Morocco’s High Religious Committee decreed earlier this year that individuals who leave Islam should not face the death penalty for apostasy. This astounding ruling from a body charged with issuing fatwas (an authoritative religious or juridical ruling), reverses the classical sharia legislation that has stood since medieval times.
It is all the more significant given that the same High Religious Committee had issued a book just five years ago, containing fatwas which affirmed the classical sharia position that a Muslim who changes his or her religion should be punished by death.
In their 2017 document, entitled The Way of the Scholars, the High Religious Council argued that Muhammad and his early followers killed apostates only for political reasons (because they were traitors to the nascent Islamic community) not for religious reasons:
“The most accurate understanding, and the most consistent with the Islamic legislation and the practical way of the Prophet, peace be upon him, is that the killing of the apostate is meant for the traitor of the group, the one disclosing secrets ... the equivalent of treason in international law.”
The High Religious Committee supported this stance with examples of the words and actions of Muhammad and other early Muslim leaders, showing that apostates were only punished when they posed a security threat. They also pointed out the Quran speaks only of apostasy being punished in the afterlife, not in this life.
The same points have been made over the centuries by many Muslims who believed that Muhammad never intended a death sentence for apostasy as such, only for treason. But these scholars lost the argument and the death sentence was incorporated into sharia as it was gradually developed. All five surviving schools of sharia practised today (four Sunni and one Shia) have a death sentence for adult males who leave Islam. Since about 1258, no change has been allowed in sharia, and anyone calling for an amendment to the apostasy law risks the death sentence themselves for daring to seek to change sharia.
The Maliki Sunni school of sharia, practised in Morocco, has a death sentence not only for men but also for women apostates. Three days are to be given for repentance before the execution is carried out. The apostasy need not be spoken aloud in order to incur this punishment. Child apostates are to be killed on reaching maturity.
The Moroccan High Religious Committee (or Superior Council of the Ulema) is presided over by King Mohammed VI. According to Article 41 of the 2011 Moroccan constitution (one of the most moderate constitutions of any Muslim-majority nation), the King, known as Commander of the Faithful, is responsible for ensuring compliance with Islam and also for freedom of worship. He submits questions to the Committee, which studies the issues and then writes a fatwa to answer the question. No one else is allowed to comment on the issues. The powers, composition and methodology of the Committee are established by royal decree.
Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, founder of Barnabas Fund and himself a convert from Islam to Christianity, has for many years been campaigning for the abolition of the classical Islamic apostasy law with its death sentence. “The courageous and visionary announcement by the Moroccan authorities is to be warmly welcomed and applauded” commented Dr Sookhdeo. “It is over 700 years since anyone of recognised stature within the mainstream global Islamic community has taken this stance publicly. Morocco, as a leading Islamic nation with a track record of moderation and led by a king descended from the Islamic prophet Muhammad, is uniquely placed to spearhead a movement that must gladden the hearts of all right-thinking people of any faith or none. I call on other Islamic religious authorities, such as Al-Azhar University in Cairo, to adopt the Moroccan position so that we can see the total abolition of the death penalty for Muslims who choose to leave their religion.”