Free to leave Islam without facing death: this is the turning point of Morocco’s ulama, the religious scholars. Apostasy, in Arabic “ridda”, has always been a critical issue and a much debated one in the Muslim world. Indeed, Islamic law considers it a crime punishable by death penalty. The two most well-known cases in the West are that of Salmān Rushdie, author of the novel The Satanic Verses, which in 1989 earned him the fatwa with which ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini asked to sentence him to death, and the case of Nasr Hāmid Abū Zayd, Egyptian intellectual convicted in 1995 for having proposed an historical and rationalistic interpretation of the Qur’an. He then fled to Holland.
Cyclically, intellectuals, ulama, Muslim jurists and politicians go back to the question of whether the apostate deserves an earthly punishment or the punishment is the sole prerogative of God in the hereafter. While in many moments of history the first interpretation had prevailed, this day other interpretations exist, which question the traditionally imposed penalty for the apostate (murtadd), but also the very meaning of the term. In this sense, the statements made a few days ago by the high scientific Council of the Moroccan Ministry of Habous (Religious Affairs) are unprecedented. In Sabīl al-‘ulamā’ (The way of ulama), a volume of over 150 pages, it distanced itself from the traditional meaning of apostasy and of the penalty given for this offense. According to this document, Murtadd would not be the one who leaves Islam for another religion, but the one who betrays the group he belongs to.
Politics, not doctrine
“The most correct understanding of the apostasy issue resides in the spirit of the tradition and of Prophet’s biography, who by apostate means the traitor of the group (khā’in al-jamā‘), the one who reveals its secrets and hurts it with the help of its opponents, what is equivalent to high treason under international law” the document states. The commission in fact offers a new interpretation of the two hadīth (Prophet’s sayings) traditionally cited in support of apostasy, framing them within the historical circumstances in which they would have been revealed: “Whoever changes his religion, kill him,” and “He who abandons religion is the one who breaks away from the group.” In a context of endemic wars, as the period when Islam was born was – the document explains – abandoning Muslims meant joining the nonbelievers. Apostasy was therefore political, not doctrinal.
According to the ulama, this meaning of apostasy would be evident in some historical facts of the time. Abū Bakr, the first of the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs, according to the tradition used to wage war against the apostates understood as political traitors because, refusing to submit to the imam, were diving the unity of the group and invaliding the understanding of religion, destroying its pillars. As for the penalty to impose on apostates, the Treaty of Hudaybiyya – the ulama explain – granted that those who converted to Islam and returned (irtadda) to the tribe of Quraysh later would not be sought by Muslims, while the nonbelievers who wanted to join the Muslims would be welcomed in the umma. That inflicting death would be unlawful is also evident in a following hadīth, revealed after a Bedouin man who had converted to Islam changed his mind, asking to annul his profession of faith (shahāda). According to tradition, the Prophet accepted the request without doing any harm to the man and then revealed the following saying: «Medina is like a furnace, it expels its impurities and collects what is pure». A further evidence of the unlawful nature of the death penalty would be a Qur’anic passage in the surah of The Cow: “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).
Traditional Islamic institutions aims at strengthening a less literal approach to the texts
Ultimately, according to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, there is no apostasy if the person who leaves Islam does so without threatening the cohesion of the community. This passage from the religious dimension to the political one, however, constitutes an overcoming of the position taken by the Habous in 2012 – the year of the fatwa in which the Moroccan Ministry confirmed the death penalty for Islam’s apostates – and would have been imposed by the new conditions that today Islam lives because of extremist groups who justify violent and bloody acts abusing and decontextualizing the tradition. I
n this historic moment, from Morocco to Egypt, several traditional Islamic institutions collaborate with governments to strengthen a less literal approach to the texts in an anti-fundamentalist function. Now it will be necessary to understand where concretely the turning point of Moroccan ulama will lead us: the Moroccan criminal law already did not include death penalty for apostasy and this now opens the question of who will decide, case by case, whether apostasy is political or religious. The decision of the Moroccan ulama represents a position shared by many Muslim reformist thinkers, but it is the first time that an official religious institution made this position its own in such an explicit way. For example, after the Arab revolutions of 2011, even al-Azhar, one of the most prestigious institutions of Sunni Islam, issued an important statement on fundamental freedoms, mentioning religious freedom among them, but without referring to the apostasy issue, therefore leaving it pending.
The path chosen by the Moroccan ulama is the midway between two extremes. On the one hand, there are those who, like the Egyptian intellectual Ahmad Subhī Mansūr, reject the authenticity of the hadīth on which the penalty for the apostate is founded and refer to the discipline provided by the Qur’an, which reserves to God only the judgment of those who leave Islam. On the other hand, instead, those who, referring to the traditional doctrine and adopting a literal approach to the texts, would want to continue to condemn the apostate to death, as shown in the two hadīth. Moroccan ulama do not question the goodness of the textual tradition, but they combine it with a contextual reading.