Among the horrible news about Islam and Muslims lately is the execution of Egyptian envoy Ihab El Sharif by terrorists because, according to them, he was an “apostate.” Murderous Sunni militants kill Shia because they are “apostates.” So many of Islam’s detractors frequently speak of the punishment in Islam for apostasy, or ridda. They also claim – like many Muslims themselves – that leaving Islam is punishable by death. I have heard this many times growing up, but every time I thought about or discussed the issue, it ended in an inherent contradiction. So, I looked up a fatwa, or religious edict, on the website IslamOnline regarding the issue of apostasy. I reproducing the fatwa, or religious edict, here:
Coming to your question on the basis of the punishment of apostasy, we would like to start with the following words of the prominent Moroccan scholar Sheikh Abdul Bari Az-Zamzamy:
“It should be noted that Islam never compels any person to accept it or embrace its teachings. It gives the freedom of thinking to people,with full respect to their mentalities and way of thinking. However, Islamis not a man-made religion that is subject to scrutiny or biased criticismthat is based on mere suspicion, since it was originated by Allah, the Supreme Creator of all minds and mentalities. In addition, apostasy causes a total disruption and confusion in the Muslim community, and thus, a severe punishment was set for it to deter anyone from thinking of it. It was originally put into force following the Jewish conspiracy against Islam. The details of that conspiracy were simply mass conversion to Islam and then mass apostasy. The main ill aim was to cause confusion and to lead people astray. Thus, the punishment was set as a precautionary measure to stop all these offenses.”
Speaking of the authority of the punishment and its being genuine and based on the authentic sources of Islam, Sheikh ‘Attiyah Saqr, former Head of Al-Azhar Fatwa Committee, states:
“It is not right to deny the punishment of apostasy claiming that it has not been reported in the Qur’an, because it has been recorded in the mutawatir (Hadith which has been reported by at least four of the Companions in different times and places in a way that make a person sure that such Hadith is not fabricated) and the non-mutawatir Sunnah of the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him). Hudud (Islamic punishment specified for certain crimes) may, of course, be based on the non-mutawatir Sunnah.”
Detailing the issue and showing some of the evidence for the punishment of apostasy, the prominent Muslim scholar Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, states:
“All Muslim jurists agree that the apostate is to be punished. However, they differ regarding the punishment itself. The majority of them go for killing; meaning that an apostate is to be sentenced to death.
Many authentic Hadiths have been reported in this regard. Ibn ‘Abbas reported that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Whoever changes his religion, you kill him.” (Reported by all the group except Muslim, and at-Tabarani also reported it with a sound chain of narrators. Also recorded in Majma’ Az-Zawa’id by Al-Haythamiy.)
There is also the Hadith of Ibn Mas’ud that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “The blood of a Muslim individual who bears witness that there is no god but Allah and that I am the Messenger of Allah, is not to be shed except in three cases: in retaliation (in murder crimes), married adulterers (and adulteresses), and the one who abandons his religion and forsakes the Muslim community.” (Reported by the Group)
The actual example of one of the greatest Companions, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (may Allah be pleased with him) gives credit to this also. He himself carried out the punishment on some people who had deified him. He gave them three days respite to repent and go back to their senses. When they proved adamant, he put them to fire.”
Here come the questions from a student, because – as you know – I am not a scholar. How can this be in light of the quite clear evidence to the contrary from the Qur’an?
The Qur’an is quite clear:
“There is no compulsion in matters of religion” (2:256).
“Say, ‘The truth is from your Lord’: Let him who wills believe it, and let him who wills, reject (it).” ( 18:29)
“If it had been your Lord’s will, they all would have believed – all who are on earth. Will you, then, compel the people, against their will, to believe?” (10:99)
“It is not required of thee (O Messenger), to set them on the right path, but God sets on the right path whom He pleases.” (2:272)
“It is true thou wilt not be able to guide every one, whom thoulovest; but God guides those whom He will and He knows best those who receive guidance.” (28:56)
“Thou wouldst only, perchance, fret thyself to death, followingafter them, in grief, if they believe not in this Message.” (18:6)
It is quite clear that there is complete freedom in matters of faith and religion. The choice of religion is a deeply personal one, completely up to the individual. It could not be more plain in the Qur’an.
Furthermore, the Qur’an states that the reason war is sometimes necessary – as a last resort and in self-defense – is to preserve religious freedom:
“Had God not checked one set of people by means of another, there would surely monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques – in which the name of God is commemorated in abundant measure – would surely have been destroyed. ” (22:40)
So, how could it be that if someone chooses to leave Islam, he or she isliable to be killed? Where does the Qur’an say so? It doesn’t.
Yet, the Qur’an does talk about what happens to someone who becomes an apostate:
“Those who turn back as apostates after Guidance was clearly shown to them,- the Evil One has instigated them and busied them up with false hopes” (47:25).
“Any one who, after accepting faith in God, 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 bea dreadful Penalty. This because they love the life of this world better than the Hereafter: and God will not guide those who reject Faith .” (16:106-107)
These verses are akin to this passage in the Bible:
“Ye shall not go after other gods, of the gods of the people which are round about you; (For the LORD thy God is a jealous God among you) lest the anger of the LORD thy God be kindled against thee, and destroy thee from off the face of the earth.” (Deuteronomy 6:14-15).
Do the verses in the Qur’an issue a stern warning against disbelief? Yes. But, this is God talking. He can say whatever He wants to say, like what He said in the above Biblical verse. Still, however, this does not mean that He necessarily will punish those who become “apostates,” because, again, this is God. He can do whatever He wants. I mean, didn’t Jesus (pbuh) say to God – after God asked him whether he told people to worship him as God:
“If you punish them, they are Your servants: But, if You forgive them, You are the Exalted in power, the Wise.” (5:118).
The verse seems to hold out the possibility that God will forgive even those who worshipped Jesus (pbuh) on Judgment Day. But, the operative words are: “Judgment Day,” i.e., the Hereafter. In the here and now, the Qur’an does not say that the apostate is to be killed. So, once again, I ask the question: from where does this notion come?
Moreoever, there is no instance – as far as I know – in which the Prophet (pbuh) killed someone for leaving Islam. The most convincing proof of this is the case of Abdullah ibn Ubay. He was the chief of the Hypocrites, a group of Madinites who feigned Islam, but were pagans in secret, constantly working against the Prophet (pbuh). Even though it was clear that Abdullah ibn Ubay was an “apostate,” the Prophet (pbuh) never once tried to have Abdullah ibn Ubay killed. Another one of the Companions of the Prophet, ‘Uyayna ibn Hisn, had met with a warring tribe and encouraged them to fight against the Muslims. This from someone who openly accepted Islam. Still, the Prophet (pbuh) did not have him killed. When Musaylimah claimed to be a prophet, the Messenger (pbuh) did not send an army for his “apostasy.”
So, once again, the student asks the question: from where does it come that Islam directs the “apostate” to be killed?
I mean, think about it! What sort of faith keeps its adherents in its fold upon pain of death? What sort of God claims to be Just while holding that those who choose not to follow His path be killed on earth? If Islam claims that the human being has complete freedom of will, how can the apostate be killed? What kind of faith – which claims to be the truth – is so threatened by the rebellion of some of its adherents that it mandates they be murdered?
Whenever I raise these questions, I am told: “You are not a scholar, so shut up!” But, that does not answer my question, does it? Given all the evidence from the Qur’an – allowing me to become a Canadian, if only for a few seconds – saying Islam allows the murder of apostates makes little sense, eh?
Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is at godfaithpen.com.