روي أن رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم قال: من بدل دينه فاقتلوه.
It is narrated that the Prophet (pbuh) said: [From among the Banu Ishmael,] whoever changes his religion, kill him1.
The Qur'an tells us that Muhammad (pbuh) was not only a Prophet (Nabi) but was also a Messenger (Rasu'l) of God. The Qur'an tells us that when God sends His messenger to a people, the polytheists among these people are not allowed to live on God's earth if they reject the messenger; It tells us that these people are given time in which to make up their minds and to present all their objections against the messenger (Rasu'l); It tells us that when the All-knowing God decides that these people have been given adequate time and that they are now absolutely clear about the truthfulness of the messenger and thus are not left with any excuse for their rejection, yet are still persistent in their rejection, then God directs His messenger to migrate from the area and then He destroys all those who have rejected His messenger. The Qur'an refers to the peoples of the messengers of old - Nuh, Hud, Lut, Sho`aib, Saaleh, Musaa (pbut) - and narrates the result of their rejection. It declares to the direct addressees of Muhammad (pbuh) that if they do not accept the message of God's messenger (Muhammad) their fate shall be no different from those nations that have gone before them (See Surah Al-Qamar, the whole Surah especially verse 43 - 45). In short, the Qur'an says that it is the unalterable law of God that when He sends His messenger to a people, the polytheists among these people are left with no option, but to accept His message or to face the punishment of death and sometimes complete annihilation.
The Qur'an goes further to tell us how this punishment was implemented on the polytheists from among the rejecters of the Prophet (pbuh). It tells us that although the previous nations of the messengers of God were annihilated, because of their rejection, through (apparently) natural calamities, the believers of Muhammad (pbuh), because God has given them rule in a land (Madinah), shall fight the rejecters and, thereby, through these believers shall God implement His punishment (Al-Tawbah 9: 14 - 16). It directs them that the Mushrikeen should be killed, without any exception. They should only be allowed to live if they accept Islam (Al-Tawbah 9: 5). On the other hand, it also directs them that the Jews and the Christians (because they were not polytheists - i.e. Mushrik), even if they do not enter the folds of Islam, they may be allowed to live if they accept to live under the Muslim rule and agree to pay the appointed Jizyah (Al-Tawbah 9: 29).
Thus, according to the Qur'an, as a result of the advent of the Messenger of God in the Banu Ishmael, those who rejected faith from amongst the polytheists were subject to the death penalty, under the provisions of the Divine Law relating to the advent of God's messengers. If any of these polytheists had accepted Islam at the hands of the Messenger and later decides to return to his previous beliefs, then he too should be grouped with those who had rejected the call of the messenger and, thus, also be subjected to the same punishment. If seen in this perspective, the narrative under consideration actually means that those people who were to be punished, according to the law of God, had they not accepted Islam, would face the same punishment, if at any time during their lives they leave the folds of Islam and return to their previous beliefs.
Notes on the Text of the Narrative
This narrative or a part of it with some variations has been reported in Bukhari (narrative no. 2854, 6524 and 6525), Muslim (narrative no. 1733), Mu'atta of Imam Malik (narrative no. 1413), Ibn Hibban (narrative no. 4475 and 5606), Abu Dawood (narrative no. 4351 and 4354), Tirmidhi (narrative no. 1458), Nissaiy (narrative no. 4059, 4060, 4061, 4062, 4063, 4064, 4065 and 4066), Ibn Maajah (narrative no. 2535), Nissaiy's Sunan al-Kubraa (narrative no. 3522, 3523, 3524, 3525, 3526, 3527, 3528 and 3529), Bayhaqiy (narrative no. 16597, 16598, 16599, 16635, 16636, 16637, 16654, 16658 and 17841), Ahmad ibn Hanbal (narrative no. 1871, 2551, 2552, 2968, 19681 and 22068), Abu Ya`laa (narrative no. 2532 and 2533), Humaidiy (narrative no. 533), Abd al-Razzaq (narrative no. 9413, 18705 and 18706), Ibn Abi Shaybah (narrative no. 28992, 29006, 32728, 33143 and 36491). The preferred text is reported in Bukhari's narrative no. 2854.
In some narratives, as in Ahmad ibn Hanbal's narrative no. 22068, the words "من بدل دينه" (i.e., 'whoever changes his religion') have been reported as "من رجع عن دينه" (i.e., 'whoever returns back to his previous religion, turning away from his present religion'); in some narratives, as in Mu'atta Imam Malik's narrative no. 1413, these words have been reported as "من غير دينه" (i.e., 'whoever changes his religion'); in Abd al-Razzaq's narrative no. 18706, these words have been replaced with "من بدل عن دينه" (i.e., 'whoever changes [his religion] turning away from his present religion').
In some narratives, as in Mu'atta Imam Malik's narrative no. 1413, the word "فاقتلوه" (i.e., 'kill him') have been replaced with a synonymous phrase "فاضربوا عنقه" (i.e., 'break his neck').
In some other narratives, as for instance in Bukhari's narrative no. 6525, the Prophet's directive under consideration is implied but its words have not been expressly cited.
(This write-up is prepared by the Hadith Cell of Javed Ahmad Ghamidi)