Allah shows no mercy to those who move away from Islam, for conversion in Islam is a one way move. If any Muslim renounces his/her faith they are considered to be disloyal to Allah and the Muslim community (ummah) are expected to carry out the penal requirements instigated by Muhammad.
This is in opposition to item 18 of the International Declaration of Human Rights which states that “each individual has the full right to change his faith or to relinquish it as he wishes in order to protect the freedom of thought and the freedom of belief.”
The teaching of the Quran
No forgiveness for those who revert to unbelief:
Those who believe, then reject faith, then believe (again) and (again) reject faith, and go on increasing in unbelief, Allah will not forgive them nor guide them nor guide them on the way. (an-Nisa 4:137)
And if any of you turn back from their faith and die in unbelief, their works will bear no fruit in this life and in the Hereafter; they will be companions of the fire and will abide therein. (Al-Baqarrah 2:217)
How shall Allah guide those who reject faith after they accepted it and bore witness that the Messenger was true and that clear signs had come unto them? but Allah guides not a people unjust. (Al-Imran 3:86)
Any one who, after accepting faith in Allah, utters unbelief, except under compulsion, his heart remaining firm in faith but such as open their breast to unbelief, on them is wrath from Allah, and theirs will be a dreadful penalty. (An-Nahl 16:106)
The following account of the apostasy of Israel is sometimes given as an example of the need for the death penalty in ancient Israel.
And remember We appointed forty nights for Moses, and in his absence ye took the calf (for worship), and ye did grievous wrong. Even then We did forgive you; there was a chance for you to be grateful. And remember Moses said to his people: “O my people! Ye have indeed wronged yourselves by your worship of the calf: So turn (in repentance) to your Maker, and slay yourselves (the wrong-doers); that will be better for you in the sight of your Maker.” Then He turned towards you (in forgiveness): For He is oft-returning, most merciful. (Al-Baqarrah 2:51,52,54 )
The teaching regarding apostasy in the hadith
The legal penalty for apostasy is not found in the Quran but in the Hadith. There is not a single Muslim group that looks to the Quran as the only rule of faith and practice. The lock of Quran obscurity opens only to the key of Tradition. Such Traditions in regard to apostates and Muhammad’s estimate of them are given in both Bukhari and Muslim. We would not quote such Traditions if it were not necessary in order to refute the statements of those who constantly assert that there is no penalty for apostasy in Islam.
- Narrated ‘Ikrima: Some Zanadiqa were brought to ‘Ali and he burnt them. The news of this event, reached Ibn ‘Abbas who said, “If I had been in his place, I would not have burnt them, as Allah’s Apostle forbade it, saying, ‘Do not punish anybody with Allah’s punishment (fire).’ I would have killed them according to the statement of Allah’s Apostle, ‘Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him.'” (Bukhari Vol 9 Book 84 No 57 similarly Vol 4 Book 52 No 260)
- “It is related from Anas that he said,’ A band of men of the ’Ukl tribe came to the Prophet and embraced Islam. But they fell ill at Medina, so the Prophet ordered them to go to the camels given in alms and drink their urine and milk. Then they did so and regained their health. After that they apostatised and killed the keepers of the camels and drove off the camels. Then (the Prophet) sent after them, and they were brought back. Then he cut off their hands and feet and put out their eyes. After that he did not staunch the bleeding until they died.’ (In another Tradition it runs: ’drove nails into their eyes.’ And in another Tradition: “He ordered nails, and they were made hot; and he pierced them with them. And he cast them out on to the stony plain. And they asked for a drink, but they were not given to drink, until they died.”
- Abu Musa said ………. Behold: There was a fettered man beside Abu Muisa. Mu’adh asked, “Who is this ?” Abu Muisa said, “He was a Jew and became a Muslim and then reverted back to Judaism.” Then Abu Muisa requested Mu’adh to sit down but Mu’adh said, “I will not sit down till he has been killed. This is the judgement of Allah and His Apostle (for such cases) and repeated it thrice. Then Abu Musa ordered that the man be killed, and he was killed. (Bukhari Vol 9 Book 84 No 58 similarly Volume 5 Book 59 No 632)
- According to one tradition of Abu Burda (died 104 A.H.) opportunity was given for the Jew to repent as Abu Daud adds that they had tried to convert the apostate for twenty days.
- Narrated ‘Ali: No doubt I heard Allah’s Apostle saying, “During the last days there will appear some young foolish people who will say the best words but their faith will not go beyond their throats and will go out from (leave) their religion as an arrow goes out of the game. So, where-ever you find them, kill them, for who-ever kills them shall have reward on the Day of Resurrection.” (Bukhari Vol 9 Book 84 No 64)
The Caliph ‘Umar is said not to have approved of the death penalty as he approved of the traditions where Muhammad is related to forgive apostates (Nasai, Abu Dawud, Ibn Hanbal and Tabari). On the other hand others said that execution should be by the sword and that traditions exist saying the apostate should be tortured. (’Umar 2 had some of them tied to a post and a lance thrust into their heart).
The Commentaries on the Traditions
The commentaries on the Traditions leave us in no doubt as to their interpretation. The two standard commentaries on Bukhari give much additional information, and add also comment on the Quran passages that deal with apostasy. (i.e Fath ul-Bari (Victory of the Creator) is the most valued Sunni commentary of Sahih Al-Bukhari and was written by Imam Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, vol. 12 pp. 89-91 and pp. 214-225 (Cairo edition); and Umdah al Qari fi Sharh Sahih al Bukhari written by al-Ayni vol. 11, pp. 143-144 and pp. 230-236. The first section in both of these commentaries on the Hadith is entitled, “On Unbelievers and Apostates who make war on Islam”; the second section in both is entitled, “On the repentance of Apostates and Rebels, and when killing them is incumbent.”
The famous bachelor Syrian scholar, Imam An-Nawawi (1234-1278) selected ‘Forty Hadiths’ and commenting on the following tradition: “The Apostle of God said the blood of a fellow-Muslim should never be shed except in three cases; that of the adulterer, the murderer, and whosoever forsakes the religion of Islam” said: ”The adulterer should be stoned; the murderer, when convicted of his crime, should be killed with the sword; but he who departs from Islam, becoming disobedient to God and His Apostle, let him be cut off or crucified or destroyed from the earth.”
Ibn Hisham, in “Muhammad’s Biography” (Al-Sirat El Nabawia, part 4, p. 180), says: “When Muhammad died, most Meccans were about to turn away from Islam and wanted to do so. Suhayl Ibn ‘Amru stood up and said: ‘Anyone who relinquishes Islam, we will cut his head off.’ People changed their minds and were afraid.” This actually was in regard to the Meccans, but the majority of the Arab tribes actually turned away from Islam. Abu Bakr fought them. The ruthlessness of Khalid Ibn al-Walid was very apparent. Dr. Abu Zaid said about Khalid Ibn al-Walid that he was the one who gouged out the eyes of apostates.
The Muslim law schools.
One of the most famous books of Hanafi law is that called the Hidayah (Guidance) it is used as a text-book in schools of law and is authoritative. We quote from volume 2, which addresses “The law concerning Apostates.”
- “When a Muslim apostatises from the faith, an exposition thereof is to be laid before him in such a manner that if his apostasy should have arisen from any religious doubts or scruples, those may be removed. The reason for laying an exposition of the faith before him is that it is possible some doubts or errors may have arisen in his mind, which may be removed by such exposition; and as there are two modes of repelling the sin of apostasy, namely, destruction or Islam, and as Islam is preferable to destruction, the evil is rather to be removed by means of an exposition of the faith; but yet this exposition of the faith in not incumbent, since a call to the faith has already reached the apostate.
- “An apostate is to be imprisoned for three days; within which time, if he return to the faith, it is well; but if not, he must be slain ………….. and it is recorded from Shafi’i that it is incumbent on the Imam to delay for three days, and that it is not lawful for him to put the apostate to death before the lapse of that time; since it is most probable that a Muslim will not apostatise but from some doubt or error arising in his mind; wherefore some time is necessary for consideration, and this is fixed at three days. The arguments of our doctors upon this point are two-fold. First, God says, in the Quran, “Slay the unbeliever,” without any reserve of a delay of three days being granted to him; and the Prophet has also said “Slay the man who changes his religion,” without mentioning anything concerning a delay. Secondly, an apostate is an infidel enemy who has received a call to the faith, wherefore he may be slain upon the instant, without any delay. An apostate is termed on this occasion an infidel enemy, because he is undoubtedly such; and he is not protected, since he has not required a protection; neither is he a zimmi, because capitation tax has not been accepted from him’ hence it is proved that he is an infidel enemy ……………..
- If an apostate die or be slain in his apostasy, his property acquired during his profession of the faith goes to his heirs who are Muslims, and whatever he acquired during the apostasy is public property of the community of Muslims; that is, it goes to the public treasury.
- “If any person kill an apostate, before an exposition of the faith has been laid open to him, it is abominable (that is, it is laudable to let him continue unmolested). Nothing, however, is incurred by the slayer; because the infidelity of an alien renders the killing of him admissible; and an exposition of the faith, after a call to the faith, is not necessary.”
- If a Muslim woman becomes an apostate, she is not to be put to death, but is imprisoned, until she returns to the faith. (Hamilton’s Hidayah, vol. 2. p. 227,) Shafi’i maintains that she is to be put to death, because, as men are put to death for apostasy solely for this reason, that is a crime of great magnitude, and therefore requires that its punishment be proportionately severe, so the apostasy of a woman being likewise a crime of great magnitude, it follows that her punishment should be the same as that of a man.
- If either the husband or wife apostatise from the faith of Islam a divorce takes place i’poso facto; the wife is entitled to her whole dower, but no sentence of divorce is necessary. If the husband and wife both apostatise together, their marriage is generally allowed to continue ….. But if, after their joint apostasy, either husband or wife were singly to return to Islam, then the marriage would be dissolved. (Hamilton’s Hidayah, vol. 2. p. 183.)
- “If a husband and wife both apostatise, and desert to a foreign country, and the woman become pregnant there, and bring forth a child, and to this child another child be afterwards born, and the Muslim troops then subdue the territory, the child and the child’s child both are plunder, and the property of the state: the child is so, because as the apostate mother is made a slave, her child is so likewise, as a dependant on her; and the child’s child is so, because he is an original infidel and an enemy.”
Of the four orthodox schools of Islam the Maliki sect seems to be the sternest with regard to apostasy. According to Captain F.R. Ruxton: “In Maliki and Shafi’i Law the punishment is irrespective of sex, whilst in Hanafi Law a female apostate is to be kept in confinement until she recants.
There was not actually agreement over the death penalty applying to all who were found guilty of apostasy for some considered that the relevant hadiths only applied to idol worshippers. Others however, preferred a broader approach as found in the statement of ‘Aisha that banishment should be considered as a fit punishment alongside being slain and crucifixion (Nasai’ Tahrim al-dam chapter 11).
- If a boy under age apostatise, he is not to be put to death, but to be imprisoned until he come to full age, when if he continue in the state of unbelief, he must be put to death. Neither lunatics nor drunkards are held to be responsible for their apostasy from Islam. (Hidiyah, vol. 2 p. 246).
- If a person upon compulsion becomes an apostate, his wife is not divorced, nor are his lands forfeited. If a person become a Muslim upon compulsion and afterwards apostatise, he is not to be put to death. (Hidayah, vol, 3 p 467.)
- The will of a male apostate is not valid, but that of a female apostate is valid. (Hidayah, vol. 4 p 537).
Adapted from the article “The Law of Apostasy by Dr S. M. Zwemer and The Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam (E.J. Brill)