Apostasy – It can be religious and secular

The death penalty issued for apostasy against the Iranian pastor, Yusef Nadarkhani, evokes memories of Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ affair. At the time, I found it amusing to see how the West was demanding the right of free speech for Salman Rushdie to offend, and concurrently denying the same right to Ayatollah Khomeini for expressing his fatwa. Surely, if Salman Rushdie can speak, so can the Ayatollah of Iran? Yes or no? If Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa is a call to violence, then isn’t the Satanic Verses the cause? Or is the book all benign based on objective research? You have to laugh at the level of hypocrisy, and the West can get away with it having the power of a ubiquitous media, with which it can roar like a lion or howl like a pack of wolves silencing their victims.

Iran has subsequently retracted the verdict, facing mounting pressure from other states and human rights organisations. Nevertheless, it provides another excuse for the Islamophobes, not that they need one, to launch their usual diatribe against Islam and Muslims. Many of those Islamophobes, lacking elementary education, are unaware that penal codes for apostasy also exist within the Biblical text, and it was applied far more frequently and rigorously in Christian Europe than under Islamic rule. Indeed, like the issues of adultery, homosexuality and idol worshiping, apostasy is not specific to Islam. But the problem is the Muslims have a greater tendency to adhere to Islamic laws, unlike the followers of the Judeo-Christian text.

Before the facts are gathered, the secular-Mullahs trotting the media and the internet have issued their verdict, based on the premise that apostasy law contradicts individual freedom. As we know, such freedom exists for individuals like Salman Rushdie, but not for the Ayatollahs. Of course, in a secular framework, religion is reduced to a trivial personal matter for the individual to accept or reject. Hence, most secular constitutions guarantee freedom of religion because it has been rendered powerless in society. Naturally, under such a framework, it seems harsh to issue any kind of punishment, let alone the death penalty for a trivial personal issue like religion.

Often the verdict of these secular-Mullahs will contain references to the acts carried out during the era of medieval Christian-Europe, when ‘witches’ were burnt at the stake, and rival sects (Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox) slaughtered each other using the same argument of heresy. Well things worked differently in the Islamic world; scan through history, the Muslims never engaged in such activities, unless the acts of apostasy were a pretext for an armed uprising which rarely occurred. But I am sure, even the secular-Mullahs would see the need and the right of the state to defend itself.

In exploring this issue, the first question that should be asked is: what is apostasy?

The conventional view is that it is an act of abandoning one’s religious faith, the term apostasy is synonymous with religious-apostasy. Therefore, it has to be understood in the context of a religious state, where citizenship is determined by one’s belief; hence, apostasy is tantamount to treason against the state and society.

What underpins an act of apostasy is rejection of the current system and the core values. The term is probably derived from the Greek word “apostasia” meaning defection or revolt, which can take place in any society, be it religious or secular. Indeed, secular nationalistic states also have the same notion of apostasy, which they call treason, for example a person siding with the enemy, especially during conflict. Therefore, it is disingenuous for secular societies to argue that apostasy only exists within religious states.

Acts of apostasy can be physical or verbal and it can be belligerent or passive. Thus, there are various grades of apostasy and accordingly the various levels of punishment associated with it. The secular societies often claim to permits verbal apostasy under the pretext of free speech. However, that is not true. In the UK, tiny groups like Al-Muhajiroun have been banned for speaking out against British core values of democracy and freedom along with criticism of their foreign policy. Even relatively passive individuals who have confined expressing their opinions to books are punished. Professor David Irving is one example, serving a prison sentence for expressing his opinion on the Holocaust. Only if he was living in a free country like Iran, he could speak his mind without the fear!

Apostasy is a universal notion that exists in all societies, in various forms. It is defined according to their respective values; there are different levels of apostasy and punishments associated with it. Apostasy, to be precise religious-apostasy is more complex than just changing faith, and it will be explored in more detail in the subsequent article, with a specific reference to Islamic law.


Without doubt, according to the major monotheistic religions (Islam, Christianity and Judaism), apostasy is a major sin. Most other religions would probably have the same viewpoint; otherwise, if the follower can exit the religion with full impunity, in this life and in the hereafter, then the core values cannot have any real significance. Being indifferent to apostasy implies a lack of conviction in the fundamental values; this axiom is applicable to religious and secular apostasy.

Whilst there is concurrence on apostasy being a sin, there are differences in terms of the punishment prescribed for such actions, and each religion deal with the issue in accordance with the laws prescribed. However, can any religion really prescribe punishment for apostasy in the first place, given that all religions encourage apostasy of non-believers?

By rational necessity, any religion endorses its viewpoint as being the only option; otherwise, it would struggle to justify its own existence. Therefore, the de facto position is that all religions, implicitly or explicitly, encourage non-believers to become apostates of their respective religion. Indeed, all the converts to any religion are apostates of their former religion or beliefs. The prophet (saw) of Islam encouraged the pagan Arabs, Christians and Jews to apostatize from their old religion, as did the early Christians within the Roman Empire, and all the Christian and Muslim activists around the world continue to operate on the same principle today. It is inconsistent to expect other religions to permit apostasy with impunity, and concurrently use punishment to prevent apostasy from within.

Furthermore, in the early period of revelation in Makkah, Islamic texts challenged the non-believers in various ways, and asked them to reflect and come to the truth. It is asking the non-believers to engage the mind, and ‘select’ the right religion, meaning that people should be free to become apostates of their former religion and should not be persecuted for that. Hence, the criticism of the pagans for persecuting the early believers is well established within the Islamic literature; otherwise the pagans were right to punish the early Muslims.

A challenge implies it’s a two-way process, where the playing field should be level, the rules should apply equally to both sides; thus, one can win the argument and attract followers, and concurrently there is also the possibility that one can lose the argument and some followers. Otherwise, it is not a challenge but a direct order to non-believers to become Muslims; however, that would not make any sense as there would be no jurisdiction over the non-believers in the first place.

Therefore, to punish apostates would seem contradictory to its message of challenging others to enter the religion of Islam or Christianity or any religion, compounded by the fact that all religions thrive on apostasy from other religions.

However, according to the old Biblical laws, the punishment for any form of apostasy is death. In the chapter of Deuteronomy 13:6-9 it states:

"If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying: Let us go and worship other gods, do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him. You must certainly put him to death."

The Church used to burn heretics at the stake, which culminated in the formation of the brutal Inquisition. This was not confined to the Catholics and the Pope. In 1553, John Calvin, the founder of the Calvinist movement burnt the Spanish physician, Michael Servetus, at the stake for doctrinal heresies.

With the rise of secularism, the church was divested of its powers, and can no longer carry out executing penal codes for apostasy. Moreover, it would be problematic to reconcile this with the central message of “loving your enemy”, and by definition a Christian apostate would be considered one, more so if the apostate was belligerent.

Under Islamic law, there are differences in terms of the punishment prescribed for the various forms of apostasy, and in the next article, the textual evidences are scrutinised in more detail.