What is the Law of Apostacy?
"Apostasy" is not a word we hear much today. What, in fact, does it mean?
According to Webster, an apostate is one who forsakes his religion, creed,
or political party for another. In our pluralistic society, the word smacks
of bigotry and judgmentalism, and conflicts with the ideals of multi-culturalism,
human rights, religious freedom, and the like. In the church as well,
we tend to shy away from the word, even though we do not lack for those
who are "apostate" for all intents and purposes.
In Islam, by contrast, the word is still in vogue. Islam claims
to be din wa-dawla, that is, both religion and state, and apostasy
therefore has political overtones. A non-Muslim is free to accept
or reject Islam, but a Muslim is NOT free to forsake Islam; that
is a crime equivalent to sedition, and punishable by law. In classical
Islamic Law, the man loses all civil rights, his marriage is annulled,
he is put to death unless he recants within a specified time (the
woman is imprisoned until she recants), his body may not be buried
in a Muslim cemetery, the reward of his good deeds is lost, and
he is doomed to eternal hell-fire. When the Muslim World was ruled
by colonial powers, however, Islamic Law more or less fell into
disuse and the Law of Apostasy was infrequently applied.
What about today, now that the Muslim world is once again politically
independent? Most Muslim countries have adopted more or less Western-style
constitutions, which, whether from UN or other Western influence,
often include specific guarantees of religious liberty. Is then
the criminalization of apostasy a thing of the past? Far from
it! Earlier this year, a Palestinian Christian jurist who teaches
Law in Europe wrote an article which shows among other things
that, despite the constitutional guarantees, the Law of Apostasy
is still very much in effect.
A country's penal code, for example, may say nothing of a penalty for
apostasy, but the Law of Apostasy is still applied. In Islamic Law, any
Muslim may drag an apostate into court, and if nothing is done, some legal
authorities permit him to take the Law into his own hands to execute sentence.
Muslim governments, under increasing pressure from radical Islam, are
often loathe to bring such killers to justice. Thus, one way or another,
people are increasingly being killed for apostasy. Not only is the martyrdom
of Christians of Muslim background on the rise, but the definition of
apostasy is being stretched to include anything radical Muslims consider
an attack on Islam, whether or not the person has embraced another religion.
Many a Muslim thinker has been assassinated for "apostasy" because he
displeased some radical Muslim group.
What does the New Testament say about apostasy? Interestingly, the word
occurs only in Acts 21:21 and 2 Thess. 2:3, where it is translated "turning
away" and "rebellion." Nowhere is it considered a crime punishable by
law for the simple reason that Jesus made the realms of God and of Caesar
separate. Now there was a truly revolutionary idea.
Arab World Ministries
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