Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies


Toleration and exclusion: al-Shafi‘i and al-Ghazali on the treatment of apostates

a1 Yale University


The muslim judgement against apostates has in recent years been applied in cases of publicly expressed conviction that contradict generally accepted foundations of the Muslim faith. This situation is, however, only the outcome of a theological and legal development in the 5th/11th century. Until that time, the judgement of apostasy (irtidad) could not have been applied against Muslims who voiced opinions that were regarded as unbelief. The rules for this earlier period were written down by al-Shafi‘i in his Kitab al-Umm. His interpretation of the legal institution of istitaba leads to the acknowledgement that the judgement of irtidad is applicable only in a very small number of cases. This reflects legal sensitivity in the period of mass conversions when the secret practice of pre-Islamic religious rites amongst newly converted Muslims might have been widespread. Al-Shafi‘i's guidelines, based on earlier judgements within the Kufan tradition, gained widespread acceptance in the Hanafi, Hanbali, and Shafi‘i schools of law. A first change can be noted in the middle of the 5th/11th century when authors such as al-Mawardi and Abu Ya‘la argued for a less generous application of the istitaba. Two generations later, al-Ghazali (d. 555/1111) and his contemporaries such as Ibn ‘Aqil (d. 513/1119) did not restrict the judgement of irtidad to cases of openly declared apostasy. Al-Ghazali develops a reasoning which is fully aware of the change in law and of the deviation from long-established principles. His own condemnation of three key statements of the falasifa, expressed in his Tahafut al-falasifa, would be impossible without his identification of kufr with irtidad in earlier works.