Islam and Punishment for Apostasy

ISLAM AND PUNISHMENT FOR APOSTASY

Asghar Ali Engineer

(Islam and Modern Age, April 2006)

A heated debate is going on punishment for apostasy in Islam as one Abdur Rehman, an Afghan citizen became Christian while he was in Germany for few years. On his return from Germany Rehman was arrested and was being tried for apostasy. The punishment for apostasy in Islam is supposedly death and Afghanistan being an Islamic country, his fate was known. However, under pressure from Western nations, he was released on the grounds that mentally he is ‘unstable’. Whatever the excuse for releasing him, we are concerned here with the question does Islam permit death sentence for Apostasy (technically called irtidad)? An apostate is called murtad and death sentence for murtad is referred to as qatl-e-murtad.

For Islamic law, as is well known there are two principal sources i.e. Qur’an and hadith and two subsidiary sources i.e. qiyas (analogy) and ijma’ (consensus) both of which are human. However, in Shia’ah Islam qiyas and ijma’ are not accepted and instead Imam of the time is considered an authority for pronouncing a law and in the absence of imam a mujtahid (interpretor of Qur’an and sunnah lays down the law in Shi’a than Ashari Islam.

Thus of the two principal sources the Qur’an is divine and is primarily relied upon on any issue. If there is clear pronouncement in the Qur’an it is sufficient to lay down the law; if not hadith is consulted and if it is not found in either than a jurist (faqih) relies on his analogical reasoning and tries to develop consensus (ijma’) around it. The real problem arises when hadith is in contradiction to the Qur’an. Some jurists maintain that hadith will be rejected and the Qur’anic pronouncement will prevail but some maintain that hadith will prevail and hadith will supersede Qur’an. And of course, if the Qur’an is silent on the issue then hadith will be the source, if it is found in the hadith.

We have thrown light on this aspect as punishment for the murtad (apostate) involves this process. Punishment for irtidad is based on hadith, not on Qur’an. Let us now see what the Quran has down as far as apostasy is concerned.

Even if one relies on hadith for legislating on some important issue and there is no direct pronouncement on it in Qur’an, one has to look for the principle laid down in the Qur’an and the law will have to be based on the principle laid down by the Qur’an. If we look for the principle concerned, it is clearly laid down in the Qur’an – i.e. freedom of conscience. It is stated in number of verses, which are often quoted by those developing theory of Islamic human rights. One of these verses states “There is no compulsion in religion..” (2:256) and “For you is your religion and for me is mine” (109:6).

Both these verses lay down the principle that one is guaranteed freedom of faith and conscience. There is no question of any compulsion in the matter of belief. In fact this is very important principle because for genuine faith one has to choose it freely. In other words faith goes with freedom of choice. Most of us believe in this or that faith not because we have chosen it freely but as we have accepted it by way of our birth. But those who adopt this or that faith by deeper study and of free choice their belief is far better qualitatively.

There are other verses in the Qur’an which negate coercion or compulsion. The Qur’an greatly stresses freedom of choice for genuine faith. For example in the verse 49:14 it becomes quite clear. When some Bedouins became Muslims and called it aamanna (i.e. accepted faith), Qur’an said no they have not accepted faith but have only submitted (aslamna). The whole verse (49:14) is as follows: “The dwellers of the desert say: We believe. Say: you believe not, but say, We submit; and faith has not yet entered into your hearts. These Bedouins had submitted (i.e. accepted Islam) impressed by victories of Islam but had not become genuine believers as iman (faith) had not really entered their hearts. One can become true believer only when faith enters ones heart and that can happen only by exercise of genuine freedom, not because of social pressure or coercion or convenience.

The Qur’an proved very right: many dwellers of desert (Bedouins) had submitted to Islam and genuine faith had not entered their hearts and so when the Prophet (PBUH) died they thought Islam had lost its power and went back to their old faith. It is referred to riddah (going back) in the history of Islam. The Caliph Abu Bakr declared war against them which is called war of riddah i.e. war against those who went back on their faith.

This clearly shows that if one accepts faith out of some social compulsion can never genuinely and firmly believe. At the first opportunity such a person will renounce his/her faith, which is adopted out of some compulsion. Now the war of riddah was not a religious but a political act. Many people had renounced Islam collectively and it had created instability and turmoil in the nascent Islamic society. It was a serious threat to social order. It was not a punishment for a person renouncing faith. Thus it was not an act of a person but a political rebellion, which called for political action to stabilise the nascent society. If it had not been put down it would have not only shaken the very foundation but would have restored pre-Islamic tribal order and shattered the unity created by Islam. The tribals were also refusing to pay zakat, which was the very foundation of Islamic finances and treasury of the state.

The Qur’an, however, does not accept the principle of coercion in matters of faith. There are several verses to this effect in the Qur’an. Allah clearly says in the Qur’an that it was not difficult for Allah to make all unbelievers believe but Allah left it to their choice. Thus Qur’an says: “If Allah had pleased they would not have set up (other gods with Him). And We have not appointed thee a keeper over them (hafeez), and thou art not laced in charge of them (vakeel)” (6:108)

Thus Qur’an tells the Prophet (PBUH) not to worry if they (unbelievers) do not believe. He is not responsible for it and it is not difficult for Allah to make all of them believe. But Allah has given all reason, eyes and ears and it is for them to decide whether to believe or not to believe. If they are coerced into believing then they will not be responsible for their actions. It would be sheer determination (jabr) and Allah cannot punish them for their unbelief.

Thus we find in Qur’an “Clear proofs indeed have come to you from your Lord; so whoever sees, it is for his own good; and whoever is blind, it is to his own harm. And I am not a keeper over you.” (6:105) The Qur’an gives freedom to human beings to believe or not to believe and face the consequences if they do not believe. How a person can be punished by Allah if he/she is not free to believe or not believe. Again it is the Qur’anic pronouncement that “he who does an atom’s weight of good will see it. And he who does an atom’s weight of evil will see it.” (99:7-8).

This pronouncement of the Qur’an clearly holds a person for all actions even of atom’s weight. Thus coercion and compulsion have no meaning at all. No wonder than that Qur’an not only does not prescribe any punishment for apostasy it is against any such punishment. In fact it is Pharaoh who coerces people not to accept faith. He told his followers when they accepted Moses’s faith, “You believe in Him before I give you permission.” (7:123) and then he terrorises them “I shall certainly cut off your hands and your feet on opposite sides, then I shall crucify you all together.” (7:124)

Pharaoh believed in coercion, not Allah. Allah only sends His Messengers to guide people and leave it to them to accept or not but only warns them of the consequences of not believing and supporting evil. Thus Qur’an says, “And say: The Truth is from your Lord; so let him who please believe, and let him who please disbelieve. We have prepared for the iniquitous a Fire, an enclosure of which will encompass them.” (18:29). It is for Allah to punish, not for any human being. And there is complete freedom to believe or not to believe.

The Qur’an also says, “If Allah so desired all those who are in the earth would have believed, all of them. Will you then force people till they are believers?” (10:99). Many more such verses can be quoted from the Qur’an which clearly give the option to the people to believe or not to believe.

Even if one believes then goes back on his belief, it is Allah who will punish, not any human being. Thus the Qur’an says: “Those who believe then disbelieve, again believe and again disbelieve, then increase in disbelief, Allah will never forgive nor guide them in the (right) way.” (4:137)

What more proof is required from Qur’an that one who believes and then disbelieves and in fact increases in disbelief and yet no punishment in this world is prescribed for such a person, except that Allah will not forgive him and will not guide him to the right path. In yet another verse Qur’an says, “Those who disbelieve after their believing, then increase in disbelief, their repentance is not accepted, and these are they that go astray.(emphasis added) (3:89)

This is clearly the case of irtidad (apostasy) but Allah does not prescribe death for it but only says repentance will not be accepted. In view of such clear exposition how can one maintain that one who becomes apostate (murtad) should be punished with death? Such a punishment goes completely against the principle of freedom of faith laid down in the Qur’an. Since according to the Qur’an human beings are responsible for their acts, they have been created free and only a free agent can be held responsible for ones acts, good or bad. This is quite clear from the story of Adam who was warned not to go near a tree in paradise but was left free to decide and he decided to test the fruit of the tree and as a result was expelled from it. This story itself is sufficient to establish principle of freedom of choice in the Qur’an. The Qur’an’s approach in this respect is quite clear and has no ambiguity whatsoever.

Maulana Maududi, founder of the Jamat-e-Islami, claims that Qur’an prescribes death sentence for apostasy. He quotes the verse 9:11-12 and argues that Qur’an prescribes death sentence. It is surprising how an Islamic scholar of Maududi’s status can confuse things to such an extent. These verses were revealed in 9 A.H. when Allah ordered Muslims at the time of Haj to declare immunity. In fact these verses refer to the pact which Muslims had with people of unbelief and must be read together from 7 to 13 to grasp their significance. These verses do not refer to any case of individual apostasy at all. These clearly refer to the pact with certain people collectively and hence the Qur’an uses the words wa in nakathu aymanahum i.e. if they break their oath and not becoming murtad (apostate). And verse 9:12 does not say kill them but says fight them. Had it been referring to killing an apostate, it would have used the word “uqtulu” (kill them) and not ‘qatilu’ (i.e. fight them).

The use of the word qatilu on breaking the oath itself shows it does not refer to apostasy at all. Also, if we examine the verse 9:13 it becomes further clear. The verse 13 reads as under: “Will you not fight a people who broke their oaths and aimed at the expulsion of the Messenger, and they attacked you first? Do you fear them? But Allah has more right that you should fear him, if you are believers.” 

Thus there remains no doubt that the Qur’an does not prescribe any physical sentence, much less death sentence for apostasy. It is purely a matter of ones conscience and Allah alone will punish those who renounce the right path. And if more proof is required see the verse 5:54 which says, “O you who believe, should any one of you turn back from his religion, then Allah will bring a people, whom He loves and who love Him…” Here in this verse the Qur’an has used the word yartadda (one who turns back from ones religion i.e. one who commits apostasy) but clearly leaves matter to Allah, instead of prescribing death sentence.

HADITH AND APOSTASY

A few hadith are quoted in favour of death sentence for apostasy. One of them from Sahih al-Bukhari (Vol. 9, book 83, number 17) says, “Allah’s Apostle said, the blood of a Muslim, who confesses that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that I am His Apostle, cannot be shed except in three cases: In Qisas for murder, a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse and the one who reverts from Islam (apostate) and leaves the Muslims.”

As pointed out at the beginning of the article, there are ahadith, which are in conformity with the Qur’an and those, which are in contradiction to the Qur’anic pronouncements. The hadith quoted above contradicts Qur’an in two respects: First, Qur’an does not prescribe death sentence for zina i.e. adultery or rape or fornication. It prescribes only 100 lashes. In this hadith, death sentence has been mentioned for adultery. Also as argued elaborately above Qur’an does not prescribe death sentence for apostasy. Thus in two respects the hadith is in contradiction to the Qur’an.

Can hadith supersede Qur’an? There are some who believe in hadith prevailing over the Qur’an. But this cannot be an acceptable position for most of the Muslims. Hadith is a very controversial area among Muslims where there is complete unanimity about the Qur’an among all Muslims in the world. Punishment by rajm (stoning to death) for adultery is also very controversial area. It is not commanded by the Qur’an. Hazrat Umar, the second Caliph is quoted as having said that the verse for stoning to death was there in the Qur’an during the Prophet’s (PBUH) time and we used to recite it but now it is not there but it is applicable even today.

If this is accepted then whole Qur’an can be in danger. We strongly believe that nothing which was there in the Qur’an, has ever been deleted, not even a dot. If what Hazrat Umar says is true then what stopped him from re-introducing it into the Qur’an? Every verse which was revealed to the Prophet was committed to the memory by his companions and during Umar’s time all those companions were alive and they could have recited the verse as it was revealed and when Hazrat Uthman, the third Caliph who compiled the final copy of the Qur’an could have easily included it into his compilation which was unanimously accepted by all Muslims.

Thus it would be difficult to accept the hadith as proof of punishment of death for apostasy. The other hadith which is quoted for punishment of death is as follows: Narrated ‘Ikrama: ‘Ali burnt some people and this news reached ibn ‘Abbas, who said, “Had I been in his place I would not have burnt them, as the Prophet said, ‘Don’t punish (anybody) with Allah’s punishment. ‘No doubt, I would have killed them, for the Prophet said, ‘If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him” Sahih Bukhari Volume 4, Book 52, Chapter 149, Number 260, p.160-161).

Firstly this hadith presumes that ibn Abbas knew more about Prophet’s (PBUH) hadith than Ali whom Prophet (PBUH) described as door of city of knowledge and I (Prophet) am city of knowledge. How can Ali burn apostates? Ali is known for his passion for justice. Burning is a very cruel way of killing someone. And what is worse, there is no mention of any trial or confession or anything and he just burnt them? If Ali could do this what about lesser Muslims?

There are other ahadith as well of this nature. The Prophet (PBUH) is reported to have said that ‘kill one who changes his religion’ (uqtulu man baddala dinahu). All these ahadith contradict Qur’an and cannot be acceptable. Moreover we are not told the context of such ahadith when and in what circumstances the Prophet ordered killing a person for changing religion. May be such a person was suspected of some serious conspiracy against Islam and Muslims. Sedition is punishable with death even in modern laws. Was the execution ordered for sedition or for change of religion? No such context is available in respect of such ahadith.

Certain things are said in some context and without understanding the context it will do disservice to Islam to apply them blindly. If we quote the final verdict of execution by any judge without going into circumstances and evidences examined by the judge and then apply it to other case, will be gross injustice.

The eminent modern Islamic scholar Allama Yusuf al-Qardawi also comes to the conclusion in his book Jareemat ar-riddah wa al-Murtadd (Crime of Apostasy and Apostate, published by A-Risalah Foundation) that we should not confuse the issue of killing of murtad with freedom of conscience guaranteed in the Qur’an. Qatl-e-Murtadd can be valid only if there is some serious threat to Islamic state or social order. Thus it can be applied only in special circumstances and should not be confused with freedom of conscience. Freedom of conscience cannot be compromised as far as principles of the Qur’an are concerned.

Thus no hadith should be applied without thoroughly understanding its context. Today we are living in democratic set up where certain rights of individual are sacred and indeed we can better appreciate the Qur’anic principles today. Our medieval ancestors lived in feudal order and may not have fully appreciated the true Qur’anic spirit under their circumstances despite their sincerity and commitment to Islam.

Today human rights are of vital importance and modern scholars are also engaged in the project of showing these rights as quite compatible with Islam. And, if some ‘Ulama insist on death sentence for apostasy it is not only crime against freedom of conscience and democratic rights but also serious disservice against Islam. They are trying to prove Islam as ‘religion without any regards to human rights’ and that only these ‘Ulama know final verdict of Islam.

Qur’an repeatedly denounces hypocrisy and if we force a person not to renounce Islam on the punishment of death, are we not creating more hypocrites in Islam and Islamic society? They will not believe in Islam from their heart but would cling to it for fear of death. Is it acceptable situation? One can be true believer only if his heart and mind accept the faith, else it would be mere mechanical act?

If we force some people to remain Muslim on pain of death it will breed in them not only resentment but also hatred for Muslims and this can be dangerous for any society. We should today try to produce better quality Muslims who understand the true spirit of Qur’an and Qur’an’s emphasis on key values like justice, benevolence, compassion and wisdom. If we stick to these Qur’anic values we will be greatly respected in the modern world.

It is unfortunate that we give greater importance to certain ahadith conflicting with the Qur’anic values and thus bring bad name to Islam. Commitment to these values is far more important than to opinion of the ‘Ulama based on medieval ethos.


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