Apostacy and Religious Pluralism

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Apostacy and Religious Pluralism

After several days of rioting and violence over allegations that Christians had desecrated the Quran, an estimated crowd of 1,000 stormed a Christian neighborhood in Gojra, Pakistan. The mob killed eight, including six women, and burned and looted dozens of houses.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reported that the riots were pre-planned, including announcements in some mosques the day before at the Friday congregational prayer. The government and National Assembly were quick to condemn these actions as contrary to Pakistan’s constitutional tradition and reiterated Pakistan’s commitment to ensure protection of the minorities as equal citizens. Christians and many Muslims called for the repeal Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. However, this was not an isolated incident in Pakistan, where blasphemy against the Prophet and the desecration of the Quran which have often been used against Christians. Religious conflict and violence have also occurred within Islam between Sunni and Shii Muslims.

Religious minorities in the Muslim world today, who are constitutionally entitled to equality of citizenship equality and religious freedom, increasingly fear the erosion of those rights — and with good reason. Interreligious and intercommunal tensions and conflicts have flared up not only in Pakistan but also in Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia, varying from discrimination, violence, and the destruction of villages, churches and mosques to murder and slaughter.

In a widely covered 2006 apostasy case in Afghanistan that sparked international outrage, Abdul Rahman, who had converted to Christianity while working with a Christian aid organization 16 years prior to his arrest, faced trial as an apostate in a case brought against him by his ex-wife in a custody battle over their two daughters. Abdul Rahman was to be tried under the new Afghan Constitution, which combines secular law with aspects of Sharia law, as an apostate, facing a possible death sentence if he did not repent or was not determined to be mentally unfit by the court. In the end, Abdul Rahman was granted asylum by the Italian government and is in hiding in Italy. The case brought up questions about the Constitution of Afghanistan, which aims to combine secular law as well as pay tribute to the Shari’a.

Muslims are challenged to move beyond older notions of tolerance or co-existence to a religious pluralism based on mutual understanding and respect. Regrettably, a significant minority of Muslims, like very conservative and fundamentalist Christians and Jews who strongly affirm their faith, are less pluralistic in their attitudes towards other faiths and their co-believers. Muslims in the 21st century are challenged to incorporate an internal pluralism, a generous space in their religious discourse and behavior for alternative opinions and dissenting voices within Islam.

A key Islamic issue and debate today regarding pluralism and tolerance is the relationship of past doctrine to current realities. Many call for a reinstatement of the “protected” (dhimmi) status in the past, which however progressive in the past would amount to second class citizenship for non-Muslims today. Others insist that non-Muslims be afforded full citizenship rights. They maintain that pluralism is the essence of Islam as revealed in the Quran and practiced by Muhammad and the early caliphs, rather than a purely Western invention or ideology. They emphasize that the Quran envisions a pluralistic world, mutual understanding and religious tolerance. Jews and Christians are regarded as “People of the Book,” people who have also received a revelation and a scripture from God (the Torah for Jews and the Gospels for Christians), a recognition that in later centuries was extended to other faiths.

Reformers turn to Quranic texts which reveal a pluralistic vision: “O humankind, We have created you male and female and made you nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another.” (49:13) Additional Quranic recognition of the religious diversity of the human community supportive of religious pluralism rather than exclusivism is found in Quranic texts like:

“To everyone we have appointed a way and a course to follow” (5.48), and ”For each there is a direction toward which he turns; vie therefore with one another in the performance of good works. Wherever you may be, God shall bring you all together [on the Day of Judgment]. Surely God has power over all things.” (2.148)

Prominent Muslim scholars like Nurcholish Madjid maintain that the Islamic law on apostasy, which prescribes the death penalty, has no basis in the Quran. Rather, it was a man-made effort in early Islam to prevent and punish the equivalent of desertion or treason during time of. Times have changed, he argues, and so must the law. Citing Quran 3:85 and 18:29, Nurcholish argues that punishment for leaving the faith is not a matter for the state but God’s decision on the Day of Judgment. Similarly, Shaykh Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt when asked “can a person who is Muslim choose a religion other than Islam?,” responded “The answer is yes, they can because the Quran says, ‘Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion,’ [Quran, 109:6], and, ‘Whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve,’ [Quran, 18:29], and, ‘There is no compulsion in religion. [Quran, 2:256].”

John Esposito is Director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University and co-author of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think. He is also on the Board of Advisors at ISPU.

This article was published in the Washington Post online on August 1, 2009:


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