Is Killing An Apostate in the Islamic Law?

Is Killing An Apostate in the Islamic Law?

Dr. Ibrahim B. Syed

Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc.
Louisville, KY

Ridda or Irtid Literally means, “turning back”. The act of apostasy—leaving Islam for another religion or for a secular lifestyle.

Murtadd: Literally means “one who turns the back.” An apostate.

Murtad Fitri: Literally means apostate - natural. A person born of a Muslim parent who later rejects Islam.

Murtad Milli: Literally means apostate - from the community. A person who converted to Islam and later rejected the religion.

Due lack of education and critical thinking several myths or misconceptions have taken root in the Muslim world over the ages. No efforts have been made to clear them.  On the contrary, there has been a sort of effort to strengthen these myths and misconceptions.  This has resulted in a misplaced perception that Islam is a symbol of obscurantism, a religion of intolerance and answers everything with the sword.

One grave misunderstanding of Islamic beliefs over the years is that Islam doesn’t tolerate apostasy. The Christian missionaries and the Western world are cashing in on it.  Ulama have tried to strengthen their point of view and several leading Muslim reformists have failed to tackle the issue. This misconception has also presented Islam as a medieval and killer religion. Islam bashers have time and again tried to paint the picture that Islam orders the killing of a person if he or she reverts to another religion from Islam.

The Qur’an is completely silent on any worldly punishment for apostasy and the sole Tradition that forms the basis of rulings is open to many interpretations.
Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said: “Whosoever changes his religion, Kill Him (man baddala Dinahu faqtuluhu)”. It is this quote from the Prophet that forms the basis of the said ruling.

But this is a weak foundation because this 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 confirmation to impose the death penalty. The Shari`ah has not fixed any punishment for apostasy.

The 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. Many scholars interpret this passage as referring only to instances of high treason. (e.g. declaring war on Islam, Muhammad (pbuh), God, etc.). There is no historical record, which indicates that Muhammad (pbuh) or any of his companions ever sentenced anyone to death for apostasy.

There was a case at the time of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) where a man came to him in three consecutive days and told him that he wanted to apostate. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) never took any action against him, and when the man finally left Madina, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) never sent anyone to arrest him, let alone kill him.

This is why some scholars distinguished between individual apostasy and apostasy which is accompanied by high treason. So, it cannot be confused with the freedom of conscience for every individual, which has been guaranteed in the Qur’an through hundreds of verses.  For example, one version of a hadith narrated by `A’isha (RA) concerning apostasy relates to one who left his religion and fought against Muslims.

Scholars argue that the death sentence is not for “simple apostasy” (mujarrad al-ridda), but for apostasy accompanied by treason and sedition, or by the abuse and slander (sabb) of the Noble Prophet.

Freedom to convert to or from Islam

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

The Glorious Qur’an says, “Let there be no compulsion in the religion: Surely the Right Path is clearly distinct from the crooked path.” Al Baqarah, 2:256.

“Those who believe, then disbelieve, then believe again, then disbelieve, and then increase in their disbelief - Allah will never forgive them nor guide them to the path.” Surah An-Nisa’, 4:137.

For example, the Qur’an says: “Let him who wishes to believe, do so; and let him who wishes to disbelieve, do so.” (Al-Kahf: 29)

The quotation from Surah An-Nisa’, 4:137, shown above, seems to imply that multiple, sequential apostasies are possible. That would not be possible if the person were executed after the first apostasy.

From the above verses it can be argued 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. Hence the death penalty is not an appropriate response to apostasy.

The 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.

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, A?l Imra?n 3: 90, Al-Nisa? 4: 137 and Al-Nahl 16: 106). But at none of these places 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.

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 country (fasa’d fil-ardh) like being involved in activities that create unrest in a society, 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-Ma?idah, 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 with one option only. We can only say that either the hadith has been wrongly ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh), as it is clearly contradictory to the Qur’an and the Prophet 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.

Shaykh Subhani

Shaykh Inayatullah Subhani (author of the Book Apostasy doesn’t carry death penalty in Islam) says that neither Islam forces any person to embrace Islam nor forces him/her to remain within its fold. He writes, “Apostasy has been mentioned several times in Qur’an, but it never talks of punishment for the crime in this world.” The learned scholar mentions three Ayaat (verses) from Qur’an on apostasy (Al-Baqara 217, Muhammad 25-27 and Al-Maida 54) and then says that none of these Ayaat prescribes any punishment for that though these Ayaat pass strictures on the people who commit it. There are several other Ayaat on the same issue and none of them prescribes either death penalty or any other punishment for apostasy in this world. Apostasy is mentioned repeatedly in Qur’an but no punishment is prescribed.

Misinterpretation of the hadith, Man baddala Dinahu faqtuluh (kill him who changes his religion) has caused the problem.  This order has been made to look general and permanent, though it was said in a particular circumstance for a particular group. Shaykh Subhani writes that this order was made to counter a plan prepared by Jews of Madinah. They had premeditated that some of them embrace Islam for some time and then return to their old religion. Then some other people do the same. It was aimed to create restiveness among Muslims against their own leadership so that the strong Muslim unity should start collapsing. It was made clear in Qur’an in (Aal Imran, 3: 72-73).

To oppose this scheme the Prophet (SAW) ordered his companions to act in such a manner. Despite this order extensive investigations were made to determine that the case was true and the person concerned was given sufficient time to make clear before the sentence was carried out.

Shaykh Subhani says lack of clear grasp of Qur’an misguided even leading Ulama. Otherwise it was not difficult to understand the hadith. Qur’anic teachings on the issue were not kept in mind.

Like other scholars the learned Shaykh concludes that people who were awarded death penalty for reverting to other religions from Islam during the time of the Prophet (SAW) or during the reign of his caliphs were not given the punishment for the crime of apostasy but for the fact that they were at war with Muslims and the Islamic government.

A 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.

Dr. Syed is President of The Islamic Research Foundation International  This article originally published in TAM in April of 2005 and republished now because of the current controversy in Afghanistan.