top of page
  • admin

Apostasy - A Crime or an Exercise in Free Will

Every now and then, when a court in a Muslim country issues a death sentence against someone who decided to switch her or his faith, the issue of apostasy is deliberated among Muslims for or against the decision. Critics of Islam describe this practice barbaric and many Muslims explain it in the context of laws developed by their scholars and jurists with full integrity, sincerity and honesty over the centuries.

Depriving a human being of the right to live and breathe, a right every human being is granted by the divine as an act of mercy is a very serious matter and if that right is taken away in the name of God in order to please him, then it becomes even more serious. Why a creation of God would be killed for exercising its divinely given inherent right to choose an idea and practice he or she thinks makes sense to them. They may make wrong choices or right choices but they are the ones who would bear the consequences for them. Nevertheless, this is a choice that every human being is endowed with from his cradle to his grave.

Throughout human history, repeated examples are found in abundance to show that people were killed in the name of God for exercising their inalienable and inherent freedom to choose ideas that appealed to them most. It is really an irony that those who often strived for this divine right for all, sometimes, became a major obstacle in respecting the freedom of choice of others. Rarely people asked why God would want a person killed for his or her change of belief system if God himself had given this right to them. Why did He not mold human nature the way he molded other creations to follow a definite pattern they were created on? Why did he not create unity to the multitude that would differ with each other in their intellectual and rational capabilities to comprehend the reality? And above all why does He not execute His will directly, why does He rely on a human agency to kill those who have differences of opinions on how to relate with God and His attributes.


Apostasy is defined as a defection or revolt from a religious tradition. It is a formal disaffiliation from or abandonment or renunciation of a faith by a person. One who commits apostasy apostatizes and is called an apostate. Sociologists use this term to mean renunciation and criticism of, or opposition to, a person's former religious ideas or theology. The term is sometimes also used by extension to refer to renunciation of a non-religious belief or cause, such as a political party, brain trust, or, facetiously, a sports team. Sometimes it is used as a pejorative word. However, it is in the religious context that it is often used.


Many religious groups consider apostasy a vice, a sin, a corruption of the piety and many religious establishments punish apostates. Apostates are usually ostracized by the members of their former religious group or subjected to formal or informal punishment. A Christian church or a Jewish synagogue may excommunicate the apostate in certain circumstances, while a Muslim government may impose death penalty for apostates. Do these groups really represent the divine will or is it their understanding of the divine will that they perceived through a group of scholars who lived in a specific political or cultural time?

In the context of Islam, the divine scripture, the Quran took a position that in its views the world had been waiting for over a thousand of years to arrive at. That position refers to issues pertaining to human dignity. The Quran described human dignity as the essence of human life and without the freedom to choose, the dignity is considered incomplete. The Quran clearly pronounces: "If thy Lord had so willed, He could have made Humankind one people ..." (11:118) "Let there be no compulsion in the way of life: .." (2:256)

In the above two verses God has given freedoms that the world recognized in the form of Human rights declaration only in 1948. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights observed that the freedom to 'have or to adopt' a religion or belief necessarily entails the freedom to choose a religion or belief, including the right to replace one's current religion or belief with another or to adopt atheistic views. This is a position that is evident in the Quranic verses mentioned above.

Article 18.2 of the human rights declaration bars coercion that would impair the right to have or adopt a religion or belief, including the use of threat of physical force or penal sanctions to compel believers or non-believers to adhere to their religious beliefs and congregations, to recant their religion or belief or to convert. Thus apostasy as a crime is a foreign concept in the final divine testament, i.e. the Quran.

A clear reference to apostasy as a crime punishable by death is found in one of the most widely read book, the Bible, a collection of Old and New Testament and other related books. In Chapter 13 of Deuteronomy (KJV), a true believer is commanded to kill and stone an apostate. Additionally, the believers are commanded to destroy the city dwelt by the apostates including cattle, crops and all their goods.

The Bible says: 1. If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and gives you a sign or a wonder, 2. And the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spoke unto you, saying, Let us go after other gods, which you have not known, and let us serve them; 3. You shall not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams: for the LORD your God proves you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. 4. You shall walk after the LORD your God, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and you shall serve him, and cleave unto him. 5. And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death; because he has spoken to turn you away from the LORD your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, to thrust you out of the way which the LORD your God commanded you to walk in. So shall you put the evil away from the midst of you. 6. If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son, or your daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your friend, which is as your own soul, entice you secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which you have not known, you, nor your fathers; 7. Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nearer unto you, or far off from you, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth; 8. You shall not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shall you spare, neither shall you conceal him: 9. But you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. 10. And you shall stone him with stones, that he die; because he has sought to thrust you away from the LORD your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. 11. And all Israel shall hear, and fear, and shall do no more any such wickedness as this is among you. 12. If you shall hear say in one of your cities, which the LORD your God has given you to dwell there, saying, 13. Certain men, the children of Belial, are gone out from among you, and have withdrawn the inhabitants of their city, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which you have not known; 14. Then shall you inquire, and make search, and ask diligently; and, behold, if it be truth, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought among you; 15. You shall surely smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, destroying it utterly, and all that is therein, and the cattle thereof, with the edge of the sword. 16. And you shall gather all the spoil of it into the midst of the street thereof, and shalt burn with fire the city, and all the spoil thereof every whit, for the LORD your God: and it shall be an heap for ever; it shall not be built again. 17. And there shall cleave nought of the cursed thing to thine hand: that the LORD may turn from the fierceness of his anger, and show thee mercy, and have compassion upon thee, and multiply thee, as he hath sworn unto thy fathers; 18. When you shall hearken to the voice of the LORD thy God, to keep all his commandments which I command thee this day, to do that which is right in the eyes of the LORD thy God.

Thus in clear terms the Old Testament makes it obligatory upon its followers, mainly Christians and Jews to kill those who renounce their. There are no exceptions to the rule. Similar references can be found in other religious traditions where words attributed to God cast a gloomy future for apostates.

Islam and Apostasy One may ask: Is apostasy a sin or a crime or an exercise in freedom of choice? Does a person lose his or her freedom to switch the faith once they accept Islam? Is death the price for exercising freedom in choosing a faith as found in the Biblical scriptures?

Even though, there is no such clear commandment in the Quran, the final divine testament, yet it is Islam's law that has come under severe scrutiny for laws of apostasy, mainly because of the practices of Muslim societies in the past and in present. How did this law come about? Who codified it and did the law reflect the real divine intent? How will the divine intent be determined? These are some of the questions that one should ask.

MEDIEVAL MUSLIM SCHOLARS ON APOSTASY: Several Muslim scholars identify apostasy by a list of actions such as conversion to another religion, denying the existence of God, rejecting the apostles of God, blasphemous words and actions against God or Prophet, rejecting the Sharia or committing forbidden acts such as adultery.

Based on this definition many of them concluded that apostasy by a male Muslim is punishable by death. They differed on the time of execution. Some suggested immediate execution and others granted the apostates an initial opportunity to repent and avoid death penalty. They, however, made a distinction between major and minor apostasy for the purpose of seeking repentance.

There were scholars such as Ibrahim al-Nakha'i (d. 715) and Sufyan as Thawri ibn Said (d. 778) who rejected the idea of capital punishment (death penalty) and prescribed indefinite imprisonment until repentance or death by natural causes. A famous jurist Muhammad b. Ahmad b. Abi Sahl Abu Bakr al-Sarakhsi (d. 1096) called for different punishments between the non-seditious religious apostasy and that of seditious and political nature or what can be called high treason.

Scholars also differed on punishing the female apostates. Imam Abu Hanifa (d.767) and his followers opposed death penalty for female apostates. However others have argued that death penalty can only be applied in certain cases when apostasy is coupled with attempts to "physically harm" the citizens of a Muslim state.

ANALYSIS OF MAULANA MAUDUDI'S POSITION ON APOSTASY: One of the contemporary Muslim scholars, Syed Abul ala Maududi (d.1979), a world renowned Muslim thinker and one of the widely read commentators of the Quran, declared in his work on the Punishment of Apostate in Islamic Law, "this is not a secret for anyone who knows Islamic law that in Islam the punishment for the one who changes his/her faith after accepting Islam is death. The first doubt about the validity of this punishment emerged at the end of the 19th century. Prior to that in the 1200 history of Islam there were no two opinions among Muslims on the issue of the death penalty for apostate." Ironically, Syed Maududi ignored the opinions of Nakhai, Sarakhsi or Thawri and jumped to the conclusion without verification that scholarly opinions were available in Islamic literature contrary to what he called a consensus.

Syed Maududi relies on the following Quranic verse to justify the death penalty in addition to several statements attributed to the Prophet as well as the actions of some of the companions such as Ali Ibn Talib, the fourth Caliph.: "But (even so), if they repent, establish regular prayers, and practice regular charity,- they are your brethren in Faith: (thus) do We explain the Signs in detail, for those who understand. But if they violate their oaths after their covenant, and taunt you for your Faith,- fight you the chiefs of Unfaith: for their oaths are nothing to them: that thus they may be restrained." (9:11-12)

Explaining the above verse Syed Maududi writes in his famous Tafhim ul Quran (towards understanding the Quran): "The following is the occasion for the revelation of this verse: During the pilgrimage (hajj) in A.H. 9 God Most High ordered a proclamation of an immunity. By virtue of this proclamation all those who, up to that time, were fighting against God and His Apostle and were attempting to obstruct the way of God's religion through all kinds of excesses and false covenants, were granted from that time a maximum respite of four months. During this period they were to ponder their own situation. If they wanted to accept Islam, they could accept it and they would be forgiven. If they wanted to leave the country, they could leave. Within this fixed period nothing would hinder them from leaving. Thereafter, those remaining, who would neither accept Islam nor leave the country, would be dealt with by the sword. In this connection it was said: "If they repent and uphold the practice of prayer and almsgiving, then they are your brothers in religion. If after this, however, they break their covenant, then war should be waged against the leaders of kufr (infidelity). Here "covenant breaking" in no way can be construed to mean "breaking of political covenants". Rather, the context clearly determines its meaning to be "confessing Islam and then renouncing it". Thereafter the meaning of "fight the heads of disbelief" (9:11-12) can only mean that war should be waged against the leaders instigating apostasy." How did Syed Maududi arrive at this conclusion? Did any previous scholar offer this explanation? Did Islamic legal authorities use this verse for pronouncing death penalty to apostates? The answer is no.

Does this verse really provide an evidence for death penalty for an apostate? The aya (verse) was revealed at a time when the Islamic state was in the final stages of its formation in Medina. Hostile groups were after its destruction. Their opposition to Islam was not only on theological grounds but on social, political and cultural grounds. The argument of the opponents of Islamic state was that those who are born in higher class families are the ones who would determine political, social and economic priorities. Muslims and non-Muslims were opposed to this stratified political and social thinking. They were part of the Islamic state.

It is obvious that the Islamic state had both Muslim and non-Muslim citizens. With Muslims, the state had a different type of relation as it was not necessary to have treaties with them because they were the ones who had established the state. However, treaties were needed with non-Muslims to ensure peace and security for them and others in return to the allegiance to the state. It was in the context of betrayal of and defiance to this allegiance, the Quran declared that the violators should be challenged and confronted.

No where does the verse say that the confrontation would become obligatory if people change their faith. In fact the Quran uses the word covenant and not faith. The Quran also uses the word Qatalu, meaning the armed confrontation not killing as suggested by Syed Maududi.

QURAN AND APOSTASY: In fact, no where does the Quran declare that change of faith is a crime punishable by death. The Quran on the contrary takes the position "there is no compulsion in matters of faith. (2:256). If there is compulsion in matters of faith before accepting Islam, why will this rule be overturned once a person become a Muslim? There is no verse in the Quran that challenges this clear command or overturns it. This aya is considered part of muhakamat (clear, well defined and definite) ayas. In fact, there is no verse in the Quran that nullifies any of its verses. Mutashabihat (allegorical) cannot nullify muhakamat.

On the Contrary, the Quran challenges the idea of censorship and emphasizes time and time again that coercion is against the divine will. The Quran declares that all those coercive forces that had put shackles of their power and authority over the hearts and minds of people in terms of choosing a faith or a way of life should be challenged, confronted and stopped.

One gets a clear example of this Quranic commandment in the context of events involving Moses and Pharaoh. The divine charge sheet against Pharaoh was built around the coercive nature of the royal authority when the emperor declared: "Believe you in Him before I give you permission? Surely he is your leader, who has taught you sorcery! But soon shall ye know! Be sure I will cut off your hands and your feet on opposite sides, and I will cause you all to die on the cross!" (26:49).

The same message was repeated by him again in another place in the Quran: (Pharaoh) said: "Believe ye in Him before I give you permission? Surely this must be your leader, who has taught you magic! be sure I will cut off your hands and feet on opposite sides, and I will have you crucified on trunks of palm-trees: so shall ye know for certain, which of us can give the more severe and the more lasting punishment!" (20:71)

A similar charge sheet was made against the leaders who opposed the message of Prophet Shuaib when the Quran referred to their attitude in the following verse: The leaders, the arrogant party among his people, said: "O Shuaib! We shall certainly drive you out of our city - (thee) and those who believe with you; or else you (you and they) shall have to return to our ways and religion." He said: "What! even though we do detest (them)? (7:29) and the Unbelievers said to their apostles: "Be sure we shall drive you out of our land, or ye shall return to our religion." But their Lord inspired (this Message) to them: "Verily We shall cause the wrong-doers to perish! (14:13)

The Quranic position with regards to this coercion is clear. No one can dictate upon others his or her faith. The decision to relate to God and His message is a voluntary decision and it should come from the heart and mind of individuals taking it.

"Those who, when they are admonished with the Signs of their Lord, droop not down at them as if they were deaf or blind." (25:73)

The Quran takes a strong stand against religious coercion declaring it a crime and a loathsome action. The Quran declared that each individual is responsible for his/her faith and action with full freedom to choose whatever way of life he/she chooses. The Quran says; "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." (2:217)

The Quran does not prescribe any death penalty for such people nor does it call for their imprisonment. It elaborates: "O you who believe! if any from among you turn back from his Faith, soon will Allah produce a people whom He will love as they will love Him,- lowly with the believers, mighty against the rejecters, fighting in the way of Allah, and never afraid of the reproaches of such as find fault. That is the grace of Allah, which He will bestow on whom He pleases. And Allah encompasses all, and He knows all things." (5:54)

If any did turn back on his heels, not the least harm will he do to Allah. but Allah (on the other hand) will swiftly reward those who (serve Him) with gratitude. (3:144) In other word, the Quran makes it clear that acts of apostasy do not cause any harm to God, they hurt the person who is indulgent in this behavior. Who can harm Allah? None. People harm them and others.

The Quran asks the believers that they should focus on their faith, action, behavior and attitude: "O you who believe! Guard your own souls: If you follow (right) guidance, no hurt can come to you from those who stray. The goal of you all is to Allah. it is He that will show you the truth of all that ye do." (5:105)

It further says that it is not a cause of concern to Allah if everyone changes his/her faith: Allah does not need those who use faith as a stepping stone to serve their political or theological interests. Allah is pleased with those who are convinced with the absolute authority of God in every aspect of life.

"To Allah belong all things in the heavens and on earth. Verily we have directed the People of the Book before you, and you (o Muslims) to fear Allah. But if you deny Him, lo! unto Allah belong all things in the heavens and on earth, and Allah is free of all wants, worthy of all praise." (4:131)

"O people! The Messenger has come to you in truth from Allah. Believe in him: It is best for you. But if you reject Faith, to Allah belong all things in the heavens and on earth: And Allah is All-knowing, All-wise." (4:170)

"And Moses said: "If ye show ingratitude, you and all on earth together, yet is Allah free of all wants, worthy of all praise." (14:8) "If you reject (Allah), Truly Allah hath no need of you; but He likes not ingratitude from His servants: if ye are grateful, He is pleased with you. No bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another. In the end, to your Lord is your Return, when He will tell you the truth of all that ye did (in this life).for He knows well all that is in (men's) hearts." (39:7)

The Quran assures complete freedom to human beings in matters of faith and does not promote coercion in any form or shape. As explained in the Quran:

"If it had been thy Lord's will, they would all have believed,- all who are on earth! wilt thou then compel mankind, against their will, to believe!" (10:99)

If your Lord had so willed, He could have made mankind one people: but they will not cease to dispute. (11:118)

The Quran lays down the following permanent principle when it states: "Say, "The truth is from your Lord": Let him who will believe, and let him who will, reject (it): for the wrong-doers We have prepared a Fire whose (smoke and flames), like the walls and roof of a tent, will hem them in: if they implore relief they will be granted water like melted brass, that will scald their faces, how dreadful the drink! How uncomfortable the couch to recline on!" (18:29)

Some scholars have argued that apostasy is not declared a crime and if death is not prescribed for people who apostate, the gates of conversion to other faiths would open and Muslims would lose many of its adherents because of the propagation or coercion. Well this position is contrary to the Quran. People can be forced to retain a faith for fear of death. The commitment to faith should come from one's belief. What good a person who is forced to follow a path is for the community, because when the situation would be ripe, he would be the first one to desert.

The stand of the Quran is very clear as it declares that matters pertaining to faith are personal matters and those who accept or reject it do it for their own good or harm. "Say: "O you men! Now Truth hath reached you from your Lord! Those who receive guidance, do so for the good of their own souls; those who stray, do so to their own loss: and I am not (set) over you to arrange your affairs." (10:108)

The Quran describes coercion (fitna) or tumult, a crime that is worst than killing. "And fight them on until there is no more Tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah. but if they cease, Let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression." (2:193)

"And slay them wherever you catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they (first) fight you there; but if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who suppress faith." (12:191)

Fitna literally means heating silver or gold to purify them by removing impurities. In the Quranic context it is incumbent on Muslims to remove all forms of fitna (impurities) including oppression that prevents people from believing what they believe. This coercion is bigger than the killing. Thus the obligation upon Muslims is to remove this coercion rather than promoting it or performing actions that negate the Quran. The Quran's commandment is clear that when the freedom of religion is denied and people are forced to believe in the ideas of coercing authority or group, it becomes obligatory to defend the freedom. The Quran does not preach violence, rather explains how violence should be confronted. It is clear that the Quran gives absolute freedom to people in matters pertaining to faith and does not prescribe any punishment for those who change of faith.

AHADITH ON APOSTASY: It is unimaginable that the Prophet might have said anything that would contradict the Quran or would promote a system that would stifle the freedom given by the divine.

There are ahadith (statements attributed to the Prophet) in several books of Ahadith that refer to the issue of apostasy. Some of them are general and still others are contextual and conditional. But none can be used as an evidence against the Quranic call for freedom of faith. It is not the books of ahadith, such as Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmidhi, Nasai, Abu Dawood, Ibn Maja, or Muwatta of Malik, whose collections would restrict or edit the meanings of the Quran, rather the definitive words of the Quran that would give the final verdict on the legitimacy and validity of the books of ahadith.

"Blessed is He who sent down the criterion to His servant, that it may be an admonition to all creatures. (25:1)

Indeed the Quran declares: "Say: Allah's guidance is the (only) guidance, and we have been directed to submit ourselves to the Lord of the worlds." (6:71)

Obviously, the Sahih (authentic) ahadith have to be viewed in the context of this divine guidance. For instance, one such Hadith in Sahih Bukhari that is used to justify the death penalty of apostate states: One, who changes his faith, should be killed. This is a general statement; that one doubts the Prophet, who was very specific in identifying issues, would have made in such a broader context. However if it is accepted on its face value, then this could also mean that even a polytheist or Christian cannot change his faith as it would mean death penalty to him. Obviously, a general statement like this cannot be used as a foundation of a law pertaining to a very sensitive issue of death penalty.

In his last sermon, the prophet asked Muslims in very clear terms that they should not turn away from the faith by starting to kill each other. In other words, the Prophet explained that killing fellow Muslims is itself an act of denying the basis of faith and turning away from its tenants. Does this statement not mean that those who engage in violence against fellow Muslims are the ones who are turning away from faith? Does this Prophetic statement not say openly that those who actively engage in fighting the citizens of a Muslim state should be confronted and stopped from doing so?

CONCLUSION: The Quran makes a distinction between apostasy and act of treachery or treason against state or established authority. When the first Caliph Abu Bakr fought against those who had refused to pay the Zakat (religiously required dues), it was this principle of the integrity of the institution of state that he wanted to preserve. It was an act in defense of the legitimacy of the authority established by the collective will of the majority of the people.

An apostate is the one who changes his religion by rejecting his previous faith. As long as he is not engaged in violence against the state and its citizens and accepts the legitimacy of the authority, his life and property must be protected under the divine guidance. The Quran gives this right to every individual and does not prescribe any penalty for that. In fact the Quran acknowledges the presence of those people in a Muslim society who show the tendency to change their faith at will till they die and does not prescribe any punishment for them.

Indeed, those who have believed then disbelieved, then believed, then disbelieved, and then increased in disbelief - never will God forgive them, nor will He guide them to a way. (4:137)

Never does the Quran exhort the believers or the authorities to impose death penalty upon them. However if a citizen is disturbing the peace of the society, challenging the central authority and subverting the institutions created to safeguard the interests of the people then it become obligatory for a state to confront such people regardless of their faith. What is punishable is not the action of changing one's faith, but indulgence in subversive actions against the collective will of people. Thus, in the words of the Quran, apostasy is not a crime punishable by death. Rather the freedom to choose is a divinely given right that every human being is born with. Is this not an irony that Muslims who were exhorted to defend the principle of religious freedom have themselves become an obstacle in the path of this freedom?

6 views0 comments


bottom of page