Originally published in the Express Tribune
I read a fellow blogger’s post on why she agrees with Sam Harris and Bill Maher. I am sure the writer has her heart in the right place and I completely agree with her principal argument – that the Muslim world needs serious introspection and reform. Except this is not the argument Maher and Harris put forth. They believe that the Islamic faith, not just extremist Muslims, needs reform.
Academically speaking, Islam is defined by the Quran and the Sunnah, the practice of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). It is not defined by what the ISIS or some ‘Muslim government’ endorses. Nor is it defined by what 64% of Egyptian Muslims (compared to the 2% of Bosnian and Turkish Muslims that agree with apostasy laws) think. Regrettably, Maher and Harris judge Islam by the latter standard. And this is where they go wrong.
To make my point, let us test Maher and Harris on the issue that was central to that heated debate on Maher’s show.
Maher alleges that Islam is the only religion that kills you for disagreeing with it or for leaving it. In other words, he singles out Islam for endorsing the apostasy laws. Harris agrees with Maher and further adds that Muslims, like me, who reject apostasy laws are “nominal Muslims” who “do not take Islam seriously.”
In my detailed debate, with a fellow new atheist on this issue of the apostasy laws, I show how extreme anti-Islam critics and extremist Muslims hold the same flawed narrative on Islam. On the contrary, the Quran and Sunnah and the majority “moderate” Muslims stand on the other side.
The Quran, for instance, says, explicitly states that there is no compulsion in religion (2:256) and for people to let those who believe, believe and those who disbelieve, disbelieve (18:29). What can be a clearer endorsement of the freedom of religion and conscience? The Quran upholds these values in explicit irrefutable terms, the only way one can deny this is by resorting to interpretations by extremist clergy. This is why when I presented these verses to another new atheist, as proof of the Quran’s literal endorsement of freedom of conscience, he replied,
“But there is a verse concerning dealing with ‘renegades’ that could be interpreted as punishing apostates.”
Ignoring a clear injunction of the Quran and leaning on extreme interpretations by extremist clerics is why Harris and Maher, and extremist clerics, are wrong in this debate. The fact is that there is not a single verse in the Quran that endorses apostasy laws. Harris himself has admitted to this in the past. Apostasy is mentioned twelve times in the Quran. In all of these instances, freedom of conscience, in line with the Quran’s explicit stance on the issue, is upheld. For example, the Quran says that if they (disbelievers) submit then they follow the right way, but if they turn back, only the responsibility of the delivery of the message lies on you (3:20). There is no compulsion anywhere. A few other verses reiterating the same principle are 3:145, 4:137, 5:55, 16:107.
So, when Maher says Islam is the ‘only faith’ that upholds apostasy laws, he is either genuinely ignorant of the Quran or deliberately misleading his viewers. Because the fact is that while the Bible upholds apostasy laws, the Quran unequivocally rejects them.
It must be remembered well that the Quran is the primary and supreme source of jurisprudence in Islam. The practice of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), the Sunnah, is second in line. Both leave no doubt that apostasy is not a punishable offense at all, let alone by death. Any counter narration or any counter interpretation of any scholar or cleric, let alone that of extremists, stands void when pitched against the Quran. Presenting such statements as evidence superseding the Quran only hurts the academic credibility of the critic, exposes their weak understanding of Islamic jurisprudence and bares their biases.
So dear Sam Harris, I am not a “nominal Muslim” for rejecting the apostasy laws. Those who uphold these laws, in defiance of the Quran’s stance on freedom of conscience, are the ones who are “nominal.”
That said, I agree with Harris on one thing; he affirms that those who reject apostasy laws are Islam’s reformers. I thank Harris for considering me a reformer. There are hundreds of millions of us reformers who chose to read the Quran as a whole rather than rely on the (mis)interpretations of extremist clerics. Maybe Maher could call one of us to a future debate on Islam.
I strongly believe that Harris and Maher have all the right to criticise Islam. However, projecting the extremists as true Muslims and rejecting us reformers as “nominal” amounts to bigotry and bias. Instead of forcing us to give up the Quran, the duo should applaud us for reforming the rest of the Muslim world because, as we just demonstrated, it is not Islam, but parts of the Muslim world that need reform.