Without doubt, according to the major monotheistic religions (Islam, Christianity and Judaism), apostasy is a major sin. Most other religions would probably have the same viewpoint; otherwise, if the follower can exit the religion with full impunity, in this life and in the hereafter, then the core values cannot have any real significance. Being indifferent to apostasy implies a lack of conviction in the fundamental values; this axiom is applicable to religious and secular apostasy.
Whilst there is concurrence on apostasy being a sin, there are differences in terms of the punishment prescribed for such actions, and each religion deal with the issue in accordance with the laws prescribed. However, can any religion really prescribe punishment for apostasy in the first place, given that all religions encourage apostasy of non-believers?
By rational necessity, any religion endorses its viewpoint as being the only option; otherwise, it would struggle to justify its own existence. Therefore, the de facto position is that all religions, implicitly or explicitly, encourage non-believers to become apostates of their respective religion. Indeed, all the converts to any religion are apostates of their former religion or beliefs. The prophet (saw) of Islam encouraged the pagan Arabs, Christians and Jews to apostatize from their old religion, as did the early Christians within the Roman Empire, and all the Christian and Muslim activists around the world continue to operate on the same principle today. It is inconsistent to expect other religions to permit apostasy with impunity, and concurrently use punishment to prevent apostasy from within.
Furthermore, in the early period of revelation in Makkah, Islamic texts challenged the non-believers in various ways, and asked them to reflect and come to the truth. It is asking the non-believers to engage the mind, and ‘select’ the right religion, meaning that people should be free to become apostates of their former religion and should not be persecuted for that. Hence, the criticism of the pagans for persecuting the early believers is well established within the Islamic literature; otherwise the pagans were right to punish the early Muslims.
A challenge implies it’s a two-way process, where the playing field should be level, the rules should apply equally to both sides; thus, one can win the argument and attract followers, and concurrently there is also the possibility that one can lose the argument and some followers. Otherwise, it is not a challenge but a direct order to non-believers to become Muslims; however, that would not make any sense as there would be no jurisdiction over the non-believers in the first place.
Therefore, to punish apostates would seem contradictory to its message of challenging others to enter the religion of Islam or Christianity or any religion, compounded by the fact that all religions thrive on apostasy from other religions.
However, according to the old Biblical laws, the punishment for any form of apostasy is death. In the chapter of Deuteronomy 13:6-9 it states:
"If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying: Let us go and worship other gods, do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him. You must certainly put him to death."
The Church used to burn heretics at the stake, which culminated in the formation of the brutal Inquisition. This was not confined to the Catholics and the Pope. In 1553, John Calvin, the founder of the Calvinist movement burnt the Spanish physician, Michael Servetus, at the stake for doctrinal heresies.
With the rise of secularism, the church was divested of its powers, and can no longer carry out executing penal codes for apostasy. Moreover, it would be problematic to reconcile this with the central message of “loving your enemy”, and by definition a Christian apostate would be considered one, more so if the apostate was belligerent.
Under Islamic law, there are differences in terms of the punishment prescribed for the various forms of apostasy, and in the next article, the textual evidences are scrutinised in more detail.
Yamin Zakaria (email@example.com, http://twitter.com/#yaminzakaria)
London, UK (www.radicalviews.org, http://yaminzakaria.blogspot.com)