Is Killing An Apostate in the Islamic Law?
Ibrahim B. Syed, Ph. D.
Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc.
7102 W. Shefford Lane
Louisville, KY 40242-6462, U.S.A.
Ridda or Irtidãd: 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 have taken root in the
Muslim world over the ages, and there have not been any efforts in the past to
clear these doubts. On the contrary, there has been a sort of effort to
strengthen these myths and misconceptions. These misinterpretations of Islamic
teachings have taken their toll on the Muslim world and have strengthened a
misplaced perception that Islam is a symbol of obscurantism, a religion of
intolerance and answers everything with the sword.
And there is no bigger misconception-strengthened with misunderstanding of
Islamic beliefs over the years-other than the belief 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 carry the point by pointing out that Islam orders the killing of
a person if he or she reverts to another religion from Islam.
No body is forthcoming to challenge this widely held belief as well as put forth
a convincing argument about the misinterpretation of Qur'anic teachings by Ulama.
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:
changes his religion, Kill Him (man baddala Dinahu faqtuluhu)’”.
It is this last quote from the Prophet that forms the basis of the said ruling.
While jurists are agreed on the
authenticity of this tradition, they differ very widely on the appropriate
interpretation and thus, the law concerning apostasy. Understanding the
different viewpoints, and arriving at the truth is crucial to our discussion of
This tradition does not refer to
Muslims who leave the religion of Islam for other religions. Finally, there is
the crucial dispute over the nature of the punishment and the crime. Al-Nakha’ee
and, according to Sha’rani, al-Thawri, hold that the apostate is a grave sinner
who should however be continuously called back to the fold for the rest of his
life, and not killed. By implication, they do not consider the offence a hadd
(fixed penalty) offence with a fixed punishment that must be carried out.
This view is similar to the view that apostasy is a sin that carries no fixed
punishment, and any penalty for it is discretionary (ta’zeer). This is a
view held by the Hanbali scholar, Ibn Taimiya and he attributes it as well to
the Maliki Imam al-Baji. Among Hanafites, the jurist Shamsuddeen al-Sarakhshi
holds the same view. He says in al Mabsut that the fixed penalties or hudud
are generally not suspended because of repentance, especially when they are
reported and become known to the Imam. He then adds in the case of apostasy
“renunciation of the faith and conversion to disbelief is admittedly the
greatest of offences, yet it is a matter between man and his Creator, and its
punishment is postponed to the day of Judgement. (“fa’l jaza’ ‘alayha
mu’akhkhar ila dar al-jaza”).
If repentance is accepted, then
apostasy is not a hadd offence with a fixed punishment. Secondly, once
scholars accept that a Muslim apostate has the right to be given the opportunity
to repent, they lose the right to set a time limit for his repentance.
Allah (SWT) says in the Glorious
Qur’an (39: 53-54: Say: “ O you servants of Mine who have transgressed
against your own selves! Despair not of God’s mercy. Behold God forgives all
sins, for verily He is much forgiving, a dispenser of grace! Hence, turn toward
your sustainer and surrender yourselves unto him before the suffering (of death
and resurrection) comes upon you for then you will not be succored.”
Any scholar who says the death
sentence applies to leaving the faith, then the convict is to be given a
life-time to repent, and this is the view of Sufyan al-Thawri, Ibrahim
al-Nakha’ee, Shamsuddeen al-Sarakhshi, Imam al-Baji and, by strong implication,
Ahmad Ibn Taimiya. One must conclude 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
Freedom to convert
to or from Islam
"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."
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
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,
"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',
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)
another verse, Allah Almighty says: "Yours is only the duty to convey the
message; you are not a guardian over them." (Al-Ghashiyah: 21- 22)
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
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.
Muslims who support the death penalty
for apostasy use as their foundation the above cited hadith, in which the
Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said: "Kill whoever changes his religion."
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.
issue of killing a murtad or the apostate is not a simple one. Scholars have
debated it from various angles and it is not simply an issue of killing someone
for choosing one religion or another.
question of apostasy has been debated among scholars based on their
interpretations of some hadiths since the Qur'an does not specify any worldly
punishment for it. For example, 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.
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.
example, one version of a hadith narrated by `A'isha (RA) concerning apostasy
relates to one who left his religion and fought against Muslims.
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. If the Qur’an had kept
completely silent about the apostate, the matter would have been different. But
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.
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
view of the above facts, we are left with one option only. 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 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.
Inayatullah Subhani (author of the Book
Apostasy doesn't carry death penalty
in Islam) says that
neither Islam forces any person to embrace neither Islam nor it forces him to
remain within its fold. He writes, "Apostasy has been mentioned several times in
Qur'an. It also describes the bad treatment that will be meted out for
committing apostasy, 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. He then adds that had there been some
punishment in Islam for apostasy there was no reason as to why the issue was
mentioned repeatedly in Qur'an but no punishment was 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
scheme prepared by Jews of Madinah. They had planned 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 restlessness among Muslims against
their own leadership so that the strong Muslim unity should start crumbling. It
was made clear in Qur'an in (Aal Imran, 3: 72-73).
To counter this planning the Prophet (SAW) ordered his companions to act in such
a manner. Despite this order lengthy investigations were made to ascertain that
the case was true and the person concerned was given adequate time to explain
before the punishment 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.
He emphasizes 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 Islamic government.
Shaykh Subhani regrets that punishment that was prescribed for certain
people under special circumstances was made to look like a general order. He
says that it was the order for people who posed threat to Islamic state and
became at war with Islam and not for any person who reverts to other religion.
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
conclusion, we must never confuse the issue of killing a murtad with the freedom
of conscience guaranteed in the Glorious Qur'an. For a detailed discussion, one
should read (1) the Dr. Yusuf Al-Qaradawi's book on this issue: Jareemat
ar-riddah wal murtadd (The Crime of Apostasy and Apostate) - published by
Apostasy doesn't carry
death penalty in Islam (Book:
Tabdili-e-Mazhab aur Islam) by Maulana Inayatullah Asad Subhani)-published by
Idara Ihya-e-Deen, Bilariya Ganj, Azamgarh (UP, India) Pages: 108, Price Rs 30.
2. "Islam, Apostasy and PAS,"
1999-JUL-22, at: http://www.muslimtents.com/sistersinislam/
3. S.A. Rahman, "Punishment of
apostasy in Islam," Kazi Publ., (1986). Limited availability from Amazon.com