YES, God says:
"There is no compulsion in religion" And yet...
In 1986 the writer-poet Kassim Ahmad was declared an apostate by the Malaysian Perak Religious Council for publishing a book highly critical of the Hadith (traditions of the Prophet). The book, which sparked off a heated controversy in the press, was eventually banned, and Kassim himself received an anonymous death threat for having written it.

A similar thing happened in Egypt recently. A noted law professor was declared an apostate because of his critique of strict Islamic law. Fundamentalists even demanded that the courts dissolve his marriage; his being an apostate, it was claimed, had made the marriage illegal. His alleged apostasy had made his wife an adulteress, who deserved to be stoned to death,

Some militant fundamentalists even take the law into their own hands, assassinating individuals whom they brand as apostates or blasphemers. The shooting of the distinguished Egyptian writer and thinker Farag Foda last year is a very disturbing sign of things to come. Recently the al-Gamaa al-Islamic (Islamis Group) announced that the Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz considered disrespectful to Islam was at the top of its death list. The old writer now moves around with police bodyguards.

Egypt has long been known as one of the most liberal of Islamic countries, but it seems to be becoming less so. The militant fundamentalists, who seem to have taken root in many areas of government and institutions, are becoming more influential and dangerous.

Even the AI Azhar University - Islam's oldest theology school - is showing signs of being controlled by fundamentalists. It has recently banned some of Mahfouz's novels from its courses, and its Rector has even teamed up with an influential ulama in branding any arguments in favour of the separation of religion and State as "apostasy".

In September this year a Bangladeshi woman writer, Taslima Nasreen, had a death sentence pronounced on her for publishing a novella (Lajja or Shame) about discrimination against religious minorities in her country.

This so-called 'fatwa' was not issued by the Bangladeshi equivalent of an ayatollah or the chief imam of the state, but by a group of fundamentalist clerics who sought to punish Nasreen for writing books which allegedly "conspire against Islam'. The government of Bangladesh has maintained a disturbing silence over this "fatwa", thus virtually legitimising it.

In a number of Islamic countries, apostasy as well as blasphemy are capital offences. But it's one thing to have such laws, another to actually implement them. A country, which definitely implements them, is Iran: I believe Pakistan does too, at least it did until Benazir Bhutto, was returned to power recently. The Rushdie affair apparently has done a lot in making the Pakistani Government more intransigent in religious matters.

Is there any justification for making apostasy a criminal offence? Going by the verse in the Quran about the freedom of faith, there certainly isn't. But the vast majority of fuqahas (jurists) maintain otherwise.

A book by a University Kebangsaan Malaysia lecturer in shariah - Islamic Criminal Law and Criminal Behaviour (published by ABIM, 1993) - puts the dominant fuqaha viewpoint very starkly: "Islam forces every Muslim to be Muslim forever." This viewpoint, embodied in the criminal law code of Islamic states like Iran and Pakistan, is justified by reference to both the Quran and Hadith.

It seems that the verse about freedom of faith in Surah is no inconvenience to the orthodox fuqahas. They claim that if the verse is read with reference to the historical circumstance or occasion of its revelation, it would be clear that "no compulsion" refers to Muslims, not infidels. In other words, God forbids conversion of infidels, but once a person is a Muslim his renunciation of his faith is a criminal offence punishable by the state.

This more or less standard reading of the verse from al-Baqarah is reinforced by reference to other related verses of the Quran (such as verse 217 of the same Surah, verse 11-12 of Surah al-Tawbah, verse 86-87 of Surah al-Imran, and verse 137 of Surah al-Nisa).

I myself am not convinced that these verses of the 6iuran really regard apostasy as a criminal offence. It is a sin, and a grave one, yes; but nowhere is it suggested that the apostate offender deserve to be executed. What is implied is divine punishment in the Hereafter.

To me, the unambiguity of the emphatic line from is made even more unambiguous by lines like the following: "Whosoever will, let him believe and whosoever will, let him disbelieve." (al-Kahf, 29): "Unto you, your religion." (al-Kafirun, 6)

When a particular verse talks of slaying apostates, the historical occasion of the Revelation must be taken into account. It has to be remembered that in the early years of Islam, when the new religion was struggling to establish itself, persons who defected from it tended to join its enemies and were therefore a threat to it. This means that a distinction must be made between apostate as apostate and apostate as active enemy.

The Quran, therefore specifically guarantees Muslims liberty of belief; any act of apostasy is an affirmation of that liberty, and is therefore not punishable - by the state or by any militant fanatic who appoints himself a guardian of the faith and as guardian appropriates the function of God.

But the dominant orthodox view on apostasy finds it strongest justification not in the 6~uran but in the Hadith. There are a number of hadiths, which are categorical in their rejection of the freedom of belief enshrined in the Quran. The best known one has the Prophet say: "Whosoever changes his religion, cut his head off!" (Narrated by Ibn' Abas). He is also believed to have said: "It is not lawful to shed the blood of a person professing Islam...except in three cases - when he commits murder, adultery and apostasy.

When a hadith is invoked we enter an area that should be fully open to debate but in some countries, like Malaysia, it is not, as the case of Kassim Ahmad showed. Recently there has been much sinister talk by the religious authorities about "anti-hadith" groups in institutions of higher learning. It seems that "anti-hadith is becoming a convenient smear word used by the ulamas (religious scholars) as readily as the word used by the ulamas as readily as the word 'murtad' (apostate).

My view of the Hadith in relation to the question of apostasy is a simple one. If a hadith, like the two quoted above, contradicts what is unambiguously affirmed in the Quran, then it has to be rejected as inauthentic. Surely it's obvious that the Prophet is unlikely to have uttered anything that contradicts the word of God.

As for the poet, he should always listen to the voice of his artistic conscience: that "other voice". Octavio Paz talks of which affirms unity in diversity and sings the song of concord that transcends conflicts of doctrine. Poetry, like other forms of literature, can only perform its proper function in a state of creative freedom. There shouldn't be any compulsion in poetry as there shouldn't be any in religion.

Given the transcendent unity of religions, what the jealous guardians of orthodoxy too readily call 'apostasy' may only be the healthy exercise of that creative freedom sanctioned by God Himself.