Does the Shari'ah Allow the Killing of an Apostate?
By Dr. Ibrahim B. Syed
Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc.
Louisville, KY

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 Prophet.
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’, 4:137.
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.
Qur’anic views
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, 5: 32)
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.



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.