According to one proverb, “Anything imposed by force cannot endure without it.” That is, without the real presence or threat of force in any given society, lawlessness becomes the norm. It is this principle which guides and defines the actions of law enforcement everywhere. No law is deemed effective unless its disregard results in some form of fine, imprisonment, or other form of punishment.
Islam endorses this principle with relation to crime committed against the members of society. It, however, favors a different approach with regard to crimes committed against God―at least, according to the Qur’anic teachings and the prophetic example. Even though for centuries Muslim jurists have upheld the view that an individual Muslim’s decision to convert from Islam to another religion is punishable by death, this is largely the result of an interpretation of the sound hadith, “Kill anyone who changes his din.”
The word, din, in this hadith is typically translated as “religion.” It is a word whose meaning was exploited by European colonialists as a justification for the forced conversion of a number of aboriginal peoples to Christianity. If those people did not have what European Christians considered “religion”, compelling the natives to convert was tolerable, since they didn’t know what was best for their selves anyway. In time they would hopefully come to understand the great blessing they had been given to them by their Christian benefactors. Karen Armstrong, in emphasizing the problem with translating a number of words as “religion” had the following to say her essay entitled, “The Myth of Religious Violence,”
The words in other languages that we translate as “religion” invariably refer to something vaguer, larger and more inclusive. The Arabic word din signifies an entire way of life, and the Sanskrit dharma covers law, politics, and social institutions as well as piety. The Hebrew Bible has no abstract concept of “religion”; and the Talmudic rabbis would have found it impossible to define faith in a single word or formula, because the Talmud was expressly designed to bring the whole of human life into the ambit of the sacred. The Oxford Classical Dictionary firmly states: “No word in either Greek or Latin corresponds to the English ‘religion’ or ‘religious’.” In fact, the only tradition that satisfies the modern western criterion of religion as a purely private pursuit is Protestant Christianity, which, like our western view of “religion”, was also a creation of the early modern period. (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/25/-sp-karen-armstrong-religious-violence-myth-secular)
If it is true that din is much more than the private pursuit that we call “religion,” it is important to remember the geo-political state of affairs during the prophetic era when the directive was made to, “Kill anyone who changes his din.” During this time, populations lived under the presumption of war, not peace, unless neighboring peoples initiated an accord or strategic alliance. Din included not only a commitment to the groups understanding of God and worldview. It also entailed a commitment to the preservation of the social solidarity and collective security of the tribe or clan. To leave the group, often times meant to defect to the group’s enemies. At other times, it entailed a degree of neutrality.
In light of this old world order, it was quite reasonable for Hanafi jurists to divide the world into “hostile” territories (dar al-harb) and “friendly” territories (dar al-salam). It is such an order we need to consider in order to contextualize Qur’anic references to “unbelievers” (kuffar/kafirun) and “those who reject faith” (alladhina kafaru) as referring to “hostiles” as opposed to “friendlies.” If a given population lacked a treaty with another in the premodern world, this fundamentally implied that the wealth and lives of one’s neighbors were threatened with usurpation at any given moment. Since religion was separate neither from culture nor the social-political order, apostasy was seen as a sign of defection and a threat to the safety and stability of a given population. With this understanding, it follows logically that the true concern of the pioneer Muslim community was not necessarily an individual’s decision to cast off the strictures of Islamic law or creed. It was actually upholding standards which promoted communal trust and safety. This is why as reported in one incident after Anas b. Malik, deputized by ‘Umar b. al-Khattab to track down a defector, returned with the news that a number of apostates he was sent after had been killed in battle on the side of the enemy at Tustar, ‘Umar said to him, “If I had encountered them, I would have presented them the option of returning to Islam. If they refused, I would have merely imprisoned them.” ‘Umar’s reasoning shows that the decision to execute apostates was not a binding injunction to be applied in all cases, and that the reason for the punishment was not simply because of their apostasy. It was also because of defecting to the enemy’s army. In light of these considerations, Muslim scholars would serve the religion better by re-characterizing what was classically referred to as “apostasy” as its true meaning, which is “defection.”
Shaykh Abdullah bin Hamid Ali is the founder of Lamppost Productions and the Lamppost Education Initiative. He teaches Islamic law, jurisprudential principles, and the prophetic tradition at Zaytuna College. His most recent translation, "Tears of the Yearners for the Meeting With God", by Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali is now available here.
By Abdullah bin Hamid Ali , 20 Jan 2016