It is easy to watch the above video for just 23 seconds (to hear that in Islam, apostasy means death) then stop, pack our bags, go home with our understanding that Islam is a wicked religion and have our prejudice against Islam, confirmed.
If we continue to watch after 23 seconds, suddenly we realise there is a bit more to understand.
This is Assim Al-Hakeem and in summary, the content of his talk after 23 seconds is as follows:
1. Not anyone can mete out the judgment for apostasy.
2. The ‘procedure’ must be understood first.
3. He gives an example: If a random person says ‘I don’t believe anymore’, can we kill him? No.
4. The ‘Procedure’ = i) check that the condition has been fulfilled; ii) check that the criteria can be made to NOT apply to this person [as a fail-safe].
5. How is the ‘Procedure’ performed? a) a panel of Muslim judges/scholars to question the person, first, to try and persuade them out of apostasy; b) if he still insists to apostatise, the verdict is given ONLY by the Muslim ruler (the ‘Imam’, meaning ‘leader’ – not ‘Imam’, meaning ‘the normal guy that leads the prayer’); c) then the Muslim ruler must make a decision.
6. Al-Hakeem then gives random, modern anecdotes of people applying and meting out judgements against perceived-apostates on a day-to-day level. This is blatantly wrong. The doer of that action could end up in hell! Because the layman does not have the right to issue takfir (identify and confirm in a legal sense that a person is a kaffir (‘The one that covers the Truth’/ ‘unbeliever’/ ‘disbeliever’).
7. Never do anything without knowledge. One must be really careful when dealing with these things.
Now, there is something very important that is not noted in this video. Check out the next link to contextualise the issue:
This is Dr Jonathan Brown. He makes mention of a few things that adds nuance to the discussion:
A) Examples from the time of the Prophet give a different picture:
Bi) The Story of Abdallah Ibn Sa’ad, who came to the town; became Muslim; then became a scribe for the Prophet amongst other scribes; decided to leave Islam and went back to Mecca; He wrote works that insulted Islam; later on he became Muslim again; later still he was made governor of Egypt!
[Bii) Another account of Al-Ma’arri is sketched out by Humza Yusuf, elsewhere. Watch this HERE from 1:50. (Please note that at 1:18 to 1:45, HY contests the part-simplistic/part-false method as outlined on Wikipedia, which seems to be a caricature of Al-Hakeem’s method.)]
C) The account Bi and Bii) does not concur with the death penalty offence of apostasy, as indicated above. Why?
D) During life of the Prophet and early Islamic history [presumably, the time of the first four caliphs]: “I can’t think of any person who is actually killed for leaving Islam.” This is significant.
E) Dr Brown explains that this difference was because of the way they [in the classical period of Muslim history] understood apostasy to be more a matter of ‘allegiance to the religious-polity’ rather than about personal conscience.
F) People’s private convictions was never really a problem in Muslim history. What they were more careful about was ‘public behaviour’ because of the threat to social order.
G) That is why contemporary scholars (i.e. Y. Qaradawy, A. Gomaa and others) make an interesting distinction:
It used to be a given that allegiance/identity was tied to your religious-polity. In the Medieval period, Christians belonged to ‘Christendom’ and in the classical period, Muslims belonged to ‘Dar us-Salaam’ [Abode of Peace]. And so leaving that religion was a possible act of treason to that polity.
But now we have to distinguish the fact that in the modern period, our world is not like that. Allegiance/identity is not now tied to a religious-polity as it used to be, but rather it is now tied to the modern nation-state/culture.
H) So crimes of apostasy (if it is to do with religious conviction) need not be dealt with as severely. So the crime of apostasy that is considered dangerous to scholars today is really nothing to do with changes of religious conviction but to do with political crimes against the state, which we know as ‘High Treason’.
CONCLUSION – So does apostasy mean death in Islam? It depends on what you mean by apostasy… And even then, not necessarily.
Dr Brown’s conclusion is interesting. And I agree with his reasoning. However, the real issue underlying the tensions about allegiance and identity in the modern period – to which Dr Brown alludes – for Muslims – and for non-Muslims alike (and the arguments/debates within each camp and across them) – is the same: Modernity.
But that is a whole other can of worms…
FOR a further referenced discussion, please read Proof of Life for the Apostate in Islam