A twitter hashtag, #ExMuslimbecause, recently trended, and provided an opportunity for ex-Muslims to convey their reasons why they left the faith. The tag was started by the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, seemingly in an attempt to take a stand against those Muslims who seek to silence their voices. Indeed, around the world, approximately 23 countries punish apostasy (the act of leaving a religion) in some form. It has become a common view among Muslims and non-Muslims alike, that Islam teaches that apostates should be treated harshly. This is a viewpoint that appears contrary to human nature, against all our collective consciences, and for many people confirms the opinion that Islam contains unreasonable and cruel teachings.
However, whilst Muslims hold these views today, history testifies to us that phases of enlightenment fluctuate through time. Christianity's dark ages coincided with Islam's golden age, and yet in a matter of centuries the coin had flipped. While once the science and creativity of Islamic civilization captured the imagination of the world, today it is so often the Muslims that capture not the hearts but the lives of the innocent in their brutalities.
Despite this knowledge, we still view life through the confines of a narrow lens, forgetting the past and unable to envisage the future. We imagine our own conceptions of the world as permanent, forgetting that in a single heartbeat paradigms can be changed, even empires destroyed. We see Islam today as a snapshot, a faded echo of what it once was and the beauty it once carried. We assume that the barbarity of its people at the present time is reflective of what it really teaches, and what it has always been.
The Prophet Muhammad saw things differently. At a time in which Islam was spiritually enlightening people, liberating slaves and speaking out against injustices, the Prophet foresaw a time, after its initial golden period and before its ultimate revival, in which the followers of the religion would plummet into the lowest depths of treachery. He said:
"There will come a time upon the people when nothing will remain of Islam except its name only and nothing will remain of the Qur'an except its inscription. Their mosques will be splendidly furnished but destitute of guidance. Their divines will be the worst people under the heaven and strife will issue from and avert to them." (Mishkat, Kitab al-'Ilm; Kanz al-'Ummal, 6:43)
We live in these unfortunate times today, and the radical, brutal attitudes of many so-called Muslim countries towards apostasy epitomise this. They forget that the Qur'an teaches complete freedom in matters of faith (2:257, 109:7) and highlights that if God had chosen, He could have made everyone the same religion (5:49), emphasising that no human being should ever attempt to forcibly compel another to believe. They forget that the Qur'an talks of apostasy, mentioning individuals 'who believe, then disbelieve, then again believe, then disbelieve...' (4:138), and yet no worldly punishment is even remotely hinted at, rather faith is deemed as being between an individual and God only. If Islam punished apostasy then evidently people would not be able to come in and out of the religion with the freedom that the verse conveys. They forget that the Prophet Muhammad was told that he was only a warner over the people, not responsible for their religious choices (27:93), and that he never once punished an apostate in any way. They forget that the only valid way of addressing peaceful non-Muslims is with peace, and not with aggression (43:90).
A Muslim therefore should fully support the right of the ex-Muslim movement to express their views without any fear of threat or intimidation. Through reading their tweets, in many cases it is understandable why they left Islam in the first place. For instance, any person taught by scholars to believe in a God so weak that he requires people to punish those who leave Islam, is entirely correct to view the religion with skepticism. After all, what sense does it make for God to force belief in that which he himself makes unseen? Whilst Muslims today punish apostasy, the Qur'an does not. Far from punishing, Islam teaches that the rights of all should be protected, that individuals of all belief systems should be allowed to hold and convey their opinions without the threat or intimidation that some ex-Muslims face today. Religion itself becomes meaningless if it is forced upon people, for there is no benefit in a choice made by compulsion.
As affirmed emphatically by Islam, faith is a matter for the heart. If the so-called Muslim scholars today truly wanted to prevent apostasy, they would treat everyone - including apostates - with kindness rather than intolerance, and with love rather than vengeance.