Cyclically, intellectuals, ulama, Muslim jurists and politicians go back to the question of whether the apostate deserves an earthly punishment or the punishment is the sole prerogative of God in the hereafter. While in many moments of history the first interpretation had prevailed, today other interpretations exist that question the traditionally imposed penalty for the apostate (murtadd), but also the very meaning of the term.
In this sense, the statements made a few days ago by the high scientific Council of the Moroccan Ministry of Habous (Religious Affairs) are unprecedented. In Sabīl al-‘ulamā’ (The way of ulama), a volume of over 150 pages, it distanced itself from the traditional meaning of apostasy and of the penalty given for this offense. According to this document, Murtadd would not be the one who leaves Islam for another religion, but the one who betrays the group he belongs to.
“The most correct understanding of the apostasy issue resides in the spirit of the tradition and of the biography of the Prophet, who, by apostate, means the traitor of the group (khā’in al-jamā‘), the one who reveals its secrets and hurts it with the help of its opponents, what is equivalent to high treason under international law,” the document states.
The commission in fact offers a new interpretation of the two hadīth (Prophet’s sayings) traditionally cited in support of apostasy, framing them within the historical circumstances in which they would have been revealed: “Whoever changes his religion, kill him,” and “He who abandons religion is the one who breaks away from the group.” In the context of endemic wars, as was the period when Islam was born – the document explains – abandoning Muslims meant joining the nonbelievers. Apostasy was therefore political, not doctrinal.
According to the ulama, this meaning of apostasy would be evident in some historical facts of the time. Abū Bakr, the first of the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs, according to the tradition used to wage war against the apostates, understood them as political traitors because, in refusing to submit to the imam, they were dividing the unity of the group and undermining the understanding of religion, destroying its pillars.