Some hadith on apostasy


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A western paradise.
The hadith referenced here are Sahih Bukhari Volume 9, Book 84, 53-72. Here’s the link to these texts online:

Preliminary remarks:

- This is meant only to provide an outsider’s perspective to the problem, showing how one ordinary non-Muslim reads these texts. I’m hoping that it will be of some small use.

- At the outset, a non-Muslim notices several factors:

1. These hadith were compiled & edited roughly 200 years after the death of Muhammad, and by Iranians fairly remote from the events they report on.

2. The hadith or traditions themselves take place in a context of ongoing conflict if not all out war during the early stages of bringing the Arabian Peninsula under the banner of Islam.

3. The hadiths were assembled in the political context of legitimizing the Abbasid caliphate against its rivals & enemies of the day.
While respecting the scholarly methodology developed for the purpose, and the careful attention to isnod, any non-Muslim would naturally consider these contextual factors in any critical reading of these texts.

- Why a critical reading? This non-Muslim at least comes from a background that places a burden on every reader to read critically. To accept any text at face value, or filtered through some outside authority not only disrespects one’s personal autonomy but the texts themselves. As Islam itself maintains, trees, grass, mountains, rivers, and other natural phenomena are already in the state of Islam; choice is neither possible nor necessary. Human beings, on the other hand, must choose, and to make that choice they require autonomy.

- The hadith I’ve referenced turned up in a search of the Sahih Bukhari for traditions touching on apostasy. Based on these hadith, I’ll be looking at this question: does Islam teach the killing of apostates?

Main Commentary

First, the hadith that appear to justify killing:

Of the twenty hadith in this group, only four to my reading appear to in some way justify the killing of apostates. These are #57, #58, #64 & #67. Of the four, three involve Muhammad’s cousin Ali.

#57 has Ali burning atheists. It’s said that Muhammad when he heard this he disapproved of the method, since burning was reserved to Allah. But there’s no mention of Muhammad disapproving the killing itself.

Commentary on #57: This refers to atheists not apostates. As well, Muhammad is not represented as directly approving of the killing, but at most giving tacit approval. It begs the question: what if this is only a partial transcript, as it were? What if Muhammad had in fact condemned not just the method but also the murder? What if he meant that not only the method but also the punishment should be left to Allah?

#58 has one Mu’adh bin Jabal, just after leaving the presence of Muhammad, ordering the immediate killing of a Jew for backsliding from Islam.

Commentary to #58: This begs many questions of course. What is the real back-story? Was this Jew really killed merely for backsliding? At a time when, Jews, Christian, Pagans & Muslims were in conflict & turmoil, where there was much plotting, counter-plotting and changing of sides. Isn’t it just possible there’s more to this story?

#64 has Ali claiming Muhammad told him to kill apostates. Strangely he claims that he would rather fall down dead than ascribe a false statement to Muhammad, and then in the next breath says that he sometimes says what isn’t true to “cheat the enemy”.

#67 has one Abdullah questioning the justice of Muhammad’s distribution of alms. Umar wants to immediately cut off his head. Muhammad restrains him. The reasoning (if I follow) is that killing him will only make he and his companions appear more righteous. Fine so far. But then we’re told that later Ali killed the offender anyway, based on a description supplied (purposely?) by Muhammad.

Commentary on #57, #58, #64 & #67: Leaving aside the prominence of Ali, and the fact that he and the other companions are awfully quick on the trigger, the salient feature of all four hadith, is the indirect involvement of Muhammad. He approves at a tangent. It’s as if there’s some bad faith involved, as if the tradition wants Muhammad to approve these grisly killings, but at the same time wants to preserve his character as the merciful & compassionate Prophet. And so the ambiguity.

Now, I’m not suggesting a sentimentalized version of the Prophet Muhammad. He was a military commander as well as a preacher. He was by necessity well acquainted with killing. He sent people on raids, into battle, and as I understand it ordered some assassinations of particularly implacable ideological foes. But there’s a distinction to be made between killing under these rules of war, which Islam of course recognizes, and the kind of killing memorialized in these hadith. Here I suspect a purely sectarian, political motivation, seeking divine approval for purely human excess.

But let’s look at other hadith touching on apostasy.

Five of the referenced hadith, #53, #54, #55, #56 & #70, deal with idolatry. Now idolatry is a whole other problem in Islam, and certainly there’s some fierce language in the Qur’an on the topic, but other than the recent destruction of the Buddha statues by the Taliban, it’s not of immediate concern. The contemporary flashpoint is obviously between Islam and People of the Book. But the point here is that to the extent these hadith deal with apostasy at all they certainly do not prescribe the death penalty.

Four hadith, #65, #66, #68, #69, has Muhammad predicting coming apostasy or sectarian strife. None mandate death.

Hadith #59 has Abu Bakr authorizing the continued imposition of the zakat – this of course following Muhammad’s death and the subsequent backsliding of some tribes. So you might call this an authorization for the use of force. But it’s hardly a carte blanche to kill all non-ratepayers! Again, to the eyes of the ordinary reader, this has less to do with the Qur’an, Muhammad, or anything divine, but with simple politics & economics as usual.

Four hadith, #60, #61, #62 & #63, has Muhammad counselling forbearance. When some hostile Jews greet him with “death be upon you” he says, basically, “same to you!” In #63, in fact he counsels a forgiveness reminiscent of the Gospels.

Hadith #71 has Muhammad defending one Malik bin Ad-Dukshshun, who is accused of hypocrisy. They say he does not love “Allah and his Apostle”. Muhammad reminds them that this man does recognize that only Allah has the right to be worshipped, and that alone will save him come judgement day. Obviously, the point is that worship of Allah is the one thing needful; in the end not even literal adherence to the first pillar of Islam is necessary. (One senses as well a teaching point here on the part of Muhammad; his followers were obviously developing too much reverence for the person of the Prophet, forgetting the unbridgeable gap between the transcendent Allah and the mere messenger of Allah.)

Finally, hadith #72 has Muhammad offering extraordinary clemency to one Hatib bin Abi Balta’a. This man was plotting with Meccan pagans, but because he was merely trying to protect the interests of his family, and had previously served the cause well in the battle of Badr he was forgiven. The gesture was so noble in the context of tribal warfare that the companion Umar broke down in tears.

In conclusion

The key here is the picture of Muhammad that emerges from this group of hadith. The picture I have is not one that supports the vast ideology of apostasy enshrined in the legal schools, beginning with Hanbal. It’s not one that has Muhammad complicit in excessive repression, or unnecessary killing.

As a ordinary reader and non-Muslim, I have a strong suspicion of the companions, and of the compilers of hadith, and the natural interest they had in having Muhammad approve of acts & killings convenient to their purposes. Again, I’m not sentimentalizing Muhammad. He was a fully human being, acting in the world, and there is much dark business in time of war. But I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt, recognize his nobility, and not imprison him in the agendas of much lesser men.

In the end, Muhammad was a radical spirit in a very traditional society, and it seems to me that you can look at what he said about war, women, the family & society in one spirit or the other – in a radical spirit, or in the spirit of traditionalism. For me, as a non-Muslim, it seems to me that mainstream Islam has gone with traditionalism and forgotten the radical message of the Prophet.

You know, Christians, often ask the question, If Christ came back to day, what would he say?

In the same spirit, if Muhammad came back today, whose side would he be on? Would he be on the side of those who want to reconstitute the caliphate, reintroduce styles of dress for all Muslim women ultimately deriving not from the Prophet but from local custom? Would he be on the side of those who do not question tradition, but simple cut & paste hadith into their minds? Or would he be on the side of those who would encourage a new spirit of inquiry in Islam, who would encourage every Muslim to go beyond the mere imitation of the outer dress & actions of the Prophet to the inner meaning?

Again, I’m a mere outsider, but I think this Prophet of Allah, this husband of the grand Khadijah, the fierce Aisha, this breaker of moulds as well as idols, would be looking forward, not backward, would be helping to free Muslim women, not recapture them, would be looking for paths to peace, not justifying war.