Why Did Ali Burn Some Apostates?
A Christian missionary has cited the following Hadith from Bukhari and is demanding an explanation:
Volume 9, Book 84, Number 57:
Some Zanadiqa (atheists) were brought to `Ali and he burnt them. The news of this event, reached Ibn `Abbas who said, “If I had been in his place, I would not have burnt them, as Allah’s Apostle forbade it, saying, ‘Do not punish anybody with Allah’s punishment (fire).’ I would have killed them according to the statement of Allah’s Apostle, ‘Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him.'”
Can you briefly describe the background, which compelled Hadhrat `Ali to take this action? How valid is the isnad  and matn  and the legality of such a punishment? If there is an argument that Hadhrat `Ali cited to justify this action, that too is welcome.
The referred narrative is placed in the Kitaab Al-Jihaad as well as the Kitaab Istitaabah Al-Murtaddeen by Al-Bukhari in his “Sahih”.
Although Bukhari’s narratives do not give any details regarding the incident, yet in his exegesis on Bukhari – “Fath Al-Baari” – Ibn Hajar has mentioned a few other versions of the same incident . Considering all the narratives reporting this incident, the following major variations come to the forefront:
Firstly, there is quite a bit of variation regarding the people, who were subjected to this punishment. According to one version, they were atheists, according to a second version, they were apostates, according to a third version, they were a group of people, who secretly used to practice idolatry and according to a fourth version, they were a group of Rawafidh , who believed in the divinity of `Ali (ra).
Secondly, there is a significant difference between the reports regarding the incident itself. Although, the narratives given in Bukhari do not give any details of how the incident happened, yet Ibn Hajar has given a few narratives, which give some details of the happening. According to one version, when `Ali (ra) was informed regarding a people who considered him to be god, he called them and asked them to refrain from such blasphemy. They refused to comply. This went on for three days. Till, finally, `Ali (ra) ordered to dig a deep pit and burn a huge fire in it. The criminals were brought to the fire. `Ali (ra) told them that if they do not agree to refrain from their blasphemy, they would be thrown in the fire. They persisted in their refusal and were, subsequently, thrown in the fire. According to a second version, `Ali (ra) was informed of a people who secretly worshipped idols in a house. `Ali (ra) went to investigate the report. An idol was recovered from the house and, subsequently, the house was burnt to ashes. According to a third version, `Ali (ra) was informed of some apostates. He called for them. When they arrived, `Ali (ra) gave them food to eat and asked them to return to Islam. They refused. At their refusal, `Ali (ra) made them stand in a pit and killed them in it. Subsequently, he burnt them.
These are some of the various versions of the incident as reported in books of history and Hadith. One may take whichever explanation he believes to be more plausible to be accurate.
In my opinion, the second and the third versions of the incident are quite considerable. It seems that:
1. After it had become evident that the house was secretly being used for idolatry, `Ali (ra) ordered that it be burnt down. However, due to a mistake on the part of one or more of the narrators, the incident has been reported in a way that it gives the impression that the house was burnt down with its inhabitants. Whereas, it may not have been so; or
2. People were killed for their apostasy and later on their corpses were burnt to ashes. This is clearly implied in the third stated version of the incident.
Nevertheless, if someone is not willing to accept any of the above explanations and is persistent that `Ali (ra) actually burnt these criminals to death, even then the most that can be said is that `Ali’s decision of burning the criminals to death was not correct, in view of the directive of the Prophet (pbuh) to the contrary. This, obviously, would amount to a criticism on `Ali’s decision – not a criticism on Islam.
After all, `Ali (ra) was but a human being, he may have erred in his decision.
I hope this helps.
October 11, 2000
 That is the chain of narrators of this reporting.
 That is, the text of this reporting.
 Al-Fath Al-Baari, Kitaab Istitaabah Al-Murtaddeen, Vol. 12, Pg. 270
 i.e. rejecters.
By Brother: Bassam Zawadi