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The Declaration of Moroccan Ulama on Apostasy

Translation of an extract of the document by Moroccan religious leaders on freedom of religion in Islam

Marina Eskandar | 09 March 2017
Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca © YoTut

Sabīl al-‘ulamā’, (Part II, Chapter 1, paragraphs 4-5, p. 96-101)

There is no coercion in faith, which tends towards liberty

For the Ulama responsible for the spread of the faith, the notion of freedom (hurriya) is a source of ambiguity, and this is because it is believed that the violation of the precepts and prohibitions of religion arise from the freedom of those who violate them; if, in fact, one were deprived of his/her liberty he/she would not disobey. It is clear that such a consideration presumes that obedience depends upon constriction (ikrāh), that which does not correspond to the texts, which are expressed clearly.

In demonstration of the fact that liberty is part of the essence of religion, let’s just think back to the endurance of early believers, deprived of the freedom to display or preach their faith and forced to defend their beliefs. Following their triumphs, when they gained this freedom, they did not constrain others, instead granting others the freedom of religion.

However, this freedom is based on an agreed condition which is to not conspire against the Ummah which, for the most part, had embraced the new faith. This condition, which envisages an absence of conspiracies of any kind, is also guaranteed by today’s laws. As for people’s propensity for transgression, for some kind of instigation, of what concerns the rights of God, pushing back depends on personal strength. If the discipline that derives from the guidance of Ulama and their exhortation is not sufficient, it is useless to observe customs and social conventions.

To believe in freedom is to believe in the power of religion, namely the strength of the faithful to guard it in themselves and to be a model that even the opportunists follow – considering that it is expected that the greatest nation ever created among men appears convincing due to its exemplary nature as regards values and benefits for life.

Communicating with modes of thinking and behavior that are different from ones own – as Muslims did when they came into contact with Europeans and with their civilization in the modern age – is proof of the strength of this religion and of its ability to compete. As a consequence, Muslims who were fought against and expelled from many cities, cannot expect to protect the religion by prohibiting liberties and imposing it with coercion; this is a corrupt understanding of religion and history.

Contrary to dominating opinion, in general, religion today is in better conditions compared to the past for Muslims if one looks at its nature, priorities and higher purposes (maqāsid kubrā). This is because the tools that are available today to practice the faith as well as act with iniquity, have increased with respect to the past. The reason for this improvement is linked to liberty and to the consequential creation of justice, with the multiplication of its tools on one hand and the spread of education on the other. What happened in the countries that are in the best imaginable conditions with respect to freedom [the West, editor’s note] deserves some reflection. Part of the public opinion was irritated by the veil worn by some Muslim women. If people were not irritated, there would have been no outcry. Despite being masters of the analysis of external sociological expressions, they opened the door of the opposition to different forms of thought, bringing the concept of the religious symbol into the debate.

Religious conduct certainly has sociological aspects. In any case, the reflection of the Ulama on this subject – the topic of freedom in all its forms – is among the most important keys for the renewal of their mission and its success.
Despite the institutional or formal separation between state and religion, the other communities did not renounce their religions, to the contrary perhaps religion managed to preserve itself from the errors of political institutions. The most symptomatic example is what is currently going on in Morocco, which is the continuation of our history: a model in which religion maintains the guidance of believers (imarat al-mu’minin) in a context in which freedom is guaranteed by law, and which aims to be a global model focused on the conduct of members of the Ummah, surrounded by the Ulama, and not in a distorted and corrupted representation based on the premise of coercion as a tool for reform.

Matters related to justice, solidarity, rights and liberties in the Ummah

[…] Just as Sharia set duties for men and women, it also recognizes their rights, primarily their personal rights. The circle widens to include the rights of the family, of the group, of the Ummah and of the world. It should be observed that the more the circle of rights expands, the more the rights of individuals shrinks to the benefit of the communities of which they are part. Sharia defines the liberty of the individual and personal responsibility as much as the liberty of the community and its responsibilities. This indispensable balance is absent in many modern and contemporary intellectual and political systems, both in those in which the rights of the community (the state) expand at the expense of individuals, and in those in which individualistic tendencies have expanded at the expense of the community.

Among the most important rights and liberties that the religion guarantees are the liberty and right to worship, as is clearly established in the Qur’an: “There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong.” (2:256); “And say, ‘The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills - let him believe; and whoever wills - let him disbelieve’.” (18:29).
Once truth is separated from falsehood, and the straight path from the error, it is still up to the individual or the community to choose, from the moment the reward or punishment was ordered – paradise or penance – without any compulsion or obligation in the choice. Whenever the Messenger of God (prayer and peace be upon him) was in front of the refusal of its people, the noble Qur’an repeatedly descended reminding them of this fact: “So remind, [O Muhammad]; you are only a reminder. You are not over them a controller!” (88:21-22), “And had your Lord willed, those on earth would have believed – all of them entirely. Then, [O Muhammad], would you compel the people in order that they become believers?” (10:99), “And if their evasion is difficult for you, then if you are able to seek a tunnel into the earth or a stairway into the sky to bring them a sign, [then do so]. But if Allah had willed, He would have united them upon guidance. So never be of the ignorant” (6:35). This is one of the secrets of the strength of this religion: a person believes by choice and as a result of profound conviction in its words, by a force that comes from within and not from outside. The strength of this religion resides in the words which are perfect in themselves.

Then the community makes a commitment and establishes an agreement, safeguarded by the ruler, who governs in its compliance: in fact, one cannot imagine setting up the community (the state) without a system or a law that governs the collectivity, without intellectual and cultural symbols that express the identity of the community and its unity in religion, language, history, customary practices and traditions, in literature and the arts, and in all that can be a harbinger of plurality and diversity, an asset to the community, not a contradiction.

Specifying the religious choice of the community in its Constitution, renews the commitment of its members to respect this choice and to not disturb it. It is as if for centuries this choice has been mirrored in the state of unity in cultural, political and civil institutions of the Ummah, until becoming an element of security and stability for society. The single individual is called to make his/her choice without being accountable to it, just as the community is called to make its choice and must defend it.

In Islam, in the past and even still today, the issue of apostasy (riddah) and apostate (murtadd) has arisen. The most safe and correct interpretation of the matter which reconciles with the spirit of tradition and life of the Prophet (prayers and peace be upon him) is the one that implies that the killing of the apostate refers to the traitor to the community (kha’in al-jama‘), he who reveals secrets and causes damage to his adversaries, an equivalent to high treason under international law. This is what the Prophet (prayers and peace be upon him) intended in saying: “If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him” (Bukhari 3017), and which finds confirmation in another of his sayings (prayers and peace be upon him): “If somebody (a Muslim) abandons his religion, he is the one who has split from the community” (Bukhari 6887, Muslim1676). To abandon the community of Muslims meant joining the rival group of the infidels (mushrikun), Islam’s enemies in the context of the wars of the time. Apostasy was therefore political in nature, and not linked to doctrine.

The noble Qur’an speaks about doctrinal apostasy in many verses and does not envisage an earthly punishment but a punishment in the afterlife: “And whoever of you reverts from his religion [to disbelief] and dies while he is a disbeliever - for those, their deeds have become worthless in this world and the Hereafter, and those are the companions of the Fire, they will abide therein eternally” (2:217). Furthermore, there are some references in the biography of the Prophet, including the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah which stipulated that those who converted to Islam to then leave it (irtadda) and go back to the tribe of the Quraysh would not be sought by Muslims, while the nonbelievers who wanted to join the Muslims would have been welcomed in the Ummah. The Prophet (prayers and peace be upon him) did nothing to the Bedouin who, after converting to Islam, asked to annul his profession of faith (shahada): he left the city of Medina without being harmed. The Prophet (prayers and peace be upon him) said: “Medina is like a pair of bellows: it expels its impurities and makes the good stand out.” At the time of the Prophet other cases of apostasy occurred without prosecution.

The wars that Abū Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) started against the apostates were political wars in the more general sense of the term, against a faction that had refused to obey the leadership, attempted to dismantle the unity of the community, and tainted understanding of religion by destroying one of the pillars. It is well known that the religion was, and is still today, the main pillar of stability in society. How much sedition (fitan) and how much conflict a corrupted interpretation (ta'wil) of the religion as well as the exploitation of the faith itself can cause!

He who reflects upon political, social and civil conduct linked to rights, liberties, justice and equality among Muslims, and among their community and the followers of other faiths, as enshrined in the Charter of Medina, perceives how the most noble meanings of this charter remain adaptable and flexible, making it necessary to Muslims and to humanity in order to bring about the reconciliation and the coexistence that we seek. This demonstrates that its contents are inspired by Allah, the Lord, which includes man, time and space.

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