Proselytism and the Right to Change Religion in Islam

Chapter 18
Proselytism and the Right to Change Religion in Islam

Roberta Aluffi Beck-Peccoz

Proselytism is the attempt to persuade other people to accept your religious beliefs, and to consequently change their religion. The freedom to change one’s religion (urriyat taġyīr diyānatihi aw caqīdatihi) is an essential aspect of the freedom of religion, according to art. 18 of the UDHR. Islamic States have always strongly opposed this specific freedom, claiming that it contravenes Islamic law. In their view, such a freedom contrasts with the attitude of extreme respect towards belief which characterizes Islam: faith is not a superficial manifestation constantly exposed to diversions.1 Moreover, they express the fear that proselytism represents a kind of foreign interference in their internal affairs. Consistently, Islamic States do not favour proselytism; they sometimes tend to restrict it even in its lightest forms, such as the simple expression of one’s intimate beliefs.

This peculiar conception of freedom of religion could be described as static, as opposed to the more dynamic international conception: everyone is supposed to remain faithful to his original religion. But a closer examination, through the lens of Arabic legal vocabulary forged by Muslim scholars, reveals the deeper character of this conception and the actual, ambiguous attitude of Islamic States towards proselytism and conversion.

In Arabic, there is no general term for ‘conversion’, nor for ‘proselytism’. English–Arabic dictionaries do not provide a translation for the two words, they rather explain them. A convert is ‘a person who adopts a new belief’ (mu ctaniq caqīda ğadīda); to proselytize consists of ‘inducing a person to pass from his original belief to a new one’ (awwala šasan can caqīdatihi al-aliyya ilà caqīda ğadīda).2 Nevertheless, this semantic field is not completely empty: some specific terms do exist. The key-words are: irtidād or ridda, and dacwa.

Irtidād is the abandonment of Islam, which normally coincides with the conversion of a Muslim to another religion: it can be translated by the term apostasy. Ridda is a collective apostasy. Irtidād is forbidden by Islamic law, while other types of conversion are either of no relevance or welcomed (as for the case of the conversions to Islam). The death penalty for the apostate (murtadd) is grounded on several hadī;, the reports documenting the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad. The apostate is executed after a three-day period given to him in order to accept the invitation to revert to Islam. Nowadays, only a few Islamic States consider irtidād a crime: this is the case in Sudan and Mauritania. More frequent are other legal consequences of irtidād, concerning marriage, property, inheritance and citizenship.

Other words related to apostasy are: kufr and fisq. Kufr is disbelief; we can distinguish the original disbelief from the disbelief after belief: the latter coincides perfectly with irtidād. Those who abandon Islam are also called fāsiqūn by the Qur’ān (XXIV, 55): fisq is the dissolute life that an apostate leads after his refusal of God’s commands.

Dacwa means the call to Islam, the invitation to mankind to submit to the only God, to believe in the only true religion (Qur’ān, XIV, 46–54). Dacwa is Islamic proselytism; the term can not properly apply to other kinds of proselytism. Christian proselytism is called tabšīr, the announcement of glad tidings, the preaching of the Gospel, the evangelization.3 As only Christians, among the non-Muslims legally resident in dār al-islām under Islamic law, would practice proselytism, it is perfectly understandable why certain dictionaries simply equate proselytism with tabšīr.4

Dacwa is actively supported by some Islamic States, as well as some Islamic international organizations, even beyond the borders of the Muslim world. Other kinds of proselytism are tolerated by Islamic States, on the condition that they do not target Muslims. If they do so, they are prohibited.

But the invitation to embrace Islam addressed to non-Muslims is only one of the possible aspects of dacwa. Muslims too can be called by dacwa, to revitalize their lukewarm faith, and/or to mobilize in order to establish a true Islamic régime. The ‘external dacwa’, directed to non-Muslims, has to be distinguished from the ‘internal dacwa’, addressing Muslims.

The very first example of internal dacwa was, in the eighth century, the Abbasid political propaganda against the ruling Omayyad dynasty, attacked for its alleged impiety. The Ismacili religious-political propaganda, which led to the establishment of the Fatimide dynasty in North Africa (tenth century), is a prominent case of successful shici dacwa.

As for contemporary manifestations of dacwa, in 1911, in Cairo, the modernist thinker Rašīd Riā established the Dār al-dacwa wa’l-iršād, an educational institution meant to train religious personnel according to new criteria, in order to stem the Christian missionary activities. In the Indian subcontinent, the movement of ğamācat al-tablīġ was founded in 1927: its main aim is to deepen the faith of those who are already Muslim, while the propagation of Islam among non-Muslims, originally banned, nowadays plays a marginal role in this kind of modern religious mission spread all over the world. The movement presents itself as apolitical; it prohibits political controversies among its members and promotes the unity of the Muslims. Other movements and organizations put much more emphasis on the political implications of Islamic awareness: al-Ihwān al-Muslimūn