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Apostasy in Islam

Arguments for and against the death penalty

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Traditional treatment of apostates according to Shari'a law:

Islam teaches that a newborn has an innate ability to know and believe in his creator, and to understand good and evil. Muhammad (pbuh) stated: "Every child is born with the believing nature...it is his parents who make him into a Jew or a Christian." There is to be no force used to convert a non-believer to Islam. The Qur'ăn, quoted previously, prohibits the use of compulsion to force a person or a society to accept Islam.

However, once a person freely "enters into the fold of Islam, the rules change." 1 The word "Islam" means "submission to the will of God." The Qur'ăn says that: "No believing man and no believing woman has a choice in their own affairs when Allăh and His Messenger have decided on an issue." (33:36) On the issue of apostasy, "Islam clearly says: No! You cannot become an apostate." 1 Apostasy is viewed as a form of treason.

In many predominately Muslim countries, the punishment for apostasy is death.

Assuming that the individual:

bulletWas a Muslim
bulletOpenly rejects Islam,
bulletHas made this decision freely and without coercion,
bulletIs aware of the nature of his/her statements, and
bulletIs an adult. then the penalty prescribed by Shari'a (Islamic) law is execution for men and life imprisonment for women. Drunkards and mentally ill persons are excluded from this punishment because they are considered to be not responsible for their statements.

A person born of a Muslim parent who later rejects Islam is called a "Murtad Fitri" (Apostate - natural). This is viewed a treason against God. They are given a second chance. If they repent of their decision, they will be released. A person who converted to Islam and later rejected the religion is a "Murtad Milli" (apostate - from the community.) This is viewed as treason against the community. Male apostates are executed even if they repent. Female apostates are released from imprisonment if they repent.

Additional factors:

bulletIf either spouse apostatize from Islam, a divorce is automatic.
bulletIf both apostatize they are generally allowed to stay married.
bulletAn under-aged male is imprisoned, and only executed if he remains an apostate when he becomes of age.
bulletThe will of a male apostate is not valid.
bulletA female apostate's will remains valid.
bulletIn the rare instances when an apostate is executed, it is traditionally done by severing his neck with a sword.
bulletAmong Malikites, Shafi'ites, and Hanbalites, adult women receive the same penalty as men: execution.
bulletThe Shi'ite schools of law allow for Islamic law towards apostates to be applied in non-Muslim countries. The majority "Sunnites do not believe in extraterritorial jurisdiction." 1

Justification for the death penalty is mainly based on two Hadith texts:

bullet"Whoever changes his religion shall be killed." (Abu Dawud)
bullet"It is not lawful to kill a man who is a Muslim except for one of the three reasons: Kufr (disbelief) after accepting Islam....." (Abu Dawud).

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Arguments against the death penalty for apostates:

This is an alternative belief heard increasingly within Islam: 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. Of course, whether a person who leaves Islam can be expected to be free of condemnation from their family and neighbors is a different matter.

One group promoting this belief is Sisters in Islam (SIS), "a group of Muslim professional women committed to promoting the rights of women within the framework of Islam." 2 They claim that the death penalty is not an appropriate response to apostasy:

bulletThe former Chief Justice of Pakistan, SA Rahman, has written that there is no reference to the death penalty in any of the 20 instances of apostasy mentioned in the Qur'an. 3
bulletThe quotation from Surah An-Nisa', 4:137, shown at the top of this essay, seems to imply that multiple, sequential apostasies are possible. That would not be possible if the person were executed after the first apostasy.
bulletMuslims who support the death penalty for apostasy often base their belief partly on a hadith in which he said: "Kill whoever changes his religion." But this is a weak foundation because:
bulletThis 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 basis on which to impose the death penalty.
bulletThe 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.
bulletMany scholars interpret this passage as referring only to instances of high treason. (e.g. declaring war on Islam, Muhammad (pbuh), God, etc.)
bulletThere is no historical record which indicates that Muhammad (pbuh) or any of his companions ever sentenced anyone to death for apostasy.
bulletA 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 all 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.
bulletDr. Maher Hathout, author of "In Pursuit of Justice: The Jurisprudence of Human Rights in Islam," writes:

"We strongly oppose the state's use of coercion in regulating Islamic belief in such a manner, since faith is a matter of individual choice on which only God can adjudicate."

Referring to the two hadiths traditionally used to justify the death penalty, Hathout writes:

"...both of them contradict the Quran and other instances in which the Prophet did not compel anyone to embrace Islam, nor punish them if they recanted."

"In one incident, the Prophet pardoned Abdullah bin Sa'd, after he renounced Islam. Abdullah bin Sa'd was one of the people chosen by the Prophet as a scribe, to write down Qur'anic text as it was revealed to the Prophet. After spending some time with the Muslims in Madina, he recanted and returned to the religion of the Quraish. When he was brought before the Prophet, Osman bin Affan pleaded on his behalf, and the Prophet subsequently pardoned Abdullah bin Sa'd (Ibn Hisham).

"The problem with the argument for punishment for apostasy is that it cannot be applied in any Islamic state without giving rise to the potential for abuse by the state itself. Erroneously equating moral with political power in the determination of law has led to the political repression that we see in Islamic countries today. We must separate the right of God from that of man in defining freedom of religion as a legal right. The right of God refers only to the moral obligations of Muslims towards God, and is adjudicated by God. The state cannot act as a coercive moral authority, in effect representing God's Will on earth, because it does not have the right to do so. In the context of freedom of religion, the state's responsibility is to uphold and protect it as the right of all humans, as granted by God, without exercising moral judgment on the content and/or manner of exercising those religious beliefs." 4,5

bulletDr. T. O.Shanavas writes on the Toledo Muslims website:

"The Qur'an states:

'A section of the People of the Book say: 'Believe in the morning what is revealed to the believers, Bur reject it at the end of the day; perchance they may (themselves) turn back.' [3:72] "

"A section of People of the Book used a tactic to create doubt among the Muslims in the hope that some of them might thereby be beguiled into repudiating Islam. How could it be possible for non-Muslims to have enacted this plan to entice Muslims to believe one day and reject next, if death was the penalty for apostasy? ... The Qur’an does not rule to kill the apostates."

"Abdullah b.Ubayy b.Salul was the leader of the munafiqun (hypocrites). But Prophet (s) took no action against him. Prophet prayed for him and stayed at the grave until he was buried. Those fanatics among us must explain the reason for Prophet (s) not executing the known hypocrites like Abdullah b.Ubayy. Ubbay lived until death plotting to destroy Islam and Prophet knew it. He was not executed for apostasy. This suggests that apostasy law is not a divine law but interpolation by fanatics among us. ..."

"The Qur'an states:

'How shall God guide those who reject Faith after they accepted it and bore witness that the apostle was true and that clear signs had come unto them? But God guides not a people unjust. Of such the reward is that on them (rests) the curse of the God, of His Angels, and of all mankind;--In that will they dwell; nor will their penalty be lightened, nor respite be their lot;--except for those that repent (even) after that, make amends; For verily God is oft-forgiving, most merciful'. [3:86-89]"

"It is obvious from these verses that no punishment is to be inflicted by one man or another for apostasy. By no stretch of the imagination can the phrase, "curse of Allah," be interpreted to be a license to murder anyone who he considers to be an apostate. If any such commandment was prescribed it would have been clearly defined as all other punishments are in the Holy Qur'an." 6

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Sayyid Muhammad Rizvi, "Apostacy (Irtidad) in Islam," at: http://www.al-islam.org/short/apostacy.htm

  2. "Islam, Apostasy and PAS," 1999-JUL-22, at: http://www.muslimtents.com/sistersinislam/
  3. S.A. Rahman, "Punishment of apostasy in Islam," Kazi Publ., (1986). Limited availabililty from Amazon.com online book store
  4. Maher Hathout, "In Pursuit of Justice: The Jurisprudence of Human Rights in Islam." Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  5. "Freedom of Religion," Chapter 6 from the book "In Pursuit of Justice." Online at: http://www.mpac.org/
  6. Dr. T. O. Shanavas, "Apostacy in Islam: through the eyes of a former apostate," Toledo Muslims, at: http://www.toledomuslims.com/

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Site navigation: Home page > World Religions > Islam > Apostasy > here

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Copyright © 2001 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-AUG-6
Latest update: 2007-DEC-17
Author: B.A. Robinson

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