Freedom of religion and apostasy in Islam
Mohamad Mostafa Nassar
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
Freedom of religion and apostasy are major issues challenging Muslims in our times. On one hand, we know that Islam strictly prohibits compulsion in religion. On the other hand, classical Islamic law has prescribed the death penalty for apostasy.
These two aspects of our faith exist in tension with one another and the news media often highlights controversial cases in which someone in the Muslim world has been charged with apostasy. Each time we hear of these cases the Muslims erupt into bitter arguments, some siding with religious freedom and others siding with harsh punishment.
How can we reconcile these two teachings and find the moderate, middle path to which Islam calls us?
Freedom of Religion
Islam guarantees religious freedom for non-Muslims and prohibits forced conversion and spreading the religion by violence. This teaching is established in numerous verses of the Quran and in the Prophet’s practice.
لَا إِكْرَاهَ فِي الدِّينِ قَد تَّبَيَّنَ الرُّشْدُ مِنَ الْغَيِّ
There is no compulsion in religion. The truth is distinct from error.
Surah Al-Baqarah 2:256
And Allah said:
وَقُلِ الْحَقُّ مِن رَّبِّكُمْ فَمَن شَاءَ فَلْيُؤْمِن وَمَن شَاءَ فَلْيَكْفُرْ
Say: The truth is from your Lord. So whoever wills let him believe, and whoever wills let him disbelieve.
Surah Al-Kahf 18:29
The Prophet would peacefully call people to the religion with beautiful preaching and sound arguments.
Anas ibn Malik reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said to a man:
The man said, “I find that I dislike it.” The Prophet said:
وَإِنْ كُنْتَ كَارِهًا
Even if you dislike it.
Source: Musnad Ahmad 11650, Grade: Sahih
In this tradition, the Prophet did not call the man to Islam using threats or intimidation, but rather by telling him that Islam is good for him even if he disliked it.
Muhammad Rashid Rida writes:
قَاعِدَةٌ كُبْرَى مِنْ قَوَاعِدِ دِينِ الْإِسْلَامِ وَرَكْنٌ عَظِيمٌ مِنْ أَرْكَانِ سِيَاسَتِهِ فَهُوَ لَا يُجِيزُ إِكْرَاهَ أَحَدٍ عَلَى الدُّخُولِ فِيهِ وَلَا يَسْمَحُ لِأَحَدٍ أَنَّ يُكْرِهَ أَحَدًا مِنْ أَهْلِهِ عَلَى الْخُرُوجِ مِنْهُ
This is a major rule among the principles of the religion of Islam and a great pillar among the pillars of administration. It is not permissible to force anyone to enter the religion and it is not allowed to expel anyone among his people from his religion.
Source: Tafseer Al-Manar 2:256
The Prophet never forced anyone into Islam and neither would he fight them because they followed a different religion. He only fought people who declared war against the Muslim community or violated people’s rights.
Ibn Al-Qayyim writes:
وَلَمْ يُكْرِهْ أَحَدًا قَطُّ عَلَى الدِّينِ وَإِنَّمَا كَانَ يُقَاتِلُ مَنْ يُحَارِبُهُ وَيُقَاتِلُهُ وَأَمَّا مَنْ سَالَمَهُ وَهَادَنَهُ فَلَمْ يُقَاتِلْهُ وَلَمْ يُكْرِهْهُ عَلَى الدُّخُولِ فِي دِينِهِ
The Prophet never forced the religion upon anyone, but rather he only fought those who waged war against him and fought him first. As for those who made peace with him or conducted a truce, then he never fought them and he never compelled them to enter his religion.
Source: Hidayat Al-Hayara 237
The many verses of the Quran that declare freedom of religion must be understood as the general rule. Nowhere does the Quran prescribe any worldly punishment for apostasy, whereas in the authentic traditions we find that punishment is prescribed in specific circumstances as a means to protect the community.
Apostasy in Context
The punishment for apostasy originated due to the dangerous phenomena of hypocrisy (nifaq) that threatened the community in Medina. Hypocrisy in this sense is not simply failing to live up to one’s stated moral standards, but rather this form of hypocrisy was the deliberate attempt by the enemies of Islam to pretend to be Muslims in order to infiltrate and harm the community.
وَقَالَت طَّائِفَةٌ مِّنْ أَهْلِ الْكِتَابِ آمِنُوا بِالَّذِي أُنزِلَ عَلَى الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَجْهَ النَّهَارِ وَاكْفُرُوا آخِرَهُ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَرْجِعُونَ
A faction of the People of the Book say to each other: Believe in that which was revealed to the believers at the beginning of the day and reject it at its end that perhaps they will abandon their religion.
Surah Ali Imran 3:72
Some of the Jews of Medina pretended to be Muslims outwardly with the intention of later publicizing their rejection of Islam in an attempt to shake the faith of newly converted Muslims. This was at a time when Medina was threatened with a war of extermination by the Quraish aristocracy.
Ibn Kathir reported:
عَنْ مُجَاهِدٍ فِي قَوْلِهِ تَعَالَى إِخْبَارًا عَنِ الْيَهُودِ بِهَذِهِ الْآيَةِ يَعْنِي يَهُودَ صَلَّتْ مَعَ النَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ صَلَاةَ الْفَجْرِ وَكَفَرُوا آخِرَ النَّهَارِ مَكْرًا مِنْهُمْ لِيُرُوا النَّاسَ أَنَّ قَدْ بَدَتْ لَهُمْ مِنْهُ الضَّلَالَةُ بَعْدَ أَنْ كَانُوا اتَّبِعُوهُ
Mujahid said this verse is regarding Jews who prayed the dawn prayer with the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, and they disbelieved at the end of the day as a plot to turn people away, such that it appeared as if they saw misguidance after entering the religion.
Source: Tafseer Ibn Kathir 3:72
Likewise, other hypocrites in Medina were spreading lies and rumors among the Muslims at a time when their unity was most needed. Such acts constituted a serious threat to the security of the community.
لَّئِن لَّمْ يَنتَهِ الْمُنَافِقُونَ وَالَّذِينَ فِي قُلُوبِهِم مَّرَضٌ وَالْمُرْجِفُونَ فِي الْمَدِينَةِ لَنُغْرِيَنَّكَ بِهِمْ ثُمَّ لَا يُجَاوِرُونَكَ فِيهَا إِلَّا قَلِيلًا
If the hypocrites and those in whose hearts is disease and those who spread rumors in Medina do not cease, We will surely let you overpower them. Then they will not remain your neighbors therein except for a little while.
Surah Al-Ahzab 33:60
Therefore, the punishment for apostasy was prescribed in this specific context. It was not prescribed in order to punish the act of unbelief itself, as this is for Allah alone, but rather to protect the Muslims from the conspiracies of their enemies.
Taha Jabir Alalwani writes:
Hence, if the Messenger of Allah ordered the execution of those who changed their religion in order to destroy Islam’s inner front by shaking the Muslims’ faith, especially those who were still new to Islam, by spreading falsehoods in Medina with the aim of stirring up divisions and by plotting the Muslims’ downfall, then this can only be viewed as a security issue and therefore justified. After all, there is no nation on earth that will allow others to harm it in this way.
Moreover, if the Jew who was being commanded by those plotting against Islam to appear to enter Islam at the beginning of the day, then repudiate it at the end of the day, realized that he would not be able to exit from Islam with the same ease with which he had entered, he would think twice, nay a thousand times, before throwing in his lot with such conspirators.
Source: ʻAlwānī, T. J. F., Roberts, N., Unus, I. (2011). Apostasy in Islam: A historical and scriptural analysis. London: International Institute of Islamic Thought. p.70-71
It is only in this situation that we can properly understand the statement of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him:
مَنْ بَدَّلَ دِينَهُ فَاقْتُلُوهُ
Whoever changes his religion, then kill him.
Source: Sahih Bukhari 6524, Grade: Sahih
Scholars recognize that this apparently general statement must be restricted (takhsees) by other evidence. What we find is that the Prophet issued this directive within the particular context we have described and it should not be used to negate several verses and traditions indicating restriction. Rather, this tradition must be understood in light of the Quran and traditions as a consistent whole.
Fadl Ibn Ziyad reports: I heard Ahmad Ibn Hanbal respond to a question regarding the saying that the Sunnah overrules the Quran. Ahmad said:
مَا أَجْسُرُ عَلَى هَذَا أَنْ أَقُولَهُ وَلَكِنْ أَقُولُ إنَّ السُّنَّةَ تُفَسِّرُ الْكِتَابَ وَتُبَيِّنُهُ
I do not dare say that. However, the Sunnah is the exegesis (tafseer) of the Book and its explanation.
Source: Al-Bahr Al-Muheet 11
In fact, scholars now recognize that there are degrees of apostasy just as there are degrees in other areas of the religion. Scholars have divided unbelief, idolatry, hypocrisy, and sins into major and minor categories. Likewise, it becomes clear when all the evidence is presented that apostasy should be divided into major and minor categories as well.
Minor apostasy is when someone embraces Islam and later leaves the religion peacefully without causing harm to the community. The sin is purely between the apostate and his Lord, and worldly punishments are not applied in this case.
إِنَّ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا ثُمَّ كَفَرُوا ثُمَّ آمَنُوا ثُمَّ كَفَرُوا ثُمَّ ازْدَادُوا كُفْرًا لَّمْ يَكُنِ اللَّهُ لِيَغْفِرَ لَهُمْ وَلَا لِيَهْدِيَهُمْ سَبِيلًا
Verily, those who believed and then disbelieved, then believed and then disbelieved and increased in disbelief, never will Allah forgive them nor will He guide them to a right way.
Surah An-Nisa 4:137
In this verse, Allah describes a person who believes, then disbelieves, then believes again, and then disbelieves again. This person committed apostasy twice and yet Allah did not prescribe a legal punishment for him.
An authentic tradition relates the story of a bedouin who embraced Islam but later cancelled his pledge of allegiance to the Prophet, yet no punishment was applied to him.
Jabir reported: A bedouin came to the Prophet and gave the pledge of allegiance for embracing Islam. The next day he came with a fever and he said, “Please cancel my pledge.” The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, refused three times and he said:
الْمَدِينَةُ كَالْكِيرِ تَنْفِي خَبَثَهَا، وَيَنْصَعُ طَيِّبُهَا
Medina is like a furnace. It expels its impurities and collects what is pure.
Source: Sahih Bukhari 1784, Grade: Sahih
The Prophet did not punish this man even though he abandoned the community.
In a similar manner, Umar Ibn Abdul Aziz as Caliph did not apply any penalty to a group of apostates who had recently embraced Islam but were not firm in the religion. We can deduce from this narration that punishment is not necessary for people who only recently embraced Islam and are not firmly grounded in its teachings.
Ma’mar reported: Some residents of the peninsula told me that some people embraced Islam but they did not remain in it very long until they committed apostasy. Maymun ibn Mihran wrote to Umar Ibn Abdul Aziz regarding them and Umar wrote back saying:
رُدَّ عَلَيْهِمُ الْجِزْيَةَ وَدَعْهُمْ
Let them return to paying tribute and leave them alone.
Source: Musnaf Abdur Razzaq 18102
These are clear-cut examples of minor apostasy in the early period of Islam for which there was no legal punishment.
Major apostasy is when a person embraces Islam and later leaves the religion while combining this with the political crime of treason. Legal punishment against such persons can only be carried out by a lawful authority according to due process, and it is not permissible for individual Muslims to carry out this punishment on their own.
The presence of political treason as a condition for punishment is made clear in an authentic tradition.
Abdullah ibn Mas’ud reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, applied legal punishment in the following case:
وَالتَّارِكُ لِدِينِهِ الْمُفَارِقُ لِلْجَمَاعَةِ
The one who leaves his religion and separates from the community.
Source: Sahih Muslim 1676, Grade: Sahih
The mention of one who “separates from the community” (al-mufariq lil-jama’ah) indicates that a person is not legally punished simply for leaving Islam, but rather for high treason against the Muslim community. This phrase is associated in other traditions with rejecting loyalty to the Muslim authority.
Ibn Umar reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
مَنْ خَلَعَ يَدًا مِنْ طَاعَةٍ لَقِيَ اللَّهَ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ لَا حُجَّةَ لَهُ وَمَنْ مَاتَ وَلَيْسَ فِي عُنُقِهِ بَيْعَةٌ مَاتَ مِيتَةً جَاهِلِيَّةً
One who withdraws his obedience will meet Allah on the Day of Resurrection without an argument for him, and whoever dies without swearing allegiance will have died in ignorance.
Source: Sahih Muslim 1851, Grade: Sahih
In another version of this narration, the Prophet said:
وَمَنْ مَاتَ وَهُوَ مَفَارِقٌ لِلْجَمَاعَةِ فَإِنَّهُ يَمُوتُ مِيتَةً جَاهِلِيَّةً
Whoever dies while he has separated from the community (al-mufariq lil-jama’ah), then he has died in ignorance.
Source: Musnad Ahmad 5526, Grade: Sahih
Indeed, some of the companions interpreted the phrase this way and described an apostate as:
حَارَبَ اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ
One who wages war against Allah and His Messenger.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 4334, Grade: Sahih
From these traditions we can infer that one who “separates from the community” refers to one who “withdraws his obedience,” a treasonous action, not simply leaving the community as the bedouin of Medina had done.
The connection between apostasy and treason is made even clearer in a tradition in which the Prophet describes the major apostate as:
رَجُلٌ يَخْرُجُ مِنَ الإِسْلاَمِ يُحَارِبُ اللَّهَ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ وَرَسُولَهُ
A man who rejects Islam and wages war against Allah the Exalted and His Messenger.
Source: Sunan An-Nasa’i 4048
The companions understood this type of apostasy to involve war and sedition against the community.
Ibn Abbas said:
فَمَنْ قَتَلَ وَأَفْسَدَ فِي الأَرْضِ وَحَارَبَ اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ ثُمَّ لَحِقَ بِالْكُفَّارِ قَبْلَ أَنْ يُقْدَرَ عَلَيْهِ لَمْ يَمْنَعْهُ ذَلِكَ أَنْ يُقَامَ فِيهِ الْحَدُّ الَّذِي أَصَابَ
Whoever kills others, spreads corruption in the land, wages war against Allah and His Messenger, and joins the unbelievers before he is subdued, then there is nothing to prevent the legal punishment from being applied to him because of what he did.
Source: Sunan An-Nasa’i 4046, Grade: Sahih
Therefore, the death penalty was justified against such rebels who rejected lawful authority and committed treason against the community. This seemed to be implicitly understood by the early scholars, such as Imam Muslim who entitled a chapter of his Sahih:
بَاب حُكْمِ الْمُحَارِبِينَ وَالْمُرْتَدِينَ
The ruling of those who wage war and commit apostasy.
Likewise, Ibn Al-Qayyim associates apostasy with “aggression” and “assault” against religion, for which the death penalty was justified to protect lives.
Ibn Al-Qayyim writes:
فَأَمَّا الْقَتْلُ فَجَعَلَهُ عُقُوبَةَ أَعْظَمِ الْجِنَايَاتِ كَالْجِنَايَةِ عَلَى الْأَنْفُسِ فَكَانَتْ عُقُوبَتُهُ مِنْ جِنْسِهِ وَكَالْجِنَايَةِ عَلَى الدِّينِ بِالطَّعْنِ فِيهِ وَالِارْتِدَادِ عَنْهُ وَهَذِهِ الْجِنَايَةُ أَوْلَى بِالْقَتْلِ وَكَفِّ عُدْوَانِ الْجَانِي عَلَيْهِ مِنْ كُلِّ عُقُوبَةٍ
As for the punishment of execution, it is reserved for the greatest offenses such as those against life, so that its punishment is of similar kind, such as the offense against the religion by assaulting it and apostatizing from it. This offense is the first to be punished by execution in order to restrain the aggression of the criminal by every punishment.
Source: I’lam Al-Muwaqi’een 2/74
Nevertheless, the death penalty was not uniformly applied by the Prophet and his companions. There were some cases when the ruling involved a lesser punishment or even a full pardon.
Ibn Abbas reported:
كَانَ عَبْدُ اللَّهِ بْنُ سَعْدِ بْنِ أَبِي سَرْحٍ يَكْتُبُ لِرَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ فَأَزَلَّهُ الشَّيْطَانُ فَلَحِقَ بِالْكُفَّارِ فَأَمَرَ بِهِ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ أَنْ يُقْتَلَ يَوْمَ الْفَتْحِ فَاسْتَجَارَ لَهُ عُثْمَانُ بْنُ عَفَّانَ فَأَجَارَهُ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ
Abdullah ibn Sa’d ibn Abu Sarh would write to the Messenger of Allah but the devil deceived him and he joined the unbelievers. The Messenger of Allah ordered that he should be killed on the day of liberation, but Uthman ibn Affan sought protection for him, so the Messenger of Allah granted him protection.
Source: Sunan Abu Dawud 4358, Grade: Sahih
In this example, the Prophet pardoned the apostasy of Abdullah ibn Sarh after Uthman sought protection for him. This indicates that the punishment for apostasy is not a firm legal punishment (hadd) for which there can be no intercession, but rather it is a discretionary punishment (ta’zeer) to be applied by a qualified judge.
Abdullah ibn Sarh eventually returned to Islam, demonstrating the Prophet’s wisdom in showing mercy and forbearance. The great jurists of early Islam recognized such cases.
وَقَدْ آمَنَ بَعْضُ النَّاسِ ثُمَّ ارْتَدَّ ثُمَّ أَظْهَرَ الإِيمَانَ فَلَمْ يَقْتُلْهُ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ قَالَ أَحْمَدُ رُوِّينَا هَذَا فِي عَبْدِ اللَّهِ بْنِ أَبِي سَرْحٍ حِينَ أَزَلَّهُ الشَّيْطَانُ فَلَحِقَ بِالْكُفَّارِ ثُمَّ عَادَ إِلَى الإِسْلامِ وَرُوِّينَاهُ فِي رَجُلٍ آخَرَ مِنَ الأَنْصَارِ
Ash-Shafi’ee said: Some people believed and then committed apostasy and then displayed faith again and the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, did not kill them. Ahmad said: We have narrated this regarding Abdullah ibn Abi Sarh when Satan caused him to stumble and he joined the unbelievers, then he returned to Islam. We have also narrated this regarding another man from the Ansar.
Source: Ma’rifat As-Sunan wal Athar
Early Muslim scholars and authorities preferred imprisonment instead of execution in some cases. Umar Ibn Al-Khattab as Caliph expressed his desire to forego the death penalty when some men from the tribe of Bakr ibn Wail committed apostasy.
Anas ibn Malik reported: Abu Musa sent me to Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, and Umar asked me about six people among tribe of Bakr ibn Wail who had committed apostasy from Islam and joined the idolaters. Umar said, “What has been done to the people of Bakr ibn Wail?” I said, “O leader of the believers, some people committed apostasy from Islam and joined the idolaters, so their fate was only to be killed.” Umar said:
لأَنْ أَكُونَ أَخَذْتُهُمْ سِلْمًا أَحَبُّ إِلَيَّ مِمَّا طَلَعَتْ عَلَيْهِ الشَّمْسُ مِنْ صَفْرَاءَ أَوْ بَيْضَاءَ
That I accept their surrender would have been more beloved to me than whatever is touched by the rays of the rising sun.
I said, “O leader of the believers, what would you have done if you had seized them?” Umar said:
كُنْتُ عَارِضًا عَلَيْهِمُ الْبَابَ الَّذِي خَرَجُوا مِنْهُ أَنْ يَدْخُلُوا فِيهِ فَإِنْ فَعَلُوا ذَلِكَ قَبِلْتُ مِنْهُمْ وَإِلا اسْتَوْدَعْتُهُمُ السِّجْنَ
I would have presented to them the gate from which they went out that they might enter it again. If they did so, I would have accepted it from them. Otherwise, I would have left them in prison.
Source: Musnaf Abdur Razzaq 18083, Grade: Sahih
A similar incident was narrated by Imam Malik in Al-Muwatta.
Muhammad ibn Abdullah reported: A man came to Umar ibn Al-Khattab from Abu Musa Al-Ashari. Umar said, “Do you have any recent news?” He said, “Yes, a man has become an unbeliever after his Islam.” Umar said, “What have you done with him?” He said, “We let him approach and we struck his neck.” Umar said:
أَفَلَا حَبَسْتُمُوهُ ثَلَاثًا وَأَطْعَمْتُمُوهُ كُلَّ يَوْمٍ رَغِيفًا وَاسْتَتَبْتُمُوهُ لَعَلَّهُ يَتُوبُ وَيُرَاجِعُ أَمْرَ اللَّهِ
Did you not imprison him for three days and feed him each day with bread and call him to repent and return to the command of Allah?
Then Umar said:
اللَّهُمَّ إِنِّي لَمْ أَحْضُرْ وَلَمْ آمُرْ وَلَمْ أَرْضَ إِذْ بَلَغَنِي
O Allah, I was not present and I did not command it and I was not pleased when I heard it!
Source: Al-Muwatta 1445, Grade: Hasan
This lesser punishment, in lieu of the death penalty, was preferred by other early Muslim scholars.
Sufyan Ath-Thawri reported:
فِي الْمُرْتَدِّ يُسْتَتَابُ أَبَدًا
Amr ibn Qais and Ibrahim Al-Nakha’i said: Regarding the apostate, he should be imprisoned indefinitely.
هَذَا الَّذِي نَأْخُذُ بِهِ
This is what we adhere to.
Source: Musnaf Abdur Razzaq 18084
Some scholars did not apply the death penalty to a female apostate because she does not pose a threat to the security of the community. The punishment for apostasy is not to punish the act of unbelief, as this is for Allah alone, but rather to avert war against the community.
Ibn Abi Shayba reported: Ata’ said regarding the female apostate:
She is not to be killed.
Hasan Al-Basri said:
She is not to be killed.
Source: Musnaf Ibn Abi Shayba 32083
وَقَالَتْ طَائِفَةٌ مِنْهُمْ تُحْبَسُ وَلَا تُقْتَلُ وَهُوَ قَوْلُ سُفْيَانَ الثَّوْرِيِّ وَغَيْرِهِ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْكُوفَةِ
A group of scholars said the female apostate should be imprisoned and not killed. This is the opinion of Sufyan Ath-Thawri and others among the people of Kufa.
Source: Sunan At-Tirmidhi 1458
Ibn Humam writes:
فَكَذَا يَجِبُ فِي الْقَتْلِ بِالرِّدَّةِ أَنْ يَكُونَ لِدَفْعِ شَرِّ حِرَابِهِ لَا جَزَاءٍ عَلَى فِعْلِ الْكُفْرِ لِأَنَّ جَزَاءَهُ أَعْظَمُ مِنْ ذَلِكَ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ تَعَالَى فَيَخْتَصُّ بِمَنْ يَتَأَتَّى مِنْهُ الْحِرَابُ وَهُوَ الرَّجُلُ وَلِهَذَا نَهَى النَّبِيُّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ عَنْ قَتْلِ النِّسَاءِ وَعَلَّلَهُ بِأَنَّهَا لَمْ تَكُنْ تُقَاتِلُ
It is necessary to punish apostasy with death in order to avert the evil of war, not as punishment for the act of unbelief, because the greatest punishment for that is with Allah. This punishment is specifically for those who wage war and this is for the man. For this reason, the Prophet prohibited killing women because they do not fight.
Source: Fath ul-Qadeer 6/72
Some the early jurists, such as As-Sarakhsi Al-Hanafi, highlighted the distinction between an apostate’s sin against Allah and his sin against the community, particularly as he argued that women apostates should not be killed because they do not post a threat against the community.
وَأَصْلُ الْكُفْرِ مِنْ أَعْظَمِ الْجِنَايَاتِ وَلَكِنَّهَا بَيْنَ الْعَبْدِ وَبَيْنَ رَبِّهِ فَالْجَزَاءُ عَلَيْهَا مُؤَخَّرٌ إلَى دَارِ الْجَزَاءِ وَمَا عُجِّلَ فِي الدُّنْيَا سِيَاسَاتٌ مَشْرُوعَةٌ لِمَصَالِحَ تَعُودُ إلَى الْعِبَادِ كَالْقِصَاصِ لِصِيَانَةِ النُّفُوسِ
The act of unbelief is among the greatest offences, but it is between the servant and his Lord. The recompense for it is delayed until the he reaches the abode of recompense. As for what occurs in this world, they are legislated policies for the welfare of people, such as legal retaliation for murder in order to protect life.
Source: Al-Mabsut 10/110
That is, the punishment for apostasy is not to punish unbelief in itself, but rather to protect the community from insurrection. Sheikh Mahmud Shaltut, the late Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar University, also mentions this distinction and he adds that the solitary (ahad) narrations used to justify the death penalty in every case cannot overrule the far more numerous verses of the Quran.
Sheikh Mahmud Shaltut writes:
وقد يتغير وجه النظر في المسألة إذا لوحظ أن كثيرا من العلماء يرى أن الحدود لا تثبُت بحديث الآحاد وأن الكفر بنفسه ليس مبيحا للدم وإنما المبيح هو محاربة المسلمين والعدوان عليهم ومحاولة فتنتهم عن دينهم وأن ظواهر القرآن الكريم في كثير من الآيات تأبى الإكراه في الدين
These narrations evoked various responses from the scholars, many of whom are in agreement that firm legal punishments (hudud) cannot be established by solitary narrations and that unbelief in itself does not warrant the death penalty.
Indeed, the factor which determines the application of this punishment is aggression and hostility against the believers and the need to prevent possible sedition against religion. The obvious meaning in numerous verses of the Quran prohibit compulsion in religion.
Source: Al-Islam Aqidah wa Sharia 281
The jurists understood that legal punishments are not an end in themselves, but rather a means to achieve justice, welfare, and security. If it is possible to achieve these objectives without inflicting the maximum punishment, then it is highly recommended to do so.
Ibrahim Al-Nakha’i justified his preference for imprisonment over the death penalty, saying:
ادْرَءُوا الْحُدُودَ عَنِ الْمُسْلِمِينَ مَا اسْتَطَعْتُمْ فَإِذَا وَجَدْتُمْ لِلْمُسْلِمِ مَخْرَجًا فَادْرَءُوا عَنْهُ فَإِنَّهُ أَنْ يَخْطَأَ حَاكِمٌ مِنْ حُكَّامِ الْمُسْلِمِينَ فِي الْعَفْوِ خَيْرٌ مِنْ أَنْ يَخْطَأَ فِي الْعُقُوبَةِ
Avoid legal punishments upon the Muslims as much as you are able. If you find a way out for a Muslim, then leave it to him. Verily, for the judge to make a mistake pardoning the Muslims is better than to make a mistake punishing them.
Source: Musnaf Abdur Razzaq 18085
This sentiment is consistent with the Prophetic teaching that it is better for a judge to err in forgiveness than in punishment.
Aisha reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
ادْرَءُوا الْحُدُودَ عَنْ الْمُسْلِمِينَ مَا اسْتَطَعْتُمْ فَإِنْ كَانَ لَهُ مَخْرَجٌ فَخَلُّوا سَبِيلَهُ فَإِنَّ الْإِمَامَ أَنْ يُخْطِئَ فِي الْعَفْوِ خَيْرٌ مِنْ أَنْ يُخْطِئَ فِي الْعُقُوبَةِ
Avoid legal punishments upon the Muslims as much as you are able. If the criminal has a way out, then leave him to his way. Verily, it is better for the leader to make a mistake pardoning the criminal than it is for him to make a mistake punishing the innocent.
Source: Sunan At-Tirmidhi 1424, Grade: Sahih
Indeed, the Prophet described the true believers as the most restrained of people when it comes to taking life. The believers understand that life should only be taken when it is absolutely necessary.
Abdullah ibn Mas’ud reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
أَعَفُّ النَّاسِ قِتْلَةً أَهْلُ الْإِيمَانِ
The most restrained of the people regarding killing are the people of faith.
Source: Musnad Ahmad 3720, Grade: Sahih
From all of this, we understand that the death penalty for apostasy should only be applied to extreme cases of treason and sedition in which such punishment is necessary for the safety of the community. The death penalty is the maximum punishment but lesser punishments or even a full pardon may be warranted by different circumstances.
Concerns of Application
We have a number of concerns about the application of the death penalty when apostasy is not combined with treason.
News stories appear now and again highlighting the cases of some people charged with apostasy and threatened with death, such as Abdul Rahman in Afghanistan in 2006, Hamza Kashgari in Saudi Arabia in 2012, and Meriam Yahya Ibrahim in 2014 in Sudan.
These cases severely damage the global reputation of Islam and further distort an already corrupted view of Islam in the minds of many people. Furthermore, it is questionable whether the death penalty in these cases really serves to protect the Muslim community or if, in fact, it causes even greater harm.
The Prophet seriously considered the reputation of Islam when issuing such rulings. In one incident, the Prophet refused to apply the death penalty to a known hypocrite, even though the man was dangerous, because it would have been used as propaganda by the enemies of Islam.
Jabir ibn Abdullah reported: A man came to the Messenger of Allah on his way back from Hunain while there was some silver in the backpack of Bilal. The Messenger of Allah took a handful from it and distributed it among the people. The man said to him, “O Muhammad! Be just!” Umar ibn Al-Khattab said, “O Messenger of Allah, allow me to kill this hypocrite!” The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
مَعَاذَ اللَّهِ أَنْ يَتَحَدَّثَ النَّاسُ أَنِّي أَقْتُلُ أَصْحَابِي
I seek refuge in Allah that the people will say I am killing my companions.
Source: Sahih Muslim 1063, Grade: Sahih
We ought to consider if issuing such harsh rulings is truly in the interests of the community or if it will hand a propaganda victory to our opponents.
In addition, applying the death penalty can cause tension in our international relations. In our time, the Muslim countries are signatories to a number of international treaties that affirm freedom of religion. When Muslims fail to fulfil such obligations under these treaties, it is used by some non-Muslims to justify harsher measures against the Muslims living as minorities in their countries.
In the time of the Prophet, the Muslims concluded the truce of Hudaybiyah ending hostilities between Mecca and Medina. One of the conditions of the treaty was that people who commit apostasy and defect to Mecca will not be returned to Medina, but Muslims who defect to Medina must be returned.
Anas ibn Malik reported: They imposed a condition upon the Prophet that whoever came to Mecca would not be returned and whoever came from Mecca must be returned. The companions said, “O Messenger of Allah, should we agree to it?” The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
نَعَمْ إِنَّهُ مَنْ ذَهَبَ مِنَّا إِلَيْهِمْ فَأَبْعَدَهُ اللَّهُ وَمَنْ جَاءَنَا مِنْهُمْ سَيَجْعَلُ اللَّهُ لَهُ فَرَجًا وَمَخْرَجًا
Yes. Whoever leaves us for them, then may Allah keep him away. Whoever comes to us from them, then Allah will grant him relief and a way out.
Source: Sahih Muslim 1784, Grade: Sahih
The companions understandably thought this was unfair and some Muslims today strongly resist calls to restrict the death penalty, but the wisdom of the Prophet proved over time that the peace secured by the treaty was much greater than the harm of letting apostates escape to Mecca. Similarly, we should consider that a strict death penalty for apostates may not be worth the harm it causes to international relations and the image of Islam.
Finally, we must consider how the law of apostasy has been abused throughout Islamic history to persecute righteous scholars and reformers. Perhaps the best example of this is the oppression endured by Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal at the hands of Caliph Al-Mu’tasim.
As the Mu’tazilites rose to power, they instituted an inquisition in which scholars were brought to the Caliph and forced to profess their innovated belief in the creation of the Quran. Ahmad ibn Hanbal was one of the few scholars who chose to suffer persecution and death threats rather than affirming a false doctrine.
Muslims who support a strict death penalty for apostasy ought to consider the need for implementing safeguards against its abuse by the ruler, otherwise the ruling could just as easily be turned on them.
Freedom of religion is the general rule in the Quran established through numerous verses and the practice of the Prophet. Nowhere in the Quran is the death penalty prescribed for apostates.
The law of apostasy arose due to the specific phenomena of hypocrisy and the security needs of the early Muslim community. The Prophet and his companions did not uniformly apply the death penalty to every apostate, but rather they sometimes opted for a lesser penalty or a full pardon. These varied circumstances, especially present in our times, justify dividing the penalty of apostasy into major and minor categories.
Muslim scholars and reformers need to seriously consider the practical application of the death penalty for apostasy. Problematic issues include its damage to the image of Islam, its strain on international relations, and its potential for abuse against innocent Muslims. In many cases, the harm of strict application may outweigh any benefits for the community.
Kamali, M. H. (1997). Freedom of expression in Islam. Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society.
ʻAlwānī, T. J. F., Roberts, N., Unus, I. (2011). Apostasy in Islam: A historical and scriptural analysis. London: International Institute of Islamic Thought.
Saeed, A., & Saeed, H. (2004). Freedom of religion, apostasy, and Islam. Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.