“Whoever changes his Islamic faith, then kill him.”
“O ye who believe! Ask not questions about things which, if made plain to you, may cause you trouble. But if ye ask about things when the Qur’an is being revealed, they will be made plain to you, Allah will forgive those: for Allah is Oft- forgiving, Most Forbearing. Some people before you did ask such questions, and on that account lost their faith.”
—Quran 5:101 – 5:102
There is a story brought to us by the authoritative compiler of hadith, Mohamed al-Bokhari, in which we hear of an apostate who was burned alive by some Muslims. After this happened, a man came to Ali (a close companion of Muhammad) and relayed the tale. Ali was upset, not because a man had been burned alive for changing religions, but because the killers had used fire: “God’s punishment.”
It is perhaps disturbing to the faithful that in today’s world, if left to their own devices, Muslims living outside their cultural wellspring might find ideas in other cultures appealing. In the West, any Muslim who innately respects the rights of LGBT folks and free-speech will immediately be put into a position of having to reconcile the obvious discrepancies with what they actually believe is right, and what their faith demands of them. Luckily, there are a few ways around this issue. From the perspective of religious authorities, I have organized these in order of most to least desirable:
- As you are living in a foreign land, it is not your place to judge or make the rules.
- Shove any discrepancies to the back of your mind: focus on your studies and career.
- Change your faith to one that does not jeopardize your morality.
- Leave god-worship: become an agnostic or (gasp) an atheist.
Depending on how “fundamentalist” the observer, any of the above could constitute shirk (disbelief in God and his Oneness). As Islam’s mandate goes: shirk is a grievous act and Islam’s one unforgivable sin. Committing shirk will guarantee the perpetrator an eternity in Hell.
To put the sin of shirk in context, allow me to talk about murder. Murder is an outrageous sin for which the punishment is death. However, once you received this weighty punishment in the “here-and-now,” you have in a sense paid your dues. Thus, you would not automatically be disqualified from consideration for entering Heaven.
Of course, Islam is not meant (or intended) to stamp out inquiry in general. A common rebuttal by Muslims to anyone claiming this is to repeat a popular Islamic saying: “Seek knowledge, even if it is in (as far as) China.”
However, what Muslims fail to point out is that this saying refers only to secular pursuits and the sciences; not to matters of belief.
Even so, Free inquiry in religious matters does exist and has at various points in history existed in more, as well as less, restrictive parameters. The unfortunate point is that the basic tenets of Islam are absolutely and forever beyond question. Islam’s idea of free-thinking thus comes with a rather weighty caveat. It can be said that if the pursuit of inquiry is limited by theological considerations, then the whole enterprise is made into a mockery and loses its raison d’etre.
So then, in a sense, free-thinking (or, to use a less atheistically-charged term: thinking) is viewed as a slippery slope which, if not closely monitored, can lead to shirk. Islamic authorities should indeed be worried. Often enough, one free to pursue their own thoughts and doubts will not always lead to the “desired outcome.”
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Special thanks to Andrew Hall who runs the Patheos blog Laughing in Disbelief!