Apostasy Laws In Islam – Do We Really Understand Them?

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In the name of Allah, the Most Merciful, the Most Kind.

All that I see down the word press feed under the hash tag ‘Islam’ is just cases after cases of someone being punished for retracting their faith from Islam. And the Christian apologists just go up in arms when it comes to such a case and then the atheists who blog then add such cases to their reasons against organised religion and they too also gather arms and blame Islam. I can honestly say there are more non-Muslims who blog under the hash of Islam than Muslims do – so perhaps we need to rethink how we deal with such a strong presence.

The topic of discussion is Apostasy and it is one that is often used to counter the peaceful notion of Islam, Richard Dawkins famously uses this argument when confronted with Muslims, the late Christopher Hitchens makes use of it also and many other New Atheists have gathered it together as part of their resources when it comes to speaking about Islam. Now, it is important to note that Apostasy laws exist and this is not something which is exclusive to the doctrine of Islam, Judaism and Christianity also have similar laws in place. The idea of inflicting death upon an individual who apostates is something which rarely did happen. Bear with me on this I shall soon explain what I am trying to convey.

The Qur’an in the second chapter makes it explicitly clear that forced coercion into the religion or forcing one to remain in the religion is a doctrine that is not expounded by any verse in the Qur’an, thus Allah says:

Let there be no compulsion in religion, truth stands out clear from error ‘ [Qur’an 2: 256] for‘…truth stands out clear from error’,

God wants you to use your rationality and your intellects in finding the truth, it doesn’t just want to hand it to you, it wants you to be free in making choices; in other words rationality stands out clear from error. It is also essential to point out here that there is not a single earthly punishment commanded by Allah in the Holy Qur’an for those who leave the faith. As a matter of fact the Qur’an says:

“The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills – let him believe; and whoever wills – let him disbelieve.” [Qur’an 18:29],

the Qur’an unequivocally says ‘let him’, no force; no intimidation may be used. So how can one be punished by death? It would seem somewhat contradictory of the Qur’an if at one point it allowed for freedom of thought and freedom of religion and the next moment it sentenced to death anyone that left it, thus such a scenario would be unimaginable.

In today’s time the punishment for Apostasy is an exception of the sharia that has been long gone, there exists today no country that implements sharia law in its totality thereby giving it authority to issue and inflict such a punishment. So, these countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Sudan to name but a few are in no way in a position to be dealing with those who leave the religion to be given death; there is not a single instance whereby Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) killed anyone for apostasy, the following hadith should be evidence enough:

A Bedouin gave the Pledge of allegiance to Allah’s Apostle for Islam. Then the Bedouin got fever at Medina, came to Allah’s Apostle and said, “O Allah’s Apostle! Cancel my Pledge,” But Allah’s Apostle refused. Then he came to him (again) and said, “O Allah’s Apostle! Cancel my Pledge.” But the Prophet refused then he came to him (again) and said, “O Allah’s Apostle! Cancel my Pledge.” But the Prophet refused. The Bedouin finally went out (of Medina) whereupon Allah’s Apostle said, “Medina is like a pair of bellows (furnace): It expels its impurities and brightens and clears its good. [Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 9, #318]

Notably, as Dr. M. E. Subhani explained in his book:

“This was an open case of apostasy. But the Prophet neither punished the Bedouin nor asked anyone to do it. He allowed him to leave Madina. Nobody harmed him.” [Apostasy in Islam (New Delhi, India: Global Media Publications, 2005), pp. 23-24.]

This was clearly someone who wanted to leave the religion of Islam, and when he finally departed the Prophet (Peace be upon him) left him alone and didn’t chase down this matter. Surely, if such a matter was sanctioned by Allah, then the Prophet (Peace be upon him) would not have hesitated to mete out such a punishment; but arguably this was not the case.

The Qur’an states further:

“Behold, as for those who come to believe, and then deny the truth, and again come to believe and again deny the truth and thereafter, grow stubborn in their denial of the truth, God will not forgive them, nor will He guide them in any way.” [Qur’an 4:137] 

This verse very clearly shows that even after rejecting Islam twice, no punishment is prescribed for the apostates. And so the Qur’an goes on to say:

“If it had been the will of your Lord that all the people of the world should be believers, all the people of the world would have believed! Would you then compel them against their will to believe?” [Qur’an 10:99]. 

The verses I have quoted should be sufficient for one to know that one cannot compel a person to believe against their will, and it is these ideas of freedom of thought that Islam wishes to keep and lays a strict importance on.

In Islam the only apostasy that was punishable by death was political apostasy. Apostasy can be divided in to two parts, firstly, intellectual apostasy in which one leaves the religion as a result of a denial of any of the Islamic creed and beliefs, this type of apostasy was not punishable at all and these people were left alone. Secondly, political apostasy in which detractors then encouraged others to leave and then as a result attempt a coup on the current government this was what was punishable by death. This was the context in which the Prophet (Peace be upon him) said:

‘Whosoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him’ [Bukhari], 

However, some have argued that because this hadith is not a mass transmitted hadith (Muttawatir) and rather it is an isolated hadith (Ahad) as this is beyond my knowledge I shall not expound any further in case I fall in to trouble for speaking about such a matter that I am not well versed in. Even among those scholars who accept the hadith as authentic, there is vast difference of opinion on the interpretation and elaboration of the hadiths. Such hadiths have been traditionally cited as justification for executing apostates, but these were circumstantial rulings where legal authorities of that time deemed the punishment justified, as the act of apostasy in question, or in some cases, mass apostasy was comparable to treason or to an organized crime outfit, where the apostates would ally themselves with the opponents of the state.

Hadrat Umar Ibn Abdul Aziz [d. 97 AH/720 AD]
[popularly known as Umar II and regarded as part of the Khulafa-i-Rashidoon]

Some people accepted Islam during the period of Umar bin Abdul Aziz, who is called the fifth rightful caliph of Islam. All these people renounced Islam sometimes later. Maimoon bin Mahran the governor of the area wrote to the caliph about these people. In reply Umar bin Abdul Aziz ordered him to release those people and asked him to re-impose jizya on them. [Musannaf Abdur Razzaq, pp. 171-10, cited in M. E. Subhani,Apostasy in Islam (New Delhi, India: Global Media Publications, 2005), pp. 23-24. Abdur Razzaq ibn Humama (d. 211 AH).

There was an early Muslim, Ubaydallah ibn Jahsh, who went with the first emigrants from Mecca to Abyssinia. He converted to Christianity and stayed, but remained close to Muslims. He divorced his wife, but he was not killed. There are many other scenarios in which individuals where left alone, the killing for apostasy very rarely happened, and when one looks closely into the history one notices that in fact such cases were more prominent in times that surrounded war, or other sort of trials that caused the Muslims to be on high alert against those who wished to overthrown the system. When we look at the UK, the last time the death penalty was in use for treason was in 1946 and only some years after this did capital punishment stop and thus treason was a crime that didn’t warrant capital punishment. Every, secular country that exists today has a history of punishment for treason, and in Islam there existed also a system but that system has long gone. And for those who use it they do not represent the position of the Qur’an nor the positions of many scholars who opposed a punishment.

Christianity is also not innocent of such views on apostasy, Saint Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologia said: ‘Heretics should be given the death penalty’. Now, I am not using this as a smoke screen I am merely just trying to add other positions in other faiths. Likewise, Hinduism has no concept of apostasy. But, in Judaism such a punishment exists.

Now, who can actually give the punishment? According to a Shafi’I jurisprudence textbook known as ‘Reliance of the traveller’ by Waqib al-Misri and translated by Nuh M Keller it states the following:

‘If he is a freeman, no one besides the Caliph or his representative may kill him. If someone else kills him, the killer is disciplined.’

This is evidence enough that not anyone can take justice into their own hands, people often forget that when someone is to be punished we cannot as normal people hand out such punishments. The case must be taken to a court who after reviewing such evidence then rules the appropriate way forward. A lot of people forget that this aspect of Islam is the most essential, and that we are not a people who are qualified as judges to enact a ruling upon another ourselves. Finally, to end this question on who actually gives the punishment a caliph or his representative must be present, seeing as today we have none they ruling for a punishment is abolished and we cannot inflict such a chastisement.

According to the Hanafi School, Imam Abu Hanifa made it very clear that a woman who is an apostate should not be killed and they cite the following evidence:

Do not kill a child, nor a woman, nor an old man, nor obliterate a stream, nor cut a tree…” (Sunan Al-Bayhaqî)

Ibn Abbas said:

Do not kill women if they apostatize from Islam, but imprison them and call them to Islam, and coerce them upon it.

Ata ibn Abi Rabah said about the female apostate:

She is not killed. – Abu Bakr Ibn Abi Shaybah (d. 235 AH/849 CE). Al-Musannaf

This is the ruling according to the Hanafi School.

I want to now quote some scholars concerning the death penalty for apostasy:

Ibrahim al-Nakha’i [d. 95 AH]
[a leading jurist and traditionist among the generation succeeding the Companions]

According to al-Nakha’i, apostate should be re-invited to Islam, but should never be condemned to death. [He] maintained the view that the invitation should continue for as long as there is hope that the apostate might change his mind and repent. [referred to in Chapter: Freedom of Religion in Mohammad Hashim Kamali’s Freedom of Expression in Islam Islamic Text Society, 1997]

Sufyan al-Thawri [d. 161 AH]
[known as ‘the prince of the believers concerning Hadith’ (amir al-mu’minin fi’l-Hadith) and is the author of two important compilations of Hadith, namely al-Jami’ al-Kabir, and al-Jami’ al- Saghir]

According to al-Thawri, apostate should be re-invited to Islam, but should never be condemned to death. [He] maintained the view that the invitation should continue for as long as there is hope that the apostate might change his mind and repent. [cited in Kamali, as above]

Shams al-Din al-Sarakhsi [d. 389 AH]
[An eminent Hanafi jurist and author of al-Mabsut]

“The prescribed penalties (Hudud) are generally not suspended because of repentance, especially when they are reported and become known to the head of state (imam). The punishment of highway robbery, for instance, is not suspended because of repentance; it is suspended only by the return of property to the owner prior to arrest. … Renunciation of the faith and conversion to disbelief is admittedly the greatest of offenses, yet it is a matter between man and his Creator, and its punishment is postponed to the day of judgment (fa’l-jaza’ ‘alayha mu’akhkhar ila dar al-jaza’). Punishments that are enforced in this life are those which protect the people’s interests, such as just retaliation, which is designed to protect life.” [al-Mabsut, X, p. 110]

Abu Al-Walid Al-Baji [d. 474 AH]
[a noted Maliki jurist; a contemporary of Imam Ibn Hazm]

… observed that apostasy is a sin which carries no prescribed penalty (hadd), and that such a sin may only be punished under the discretionary punishment of ta’zir … [mentioned in Kamali cited above]

Imam Abu ‘Abdullah Al-Qurtubi [d. 1273 AD]
[Eminent Malik Scholar of hadith and fiqh]

“Al-Samara’i in his comment on this verse (an-Nahl:107) has quoted from Qurtubi’s al-Jami the remark that the verse conveys an admonition that the wrath of Allah will be incurred by the apostate but there is no hint of any other punishment.” [S. A. Rahman’s Punishment of Apostasy in Islam, p. 47, referring to Nu’man ‘Abd al-Razzaq al-Samara’i. Ahkam al-Murtadd fi al-Shari’at al-Islamiyyah, Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Arabiyyahya lil-Taba’at wal Nashr wal-Tauzi, 1968]

Abu Hayyan al-Andalusi [d. 1355 AD]
[Maliki scholar and author of Qur’anic commentary Bahrul Muhit]

“Ibn Hayyan, a well-known exegesis  has expressly mentioned a definite opinion that no apostate can be coerced into rejoining the Muslim community.”[mentioned in S. A. Rahman, Punishment of Apostasy in Islam, India, Kitab Bhaban, 1996, p. 55]

Ibn al-Hammam al-Hanafi [14th century AD]
[Eminent scholar]

“There is no punishment for the act of apostasy  for its punishment is greater than that, with God.” [mentioned in S. A. Rahman, Punishment of Apostasy in Islam, India, Kitab Bhaban, 1996, p. 45, citing Sharh Fath al-Qadir with commentary by Chalpi on Fath al-Qadir, Vol. IV, pp. 388-9]

I believe I have to my best of ability conveyed an understanding of this issue that is so misunderstood and taken out of context. I hope after reading this one is better educated and can appreciate truly the truth. As far as I am aware there are no major mistakes in this work, if anyone finds such in any of my work then please do kindly let me know.

Related article:

Morocco’s High Religious Committee Says Apostates Should Not Be Killed” (*)

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