Forced Faith↓

Preserving the Freedom for Faith: Reevaluating the Politics of Compulsion by Abdullah Bin Hamid Ali

This is the first in my series of articles surveying the 2011 Summer edition of The Review of Faith & International Affairs. Read the introduction to the series here.

Bin Hamid Ali, Abdullah. “Preserving the Freedom for Faith: Reevaluating the Politics of Compulsion.” The Review of Faith & International Affairs (Vol. 9 No. 2, Summer 2011): 3-9.

Professor Hamid Ali begins by pointing to both the secular and religious traditions that have put forward that the freedom of religion and conscience are fundamental rights due to all people. This tradition also exists within Islam.

“There can be no compulsion in religion. Right action is clear from error” – Q 2:256

Yet, a question is then raised in light of the historic examples, as well as modern, of execution for apostasy from Islam. There seems to be some contradiction. It cannot be just simply dismissed as a later development because there are injunctions from the Prophet, recorded in the most reliable of hadith collections, that argue for compulsion in religion.

Kill anyone who changes his religion – Al-Bukhari, Al-Jami’ Al-Sahih, 4/279

How do these two mesh? This is the basic problem that Professor Hamid Ali is confronting in this piece.

Are there any truly universal rights that exist? Available and accessible to everyone, everywhere irrespective of citizenship, color or creed?

Freedom of thought and conscience  are perhaps the only true and absolute civil liberties, since each of us possess them whether or not a government, ideology, or institution approves of them. – Hamid Ali, 3.

The area of thought and conscience are free from censure because they are internal. A whole host of societies throughout history have attempted to strangle these through propaganda and screening of materials and other means of communicating thought. This is why the spread of information has always been so dangerous. Yet, the actual thoughts and beliefs of an individual are free from government or societal control. The freedom of religious practice though has a somewhat different nature. It is concerned not only with the internal beliefs of an individual but also the practical outworking of those beliefs. There is an external element to them. While, I believe this is a freedom that ought to be extended to all individuals, it is not the reality.

Professor Hamid Ali then moves onto a section concerning the relationship of an individual to the state as a citizen. “As a citizen the ultimate executive, legislative, and judicial authority belongs to the nation to which s/he seeks citizenship.” (4) As a citizen you are then subject to the powers of the state who use state powers to ensure conduct that is concurrent with being a citizen of that state.

For this reason, governments demand an oath of allegiance, an oath to uphold the constitution and to defend it from enemies both foreign and domestic. Such an oath transforms a foreigner into a citizen in the same way that a testimony of faith in proselytizing religions transforms a person from a nonbeliever to a believer, one who is afforded certain rights that outsiders are denied. – Hamid Ali, 4

As a citizen of a country you are expected to act in a way consistent with the Constitution of that country. A question to be put forward at this point would be how broadly may a government define what it means to act correctly as a citizen of a country? This, in some contexts, might be defined in a maximalist perspective that would be applied to attire, conduct, conversation, religious expression, etc. It could also have a minimalist perspective that would be limited to politically subversive acts that seek to bring physical harm to a society. This point of defining what exactly a subversive act is key to this conversation.

Returning to Professor Hamid Ali’s thoughts he points out that Islamic tradition sought to allow outsiders a free exercise of conscience and religious belief in majority Muslim societies, but for Muslims there was a moral constitution that could – and should – be enforced. He demonstrates this by again quoting from the Prophet Muhammad in the Hadith.

It is lawful to take the lives of only three kinds of Muslims: a fornicator who loses innocence through marriage; one who takes another’s life; and one who abandons his religion, who disengages from the community. – Al-Nawawi, Sharh al-Arba’ in Al-Nawwawiya, 41.

This last case has provided a historical justification for why cases of apostasy ought to engender the death penalty. This seems to be a pretty unshakable denial of the genuine nature of faith. This seems to be exactly “compulsion in religion.”

This view would seem to fundamentally contradict the nature of faith, since genuine faith can be neither coerced nor institutionalized. – Hamid Ali, 4

It is at this point that Professor Hamid Ali brings in a crucial historical-contextual reality that helps to make sense for the practice of capital punishment for apostasy in the past but also provides a compelling case for its exclusion today. As I am not an educated Islamic historian, nor do I read Arabic, I cannot go back to the original sources to either confirm or dispute this claim but his view is this:

What I mean by this is that it is my educated belief that the injunction to execute apostates during the Prophetic era was introduced into the legal parlance as a way to discourage defection from the Muslim military forces. In other words, only those who took up arms against the Muslim forces were to be made the object of the order to “Kill anyone who changes his religion.” – Hamid Ali, 5

He views the clarifying clause “who disengages from the community” to be essential, rather than just superfluous. Making it that “a major consideration involved with the execution of apostates is open rebellion and the attempt to overthrow or disturb the established order.” (5) This also helps to remove some of the double standard for why known hypocrites who remained in the community were not also subject to execution. So rather than being a punishment for apostasy it was more directly a punishment intended for treason.

An interesting section follows in the article reflecting on the question “Who has the authority to execute an apostate?” Professor Hamid Ali places this responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the government. Anarchy and vigilante style justice is not to be condoned. The individual Muslim’s concern is that individuals are to be allowed freedom of religion – it is for governments to debate issues of apostasy and its punishment.

A further point that is made, citing a historic example, is the futility of compelling faith, and the danger of attempting to compel adoption of an official government position on issues of theology. While there are certain elements of Islamic theology that are nearly universally accepted there is great debate over what is or is not to be considered as fundamental or what interpretation is correct. If adherence to an official government position is required it becomes exponentially more difficult to define, maintain and enforce.

In conclusion Professor Hamid Ali queries if in an era where there is no longer an ideal Muslim polity if the same standards from the past should be applied. In the society of the present attempts at forced faith are sure to be counterproductive to true faithfulness both at a societal and individual level.

The consequence of my thesis is that, while the execution of political defectors/traitors may still have its uses in the current age, to continue to characterize defection as apostasy or to judge that apostasy necessarily means defection is inappropriate. Hamid Ali, 8

The law had an original intent and if the law is no longer accomplishing that intent then perhaps it should be reevaluated to determine if there is a more appropriate means of obtaining the intent.

The same principle that applies to Muslims should also apply to the secularist, the positivist, the humanist, the gay rights activist, and so on. If one believes that he or she bears a universal truth, let others reach a similar realization–but by conviction, not by compulsion.

In the end the argument goes this way. Islam does promote the belief that faith is primarily an internal thing that deals with ones relationship to God. In this area there is not to be – in reality cannot be – compulsion or external punishment inflicted by the state. Historically, apostasy was directly connected with treason and defection from the state and a temporal punishment – execution – was given for this action. In the modern times there may still be a place for capital punishment for acts of treason, but there is not a place for capital punishment for issues of faith and belief.

A core question – that is not really fully addressed in this essay – regards the understanding of the state in Islamic societies and what it means to be a citizen and what it means to engage in subversive activities against the state.


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