The question of apostasy in Islam is often raised. It issues forth from various quarters, primarily the evangelical, but also from the atheist and antagonistic circles. The east has its own supply lines. The media’s dynamism takes it across the seas. Any shortfall is met with by the Net. Muslims educated on modern lines, especially and sadly, of the sub-continent, receive it with reverence and fear: reverence because it originates from the West, and fear because they strongly suspect that Islam is inadequate for the modern world, and here is one instance. How shall they face their non-Muslim pals?
Those who initiate the question also do it out of fear. But the nature of fear is different. The evangelists do not wish to lose their power on the people. The first thing they learn about Islam is that there is no priesthood in it. (A businessman looks into commerce page first). As regards others, prospects of bearded guys in office corridors, veiled women in the streets and booze-less dinner parties in the evenings, evoke an uncanny feeling. Doubts therefore, about the efficacy of Islam are often released. Punishment of the apostate is cited as one good example. Death for apostasy runs a mild shiver through the body. (The shiver belongs to an age in which death of an individual is disapproved, but mass murder is sanctioned. The situation is entirely antithetical in reference to one of Dostoyevsky’s characters who “loves the masses but hates the individual”). At all events, how can Islam, the so-called religion of peace, condemn anyone to death for his beliefs? No, one more reason why Islam will not do.
Not merely the great majority of non-Muslims, but also many Muslims, hardly realize what disasters those lands have escaped where Islam has prevailed. A comparison of what others have been through in history, and, if past history is some indication, what dangers await them in the future, as against what the Muslims have been through, globally, is hardly ever attempted.
One of the reports that has been referred to us by a reader is from a hadith collection called Sunan of Abu Da’ud. It is as follows: Abu Musa (Ash`ari) reported, “Mu`aadh arrived upon me while I was in Yemen; and, a man (happened to be there) who was formerly a Jew who became Muslim and then turned back on Islam. When Mu`aadh arrived he declared, ‘I will not get down my animal until he is killed.’ So he was killed.” One of the transmitters said, “He had been encouraged to repent (but he had refused).”
The incident belongs to the time of the Prophet. Yemen had submitted to Islam, Abu Musa Ash`ari was the Governor appointed by the Prophet, and Muaadh had been sent to assist him.
Mu`aadh was not acting on his own. He had Prophetic authority behind him. He was a man of such faith that he did not like to place his foot on a ground where Islam prevailed but its law was not applied. It should go without saying that by insisting on acting according to Prophetic instruction, Mu`aadh was able to shut down what could become a constant source of scourge and social disturbance for the Muslims. His killing of the man assured that there will no more be men and women who would be hugged by the Muslims in the morning for embracing Islam, the day spent in celebrations, but the evening end on a tragic note: the new Muslim would have the last laugh, when he or she would publicly denounce Islam, leaving the Muslim community confused and pitying themselves for the rest of the evening.
A man enters into Islam in two ways. It is either after sufficient intellectual reasoning and internal debate – a situation that last for months and years with conviction getting stronger with increased research. Ultimately he arrives at a point at which not admitting the truth of Islam amounts to being dishonest to himself. Some take the logical step, others back off. (Man is supposed to be a rational being, but that does not mean he is always rational).
An alternative way of entering into Islam is through spiritual experience. When a man’s soul feels the spiritual power of Islam, that radiates from the lives of committed Muslims around him, and is evident in their devotion to God, in their sincerity and purity, in their simplicity but profundity, he finds himself irresistibly drawn towards them and towards Islam. This class hardly fails to respond positively. Reasoning of course is not excluded in this process, but overwhelmingly it is spiritual.
However, one way or the other, when having entered into the Islamic faith, and having felt the power of Islam, his soul elevated to the heavens, his person submerged in a spiritual bliss that affords such pleasure as to reduce this world to ashes, yet, thereafter, if he decides to repudiate the source, then he has not merely abandoned his soul to the dogs but has been horrendously dishonest to himself.
On the other hand, if he did not undergo any such profound experience, of mind or the soul, then, why was it that he announced his attachment to Islam? Was he joking with his Lord? Or did he have political, economic or other reasons for his prank? If so, what was his motive? What are the forces behind him? Could it be part of a big conspiracy? Is he working for the enemy? Did he try to steal state secrets? Why did he take the extreme step of using God for profane purposes? He could have spared himself the nefarious strategy of using God. He must be having a very strong and compelling motive for his behavior: a reason, certainly not advantageous to Islam and Muslims.
Further, having announced his conversion, and aware of the power of law, he could have slipped away, out of its reach. But he chose to defy the law and defy the community. He threw a challenge in their face: “Here I am. I renounce. Let’s see what you can do to me!”
His challenge had to be answered. The community and the state had to act strongly, or face the social and political chaos of large number of people entering into Islam and then, having achieved their objective, abandoning it by the day or the year’s end.
Then there are practical questions. Muslims are more than ready to offer their daughters to new Muslims in the hope of regenerating faith in their own family. They feel honored they have someone who is fresh in faith. The man steps deep into the family which offers him what cannot be bought at any price, love. In addition to emotional attachments, he may have children. But, so far as the man is considered, for him it is no more than a joke, and a question of convenience as to when shall he end it. Obviously, an end should be put to the beginning of it all. Death for apostasy is a most reasonable religious law.
In the case cited above, given the chance to prove that he was right in rejecting Islam, and that Muslims in fact should be following his example, he failed. He failed to prove and failed to repent. Evidently, one who announces his conversion, and then the reversal, without a convincing reason, is an unprincipled man. He is dangerous too. This man was dishonest on three scores: dishonest to the community, dishonest to God, and, worst of all, dishonest to himself.
The above said, we are not surprised by the horror of the non-Muslims at the punishment of an apostate. We know their mind. In a country like the United States, for example, they murder each other in numbers anywhere between 18 to 24,000. This ghastly yearly performance does not horrify them. But to learn of a report in a book obscure to them, concerning the death of a rogue in distant Yemen, 1500 years ago, horrifies them. Interestingly, they do not believe in any of the thousands of reports in the same source books that give credit to Islam and Muslims. They allege the reports are fake. But this one is trustworthy. And they are horrified!
Today’s evangelist who appears on the radio and TV, who preaches the Gospel of war in the name of Christ, who gives his followers the rationale for hating Muslims, and who is readily horrified by reports of a killing that took place in the ancient times, but not by the thousands in his own day, who, in a land nearer than Yemen, and who, having given away their coats resist giving away their shirts, is a perfect replica of the Pharisees, Sadducees and others of the class that Jesus Christ confronted, criticized and condemned. He has an agenda which is close to the agenda of his politicians and far away from Christ and his noble teachings. He is a Muslim-hater, not a Christ-lover. It is about this kind that Jesus said, “You blind guides, which strain a gnat and swallow a camel.” (Mat. 23: 24). Whether in the East or in the West, he scans through the Islamic literature to discover what will horrify him and his audience. He also carefully conceals what of the Bible will not serve his purpose. Says the Bible, (Deut. 17: 2-5),
“Suppose you hear that in one of the towns some man or woman has sinned against the Lord and broken his covenant by worshipping or serving other gods, or the sun or the moon or the stars, contrary to the Lord’s command. If you hear such a report, then investigate it thoroughly. If it is true that this evil thing has happened in Israel, then take that person outside the town and stone him to death. However, he may be put to death only if two or more witnesses testify against him..” The severity of the law can be noticed. If someone repudiates his religion, he is not required to admit that he has done so. But rather, two witnesses are enough for him to be stoned to death. Those two witnesses have also not been specified, meaning any two witnesses. The implication is that if any two or more people plan to get a man executed, all they have to do is to testify that this man has been serving other gods. His own admission or denial is of no worth.
Apologists of the Western life and culture will protest that this is imagining too much, an excessive analysis. We are about to demonstrate to them that this is how later Christians understood the text – verbatim.
To begin with, compare with the above the law of Islam which specifies that no man can be executed even if Muslims of the entire town testify that he serves gods other than Allah, without the man’s own admission.
Yet, is his admission enough to gas the man, inject him with poison, or run high voltage electricity through him? No. His admission is not enough except when the following conditions are met:
1. He admits apostasy before the chief judge or the ruler. His confession before other Muslims – no matter how large their numbers – is not sufficient to condemn him to death. He always has the benefit of doubt of not having been understood properly. (It might be said that this is being too lenient. The answer is: the law is there, whether you like it or not. Secondly, the overriding principle in Islam is that the life of a single Muslim is worthier than the Holy Ka`ba).
2. Prior to death penalty, he must have been confined in a prison for a while to allow him freedom from any kind of outside pressure or influence.
3. He must be supplied with any literature he requests to make a study of the issue.
4. Muslim scholars should visit him to remove any of the doubts he may have, or explain any of the text-passages that he has not understood.
5. If he insists on another religion after Islam, he should be allowed to debate with the scholars of Islam to prove that he is rationally right in repudiating Islam and that the Muslims are wrong in believing that God is one, Muhammad is His Messenger and the Qur’an is a revelation. If Islam is not a true religion, why should he alone abandon it? Why should not all the Muslims denounce Islam?
6. He must be examined by medical men to ascertain that he is not mad, or cranky.
7. Psychologists must talk to him to find out whether he is not trying to commit suicide because of personal reasons but wishes to lay the blame on Muslims.
8. It must be ascertained that he is not looking for martyrdom following which he has devised this scheme. [There have been Christians in the past in the Middle-east who stood in front of mosques and shouted insults to the Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad, so that they could be condemned to death and they be remembered as martyrs. At one time in history it had acquired the character of a movement, but the Muslim rulers and ordinary people ignored them, or merely jailed them].
9. He must be physically and mentally a matured person. If he is physically mature, but mentally not so, he cannot be condemned to death.
10. Finally, all he has to do to escape the death penalty is to say, “I bear witness that there is no deity worthy of worship but one God, and that Muhammad is His Messenger.” Nothing further is required of him. That is, if he is subsequently seen visiting churches or temples, but bears the above testimony, apostasy is not proven. He cannot be punished to death.
Someone might raise an objection: if such are the conditions, then the law is useless. No one can ever be convicted, far from being punished. The answer is yes, you are right. In the entire history of Islam, there haven’t been perhaps more than 15-20 who were condemned to death for apostasy. The rule is there to prevent the occurrence, but not to nullify another rule which is above all rules: “there is no compulsion in religion.”
But here comes the big difference between the compassion showed by Islam, and that refused by Christianity. Christianity does not accept back the apostates, even if he repents and wishes to rejoin the fold. Says the Bible, (Heb., 6: 4-6),
“For how can those who abandon their faith be brought back to repent again? They were once in God’s light; they tasted heaven’s gift and received their share of the Holy Spirit; they knew from experience that God’s word is good; and they had felt the powers of the coming age. And then they abandoned their faith! It is impossible to bring them back to repent again, because they are again crucifying the Son of God and exposing him to public shame.”
The Biblical verses that follow the above quote promise hell-fire to apostates. And a prophecy by Jesus is recorded in Mat. 23: 10 to the effect that many Christians will abandon Christianity at the end of times: “And then shall many be offended and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another.”
The “non-return” rule remains in force. A Red-letter Bible of recent print states in the index with reference to apostates that they are, “impossible to be reinstated.” That is, they cannot come back to Christianity.
Compare this with Allah’s love of man (3: 86-89):
How shall Allah guide a people who disbelieved after they had declared faith and after they had attested to the truth of the Messenger, after receiving veritable proofs? And Allah guides not the transgressors. Their recompense is that there shall rest on them the curse of Allah, that of the angels, and of the people, combined. They shall dwell in it forever. The chastisement shall not be lightened for them nor shall they be given respite. Save for those who repented and made amends; for truly, Allah is Forgiving, Kind.”
The Islamic rule then is: If a man declares his return into Islam, all he has to do, as the executioner raises his sword, is to announce his repentance. Even at that point his repentance is accepted and he will be freed.
We could now look into the past history of those who feel that Islam has not treated the apostates kindly. We have stated the law. We shall now deal with how it was understood and implemented – not by a fanatical few, but by the highest authorities, both secular as well as religious. To cut the story short, we attempt an aerial survey of the period during which the law of apostasy was vigorously applied: between 1200 and 1800.
The word “Inquisition” will often occur. It is defined as the “papal judicial institution that combated heresy and such things as alchemy, witchcraft, and sorcery” (Britannica).
It was Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) [who had commissioned his own inquisitors, who answered directly to him], had declared, “anyone who attempted to construe a personal view of god which conflicted with the church dogma must be burned without pity.” (The Dark Side of Christian History by Helen Ellerbe). In 1205, he issued an edict forbidding legal help to a heretic or any council or support. He believed that dissidents were worse than infidels (Saracens, Muslims, and Turks). He called upon Louis VII (1120–1180), and Raymond VI (1156-1222), to assist him. He promised the killers of the heretics a heavenly kingdom.
In consequence, in 1209 an army of the orthodox attacked Beziers and murdered 60,000 men, women, and children. When someone complained that Catholics were being killed as well as “heretics”, the papal legates told them to go on killing and not to worry about it for “the Lord knows His own.”
It was however, Pope Gregory IX who in 1231 instituted the “Papal Inquisition” for the apprehension and trial of heretics. Pope Innocent IV (1243–54), in his bull ad extirpanda, ordered the civil magistrates to extort from all heretics by torture a confession of their own guilt and a betrayal of all their accomplices. He decreed that accusers could remain anonymous. Many churches had a box where informants could slip written accusations against their neighbors. He thus instituted a system that was then honed by popes Alexander IV (1254-1261), Urban IV (1261-1265), and Clement IV (1265-1268), [himself an ex-inquisitor], and finally codified by Boniface VIII in the Liber Sextus of 1298.
The Inquisition took over all of the victims’ possessions upon accusation. Pope Innocent stated that since God punished children for the sins of their parents, they had no right to be legal heirs to the property of their parents. Inquisitors even accused the dead of heresy, and in some cases bones of the dead were exhumed as much as seventy years after their death and all property were confiscated from their heirs.
In 1224 Pope Frederick III declared that heretics convicted by an ecclesiastical court should suffer death by fire. In France it was Pope Gregory IX began the Medieval Inquisition in 1230 by setting up in Toulouse, France, the first permanent tribunal to deal with heresy. It is reported that in 1239 at Montwimer in Champagne, Robert le Bougre one time burned about 180 persons whose trial began and ended within one week. In 1249 Count Raymond VII of Toulouse had 80 confessed heretics burned in his presence without giving them a chance to recant. In 1252, torture was authorized to elicit confessions, by Pope Innocent IV, through his Bull Ad exstirpanda of 1252, which was confirmed by Pope Alexander IV in 1259, and by Pope Clement IV in 1265. In 1478 Pope Sixtus authorized the Spanish Inquisition.
It is reported that at Minerve, 14,000 Christians were put to death in the flames, and ears, noses, and lips of the “heretics” clipped off (Peter S. Ruckman, Ph.D., History of the New Testament Church, Pensacola, Florida, 1989). But, most interestingly, in 1536 Tyndale was executed for translating the Bible into English (Encyclopedia Britannica).
In 1814 the Spanish Inquisition was reintroduced by Ferdinand VII and approved by Pope Pius VII. It was in 1965 that Pope Paul VI reorganized the Holy Office and renamed it “Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith,” and in 1993 the Church “officially” pardoned Galileo. In other words, he was forgiven for believing that the planets revolve around the Sun, not the Earth.
In 1792(?) Jean Antoine Llorente, secretary to the Spanish Inquisition from 1790-92, admitted: “The horrid conduct of this Holy Office weakened the power and diminished the population of Spain by arresting the progress of arts, sciences, industry, and commerce, and by compelling multitudes of families to abandon the kingdom; by instigating the expulsion of the Jews and the Moors (Muslims: ed.), and by immolating on its flaming shambles more than 300,000 victims.” (Jean Antoine Llorentine, History of the Inquisition; as cited in R.W. Thompson, The Papacy and the Civil Power [New York, 1876]; as cited in Dave Hunt’s, A Woman Rides the Beast).
Witchcraft was also considered as heresy and all suspected of it were similarly treated. In 1586, the Chronicler of Treves reported that the entire female population of two villages was wiped out by inquisitors. Only two women were left alive. A documented case in the Silesian town of Neisse reveals a huge oven over which over – during a ten year period – more than a thousand “witches, some as young as two years old” were roasted alive. (Dictionary of Witchcraft by David Pickering, article on “Germany”, page 108). Some accounts say that between the years of 1450-1600, 30,000 alleged “witches”³ were tortured, and burned. Girls as young as nine and boys as young as ten were tried for witchcraft. Children much younger were tortured to extract testimony against their parents. (The Dark Side of Christian History by Helen Ellerbe).
The provisions of the Bulls were accorded theological respectability by the renowed saint Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica. He wrote: “If forgers and other malefactors are put to death by the secular power, there is much more reason for putting to death one convicted of heresy.” In 1815, Comte Le Maistre defended the Inquisition by advocating: “The Inquisition is, in its very nature, good, mild, and preservative. It is the universal, indelible character of every ecclesiastical institution; you see it in Rome, and you can see it wherever the true Church has power.” (Comte Le Maistre, Letters on the Spanish Inquisition, as cited in R.W. Thompson, The Papacy and the Civil Power (New York, 1876); as cited in Dave Hunt, A Woman Rides the Beast).
To get an idea of the instruments that were used for torture, one might visit any Inquisition site on the Internet. He or she could spend rest of the evening sad and dull. Some of the photographs of the instruments and their description could run a chill in the spine. In Europe and America, some Museums are devoted entirely to these tools, while one are two are available on tour.
What were the numbers that were affected by the Inquisition? This is difficult to judge. Accounts vary. Those who suffered most, e.g. the Protestants, allege that there is effort to conceal and even wipe off the evidences. It is said that prior to 1960, libraries in America were filled with books on the Inquisition. Today however, very few can be found. An extreme account claims that the total number of people murdered, tortured or affected in some way were 68 million. But we do not know the truth of this statement.
We could end by quoting the historian Will Durant (The Story of Civilization), “Making every allowance required by an historian and permitted to a Christian, we must rank the Inquisition, along with the wars and persecutions of our time, as among the darkest blots on the record of mankind, revealing a ferocity unknown in any beast.”
We realize that the above is too sketchy. But that was what attempted. A click on the search-word “Inquisition” results in 3.5 million site addresses on the Net. A thorough research is a work of several years. At the moment, our point is well served. It is far from fair to cite the law of apostasy in Islam as the reason why Islam itself should not be given a fair trial.