Understanding the punishment for apostasy in Islam
Mohamad Mostafa Nassar
Many people believe that capital punishment for apostasy in Islam is a problem. There are some so-called modernist and liberal Muslims who will perhaps like to add “alleged” in the above sentence. The problem, they say, is in the idea being inconsistent with the maxims of civil liberties idolized in the West. The problem looks more serious when Islam appears to be the only “religion” sanctioning this. They do not recall what the Bible says on the subject. (see Deut. 13:6-9)
2. Roots of the misunderstanding- Misunderstanding Islam
The thought of capital punishment for apostasy being a problem springs from the failure to understand the essence of Islam. What is Islam? Is it just a “religion” like Christianity or Hinduism? Far from it! Islam is something more comprehensive. It is church and state united.
To the faithful Islam is veritably a “portable fatherland”. However, people do not realize a “religion” can be such comprehensive an idea so as to govern every domain of human interest. The division of state and church has struck the minds in a way that any thought against it seems weird and causes consternation.
History stands witness to the fact that whenever the so-called ‘mundane’ and the ‘spiritual’ have parted the result has been large scale chaos and rule of tyranny. From the marches of the Tartar hordes to the rise of Godless Western civilization with its imperialism it’s all about savagery and inhumanity.
In fact the division has lead to social chaos and spread of all kinds of debauchery as we find in the characteristic western world.
This division between the state and the church is thus the greatest injustice humanity has done to itself. And worst of all people appear to be contented with injustice and tyranny and see everything through the prism that maintains the mutual distinction between the state and the religion.
This content on injustice is like the Holy Prophet –peace and blessings of Allah be upon him- prophesied that a time will come when, “prevails of injustice will expel justice until the one who is born in the tyranny will not know other than it.” (Musnad Ahmad)But this ignorance cannot question the merits of the ideas whose understanding is marred by it.
In short, the commitment of a Muslim, as an individual or a nation, to Islam is both his patriotism and nationality. To use the words of Iqbal, the 20th century Muslim poet and philosopher, “our solidarity as a community rests on our hold on the religious principle. The moment this hold is loosened we are nowhere.” (Stray Reflections, No. 21, Iqbal Academy, Lahore 2008 p.37)
3. The purpose of the state
The purpose of the state is always to streamline and organize the affairs of its subjects. Every state has its fundamentals defined and those fundamentals in turn define the further details of all the laws enforced in the territory of the state. The same as an end result is true for an Islamic state as well.
However, there is one fundamental difference and that is; unlike the other traditions in Islam it is the law the gives birth to a state. In his introduction to the translation of al-Shaybani’s Kitab Al-Siyar Al-Saghir, late Dr. Mahmood Ahmad Ghazi wrote:
“Law, in other traditions, is generally recognized as such only when it is promulgated by the political authority, that is to say, law is always the creation of the political authority, of the state apparatus. On the other hand, in the Islamic tradition, it is other way round: the state and the political authority are the creations of the law.” (Kitab Al-Siyar Al-Saghir- The Shorter Book on Muslim International Law, Islamic Research Institute, Islamabad, 1998 p.18)
As the Islamic state finds its origins in the Islamic law, it is therefore markedly different from any other idea about statehood and authority. It is very much like other states as much as is the concern of bringing about organization necessary to mankind. But in the origin and quality of ideals and values that bring about this organization it is quite different. Ibn Khaldun (d. 808 A.H.) writes;
“ … it is necessary to have reference to ordained political norms, which are accepted by the mass and to whose laws it submits … If these norms are ordained by the intelligent and leading personalities and (best) minds of the dynasty, the result will be a political (institution) on an intellectual (rational) basis. If they are ordained by God through a lawgiver who establishes them as (religious) laws, the result will be a political (institution) on a religious basis, which will be useful for life in both this and the other world.” (Muqaddima, Translated by Franz Rosenthal, Chapter III, Section 23)
The “political institution on a religious basis” is what is referred to as Khilafah. Ibn Khaldun further writes about its difference with other political theories;
“(To exercise) natural royal authority means to cause the masses to act as required by purpose and desire. (To exercise) political (royal authority) means to cause the masses to act as required by intellectual (rational) insight into the means of furthering their worldly interests and avoiding anything that is harmful (in that respect).
(And to exercise) the caliphate means to cause the masses to act as required by religious insight into their interests in the other world as well as in this world. (The worldly interests) have bearing upon (the interests in the other world), since according to the Lawgiver (Muhammad), all worldly conditions are to be considered in their relation to their value for the other world.” (Ibid.)
This entails an Islamic state is much different from so-called secular democracies. The purpose of Islamic state is to ensure the collective interests of the masses, both in this world and the next. And certainly to Islam the only way to salvation in the next world is obedience to what is ordained by Allah and His Messenger. Therefore, an Islamic state is all about furthering the cause of Islam by commanding what is good and forbidding what is wrong.
The purpose of the Islamic state is clearly defined in the Noble Qur’an. Allah Almighty says;
الَّذِينَ إِنْ مَكَّنَّاهُمْ فِي الْأَرْضِ أَقَامُوا الصَّلَاةَ وَآتَوُا الزَّكَاةَ وَأَمَرُوا بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَنَهَوْا عَنِ الْمُنْكَرِ وَلِلَّهِ عَاقِبَةُ الْأُمُورِ
Those who if We establish them in the earth, shall establish the prayer and give the poor-rate and command that which is reputable and restrain that which is disreputable and unto Allah is the end of all affairs. (Al-Qur’an 22:41)
So to “command that which is reputable” and “restrain that which is disreputable” is the law and to put the law in to action on the collective plain, Allah promises the believers the power in land and then asks them to perform the said function. It is as essential for an Islamic state just as preservation of so-called secular democratic values is for many states around the world; in fact it is much more important as it is its very raison d’être.
And to “command the good” and “forbid the wrong” primarily refers to belief and disbelief respectively. Al-Tabari (d. 310 A.H.) writes:
“They call the people to Oneness of Allah and to practice in His obedience and to what the people with belief in Allah deem good. And they forbid associating any partners with Allah and to act in His disobedience -that which is detested by the people of Truth and belief in Allah.” (Tafsir al-Tabari, al-Resala Publications, Beirut, 2000 vol.18 p.651)
And according to traditions the Prophet –may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him- said;
من رأى منكم منكرا فليغيره بيده، فإن لم يستطع فبلسانه، فإن لم يستطع فبقلبه، وذلك أضعف الإيمان
“He who amongst you sees something abominable should change it with his hand; and if he has not strength enough to do it, then he should do it with his tongue, and if he has not strength enough to do it, (even) then he should (abhor it) from his heart, and that is the least of faith.” (Sahih Muslim, Book 1, Hadith 79)
In this Hadith three levels are described to change and resist the abominable and wrong. And each level is for different set of people.
“Commanding the good with hand is for those in position of political authority, with tongue it is for the scholars and with the heart it for the laymen.” (Fatawa Hindiyya / Fatawa Alamgiri, Dar el-Fekr, Beirut, 1310 A.H. vol.5 p.353)
So an Islamic state has to perform the duty of commending the good and forbidding the evil through every possible means using the state machinery.
4. How Islam looks at apostasy?
With points 1) and 2) in consideration we can truly appreciate Islam’s view of apostasy and then understand its legislation about it.
4.1. An act of rebellion
Islam sees apostasy as an act of rebellion. Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah put it aptly in the following words;
“The basis of Muslim polity being religious and not ethnological or linguistic, it is not difficult to appreciate the reason for penalising this act of apostasy. For it constitutes a politico-religious rebellion.” (Muslim Conduct of State, Sh. Muhammad Ashraf publishers, Lahore 1945 p.161)
And treason is a crime that has been traditionally subject to capital punishment in almost all setups- at least until recently. In many countries it is still in practice. And the idea of punishment for this remains universal anyway.
Naturally, people will find it difficult to swallow because any idea of treason or high treason is attached only to one’s country or nation in the sense the terms are understood in our day. With the notion of the church and the state being separate fixed into the minds religion is considered totally a private affair, therefore, any notion of treason vis-à-vis religion is condemned as fanaticism.
Dr. Muhammad Iqbal points out that if collective love and jealousy for one’s religion is fanaticism then we may accept the charge for all nations have the same feelings though anchored on different concepts. He then concludes, “Fanaticism is patriotism for religion; patriotism, fanaticism for country.” (Stray Reflections, No. 18 p.33)
Thus, it is only about the different conception of nationhood and, therefore, of treason and rebellion. Rest is same!
4.2. An act of public disorder
Quite similar to the idea of rebellion but with a slight different sense is the view of apostasy as an act of public disorder. For an Islamic state ‘social order’ includes people generally following and practicing Islam and with no force trying to impede the state’s efforts at making people follow Islam plainly. And considering the actual non-Muslim citizens i.e. the protected minorities, we may say that no force anyway resisting state’s efforts to win them for Islam using all possible non-coercive means is also part of the ‘order’.
As apostasy leads people to doubt Islam or derails their course towards understanding Islam, it is considered an act of public disorder, going against the very purpose and mission of the state. Faith alone is the focus, identity and spirit of a Muslim society or state.
Hence an open act of apostasy is a crime because it poses a threat to community character and tries to undermine what the society and state aim to achieve. In a way it is an attack on the faith of people due to its potential of making people doubt or stay away from Islam.
Actually the trick of “believing and then leaving” Islam is an old gimmick the enemies of Islam have been playing. The Noble Qur’an says;
وَقَالَتْ طَائِفَةٌ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْكِتَابِ آمِنُوا بِالَّذِي أُنْزِلَ عَلَى الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَجْهَ النَّهَارِ وَاكْفُرُوا آخِرَهُ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَرْجِعُونَ
“And a section of the people of Book says, ‘believe at day-break in what has been sent down to those who believe and deny at the day-end; perhaps they may turn away.’” (Qur’an 3:72)
And to this day the same trick is being played. The whole scheme of fake ex-Muslims rests on the same idea. In the wake of this, an Islamic state has the right to execute any such offenders within the area of its jurisdiction.
The fundamental duty of the Islamic state is to forbid what is wrong and to take every possible step to put away anything that can cause harm to the religious conviction of the believers. The same applies to all that can make non-Muslims, whom the state using every non-coercive means tries to win for Islam, harbor (more) doubts about Islam.
Deeply studying the statutes of Islamic law (ahkam al-shar’ia) and reflecting on their underlying causes (‘ilal) the scholars of Islam have extracted the purposes of the law (maqasid al-shar’ia) which include protection of people’s faith (hifz al-din). In fact according to many scholars including al-Ghazali (d. 505 A.H.) and al-Aamidi (d. 631 A.H.) it is the first of all in order (See, Al-Mustasfa 1/173 and al-Ahkam fi Usool al-Ahkam 3/274)
Further al-Zarkashi (d. 794 A.H.) in most unambiguous words states that killing the apostate is in accordance with this principle. See Al-Bahr al-Muhit fi Usool al-Fiqh 7/266.
With the above detail known we can then truly appreciate the fact that Abu’l-Hassan al-Mawardi (d. 450 A.H.) in his magnus opus, Al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyyah (Laws of Islamic Governance) discusses the issue of apostasy in the chapter titled, “Al- Wilaya ‘ala al-Masahih- Fil Wilayah ‘alaa al-Hurub” i.e. Commands of Wars Waged for Public Good, (See, Al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyyah- Laws of Islamic Governance, Translated by Asadullah Yate, Ta-Ha publishers, London 1996 p.83)
This is enough to prove that punishment of apostasy is in accordance with what Islam understands as good for the people and by the way of forbidding evil to maintain public order.
5. The question of personal freedom
Now we come to the question of civil liberties or personal freedoms.
5.1. Freedom of conscience
Samuel M. Zwemer quoted from Dr. Andrew Watson about the treatment of Muslim converts to Christianity in Egypt saying, “the idea of personal liberty—freedom of conscience—has no place in Moslem Law.” (The Law of Apostasy in Islam, Marshall Brothers Ltd., London p.20)
It’s fun to read this, because the poor Christian zealot perhaps did not even know what “freedom of conscience or thought” means and that not just Islam, in fact the whole world together cannot curb freedom of conscience. Islam, even as the Kingdom of God on Earth is not concerned with what a person thinks, feels or even utters in the close quarters without going public. For that every individual is answerable to the Creator only.
5.2 Freedom of expression
This is however, in a way, related to Freedom of Expression. But Freedom of expression – where expression may be verbal, or physical- is never absolute. Even John Stuart Mill, who is said to have greatly contributed to liberal thought, gives the “harm principle.” In introduction to his thesis titled, “On Liberty” he writes;
The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion.
That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. THAT THE ONLY PURPOSE FOR WHICH POWER CAN BE RIGHTFULLY EXERCISED OVER ANY MEMBER OF A CIVILIZED COMMUNITY, AGAINST HIS WILL, IS TO PREVENT HARM TO OTHERS. (On Liberty, Longman, Green & Co. Ltd. London 1926 p.6 Emphasis mine)
The sole thing that interests us in these words of Mill is that he accepts that to prevent harm to the society power can be exercised over any member of the community. And this “compulsion and control” may be achieved even through the use of “physical force in the form of legal penalties.”
So, even the grossly liberal thought, in principle, agrees to the Islamic ideal. However, this brings us to a more fundamental question: What is “harm”? And who is going to define it?
The discussion can actually be projected back to the question of the basis of concepts like morality, good and evil, however to cut the thing short we may say it springs from the ideals on which the convictions of the society as a whole rest.
And certainly Islam thinks every other religion is deviated from or averse to the Truth, therefore, Muslim society and state have the right to enforce laws physically penalizing those who cause “harm” to the society, the way “harm” is understood in Islamic tradition.
Here recall the above detail about apostasy being an act of public disorder and protection of faith (hifz al-deen) as an important underlying cause (‘illah) of all Islamic laws.
6. The question of freedom of religion
Even though Islam comes hard at apostates, it accords every tolerance to the non-Muslims living as protected minorities (dhimmis) under the Muslim rule. For Islam’s attitude towards regular non-Muslim citizens of the state see, for instance, the following hadith narrations;
Allah’s Messenger, may Allah bless him, said: “If anyone wrongs a man with whom a covenant has been made, or curtails any right of his, or imposes on him more than he can bear, or takes anything from him without his ready agreement, I shall be his adversary on the day of resurrection.” (Sunan Abu Dawud, Hadith 3052)
The Prophet, may Allah bless him, said, “Whoever killed a mu’ahid (a person who is granted the pledge of protection by the Muslims) shall not smell the fragrance of Paradise though its fragrance can be smelt at a distance of forty years (of traveling).” (Sahih Bukhari, Book 83, Hadith 49)
Islam makes clear distinction between ordinary non-Muslims living as protected minorities and the apostates and at no point should the two be confused.
In other words Islam does tolerate non-Muslims with their peculiar beliefs but only as long as they do not try to propagate it or do anything that impedes the state’s non-coercive efforts to make the understanding and practice of Islam easy. Islam and Islam alone is the ultimate basis of anything and everything in an Islamic setup and it must remain supreme as a social order and system of life.
7. Summary and Reminders
1- Islam is not a religion in commonly understood sense of the word. It is a system of life with its own social and political ethos.
2- Islam has its own set of morals and it defines “good”, “bad”, “harm” and “benefit” its own way and accordingly draws the lines to limit to the freedoms, just like any other socio-political order does. Freedom and liberty is never absolute in any setup.
3- Islam views apostasy both as rebellion against the faith-based polity it creates and as an act of public disorder in the same paradigm.
4- Needless to say, not any individual but only the state has the right to execute an apostate after the charge is proved through standard judicial procedures under the Islamic law.
5- The principle of punishing those who refuse to comply with or endanger the social order they are a part of is held by all societies and even religious doctrines like Judaism and Christianity as clearly stated in the Bible.
Note: In the next article on the subject we will in-sha’Allah answer all the arguments some people use to question the capital punishment for apostasy plainly established in hadith
Indeed Allah knows the best!
 Hadith 20186 Dar al-Hadith ed. Classified as Hasan by Hafiz al-Iraqi and Shaykh Hamza Ahmad al-Zayn
 Classified as Sahih by Albani
 Christians make absolutely no sense in arguing that Old Testament does not speak of the laws of their religion, for if Jesus was the part of God-head then he was indeed the one (or part of the Three understood as one) who gave the instruction in the Book of Deuteronomy. Further in the New Testament, Jesus is reported to have said that he came to full and not to destroy the law. (See Matthew 5:17-18)
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