Extract from Introduction to The Book of Hadith (The Book Foundation, 2007)
by Jeremy Henzell-Thomas
It cannot be denied that there has been an unwarranted elevation over time of the Hadith as a source of guidance in competition with the Qur’an itself, to the extent that verses of the Qur’an which appear to conflict with favourite Hadith may be declared to be abrogated by other verses which agree with the Hadith in question. This idolization of Hadith contradicts the incontrovertible truth that the Qur’an alone should always be referred to as infallible guidance even if the Hadith have been second only to the Qur’an as the basis of Islamic law.
One striking example will suffice to show the many conflicts between the Qur’an and the Hadith: The Qur’an clearly allows freedom of religion, but both Bukhari and Abu Dawud include the bizarre Hadith, If anyone leaves his religion, then kill him. (Bukhari 52:260). Similarly, a very early source, the Al-Muwatta’ of Malik ibn Anas (d.179/795), states that anyone who leaves Islam for something else and divulges it is called upon to repent, but if he does not turn in repentance, he is killed. The penalty of death for apostasy is repeated elsewhere in Bukhari: Whoever changes his Islamic religion, then kill him (Bukhari 84:57). Another Hadith (Bukhari 83:37) holds that death is required in three cases: for a murderer, for a married person committing illegal sexual intercourse, and for one who deserts Islam. In this last case, historical evidence makes it clear that the apostates referred to here can be identified with those who are waging war against the Muslim community, and I will return to this critical point in due course.
The most oft-quoted Hadith in Bukhari, If anyone leaves his religion, then kill him, can be questioned on the grounds that its chain of transmission (isnad) goes through a source whose narrations were rejected by Imam Muslim because of the accusations of some scholars that the man concerned (‘Ikrimah) was a liar who also accepted gifts from various political authorities. Besides, the content of this Hadith would also apply to anyone changing his religion to Islam, or from Christianity to Judaism or vice versa, and this clearly contradicts the Prophet’s command that No one is to be turned away from their Judaism or Christianity.
But the widespread assumption that Islam pronounces death for apostasy (ridda, irtidad) can be most persuasively challenged and definitively rejected from the evidence of the Qur’an and the actions of the Prophet and his Companions.
The Qur’an repeatedly and unequivocally states that faith and denial are matters of personal choice in which there can be no coercion or interference, and that, in accordance with what Muhammad Asad describes as a fundamental principle of Islamic ethics, each human soul must take personal responsibility for the consequences of that choice:
There shall be no coercion in matters of faith (2:256).
And say: The truth has now come from your Sustainer: let, then, him who wills, believe in it, and let him who wills, reject it (18:29).
Behold, from on high have We bestowed upon thee this divine writ, setting forth the truth for the benefit of all mankind. And whoever chooses to be guided thereby, does so for his own good, and whoever chooses to go astray, goes but astray to his own hurt: and thou hast not the power to determine their fate (39:41).
The Qur’an also makes it clear that the Messengers of God are only warners and bringers of glad tidings without any power to coerce or enforce:
I am nothing but a warner, and a herald of glad tidings unto people who will believe (7:188).
But if they turn away from thee, O Prophet, remember that thy only duty is a clear delivery of the message entrusted to thee (16:82).
Furthermore, the Qur’an teaches that differences in belief are aspects of the diversity which God has ordained for human beings and that only God can give a final verdict on such differences:
Unto every one of you have We appointed a different law and way of life. And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but He willed it otherwise in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto you. Vie, then, with one another in doing good works! Unto God you all must return and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ (5:48).
For never would thy Sustainer destroy a community for wrong beliefs alone so long as its people behave righteously towards one another. And had thy Sustainer so willed, He could surely have made all mankind one single community: but He willed it otherwise, and so they continue to hold divergent views - all of them, save those upon whom thy Sustainer has bestowed His grace. (11:117-119).
And on whatever you may differ, O believers, the verdict thereon rests with God (42:10).
Qur’an 5:48 above has been described as a “virtual manifesto of religious pluralism” and “a structural guarantee for the survival of more than one religion and every Muslim should know it by heart”. In his note to the same verse, Muhammad Asad explains how “unity in diversity” is frequently stressed in the Qur’an (as, for example, in the first sentence of 2:148, in 21:92-93 or in 23:52 and describes 11:118 as stressing once again “that the unceasing differentiation in men’s views and ideas is not incidental but represents a God-willed, basic factor of human existence.”
Finally, the Qur’an does not lay down any legal penalty for apostasy; rather it addresses the consequences of spiritual regression, the falling back and willful denial of the truth after having accepted it, and this would apply to the followers of any religious community, not solely the Muslims.
As for anyone who denies God after having once attained to faith – and this, to be sure, does not apply to one who does it under duress, the while his heart remains true to his faith, but only to him who willingly opens up his heart to a denial of the truth: upon all such falls God’s condemnation, and tremendous suffering awaits them (16:106).
This, and other verses such as 47:25 which refer to those who turn their backs on the message after guidance has been given to them, can legitimately be regarded as referring to the willful denial of truth in its widest sense, and not to the act of leaving institutional Islam.
Those who advocate death for apostates often hold that the much-quoted verse in the Qur’an which forbids coercion in religion (2:256) is abrogated by the later revelation of 9:29:
And fight against those who – despite having been vouchsafed revelation aforetime – do not truly believe either in God or the Last Day.
However, as Muhammad Asad demonstrates, this verse does not justify unprovoked aggression against non-believers and this is a timely opportunity to remind ourselves of the explicit Qur’anic rule that only defensive warfare is permissible in Islam:
“In accordance with the fundamental principle – observed throughout my interpretation of the Qur’an – that all of its statements and ordinances are mutually complementary and cannot, therefore, be correctly understood unless they are considered as parts of one integral whole, this verse, too must be read in the context of the clear-cut Qur’anic rule that war is permitted only in self-defence. In other words, the above injunction to fight is relevant only in the event of aggression committed against the Muslim community or state, or in the presence of an unmistakable threat to its security… a view which has been shared by that great Islamic thinker, Muhammad ‘Abduh. Commenting on this verse, he declared: ‘Fighting has been made obligatory in Islam only for the sake of defending the truth and its followers…. All the campaigns of the Prophet were defensive in character; and so were the wars undertaken by the Companions in the earliest period of Islam’ (Manar X, 332). In the context of an ordinance enjoining war against them, this can mean only one thing – namely, unprovoked aggression: for it is this that has been forbidden by God through all the apostles who were entrusted with conveying His message to man. Thus, the above verse must be understood as a call to the believers to fight against such – and only such – of the nominal followers of earlier revelation as deny their own professed beliefs by committing aggression against the followers of the Qur’an.”
This explanation points the way back to the Hadith reported in Bukhari with which I began this discussion on apostasy. One of these requires death for one who deserts Islam and who is also fighting against God and His Messenger. This is often quoted without any reference to its militant context. The apostates implicated here are those who were committing unprovoked aggression against the followers of the Qur’an and against whom defensive warfare was therefore legitimately enjoined. In explaining the fact that the Prophet accepted the repentance of some apostates but ordered others to be killed, ibn Taimiyyah concluded that only apostasy that involved enmity and aggression against Muslims was unforgivable. It is clear that those apostates who were killed were those who were attacking Muslims or in alliance with their enemies and were therefore to be treated as enemy combatants intent on violent opposition to the Prophet’s mission. This punishment was necessitated by the difficult circumstances of the time.
The actions of the Prophet himself give no credence to the belief that apostates who were not waging unprovoked war on Muslims should be killed. Several individuals and groups left Islam during the life of the Prophet, some of them several times, but he never called for their death. One of his scribes recanted and was unabashed in his apostasy, claiming that “Muhammad only knows what I wrote for him!”, but in spite of this the Prophet left him completely free and interceded for the man on his deathbed. A group of twelve Muslims recanted and left Medina for Mecca, but the Prophet did not spill any of their blood nor did he pronounce the death penalty on any of them. Two young men converted to Christianity and their father asked the Prophet to curse them, but instead he recited the verse, There shall be no coercion in matters of faith (Qur’an 256).
These cases, and others, prove that the Prophet did not know, command or apply any penal code for apostasy.
Two final questions might be addressed in this necessarily brief study of the problem of apostasy.
Firstly, if the Qur’an and the Prophet give no justification for the killing of those apostates who are not waging war on Muslims, how does one explain the decision of Abu Bakr to wage war on the “apostates”? First of all, Abu Bakr did not start the war. It was the rebellious tribes who marched on Medina when they learned that the Muslim army had been sent north to Persia. The issue at stake was not apostasy, but their rejection of the payment of Zakat and the authority of Abu Bakr, for they would only accept obedience to the Prophet and no one after him. In fact, ‘Umar and some of the Companions did not agree with Abu Bakr that he should wage war on these tribes when they were Muslims who declared the oneness of God and the Prophethood of Muhammad. The decision to do so was a matter of upholding the authority of the state, and was not a conflict over articles of faith.
Secondly, in view of the tolerance of the Companions in the face of the deviations from normative beliefs which they saw amongst various groups, how can one explain the development of uncompromising coercive principles, such as the death penalty for apostates, by rigidly authoritarian religious scholars?
The fact is that the Companions did not accuse the Qadiriyyah nor the Jabiriyyah of apostasy nor did the Successor Generation accuse the Mu’tazilites, the Murji’ites, or the Jahmites of apostasy, despite their deviant doctrines, which included the denial that the Qur’an is God’s Word, the rejection of the existence of any attributes of God, and the belief that whoever declares the two testimonies (no God but God and Muhammad is His Messenger) is complete in his faith and has no need to perform a single action.
The elevation of Hadith such as those pronouncing death for apostasy came about as a result of the desire of scholars to codify religious knowledge and to solidify laws towards the end of the Umayyad period and the beginning of the ‘Abbasid period during a time of great strife between competing ideologies that gravely threatened the unity of the Ummah. In acting as protectors of the law and upholders of authority, they developed two principles to deal with anyone who rebelled against them: labelling as an apostate anyone who rejected their formulations and rulings, and coercing such people into compliance by the threat of death.
These two spurious principles are the product of historical circumstances and the need to uphold power and authority. They contradict the spirit of Islam and are not in line with the values and principles of the Qur’an, nor with the life of the Prophet and the Companions.