Ambiguities of Apostasy and the Repression of Muslim Dissent by Abdullah Saeed
The fifth article from the Summer edition of The Review of Faith & International Affairs.
Saeed, Abdullah. “Ambiguities of Apostasy and the Repression of Muslim Dissent.” The Review of Faith and International Affairs (Vol. 9 No. 2, Summer 2011): 31-38.
This article begins with a sketch of the historical background and the practice of Muhammad and some of the early followers in relation to those of other faiths. Saeed comes to the conclusion that though with a few exceptions
religious freedom came to be regarded as a fundamental principle of classical Islamic law and theology, particularly in relation to non-Muslims. (31)
The majority of the article deals not with the freedoms of non-Muslims in Muslim majority contexts but for Muslims within Muslim majority contexts. Saeed points that laws dealing with this topic emerged during a period of “imperial expansion and internal competition” (32). These laws were used to silence opponents in order to consolidate power. They were prone to abuse then and now.
Saeed breaks “dissent” down under five different headings: Apostasy, Blasphemy, Heresy, Hypocrisy, and Unbelief.
Apostasy: After having previously accepted Islam turns away and rejects it
Blasphemy: Foul language with regard initially to the prophet Muhammad and then extended to include God, angels, and other prophets.
Heresy: Teaching that becomes a danger to the state, freethinking, outward faithfulness while in practice remaining loyal to a former non-Islamic religion.
Hypocrisy: Outward profession to Islam while continuing inward devotion to non-Islamic beliefs.
Unbelief: One who does not believe in core beliefs (oneness of God, prophethood of Muhammad) of Islam.
These categories cover the vast majority of the laws relating to division within the Muslim community. In the second and third centuries of the Islamic era lists began to be constructed. Today there are dozens of “apostasy lists” There is no consensus on which list is correct. Depending on the location and circumstances one list gains prominence over another. These become useful in silencing dissent especially when three conditions are present:
1. The laws are worded ambiguously and are therefore easily applied in a wide range of cases;
2. there is a dominant local orthodoxy and an overbearing religious establishment to oversee its implementation; and,
3. there is a political elite willing to support the religious establishment. (Saeed 33)
The majority of the remaining pages of the article expands on each of these conditions. It is easy to see how when these three things come together there is no room for critical thinking. The author cites a number of cases in various countries that demonstrate what this looks like. At times it takes the form of academic censure, or eliminating a political challenger. Other times these laws have led to imprisonment or execution. Sometimes the suppression takes place through official channels, the police or military, legal proceedings, etc. Other times individuals are provoked to take action against someone who a leader feels is divisive or a challenge to their authority.
What are the most significant losses from this denial of dissent?
Obviously, when physical violence or execution is a major loss. Beyond that, it hinders an individuals personal expression of their faith. If they differ at all from the dominant orthodoxy they may face opposition. It forces minority religious groups into the background. Academics and intellectuals are denied the freedom to seriously study and share their findings with society. This is why a large number of the prominent voices calling for reform in Islamic thought live outside of Muslim majority countries. Within their home countries the academic freedom does not exist to seriously engage on topics that might be seen as a challenge to the existing structures.
Whenever religious freedom is suppressed something significant is lost. Not just when one religion silences another but within the same religion. The freedom to think and question and work towards greater understanding is a valuable freedom.
For Islamic thought to move forward, Muslims in Muslim-majority states need to rethink these laws that criminalize dissent and that suppress thought and debate. (37)