The Quran Is Clear on Religious Freedom
There is ample evidence in the Quran that individuals should be able to accept or reject a particular faith on the basis of personal conviction, and that no amount of external pressure or compulsion should be permitted: "No compulsion in religion: truth stands out clear from error" (Quran 2:256). "If it had been the Lord's will, they would have believed -- All who are on earth! Will you then compel mankind, against their will, to believe!" (Quran 10:99)
By emphasizing people's right to freely follow their conviction, the Quran reiterates a longstanding position, which it traces back to one of the earliest known prophets, Noah: "He [Noah] said: O my people! See if I have a clear sign from my Lord, and that he has sent mercy unto me, but that the mercy has been obscured from your sight? Shall we compel you to accept it when you are averse to it!" (Quran 11:28).
The message of freedom of belief and conviction, and the call to religious tolerance is reiterated time and again through various prophets, as it is quite apparent in the message of Prophet Shuaib to his people: "And if there is a party among you that believes in the message with which I have been sent, and a party which does not believe, hold yourselves in patience until Allah does decide between us: for He is the best to decide." When Shuaib's people threatened him with expulsion, he protested strongly citing his freedom to choose his faith: "The leaders, the arrogant party among his people, said: O Shuaib! We shall certainly drive you out of our city, and those who believe with you, or else you shall have to return to our ways and religion. He said: ‘What! Even though we do not wish to do so.'" (Quran 7:86-7).
Not only does the Quran recognize the individual's right to freedom of conviction, but it also recognizes his/her moral freedom to act on the basis of their conviction: "Say: O my people! Do whatever you may: I will do (my part). But soon will you know on whom an anguish of ignoring shall be visited, and on whom descends an anguish that abide" (Quran 39: 39-40). "Say: Everyone acts according to his own disposition: But your Lord knows best who it is that is best guided on the way" (Quran 17:84).
The principle that the larger community has no right to interfere in one's choices of faith and conviction can be seen, further, in the fact that the Quran emphasizes that the individual is accountable for the moral choices he or she makes in this life to their Creator alone: "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 God: It is He that will show you the truth of all that you do" (Quran 5:105). "So if they dispute with you, say: I have submitted my whole self to God and so have those who follow me. And say to the People of the Book and to those who are unlearned: Do you (also) submit yourselves? If they do,they are in right guidance. But if they turn back, your duty is to convey the message; and in God's sight are (all) His servants" (Quran 3:20).
Indeed, one cannot find in the Quran any support for the ridda penalty. The Quran makes two references to ridda: "Nor will they cease fighting you until they turn you back from your faith if they can. And if any of you turn back (commit ridda) from their faith and die in that state of 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" (Quran 2:217). "O you who believe! If any from among you turn back (commits ridda) from his/her faith, soon will God produce a people whom He will love as they will love Him -- humble with the believers mighty against the disbelievers, thriving in the way of God, and never afraid of the reproaches of detractors. That is the grace of God, he bestows on whom He please; and God encompasses all and he knows all things" (Quran 5:54).
In both cases the Quran does not specify any physical punishment here and now, let alone a death penalty. The Quran rather warns those who renounce their faith of disgrace and ill fate. To the contrary, the Quran provides direct evidence, albeit open to interpretation, that ridda is not punishable by death: "Those who believe then disbelieve, then believe again, then disbelieve and then increase in their disbelief -- God will never forgive them nor guide them to the path" (Quran 4:137). Obviously, a death penalty would not permit repeated conversion from and to Islam.
Faulty Reasoning and Selective Reading
Yet despite of the Quranic emphasis on the freedom of conviction and moral autonomy, many classical jurists contend that a person who renounces Islam or converts to another religion commits a crime of ridda (apostasy) punishable by death. However, because the Quran is unequivocal in supporting religious freedom, classical jurists relied, in advocating death penalty for ridda (renouncing Islam), on two hadiths (Prophetic statements), and the precedent of the Muslims fighting against Arab apostates under the leadership of Abu Bakr, the first Caliph. Although the two hadiths are reported in Bukhari and are considered authentic, they are both shaky and do not stand to close scrutiny: "Kill whoever changes his religion," and "Three acts permit the taking of a person's life: a soul for a soul, the adultery of a married man, and renouncing religion while severing ties with the community."