Muslim Scholars Speak Out


On Jihad, Apostasy and Women



The concept of “jihad” has different meanings and a scholar such as Jalal ad-Dîn as-Suyutî (15th century), while studying its scope, highlighted 80 different dimensions, uses and objectives related to its place in Islamic teachings. Its root “ja-ha-da” means “making an effort”, “exerting oneself” in order to promote good or to resist wrongdoing, evil or oppression. Every individual trying to resist her/his own negative temptations is engaged in “jihad” and the first time the word is used in the Qur’an (25:52), it refers to an intellectual and spiritual resistance by the means of the Qur’an itself.

In all its dimensions, the essence of “jihad” is “to resist” in the name of justice and dignity. When there is an armed aggression, Muslims have the right to protect themselves and to defend their rights. Here “jihâd” means “qitâl” (armed struggle). The use of violence and weapons must be adjusted to the nature of the aggression itself: an armed aggression may justify an armed resistance if there is no other way to come to a peaceful agreement. But the use of violence and weapons must be proportionate and never target innocent people, women, children, the elderly, and even fruit trees as Abû Bakr, the first successor of the Prophet, stated following Muhammad’s teachings. Jihad never means “holy war” in order “to impose” or “to propagate” Islam everywhere. In fact jihâd and qitâl mean exactly the opposite of what we commonly think: rather than being the justifying instruments of war, they are the imposed measures to achieve peace by resisting an unjust aggression.

In specific situations – when one faces an army and has no weapons or other means to resist – it may be understandable and justifiable to consider sacrificing one’s life in attempts to reach the armed soldiers. Here we are not far from a kind of suicide but it is related to three specific conditions: 1. It must be in a time of declared war; 2. when no other means of resisting are available; 3. the targets must be exclusively the army of the enemies and its armed soldiers. Today’s suicide bombers who are killing innocent people are not only not respecting the Islamic teachings as to the ethics of war but are in fact indulging in anti-Islamic actions.




In the Islamic legal tradition, “apostasy” known as “ridda” is related to changing one’s religion and its injunction is mainly based on two prophetic sayings (ahadith) both quoted in sahih Bukhari (9,83 and 84): “The one who changes his religion, kill him” and another tradition noting that among the three categories of people who can be killed is “the one who leaves the community”. The great majority of the Muslim scholars, from all the different traditions and throughout history, have been of the opinion that changing one’s religion is prohibited in Islam and should be sanctioned by the death penalty.

Nevertheless we find, in very early studies and writings, several Muslim scholars having a different approach. The jurist Ibrahîm al-Nakha’î (8th), Sufyân ath-Thawrî (8th) in his renowned work on the prophetic tradition (Al-Jâmi’ al Kabîr, Al-Jâmi’ al-Saghîr) as well as the hanafi jurist Shams ad-Dîn as-Sarakhsî (11th) – among others- hold other views. They question the absolute authenticity of the two prophetic traditions quoted above. They also argue that nothing is mentioned in the Qur’an pertaining to this very sensitive issue and add that there is no evidence of the Prophet killing someone only because he/she changed his/her religion.

The Prophet took firm measures, only in time of war, against people who had falsely converted to Islam for the sole purpose of infiltrating the Islamic community to obtain information they then passed on to the enemy. They were in fact betrayers engaging in high treason who incurred the penalty of death because their actions were liable to bring about the destruction of the Muslim community and the two prophetic traditions quoted above should be read in this very specific context.

In light of the texts (Qur’an and prophetic traditions) and the way the Prophet behaved with the people who left Islam (like Hishâm and ‘Ayyash) or who converted to Christianity (such as Ubaydallah ibn Jahsh), it should be stated that one who changes her/his religion should not be killed. In Islam, there can be no compulsion or coercion in matters of faith not only because it is explicitly forbidden in the Qur’an but also because free conscious and choice and willing submission are foundational to the first pillar (declaration of faith) and essential to the very definition of “Islam”. Therefore, someone leaving Islam or converting to another religion must be free to do so and her/his choice must be respected.

One might hope that anyone, be she/he a Jew, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Christian, a Muslim or anything else, would show as much respect towards the religious or spiritual community she/he is leaving as the latter must express towards her/him.




The issue of “women is Islam” is a charged topic with preconceived notions, stereotypes and prototypes, claims and counter-claims on all sides. It is always about a woman’s role, what rights she does or does not have in Muslim societies in opposition to the West. In these dueling lists of rights, only the fighting words are sharpened but no insight is gained. For a fruitful discussion, it is imperative to change the terms of discourse. And as a first step, it is necessary to recall that the Qur’an was revealed over a 23 year period and in a specific historical context: it is important to take these two factors into account. The first helps us to avoid a literalist reading of some verses by being cognizant that they have to be understood through a sequence of different verses leading us to the global message. The second forces us to consider the cultural environment within which the Qur’an was revealed and alerts us not to confuse some cultural contextual features (whether historical or contemporary) with the universal Islamic teachings. These are indeed the two main problems we find when it comes to the women issue: literalist reading and cultural understanding.

It is difficult, in this limited space, to list all the rights of women in Islam and in fact it may be the wrong way to start the discussion. For centuries, Muslim scholars have talked about women in terms of their roles (daughter, wife, mother, sister) and the respective rights and responsibilities related to their family or social functions. It is high time to change our perspective and start talking about “women” as “women”, their being, not their roles or functions. This should be considered their first right: the right to be and to be autonomous ontologically, religiously, socially and economically. Approached from that angle, the perspectives of the whole debate change and it becomes necessary to be quite critical as to the long Islamic legal tradition dealing with the woman issue. We are in dire need of a constructive critical reassessment of the Islamic discourse and understanding on women.

Not only is it necessary to say that female circumcision, domestic violence, forced marriages are not Islamic but we need a comprehensive approach as to the Muslim woman identity within the Islamic communities and societies. It is imperative for Muslim women to be more autonomous, to have equal access to knowledge as men (especially in religious matters), to receive equal pay for the same work and competence, to share social status and political power in their societies and to set the scene for the much needed debate around the role of men in the Islamic societies and communities. A new perspective that focuses on the woman as a psychological and spiritual being will read the sacred texts with fresh eyes (including those of female scholars) and liberates the Muslim women from within by challenging narrow religious interpretations and oppressive cultural practices and is propelled by faithfulness to Islam’s global message.

To speak about Islam promoting “complementarity” between men and women as opposed to the West’s call for total “equality” is not only misleading but it is wrong. There is room for a deep reassessment of this issue from within the Islamic scriptural texts themselves and this is what, Muslim men and women, together should work on/for in the name of their religion to resist all discriminatory practices and views promoted by narrow literalist or cultural understanding.


10 Commentaires

  1. Salam,

    There has been some discussion in the blogosphere relating to the extent to which Grand Mufti of Egypt has said anything particularly new when he declared:

    The essential question before us is can a person who is Muslim choose a religion other than Islam? The answer is yes, they can, because the Quran says, “Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion,” [Quran, 109:6], and, “Whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve,” [Quran, 18:29], and, “There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is distinct from error,” [Quran, 2:256].

    These verses from the Quran discuss a freedom that God affords all people. But from a religious perspective, the act of abandoning one’s religion is a sin punishable by God on the Day of Judgment. If the case in question is one of merely rejecting faith, then there is no worldly punishment. If, however, the crime of undermining the foundations of the society is added to the sin of apostasy, then the case must be referred to a judicial system whose role is to protect the integrity of the society. Otherwise, the matter is left until the Day of Judgment, and it is not to be dealt with in the life of this world. It is an issue of conscience, and it is between the individual and God. In the life of this world, “There is no compulsion in religion,” in the life of this world, “Unto you your religion and unto me my religion,” and in the life of this world, “He who wills believes and he who wills disbelieves,” while bearing in mind that God will punish this sin on the Day of Judgment, unless it is combined with an attempt to undermine the stability of the society, in which case it is the society that holds them to account, not Islam.

    All religions have doctrinal points that define what it is to be an adherent of that religion. These are divine injunctions that form the basis of every religion, but they are not a means for imposing a certain system of belief on others by force. According to Islam, it is not permitted for Muslims to reject their faith, so if a Muslim were to leave Islam and adopt another religion, they would thereby be committing a sin in the eyes of Islam. Religious belief and practice is a personal matter, and society only intervenes when that personal matter becomes public and threatens the well-being of its members.

    In some cases, this sin of the individual may also represent a greater break with the commonly held values of a society in an attempt to undermine its foundations or even attack its citizenry. Depending on the circumstances, this may reach the level of a crime of sedition against one’s society. Penalizing this sedition may be at odds with some conceptions of freedom that would go so far as to ensure people the freedom to destroy the society in which they live. This is a freedom that we do not allow since preservation of the society takes precedence over personal freedoms. This was the basis of the Islamic perspective on apostasy when committed at certain times and under certain circumstances.

    From my limited understanding of Islamic jurisprudence, this is not an innovation. Conservative religious scholars do not tend to innovate. Islamic jurisprudence has long been divided on whether apostasy is better understood as a form of sedition. The logic is that, by changing your religion, you fundamentally undermine the authority of the state as a “muslim” state. Goma has in any case denied that he said that muslims could change their faith without punishment:

    “What I actually said is that Islam prohibits a Muslim from changing his religion and that apostasy is a crime, which must be punished,” Goma’a said.

    Ho hum.

    Nevertheless, there is a wider point to be made here, and I have made it as a contribution to the discussion of the issue in Khaled Diab’s column at CiF.

    As far as I am concerned, what a particular religion requires is no more and no less than what those who identify as its adherents say it requires.

    Therefore, if Gomaa (and others) say that there should be no religious penalty for changing or abandoning the muslim religion, then that is what it means for them.

    We need to be very clear that apostasy is neither a crime per se, nor a form of sedition. It should not be punished by law at all. Anybody who argues otherwise is not a liberal or progressive. They are a form of clerical fascist.

    Clearly, there are some muslims who will disagree. To the extent that they are able to control or influence the content of a State’s laws or the actions of its officials, they need to be resisted.

    Secularists oppose the enactment of religious law, and the privileging of religious institutions over democratic ones. Secularists are not athiests, although some may not believe in god. Many religious people are secularists, because they do not believe that the state has the authority to impose divine will, and because they believe that an open society which respects human rights is better than an authoritarian one.

    What is needed, therefore, is a coalition of people of different faiths, and no faiths, to oppose attempts to enact laws which offend against basic democratic requirements, or universally recognised human rights norms.

    So, how do we go about ensuring that religious law is not enacted.

    One thing which could help is if liberals and progressives, muslim and non muslim, around the world, gave their support to muslim secularists, liberals and progressives.

    We should not be backing, or allying with, groups which seek to establish or maintain a state which is not a secular one.

    We should be asking those with whom we make common cause to make it very clear that they support basic human rights requirements and universally recognised human rights norms.

    We should judge their sincerity by seeing whether they oppose the creation of, and human rights abuses occasioned by, states which enforce – or claim to enforce – religious laws which conflict with those human rights norms.

  2. Dr. Tariq ,
    El salam Alykoum
    My comment on women rights in Islam ,
    Although that the status of Arab and Muslim women in different societies create a controversial discussion, which draws a significant research attention amongst scholars in different fields such as sociology, social development, religion, and feminism to research as they seek to understand the issues. Yet the heated debate is not always helpful for the women involved; on the contrary, it can have a negative impact on their development, by generating resistance and dilemma by the society in general, and even among the women themselves.

    However, this kind of attention didn’t help those women who strive much in improving their statues, as they face more resistance by their societies and even among the women themselves to perceived and accommodate the new incoming ideas and suggestions for improvement. Muslim women often feel they are being attacked by scholars who describe them as oppressed, retarded, and lacking in intellectual capacity (or achievement?).

    From my experience I think that there are two types of Muslim women: (1) Muslim women who are looking for better and progressive understanding of Islamic teaching and seeking freedom; and (2) those who are taking Islam as it its conservative way and try to bring back the situation of women within the Prophet Mohammed period. Among the first one, we can also find two types: those who are looking for progressive interpretation and those who are Muslim but trying to separate between religious as a personal belief and between the public life. In all these groups there are dilemma and confusion between what we have socialized, learned as a ‘good Muslim’ and modernization and development aspect.

    As a Muslim and Arab female, I share the same feeling as these women; I believe that those scholars have narrowed their focus, attention and knowledge in one direction. They based their understanding and opinions on the issue that Islam as a religion or how religious practice has been understood is responsible for women’s oppression and retardation, which of course a mistaken understanding, very mistaken. Some refuse hold dialogues with others with different concepts, and even reject the idea to see beyond that understanding of the situation. They appear to confuse Islam with patriarchy and are blind to the fact that those women in Arab and Muslim societies are still living in patriarchal societies. Where the norms, culture and the political system, that shape the structure of life favour men and provide them with more power than women leading to possessive, and oppressive control of women

    • Strange that it is always the position of women (half of the muslimpopulation!) that is being problemized. Let’s talk about how muslimmen are doing; are they fulfilling their responsibilities as muslimmen in their societies and toward the women they should take care of? Maybe men (as every individual for that matter!) shoud take a good look at themselves first, maybe then they inspire women to become better muslimwomen, and vice versa.

    • “a sin punishable by God”…..? Really they don’t know that. Who is this person to decide God’s curriculum? A lot of Christians are taught similiar premisis so that therefor they hate the Jews because they don’t obey the same rules. Where love is is where God is…not in a book.

  3. Cut the crap- you worry me.
    “YOU WORRY ME!” By American Airlines Pilot – Captain John Maniscalco

    I’ve been trying to say this since 9-11, but you worry me. I wish you didn’t. I wish when I walked down the streets of this country that I love, that your color and culture still blended with the beautiful human landscape we enjoy in this country. But you don’t blend in anymore. I notice you, and it worries me.

    I notice you because I can’t help it anymore. People from your homelands, professing to be Muslims, have been attacking and killing my fellow citizens and our friends for more than 20 years now. I don’t fully understand their grievances and hate, but I know that nothing can justify the inhumanity of their attacks.

    On September 11, nineteen ARAB-MUSLIMS hijacked four jetliners in my country. They cut the throats of women in front of children and brutally stabbed to death others. They took control of those planes and crashed them into buildings killing thousands of proud fathers, loving sons, wise grandparents, elegant daughters, best friends, favorite coaches, fearless public servants, and children’s mothers.

    The Palestinians Celebrated, The Iraqis were overjoyed as was most of the Arab world. So, I notice you now. I don’t want to be worried. I don’t want to be consumed by the same rage and hate and prejudice that has destroyed the soul of these terrorists. But I need your help. As a rational American, trying to protect my country and family in an irrational and unsafe world, I must know how to tell the difference between you, and the Arab/Muslim terrorist.

    How do I differentiate between the true Arab/Muslim-Americans and the Arab/Muslim terrorists in our communities who are attending our schools, enjoying our parks, and living in OUR communities under the protection of OUR constitution, while they plot the next attack that will slaughter these same good neighbors and children?

    The events of September 11th changed the answer. It is not my responsibility to determine which of you embraces our great country, with ALL of its religions, with ALL of its different citizens, with all of its faults. It is time for every Arab/Muslim in this country to determine it for me.

    I want to know, I demand to know, and I have a right to know, whether or not you love America. Do you pledge allegiance to its flag? Do you proudly display it in front of your house, or on your car? Do you pray in your many daily prayers that Allah will bless this nation, that He will protect and prosper it? Or do you pray that Allah will destroy it in one of your Jihads? Are you thankful for the freedom that only this nation affords? A freedom that was paid for by the blood of hundreds of thousands of patriots who gave their lives for this country? Are you willing to preserve this freedom by also paying the ultimate sacrifice? Do you love America ? If this is your commitment, then I need YOU to start letting ME know about it.

    Your Muslim leaders in this nation should be flooding the media at this time with hard facts on your faith, and what hard actions you are taking as a community and as a religion to protect the United States of America. Please, no more benign overtures of regret for the death of the innocent because I worry about who you regard as innocent. No more benign overtures of condemnation for the unprovoked attacks because I worry about what is unprovoked to you. I am not interested in any more sympathy. I am only interested in action. What will you do for America – our great country – at this time of crisis, at this time of war?

    I want to see Arab-Muslims waving the AMERICAN flag in the streets. I want to hear you chanting “Allah Bless America ” I want to see young Arab/Muslim men enlisting in the military. I want to see a commitment of money, time, and emotion to the victims of this butchering and to this nation as a whole.

    The FBI has a list of over 400 people they want to talk to regarding the WTC attack. Many of these people live and socialize right now in Muslim communities. You know them. You know where they are. Hand them over to us, now! But I have seen little even approaching this sort of action. Instead I have seen an already closed and secretive community close even tighter. You have disappeared from the streets. You have posted armed security guards at your facilities. You have threatened lawsuits. You have screamed for protection from reprisals.

    The very few Arab/Muslim representatives that HAVE appeared in the media were defensive and equivocating. They seemed more concerned with making sure that the United States proves who was responsible before taking action. They seemed more concerned with protecting their fellow Muslims from violence directed towards them in the United States and abroad than they did with supporting our country and denouncing “leaders” like Khadafi, Hussein, Farrakhan, and Arafat.

    If the true teachings of Islam proclaim tolerance and peace and love for all people, then I want chapter and verse from the Koran and statements from popular Muslim leaders to back it up. What good is it if the teachings in the Koran are good, and pure, and true,

    when your “leaders” are teaching fanatical interpretations, terrorism, and intolerance? It matters little how good Islam SHOULD BE if huge numbers of the world’s Muslims interpret the teachings of Mohammed incorrectly and adhere to a degenerative form of the religion. A form that has been demonstrated to us over and over again. A form whose structure is built upon a foundation of violence, death, and suicide. A form whose members are recruited from the prisons around the world. A form whose members (some as young as five years old) are seen day after day, week in and week out, year after year, marching in the streets around the world, burning effigies of our presidents, burning the American flag, shooting weapons into the air. A form whose members convert from a peaceful religion, only to take up ar ms against the great United States of America, the country of their birth. A form whose rules are so twisted, that their traveling members refuse to show their faces at airport security checkpoints, in the name of Islam.

    We will NEVER allow the attacks of September 11, or any others for that matter, to take away that which is so precious to us: Our rights under the greatest constitution in the world.

    I want to know where every Arab Muslim in this country stands and I think it is my right and the right of every true citizen of this country to demand it. A right paid for by the blood of thousands of my brothers and sisters who died protecting the very constitution

    that is protecting you and your family. I am pleading with you to let me know. I want you here as my brother, my neighbor, my friend, as a fellow American.

    But there can be no gray areas or ambivalence regarding your allegiance and it is up to YOU, to show ME, where YOU stand. Until then . “YOU WORRY ME!”

    • This claptrap is everywhere. It is quoted and re-quoted so often not even Snopes knows where it originated. If you want to see for yourself just google search the concluding paragraph and see how far this shabby piece of thinking has traveled. I think it deserves a few good pokes in the eye so this is what I send to anyone stupid enough to send me a copy:

      “What? You sent me a crazy chain letter about how Muslims must adhere to a stricter standard of behavior because you can’t trust them. Perhaps we could think about this just a bit…differently.

      I’m sure that, as you suggest, every responsible Muslim would love to dress and act in a way that never upset others and that they would wave the U.S. flag in the street and pronounce their undying loyalty to this country while expressing their sentiments of peace, charity, and love every day publicly – just like every single American does. Oh, what’s that… you say not every American does those things? Oh my.

      Well, at least I’m sure that every responsible Muslim would consent to be a religious scholar and to have a complete mastery of even the smallest detail of their own religion. I’m sure they would love to “proclaim tolerance and peace and love for all people”; and that they would unfailingly identify and adhere to only the true teachings of the founder of their religion with no chance they would adopt any dangerous interpretations of his other followers – just like every other American does. Wait, I just realized Americans really don’t know all that much about Islam – nor about Christianity, a religion which has systematically stripped women and children of fundamental rights, and repeatedly brokered wholesale genocide while engaged in CIVIL war with itself. Well darn…

      Ok then, I’m sure Muslims in the US would love to publicly disclaim Muslims around the world who make mischief – just like the Christians here hold every Christian on the planet personally responsible for their misdeeds. Oh, wait, I forgot, that doesn’t happen here either…well nuts, this isn’t going well for Americans.

      Wait, I know, perhaps we should review the concluding paragraph of your letter which surely must apply to all Muslims AND all Americans:

      “I am pleading with you to let me know. I want you here as my brother, my neighbor, my friend, as a fellow American…..But there can be no gray areas or ambivalence regarding your allegiance – and it is up to YOU to show ME where YOU stand. Until then, YOU WORRY ME!”

      I’m sure that every red blooded American will have no problem with that display of allegiance – because most Americans no longer read their own Constitution or understand the actual concepts which underpin it. But I do and I hope you do too. And I also hope that the next time you forward one of these rambling insults to free men everywhere that you will understand my quick and unyielding reply – Take the time to use and develop the mind God gave you. Worry about your own thoughts and actions before you try to fix everyone else’s. And finally, find out everything you can about the real world before you try to fix your imagined version of it.


  4. American Airlines Pilot – Captain John Maniscalco IS A LIAR, A BLOODY RACIST AND AN IDIOT!



    My baby is crying at my feet, I have to go!

  5. Regarding apostasy and the quoted hadith…It’s interesting how during the time the ‘scholars’ were filtering out authentic hadith from not so authentic etc. they forgot to apply principles known as JUSTICE, FAIRNESS, and LOGIC… That’s why we have more and more people following religion blindly, afraid to ask questions and think critically.. as a result the religion is losing its soul.

    Thank you Professor Ramadan for your consistency and your stance for justice…it is greatly appreciated by many ..


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