February 18, 2005 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 208

Accusing Muslim Intellectuals of Apostasy

February 18, 2005 | By Aluma Dankowitz*
Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 208

Marking the 16th anniversary of the Fatwa calling for author Salman Rushdie's death issued by Ayatollah Khomeini, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards announced: "The day will finally come when the apostate Salman Rushdie will receive his due punishment for his disgraceful and slanderous move against the Qur'an and the Prophet [Muhammad]." Iran's Leader Ali Khamenei stressed that the death sentence following the publication of Rushdie's ' The Satanic Verses ' "is irrevocable." [1]

The accusation against Muslims - particularly intellectuals, artists, and writers - of "unbelief" (an accusation known as " takfir " ) recurs in the Muslim world. The traditional punishment for an apostate ( murtadd ) set in early Islam was capital punishment. This punishment was implemented on a large scale in the period following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, when Muhammad's successor Abu Bakr fought the ridda wars against the tribes that abandoned Islam. In modern Muslim history too, there are several cases of charges of apostasy against intellectuals who deviated from the dictates of Islamist circles.

Section 228 of Iran's Islamic Penal Code states that a "criminal" should be exonerated "if it is proven to the court that the blood of the victim was permitted." An example of the implementation of this law is the cash prize of over $2 million set for the murder of Salman Rushdie, who was accused of apostasy. Other prominent examples include the 1985 execution of Sudanese Sufi philosopherMuhammad Mahmoud Taha on charges of ridda and the 1992 assassination by Islamists, following similar accusations, of secular Egyptian intellectual Faraj Foda.When Muslim Brotherhood leader Sheikh Muhammad Al-Ghazaliwas asked for his view on this assassination, he simply said that "the sentence for ridda that the [country's] ruler refrained from carrying out has now been implemented." In 1994, Islamists made an attempt on the life of Egyptian Nobel Prize laureate Nagib Mahfouz. [2]

In other cases, conservative Muslim activists exploited the Hisbah law enabling anyone to file suit in a court of law against anyone else in the name of society. Thus, the charge of ridda was filed against several intellectuals; if found guilty, the court could force them to divorce their spouses [ tafriq ], because if one party to an Islamic marriage became an apostate, the marriage was nullified. Thus, in 1995 an Egyptian court forced Dr. Nasser Hamed Abu Zayd, an intellectual who had published critical research on the Koran, to separate from his wife. In 2001, a similar suit was filed against feminist Egyptian author Nawal Al-Sa'dawi;however, the prosecutor-general, who, according to a 1996 amendment, was the only one who could decide whether such a suit was warranted, rejected the claims against her.

Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi Advocates Implementing the Ridda Death Penalty

In an interview with the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram Al-Arabi, Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi, one of the most prominent clerics in Sunni Islam and among Islamist circles and a spiritual leader for the Muslim Brotherhood movement, discussed the view of modern religious law on carrying out the punishment for ridda, and permitted the murder of free Muslim intellectuals whose views differ from those of Islamist clerics.

Asked, "In Muslim society, has an individual the right to change his religion as he wishes?" Al-Qaradhawi drew a distinction between two types of ridda: "One of the freedoms that Islam does not accept is the freedom of ridda that expands [from the realm of the individual to that of the group] and threatens the social fabric and its foundations. [On the one hand,] there is limited ridda, and [on the other,] there is ridda that expands [from the individual to the group].

"Limited ridda is the ridda of the individual who switches religion and is not interested in others. According to Islam, the punishment for this individual is [Hell] in the world to come…

"But [the other] ridda,which expands [from the individual to the group], is a ridda in which the individual who abandons Islam calls [upon others] to do likewise, [thus creating] a group whose path is not the path of society and whose goal is not the goal of the [Muslim] nation, and whose allegiance is not to the Islamic nation. Such [individuals] endanger the social fabric, and they are like the murtaddoon [apostates],who were fought by [the first Caliph] Abu Bakr together with the Companions of the Prophet [the Sahaba]. Those murtaddoon falsely claimed that they were prophets with the same inspiration as was given to the Prophet Muhammad…"

Asked what the view of the modern Muslim sage should be about the danger of ridda, Al-Qaradhawi replied: "The gravest danger facing the Muslim is the one that threatens his spiritual existence – i.e., that threatens his belief. Therefore, apostasy, or unbelief after having been Muslim, is the gravest danger to society…

"In our generation, Muslim society has been subject to violent invasions and severe attacks aimed at uprooting it, and these were manifested by the invasion of Christian missionaries that began with Western colonialism and is continuing in the Islamic world and among the Islamic communities and minorities [outside the Muslim world] … [and by] the Communist invasion that destroyed entire Muslim countries in Asia and Europe and made every effort to eliminate Islam and remove it ultimately from people's lives … and by the third and worst invasion, the secular invasion that is continuing to this day in the heart of the Islamic world, sometimes openly and sometimes covertly, and which persecutes the true Islam…

"For Muslim society to preserve its existence, it must struggle against ridda from every source and in all forms, and it must not let it spread like wildfire in a field of thorns. This is what Abu Bakr and the companions did when they fought the people of ridda who followed the false prophets… There is no escape from struggling against and restricting the individual ridda so that it will not worsen and its sparks scatter, becoming group ridda… Thus, the Muslim sages agreed that the punishment for the murtadd [who commits ridda ] … is execution…" [3]

In his book ' Islam and Secularism,' Al-Qaradhawi explains: "The Muslim sages agreed unanimously that anyone who denies something that is known in the religion … is an apostate who abandons his religion. The Imam must demand of him to repent, and recant his deviation from the righteous path, or the laws regarding the murtadd will apply to him."

The progressive Egyptian intellectual Sayyed Al-Qimni, who cited the above quote in an article in the Egyptian weekly Roz Al-Yousef, explained what it meant: "According to Al-Qaradhawi, [the ridda ] punishment does not apply only to someone who decides freely to leave Islam for what satisfies his heart and his conscience – whether this be another religion or nothing at all. It applies in principle [also] to the Muslim who clings to the laws of his religion … but disagrees with those who have appointed themselves the priests of Islam and who call themselves religious sages … especially when the disputes concern the understanding of a particular matter in Islam … because [the priests of the religion] have determined that their understanding of the holy scriptures is the only [permitted] understanding and the absolute truth, and anything else is absolute falsehood… Any attempt at new thinking in reading the scriptures is thrust away [on the pretext] of [accusations of] abandoning the religion … and the punishment for new thought or expressing a different opinion is death." [4]

The issues of ridda, takfir, and tafriq are a constant concern in the Muslim world. The following are several recent cases.

Recent Egyptian Lawsuit: Forcing a Divorce upon an Intellectual

The latest affair to take Egypt by storm concerns statements by Egyptian author and TV writer Usama Anwar Ukasha, who slandered one of the Prophet's Companions, 'Amr ibn Al-'Aas, who commanded the forces that brought Islam to Egypt. Ukasha called him "the most contemptible figure in Islam" for causing divisiveness and internal conflict in Islam. Attorney Nabih Al-Wahsh, who in the past filed a suit against Egyptian author Nawal Al-Sa'dawi, filed a similar suit to separate Ukasha from his wife, claiming that by attacking ibn Al-'Aas, Ukasha had become a murtadd who had left the fold of Islam.

Egypt's shapers of public opinion are divided on the affair. For example, Dr. Abd Al-Sabour Shahin, lecturer on Islamic law at the University of Cairo, stated that Amr ibn Al-'Aas has an important place in Islam and therefore "we will not permit any secularist to deride him." He expressed support for legal measures against Ukasha in order to put an end to the harming of the Prophet's Companions and as a deterring measure against the distortion of the image of Islam heroes.

In contrast, Islamic intellectual Gamal Al-Bana,the brother of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood movement Hassan Al-Bana, firmly rejected all demands to ostracize any individual or to make charges of apostasy, arguing that criticizing the Companions of the Prophet was legitimate. He said: "The lawsuits we are seeing today to ostracize and prevent [different] ideas recall previous eras. We must understand that Islam has given man freedom of thought. Islam's history proves that no one is immune to error except the Prophet. The Companions of the Prophet made errors, and therefore it is not right for them to be exempt from criticism. This doesn't give us the right to curse any of the Companions of the Prophet or anyone else, or harm their belief, but it does permit us to describe their deeds in political terms. It is known that 'Amr ibn Al-'Aas has a controversial political history; therefore, there is nothing to prevent us from opposing him from the historical point of view." [5]

Islamist Circles: Sunna Deniers Who Oppose the Sunna as a Source of Religious Rulings Are Apostates

Gamal Al-Banna himself recently made headlines when the Islamic Research Institute of Al-Azhar University in Cairo banned his book, ' The Responsibility for the Failure of the Islamic State '. [6] His name also appeared in a detailed study against " Sunna deniers" that was posted on the Muslim website, the motto of which is "Life in the Way of the Prophet Is Harder than Death for His Sake" and which encourages Muslims to devote themselves to Allah in accordance with the Koran and the Sunna.

The study reviewed the history of Sunna denial that began in the second century of Islam (the eighth century CE), which sees the Koran as the only source of Islamic legislation and rejects the Sunna as an additional source for religious rulings. The study presents the various groups that rejected the Sunna, in part or in whole: the Shi'a, the Khawarij, [7] the Mu'tazila, [8] and the Orientalists. It goes on to review the development of Sunna denial in different countries, and discusses the important centers of Sunna denial in India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and Egypt.

The study also focuses on the main figures who advocated and still advocate this approach, including the prominent reformists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Egyptian scholar Muhammad Abdu (d. 1905) and his disciple, Syrian scholar Muhammad Rashid Rida (d. 1935); Egyptian writers Taha Hussein (d. 1973), Ahmad Amin (d. 1954); Tawfiq Al-Hakim (d. 1987); Libyan ruler Mu'ammar Qaddafi; former Al-Azhar University lecturer, fired for his anti- Sunna views, Ahmad Subhi Mansour; and liberal Syrian intellectual Muhammad Shahrour.

Following its comprehensive review of Sunna denial, the study determines that the doubts raised by opponents of the Sunna, past and present, should be studied and that it must be clarified that they are all disproved, and that their writings must all be subjected to a thorough examination; further, they must all be decreed apostates ( irtidad ) and Allah's laws must be applied, with the knowledge of the judicial system. The punishment for introducing forbidden innovations into Islam must be applied to those who oppose the proper Islamic traditions, and they must atone or be condemned. In addition, a world association for those wishing to defend the Sunna must be created. [9]

A similar view was expressed by Al-Azhar University member Sheikh Mahmoud 'Ashour, who stated in an interview with the Egyptian paper Al-Masri Al-Yawm: "Anyone who calls to rely on the Koran alone and ignore the Sunna of the Prophet is an apostate and has left the fold of Islam, because he has denied a definitely known [aspect] of the religion. Further, he is denying half of the religion, because the Prophet said: 'I have left for you something that if you cling to it you will never err after [my death] – [that is,] Allah's book [the Koran] and my Sunna.' The Sunna of the Prophet illuminates and interprets what the Koran says. It also includes matters that do not appear in the Koran, such as the way of prayer, pilgrimage, giving charity, and the rest of the commandments between man and Allah, and the rest of life's affairs. Anyone who says that the Sunna should be ignored is beyond doubt an apostate." [10]

Reformists: The Koranic Texts Are the Sole Authentic Source; There Should Be No Monopoly on the Interpretation of the Holy Text; Ijtihad Must Be Renewed in Line with the Present Century

The issue of rejection of the Sunna as a source of legislation was discussed in a workshop on "Islam and Reform," held in Cairo on October 5-6, 2004. The workshop's concluding statement stressed "the importance of implementing both religious and political reforms in order to achieve comprehensive reform." It called "for creating a new intellectual context for Islamic thought based on clear assumptions and unity that will take into account all the changes in Muslim society throughout the past 11 centuries." To this end, the statement said, there must be "a profound reexamination of Islamic heritage, including all the Islamic sciences established during the past three centuries of Islam – Koran commentary, the Hadith [Islamic traditions], the roots of the religion, and religious law," and "reliance on the Koranic texts as the only authentic source for the purpose of reexamining all of Islamic heritage."

The concluding statement further called for "confronting all the institutions that claim a monopoly on the religion and on the proper interpretation of the holy text [the Koran]. Instead, there is [a need for] a new trend that will establish everyone's right [to implement] Ijtihad, under the banner of Islamic reform that is right for this century." [11]

The concluding statement was signed by leading progressives and reformists in the Arab and Islamic world: Dr. Sa'd Al-Din Ibrahim, chairman of the Ibn Khaldun Center in Cairo; Egyptian intellectual Gamal Al-Banna; Egyptian intellectual Dr. Sayyed Al-Qimni; Syrian intellectual Muhammad Shahrour; Dr. Radhwan Masmoudi, executive director of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in the U.S.; Dr. Najah Kadhim, director of the Islamic Forum for Islamic Dialogue in Britain; Sharifa Macarandas, president of the Mindanao Women's League, the Philippines; Tunisian intellectual Salah Al-Din Al-Jurashi; Dr. 'Abd Al-Hamid Al-Ansari, former director of the Faculty of Shari'a Law, Qatar University; Dr. Fabyola Badawi, director of the European Arabian Union for Democracy and Dialogue in France; and Abdallah Ali Sabri, editor-in-chief of the Yemenite Saut Al-Shura daily.

The workshop and its recommendations enraged Egypt's religious establishment. In statements to the Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai Al-'Aam, the Sheikh of Al-Azhar Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi said that the workshop had sounded "an explicit call to deny the Sunna of the Prophet, and the Al-Azhar [establishment] and [Egyptian] society rejects this." He added, "These centers [whose representatives participated in the workshop] have a destructive influence on Egyptian society, and [their activity] must be stopped and [their representatives] must be brought to trial… This is an explicit call to abandon the main source from among the sources of religious law in Islam – the Sunna of the Prophet. This is a danger that some of [our] foreign enemies are interested [in promoting]." [12]

In response to Sheikh Tantawi's statements, the Ibn Khaldun Center issued a communiqué arguing that it was not seeking to abolish the Sunna of the Prophet, but calling to issue religious rulings based solely on the Koran when disputes arose. In answer to Sheikh Tantawi's statement that the workshop participants were "a group of separatists, one of whom was in the past charged with treason," the communiqué explained that Tantawi was obviously referring to a case against Dr. Sa'd Al-Din Ibrahim and the Ibn Khaldun Center employees, and clarified that Dr. Sa'd Al-Din Ibrahim had not been charged with treason but with other false charges and the Egyptian Supreme Court had found him and the center's employees innocent.

The communiqué asked: "Is the Al-Azhar Sheikh entitled to accuse some of the Muslim intellectuals of separating from Islam? Doesn't that mean accusing us of apostasy and endangering our lives? Weren't similar charges responsible for the assassination of Faraj Foda, and for the assassination attempt on the world-renowned author Nagib Mahfouz? We call on Al-Azhar not to descend to the path of takfir taken by the violent and extremist groups…" [13]

About a month after the workshop,Al-Azhar Sheikh Tantawi again attacked the Sunna deniers who see the Koran as the sole source for religious rulings, calling them "ignoramuses, liars, and hypocrites" and warning the public not to listen to their views, which were aimed at fomenting confusion. In statements delivered on November 5, 2004 at a conference organized by the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, Sheikh Tantawi said, "The attack on the Sunna is a means employed by the enemies of Islam for the [upcoming] attack on the Koran, because the Sunna is only a clarification of the laws appearing in the Koran… Thus, anyone who raises doubts about the prophetic Sunna as a source of legislation is acting according to a plan that is hostile to Islam… We have no life, future, or greatness among the societies except by clinging to the Koran and the Sunna. It is incumbent upon us all to stand in one rank and in one thought against anyone who attacks and denies the Sunna, because the laws [regarding matters] between man and Allah are not correct without the Sunna that explains in detail the rules and clarifies the things that are important." [14]

The Critical Approach to the Koran Is Also Considered Apotasy

Islamic circles refer to the critical or scientific approach to the Koran as apostasy as well. For example, a weekly talk show on the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV channel dealt with removing certain Koranic verses from the school curricula in Arab and Muslim countries. Al-Azhar University lecturer Ibrahim Al-Khuli accused a program guest, the progressive author and journalist Shaker Al-Nabulsi, of denying Allah, and said that he should be expelled from the fold of the Muslim community.

Speaking by phone from the U.S., Dr. Nabulsi stated: "There should be a distinction between the Koranic chapters concerning belief, most of which were revealed in Mecca during the first 10 years [of the Prophet Muhammad's activity] and the chapters dealing with legislation or the life of the Prophet and his relations with his wives and his Companions and so on. That is, there are chapters that cut across history, and these are the verses revealed at Mecca … and there are circumstantial verses of legislation that were revealed at Al-Madina as a result of events that took place 1,400 years ago and which are no longer in existence. Frankly, there are many verses that we call political and military verses, that is, 'verses of the sword,' that are connected to circumstances that existed in the past but exist no longer. The verses revealed at Mecca, about the Jews, the Christians, and the People of the Book, for example … were usually verses of support for them, but the verses concerning the Jews and Christians at the stages of the revelation at Al-Madina were contrary to these verses. Why? Because the verses revealed at Al-Madina were the result of the changing political relations [of the People of the Book and] the Muslims…

"Politics are fluid, not static; therefore, the laws built on a political foundation are also subject to movement, and are not static. On the contrary, most of the verses revealed at Al-Madina regarding this matter [the People of the Book] contradict each other…

"What is happening now in the Arab world [the debate over removing Koranic verses from the school curricula] is not the removal of the permanent verses of belief that cross history, but an attempt not to emphasize or teach the circumstantial verses that incite to accusing the other of apostasy and to hatred of the other. Why was [the Second Caliph] Omar ibn Khattab, 1,400 years ago, more courageous than us when he eliminated [even] the verses connected to the heart of the faith, not [only] circumstantial verses… Why was Omar ibn Khattab capable of doing this 1,400 years ago, while today [Ibrahim] Al-Khuli calls anyone who eliminates any verse or chapter of the Koran an apostate…?"

Ibrahim Al-Khuli rejected Al-Nabulsi's statements out of hand, saying "He doesn't understand [Caliph] Omar, and he spoke nonsense that is unworthy of a response. Neither Omar nor any of the Sahaba ever dared to eliminate even a single letter of the Koran. What changed was the circumstances of the implementation [of the words of the Koran]…"

According to Al-Khuli, "Al-Nabulsi and Nasr [Hamid] Abu Zayd and their gangs speak of the historic aspect of Koranic scripture… Nasr Abu Zayd went so far as to say that the Koran is a human text that developed and crystallized, and is a cultural product. This is a lie, [and therefore] the Egyptian court's sentence regarding him was the sentence of ridda – and had he not left Egypt he would have been executed… Al-Nabulsi is not worth holding a discussion with, or of me mentioning him. He lied when he said that there are Koranic verses that contradict one another. When you say that in the Koran there are verses contradicting one another, you commit apostasy, and you leave the fold of the [Muslim] community through its widest gate. I take responsibility for these words." [15]

* A. Dankowitz is Director of MEMRI's Reform Project.

[1] IRNA (Iran), February 12, 2005.

[2] See article by liberal Tunisian intellectual Lafif Lakhdar,, July 1, 2003.

[3] Al-Ahram Al-Arabi (Egypt), July 3, 2004.

[4] Roz Al-Yusouf (Egypt), September 17, 2004.

[5] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 19, 2004.

[6] Al-Hayat, London, September 9, 2004.

[7] Khawarij, the first religious opposition in Islam, was formed when a group of Muslims left the camp of the Fourth Caliph 'Ali bin Abu Taleb at the Battle of Sifin in 657.

[8] Mu'tazila, a theoretical rationalistic stream of the 9th and 10th centuries, sought to set out the principles of religious faith in logical and rational formulae.


[10] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), October 25, 2004, as cited in Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), October 26, 2004.

[11] Ijtihad, or using individual judgment, was suspended in the 10th century by a consensus of ulema (Islamic clerics), and its resumption has not been permitted since. For the full text of the recommendations, see

[12] Al-Rai Al-'Aam (Kuwait), October 8, 2004.


[14] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, November 7, 2004.

[15] Al-Jazeera TV, Qatar, October 5, 2004.

Share this Report:

Help Fight Extremism - Support MEMRI

MEMRI is a 501(c)3 organization. All donations are tax-deductible and kept strictly confidential.