Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Ave, Jeff!

Jeff Hodges writes on the phenomenon of Muslims who are leaving Islam because of Islamism. This is welcome news to me. People have long argued that, if Islam is to change into something less radical and more peaceable, reform needs to come from within. Perhaps we're seeing something like that here: it's not reform in the classical sense, but if Muslims are leaving Islam because of their disenchantment with Islamism, then perhaps the Muslims who remain within the faith will see this as a sign that things must change.

It's no small thing for a Muslim to quit Islam; many strains of Islam view such a move as apostasy, and a large subset of those with that view also think apostasy is punishable by death. If we're seeing the beginning of a snowballing trend (and I can only hope that we are), this might lead to a sea change fifteen or twenty years down the line as more and more people lose their fear of punishment and throw off the yoke of religious oppression.


Charles said...

But isn't apostasy, by definition, the abandoning of one's religion? I would think that all strains of Islam view leaving the religion as apostasy, but only a subset of Muslims feel that apostasy should be punishable by death. Or am I missing a subtle nuance here?

Kevin Kim said...

Good question.

Technically, yes, apostasy is simply the abandonment or renunciation of one's own religion. There are, however, broader and narrower definitions of the word, and then there's this crucial point made in the Wikipedia entry on the subject: "Apostasy is generally not a self-definition: few former believers call themselves apostates because of the negative connotation of the term."

In other words, you're declared apostate, so the term isn't merely a descriptor of personal status, but is, beyond that, a concept with an inevitably social valence.

Also of note is that few modern Christians who leave the flock are openly labeled "apostate" (even if that's what they technically are) by those who remain in the flock. In Christianity, at least, there's often an understanding that a sheep has "wandered away," with the potential for that sheep's return—a concept enshrined, I think, in the parable of the prodigal son. Centuries after that parable was written, Christian theologian John Cobb (whom I know through his dialogue with Buddhists) spoke of "crossing over* and coming back" as part of a larger spiritual journey: you leave the flock, gain wisdom from a different tradition, then come back to your original tradition, seeing it from a new angle and being further enriched by the shift in perspective caused by the experience of wandering.

All of which is to say that the dictionary definition of "apostate" correctly conveys the brute technical meaning of the word, but the moment the word (and the concept it refers to) gets applied to real-world contexts, it takes on shades and nuances and dimensions that weren't initially visible.

(By the way, I hope it doesn't sound as if I'm accusing you of subscribing to a narrow, dictionary-style definition of the word. I know you well enough never to accuse you of a lack of depth, nuance, or subtlety.)

Anyway, I'd submit that my remarks in the blog post make more sense when taking the social context of Islam into consideration—all while affirming that you are, of course, technically correct: apostasy is indeed the abandonment or renunciation of one's religion.

NB: the Wikipedia discussion of apostasy notes some sociological approaches to the word, but those perspectives, at least the ones listed in that entry, are disturbing in their implications: they almost all view apostasy not merely as an act of exit/abandonment but also as an active turning-against the former religion. I'm pretty sure that Muslims who view apostates as meriting death don't care a whit about that distinction: whether you're simply leaving or actively operating against Islam, you deserve death. For other traditions, the mileage may vary.

*Sometimes quoted as "passing over."

Charles said...

Ah, I see. Yes, that makes sense. I was just thinking, "Well, of course they view it as apostasy," but now I see what you mean: The mere application of the label already says volumes about the labeler's attitude toward the labeled, considering the extremely negative connotations of the term (Etymology Online helpfully tells me that the word comes from the Greek apostasis, meaning "defection, desertion, rebellion").

(Interesting about the prodigal son as well, since "prodigal" actually has nothing to do with the son's leaving the flock but simply with his lavish lifestyle. I suspect most people today would associate the word with such a "turning away" or at least losing of one's way, thanks to the parable.)

Kevin Kim said...

"Interesting about the prodigal son as well, since "prodigal" actually has nothing to do with the son's leaving the flock but simply with his lavish lifestyle."

Yes: I'd say the parable applies not because of the son's prodigality but because "he was lost and is found."

Charles said...

Yes, certainly. I just think it's weird that that was the one characteristic later editors settled on to describe the character, when it was probably the least important aspect of his story.