Apostasy in the Quran, Traditions, and Islamic Law
James M. Arlandson
In 2006 in Pakistan, Christians have been arrested for converting from Islam to Christianity.
In 2006 in Afghanistan, Abdul Rahman was being prosecuted for converting from Islam to Christianity, a "crime" that carries the death penalty. After massive protests from governments around the world, the trial was terminated and Abdul Rahman was able to leave the country. More on the background of this case can also be found here.
As East and West meet through the worldwide web, we will hear more of such stories, even of Christian martyrs.
Apostates are those who leave a religion, in this case Islam, whether they become atheists or converts to another religion. What should happen to them according to the Quran, the traditions (or hadith), and later legal rulings? Have these modern clerics and judges strayed from original Islam?
This article exposes and analyzes the source of these anti-freedom of religion laws in Islam today.
It must be conceded that automatic death for apostasy is not as prominent a theme in the Quran as one would expect. For instance, these verses condemn it, but its punishment is reserved for divine judgment in the Last Day, or its punishment is not clear down here on earth: Suras 2:217; 3:72, 86-87, 90; 4:137; 5:54; 16:106; 33:14; 47:25-27; 73:11; and 74:11.
Further, according to the historical context of Sura 5:33, which commands mutilation and crucifixion for striving against Allah and Muhammad, some Arab tribesmen turned away from Islam, but they also murdered a shepherd and stole livestock. Thus, more than apostasy is in view here. Nonetheless, the hadith uses this context to justify death for apostates, as reviewed in this article.
Are there clear verses about execution down here on earth for apostasy alone? The next three passages are sufficient to justify this, in earliest Islam, the original community that Muhammad was founding.
(1) Sura 4 was revealed in Medina over a period of three years (AD 625-627). At this point some Muslims have not immigrated to Medina when the invitation had been given. A group of them, called the hypocrites, had embraced Islam with reservations. Sometimes they supported Muhammad from a geographical and religious distance, for example in saying prayers the Muslim way. At other times, they seemed to help the enemies of Islam (see Abul ALa Maududi, The Meaning of the Quran, vol. 1, pp. 361-62, notes 116-117).
In Sura 4:88-89 Allah tells the prophet how to deal with these particular hypocrites.
4:88-89 Then what is the matter with you that you are divided into two parties about the hypocrites? Allah has cast them back (to disbelief) because of what they have earned. Do you want to guide him whom Allah has made go astray? And he whom Allah has made to go astray, you will never find for him any way (of guidance) 89 They wish that you reject (Faith), and thus that you all become equal (like one another). So, take not Auliya (protectors or friends) from them, till they emigrate in the way of Allah (to Muhammad). But if they turn back (from Islam), take (hold of) them and kill [q-t-l] them wherever you find them . . . . (Al-Hilali and Khan, parenthetical insertions are theirs; mine in brackets)
We should note two facts from these verses. First, Allah himself made the hypocrites go astray, yet he orders them killed. Second, the Arabic verb qatala is used (root is q-t-l), and this word means exclusively to fight, kill, war, battle, or slaughter.
Next, verse 90 says that if these nominal Muslims seek peace, not war, then Allah has not opened a way for Muhammad to fight them. He must allow them to live in their state of hypocrisy. However, as verse 89 says, if they turn back both from emigrating and Islam, then they shall be battled. So there is no ambiguity about Muhammads policy on full apostates—death.
For the final two passages, we allow Sayyid Abul ALa Maududi (d. 1979), a traditional and respected commentator of the Quran, to walk us through Islamic policy on apostasy, as revealed in the Quran (The Meaning of the Quran, vol. 2 of 6).
(2) Sura 9 is the last one to be revealed in its entirety. By now, Muhammad has a strong military, so he is about to "deal" with opponents once and for all. Three verses in this sura command striving (jihad) and then fighting (qital) against hypocrites and unbelievers (73-74 and 123). In these two verses, the hypocrites and unbelievers are not full apostates, according to Maududi.
The Quran says:
9:73-74 O Prophet, strive [j-h-d] hard against the disbelievers and the hypocrites and be adamant and stern with them . . . they did utter the words of unbelief. Thus, they were guilty of unbelief after they professed Islam . . . If even now they repent of their misbehavior, it will be good for their own selves, but if they do not repent, Allah will chastise them with a painful chastisement in this world and the Hereafter . . . . (Maududi, vol. 2, p. 213)
These two verses say three things about these near-apostates.
First, hypocrites stood aloof from Islam, yet they mouthed words of support—sometimes. At other times they opposed Muhammad, especially in his long and difficult Tabuk Crusade against the Byzantine Christians in late AD 630. They refused to go. Muhammad could not tolerate this wishy-washy behavior. Most important, he could not tolerate opposition, at this late stage.
Second, the more ambiguous word jihad is used. This implies that the ultimate command to kill the hypocrites and unbelievers has not yet been given clearly. But they have been promised "painful chastisement in this world." How? The Muslim community has other methods of "striving" with them instead of killing them, such as ostracism, denial of their oaths in a court of law, closed doors of offices and positions, and contempt in social meetings (Maududi, vol. 2, p. 219, note 82).
Third, the hypocrites are still given the opportunity to repent. "If they now repent of their misbehavior, it will be good for them" . . . . This means, according to Maududi, that they are not full apostates, even though they uttered words of unbelief. But this chance for repentance is short lived, as the next verse reveals.
(3) In Sura 9:123 the hypocrites have been merged with the unbelievers, so they are now apostates.
The Quran says:
9:123 O Believers, fight [q-t-l] with these disbelievers who are near you, and they should find you firm and stern. (Maududi, vol. 2, p. 249)
Maududi notes two differences between verses 73 and 123. First, jihad (j-h-d) and qital (q-t-l) are used in each, respectively; and, second, only one key word describes the enemies of Islam in verse 123, whereas two words describe them in verse 73.
The only difference between the two Commands is that in v. 73 the Muslims were asked to do Jihad with them, while in this verse  stronger words, "fight with them," have been used, which were meant to impress on them that they should crush the hypocrites thoroughly and completely. Another difference in the wording is that in v. 73, two different words "disbelievers and hypocrites," have been used, while in this verse  only one word, "disbelievers," has been used so that the hypocrites should forfeit all their claims as Muslims, for there was room for this concession in the word "hypocrite." (vol. 2, p. 253, note 121, insertions mine)
Maududi says that the word "hypocrites" means a reprieve, but this word has been removed, and "disbelievers" has been supplied, which eliminates the reprieve. Recall that Sura 9:73-74 says that the hypocrites made some confession of unbelief after they professed Islam, so the implication is clear from verse 123, added to verses 73-74, as follows: Even though neither Maududi nor verse 123 uses "apostasy" as such, these hypocrites-declared-unbelievers should be fought and crushed thoroughly and completely.
The hadith are the records or traditions about Muhammads words and actions outside of the Quran. This body of literature and the Quran form the foundation of later classical law. Bukhari (d. AD 870) is considered one of the most reliable hadith collectors and editors, if not the most reliable. Four examples from Bukhari and two hadiths cited by Maududi suffice to give us an idea of how harshly early Islam treats apostates.
(1) Bukhari records this tradition traced back to Muhammad himself in a legal context. It gives three reasons for shedding a Muslims blood. One of them is apostasy.
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 [like-for-like punishment] for murder, a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse and the one who reverts from Islam (apostate) and leaves the Muslims." (Bukari)
(2) This hadith says that some "atheists" were brought to Ali, Muhammads son-in-law and cousin, and he burned them alive.
. . . The news of this event reached Ibn Abbas [Muhammads cousin and highly reliable transmitter of traditions] who said, "If I had been in his [Alis] place, I would not have burnt them, as Allahs Messenger forbad it, saying, Do no punish anybody with Allahs punishment (fire). I would have killed them according to the statement of Allah Messenger, Whoever change[s] his Islamic religion, then kill him." (Bukhari, Apostates, no. 6922; online source)
Evidently, these "atheists" were once Muslims, but they no longer followed Muhammads way. The Islam of Ali and Ibn Abbas, Muhammads family, would not tolerate freedom of religion, so Ali burned them alive. Ibn Abbas would have beheaded them because fire as a punishment is reserved only for Allah.
(3) After Muhammad dies of a fever in AD 632, the tribes in Arabia revolted against Islam. Evidently, they honored this religion only because the prophet grew in military prowess. But shortly after he died, they dropped their allegiance to him. However, his right-hand companion Abu Bakr was appointed successor or Caliph upon Muhammads death (ruled AD 632-634). This is how he deals with the revolt.
When Allah's Messenger died and Abu Bakr was elected as a Caliph after him, some of the Arabs reverted to disbelief. 'Umar said to Abu Bakr, "How dare you fight the people while Allah's Messenger said, I have been ordered to fight the people till they say, "None has the right to be worshipped but Allah." And whoever says: "None has the right to be worshipped but Allah" saves his wealth and his life from me unless he deserves a legal punishment justly, and his account will be with Allah!"" Abu Bakr said, "By Allah, I will fight him who discriminates between Zakat and Salat (prayers), for Zakat is the compulsory right to be taken from the wealth. By Allah, if they refuse to give me even a tying rope which they use to give to Allah's Messenger, I would fight them for withholding it." 'Umar said, "By Allah, it was nothing, except I saw that Allah had opened the chest of Abu Bakr to the fight, and I came to know for certain that that (i.e. the decision to fight) was the truth." (Bukhari)
In this passage, zakat "is the compulsory right to be taken from the wealth" of the Arab tribes. Abu Bakr zealously fights for every last scrap of wealth from them. Even if they withhold a "tying rope," he will battle them for it. In the end, the first Caliph was successful. The tribes were subdued.
(4) As the final example from Bukharis collection, this hadith promises a reward on the Day of Resurrection for killing apostates in the last days:
. . . 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 (i.e. they will have no faith) and will go out from (leave) their religion as an arrow goes out of the game. So, wherever you find them, kill them, for whoever kills them shall have reward on the Day of Resurrection." (Bukhari)
Next, Maududi cites two hadiths that he considers reliable. Both say that a Christian or Christians converted to Islam, disliked it, and then switched back to Christianity. Ali is Muhammads cousin and son-in-law and fourth Caliph (ruled AD 656-660), who was assassinated while praying in a mosque. How does he treat these Christians? Tolerantly?
(5) This Christian was martyred after he proclaimed the Lordship of Jesus Christ over himself and possibly even over Ali.
. . . A man who was formerly a Christian, then was Muslim, and again became a Christian was brought before Ali. Ali asked him: What is the cause of your conduct? He replied: I have found the religion of the Christians better than your religion. Ali asked: What is your belief about Jesus? He said: He is my Lord (Rabb); or else he said: He is Lord of Ali. Hearing this, Ali ordered that he be executed.
(6) These Christians were martyred after they realized that their first religion, Christianity, was far more excellent than all other religions, even Islam. Note what Ali does to their children.
. . . Ali was informed about a group of Christians who had become Muslims and then became Christians again. Ali arrested them, summoned them before himself and enquired about the truth of the matter. They said: We were Christians. Then we were offered the choice of remaining Christians or becoming Muslims. We chose Islam. But now it is our opinion that no religion is more excellent than our first religion. Therefore we have become Christians now. Hearing this, Ali ordered these people to be executed and their children enslaved.
Slavery has a long and dreadful history in Islam.
Source: The Punishment of the Apostate According to Islamic Law, for the last two hadiths; and scroll down to "Views of the Rightly Guided Caliphs," nos. 6 and 7
This section of Bukharis hadith deals with apostates. This article has many more hadiths than the ones cited in this present article.
Classical Islamic law
Sharia is Islamic law based on the Quran and the hadith. Fiqh is the science of applying and interpreting sharia, done by qualified judges and legal scholars. We look at two of the most widespread and influential schools in orthodox Sunni Islam: those of Shafii (d. 829) and Malik (d. 795).
(1) Malik was also a reliable collector of hadith.
In one long hadith, Malik first lays the foundation that execution is legal.
Yahya related to me . . . that the Messenger of Allah . . . said, "If someone changes his religionthen strike off his head!"
The first class of apostates leaves Islam for something else, but they are not given the opportunity to repent.
They are killed without being called to repent because their repentance is not recognized. They were concealing their disbelief and making Islam public, so I do not think that one should call such people to repent and one does not accept their word.
The second group of apostates leaves Islam and divulges it. What happens to him?
As for the person who leaves Islam for something else and divulges it, he is called on to repent. If he does not turn in repentance, he is killed . . . If they repent, that is accepted from them. (Online source)
The next hadith in Malik concerns Umar. Recall that in the previous section Abu Bakr the first Caliph (ruled 632-634) waged wars on tribes that apostatized from Islam and that Ali the fourth Caliph (r. 656-666) killed Christians. Umar was the second Caliph (r. 634-644), and he too kills apostates as a matter of policy, except he gives them three days to repent.
. . . Then Umar inquired, "Do you have any recent news?" He said, "Yes. A man has become an unbeliever after he was a Muslim." Umar said, "What have you done with him?" He replied, "We let him approach and then struck off his head." Umar said, "Didnt you imprison him for three days and feed him a loaf of bread every day and call on him to repent that he might . . . return to the command of Allah?" Then Umar said, "O Allah! I was not present and I did not order it and I am not pleased since it has come to me." (online source)
(2) The following medieval manual compiled mainly by Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri (d. 1368), Reliance of the Traveler: A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law, (rev. ed., trans. Nuh Ha Mim Keller, Beltsville, Maryland: Amana, 1994), summarizes rulings in the Shafii School of fiqh.
These two laws cover the two requirements that make an apostate liable for death and the obligation of the caliph or his representative.
o8.1 When a person who has reached puberty and is sane voluntarily apostatizes from Islam, he deserves to be killed.
o8.2 In such a case, it is obligatory for the caliph (A: or his representative) to ask him to repent and return to Islam. If he does, it is accepted from him, but if he refuses, he is immediately killed.
There is no monetary compensation for executing an apostate.
o8.4 There is no indemnity for killing an apostate.
The following eighteen acts, which are broad in scope, entail leaving Islam.
(1) to prostrate to an idol, whether sarcastically, out of mere contrariness, or in actual conviction; . . .
(2) to intend to commit unbelief, even if in the future. And like this intention is hesitating whether to do so or not: one thereby immediately commits unbelief;
This law says that speaking with a clear mind and deliberation the doctrine of the Trinity makes one an apostate:
(3) to speak words that imply unbelief such as "Allah is third of three," or "I am Allah"unless ones tongue has run away with one, or one is quoting another, or is one of the friends of Allah . . . in a spiritually intoxicated state of total oblivion; . . .
(4) to revile Allah or His messenger;
(5) to deny the existence of Allah, His beginningless eternality, His endless eternality, or to deny any of His attributes which the consensus of Muslims ascribe to Him;
(6) to be sarcastic about Allahs name, His command, His interdiction, His promise, or His threat;
(7) to deny any verse in the Koran or anything which by scholarly consensus . . . belongs to it, or to add a verse that does not belong to it;
(8) to mockingly say, "I dont know what faith is";
(9) to reply to someone who says, "There is no power or strength through Allah"; . . .
. . .
(12) when someone asks to be taught the Testification of Faith [shahada] . . . and a Muslim refuses to teach him it;
(13) to describe a Muslim or someone who wants to become a Muslim in terms of unbelief (kufr);
(14) to deny the obligatory character of something which by the consensus of Muslims . . . is part of Islam, when it is well known as such, like the prayer (salat) or even one raka [act of prostration] from one of the five obligatory prayers, if there is no excuse; . . .
(15) to hold that any of Allahs messengers or prophets are liars, or to deny their being sent;
A later legal scholar adds the following:
(16) to revile the religion of Islam;
(17) to believe that things themselves or by their own nature have causal influence independent of the will of Allah;
(18) to deny the existence of angels or jinn . . . or the heavens;
(19) to be sarcastic about any ruling of the Sacred Law;
This law leaves no room for ambiguity about the ultimate goal of Islam:
(20) or to deny that Allah intended the Prophets message . . . to be the religion followed by the entire world.
To sum up, these laws are all about abstract doctrine and belief, not about physical acts like murder, yet they elicit death. No one is allowed even to be sarcastic about Islamic law. Some are highly doctrinal and designed to crush different Islamic doctrines (nos. 5 and 6). No one may deny a passage in the Quran (no. 7). So how can the violent verses be renounced? Secular science is not permitted to flourish (no. 17). Clearly, these laws chill and stifle freedom of religion, thought, and speech.
Can or will Islamic countries revise or move past classical fiqh that is rooted in the Quran and sound hadith?
The reason Islam today shuts down freedom of religion is obvious. It is following its origins. The Quran came down allegedly from Allah through Gabriel, and Muhammad in his example was inspired by his deity. Islamic law flows out of these two sources.
However, when a religion suppresses free speech and dissent, it testifies against itself. What are the religious leaders trying to hide? Why is criticism shut down? If Islam really holds the Ultimate Truth and Final Revelation, then it should fear no challenge. The leaders should be able to defend it by words alone, for its appeal should be self-evident. People should flock to it willingly and without threat of violence. On the other hand, if people want to leave itan unimaginable thought since Islam is so awesomethen they should be allowed to go without persecution or a sword hanging over their heads.
The ideal is for Islam to reform itself. Moderate Muslims believe that automatic execution of apostates does not have a secure basis in the Quran and early Islam. They may be right about this. It certainly is not a dominant theme. But can or will these moderates reform Islam on this subject? Can they persuade their more traditional fellow Muslims who follow the hadith and classical fiqh closely? Will they write numerous articles and books explaining why execution for apostasy is not found in the Quran? This would benefit all societies everywhere, for it would open the door for many to leave Islam, which is a burdensome and severe religion.
If not, then another strategy must be played out.
First, Islamic law must never be imposed or legitimized around the world. It is too barbaric. Freedom of religion must be given wide latitude. If it means criticizing the prophet, the Quran, and Islamic law itself, then freedom is still better than repression.
Second, free leaders all over the world must put pressure on oppressive Islamic governments. This news report shows exactly that happening.
Third, with the advent of the worldwide web, information flows freely, shining a light in the darkness. Ordinary citizens should keep track of Islamic oppression, sending emails to each other and reputable web logs (blogs). An informed citizenry is a free one, and maybe free citizens can help the oppressed across the globe. Contributions to a reputable human rights organization is another way to help.
If the readers would like to see the Quran in multiple translations, they should click on this website.
This article explains why the West must preserve freedom of speech and the Biblical basis of such freedom. Scroll down to the section on the New Testament, which diametrically opposes the Quran on freedom. Unlike Muhammad, Jesus never persecuted anyone who decided to leave him (John 6:60-70).
This report tracks the application of apostasy laws around the world, citing many examples.
This older but still accurate dictionary has a brief entry. Scroll down to "Apostasy from Islam."
This mid-sized chapter was written by an older generation Christian who knew Islam and Arabic thoroughly. It also analyzes some legal rulings.
This is a short section in an online book. It surveys the main ideas on apostasy.
This short entry in an index to Islam has a list of Quranic verses and explains some Arabic words.
This short article contrasts Islam's coercion of conscience with Christianity's freedom of conscience.
This website has a booklet on apostasy.
Maududi uses Sura 9:11-12 to justify executing apostates. Muhammad has a strong military. These verses continue Muhammads policy in Sura 9:1-5 of threatening the polytheists with death, ambushes, and besiegements.
9:11-12 . . . Yet if they [idolaters] repent even now, and establish Salat [prayer five times a day] and pay Zakat dues [forced "charity" tax], then they shall be your brethren in faith . . . But if they break their oaths after making compacts and revile your Faith, you should fight [q-t-l] with these ringleaders of disbelief because their oaths are not trustworthy: it may be that sword alone will restrain them. (Maududi, vol. 2, p. 179, insertions in brackets are mine)
Maududi says that according to the historical context, the "compacts" and "oaths" are not political treaties, but the acceptance of Islam. But after this renunciation and mockery of Islam, they become apostates. Muslims are therefore commanded to fight them. The Arabic root word q-t-l is used. Recall that it means to fight, kill, war, battle and slaughter. It has no ambiguity or broader meaning, as jihad does.
However, Maududis interpretation is not as secure as it first seems. It could very well be the case that "compacts" and "oaths" are political. Verses 3 and 4 support this political interpretation, for Muhammad warns the polytheists that his treaty obligations with them will come to an end, and at that time they were not Muslims. So the polytheists did not leave Islam because they were not part of it in the first place. But at least Maududi works hard at finding Quranic justification for killing apostates from Islam, ironically.
Source: The Punishment of the Apostate According to Islamic Law, scroll down to "The Proof from the Qur'an for the Commandment to Execute the Apostate"
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