On the occasion of Mawlid, the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, a young 23-year-old former columnist for Saudi Arabia’s Al-Bilad newspaper tweeted a conversation he imagined he would have if he were to meet the Prophet Muhammad.
-On your birthday, I will say that I have loved the rebel in you, that you’ve always been a source of inspiration to me, and that I do not like the halos of divinity around you. I shall not pray for you.
-On your birthday, I find you wherever I turn. I will say that I have loved aspects of you, hated others, and could not understand many more.
-On your birthday, I shall not bow to you. I shall not kiss your hand. Rather, I shall shake it as equals do, and smile at you as you smile at me. I shall speak to you as a friend, no more.
Almost immediately after the posts he was running for his life. He hopped a plane in Jeddah hoping to reach New Zealand. In Malaysia, where he had to change planes, he was stopped and held until a private plane arrived to take him back home to Saudi Arabia. Now, he sits in a Saudi jail awaiting a possible death sentence.
Saudi cleric Nasser al-Omar called for Kashgari to be tried for apostasy. Outrageous, I first thought, living here in the Western world. Although I don’t believe that the tweets validate in labeling Kahsgari as an apostate even if he did insult the Prophet Muhammad, let’s just agree with al-Omar’s point of view. If Kashgari is an apostate like al-Omar says, we must look into what Islam says about capital punishment, apostasy and those two linked together.
The Qur’an states: “…Take not life, which God has made sacred, except by way of justice and law. Thus does He command you, so that you may learn wisdom” (6:151). Key words here are “by way of justice and law.” It is clear that capital punishment can be applied by a court as long as it is justifiable and lawful, which fall under two crimes: intentional murder and Fasad fil-ardh, or spreading mischief in the land. The term “spreading mischief in the land” is generally interpreted as crimes that affect a community as a whole and destabilize society. These include treason/apostasy, terrorism, land, sea and air piracy, rape and adultery.
That being said, it must mean that al-Omar’s argument to punish Kashgari with the death sentence for apostasy is valid, correct? No. What al-Omar fails to realize is how that ruling originated and under which circumstances.
During the time of war, if one were to abandon his Muslims by committing treason and declaring himself as an apostate and then fight against Muslims, it would be valid to punish the individual with the death sentence. However, Kashgari is not fighting against his home country, and as a result, is not committing treason. The problem rests in that al-Omar, along with many others, tie apostasy to treason instead of realizing that apostasy is not always linked to war and treason, especially not in this day and age. So, if he is an apostate, should the death sentence apply? Is speaking ill of the Prophet Muhammad considered an act of mischief large enough to punish Kashgari with capital punishment, given that he is considered an apostate? This is where I searched further to see what Islam says about punishments for the act of apostasy on its own, without being linked to treason.
In Surah 4: 137, the Qur’an reads, “Behold, as for those who come to believe, and then deny the truth, and again come to believe and again deny the truth and thereafter, grow stubborn in their denial of the truth, God will not forgive them, nor will He guide them in any way.” With this passage it’s evident that even after rejecting Islam twice, no punishment is prescribed for the apostate.
Furthermore, Dr. Maher Hathout, a leading American Muslim spokesperson, underscores in his recent book “In Pursuit of Justice: The Jurisprudence of Human Rights in Islam” that while apostasy may be a sin in the eyes of God, it is not considered criminal behavior.
Subhi Mahmassani, an Islam scholar and jurist from Lebanon, has observed that the death penalty was meant to apply not to simple acts of apostasy from Islam, but when apostasy was linked to an act of political betrayal of the community. The Prophet never killed anyone solely for apostasy. This being the case, the death penalty was not meant to apply to a simple change of faith but to punish acts such as treason, joining forces with the enemy and sedition. [Arkan Huquq al-Insan fi l-Islam (Bases of Human Rights in Islam), Beirut: Dar al-‘Ilm li-l-Malayin, 1979, cited in Kamali, as above]
Executing a person because of conversion to another faith or out of faith clearly contradicts the Qur’an, the ultimate source of Islamic law. Without the apostasy being linked to treason that leads to a matter of national security or security of a Muslim community, capital punishment cannot be permitted.
The question now remains, if Islamic law prohibits capital punishment for apostasy, where did Muslims get the idea that it is valid? In Josef Van Ess’s book “The Flowering of Muslim Theology” he observes this issue and the first execution of someone who spoke ill of the Prophet Muhammad. Dating back to the 8th Century, Syrian scholar Muhammad Ibn Said Al-Urdunni was executed for statements he made about the Prophet Muhammad. Al-Urdunni stated that, although Prophet Muhammad was the last prophet, if Allah wanted, He would and could create another Muhammad. He simply was stating that Allah, the Almighty, has the ability to do whatever he wants, which includes creating another Muhammad. It is as unknown as to whom exactly made the final decision to charge Al-Urdunni with apostasy, but the Syrian government issued the death sentence for disrespecting the Prophet Muhammad by even imagining that there could be another prophet after him. The intentions behind the Syrian government are unknown, however, one is to assume that they could have been trying to set an example for Muslim citizens—if Al-Urdunni is executed, people will not dare to speak ill of the Prophet. It seems that al-Omar is using the same philosophy of the 8th Century government in Syria. But we sit here now, in the 21st Century with the same problem that Syrians tried to squash in the 8th Century. So, does al-Omar really believe that the death sentence will in fact put fear in citizens from talking badly about the Prophet?
It is unfortunate that Muslim scholars don’t stand together to stop al-Omar and the Saudi government from this to move forward. Apostasy is not the equivalent of treason. Kashagri wasn’t out to destroy a Muslim community. There should not even be a trial. Under Islamic law, people of other faiths and people who leave Islam are not to be harmed.
The problem is that Saudi Arabia strives to both move forward in the world of high technology while they govern strict limitations and boundaries upontheir citizens. Their strong and strict Wahabbi interpretation of Islamic law will be a crutch for Muslims all over the world, especially the Western world, where Muslims constantly try to prove that Islam is a religion of peace and forgiveness and that Muslims can coexist in a world with other religions. The decision on Hamza Kahsgari’s case will leave a mark. It can either be a huge step in the right direction or send Muslims back another ten.
Adeel Ahmed is an actor and writer. His work has been featured at Sundance and SXSW. Credits include Law & Order CI, Saturday Night Live, Domestic Crusaders. He will next be seen on Hum TV’s drama series Hum Tho Huay Pardesi as well as Rangoon on Theatre Row in New York City.