Does the Shari'ah
Allow the Killing of an Apostate?
By Dr. Ibrahim B. Syed
Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc.
Recently Abdul Rahman, 41, of Afghanistan was tried
for apostasy and was acquitted for lack of evidence
and he is now safe and secure in Italy. It was suggested
by the media that Rahman will be executed according
to the Shariah law of Islam for apostasy.
Due to lack of education and critical thinking several
myths or misconceptions have taken root in the Muslim
world over the ages. No efforts have been made to
dispel them. On the contrary, there has been an
effort to strengthen these myths and misconceptions.
This has resulted in the misplaced perception that
Islam is a symbol of obscurantism, a religion of
intolerance that answers everything with the sword.
One grave misunderstanding of Islamic beliefs over
the years is that Islam doesn’t tolerate apostasy.
The Christian missionaries and the Western world
are cashing in on it. Ulama (Muslim scholars) have
tried to strengthen their point of view and several
leading Muslim reformists have failed to tackle
the issue. This misconception has also presented
Islam as a medieval religion. Islam bashers have
time and again tried to paint the picture that Islam
orders the killing of a person if he or she reverts
to another religion from Islam.
The Qur’an is completely silent on any worldly
punishment for apostasy and the sole Tradition that
forms the basis of rulings is open to many interpretations.
The Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said: ‘Whosoever
changes his religion, Kill Him (man baddala Dinahu
faqtuluhu)’”. It is this quote from
the Prophet that forms the basis of the said ruling.
But this is a weak foundation because this hadith
was only transmitted from Muhammad (pbuh) by one
individual. It was not confirmed by a second person.
According to Islamic law, this is insufficient confirmation
to impose the death penalty. The Shari`ah has not
fixed any punishment for apostasy.
The hadith is so generally worded that it would
require the death penalty for a Christian or Jew
who converted to Islam. This is obviously not the
prophet’s intent. The hadith is in need of
further specification, which has not been documented.
Many scholars interpret this passage as referring
only to instances of high treason. (e.g. declaring
war on Islam, Muhammad, God, etc.). There is no
historical record, which indicates that Muhammad
(pbuh) or any of his companions ever sentenced anyone
to death for apostasy.
There was a case at the time of the Prophet Muhammad
where a man came to him on three consecutive days
and told him that he wanted to apostate. The Prophet
never took any action against him, and when the
man finally left Madina, the Prophet never sent
anyone to arrest him, let alone kill him.
This is why some scholars distinguished between
individual apostasy and apostasy which is accompanied
by high treason. So, it cannot be confused with
the freedom of conscience for every individual,
which has been guaranteed in the Qur’an through
hundreds of verses. For example, one version of
a hadith narrated by `A’isha (RA) concerning
apostasy relates to one who left his religion and
fought against Muslims.
Scholars argue that the death sentence is not for
“simple apostasy” (mujarrad al-ridda),
but for apostasy accompanied by treason and sedition,
or by the abuse and slander (sabb) of the Noble
Freedom to convert to or from Islam
The Glorious Qur’an says, “Let there
be no compulsion in the religion: Surely the Right
Path is clearly distinct from the crooked path.”
Al Baqarah, 2:256.
“Those who believe, then disbelieve, then
believe again, then disbelieve, and then increase
in their disbelief - Allah will never forgive them
nor guide them to the path.” Surah An-Nisa’,
For example, the Qur’an says: “Let him
who wishes to believe, do so; and let him who wishes
to disbelieve, do so.” (Al-Kahf: 29)
The quotation from Surah An-Nisa’, 4:137,
shown above, seems to imply that multiple, sequential
apostasies are possible. That would not be possible
if the person were executed after the first apostasy.
From the above verses it can be argued that religious
freedom and the absence of compulsion in religion
requires that individuals be allowed adopt a religion
or to convert to another religion without legal
penalty. Hence the death penalty is not an appropriate
response to apostasy.
The Qur’an has referred to the issue of apostasy
at more than one place (for example see Al-Baqarah
2: 217, Al-Baqarah 2: 108, A’l Imra’n
3: 90, Al-Nisa’ 4: 137 and Al-Nahl 16: 106).
But at none of these places does the Qur’an
mention the punishment of death for people who change
their religion. The Qur’an does mention that
such people shall face a terrible punishment in
the hereafter but no worldly punishment is mentioned
at any of these instances in the Qur’an. Furthermore,
the Qur’an has strictly disallowed the imposition
of death penalty except in two specific cases. One
of them is where the person is guilty of murdering
another person and the other is where a person is
guilty of creating unrest in the country (fasa’d
fil-ardh) like being involved in activities that
create unrest in a society, for example activities
like terrorism etc. The Qur’an says:
Whoever kills a person without his being guilty
of murder or of creating unrest in the land, is
as though he kills the whole of mankind. (Al-Ma’idah,
Obviously, apostasy can neither be termed as “murder”
nor “creating unrest in the land”.
Thus, in view of the above facts, we are left with
one option only. We can only say that either the
hadith has been wrongly ascribed to the Prophet
(pbuh), as it is clearly contradictory to the Qur’an
and the Prophet could not have said anything contradictory
to the Qur’an, or that the saying ascribed
to the Prophet (pbuh) relates not to all apostates
but to a particular and specific people.
A number of Islamic scholars from past centuries
- Ibrahim al-Naka’I, Sufyan al-Thawri, Shams
al-Din al-Sarakhsi, Abul Walid al-Baji and Ibn Taymiyyah
- have held that apostasy is a serious sin, but
not one that requires the death penalty. In modern
times, Mahmud Shaltut, Sheikh of al-Azhar, and Dr
Mohammed Sayed Tantawi have concurred.