The Email of Taha Abdul-Basser, Harvard’s Muslim Chaplain, on the question of death for Apostasy in Islam

I discussed this controversy in a previous post. I publish the email in question here with some further comments. The whole text is worse, even, than the “damning” quote used in the Crimson article.

Indeed, I think this controversy gives us a striking insight into the nature of taqqiya (dissembling for the sake of Islam). “Sure Muslim law demands the death penalty for apostates, but since it’s not applicable in the West, it’s not an issue.” I have no doubt that the hardliners in the Boston Muslim community are furious. This should never have gone public.

Taha Abdul-Basser’s email to a Muslim student on the legal principle in Islam on death for apostates.
(Bold and italics are mine; where the author want’s to highlight the passage _is enclosed in underscores_.)


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.

This is a shockingly vague and non-commital paragraph which betrays, to my mind, at best a lack of interest in the issue. But even if the good chaplain is not concerned, not tortured by this hadith, shouldn’t he know more to instruct his charges? Why is he not interested and eager to lay out the authorities and arguments that do, in fact, argue for an evolution in Muslim thinking away from so primitive and barbaric a principle? Don’t Muslims love to cite the principle (taken from the rabbis) that to slay a person is to slay mankind (Sura 5:32) in order to insist that they would never approve of terror?

Is it that Abdul-Basser’s not going that way? Is it that this more tolerant position is a minority opinion which is losing ground even as we speak?

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’d love to get their responses.

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.

In other words, all that need concern us is that this particular hadith is not applicable here in the “North/West.” The intellectual bankruptcy of this response — as if, as long as it’s not practical, we need not think about it… as if matters of principle and morality don’t really matter… as if a sincere Muslim might not be outraged by this law, rather than merely dismissing out of hand — is staggering.

Harvard product, pious Muslim: “Debating about religious matter is impermissible.”

Wonder what the Harvard ministry is going to do. Apparently Abdul-Basser had quite a reputation before becoming chaplain. Notes Islamoyankee:

    Glad to see Taha has become more moderate since I was there. I suppose his position becoming official, as opposed to the unofficial demagogue of campus, was a mediating force.

How about a major conference on apostasy in Islam. An honest one. Shine some sunlight on this one, please.

By the way, the next passage in the Qur’an after the one about how terrible it is to take a life reads:

The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter.

5 Responses to The Email of Taha Abdul-Basser, Harvard’s Muslim Chaplain, on the question of death for Apostasy in Islam

  1. Solomonia says:

    Did Harvard’s Islamic Chaplain Defend Death for Apostates? (Updated)…

    A controversy has errupted: Chaplain’s E-mail Sparks Controversy 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…

  2. oao says:

    how low cab US universities go? there seems to be no bottom.

  3. oao says:

    How about a major conference on apostasy in Islam. An honest one. Shine some sunlight on this one, please.

    when pigs fly.

    a practicing imam has just told us that this should not be discussed.

  4. Cynic says:

    Don’t Muslims love to cite the principle (taken from the rabbis) that to slay a person is to slay mankind (Sura 5:32)

    From what I’ve read it seems that this just applied to Muslims only. Taking all the other verses, which it does not override, the infidel is fair game.

  5. Eliyahu says:

    Cynic, as with so much in the Quran, one verse that may be humane, generous, and –dare we say– liberal, is abrogated by other verses.

    So V:32 is followed by V:33
    “The only reward of those who make war upon Allah and His Messenger and strive after corruption in the land will be that they will be killed or crucified or have their hands and feet on alternate sides cut off, or will be expelled out of the land. Such will be their degradation in the world, and in the Hereafter theirs will be an awful doom.” [Pickthall trans]

    The message of the next verse –V:33– is rather different, rather less liberal, kind and generous. By the way, V:32 itself makes a qualification to its ban on “slaying.” Those who have committed “corruption in the earth” are fair game for being killed by the righteous Muslim. Now, the notion of “corruption,” especially as used by Muslims, can be exceedingly elastic and amorphous. It can cover almost anything. So almost anybody, including fellow Muslims, as we see from the mass slaughters in Iraq and Algeria, may have perpetrated “corruption” and so made himself susceptible to being righteously killed.

    Verse V:32 is modeled on a verse in the Talmud, Seder Neziqin, Masekhet Sanhedrin [English trans. available in the Soncino edition].

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