For Whom the Bell Tolls: Why Muslims should fight for their right not to believe in Islam


I often defend Islam and Muslims against ignorant attacks from those who know little of its history, culture, or people.  I do not defend Islam because I believe in Islam.  I defend Islam because I believe in the freedom to believe any religion of your choice.  To deny the rights of Muslims to believe in their faith is to deny my own right to decide what religion or belief system I should follow.  In that respect, silencing or belittling Muslims hurts my freedoms as well.

Nothing runs more contrary to my beliefs than the concept of “Apostasy.”  Contrary to some media reports, the Islamic version of Apostasy is not the criminalization of Christianity or other religious beliefs.   Millions of Christians live in relative harmony in Muslim countries, in part because Christians are viewed as “People of the Book.”  Jesus is a widely respected prophet in Islam.  Muslims simply believe that Jesus has been incorrectly deified by Christians, and that Christianity is not truly a monotheistic religion because its followers pray to Jesus and to God.   A Muslim scholar might think that a Christian could be forgiven for being ignorant of Islam and not knowing any better (and, of course, a Christian would be understandably offended at such a belief).  Apostasy is not the crime of not believing in Islam or a justification for war against non-Muslims.

A core requirement of finding someone is an Apostate is a determination the person in question “has understood and professed the shahada and has acquired knowledge of those rulings of the shariah necessarily known by all Muslims.”

What this means is, if you convert to Islam from Christianity in a country that practices traditional Sharia law, you had better stay Muslim.  Islamic Apostasy is the idea that there is no greater betrayal and wrong one can do than to be a Muslim and knowingly and voluntarily choose to leave the faith.

In keeping with Islamic law, a young woman named Meriam Ibrahim was recently sentenced to death in Sudan for the crime of Apostasy.  In the minds of those who would prosecute her, Ibrahim’s “thought crime” of leaving Islam threatens the cohesiveness of what the Muslims call the “ummah” (muslim community).  While her individual sentence may or may not be modified to avoid an international outcry, Apostasy is likely to remain a crime in Sudan due to centuries of entrenched Islamic jurisprudence.  

It is understandable that Christians around the world are fighting for Ms. Ibrahim’s life and her rights.  But Christians are not the only victims here.

If Meriam Ibrahim is executed, the true victim will be Muslims, who will have lost the ability to voluntarily submit to the ways and teachings of the Prophet Mohammad.  Professing one’s beliefs at a preverbal (or literal) gunpoint is hardly a true test of faith.  The criminalization of apostasy robs Muslims of their free will, including their right to truly be Muslim.

I will admit I am not an Islamic scholar, but even I can see the internal inconsistency that exists in reconciling Apostasy with the core tenants of Islam.

“Islam,” roughly translated, means submission to God.  A Muslim is one who submits to God.  According to many Muslims, “Islam means to submit freely to The Commandments and Will of The One and Only God (Allah). This submission should come from within, from sound belief in and conviction to Allah, with no doubt. It should also come from love, trust, and affection.”

Profound words.  But how can one freely submit to God if one is not free to turn away from Islam?  Apostasy strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a Muslim.  If a person does not have the legal and spiritual right to turn away from Islam, then their purported “submission” to God is by definition not free from duress and coercion.

As with so many other aspects of religion, calling someone an apostate can also be rather political.  In a process called “Takfir,” one Muslim can declare another self-proclaimed Muslim to be an apostate.  Takfir “typically applies to a judgement that an action or statement by the alleged Muslim indicates his knowing abandonment of Islam.”  Takfir has been used by some Sunni groups against Shias, for the crime of having different beliefs about Islam and its history.  From the non-Muslim perspective, Shia’s are very devout Muslims who could not be confused with an “apostate” a la Meriam Ibrahim. And yet, with Takfir, there is no real distinction between Ms. Ibrahim and a Shia Muslim.

Some Muslim countries facing scrutiny for their planned executions of Apostates have used the “insanity” exception to avoid international outcry.  If one is not of sound mind, he or she cannot be an apostate.  This is a good escape clause, because it enables one to stand firm on apostasy while admitting that one would have to be “crazy” to want to leave.  This is how Abdul Rahman’s life was spared in Afghanistan.  But this only avoids the publicity problem without actually addressing the fundamental injustice of executing someone for a thought crime.

To be sure, there are a number of Islamic leaders and thinkers throughout history who have varying beliefs about what constitutes Apostasy, and what its punishment should be (if any).  But the fact remains that Aspostasy is likely to remain firmly entrenched in Islamic jurisprudence unless Muslims demand the right to submit to God of their own free will.

With that understanding in mind, I hope that more and more Muslims will stand up for their right not to be Muslim.  Until Apostasy is no longer a crime, the people of Sudan and other Sharia-law countries will never really be able to be Muslims in the true sense of the word.


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