are peaceful people and whether Islam is a “religion of peace.” Many Americans, and many Christians, doubt both of these. Among the issues raised by those who believe that Muslims are extreme and Islam an extreme religion (and, many think, incompatible with the values of Western civilization or Christian teaching), are jihad, views of and relations with outsiders (Christians, Jews and others), treatment of women, and issues like the “law of apostasy,” whereby those who convert from Islam are punishable by death.

Abdullah Saeed (the Sultan of Oman Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies and the Director of National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia), has recently published an article on the latter topic, “The Quranic Case Against Killing Apostates” ( (I would highly recommend reading the entire article.)

Saeed discusses the interpretation of the Qur’an and Hadith on the question of killing apostates, and finds no support for this practice.

There is, in fact, no single verse of the Quran that specifies any kind of worldly punishment for converting from Islam, let alone death. The opposite is true. Many verses assert that all human beings are free to believe or not to believe in God or in any particular religion. For example, “Let him who wills believe in it [Islam], and let him who wills, reject it.” Or, “Whoever chooses to follow the right path, follows it for his own good; and if any one wills to go astray, say [O Prophet, to him] ‘I am only a warner.’”

He discusses the classical interpretation, and the fact that many Muslim scholars, teachers and leaders today are arguing for a change in practice and understanding, based on returning again to the texts. And he discusses how this relates to the broader question of whether Islam supports human rights and freedoms (he argues that it does). He argues that, “Today, more and more Muslim thinkers and scholars are adopting the Quranic view of absolute freedom of belief and religion…, “ and sees the debate on apostasy and freedom of belief as “just one dimension of a continuing process of renewal and reform in Islamic thought today. As part of this process Muslims should emphasize the Quran’s values of freedom of belief, compassion for all, and the need not to play God’s role in matters of belief.

For pursuing peace (our topic here), the important point here is that Muslims are debating what the Qur’an and Islam teach about various issues that impact how they relate to others in the world today, and how they view human rights and freedoms. As with any people in any religious tradition, interpretation of the teachings and values of their religion has a huge impact on whether and how they live at peace with others. My hope is that scholars like Saeed will be successful in influencing and guiding the Muslim community worldwide.

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