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Punishment for Apostasy


My question is about the death penalty for apostasy.

Isn't this punishment too barbaric?

Question from United States of America

Saying that a particular punishment is too barbaric or otherwise, is basically giving a value judgment about that punishment. If that punishment is fixed by Allah or any of His prophets, it is the belief of all Muslims that then that punishment, whether severe or soft, serves justice.

Now let us turn to the real point of your question. In a nutshell, I do not ascribe to the opinion that the punishment for apostasy is death. As I shall explain in the following paragraphs, in my opinion, the Shari`ah has not fixed any punishment for apostasy. I must also point out here that there is, more or less, a consensus among the scholars that an apostate should be killed. However, I think that the basis of this opinion of the Muslim scholars is questionable. I do acknowledge the possibility that the opinion of the majority of the Muslim scholars is correct, but I request all those who read this reply to please point out the error in my reasoning that follows, rather than informing me that I have presented an opinion that is different from the majority of the Muslim scholars. I present my opinion with the necessary details in the following paragraphs:

As you should be aware of the fact that the basis of the opinion regarding the death penalty of an apostate is not any verse of the Qur'an , but a saying ascribed to the Prophet  (pbuh), as reported by Bukhari, in his "Kitaab al-Jihaad wal-Siyar", "Kitaab istitabah al-Murtaddeen" and "Kitaab al-ai`tisaam bil-Kitaab wal-Sunnah", in which the Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said:

Whoever changes his Religion, kill him.

Obviously, if the matter had ended here, I would probably have had no objection in submitting that the Prophet  (pbuh) has fixed the punishment for ALL apostates to be death.

Nevertheless, the matter does not end here. We know that 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, Aal Imraan 3: 90, Al-Nisaa 4: 137 and Al-Nahl 16: 106). But at none of these instances does the Qur'an  mention the punishment of death for such 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 . This situation obviously raises a question mark in the mind of the reader that if Allah had wanted to give the punishment of an apostate a permanent position in the Shari`ah, the punishment should have been mentioned, at least at one of the above mentioned places. If the Qur'an  was devoid of any reference to apostates, the matter would have been different. The strange thing is that the Qur'an  mentions apostasy, and still does not mention the punishment (if any) it wants the apostate to be subjected to.

Moreover, the Qur'an  clearly mentions in Al-Baqarah 2: 256 that:

There is absolutely no compulsion in religion

While if the referred directive (regarding the apostate) ascribed to Prophet  (pbuh) is taken to be general and not specific for a particular people, the Qur'anic  statement: "There is absolutely no compulsion in religion" would lose all its meaning. If a person is to be killed in case he converts to another religion, it would imply that the statement of the Qur'an  only means that a person cannot be forced to accept Islam, but he CAN be forced to remain a Muslim throughout his life. It is quite obvious that such is not the case.

Furthermore, the Qur'an  has strictly disallowed the imposition of the 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 land (fasaad fi al-ardh) like being involved in activities that create unrest in a community, 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-Maaidah 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 only with one option. We can only say that either the saying has been wrongly ascribed to the Prophet  (pbuh), as it is clearly contradictory to the Qur'an  and the Prophet (pbuh) 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.

If we look at the Qur'an  again, this time in a slightly different perspective, we see that although the Qur'an  clearly mentions that no one can be forced into Islam (nor forcibly kept a Muslim), it makes the direct addressees of the Prophet (pbuh) an exception.

The Qur'an  tells us that Mohammad (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 in a people, 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[1]. The Qur'an  refers to the peoples (nations) 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 Mohammad (pbuh) that if they do not accept the message of God's messenger (Mohammad) 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 in a people, these particular people are left with no option, but to accept His message or to face the punishment of death and sometimes complete annihilation[2].

The Qur'an  goes further to tell us how this punishment was implemented on the polytheists from among the direct addressees 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 Mohammad (pbuh), because God has given them rule in a land (Medinah), shall fight the rejecters and through these believers shall God implement His punishment (Al-Taubah 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-Taubah 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 Jizyah[3] (Al-Taubah 9: 29).

Thus, the Prophet  (pbuh) sent his messenger, who declared at the time of Hajj that no one from amongst the rejecting polytheists shall be allowed to live after the prohibited months, if he does not accept Islam. As a result of this declaration, most of the people of Banu Ishmael, who previously were polytheists, accepted Islam and thus the all-encompassing punishment of God was avoided[4].

In my opinion, the directive ascribed to the Prophet  (pbuh) regarding the apostates is only with reference to the direct addressees of the Prophet (pbuh). If seen in this perspective, the saying ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh) actually would mean that these 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.


In view of the above explanation, it is my opinion that the saying ascribed to the Prophet  with regard to apostates, although general in its words applies specifically to the direct addressees of the messenger of God.

7th December 1998

[1]  It should, however be added that from amongst the direct addressees of the messenger, only those rejecters are punished by death, who remain persistent in ascribing partners to God - i.e. the Mushrikeen.

[2] Refer to the previous footnote.

[3]  The punishment of the non-polytheist rejecters of a messenger is the political and collective subservience of these rejecter, to the believers. Jizyah was a part of this punishment.

[4] as in the case of the prophet Jonah (pbuh).

Answer published by Moiz Amjad

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