The Quran says “there is no compulsion in religion.” So why are Muslim societies obsessed with atheism and apostasy?

Tuesday 19 March 201907:03 am
A clear trend has emerged in recent times within Arab societies, one which cannot be disputed or overlooked – namely, the overwhelming condemnation and social rejection that has targeted individuals who have publicly pronounced their atheism or their ‘departure from religion’. In reality, the scale of attention and interest devoted to the issue of conversion of belief elicits an important question about the scale of concern with the phenomenon of atheism – not least considering that from a religious viewpoint, the longstanding and commonly-established precepts of Islam acknowledge freedom of choice. As the example of one Qur’anic verse states: “Those who want can believe, and those who want can disbelieve.”

The religious viewpoint: what is Islam’s opinion of atheism?

It should be pointed out at the start that the very concept of atheism or disbelief is based on the existence and presence of its converse - namely, a religious structure. In other words, it is based around the absence of a belief, and thus constitutes an evaluation of individuals and groups from a religious starting point. This contrasts with a view of society and belief which proceeds from the point of view of those parties who declare themselves separate from the religion adopted by their society. Moving forward, we find that within the text of the Qur’an – which constitutes the highest frame of reference of Islamic legislation – there are many verses that convey the value that the relationship of belief and worship is one between an individual and their God, and thus a domain of individual choice. Indeed, Qur’anic verses commonly affirmed the granting of a full prerogative to the individual within their freedom of choice – a test in which every individual is examined as to whether they choose the path of faith, or the path of disbelief. Thus in Surah “Al-Kāfirūn” (the plural of Kafir - commonly translated as  “rejector”, “non-believer” or “infidel”), which is one of the Surahs (chapters) of the Qur’an revealed in the early stages of the Islamic calling, during the Prophet Muhammad’s time in Mecca (the Qur’an is split into chapters that were revealed to the Prophet in Mecca, and chapters that were revealed to him later in Medina - following his hijra or migration there) – rejection or disbelief (i.e. Kufr) is posited as a religion parallel to Islam. Indeed, the right of the pagan disbelievers (with Kafirun mostly used throughout the Qur’an to refer to these in particular) to stick to their old beliefs - so long as they refrained from harassing the nascent Islamic community in their midst - is apparent from the verses of the Surah. Even after the hijra by the Prophet and his followers to Medina (following their forced exile by the pagan authorities in Mecca), freedom of religious belief remained a key Qur’anic principle - thus, verse 256 of Surah “Al-Baqara” declares: “There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is henceforth distinct from error. So whoever rejects false deities and believes in God, has grasped a firm handhold which will never break. And God is Hearing, Knowing.” With regards to this verse, some books of Qur’anic commentary (specifically those concerned with examining the reasons or asbab behind the revelation of certain verses) have declared that the intended audience here were some of the Ansar – citizens of Medina who pledged allegiance to Muhammad and his muhajerin (migrants), and who were attempting to force their children to adopt Islam. Nonetheless, most mufassirin (exegetes or interpreters of the Qur’an) agree that the applicability of the verse’s ruling is unbounded by time - and that the moral of the message lies within the generality of the wording or formulation, rather than the specificity of the reason for its revelation. Thus the celebrated medieval Islamic historian and exegete, Ibn Kathir (1301-1373), comments in his tafsir (exegesis) on the verse: “That is, that you do not force anyone to enter the religion of Islam, for it [Islam] is obvious, clear and manifest in its evidence and proofs [and] does not need anyone to be forced to enter it; rather he who has been guided to Islam and whose breast [heart] has been widened and his foresight has been enlightened has entered it [Islam] on a substantiated basis, and he whose heart God has blinded and whose hearing and sight God has sealed is not helped by entering the religion by coercion and compulsion”. Yet despite the central and emblematic significance of this verse within Qur’anic speech - and its harmony with human considerations - it has nonetheless been quickly neutralised and the values it professes overlooked; this has been in part achieved through claims that the verse has been subject to abrogation (the theory within Islamic exegesis known as Naskh, wherein some revelations in the Qur’an or Prophetic narrations, i.e. Sunnah, are superseded by later revelations), alteration (ta’adil) and restriction (taqyid). Thus, an opinion in the interpretation of the verse says: “A large sect of scholars went to [the view] that this [verse] is applicable to the people of the book [i.e. Abrahamic faiths, such as Christians and Jews] and those who entered their religion - before abrogation [naskh] and replacement [tabdil] – as long as they paid the jizya [tax for non-Muslim covenants living under Muslim rule], whilst others said: it is abrogated by the verse on fighting and that all nations should be called to enter the noble religion of Islam, and the one who does not enter it or be led to it or pay the Jizya, is fought until he is killed”. What is particularly noteworthy here is a retrenchment from the centrality of the values of freedom, the right of choice and self-determination: this coincided with a weakened emphasis on the individual - instead, viewing them as part of a collective context. The effects of this change were apparent in the scripts of the hadiths (the narrations of the Prophet Muhammad), which comprised many accounts and narrations which aligned with this interpretive and rationalising framework. These called for the application of the punishment for apostasy as a means of preserving social cohesion, even if it came at the expense of a human being’s individual standing. One such narration relayed in the Sahih Al-Bukhari (one of the most renowned collections of Hadith) states: “Whoever changes his religion, kill him”. Another narration in Sahih Muslim (another major collection of Hadith) says: “The blood of a Muslim who declares that There is no God but God, and that I am his messenger, is impermissible [to be shed] except in one of three [situations]: someone who married [and consummated] and committed adultery, a soul for a soul, and the one who leaves his religion and splits from the group [community]”. Here, we examine the concept of “apostasy law” – which in reality took place in a specific ideological and historical context, one which differs substantially from the religious and doctrinal context of Islam. Following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the small Islamic community expanded rapidly in size to become a state resembling an empire – one which needed an ideology capable of mobilising both men and money, whilst at the same time preserving the religious zeal of the first generation of Muslims. It is within this context that we could discern that the punishment for apostasy was in reality a socio-political law more so than a religious injunction. Many Muslim scholars have considered the question of apostasy from this angle; here, they tied the application of the punishment to the undertaking of belligerent acts towards Islam. Amongst these scholars is the famed jurist and theologian Ibn al-Qayyim (1292-1350), who writes in his book “Information for Those who Write on Behalf of the Lord of the Worlds”: “As for killing He [God] made it the punishment for the greatest of crimes such as the crime against the soul [murder]… and such as crime against the religion by impugning it and reverting from it, and this crime is worthy of death… as for [the case] if he traps [keeps within] his evil and holds his tongue and stops his harm and kept to servility and humbleness and obeyed the laws of God and his messenger on [pertinent to] him and performed the jizya, remining amongst the Muslims was no longer harmful to them”. What adds to the strength and reasonable nature of this outlook - which again views the punishment for apostasy in its ideological and historical context, rather than a religious one – is that a historical reading of the aforementioned incidents of apostasy which occurred during the Prophet’s time supports the link between punishment and the apostate’s course of action – rather than the idea of apostasy itself. Thus for example, amongst the apostates to declare their enmity to Islam during the time of the Prophet were Abdullah Ibn Aby al-Sarh and Abdullah Ibn Khatl (who defected to Mecca after being appointed as a tax collector by Medina’s Muslims, allegedly killing his servant en route) – both of whom had further engaged in satirical ridicule of the Prophet. However, when Muhammad entered Mecca as a conqueror, he ordered the killing of Ibn Khatl whilst sparing the life of Ibn Aby al-Sarh, after accepting the intercession of his companion (and third Caliph after the Prophet’s death), Uthman Ibn Affan, regarding the latter. This was relayed by the famed Persian scholar Al-Tabari (838-923) in his book, “The History of the prophets and kings”. So, we are left with the question: if the dominant religious trajectory opposed coercing any individual to adopting a certain religion, where does the hostile social outlook towards disbelief or atheism come from?

The authority of the state and the security of the community

To ascertain the main driving motives and objective justifications behind this perspective - and to get a satisfactory answer to the question of why a society would outwardly avow and profess its disapproval of atheism whilst fomenting a hostility of such ferocity and degree of heedfulness, in a certain moment of its history - we must consider several interacting factors: the collective sense of security, the necessity of social peace, and the absence of disciplined and effective political interaction. What is apparent here in most cases is that the society’s rejection of atheism stems from clear political factors: for these same societies that are subject to dictatorship, absolutism, corruption and the absence of political pluralism, consequently suffer the inevitable effects which follow from the absence of effective application of the nominal legal framework. The consequence of this often leaves the law reduced to little more than ink on paper in the perception of its citizens – unable to apply social deterrence or preserve internal peace between members of society. In time, these dormant clauses of law inevitably prove impotent when attempting to formulate both the rights and the responsibilities of individuals in society. Here, religiosity – rather than religion itself – emerges as a parallel substitute for the law, for it enjoys a tremendous organisational capacity and further derives its authority from a supreme source – one that cannot be trespassed against or accused of incapacity. This is to add to the fact that the prevailing mode of religiosity incorporates within it many key participatory and collaborative values, which help to achieve spiritual and moral elevation by preaching the values of contentment, good morals and manners and awaiting the just reward in the afterlife. In these societies particularly, the religious structure takes the place of its worn-out and inactive legal counterpart: administrative and executive authority thus passes from the political executive – concerned only with preserving its hold on power – to the hands of society itself. The only remaining guarantor which can achieve a form of social security at this point subsists within religious restraint. It is from this point of departure that public professions of religious departure or declarations of apostasy become a social and political cause par excellence – for the society is attached to its religious framework, and the fugitive who has withdrawn from the strongest and most effective social contract is consequently feared by the members of society. Being incapable of holding to account the disbelieving individual through conventional laws, society’s collective mind thus proceeds to frame its charges within a comprehensive religious character: one that references texts from the hadith and Islamic jurisprudence promulgated in similar historical periods. The disbeliever consequently finds himself facing a wave of unremitting social rejection – with the majority of those opposed forgetting that the issue in its essence a personal one, and that there is no need for them to insert themselves in a bilateral relationship between an individual and God.
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