Does Islamic law really proscribe the death penalty for apostasy?
an opinion by Mohamed Ghilan
Just when we thought the term “terrorism” could not become more meaningless or manipulated, Saudi Arabia’s government seems to have proved us wrong by recently adding atheism under the charge. Based on polls revealing that self-identified atheists constitute 5 percent of Saudi population, this makes for a staggering number of terrorists in the kingdom, most of whom maintain external religious observance in society while using online anonymity to express their true beliefs.
However, this matter is not so straightforward. Nesrine Malik highlights in a recent article an often-ignored distinction between the private, and public, more political forms of atheism. Indeed, as Malik points out, in an ultraconservative country like Saudi Arabia where religion, tribe, family and politics, are interlinked and of utmost importance, to take an antagonistic stance against Islam necessarily entails an antagonistic stance against the fabric of society.
It is a commonly held belief that Islamic law dictates the death penalty as an absolute punishment for apostasy. However, this reading of the Islamic Tradition relies on restricting the role of the Prophet Muhammad to that of a religious figure issuing timeless decrees. Such a restriction of the Prophet’s role will undoubtedly give rise to numerous paradoxes, as it will decontextualise all his statements and actions in a way that not only makes Islam incoherent as a religion, but also incompatible with certain societal developments.
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