Apostasy in Islam is commonly defined as the conscious abandonment of Islam by a Muslim in word or through deed. The definition of apostasy from Islam, and whether and how it should be punished are matters of controversy – Islamic scholars differ in their opinions on these questions. In this article, I will attempt to prove through Quranic evidence and other Islamic literature that the present conception that apostasy in Islam in punishable by death is entirely fabricated.
It is important to understand that Islam is a faith that liberates rather than imprisons. Before the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) was bestowed the Holy Quran, the world in totality, was misguided and empty of peace. All major world religions exclaim to have a monopoly on the truth. Hadrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad (ra) has written at length on this distinct feature of Islam; that Muslims are the only people in the world who do not claim to be the single holder of the key to salvation. No man living on earth has the right to claim that only followers of his faith will be given salvation, this is a decision which solely lies in the hands of Allah. As far as the subject of apostasy goes, the Holy Quran has laid such a judicious principal that there remains absolutely no room for discussion on such matters. And that principal is,
“There should be no compulsion in religion. Surely, right has become distinct from wrong.”
The above verse has presented such a profound answer to almost all controversial subjects such as apostasy, oppression of women, even the misconception that Islam’s victory is a result of force by the sword. The Holy Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (sa), has further strengthened the notion that there is absolutely no enforcement of application in the matters of faith, he states,
The Messenger of Allah said: “The religion is advice”
Although it seems that the above verse and hadith should suffice, unfortunately this theme is the exact opposite to the contemporary practice. Many extremist Maulwis have issued religious
1 The Holy Quran, Surah Al Baqarah, Verse 257
2 Tirmidhi, Book 27, Hadith 1926
edicts stamping those who decide to leave Islam as hell bound and punishable by death.
However, Allah doesn’t just stop here, He has directly provided us guidance regarding the subject of apostasy. He states,
“O ye who believe! whoso among you turns back from his religion, then let it be known that in his stead Allah will soon bring a people whom He will love and who will love Him, and who will be kind and humble towards believers, hard and firm against disbelievers.”
In this verse Allah has clearly discussed the topic of apostasy and its consequence. He hasn’t even indirectly implied that such a person should be killed, rather he has told us not to do anything at all. Allah has thrusted the responsibility upon Himself by promising that for every one person who leaves Islam, He will in return cause a nation of disbeliever to accept Islam. Islam is a religion of free will. Allah has given man complete freedom in deciding which path he wishes to take, He states,
“wherefore let him who will, believe, and let him who will, disbelieve.”
If apostasy is punishable by death, then what meaning can be alluded to the above phrase of
“let him who will?” One’s will can only be arrived at by freedom of choice. Therefore, if one still stubbornly wishes to claim that apostasy is punishable by death, then he must first cancel out this verse from the Holy Quran; because with such a conclusion, the above verse is left without meaning nor value.
Another proof we find in the Holy Quran which eliminates the notion of killing apostates is the duty given to prophets. Allah states,
3 The Holy Quran, Chapter 5, Verse 55
4 The Holy Quran, Chapter 18, Verse 30
“And obey Allah and obey the Messenger, and be on your guard. But if you turn away, then know that on Our Messenger lies only the clear conveyance of the Message.”
“know that on Our Messenger lies only the clear conveyance of the Message;” this verse makes it clear that if someone wishes to leave his faith, it is no one’s responsibility to try and bring him back, let alone punish him with the death penalty. However, if that was the case, then Allah should have told the Holy Prophet (sa) to execute those who turn away. Instead Allah asked him the following question,
“Haply thou wilt grieve thyself to death because they believe not. If We please, We can send down to them a Sign from the heaven, so that their necks will bow down before it.”
This verse evidently expresses that all apostates are free to make their own choice. If Allah had willed He would cause all disbelievers to bow in submission, but that’s not the case. Allah hates enforcement, He prefers that his creation chooses the right path out of their own will. So, who are we as humans to take such matters in to our own hands? Allah further stresses this point,
“And if thy Lord had enforced His will, surely, all who are on the earth would have believed
together. Wilt thou, then, force men to become believers?”
Thus, we see that the Holy Quran has left absolutely no doubt in this matter! There is no punishment for apostasy in Islam.
5 The Holy Quran, Chapter 5, Verse 93
6 The Holy Quran, Chapter 26, Verse 4,5
7 The Holy Quran, Chapter 10, Verse 100
Pathetic Attempt to Provide Quranic Proof
In a desperate and pathetic attempt to deliver Quranic proof that the punishment for apostasy in Islam is death, some try and quote the following verses,
“And if they break their oaths after their covenant, and attack your religion, then fight these leaders of disbelief — surely, they have no regard for their oaths — that they may desist. Will you not fight a people who have broken their oaths, and who plotted to turn out the Messenger, and they were the first to commence hostilities against you? Do you fear them? Nay, Allah is most worthy that you should fear Him, if you are believers.”
Phrases like “then fight these leaders of disbelief, surely, they have no regard for their oaths; that they may desist,” and “Will you not fight a people who have broken their oaths?” are nitpicked without any regard for context. However, if someone takes a little more time to study the context of this particular incident, they will swiftly come to realize that these verses are not alluding to simple apostasy. Hence, taking a step back to read verse three tells us that these verses are speaking about the migration of Muslims from Mecca to Madina after thirteen long and cruel years of persecution, when the Quraish of Mecca had embarked upon hostilities to wipe out Islam by force. No where in this verse does Allah tell Muslims to fight those who have renounced their faith, rather permission to fight has been given against those idolaters who have broken their pledge after their firm commitment to it. Those who have become hostile to your religion are the first to initiate hostilities against you. The permission for you to fight them is restricted to their leaders whose covenants are worthless and false. The permission is given in order to stop them from entering into hostile acts against you. This is the true meaning of
these verses which have been misconstrued by the advocates of capital punishment. There is not even the remotest reference to people who renounce their faith being forced to become Muslims.
8 The Holy Quran, Chapter 9, Verses 12-13
It is also important to clarify the Ahadith which are presented by advocates of capital punishment for apostasy.
1. The first Hadith is a narration by Anas, who reported that the Holy Prophet (sa) told the
people of the Akal to go and stay among his she-camels outside Madina. But this treacherous group killed the keeper of the camel and fled with the herd. This party of men was sentenced to death on the account of murder of the caretaker, not on the basis of apostasy. This narration makes no mention of apostasy whatsoever.
2. The story of Ibn Khatal is also frequently referred to, who was killed on the occasion of the Victory of Mecca. Advocates push the fact that he was an apostate, no doubt he was. However, this was not the reason for his execution; he was also charged with the murder of a travelling companion of the Holy Prophet (sa).
3. Maquees bin Sababah, who also happened to be an apostate was also killed on the basis of murdering some Ansar companions. The above three incidents cannot be presented as proof because even though all three of them had renounced their faith, how can their charges of murder be ignored?
4. Another very popular tradition often mentioned by advocates is when the Holy Prophet (sa) ordered the execution of woman for being an apostate. For starters, this narration is very weak and we find clear mention that the Holy Prophet (sa) had forbade the killing of apostate women in a well-known treatise jurisprudence titled Hedayah.9 No one understood the Holy Quran more than the Holy Prophet (sa), then how can we have the
audacity to claim that he went against the commands of his Lord and ordered the death of
Khilafat -e- Abu Bakr (ra)
Refuters of Zakat
The advocates of capital Punishment for Apostasy rely heavily on the incident of the mass
killings during the khilafat of Abu Bakr (ra). The Abs and Zubyan tribes refused to pay the Zakat,
but this was not the only reason which sparked warfare. Rather they had initiated hostilities by
attacking Muslims, brutally burning some alive and mutilating Muslim corpses. These advocates
are either ignorant to the facts or they purposely play down the mass murder of innocent
Muslims. Thus, these rebels weren’t only refusing to pay Zakat, rather they had become open
enemies of the state and a danger to the rest of society.
9 Murder in the Name of Allah, Chapter: Apostasy in Islam, Mirza Tahir Ahmad (ra)
Musailma Kazaab was a man who once promised his submission to the Holy Prophet (sa) under the condition that he be named his first successor but the Prophet (sa) replied in the negative telling him that he would not even be given a twig of a date palm tree in exchange for his allegiance. From that moment Musailma had become an open enemy of Islam, but it wasn’t until after the Holy Prophet (sa)’s demise that his enmity took physical form. Maulana Maududi was a pioneer advocate of the death penalty for Apostasy in Islam. He wrote an extensive pamphlet on Abu Bakr (ra)’s military subjugation over Musailma with the intent of supporting his views on this subject. However, the truth is that his desire for political power knew no bounds, so much so, that much of his school of thought regarding Islamic Jurisprudence seems to be heavily influenced by medieval Christianity. Having failed to find evidence of any specific condemnation by the Holy Prophetsa, Maulana Maududi had to seek recourse in a wish which the Holy Prophetsa is said to have expressed during his dying moments, that Musailmah should be done away with. However, it is impossible for us to believe that Abu Bakr (ra) would put any
sort of delay in carrying out a last demand of his master in any way or form. So, why is it that Abu Bakr (ra) waited until Musailma took the offensive and openly rebelled against the Islamic State of Arabia? This is because there is absolutely no truth in Maududi’s claim. Musailma
wasn’t killed for apostasy, he was executed after himself initiating a war against Islam and also gruesomely murdering Habeeb bin Zaid (ra), companion of the Holy Prophet (sa). In the end it is vital to mention that any research regarding the matters of Islam are to be consulted from its three primary sources and most importantly in the following order,
1. The Holy Quran
2. Sunnat e Nabawi
3. Ahadith e Sahiha
The Holy Quran has been given the veto because it is the most authentic and Allah himself has promised to be its guardian,
“Verily, We Ourself have sent down this Exhortation, and most surely We will be its Guardian.”
Thus, if any recorded Sunnah or Ahadith is found to contradict the Holy Quran in any shape or form, it should either be interpreted in a way parallel to the Holy Quran, and if it can’t be, then it should be disregarded entirely. Punishment for Apostasy in Islam is an issue which does just that. It is not possible for a fair-minded person to reconcile over thirty verses of the Holy Quran in order to claim that the punishment for Apostasy in Islam is death.
10 The Holy Quran, Chapter 15, Verse 10