Why You Can’t Just “Unsubscribe” from Islam: Exploring Apostasy Laws in Majority Islamic Nations from Antiquity to the Present

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“Muslims are the first victims of Islam. Many times I have observed in my travels of the Orient that fanaticism comes from a small number of dangerous men who maintain the others in the practice of religion by terror.” This quote from the famous 19th century French philologist and Orientalist Ernest Renan depicts the common understanding of Islam from the Western perspective, one that is still present today. This Orientalist logic assumes that Islam and the West possess polar opposite cultures and while Western states have adopted freedom of religion, Islamic states have to rely upon terror and force to both convert non-Muslims and retain their begrudging allegiance to its cause by creating vicious punishments for apostasy. It can be hard to push back against this Orientalist view when there are currently twelve countries in the world that authorize the death penalty for the criminal act of apostasy: Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, all of which are majority Islamic nations.

A popular Arabic adage, “al Islam din wa dawla,” asserts that Islam has always been both religion and state, and that this justifies the state’s protectionist policies of religion. However, strict punishments for apostasy are not unique to Islam. Similar measures have been tried before by other states whose legitimacy was tied to a religious identity under siege, and there is a strong case that Islam’s treatment of apostates was predicated by examples from these other societies. In these historical cases, efforts to prevent apostasy proved to be futile, as people lost touch with a religion that had to punish them in the Earthly realm for spiritual transgressions. Importantly, Islam has traditionally treated apostasy as a crime only punishable in the afterlife, making modern apostasy laws under Sharia stand out for their distortion of Islamic values.

Why, then, are modern Islamic nations so afraid of a shift in religious identity that they go against the tenets of their own faith? It is likely a sense of post-imperialist insecurity stemming from the European conquests of the Islamic world in the 19th and 20th centuries. A critical dialectic formed after Islamic countries regained their independence between those who believed modeling their nation after those of the West was the key to prosperity and those who believed a return to Islam’s past was essential to preserving their culture. In many countries, Muslims who were proponents of Westernization were vulnerable to being castigated as traitors to Islam, even though the Islamists had to resort to distorting and outright ignoring authentic Islamic doctrines in order to denounce the Westernizers as apostates deserving of death. In almost all cases, apostasy laws are reactionary policies designed by a class of well-off religious and political leaders to do exactly what Renan said: “maintain others in the practice of religion by terror” so that the status quo they are benefitting from is not disrupted.

If the strategy of instituting harsh apostasy laws had a perfect success rate, Islam would have died with Muhammad and Arabia would still be polytheist. Muhammad was able to win converts to Islam in spite of severe punishments from the polytheists for apostasy, which included exposure until death and stoning. At no point in his life did Muhammad punish an individual for leaving Islam, and the Quran itself states in Sura 2:256 that “there shall be no compulsion in religion.” History supports this narrative. While Muhammad was ruling in Medina, he was presented with the case of a Bedouin convert to Islam who asked to renounce his faith and leave the city to return to his tribe. The Bedouin was allowed to leave Medina unharmed. The most that the Quran offers as a punishment for apostasy is found in Sura 3:85-89, which reads: “their reward is that upon them is the curse of Allah, and the angels, and the people as a whole, therein to abide without the punishment being lightened from off of them and without their being respited.” While this is a harsh punishment, the words used in this passage and others suggest that the Quran intended that punishment for apostasy be in the afterlife.

The argument used for Sharia’s earthly apostasy laws relies solely upon hadith, or stories collected from someone who interacted from Muhammad. This secondhand source has become an important part of Sharia law, along with the Quran and Sunna, or examples from Muhammad’s life. A supposedly authentic hadith quotes Muhammad as saying, “whoever changes his religion, kill him.” This notorious statement goes against everything that Muhammad practiced and preached during his life and should be considered blasphemy against true Islam, yet it is used as the justification for Sharia law’s incredibly harsh apostasy punishments.

This harsh interpretation was not followed during the time when Islam was spreading in the era of the original caliphs. Their army of believers was able to unseat the two longest tenured empires in the region, the Byzantines, who along with other Greco-Roman empires had controlled the area around the Mediterranean for millennia, and the Sassanians, who had continued the legacy of Persia by ruling the Iranian plateau. These were not religiously neutral empires; in fact, both the Byzantine and Sassanian states were extremely intertwined with the social hierarchy of Orthodox Christianity and Zoroastrianism, respectively, and had been so for hundreds of years.

Yet somehow, the Arabs were able to end Byzantine control in the Middle East and destroy the Sassanian state entirely, without resorting to what Fred Donner calls the “violent conquest model.” Archaeologists have found no evidence that Islamic conquerors razed cities unnecessarily or forced peasants to face conversion by the sword. Instead, Donner argues that everything about the Islamic conquests of the 600s was designed to secure political hegemony in the Middle East for the Arabs. After driving the armies of the older empires out of the area, Islamic conquerors didn’t need apostasy laws because people converted to Islam en masse out of a desire to reap the benefits of Muslim society, and those who did not accept the new faith were treated with generous toleration. At the onset of Islam, non-compulsive conversion was the norm.

The experiences of recalcitrant communities of Christians and Zoroastrians towards their new rulers further illustrate how religious loyalty is tied to political success, and vice versa. In Jerusalem, Christian monk John Moschus wrote of how formerly devout Christians went with Muslims “by their own will” up to Temple Mount in order to help construct a “cursed thing, intended for their prayer and which they call a mosque.” In response to this Christian apostasy, Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, wrote a desperate missal to the Pope, entreating him to ask God to “quell their [Muslims] mad insolence and deliver these vile creatures, as before, to be the footstool of our God-given [Byzantine] emperors.” Before the Muslim conquest, these men had been at the pinnacle of society, but foreign conquest had led to rapid conversion, which now placed the status quo that they so enjoyed in grave peril. Sophronius was actually the one who negotiated Jerusalem’s treaty with the Muslim conquerors mandating religious liberty for Christians and Jews under Muslim rule. However, this was still not enough to keep Jerusalemites from converting to the religion was now the dominant cultural force in the region.

Zoroastrians in the former Sassanian territories endured a similar slow decline of religious members in spite of laws erected to prevent apostasy. According to Richard Bulliet, Zoroastrians treated conversion to Islam as “tantamount to legal death,” reducing the convert’s marriageability prospects within the Zoroastrian community to near zero and limiting his ability to do business with his former coreligionists. However, being a Zoroastrian meant that one could not prepare meat for Muslims or intermarry with Muslims, and one still had to pay the jizya tax. After the destruction of the Sassanian Empire in 642 C.E., this calculus shifted more and more in favor of the members of the Muslim polity. Bulliet suggests that Zoroastrians converted to Islam despite their strict apostasy laws because Islam offered significantly more benefits for a person than being tied to the declining religious community of a defeated state did. It could be argued that Renan’s quote about Muslims is equally as applicable to the Zoroastrian elite of late antiquity that attempted to preserve their status quo by terrorizing people with the loss of their community if they chose to convert. However, by converting, new Muslims were joining a stronger community than they had left, and this ultimately spelled doom for the Zoroastrian and Christian elite in the Middle East.

Although history shows that apostasy laws are more often than not ineffective and were not present in the early Islamic empire, that has not prevented them from becoming a part of the Sharia law codes governing many Islamic states seeking a return to an era that never existed. Saudi Arabia provides a good case study of these issues. The House of Saud, Saudi Arabia’s ruling family, aligned itself extremely closely with practitioners of Wahhabi Islam in the early 20th century in order to take control of the country away from British backed Sharif Husayn of Mecca. In exchange for this Wahhabi support, the Saud family has allowed Wahhabi religious clerics to write their constitution, run religious courts, and even form a notorious morality police force with regulations based off of Wahhabi beliefs. While the Saudi Constitution asserts that “members of the family shall be raised in the Islamic Creed” and punishes offenses against Sharia with punishments up to death by beheading, a 2012 WIN/Gallup Poll found that 19% of Saudi respondents identified as atheist. This is evidence of the failure of an unholy alliance between church and state to retain the allegiance of the people. When almost one-fifth of your people are legally merit the death penalty, the problem isn’t the people– it’s the laws. While the Sauds rely on the Wahhabis for legitimacy and the Wahhabis benefit from state patronage, the people of Saudi Arabia don’t benefit from this relationship at all, as their rights are curtailed by the Saudi state to please the Wahhabi elite.

In order to both return to their Islamic roots and encourage cultural and societal development, Islamic countries need to rid themselves of their reactionary apostasy laws. From a secular point of view, this makes perfect sense. Imagine that you are on an email list for a hypothetical company. Maybe you were once interested in their product, or someone put your email address on their list for you. However, you are no longer interested, and are tired of receiving notifications about something that is no longer relevant in your life. If you have lost interest in their product, it makes sense to unsubscribe. This lets the company know that you were unsatisfied with their offering and gives them notice that they can improve it. It also makes sure that you can move on with your inbox uncluttered and can find new products that suit you better. If the company tried to prevent people from unsubscribing, it wouldn’t work, as their communications would simply be placed into a spam folder and ignored. It is impossible to prevent a person from converting in their hearts, so why try to scare them into submission?

By mandating the death penalty for apostasy, those twelve Islamic countries are doing everyone in their states a disservice. These laws go against the original Islamic values and force a state to punish its own people for freedom of thought, fostering a distrust of the government that could be easily avoided. Apostasy laws are also a key factor holding some Islamic countries back from signing the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, making them outliers on the global stage. If people were allowed to “unsubscribe” from Islam, it would mean nothing to true believers, whose faith is unshakeable. In fact, it would purify the faith community of people who were not true believers of Islam. This is what Muhammad encouraged, with punishments for apostasy residing in an afterlife that grants believers their sense of justice for apostasy while allowing apostates to live their lives on Earth as they see fit. If Sharia law states wish to be on par with the rest of the world, they must heed their own creed, from Sura 2:256: “there shall be no compulsion in religion.”


Zade Mutwalli is a senior at Furman University majoring in Politics and International Affairs with a Minor in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. Having received an Award for Excellence from Furman in honor of his Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies research, Zade is taking a gap year to focus on the region as a freelance researcher/writer before entering law school in 2021.

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