Apostasy and the Koran

Apostasy means the abandonment of a belief or principle. In a religious context, it generally means abandoning one’s faith.

Today, The Times carries a report about a British woman who converted to Christianity, from Islam, who is receiving police protection because of death threats received from members of her family. She is reported as saying:

“I know the Koran says that anyone who goes away from Islam should be killed as an apostate so in some ways my family are following the Koran. They are following Islam to the word. But I do not think every Muslim would actually act on that,” she said.

I’ve seen it claimed that the Koran (aka the Quran) does not demand that people be killed for apostasy. Moreover, in the book “No God but God”, Reza Azlan states:

“…apostasy and treason were near identical terms in seventh-century Arabia. However the relationship betwen the two has endured in Islam, so that even today there are some Muslims who continue to make the unsubstantiated and un-Quranic assertion that the two sins — apostasy and treason —deserve the same punishment: death.” (page 119, emphasis added)

There is a quotation from the Koran itself, often used to bolster this message, from Sura 2,256 which, in three different translations, seems unequivocal that there should be no compulsion in religion:

YUSUFALI: Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things.
PICKTHAL: There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is henceforth distinct from error. And he who rejecteth false deities and believeth in Allah hath grasped a firm handhold which will never break. Allah is Hearer, Knower.
SHAKIR: There is no compulsion in religion; truly the right way has become clearly distinct from error; therefore, whoever disbelieves in the Shaitan and believes in Allah he indeed has laid hold on the firmest handle, which shall not break off, and Allah is Hearing, Knowing.”

In my own copy of an edition of Rodwell’s translation of the Koran, this verse reads:

“Let there be no compulsion in religion. Now is the right way distinct from error. Whoever shall deny Thagout and believe in God – he will have taken hold of a strong handle that shall not be broken: and God is He who Heareth, Knoweth.” (page 27)

So four different translations give much the same message, suggesting the Koran does indeed suggest that “there shall be no compulsion in religion”. But this does not prove that the Koran does not prescribe death as a punishment for apostasy, it merely proves that one of its many verses would contradict any such prescription.

There is a verse that, it has been argued, does suggest that apostates should be killed, namely Sura 4,89. From the three translations:

YUSUFALI: They but wish that ye should reject Faith, as they do, and thus be on the same footing (as they): But take not friends from their ranks until they flee in the way of Allah (From what is forbidden). But if they turn renegades, seize them and slay them wherever ye find them; and (in any case) take no friends or helpers from their ranks;-
PICKTHAL: They long that ye should disbelieve even as they disbelieve, that ye may be upon a level (with them). So choose not friends from them till they forsake their homes in the way of Allah; if they turn back (to enmity) then take them and kill them wherever ye find them, and choose no friend nor helper from among them,
SHAKIR: They desire that you should disbelieve as they have disbelieved, so that you might be (all) alike; therefore take not from among them friends until they fly (their homes) in Allah’s way; but if they turn back, then seize them and kill them wherever you find them, and take not from among them a friend or a helper.” (emphasis added)

And from my copy of Rodwell, page 58 (as Sura 4,91, presumably due to differences in the translations):

“They desire that you should be infidels as they are infidels, and that ye should be alike. Take therefore none of them for friends, till they have fled their homes for the cause of God. If they turn back, then seize them, and slay them wherever ye find them; but take none of them as friends or helpers.” (emphasis added)

Here it seems to me that one can interpret these passages to mean that apostates should be killed, and some of the four translations above suggest that more strongly than others. However one of the translations hints that “turning back” involves enmity from the apostates (as opposed to mere disbelief), suggesting that it may be possible to interpret this passage somewhat differently.

Nevertheless there seems to be scope for somone applying a literal interpretation of the Koran to conclude, from Sura 4,89, that apostates should be killed, despite Sura 2,256.

However, I suspect the belief that apostates should be killed most likely stems from the Hadith (the traditional writings about the life of Mohammed and what he said that Muslims draw on in addition to the Koran), rather than the Koran per se. The Hadith have quotations from Mohammed that clearly state that the punishment for apostasy is death, (such as this one and this one). The Koran is ambiguous (albeit clear that Allah has a dim view of apostates), but the Hadith are not.

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Flemming Rose in his own words.

In the Washington Post, Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten, who solicited the cartoons that much of the Muslim world is in uproar over, has defended his decision to solicit and publish the cartoons. His article is well worth reading in full.

Rose makes clear he was worried about the self-censorship people were exercising due to intimidation and fear of reprisals should they be perceived to have insulted or criticise Islam. Here are some passages which I found interesting:

We have a tradition of satire when dealing with the royal family and other public figures, and that was reflected in the cartoons. The cartoonists treated Islam the same way they treat Christianity,Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions. And by treating Muslims in Denmark as equals they made a point: We are integrating you into the Danish tradition of satire because you are part of our society, not strangers. The cartoons are including, rather than excluding, Muslims.

One cartoon — depicting the prophet with a bomb in his turban — has drawn the harshest criticism. Angry voices claim the cartoon is saying that the prophet is a terrorist or that every Muslim is a terrorist. I read it differently: Some individuals have taken the religion of Islam hostage by committing terrorist acts in the name of the prophet. They are the ones who have given the religion a bad name. The cartoon also plays into the fairy tale about Aladdin and the orange that fell into his turban and made his fortune. This suggests that the bomb comes from the outside world and is not an inherent characteristic of the prophet.

Has Jyllands-Posten insulted and disrespected Islam? It certainly didn’t intend to. But what does respect mean? When I visit a mosque, I show my respect by taking off my shoes. I follow the customs, just as I do in a church, synagogue or other holy place. But if a believer demands that I, as a nonbeliever, observe his taboos in the public domain, he is not asking for my respect, but for my submission. And that is incompatible with a secular democracy.

As a former correspondent in the Soviet Union, I am sensitive about calls for censorship on the grounds of insult. This is a popular trick of totalitarian movements: Label any critique or call for debate as an insult and punish the offenders. That is what happened to human rights activists and writers such as Andrei Sakharov, Vladimir Bukovsky, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Natan Sharansky, Boris Pasternak.

The regime accused them of anti-Soviet propaganda, just as some Muslims are labeling 12 cartoons in a Danish newspaper anti-Islamic.

But tragic demonstrations throughout the Middle East and Asia were not what we anticipated, much less desired. Moreover, the newspaper has received 104 registered threats, 10 people have been arrested, cartoonists have been forced into hiding because of threats against their lives and Jyllands-Posten’s headquarters have been evacuated several times due to bomb threats. This is hardly a climate for easing self-censorship.

Clearly the fear of reprisals mentioned above has proven to be well founded, and it seems to me that publication of the cartoons by other papers is both an act of solidarity with Rose and defiance against this intimidation, despite the Jack Straws and Bill Clintons of this world condemning the cartoons.

I think the cartoons themselves are mostly innocuous and unfunny but also open to different interpretations as Rose points out.

One cartoon, which shows Mohammed at the gates of heaven and some suicide bombers outside with Mohammed saying “Stop! Stop! We’ve run out of virgins” did make me chuckle. It seemed to me this was lampooning a belief that suicide bombers are indoctrinated with, namely that they’ll receive 72 virgins in heaven for carrying out their “martyrdom” operation. This reprehensible belief, which provides a religious motivation for attacks like those of 9/11, 7/7, Bali and of course the blowing up of Israelis in their shopping centres and restaurants, deserves to be mocked and ridiculed. I think the cartoon was perfectly justifiable and should not be insulting to anyone but the likes of Osama Bin Laden.

Those who are claiming to be insulted by these cartoons are insisting on a particular interpretation of them to do so, and are also trying to control (whether via the violence and threats or via peaceful political means) what we can and cannot print in our newspapers. Indeed some them ask us, as non-believers, not to depict Mohammed at all or they will treat it as a deep insult and a deliberate provocation. That is intimidation, and it is an attack on freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

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Cartoon Wars roundup (2)

Some more links related to the Danish cartoon affair:

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British Muslim group calls for ban on depicting Mohammed

As I’ve reported at Magna Carta Plus, a group of British Muslims have called for a ban on depicting Mohammed. Thus this group wants us to observe a tenet of their religion. That’s both an attack on freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

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If Islam is a religion of peace…


  • those who send death threats to the cartoonists of Jyllends-Posten are betraying Islam.
  • those who are torching embassies in the middle east are betraying Islam.
  • those who marched in London calling for those who depicted Mohammed to be exterminated, annihilated or beheaded are betraying Islam.
  • those who murdered Theo Van Gogh and drove Dutch MPs Geert Wilders and Ayaan Hirsi Ali into hiding are betraying Islam.
  • those who called for the death of Salman Rushdie, including issuing the famous fatwa, are betraying Islam.
  • those who carried out 9/11, 7/7, the Madrid bombings and the Bali bombings are betraying Islam.
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Protestors in London call for beheading of those who depict Mohammed

Channel 4’s special report in the Danish cartoon row features a protest outside Regents Park Mosque. The protestors can be clearly heard chanting “Denmark, USA, 7/7 on its way”, the placards features slogans such as “Behead the one who insults the Prophet”, “Annihilate those who insult Islam” and “Freedom of expression can go to hell”. Click on the video link on this page to see the report.

Here are some photos of the placards. One reads “Be prepared for the real Holocaust”. Another reads “Freedom go to Hell”.

If anyone wants to know who some of the enemies of the open society are, look no further.

Is this a remotely sane or reasonable response to the publication of these cartoons?

What we have here is a group of militant religious fundamentalists trying to dictate what we can and cannot print in our newspapers, on the basis that if we violate a particular tenet of their religion, they will feel offended and insulted. They are trying to make us obey a tenet of their religion whether we subscribe to that religion or not. They are also calling for the death of those who dare to depict Mohammed, and some seem to be calling for a holocaust.

If we decide to give in on this, what will the religious zealots claim insult for next? The drinking of alcohol? The eating of non Halal food? Women who dare to dress in anything more revealing than a burqa?

I sincerely hope most Muslims have nothing to do with people like the protestors above. It is worth noting that some Muslims are bravely standing up for free speech. We should give them our support and stand up for free speech ourselves.

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