Islam on freedom of religion

Wan Azhar Wan Ahmad

Apostasy, apparently a human rights-related issue, is highly sensitive to the multi-racial and multi-religious character of Malaysia. It tends to be problematic, untenable to some, especially when it deals with conversion into and out of Islam. It is true, the whole question involves certain legal and social implications. At times, its repercussions appear to rattle the social solidarity and religious harmony of our peaceful nation. All these threatening consequences are actually caused by ignorance. This writing is not to incite further dissension. Neither is it intended to sound apologetic. On the contrary it calls for all parties directly or indirectly affected by the subject matter, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, to view it with an open heart guided by wisdom.

Scholars have admitted that Islam is the most misunderstood religion of all world religions. Misrepresentations and misperceptions about it are causing many to hurriedly develop an unjustified Islamophobia. This syndrome is actually a “fear of the unknown” as these people do not really understand what Islam is all about. Many simply accept the many global misrepresentations incessantly put to them via the media.

Seen through the lens of discourse on human rights, apostasy in Islam has been notoriously brought into conflict with the doctrine of human rights in general, and with the notion of freedom of religion in particular. Among the questions raised is, if Islam can easily be embraced, by the same token, why does it not allow Muslims to leave Islam?

It is unquestionable that Islam indeed recognises human rights, in fact from its very inception, long before these ideas were developed and documented in its modern secular form by the West like the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948. Islam, as systematically reflected by the Cairo Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights, 1981, advocates human rights via syariah. These objectives include the establishment of justice, individual education and preservation of human welfare or interests by protecting and preserving the freedom of thought, worship, rights to property and preservation of the progeny. These constitute the inviolable principles of “human rights”.

What many fail to understand is that Islam is probably the only religion that honours its followers to the utmost. Islam regards its adherents, both originally born Muslim as well as converts, as invaluable assets. Once they come to the fold of Islam, they stand equal. Therefore, the responsibilities, duties and rights of all Muslims are basically the same. Individually, they are equally entitled to achieve success in this world as well as salvation in the hereafter, guided by and within the parameters set up by syariah.

Muslims firmly believe that they are in the territory of truth, the right path. They are bathed in the brightest light. For Muslims, truth is light, falsehood is darkness. Therefore, it is a grave injustice to them if they were to deviate from that truth. Furthermore, the fact that Islam prohibits apostasy reflects the integrity and credibility of the religion. If Islam were to grant permission for Muslims to change religion at will, it would imply it has no dignity, no self-esteem. And people may then question its completeness, truthfulness and perfection.

Echoing the observations of Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, “rights” or huquq in Islam refers to something that is right, true, correct and proper. “Freedom” or ikhtiyar means a choice for the good or better. So it is neither one’s right nor is it freedom to choose something evil, false, wrong, incorrect or imperfect.

Religiously, morally and legally, man has no right to do wrong. Nevertheless, there are feeble, confused Muslims around. They may be the result of improper or inadequate education or the lack of exposure to the more comprehensive teachings of Islam. And due to worldly temptations, this weakness causes their religious foundations to become shaky. Apparently, their common feature is a lack of knowledge and understanding of Islam. So if one insists on adopting the aforementioned wrong conception of “rights” and “freedom”, one is actually exposing one’s shameful ignorance!

For converts, before they become Muslims, no matter for what reason, it is only reasonable that they must have a certain degree of basic knowledge about Islam. They must take efforts to study the fundamentals of the religion first. This is actually their responsibility and duty. Take note that rights do not come out of a vacuum; they are accompanied by certain responsibilities and duties. For example, before one can exercise one’s freedom to buy a car of his choice, one must first obtain a driving licence. Without that document, one will only endanger oneself as well as others. One cannot scream to be given the right or freedom to buy if the requirement of responsibility is not fulfilled beforehand.

Muslims must understand that once they come into the fold of Islam, there is no question of leaving the faith or reverting to their earlier beliefs even if the very reason for one to come to Islam in the first place ceases to exist. One may be a bad or a non-practising Muslim, but there is hardly any room available for one to denounce that religion.

One cannot argue that Islam does not recognise the idea of freedom of worship. First and foremost, the very doctrine of Islam, as reflected in the Quran, teaches that there is no compulsion. Freedom of worship is to be understood not only in the sense of making a choice for the better, but also in the sense of freedom to practise a particular religion. Once one accepts Islam or decides to become a Muslim, one is subjected to all the rules prescribed by the religion.

If Islam forbids apostasy, not only the Muslims must observe it, but the followers of other religions that do not have such provisions must appreciate and respect this position as well. This is actually the freedom of worship that must be perceived by all.

The author is a Senior Fellow for the Centre for Syariah, Law and Political Science, Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia (IKIM)

28 thoughts on “Islam on freedom of religion

  1. Ishark,
    If you marry a Muslim woman & then have children. What religion will the kids be? What if the woman wants them to grow up as Muslim and you dont?

    This is a common scenario that usually ends up in divorce.

    Even if you did allow your wife to bring them up as Muslims, they would get confused by your actions as a non-muslim. There will be no harmony in such a household.

  2. 1. Media maligns Islam
    Islam is without doubt the best religion but the media is in the hands of the westerners who are afraid of Islam. The media is continuously broadcasting and printing information against Islam. They either provide misinformation about Islam, misquote Islam or project a point out of proportion, if any.
    When any bomb blasts take place anywhere, the first people to be accused without proof are invariably the Muslims. This appears as headlines in the news. Later, when they find that non-Muslims were responsible, it appears as an insignificant news’ item.
    If a 50 year old Muslim marries a 15 year old girl after taking her permission, it appears on the front page but when a 50 year old non-Muslim rapes a 6 year old girl, it may appear in the news in the inside pages as ‘Newsbriefs’. Everyday in America on an average 2,713 cases of rape take place but it doesn’t appear in the news, since it has become a way of life for the Americans.

    2. Black sheep in every community:
    I am aware that there are some Muslims who are dishonest, unreliable, who cheat, etc. but the media projects this as though only Muslims are involved in such activities. There are black sheep in every community. I know Muslims who are alcoholics and who can drink most of the non-Muslims under the table.

    3. Muslims best as a whole:
    Inspite of all the black sheep in the Muslim community, Muslims taken on the whole, yet form the best community in the world. We are the biggest community of tee-totallers as a whole, i.e. those who don’t imbibe alcohol. Collectively, we are a community which gives the maximum charity in the world. There is not a single person in the world who can even show a candle to the Muslims where modesty is concerned; where sobriety is concerned; where human values and ethics are concerned.

    4. Don’t judge a car by its driver:
    If you want to judge how good is the latest model of the “Mercedes” car and a person who does not know how to drive sits at the steering wheel and bangs up the car, who will you blame? The car or the driver? But naturally, the driver. To analyze how good the car is, a person should not look at the driver but see the ability and features of the car. How fast is it, what is its average fuel consumption, what are the safety measures, etc. Even if I agree for the sake of argument that the Muslims are bad, we can’t judge Islam by its followers? If you want to judge how good Islam is then judge it according to its authentic sources, i.e. the Glorious Qur’an and the Sahih Hadith.

    5. Judge Islam by its best follower i.e. Prophet Mohammed (pbuh):
    If you practically want to check how good a car is put an expert driver behind the steering wheel. Similarly the best and the most exemplary follower of Islam by whom you can check how good Islam is, is the last and final messenger of God, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Besides Muslims, there are several honest and unbiased non-Muslim historians who have acclaimed that prophet Muhammad was the best human being. According to Michael H. Hart who wrote the book, ‘The Hundred Most Influential Men in History’, the topmost position, i.e. the number one position goes to the beloved prophet of Islam, Muhammad (pbuh). There are several such examples of non-Muslims paying great tributes to the prophet, like Thomas Carlyle, La-Martine, etc.

    A few selected verses from the Qur’an are often misquoted to perpetuate the myth that Islam promotes violence, and exhorts its followers to kill those outside the pale of Islam.
    1. Verse from Surah Taubah
    The following verse from Surah Taubah is very often quoted by critics of Islam, to show that Islam promotes violence, bloodshed and brutality:
    “Kill the mushriqeen (pagans, polytheists, kuffar) where ever you find them.”
    [Al-Qur’an 9:5]
    2. Context of verse is during battlefield
    Critics of Islam actually quote this verse out of context. In order to understand the context, we need to read from verse 1 of this surah. It says that there was a peace treaty between the Muslims and the Mushriqs (pagans) of Makkah. This treaty was violated by the Mushriqs of Makkah. A period of four months was given to the Mushriqs of Makkah to make amends. Otherwise war would be declared against them. Verse 5 of Surah Taubah says:
    “But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practise regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is oft-forgiving, Most merciful.”
    [Al-Qur’an 9:5]
    This verse is quoted during a battle.
    3. Example of war between America and Vietnam
    We know that America was once at war with Vietnam. Suppose the President of America or the General of the American Army told the American soldiers during the war: “Wherever you find the Vietnamese, kill them”. Today if I say that the American President said, “Wherever you find Vietnamese, kill them” without giving the context, I will make him sound like a butcher. But if I quote him in context, that he said it during a war, it will sound very logical, as he was trying to boost the morale of the American soldiers during the war.
    4. Verse 9:5 quoted to boost morale of Muslims during battle
    Similarly in Surah Taubah chapter 9 verse 5 the Qur’an says, “Kill the Mushriqs where ever you find them”, during a battle to boost the morale of the Muslim soldiers. What the Qur’an is telling Muslim soldiers is, don’t be afraid during battle; wherever you find the enemies kill them.
    5. Shourie jumps from verse 5 to verse 7
    Arun Shourie is one of the staunchest critics of Islam in India. He quotes the same verse, Surah Taubah chapter 9 verse 5 in his book ‘The World of Fatwahs’, on page 572. After quoting verse 5 he jumps to verse 7 of Surah Taubah. Any sensible person will realise that he has skipped verse 6.
    6. Surah Taubah chapter 9 verse 6 gives the answer
    Surah Taubah chapter 9 verse 6 gives the answer to the allegation that Islam promotes violence, brutality and bloodshed. It says:
    “If one amongst the pagans ask thee for asylum,grant it to him, so that he may hear the word of Allah; and then escort him to where he can be secure that is because they are men without knowledge.”
    [Al-Qur’an 9:6]
    The Qur’an not only says that a Mushriq seeking asylum during the battle should be granted refuge, but also that he should be escorted to a secure place. In the present international scenario, even a kind, peace-loving army General, during a battle, may let the enemy soldiers go free, if they want peace. But which army General will ever tell his soldiers, that if the enemy soldiers want peace during a battle, don’t just let them go free, but also escort them to a place of security?
    This is exactly what Allah (swt) says in the Glorious Qur’an to promote peace in the world.

  3. Some of the views here and especially the death sentence for people leaving islam is exactly why non-believers suspect the faith. Such extreme opinions by its followers shows how much man has had their hand in the development and understanding of the religion. Let God punish those that have wronged. Who is man to judge.

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