Today started with an interesting twist in the news, it was neither the world cup nor ISIS nor Boko Haram, it was about apostasy in Kano, Nigeria. Unfortunately the day didn’t end with that because we later heard about attacks (and deaths) in Wukari, Taraba State and this afternoon a bomb blast in Abuja and Adamawa (the two almost simultaneous). God save the souls of dead victims, and provide for the living. However, I intended to write about the case of apostasy in the morning so I shall focus on that now.
The news reported that a young (Muslim) man from Kano denounced the existence of God, or so I heard. In response to this madness, his family took him to a psychiatric doctor but the doctor concluded that the man is mentally sound. The family unconvinced with this outcome sought second opinion, as would be expected in every grave medical case. The second doctor came to the conclusion that the young man suffers from a mental illness of personality disorder. According to the young man’s emails to IHEU (International Ethical and Humanist Union), the doctor proved the personality disorder by claiming that even Japanese believe in God! Of course these reports may have left out more that it reveals but it provides an interesting situation and opportunity for introspection.
Not long ago Saudi officially ruled that apostasy is terrorism; and so a punishable crime. This was Saudi’s response to a poll on Saudis where about 5% of Saudis identified themselves as atheists. This was shocking to Saudi powers since it undermines the blanket religious status of Saudi; a status that is arguably only for the cities of Makkah and Madinah. These self-identified athiests were probably keeping with outward religious observance since they if they weren’t they we would expect 1 out of every 20 Saudis to default from religious practices. Not long after the Saudi fiasco, in Sudan a woman (of Muslim father but raised by her Christian mother) was charged with apostasy for becoming Christian, and adultery for marrying a Christian. For the former the penalty was death, for the latter it was 100 lashes. While unsure of Saudi’s prescribed punishment for “terrorism”, many Muslims believe (or subscribe to the reading) that the punishment for apostasy is death penalty as in the case of Sudan.
Of course not all Muslims subscribe to this view. One first has to understand what apostasy meant during the time of the prophet. To conclude that the punishment for apostasy is punishable by death is either to cherry-pick utterances of the Prophet, or to disregard a Qur’an injunction for freedom of religion, or to neglect the prophet’s character, or to ignore context, or to ignore the different capacities from which the prophet gives commands, or to do all of this. Simply put, apostasy is equivalent to a threatening political treason, not a change of heart. This is not the place for the debate on whether apostasy is punishable or not, but it suffice to say it is not death!
Unfortunately more Muslims perhaps subscribe to the position that apostasy is punishable by death. At least it is scary enough to know that Muslims around you believe that. In light of this, the move by the parents of the young “atheist” in Kano, is perhaps one of love and protection, not of loathing. If I were a parent with an “atheist” child in Kano, I’d rather call it madness than try to reason with the child because to reason is to attract wrath of the public; especially when the child allegedly broadcasts his “atheist” views on twitter. This is not to say the average Muslim in Kano is violent, no way especially given the diverse communities of Muslims in Kano, but it makes him an easy target for those who would want to use his beliefs as an excuse.
The public’s reaction is another point of reflection. Many people are reporting the event as: A man in Kano has gone mad, he denounces God! Luckily I have heard the original report in the morning so I know it should be reported more accurately as: A man is being considered mad because he denounces God. If the difference between the two is not clear, let us examine further. By default majority of people accept and conclude that this person must be mad; just like his parents do. However we have good reasons to suspect his parents “concluded” that to protect him (psychological defense mechanism) whereas the public seems to genuinely believe he is mad. Perhaps many heard the story from hear-say so they were already given adulterated version of the story. However the public psyche is not one with so much of intolerance for apostasy, but of ignorance and shock of apostasy! The public does not seem to adequately grasp apostasy; in its legal ramification as we have seen, and its theological significance which we shall soon see. In addition, the public’s reaction to the shock is to attribute it to madness since madness explains all the unexplainables. I won’t be surprised if some people are already explaining the situation as a case of magic spell casted on the young man. It is a case of shock where Muslims are confused as what to do.
The final point of interest is the position of apostasy within theology. Muslim history has had enough scars that persist today due to the most heated theological debates that took place early in its history. It was so rich a tradition that it resulted in its own sciences; the science of Kalam (speculative theology). Blasphemy was equated with apostasy. When definition of apostasy differs from school to school, its meaning becomes only an indication of disagreement. It was not uncommon for opponents of different “schools of Kalam” to denounce the other as apostates aka Kuffaar. This strategy in Kalam still persist, but now everywhere even outside Kalam. Of course there were the likes of Al Ghazali who sought theological tolerance, but seeking tolerance is not as sensational as denouncing others. In essence much of that tradition, or at least in its present mutation, is a power struggle; people seeking to affirm their theological positions by deposing and apostatizing others.
With regard to the situation of the young man in Kano, it could be simply a case of him disagreeing with theological positions of others. Of course I say this with a caveat because I have not looked into the content of his claims for four reasons: avoid slipping from research into gossip; I got a clue about his type of “atheism” from a report by IHEU; I have to work on my 9-to-5 job; his situation is only relevant to me as a general case. In fact, I know people who know the young man closely, to some extent, but I have not ventured into that. All I have from the report by IHEU is that he was being blasphemous and that he denied Adam (the first Man) existed. I am not surprised if it is based on this that he was accused of atheism; unless he is a self-identified atheist. Or if as some say, he denied existence of God, then of course that would be literally an atheist. Like I said it would not be surprising if he was simply accused of atheism but his concern about Adam is one that is being debated even among scholars that are grounded in the scripture. I have written about it within the framework of evolution. Of course these scholars do not deny an Adam, they simply have a different interpretation of Adam not in the literal sense but with an evolutionary slant. All this may say more about the intellectual desertion of Muslims and their unpreparedness to face of the challenges of this age where we are brought up on post European-Enlightenment reasoning.
Were many to ask certain questions about their held beliefs, they might end up becoming apostates. And many are aware of this. So the solution many have taken is to not ask questions, rather than to ask the questions properly and seek to resolve them within the proper framework. The Qur’an in numerous places assures us that if we were to proceed with proper reasoning, we would always be lead to God. Certainly reasoning according to European Enlightenment has its merits but it is deficient especially because of the historical baggage in its formation. What if the young man had all these questions but the religious community could not engage him on the level he was thinking? This is a wake up call to Muslims.
The situation says something about Muslims’ intellectual standing as a religious community especially in the field of apologetics. Muslims in Nigeria have been too comfortable with picking-on Christianity for far too long; that is what I call much of the prevalent straw-man debates with Christianity. Now a new breed is in town, it is atheism. Debates with atheism has been going on in many countries for a while now, especially “western” countries. I welcome this because perhaps it will change the position of Muslims from constantly trying to convert Christians to a more introspective position when they might have to reason through their beliefs because they take so much for granted. Of course it is for those who care to get involved in the debate.