“He drew a circle that shut me out,
– heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win,
We drew a circle that took him in.”
Edwin Markham

It is perhaps an inevitable part of human interaction that identities are formed in opposition to others. Identity itself is from the Latin identitas, meaning "same as" (as in how we use the term identical). And a natural consequence of sameness is difference. To know who you are, you must know who you are not.

Thus identity politics is something that can never be ignored – it is subtle and ever changing, but a significant part of our human story. Who is cast within an identity marker and who is cast out, is a matter of pragmatism, politics and personality. The same can be said of religious identity.

I consider myself a Muslim, or to paraphrase the Arabic meaning, someone who is seeking God’s will. I consider religion to be a search for greater truth – not questions of how, but questions of why. I believe many religions have a divine origin. I do not however believe that religions are untouched or unchanged by human desires, human pettiness, and the pressures that influence society at large.

So where does apostasy fit in? Islamic theology is based on two sources. The Qur'an and the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Pretty much every Muslim in the world has the same Qur'an, there are however numerous debates about interpretation between Muslim scholars, theologians and indeed, laymen. The life of the Prophet, the second source of theology, is a much more convoluted affair. Early Muslim scholars were also part historians, working to try and address the veracity of the oral transmissions that reached them. Thus to take something from the life of the Prophet as a theological source, one must first establish its historical reliability, and then attempt to interpret what it may mean. I talk theology only to avoid the tempting, but erroneous, notion that Islam is crystallised and codified.

What then do the primary sources say about religious freedom? Perhaps the most important and noteworthy verse of the Qur'an proclaims:

“There is no compulsion in religion.”– 2:256

Tradition says this verse was revealed in Madinah, when the early Muslims were no longer a minority religion in Makkah but slowly becoming a dominant force in the Arabian Peninsula. Parents who had become Muslims were often overeager for their children to follow suit – this verse was a reprimand to address such practices. Its contemporary relevance is clear. Religious freedom is often less about the state and more about the family.

There are numerous other verses in the Quran too, such as the below:

“The Truth is from your Lord; so let him who desires believe and let him who desires disbelieve.” – 18:29

“If they accept Islam, then indeed they follow the right way; and if they turn back, your duty is only to deliver the message.” –3:20

“And if your Lord had pleased, all those who are in the earth would have believed, all of them. Will you then force people till they are believers?” – 10:99

So why are there sometimes barriers to freedom of religion placed within the context of a Muslim society? More often than a question of theology, it is a question of safety, security and identity.

The early Umayyad’s, for example, rather than "spreading Islam by the sword", often put up many barriers to conversion – especially for their Persian subjects. For some Umayyad’s, Islam was an Arab privilege, and one they were not keen to share. If a Persian did insist upon conversion however, then they had first to find an Arab tribe to ‘adopt’ them, and even then, they were not regarded as full or true Muslims. Some historians observed it was the lack of Umayyad recognition of Persian Muslim identity that led to the Abbasid Revolution.

Later Islamic history, for example in medieval Baghdad, saw many scholars taking an extremely open view towards religious freedom. Baghdad was perhaps one of the most religiously diverse places in the world at the time, with Mandaeans, Manichaens and Yazidis alongside more recognisable contemporary world religions. In such a multicultural, multireligious environment, freedom of religion became an important aspect of Islamic theology.

Barriers however can be erected very quickly. Perhaps the biggest shift to theological interpretations of religious freedom came from European colonisation. Moghul India, for example, became increasingly religiously tolerant (perhaps most famously and controversially under Jalal ad-Din Akbar, who verged on a form of Perennialism). However, the severe trauma of being colonised, the loss of religious institutions (which were shut down by the British) and replacement of traditional Islamic scholarship with projects such as the Anglo-Mohammaden Codex resulted in a strong shift in the theology to consider apostasy, particularly conversion to Christianity, a problem. Christianity was seen as part of British colonialism. With Muslims under threat from both missionaries and machine guns, it was seen as vital to the survival of Islam to preserve Muslim communities and discourage conversion, under the threat of death if necessary. The effects of European colonisation can still be felt on Islamic theology.

Contemporary theology is recovering however. Scholars with huge followings, such as Tariq Ramadan, Fethullah Gulen and Yusuf Qardawi have all spoken about the importance of religious freedom. The most conservative mainstream opinion today holds that apostasy itself is not "punishable", but only if coupled by a physical attack upon the former-Muslims community. Theology however is sometimes less important than sociology. In many places around the world, religious and ethnic identities are merged, and theology is disregarded in favour of norms that have their source in more geographically rooted cultural practices. Abandoning one’s faith can be seen as also abandoning one’s culture, one’s heritage and one’s family.

In this rather short journey through Muslim history, I try and argue an important point. The lack of religious freedom is not just about theology, but sociology too. It is certainly a human right, and as a Muslim I would argue, a God-given right, for each human being to choose their individual path in life, free from coercion and threat.

To address the issues that hinder religious freedom however, it is important to recognise that this is not simply about extremists versus moderates, or conservatives versus reformers. It is often about families, identities and fear of the Other.

I am sure that I am not alone in supporting the aims of the Apostasy Project. Religious freedom is important to the believer and non-believer alike. I want the freedom to believe as a Muslim, to practice my religion, and not to fear attack, prejudice or pressure. Unreservedly, I want that same freedom for everyone else, whether Muslim, Christian, Jew or apostate from these traditions. I welcome especially the approach taken by the Apostasy Project, which professes that it is "not about criticising religion but supporting the right to choose what you believe".

There have been suggestions that it is time for dialogue between faith traditions and the humanist tradition – to seek out common ground like the interfaith dialogue has done in the past between the Abrahamic faiths. It occurs to me that the freedom to believe or disbelieve is a common ground that Humanists and religious believers share, and may be a fruitful starting point for further discussion.