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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Harvard's Islamic chaplain: "great wisdom" in death penalty for apostates

Harvard University's Islamic chaplain (there are other chaplains there, of other flavours) has created controversy by giving pastoral advice to the effect that there "is great wisdom" in the traditional teaching that apostates should be punished with death. Taha Abdul-Basser advised a student by email in the following terms, which I am quoting in full to avoid any criticism that I am taking the remarks out of context:


I am familiar with these types of discussions.

While I understand that will happen and that there is some benefit in them, in the main, it would be better if people were to withhold from _debating_ such things, since they tend not to have the requisite familiarity with issues and competence to deal with them.

Debating about religious matter is impermissible, in general, and people rarely observe the etiquette of disagreements.

There are a few places on the Net where one can find informed discussions of this issue (Search ["Abdul Hakim Murad"|Faraz Rabbani" AND "apostasy"]) . The preponderant position in all of the 4 sunni madhahib (and apparently others of the remaining eight according to one contemporary `alim) is that the verdict is capital punishment.

Of concern for us is that this can only occur in the_domain and under supervision of Muslim governmental authority and can not be performed by non-state, private actors._

Some contemporary thought leaders have emphasized the differing views (i.e. not capital punishment) that a few fuqaha’ in the last few centuries apparently held on this issue, including reportedly the senior Ottoman religious authority during the Tanzimat period and Al-Azhar in the modern period. Still others go further and attempt to elaborate on the argument that the indicants (such as the hadith: (whoever changes his religion, execute him) used to build the traditional position apply only to treason in the political sense and therefore in the absence of a political reality in which apostasy is both forsaking the community and akin to political treasons in the modern sense, the indicants do not indicate capital punishment.

I am not aware of `Allama Taqiy al-Din Ibn Taymiya’s position on this issue but much is attributed to him by both detractors and supporters so one should be wary of accepting things attributed to him without asking experts. Perhaps you can ask Ustadh Sharif el-Tobgui or Shaykh Yasir Qadhi (I am copying both), both of whom are Ibn Taymiya specialists.

I would finally note that there is great wisdom (hikma) associated with the established and preserved position (capital punishment) and so, even if it makes some uncomfortable in the face of the hegemonic modern human rights discourse, one should not dismiss it out of hand. The formal consideration of excuses for the accused and the absence of Muslim governmental authority in our case here in the North/West is for dealing with the issue practically.

And Allah knows best.

Wa s-salam.


Before I go on, let's be fair to Abdul-Basser. He was responding in a private email to a question put to him by a student, after some discussion of the issue among Muslim students on campus. He did not go public, seeking to create controversy. He discusses the fact that different views have been expressed by scholars in the Muslim tradition, and emphasises that the penalty of death can be carried out, rightly, only by a Muslim government, not by private individuals. He was not inciting his students to kill anyone, and nor should he be seen as supporting terrorism or as being, himself, a potential terrorist. Rather, the email looks like someone who is trying to have it both ways - objecting to acts of violence against apostates in the circumstances of contemporary America, while not wishing to denounce traditional Muslim teachings.

Given all that, I'm not interested in condemning him as potentially violent; I don't believe he is. Nor am I calling for his sacking. He was, of course, naive to think that counsel to students on such a controversial issue could remain private, but he was doubtless doing his best to take a low-key approach to the issue brought to him. Whatever else you might call it, the email is not the rantings of an Islamist firebrand.

All that said, Abdul-Basser's eventual position is that "the established and preserved position", that apostates should be executed, contains "great wisdom". Even though there are other positions that have been advanced by (a minority of) Muslim jurists, he is unwilling to criticise what he obviously sees as the mainstream view in Islam.

Abdul-Basser acknowledges that the "established and preserved position" is difficult to accept in the modern world, but he phrases this in terms that might set off alarm bells. He says that the position "makes some uncomfortable in the face of the hegemonic modern human rights discourse". So, concepts such as the freedom to renounce a religion are referred to, somewhat with a sneer, as "hegemonic modern human rights discourse"; this "hegemonic" discourse is evidently something to be treated with caution, even resisted, while giving greater deference to traditional Islamic "wisdom".

While Abdul-Basser is clearly not about to kill anybody, and is not encouraging his students to do so, he is certainly not supporting the legal right of Muslims to convert to another religion, or to an irreligious worldview. It seems clear that he would support the imposition of capital punishment for apostasy in a Muslim state. To say the least, he does not agree with the freedom of individuals to form their own comprehensive worldviews based on what seems to them to be true.

I'm putting this carefully, since it is emphatically not my aim to paint Abdul-Basser as a dangerous fanatic. I merely seek to point out that the Islamic chaplain at Harvard University - clearly a very cultured, highly-educated, and thoughtful man - has a view of the world that is extraordinarily illiberal by Western standards. However you twist it, he approves of the idea of a theocratic Muslim state in which apostasy is punishable by death. As far as I know, he has not called for such states to be created in the West, but the fact that such a man in such a position has such a viewpoint doesn't bode well. It doesn't encourage trust in the ability of Islam to adapt itself to liberal ways of thinking that emphasise freedom of thought, belief, and conscience.

Often, people who express concerns about the compatibility of Islam with modernity, social pluralism, and individual liberty are accused of something akin to racism - of so-called "Islamophobia". That accusation is a dangerous one to make, since it can intimidate people of good will into holding their peace and refusing to say anything critical of Islam or its traditions and associated practices. It is not comfortable discussing these things, knowing that the slightest error of fact or judgment can lead to something like a charge of racism - perhaps the second most damaging, and personally painful, accusation that can be levelled against anyone in a contemporary Western society (exceeded only by an accusation of pedophilia).

So, I'm being careful. Whether I'm careful enought remains to be seen. What we have here with Abdul-Basser is just one data point. I'm definitely not claiming anything as strong as the need for a war (even of ideas) against Islam, or that we are involved in a clash of civilisations, or that Muslims cannot be good citizens in a liberal society (accepting something like a Rawlsian framework from the standpoint of their own comprehensive worldview).

I do, however, think that the jury is out on how quickly and readily Islam can accommodate itself to liberal ideas and a liberal political framework. Does it have the resources to join whole-heartedly in a society where individuals may choose freely between many religious and philosophical viewpoints? In that respect, it's pleasing that a number of Muslim students at Harvard appear to have condemned the views of their chaplain, but disquieting that most of them thought better of revealing their identities.


WhySharksMatter said...

I'm reminded of the quote by Harvard civil rights attorney and Israel advocate Alan Dershowitz... "Thank God Israel only has to make peace with the Palestinians and not the Middle Eastern Studies Department at Columbia University. At least SOME of the Palestinians are reasonable".

george.w said...

Thanks for posting the whole letter. I wonder how much this man believes himself a representative of Islam on Harvard's campus.

He probably wouldn't be fazed by the accusation, "Freedom: ur doin' it rong!" It doesn't look as if he has any interest in freedom.

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