In the Name of God, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful
This entire “what to do with apostates” debate has raised an extremely important question in my mind. Despite the overwhelming evidence in the Qur’an against the death penalty for those who choose to leave the fold of Islam, despite the fact that the hadith, when understood correctly, does not contradict the Qur’anic position, it is amazing that some people still cling on to the opinions of scholars on this issue. People continue to retort to me, “All of the 4 imams have upheld death for apostates.”
Thus, even though God Himself told me, “Let there be no compulsion in matters of faith,” this means nothing because Imam Shafi’i said otherwise? Now, to start out, I have absolutely nothing in my heart but love, admiration, and deep respect for the scholars of Islam. These men and women have dedicated their lives to the study of our faith, and they deserve respect and our prayers for God’s blessings upon them.
That being said, they are not God Himself. Their words are not the same as those of God Himself. If they have a position on some issue which clearly contradicts the Qur’an, my first duty is to follow the Word of God. This makes sense, does it not? Yet, whenever I, or anyone else for that matter, question the validity of the argument of a scholar – past or present – people equate that with questioning Islam itself. The word of a scholar should never be equated with the Word of God. A scholar’s opinion does not Islam make.
Take the apostate issue. Like I have said time and again, the Qur’an could not be any clearer that apostates are not to be killed. Yet, it is true that the four schools of Sunni Islamic law say otherwise. Does this change anything? Does this change what is said in the Qur’an? Does this mean that the four schools have been incorrect on this issue? (Gasp)
And what is wrong with raising this question? Are these scholars God? Is their work infallible? Are their opinions absolutely correct, with no possibility of error? Are not these scholars human beings, capable of making mistakes? Are not these scholars – may God’s mercy be upon them – subject to the vicissitudes of their particular time and place in history? Should not we Muslims take this to account when we read an opinion of Ibn Taymiyah, or Ibn Al Qayyim, or even Imam Shafi’i? Why can’t we question their opinions and still be respectful of their scholarship? I think we can.
Moreover, these scholars themselves were never above admitting that their opinions may be in error. They had the humility to acknowledge that they may be wrong. They always concluded their opinions with “And God knows best.” Nowadays, however, I see many Muslims treating the opinions of scholars as sacrosanct, beyond all rapproach. The opinion of a scholar constitutes the final word, the end of all discussion.
Now, as has been pointed out numerous times to me, I am not a scholar. This is true. Still, why is it wrong for me to question whether the scholars could be wrong on a particular issue? Now, I do not have the academic ammunition to make a cogent scholarly argument against a particular issue in Islamic law. But, I can still raise the question, can’t I? Moreover, why have not more scholars of today taken a critical look at the scholarly positions of the past, rather than simply rehash what the imams of the 12th Century have said?
Some have already done so. For example, Dr. Mohammed Fadel, a scholar of Islamic law, wrote an article about the Maliki doctrine of guardianship of females in the marriage contract. What I found most striking – and most refreshing – in his article was this statement:
Thus, the argument presented here is that there is a fundamental mistake of law in the Maliki treatment of a guardian’s powers over a female ward who has attained physical maturity…Thus, even within the strict parameters of the Maliki school, a physically mature woman’s marriage cannot be compelled. The fact that the Maliki’s allowed such a woman to be married against her will, insofar as they considered her to lack complete legal capacity, can only be described as a major error in legal reasoning. 
In a footnote, Dr. Fadel wrote: “In some sense, it is charitable to describe this as a ‘mistake’ and not attribute it to some other, less benign, explanations.” Now, what is most important here is not his specific legal argument about marriage, but rather his assertion that the Malikis may be incorrect on this issue. Does this make Dr. Fadel a bad Muslim? Is Dr. Fadel saying Islam itself is mistaken? Absolutely not. We desperately need more Muslim scholars to do the same thing on a broad range of issues that are important to Muslims today.
For far too long, Muslim scholars have been timid to critique the scholarly positions of the past, and this must change. Those scholars (may God’s mercy be upon them all) were products of their own specific historical periods, and their opinions must be judged accordingly. Critiquing a scholar’s legal opinion neither constitutes disrespect for the specific scholar nor a critique of Islam itself. The ink of the scholars may be more valuable than the blood of martyrs, as the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) once said, but it is not the Word of God. Why don’t more Muslims understand this?
1. Fadel, Mohammed. “Reinterpreting the guardian’s role in the Islamic contract of marriage: The case of the Maliki school.” The Journal of Islamic Law 1998: Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 1-26.