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(Un)Civil Societies Report: March 27, 2006

27 March 2006, Volume 7, Number 5
MUSLIMS DIVIDED OVER PENALTY FOR APOSTASY. Islamic scholars may agree that apostasy is a heinous crime, but they differ on whether the punishment should be death.

How Afghanistan deals with the case of Abdul Rahman, the former Muslim turned Christian who faces charges in Kabul for apostasy, is being closely watched around the globe, and could have a profound impact on the interpretation of Islamic law in the modern world.

If Afghan President Hamid Karzai's reported promise to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper holds true and Rahman is set free, it will be another blow to extremists who try to use Islam to promote division and intolerance.

And a decision to free Rahman could embolden Muslim moderates in their vision of Islam as a force for human rights and peace.

A Crime, But What Punishment?

The issue of apostasy, when a Muslim converts to another religion, is one of the most sensitive areas of Islamic law. But there is no one authority in Islam, and the four main schools of Islamic thought differ on fundamental religious issues. So Muslims are left to decide which of a myriad of interpretations to accept on issues such as abortion, polygamy, divorce, homosexuality -- and, arguably most importantly of all, apostasy.

Muslim scholars agree that Islam respects Christians and Jews as "people of The Book," who share a common heritage with Islam. And they agree that Islam does not support forced conversion or religious belief. To support this view Muslim scholars frequently quote the Koran (Al-Baqarah, 2:256): "Let there be no compulsion in religion."

Yet key Muslim jurists throughout history have agreed on one point: apostasy -- turning away from Islam to accept Judaism, Christianity, or any other religion -- is one of the worst crimes in Islam. They consider it treason against the Muslim community and against God.

To support this view, Muslim scholars also turn to the Koran (Muhammad, 47:34): "Lo! Those who disbelieve and turn from the way of Allah and then die disbelievers, Allah surely will not pardon them."

The key issue for Muslim thinkers grappling with Islamic law and modernity revolves not around whether apostasy is a heinous crime, but how to deal with it. Islam Online, a Qatar-based website that attempts to explain Islamic issues, quoted the well-known Islamic scholar Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi as acknowledging that there is a difference of opinion on the issue even if most support the death penalty.

"All Muslim jurists agree that the apostate is to be punished," al-Qaradawi said. "However, they differ regarding the punishment itself. The majority of them go for killing; meaning that an apostate is to be sentenced to death."

While this position may seem brutal to Westerners, Muslim scholars note that there are -- or have been -- similar attitudes in the United States and Europe toward treason, albeit treason against the state. And many countries, including the United States, have punished traitors with death. Many Muslims argue that treason against God deserves no less a punishment.

Who Should Carry Out The Punishment?

Yet, as al-Qaradawi's statement suggests, Muslim scholars are not unanimous on this point. There are those who argue that even if apostasy does warrant death, a question remains: Who is authorized to carry it out?

Sheikh Muhammad al-Gazali, a renowned Egyptian religious scholar who died in March 1996, ignited a debate within Islamic circles on the question of apostasy when he testified, in July 1993, at the trial of 13 Islamic militants accused of killing the Egyptian writer Farag Foda. Foda was an outspoken critic of radical Islamists, who accused him of apostasy. Al-Ghazali ruled than an apostate should be given time to repent. And he rejected the death penalty, arguing instead for life imprisonment.

The Koran is not explicit on this point, however. And many Muslim scholars argue that punishment for apostates and blasphemers is not be exacted on earth, but by God. They point to a verse in the Koran (Nisa Ayah, 48) that speaks only of Allah's retribution: "Those who blasphemed and back away from the ways of Allah and die as blasphemers, Allah shall not forgive them."

Ibrahim Syed, president of the Islamic Research Foundation International, based in Louisville, Kentucky, believes that verse supports more lenient interpretations on apostasy. "One grave misunderstanding of Islamic beliefs over the years is that Islam doesn't tolerate apostasy," he wrote in the article, "Shari'a: Is Killing An Apostate In Islamic Law?" published on

"Islamic scholars from past centuries -- Ibrahim al-Naka'i, Sufyan al-Thawri, Shams al-Din al-Sarakhsi, Abul Walid al-Baji, and Ibn Taymiyyah -- have all held that apostasy is a serious sin, but not one that requires the death penalty," Syed wrote.

Specifically, Syed noted the words of the respected scholar in the history of Islamic jurisprudence, Shamsuddeen al-Sarakhshi, who stated, "renunciation of the faith and conversion to disbelief is admittedly the greatest of offences, yet it is a matter between man and his Creator, and its punishment is postponed to the Day of Judgment."

Shah Abdul Halim, chairman of the Islamic Information Bureau of Bangladesh, states in the article "Islam And Pluralism – A Contemporary Approach," published on, that the Prophet Muhammad when he lived showed great tolerance to those who turned away from Islam.

"The Prophet never put anyone to death for apostasy alone -- rather he let such a person go unharmed. No one was sentenced to death solely for renunciation of the faith, unless [it was] accompanied by hostility and treason or was linked to an act of political betrayal of the community."

Scholars discussing apostasy in a forum on Islam Online support the more lenient interpretation and also argued against vigilantism in carrying out Islamic law. In the Afghan case, it is a very real threat even if Abdul Rahman is freed by the courts, individuals may try to kill him, believing it is their duty to defend Islam.

"If this were to happen, such reckless action would only lead to a vicious circle of murder and homicide in which case a great deal of innocent people would be injured," scholars wrote on Islam Online.

The Right To Disbelieve

In his arguments against using apostasy to promote intolerance, Syed spoke directly to the hearts of believers in an article published in April 2005 on "Let he who wishes to believe, do so; and let he who wishes to disbelieve, do so."

According to Syed, the best example on how to deal with apostasy was set by Muhammad himself: "There was a case at the time of the Prophet when a man came to him in three consecutive days and told him that he wanted to apostate. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) never took any action against him and when the man finally left Medina, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) never sent anyone to arrest him, let alone kill him."

Syed and other Islamic scholars who support tolerance also note this guidance offered in the Koran (Al-Kahf, 29): "Let he who wishes to believe, do so; and let he who wishes to disbelieve, do so." (Joyce Davis)

BOSNIAN CLERIC SEES UNIQUE ROLE FOR EUROPE'S MUSLIMS. On March 14, RFE/RL South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service correspondent Dzenana Halimovic interviewed moderate Bosnian Muslim leader Reisu-l-ulema Mustafa Ceric. On February 24, Ceric's organization issued a Declaration of European Muslims that called for increased tolerance for Muslims in Europe while also pledging Muslim devotion to such principles as tolerance, the rule of law, and human rights. In the interview, Ceric calls on European governments to take issues relating to Muslim relations seriously as a matter of urgent concern. [To read the complete text of Ceric's declaration, see]

RFE/RL: You created a declaration of European Muslims. What did you want to achieve with this and how well has it been accepted in the European Muslim community?

Ceric: The idea of the declaration of European Muslims is a personal act of sending a message to the Western audience that we, Bosnian Muslims, did not agree with the terrorist attacks in New York on September 11, 2001, on March 11, 2004 in Madrid, on July 7, 2005, in London. This declaration has been written through many conferences that I have attended since September 11 [2001].

It is a personal -- it is probably too much to say "confession" -- but a personal appeal to the European audience not to make a mistake in generalizing all Muslims and not to spread Islamophobia, that was, I think, going on in Europe and in the West generally, especially after September 11. And the second message was to the Muslims who live in Europe to take seriously these three events that may have great consequences for their stay in Europe and their status in Europe. And the third message is to the Muslim world at large to ask them to help us in the West, and especially in Europe, to develop a kind of dialogue that is acceptable to us as Muslims, as well as to our European neighbors.

RFE/RL: Some media have labeled your journeys and the promotion of the declaration as a mission on behalf of European governments in which you are supposed to create a European Islam. Is there a political influence on you of that kind?

Ceric: I am challenging the European governments to take into serious consideration the Islamization or the institutionalization of Islam in Europe for two reasons. One, that Europe should know the real face of the representation of Islam in Europe and that Muslims stop playing the tribal-mentality role in European society, presenting Islam as a tribal culture, a tribal or national agenda of any sort rather than introducing Islam as a universal faith -- as it is -- together with Judaism and Christianity.

RFE/RL: What is the point of campaigning for the assimilation of Muslims in Europe?

Ceric: We have four groups of Muslims in Europe. There are Muslims who are Bosnians, Albanians, Turks, and others, who are born or created by the clay of the European land. Then we have the Muslims who migrated to Europe from the Middle East, who are the Arabs and Turks and Pakistanis, Indians, and others. Then we have the third generation of these immigrants who are born here, educated here, and they are Europeans by their mindset, with an Islamic identity. And we have the fourth group, who are the convert to Islam who are Europeans. As you know, in Germany you have a very big number of those who converted to Islam and they are Germans, by all means. Also, in Britain and France and other European countries.

These groups have different European experiences and so their expectations from Islam and their input into the Islamic culture is different. But they are somehow bound by one idea, which is the idea of Islam. I believe that there is no European Islam. There is no Indonesian Islam or Arab Islam. There is something that we can call "the European experience of Islam" or the European experience of the interpretation of certain aspects of Islam that are different from the interpretations of other parts of the world -- which is not strange to Islam.

Islam is very much, within itself, diverse. It is not a monolithic bloc like many people think -- that Muslims are a very monolithic bloc that is very closed, not open. That they don't accept influences from others, do not influence others. On the contrary, I think, we as European Muslims are very much influenced by European culture, by the way of European life.

And therefore we have the right, as Muslims, to interpret Islam within the context of our experience and our expectations both from Islam as an idea that gives us the purpose of life, gives us the purpose of who we are and what is going to happen after our worldly life. And also we have the right to interpret Islam based on our expectations in the European life, the European experience, the European cultural mindset. That gives us, probably, some room, more than other Muslims in the world, that we see things differently, and with this experience that we have we can be helpful to other Muslims in the world because there are advantages that we live in Europe. Because Europe is the land of human rights and democracy.

To reach this point that Europe has reached -- from slavery to freedom, from might to right, from mythology to science -- Europe paid a big price, a great price, for that. So Europeans are very sensitive when someone touches these values of human rights and democracy. We Muslims, I think, European Muslims, have the advantage of this achievement of European society, of the level of human rights and democracy. There are some advantages, of course, because we live in Europe as Muslims.

RFE/RL: So we can talk about fabricated fear?

Ceric: There are always going to people who are xenophobic -- not necessarily of Islam, but of anything that is strange, different. But I think that there are also Islamophiles in Europe -- people who are not afraid, who believe that Islam is an open religion that has a warmth in itself and has compassion in its teachings and so on. So, instead of focusing on Islamophobia, which will be there anyway whether we do something or not, I think we should concentrate more on Islamophiles, who are exist in Europe and in the West, and help them to be stronger in their Islamophilic approach to the Muslim world.

RFE/RL: What is the major issue for European Muslims today that needs to be resolved soon, in particular for Bosnian Muslims?

Ceric: I think that trust between the East and the West, and especially between the Muslim world and the West is now at the lowest point in recent history. The one who has the formula for regaining trust between the East and the West -- and don't forget that the major resources of energy that the world needs in the future in terms of oil is in the hands of the Muslims, meaning in the Middle East.... So I think it is in the interests of the West not to endanger this part of the world, including Mesopotamia and the Middle East, where the energy for our life -- in Europe -- lies. And don't forget that the sun is rising from the east, whether we like it or not in the West.

So I think there cannot be peace in the West if we don't have peace in the East. And don't forget that never in history has the West ruled the East. There were so many attempts from the West to capture the mystic of the East, but they have never succeeded. You should remember the Crusade campaigns. You should remember Napoleon, who captured Egypt but could not stay. And you should remember France, which tried to control Algeria and did not succeed. And you should remember even farther in the deeper past that Alexander the Great could not control the East when he came to Athens and when he lost his patience in untying the Gordian knot.

So, what we are saying here is there are no winners in the East or the West. We are all losers if we don't understand that we live in an interdependent world, that the East cannot live without the West and the West cannot live without the East. And if we understand that, it will be easier for us to develop tolerance, which will be a sign of our strength. Because intolerance is a sign of our weakness.

So, I predict that the next few decades are going to be the question of the relationship between the Muslim world and the West, particularly in Europe. Don't forget that Europe was always the scene of universal changes. Europe is the land of universal evils and universal goods. World War I started here. Remember that Sarajevo was the place where the last century started. And Sarajevo was the place where the next century started by the genocide on Bosnia and the aggression on Sarajevo. And the burning of the National Library in Sarajevo.

The question of the future world will be decided in Europe on the Muslim question. As much as Europe will show a willingness and capability to solve the Muslim question in Europe, I think the whole world will see either an acceptable peace or unacceptable war. Our declaration is a kind of reminder, before the events, that European governments must take Muslim issues in Europe seriously and now... immediately, without waiting to see what will happen. Because things are now different from what they used to be in terms of whose continent Europe is.

Europe does not belong to any particular culture, to any religion, to any nationality. It belongs to all of us. Don't forget that the Muslims and Jews have contributed to European development [as much] as Christians did. Europe has never been a Christian continent, a Muslim continent, a Jewish continent. It is a continent of all of these three main Abrahamic religions that came from the East. We are equal here in Europe, we have to have an equal share, and we have to have equal responsibility for our future. I, from my experience in Sarajevo, have the right to shape a new face of Europe. And we have the obligation here in Sarajevo to help European Muslims to find their place in Europe, the right place in Europe, and not to make mistakes. And we must tell them that they cannot take their freedom for granted. They have to earn their freedom and the earning of their freedom means taking responsibility as well.

REINTERPRETING ASHURA. The West may not have noticed -- and nor, perhaps, may many Muslims -- but a range of Islamic thinkers are currently trying to raise awareness and understanding of the Islamic tradition of pacifism, tolerance, and rationality. Among them is Emad Baghi, an Iranian scholar of Islam who was once imprisoned for his writings about the killing of critics of the regime in the 1990 and who now heads the Tehran-based Organization for the Defense of Prisoners' Rights.

Fatemah Aman of RFE/RL's Radio Farda spoke with him about some of the roots of militant Islam, but particularly about his new and provocative interpretation of Ashura, one of key moments in the history of Islam and a date of particular significance to Shi'ites. Here, he suggests that the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad and one of Islam's first leaders, should be seen as a symbol of pacifism and rationality rather than as a symbol of tragedy, resistance, and revolution.

RFE/RL: In recent years, tensions between the Islamic world and Western civilization have been rising. Many analysts reluctantly admit that the prediction by the U.S. academic Samuel Huntington of a pending clash of civilizations may be on the verge of coming true. How did we get here, and who is to blame?

Emad Baghi: Toward the end of the 20th century philosophers and social scientists suggested that, with the advent of the third millennium, the whole world would be moving toward greater harmony and mutual understanding. Concepts such as the global village raised the expectation that peace and tolerance would prevail. But the events of September 11 [2001] altered this trend. The terrorist attacks of September 11 were not only a human tragedy, but also a catastrophe that deflected the course of history in the third millennium. After September 11, Bin Laden-ism and Talibanism became the dominant face of Islam. As a result, anti-Islamic sentiment rose in the West. The Western public was told that the West was now in a war against Islam. The term "crusade" was commonly used in the media and even by George Bush, although he later distanced himself from that statement.

But the truth is that Bin Laden-ism and Talibanism, long before declaring war to the Western civilization, had started a massive offensive against a large portion of Muslims, modern Muslims, those who want to show the peaceful nature of Islam. Examples are the conflicts between different Islamic groups in Afghanistan and the Taliban's cruel violence against Iranians and other Muslim nationalities. The horrible crime that these people committed on September 11 completely eclipsed the peaceful face of Islam.

Violence In Shi'ite Islam

RFE/RL: But don't we also see elements of violence in the Shi'ite interpretation of Islam?

Baghi: Well, there has been a long tradition of a revolutionary and militant interpretation of the Shi'ism, although this interpretation has always been very different from Bin Laden-ism. The concept of Alavi Shi'ism or "red Shi'ism" [a concept propounded by the Iranian intellectual Ali Shariati that contrasts Alavite Shi'ism or Red Shi'ism -- the religion of martyrdom -- with Safavid Shi’ism or Black Shi'ism, the religion of mourning] was in fact a response to totalitarian regimes and was primarily represented by freedom fighters. Religious intellectuals wanted to use this instrument to mobilize the masses against tyranny. They therefore exaggerated the militant and revolutionary aspect of the Ashura, the movement of Imam Hussein [the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and the third of the Muslim leaders -- imams -- who, as descendents of the Prophet, are the key interpreters of God's will]. Other aspects of Ashura were forgotten and a violent and revolutionary picture of Islam was painted, a revolutionary Islam that advocates martyrdom as offering the key to heaven. Martyrdom and jihad [the concept of holy war] became limited to violent struggle against one's enemies.

This picture was in sharp contrast with the spirit of religion. The spirit of all religions is the protection of human dignity. All prophets came to undo injustice against humans. All Islamic texts start with the phrase "in the name of God, the merciful." In Islamic teaching, jihad is not limited to fighting the enemy with violent means. According to Islam, even if you are struggling to put food on your family's table, or if you are writing to spread knowledge and awareness, you are engaged in the jihad.

I think the growing anti-Islamic sentiment is rooted primarily in the reaction to this violent picture depicted by Islam. Even the recent caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that led to a major crisis were not, in essence, an insult to the real prophet, but rather to the Muhammad that Bin Laden-ism had pictured for us. This was aimed at a fake Muhammad forged by violent and extremist groups, and not the prophet known for centuries by Muslims as the symbol of peace and compassion.

A Third Interpretation Of Ashura

RFE/RL: You mentioned that the militant interpretation of Ashura, Imam Hussein's uprising [in 680 AD, which ended with his death in battle with the ruling caliph at Al-Karbala], was an exaggeration by Islamic intellectuals. You recently made a speech entitled "Imam Hussein's Peace", a term normally applied to Imam Hassan [the second imam and the brother of Imam Hussein], who made peace with his rivals. This is a very new and provocative concept. Could you elaborate on that?

Baghi: There has been two approaches to Ashura, an emotional approach and a political one. In the emotional approach, which dominated for centuries, the tragic element of Ashura became prominent. Ashura was simplified as a tragedy.

In the political approach, Imam Hussein became the symbol of resistance and revolution. In the emotional approach, Ashura is about tears and sympathy; in the political approach it is about the struggle for freedom. The emotional approach to Ashura and to Islam as a whole is misinterpreted. This gave rise to rituals in which people beat themselves to the point of fainting. In this interpretation, mourning -- and extreme expressions of that -- become virtues.

The political approach has introduced other misinterpretations of its own -- to the extent that Imam Hussein is turned into a symbol of war and revolution while Imam Hassan represents pacifism and compromise. The political interpretation has so deeply engraved these concepts upon our psyche that my title, "Imam Hussein's Peace," sounds strange even to many of my friends.

I am advocating a different view of Ashura, a view that is free of emotionally and politically tainted interpretations. In my view of Ashura, two elements -- rationality and pacifism -- characterize Imam Hussein. If we study history free from emotional or political agendas, we realize that Imam Hussein was more of a pacifist than a militant. The Imam had repeatedly offered ceasefires and peace negotiations to the enemy that had surrounded him. The Imam was a true believer in human dignity and knew that wars destroy human dignity. It was only when all his efforts remained unfruitful that he chose death with dignity over capitulation. That is the real heroism of Ashura.

In this alternative [third] view, Imam Hussein becomes an ordinary, but intelligent, man whose actions are based on reason. He tries to avoid war because he knows the consequences.

RFE/RL: Are you trying to raise an academic point or do you feel that this new view has an immediate implication for the realities of today?

Baghi: Today, in our modern world, the West is advocating a fight against terrorism. I want to raise the point that, 1,350 years ago [at a time when both Imam Hassan and Imam Hussein were alive], when killing was common practice and often praised, Imam Hussein rose up against both war and terror. This may surprise many in the West. Imam Hussein's representative in Kufa [a city in modern Iraq whose population invited Imam Hussein to lead it], when faced with conditions unfavorable for victory over the enemy, suggests to Muslim ibn Aqil, Imam's deputy, that he assassinate Obaidollah Ibn-e Ziad [the provincial governor of Kufa]. That assassination would have changed the course of history and Imam's supporters, who had infiltrated the enemy, were fully capable of executing it. However, Muslim ibn Aqil, who knew Imam Hussein's philosophy very well, vehemently rejected the idea, arguing that "in Islam terror is illegal."

Reversing The Rise In Extremism

RFE/RL: Do you think the rise of extremism is an irreversible process? How can we stop this?

If you go to bookstores in Tehran you will be overwhelmed by the number of books on Western philosophy and ideas that have been translated into Farsi.

Baghi: I think the West has made a big mistake by falling into the trap of Bin Laden-ism since the tragedy of September 11. In fact, this policy played perfectly into the hands of those who want to destroy Western civilization. By polarizing the world between the civilized camp and the Islamic camp, a Bin Laden-ist definition of Islam, policymakers in the West paved the way for the extremists to gain ground.

All Western media have unintentionally been serving the cause of these extremist groups. This type of blind conflict is exactly what the Bin Laden-ists want. I believe some politicians may have pushed this for political gains. Because their approach was not one based on human rights but rather a political approach, they thought they could use this situation to promote a plan for a new political geography in the Middle East.

Some may have seen this as a golden opportunity to gain access to the enormous wealth that is lying underground in this region. But I don't think that the entire Western world thinks like this group of politicians. But, unfortunately, most Western media resources are directly or indirectly serving this approach.

RFE/RL: And the solution?

Baghi: The simple solution is that these resources be used to introduce and promote the other interpretation of Islam. Instead of providing unintended propaganda for Bin Laden's thoughts, let the world hear the voice of Islamic thinkers who show the peaceful face of Islam. We have no shortage of such scholars and political activists in the Islamic world.

These people are largely unknown to the Western public. The reason is that, unfortunately, we have a one-sided flow of translations. If you go to bookstores in Tehran you will be overwhelmed by the number of books on Western philosophy and ideas that have been translated into Farsi. But this is not a mutual relationship. The West does not know much about the evolution of thought and philosophy in the Islamic world. There are very few who would reflect these thought products in the West.

RFE/RL: I want to go back to your provocative new interpretation of Ashura. Can we expand this new approach to other religious issues and texts and come up with novel interpretations?

Baghi: Yes. In the new discourse that is under way in Iran, we are witnessing many novel interpretations of religious principles by prominent religious leaders. For example, Ayatollah Montazeri has challenged one principle that has been conserved for centuries in Islamic jurisprudence: he has criticized Islamic jurisprudence for being based on a recognition of believers' rights rather than on human rights. Mr. Montazeri [under whom Baghi studied for 10 years in Iran's clerical capital, Qom] puts very strong evidence on the table -- and from the Koran itself -- that supports the notion that human rights are a central principle in Islam. In fact, he shows that, in this regard, we have deviated from the true teachings of Islam.