Harvard’s Muslim Chaplain Notes the Wisdom of Killing Apostates

There’s been an interesting controversy at Harvard over a private email from the Muslim chaplain there, Taha Abdul-Basser (a graduate of the class of ’96) [and a blogger – rl] to a student about the Islamic position on how to deal with apostates.

taha abdul-basser
Photo: Harvard Islamic chaplain Taha Abdul-Basser, Harvard class of ’96.

The chaplain finds much “wisdom” in the law that calls for the death penalty for apostasy, and urges the student not to give in to the pressure “of the hegemonic modern human rights discourse.”

The article interesting, among other things, for its multiple cases of Muslim students who disassociate from the chaplain but want to remain anonymous “to avoid conflicts with Muslim religious authorities,” or “for fear of harming his [or her] relationship with the Islamic community.” The talkbacks are also highly revealing. I comment below on both.

Chaplain’s E-mail Sparks Controversy
Published On Tuesday, April 14, 2009 1:45 AM
Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard Islamic chaplain Taha Abdul-Basser ’96 has recently come under fire for controversial statements in which he allegedly endorsed death as a punishment for Islamic apostates.

In a private e-mail to a student last week, Abdul-Basser wrote that there was “great wisdom (hikma) associated with the established and preserved position (capital punishment [for apostates]) 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.

Since this becomes the source of considerable discussion below, let me clarify how I read this. While Abdul-Basser is not explicitly endorsing execution for heresy, he is at once urging the student to consider seriously the principle in which he sees “great wisdom.” And at an earlier point in his email, he observes that death for apostasy is sharia law in all four of the major Islamic schools:

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.

Hikma is indeed not merely a term, but a principle in Islam. Here’s one Islamic site’s discussion:

    Studying the Qur’anic verses where wisdom is mentioned, we can add to the above explanation the following points:

  • Wisdom means the subtleties and mysteries of the Qur’an. Since the Qur’an is, in one respect, the correlative of the book of the universe and, in another, its interpretation and explanation, its subtleties and mysteries are also those of the book of the universe. The Qur’an indicates this in this verse (2:269): He grants the wisdom to whomever He wills, and whoever is granted the wisdom, has indeed been granted much good.
  • Wisdom means Prophethood and the meaning of Messengership. The scholars of the Hadith have interpreted it as Sunna (the way of the Messenger). The verses, God granted him (David) kingdom and wisdom (2:251), and We granted Luqman wisdom (31:12), refer to this meaning.
  • Wisdom, in both its theoretical and practical aspects, means goodwill, which is mentioned in: Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation and preaching (16:125).
  • Some have defined wisdom as correct judgment, and acting as one should act and doing what is necessary to do at the right time and right place. We can elaborate on this meaning, which can be re-stated as being just, moderate, balanced, and straightforward…

(The author discusses the issue of apostasy and coercion in religion here.)

For another discussion, see F. Burham, “Wisdom (Al-Hikmah): A Paradigm for Social Sunan

I note the following: as far as I can make out, the chaplain, even without formally endorsing the principle, finds much of value in it. Since this principle formally contradicts the widely cited “there is no coercion in matters of religion (Sura 2:256)” which Muslim apologists regularly present as “proof” that Islam is tolerant, I wonder what Abdul-Basser thinks about the contradiction.

Furthermore, the allusion to the “hegemonic modern human rights discourse” bespeaks someone who has read his Saïd and has no problem trotting out post-colonial jargon to protect a discourse of violence, even to endow it with a certain “wisdom.” And, along with many of his non-Muslim post-colonialists, Abdul-Basser mistakes the nature of liberal hegemony: it is precisely its renunciation of hegemonic control that characterizes freedom of speech, not the coercive hegemony of a tradition that finds those who want to leave so threatening that they must kill them.

The e-mail was forwarded over Muslim student e-mail lists and later picked up by the blogosphere, sparking debate and, in many cases, criticism of Abdul-Basser from those who have interpreted his statement as supporting the execution of those who leave the Islamic religion.

“I believe he doesn’t belong as the official chaplain,” said one Islamic student, who asked that he not be named to avoid conflicts with Muslim religious authorities. “If the Christian ministers said that people who converted from Christianity should be killed, don’t you think the University should do something?”

CLARIFICATION: The April 14 article “Chaplain’s E-mail Sparks Controversy” included a quotation from a named Harvard student, who was later granted anonymity when he revealed that his words could bring him into serious conflict with Muslim religious authorities.

As a number of talkbackers noted, Abdul-Basser didn’t endorse the idea. So a better, and historically just analogy might be: “If a Christian minister said that there was much wisdom in the Inquisitorial practices of imprisoning, branding, and burning Christians who held heretical views, don’t you think the University should do something?”

According to the student, many of Abdul-Basser’s other views are “not in line with liberal values, such as notions of human rights. He privileges the medieval discourse of the Islamic jurists, and is not willing to exercise independent thought and judgment beyond a certain limit,” the student said.

So this is part of a larger approach that Abdul-Basser takes, and which, on one level, is not unlike a rabbi or a Catholic priest, who feels that the medieval and ancient commentators have more authority that modern religious thinkers. On the other hand, both of those traditions have moved far from the legal practices of medieval or ancient communities (e.g., stoning adulterers, torturing heretics). Islam, on the other hand, does indeed have a problem with modern, liberal principles that Judaism and Christianity do not. I would much like to hear how Abdul-Basser handles matters such as (the little) Jihad about which all the medieval codes abound in discussions of what to do with captives and booty, and under what conditions to engage in warfare.

Samad Khurram ’09-’10 said Abdul-Basser’s remarks conflicted with the Harvard United Ministry’s support of freedom of religion.

“I support free speech, freedom of belief and association, so this came as a big shock to me,” Khurram said.

“[His remarks] are the first step towards inciting intolerance and inciting people towards violence,” said a Muslim Harvard student, who requested that he not be named for fear of harming his relationship with the Islamic community.

Aqil Sajjad, a Harvard graduate student, also said that Abdul-Basser’s statements were “totally wrong, definitely out of line for somebody in that position. I wouldn’t go and seek religious advice from one who is saying this.”

A Muslim student at MIT, who also asked to remain anonymous to preserve his relationship with the Islamic community, said the chaplain’s remarks wrongly suggested that only Westerners and Westernized Muslims who did not fully understand Islam would find the killing of apostates objectionable.

“If what he said was what I thought, then it is very shocking and not something that I would expect or want coming out of a chaplain at any major American university,” he said.

It’s good to know that at least some Muslims in our universities think this is bad news.

Abdul-Basser wrote in a later e-mailed statement that he “never expressed the position that individuals who leave Islam or convert from Islam to another religion must be killed. I do not hold this opinion personally.” He explained that he was not advocating for the positions mentioned in his e-mail, but rather “addressing them in the context of the evolution of an Islamic legal doctrine.”

Technically, he’s right. He never said they “must be killed.” He just said that there’s great wisdom in that principle. The troubling thing here is that, as far as I know, there hasn’t been any serious evolution in Islamic legal doctrine on this point. Indeed, it’s not just apostates, but also blasphemers (like Salman Rushdie) who are objects of this principle that the way to handle dissidents is to kill them. If there has been evolution here, maybe Abdul-Basser can enlighten us.

“[Abdul-Basser] was speaking as a chaplain to a student in a private e-mail exchange. One of these e-mails was misinterpreted, misconstrued, and posted on the blogosphere,” said Harvard Islamic Society spokesperson Nafees A. Syed ’10, who praised Abdul-Basser for promoting diversity within HIS and the campus at large.

“His immeasurable contributions should not be overlooked in this matter,” she said.

“Misinterpreted and misconstrued…” that has yet to be demonstrated. For that we’d need some strong language from Abdul-Basser that, despite its wisdom, this principle of executing apostates is, indeed, not merely “inappropriate” to modern conditions, but incompatible with a great religion whose own sacred text declares that there should be no coercion in matters of religion. Lacking that, the only visible misinterpretation is the first remark comparing Abdul-Basser to a Christian minister who claimed that apostates should be killed.

—Staff writer Melody Y. Hu can be reached at [email protected]


Sadia 1 day ago
I know Taha Abdul-Basser to be an incredible person. I actually know that he does not hold the position attributed to him in this article, and that he did not and does not condone anyone’s killing. I think the larger context for this discussion needs to be taken into account. It is unfortunate that the Crimson failed to address that.

Tolerant 1 day ago
Interesting how this author’s source for the email content are the very blogs that “misinterpreted, misconstrued, and posted” these comments in the first place, which are rather Islamophobic blogs in the first place. I think it’s ridiculous there’s an article on this in the first place. It was a private email between a chaplain and a student, he didn’t support killing anyone, and the history and various perspectives he mentioned were no different than what wikipedia says.

Note how easily “Tolerant” throws around accusations of Islamophobia. This is good, classic PC defense of illiberal attitudes because they’re not ours. He’s basically saying, “This is a no brainer — Islam prescribes the death penalty for apostasy (even Wikipedia says so) — so what’s your problem? That’s Islam. What do you want this guy to do? Jump through your liberal hoops?”

Roger Greenbaum 1 day ago
No one denies that Taha Abdul-Basser actually said these sentences, not even himself. It remains unclear what is supposedly misconstrued or misinterpreted. The message posted on numerous blogs is exactly the same message posted on the MIT list. While some things he says in the original message are opinions of others, the sentence quoted in the article is his own.

oaftab 1 day ago
I don’t see how the ‘private’ nature of these comments make them any less open to scrutiny or discussion. A chaplain is supposed to have private counseling sessions with students. And if he thinks that there’s “great wisdom” in killing apostates, and that’s the message he gives to the students in private, then he’s certainly not fit for keeping his position as the Chaplain.

Calling his comments “misinterpreted” and “misconstrued” is a genuinely bad attempt at covering up, besides being an insult to the intelligence of a reader. His “immeasurable contributions” are irrelevant here – good deeds don’t earn you a ticket for a misdeed.

More importantly though, I am inclined to wonder why the students were curious about killing apostates in the first place. Does one really need an advice or counseling session about the ways to deal with apostates!? And all they have to seek advice from is someone who calls “debating about religious matter” as “impermissible, in general”!?

I agree with oaftab up to the last paragraph. As elijahjt explains below, it came up in the context of a discussion of UN Human Rights issue. There are many ways it could come up without being a discussion on how to implement the principle.

Clap Hammer 1 day ago
Interesting why so many of the various critics of this Islamic Chaplin are so careful to maintain anonymity.

This is a most interesting point, and reflects, I think, a serious problem — to wit, the Muslim community’s dominant voices are not “liberal” but theocratic, and anyone who expresses ideas at variance with Islamist principles is in danger of ostracism at best. This is an important clue as to the dominant tone in a community to which we outsiders have no access. Modern Muslims, even pious ones, are on the defensive. This may explain why we get so few and so limited genuinely moderate Muslim voices, even when addressed to us outsiders in English.

Chris 1 day ago
The chaplain wouldn’t be staying true to Islamic teachings if he didn’t support the execution of Muslims of leave Islam. This is what Muhammad ordered, as recorded in the Hadith:

The Messenger of Allah said, “Whoever changes his (Islamic) religion, kill him.” Al-Bukhary (number 6922)

So I don’t think it’s fair to blame him for correctly interpreting the commands of his religion. Instead, we ought to ask whether we ought to allow such a religion to have any legality in a democratic and human right-respecting society like ours.

Notice how this note makes the same comment as that of Tolerant — hey, this is just Islamic law — but with an opposite conclusion. Whereas Tolerant seemed to think this was no big deal — why is there an article on this? — Chris thinks this is an indictment of Islam in general, and presumably, that we need many articles on this.

fauzia 1 day ago
I think the fact that it was a private email with a student he is very familiar with makes all the difference. Chaplain Taha knew that this student wouldn’t mistake his words for supporting the killing of apostates and knew where the student was coming from. What he was addressing in that email was the general sense of skepticism that most Muslims get when addressing the controversial topic of apostasy, and therefore the wisdom, or hikmah is in reference to the fact that at one point in Islamic history it made sense, though it is no longer a dominant interpretation of how to deal with apostates, and it should not be an issue of concern for American Muslims today. When you ask a scholar a legal and historical question, the response is not supposed to be sugar coated and PC, especially when the context is that of a private email with a familiar person.

This is an interesting piece of apologia. Note that fauzia assumes or claims three things for which we have no evidence and we even have counter-evidence:

  • 1) the chaplain knew “where the student was coming from” — apparently not, or the email would not have leaked;
  • 2) chaplain Taha doesn’t support “the killing of apostates” — something that may be true, but I’m hardly convinced of on the basis of the evidence. Indeed, Rashid Khan (below) argues that the students at MIT knew right away the good chaplain meant the opposite — i.e., the death penalty is appropriate.
  • 3) death to apostates is “no longer a dominant interpretation… and it should not be an issue of concern for American Muslims today.” Given that the relatively secular, Americanized, president of Afghanistan had to intervene — under heavy Western pressure — to extract a Muslim convert to Christianity, Abdul Rahman, from the constitutionally authorized Hanafi court system, it’s pretty clear that this is a live issue.

Not only has there been no formal abjuration of this sharia principle by any major Islamic legal authorities, but even where “secular” governments do not approve of Sharia law — Turkey, Egypt, the West — vigilante justice serves quite well.

The idea that because Muslims in the USA don’t uphold this law, they have somehow formally rejected it, and it’s a dead letter is disingenuous at best. At an interfaith dialogue with some Muslims in Stoughton some years back, I spoke with a fine, moderate gentleman, and asked he what he thought of the fatwa on Salmon Rushdie. “Oh,” he replied, “blasphemy against the prophet is a very serious offense.” I take that to be his version of “there is much wisdom in this.”

Rashid Khan 1 day ago
When Taha’s message was forwarded some two weeks ago to the MIT MSA list, no one expressed any doubt that Taha said and meant what he appeared to have said and meant. It was even discussed whether it is possible to be Muslim and not believe in capital punishment for apostates (thanks to the MIT Muslim Chaplain for clarifying that it is possible).

Two weeks have passed, and Taha has never clarified his remarks. What is his opinion now? Is it, after all, not the “established and preserved” opinion? Is there no “wisdom” in it? Is it possible to feel “uncomfortable” for reasons other than the “hegemonic human rights discourse”? And what if tomorrow the US had an Islamic government, would it be advisable to execute apostates or not?

This comment, by a Muslim at MIT, directly contradicts the apologia by fauzia above. Note that the discussion is not, “do Muslims today believe in capital punishment for apostasy” (which is what fauzia wants us to think), but “is it possible to be a Muslim and not believe in death for apostasy.” (!)

Note also that in his email, Abdul-Basser points out that only where Muslims rule is this punishment applicable — i.e., in Sharia states:

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._

In other words, he’s saying, “in the West — as long as it is not Muslim — this rule should not be applied; and, by the way, I am against vigilante justice in this matter. So you poor liberal Muslims need not worry your head off about death for apostates, it’s not applicable now in the USA. That’s all you need to know.”

As for Rashid Khan’s question on what would be “advisable to execute apostates,” the implied answer is, “yes. Otherwise we would violate Sharia law.”

Joshua 1 day ago
There’s another issue with what he said that isn’t getting sufficient attention: He has described basic concerns for humans being allowed to do what they want when it doesn’t harm others as “hegemonic modern human rights discourse.” This is someone who sees the most basic aspects of modern civilization as “hegemonic.” Even if he hadn’t been trying to defend killing apostates his remark would still be unreasonable. As it is, this is clearly beyond anything that’s acceptable. The full letter doesn’t add any magical context that makes the statement any less appalling. Basser’s entire attitude reeks of the worst forms of anti-intellectualism. He needs to go.

This remark lacks a certain coherence, but it raises an important point. Liberal discourse — e.g., freedom of speech, freedom of opinion — was meant to be anti-hegemonic, just like the principle of the separation of church and state. The people who find this freedom oppressive (hence the pomo language about hegemony), are people who want to be able to enforce their hegemony by force (e.g., kill apostates and blasphemers). It’s a perfect example of the kind of demopathy that pomo lingo facilitates.

sandpeoplesuck 1 day ago
Who would have thought that a believer in violent bronze age myths would express violent bronze age opinions. Mohammedans you are a blight on the world and your reckoning is coming.

I guess “Tolerant” would find this homophobic. It’s actually pretty good bronze age or medieval stuff. The final threat aside, it is interesting that some find this “obvious truth” about Islam disturbing while Tolerant seems to think that being disturbed is a sign of Islamophobia.

David 1 day ago
Celebrate Diversity. All cultures are equal.

Repeat 100 times. Then report to re-education center.

Good old Harvard sarcasm. And I thought this was a lost art.

Dan 1 day ago
Clap Hammer, why should it be so surprising that the critics of the Islamic chaplain (who happen to be Muslim, according to the article) maintain anomymity? After all, the chaplain is asserting that Islamic law demands the death penalty for apostates. You don’t think maybe they legitimate concerns for their well-being if they’re interpreted as opposing Islamic law?

elijahjt 1 day ago
“More importantly though, I am inclined to wonder why the students were curious about killing apostates in the first place.”

There was a discussion about human rights in Islam (in the context of a recent decision by the UN Human Rights Council) and specifically the treatment of apostates from Islam. No one was “curious about killing apostates” — please don’t be ridiculous — people were curious about what Islam said about apostasy. Such curiosity is not an automatic approval of what Islam (or even just the chaplain) says about the matter or a desire to implement it.

Concerned 1 day ago
No defense can be presented for such despicable views. As a member of the Harvard community, I demand that strict action be taken by the University administration against this bigoted and hateful person. If this Chaplain believes in Shariah law, he should be sent off to Afghanistan immediately instead of letting him promote medieval legal codes in this free country. He is not only damaging Harvard’s spirit of liberalism and free thought, but his views amount to incitement of violence and murder, which appropriate groups may even wish to take up legally.

“Concerned” raises one of the issues I don’t see addressed. Just what is the “wisdom” of killing apostates? As far as I can make out, the only justifications reflect a profound insecurity on the part of those who support the idea. The idea that the religious truth of all religions should be worked out in the “marketplace of ideas” demands a certain confidence, that apparently is still lacking among many Muslims.

Peterk 1 day ago
“could bring him into serious conflict with Muslim religious authorities. ”

what did the individual mean by “serious conflict” come to bodily harm or what? and here I thought it was the Religion of Peace.

as others have noted the members of ROP have requested anonymity, but if you read an article complaining about the Catholic church dissenters can’t wait to get their names in print

Wonder when CAIR will jump to claim that Harvard somehow violated the civil and religious rights of the imam/chaplain

Michael 23 hours ago
Bukhari collection of hadiths, Volume 9, Book 84, Number 57:
“Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him”

Read for yourself.

tola 23 hours ago
It is amazing and even scary that a lot of the Muslims who criticized the Chaplin chose to remain anonymous because they wanted to maintain their relationships with the Muslim community. So, criticizing someone who thinks killing apostates is acceptable is not okay with the Muslim community? And they wonder why everyone is suspicious of them? As the person ahead of me asked, why was the student worrying about whether or not killing apostates is acceptable anyway?

Oliver Ruebenacker 22 hours ago
Muslim Traditionism (which emphasises in “transmitting the sacred knowledge” of medieval scholarship) will collapse and be replaced by Muslim Rationalism (which believes in God’s word and human rights).

Nola 20 hours ago
If people who call themselves “Muslims” reject the teaching the chaplain enunciated, they should consider leaving the pseudo-religion of Islam, which is really a demonic political philosophy and not a religion at all.

SFareed 19 hours ago
This entire situation is absurd and those interviewed in this article come across as fools (which is probably why most chose to remain anonymous). The chaplain was simply pointing out that an individual should not be quick to dismiss a particular religious practice (however much he may disagree with it) solely because it feels wrong or clashes against another set of ideals that he may have without first becoming properly informed about the reasoning behind the current ruling.

Note the attempt to shame the dissidents. They want to remain anonymous because they don’t want to look like fools. Same dismissive apologia as fauzia, even after the remarks of Rashid Khan. So, tell us, what is the reasoning behind the ruling?

Sara 19 hours ago
Harvard has progressed to become a diversity of global trash.

Craig 19 hours ago
How can his comments be “misconstrued” or “misinterpreted?” He plainly stated he believed that there is a valid intellectual argument within Islamic jurispudence supporting capital punishment for apostates. As SFareed points out, we cannot dismiss his comments because they conflict with modern mores. We need to ask ourselves if we are going to abandon the principals of personal religious liberty in order to allow religious groups to violently enforce the loyalties of their adherents.

Greta 12 hours ago
I have to say that I agree in principle with those who think it’s sad that something like killing apostates actually has to be debated in any modern religion. But then I also have to wonder how much the criticism of Islam these days is in fact politically motivated. There are many comments in this thread that border on bigotry, for example. And if this incident can serve to expand a debate on human rights then let us not fail to point out that in Israel’s recent offensive against Gaza military rabbis were distributing religious material warning soldiers against showing mercy to their enemies.


Or to remind those who may have forgotten of U.S. Army General William Boykin who likened the war on terror to a holy war against idolaters (muslims).

Those of us who would like to see all religions become more tolerant of others cannot single out the ones that we don’t like for criticism.

Greta brings us back to the PC discourse. “It is sad that this should have to be discussed in a modern religion…” but what does that tell you about Islam? As for criticism of Islam being politically motivated, what’s wrong with that? Islam is a political religion, and there are good political reasons to oppose it, illustrated precisely by the issue in question.

As for the Israeli issue, the rabbinic comments about not showing mercy to the enemy deserve their context as well:

The IDF rabbinate, also quoting Rabbi Aviner, describes the appropriate code of conduct in the field: “When you show mercy to a cruel enemy, you are being cruel to pure and honest soldiers. This is terribly immoral. These are not games at the amusement park where sportsmanship teaches one to make concessions. This is a war on murderers. ‘A la guerre comme a la guerre.'”

This view is also echoed in publications signed by Rabbis Chen Halamish and Yuval Freund on Jewish consciousness. Freund argues that “our enemies took advantage of the broad and merciful Israeli heart” and warns that “we will show no mercy on the cruel.”

If Greta finds this the equivalent of showing no mercy to the apostate, then I’d say she has the problem of moral equivalence, and would do well to meditate on the principle behind these rabbinic writings, “those who show mercy to the cruel will be cruel to the merciful.” Few sayings embody the dilemma of the kind-hearted liberal today, especially those whose hearts go out to Hamas and the people who voted for them.

2 Responses to Harvard’s Muslim Chaplain Notes the Wisdom of Killing Apostates

  1. […] discussed this controversy in a previous post. I publish the email in question here with some further comments. The whole text is worse, even, […]

  2. […] Stables looks at Ivy League madness: Harvard’s Muslim Chaplain Notes the Wisdom of Killing Apostates and The Email of Taha Abdul-Basser, Harvard’s Muslim Chaplain, on the question of death for […]

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