Apostasy and Islam

Freedom of faith and religion is meaningless without the freedom to change one’s faith

Freedom of faith is essential to Islam. Prophets and messengers of Allah along with their communities had to struggle for their freedom of faith. That Islam is by choice is unambiguously stated in the Koran and reflected in the prophetic legacy. However, throughout history the issue has been clouded due to mixing the issue of apostasy with treason. Now one of the biggest tools of anti-Islam/anti-Muslim propaganda is based on the issue of apostasy, claiming that Islam does not uphold the freedom of faith. Even our own children are getting confused and many are quietly disavowing our wishy-washy position on as fundamental an issue as freedom of faith/religion.

Undeniably, the traditional position of Muslim scholars and jurists has been that apostasy (riddah) is punishable by death. The long-standing problem of the traditional position, as held by classical jurists or scholars, can be explained and excused as not being able to see apostasy, an issue of pure freedom of faith and conscience, separate from treason against the community or the state. However, the accumulated experience in history in terms of abuse of this position on apostasy, even against Muslims, as well as the changed context of a globally connected pluralistic society, should help us appreciate the contemporary challenges in light of Koranic norms and the prophetic legacy. In this context, while the classical misunderstanding about this issue of apostasy is excusable, the position of some well known contemporary scholars is not.

Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi (commonly known as Maulana Maududi), the late founder and leader of Jamaat-e-Islami and a leading independent revivalist Islamic personality of the 20th century, is frequently referred to for his ardent argument for capital punishment for apostasy. He argued that there is a broad agreement of the leading jurists on this issue. He claims:

"To copy the consecutive writings of all the lawyers from the first to the 14th century AH would make our discussion very long. Yet we cannot avoid mentioning that however much the four schools of law may differ among themselves regarding the various aspects of this problem, in any case all four schools without doubt agree on the point that the punishment of the apostate is execution" ("The Punishment of the Apostate According to Islamic Law").

Such a sweeping claim is misplaced because the alleged agreement is about apostasy-cum-treason, not solely about apostasy. Furthermore, any claim of consensus (ijma) on almost anything should be taken with a great deal of circumspection.

Another well known Muslim scholar and jurist of our time whom I also generally hold in high regard is Dr Yusuf Al-Qaradawi. He asserts: "The duty of the Muslim community – in order to preserve its identity – is to combat apostasy in all its forms and wherefrom it comes, giving it no chance to pervade in the Muslim world." Similar to Maulana Maududi, he also claims ijma on this: "That is why the Muslim jurists are unanimous that apostates must be punished… apostasy is a criminal act" ("Apostasy: Major and Minor").

Dr Al-Qaradawi also fails to separate apostasy from treason. It is unfortunate that such scholars of high repute have shown such serious lapse in recognising that, as Dr Irfan Ahmad Khan, a scholar and Koranic exegete, argues: "Freedom of faith and religion is meaningless without the freedom to change one’s faith."

Then there are also scholars, even in the USA, who are either wishy-washy or ambivalent in regard to their positions. Some are too beholden to the traditional views held in the past, right or wrong. Views and positions of scholars and leaders such as Maududi and Al-Qaradawi not only provide powerful ammunition for propaganda against Islam and Muslims but also confound the mind of our own community, including our youth, whose discerning mind sees through the double standard or self-contradiction quite transparently.

While many contemporary Muslim scholars have expressed their views affirming the freedom of faith, the collective voice of Muslims is still feeble and little known. In this write-up we have collated opinions and positions of various Muslim scholars, academics, intellectuals, imams, professionals, community leaders and others on this issue. Even young students are speaking up against the double standard that contradicts Islamic values and principles.

These voices, representing a broad spectrum of the Muslim community/ummah, are tipping the scale of the discourse on this issue in favour of affirming and upholding the pristine Islamic principle of freedom of faith. It also debunks the claim of unanimity, which was not quite true in the past and is even less true in the present.

Views of some of the early scholars might not be categorical or without variant reports. However, the excerpts included can be a basis for identifying them as precursors of the contemporary views on this issue. There are (or have been) many scholars, early and contemporary, who hold that in case of apostasy capital punishment is not warranted but have sanctioned or kept open the possibility of other punishments. Their views have not been included here. There are also scholars who believe that punishment of apostasy is not hadd (mandatory, specified punishment based on the Koran or Sunnah) but it is subject to ta’zir (discretionary punishment determined by the proper Islamic judicial system). In this collection, these views have not been included either.

Below we present a unique compilation of notable Islamic voices who have expressed their views on punishment of apostasy in Islam.

We will continue to update this collection. If you know of anyone whose publicly articulated position is missing from this compilation, please let us know (with relevant citation).

(Dr Mohammad Omar Farooq is associate professor of Economics and Finance, Upper Iowa University, USA.)

Hadrat Umar Ibn Abdul Aziz
(d. 97 AH/ 720 AD)
Popularly known as Umar II and regarded as part of the Khulafa-i-Rashidoon (rightly guided caliphs).

"Some people accepted Islam during the period of Umar bin Abdul Aziz who is called the fifth rightful caliph of Islam. All these people renounced Islam, sometimes later. Maimoon bin Mahran, the governor of the area, wrote to the caliph about these people. In reply, Umar bin Abdul Aziz ordered him to release those people and asked him to re-impose jizya (tax on non-Muslims) on them."

Ibrahim Al-Nakha’i (d. 95 AH)
Leading jurist and traditionalist among the generation succeeding the companions of the prophet.

"According to Al-Nakha’i, an apostate should be re-invited to Islam but should never be condemned to death. (He) maintained the view that the invitation should continue for as long as there is hope that the apostate might change his mind and repent."

Sufyan Al-Thawri (d. 161 AH)
Known as ‘the prince of the believers concerning Hadith (amir al-mu’minin fi’l-Hadith)’; author of two important compilations of Hadith (Islamic traditions), namely al-Jami’ al-Kabir and al-Jami’ al-Saghir.

"According to Al-Thawri, an apostate should be re-invited to Islam but should never be condemned to death. (He) maintained the view that the invitation should continue for as long as there is hope that the apostate might change his mind and repent."

Shams Al-Din Al-Sarakhsi (d. 389 AH)
Eminent Hanafi jurist; author of al-Mabsut.

"The prescribed penalties (hudud) are generally not suspended because of repentance, especially when they are reported and become known to the head of state (imam). The punishment of highway robbery, for instance, is not suspended because of repentance; it is suspended only by the return of property to the owner prior to arrest… 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’). Punishments that are enforced in this life are those which protect the people’s interests, such as just retaliation, which is designed to protect life."

Abu Al-Walid Al-Baji (d. 474 AH)
Noted Maliki jurist; contemporary of Imam Ibn Hazm.

"(Al-Baji) observed that apostasy is a sin which carries no prescribed penalty and that such a sin may only be punished under the discretionary punishment of ta’zir."

Imam Abu ‘Abdullah Al-Qurtubi
(d. 1273 AD)
Eminent Maliki scholar of Hadith and fiqh (jurisprudence).

"Al-Samara’i in his comment on this verse (an-Nahl:107) has quoted from Qurtubi’s al-Jami the remark that the verse conveys an admonition that the wrath of Allah will be incurred by the apostate but there is no hint of any other punishment."

Abu Hayyan Al-Andalusi (d. 1355 AD)
Maliki scholar; author of Koranic commentary, Bahrul Muhit.

"Ibn Hayyan, a well known exegete, has expressly mentioned a definite opinion that no apostate can be coerced into rejoining the Muslim community."

Ibn Al-Hammam Al-Hanafi
(14th century AD)
Eminent scholar.

"There is no punishment for the act of apostasy, for its punishment is greater than that, with god."

Shaikh Rashid Rida (1865-1935)
Eminent Islamic scholar; disciple of Afghani/ Abduh.

"This verse reaffirms the one which occurs in surah al-Baqarah (2:256) and both proscribe compulsion in religion. Both of these passages proclaim and uphold that people are free to pursue religious beliefs of their own choosing. No one is to be compelled to abandon the religion he professes nor must anyone be exposed to punishment and torture for the sake of religion."

Shaikh Mahmud Shaltut (1893-1963)
Prominent Egyptian Islamic scholar and the shaykh or grand imam i.e. leader of the Al-Azhar Islamic Institute in Egypt from 1958 to 1963.

"Mahmud Shaltut analyses the relevant evidence in the Koran and draws the conclusion that apostasy carries no temporal penalty and that in reference to this particular sin the Koran speaks only of punishment in the hereafter."

Subhi Mahmassani
Outstanding Islamic scholar and jurist from Lebanon; author of The Philosophy of Jurisprudence in Islam, 1961.

"Mahmassani has observed that the death penalty was meant to apply not to simple acts of apostasy from Islam but when apostasy was linked to an act of political betrayal of the community. The prophet never killed anyone solely for apostasy. This being the case, the death penalty was not meant to apply to a simple change of faith but to punish acts such as treason, joining forces with the enemy and sedition."

Shaykh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi
Grand imam of Al-Azhar since 1996.

"Shaykh Tantawi’s ruling on the subject of a Muslim apostatising has certainly shed new light on this subject while making non-Muslims realise that Islam is a religion of moderation. To Shaykh Tantawi, a Muslim who renounced his faith or turned apostate should be left alone as long as he does not pose a threat or belittle Islam. If Muslims were forced to take action against the apostate, he said it should not be because he or she had given up the faith but because he or she had turned out to be an enemy or a threat to Islam. Shaykh Tantawi, in his views, shows clearly how simple and moderate Islam is a religion that is tolerant and not coercive on anybody. Shaykh Tantawi repeatedly stresses the need for Muslims to acquire traditional Islamic knowledge as well as modern ones so that they could add to the strength of the Muslim community to defend the religion."

Islamic Research Department,
Al-Azhar University, Egypt

"The Islamic Research Department of Al-Azhar University has called the penalty for apostasy as null and void and has said that the ways of repentance are open for one’s whole life… So an apostate can repent over his mistake any time during his life and there would be no fixed period for it."

Dr Jamal Badawi
Professor emeritus, St Mary’s University, Nova Scotia, Canada.

"The preponderance of evidence from both the Koran and Sunnah indicates that there is no firm ground for the claim that apostasy is in itself a mandatory fixed punishment, namely capital punishment."

"When a man in Medina apostated from Islam the prophet neither ordered his execution nor punished him in any other way and when the man finally left Medina the prophet never sent anyone to arrest him or punish him because of his apostasy."

Dr Mohammad Hashim Kamali
Professor of Law at the International Islamic University of Malaysia; author of Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence, 2003 and Freedom of Expression in Islam, 1994.

"The controversy has been exacerbated further by reliance on the provision in the Sunnah which authorises the death penalty for apostasy without due consideration of other evidence in the Sunnah to the effect that punishment by death was meant only for apostasy accompanied by hostility and treason… The prophet did not treat apostasy as a proscribed offence but, on the contrary, pardoned many individuals who had embraced Islam then renounced it and then embraced it again… (T)he Koran is consistent in its affirmation of the freedom of belief and it fully supports the conclusion that the objectives of the Shariah cannot be properly fulfilled without granting people the freedom of belief and the liberty to express it."

Dr Tariq Ramadan
Swiss Muslim academic and scholar.

"Q: What about apostasy? What happens if you are born and educated a Muslim but then say: I have now decided that Islam is not for me. Would you accept that someone born into a Muslim family has a right to say that they no longer believe and that families and communities must respect that?

"A: I have been criticised about this in many countries. My view is the same as that of Sufyan Al-Thawri, an eighth century scholar of Islam who argued that the Koran does not prescribe death for someone because he or she is changing religion. Neither did the prophet himself ever perform such an act. Many around the prophet changed religions. But he never did anything against them. There was an early Muslim, Ubaydallah ibn Jahsh, who went with the first emigrants from Mecca to Abyssinia. He converted to Christianity and stayed but remained close to Muslims. He divorced his wife but he was not killed."

Ayatullah Murtadha Mutahari
(d. 1979 AD)
Prominent and influential Iranian scholar, cleric, academic and political figure.

"The late Ayatollah Mutahari highlighted the incompatibility of coercion with the spirit of Islam and the basic redundancy of punitive measures in the propagation of its message. He wrote that it is impossible to force anyone to acquire the kind of faith that is required by Islam, just as it is not possible to spank a child into solving an arithmetical problem. His mind and thought must be left free in order that he may solve it. The Islamic faith is something of this kind."

Dr Hassan Turabi
Sudanese Islamic leader and intellectual.

"Q: You believe that apostasy should not be punishable by death. There has been a recent case of an Afghan who was about to be killed for apostasy but was saved under the pretence of mental illness. The case was recognised internationally as Italy wants to grant him asylum.
"A: There are too many Koranic verses to recite (regarding this). We are ordered to debate with Christians and Jews except those who are unjust. We believe in their prophets who are our prophets too. We believe in their books even if some distortion took place. We are ordered to treat them cordially."

"To be punishable (as a capital offence) apostasy has to be more than just intellectual apostasy. It would have to translate into not only sedition but actually insurrection against society."

Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid
Former president of Indonesia and leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama.

"Muslim theologians must revise their understanding of Islamic law and recognise that punishment for apostasy is merely the legacy of historical circumstances and political calculations stretching back to the early days of Islam. Such punishments run counter to the clear Koranic injunction, ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion’ (2:256).

"People of goodwill of every faith and nation must unite to ensure the triumph of religious freedom and of the ‘right’ understanding of Islam, to avert global catastrophe and spare millions of others the fate of Sudan’s great religious and political leader, Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, who was executed on a false charge of apostasy."

Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri
A significant Shia religious authority and former leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

"(Montazeri) states that the above verses do not prescribe an earthly penalty for apostasy and adds that it is not improbable that the punishment was prescribed by Muhammad during early Islam due to political conspiracies against Islam and Muslims and not only because of changing belief or expressing it. Montazeri defines different types of apostasy. He does not hold that a reversion of belief because of investigation and research is punishable by death but prescribes capital punishment for a desertion of Islam out of malice and enmity towards the Muslim community."

Dr Muhammad Ma’ruf Al-Dawalibi
Former professor of Law, University of Damascus, Syria; member, Supreme International Council for Mosques, Mecca.

"(I)t has never been proved that the messenger of god exacted punishment on apostates by killing them. This was also what the caliph Umar Ibn Abdul Aziz did… Shaikh Mahmud Shaltut says that many scholars are of the opinion that hudud punishment cannot be proved by Hadiths reported by single individuals. He also says that disbelief in itself is not justification for shedding blood. The real justification would be aggression against Muslims, fighting them."

Sheikh Gamal Al-Banna
Egyptian Islamist thinker, author and journalist.

In an article titled ‘No Punishment for Riddah (Muslims leaving Islam); Freedom of Thought is the Backbone of Islam’, Al-Banna quoted all the Koranic verses on the subject and then said, "These verses are clear with regard to riddah in Islam; they make no mention of any torture or punishment for the murtadd (apostates) in this world, like the punishments for thieves or murderers. The (only) dreadful and terrifying punishment is the rage of Allah. This is compatible with the policy and spirit of the Koran and the many other texts included in it that are based on belief in persuading the individual and his intent without coercion or pressure and that state that his freedom is maximal."

Dr Abdul Aziz Sachedina
Professor of Religious Studies, University of Virginia, USA.

"The ethics of Islamic law allows for an interesting dilemma in regard to the issue of free speech because there is no clear understanding between civil and religious violations. There are certain acts, such as apostasy, that don’t fall under the jurisdiction of the legal system and don’t have a defined penal punishment as outlined in the Koran. There can be no particular punishment for apostasy from a legal point of view," Sachedina said. From a religious point of view, only god has the power to punish you.

Dr Abdul Hamid Abu Sulayman
Former rector, International Islamic University, Malaysia; former chairman, International Institute of Islamic Thoughts.

"The conceptual confusion occurs in the early period of Islam because this political conspiracy took the form of apostasy while the real goal was to destroy the Muslim community. The confusion lies in taking the act for what it appeared to be and not for what it was meant to be. They mistook political conspiracy for an exercise of the human right of freedom of belief and choice. The jurists seemed to exercise little analysis concerning the whole question. The word apostasy alone determined their position.

"This misunderstanding of the significance of the word apostasy in the Koran and the punishment to it in the Hadith of the prophet destroyed in the classical jurisprudence the basis of the Islamic concept of tolerance and human responsibility.

"The early Muslim position on apostasy… was not directed against freedom of conscience and belief but towards enforcing the policy of Islamisation of the warring Bedouin tribes and toward checking conspiracy."

SA Rahman
Former chief justice of Pakistan.

"(T)he Koran is silent on the question of death as the punishment for apostasy despite this subject’s occurring no less than 20 times in the holy book. Rahman then traces the chain of transmission of the Hadith which proclaims ‘kill whoever changes his religion’…

"As this is a solitary Hadith (ahad), Rahman finds some weakness in its transmission (isnad). Rahman’s conclusion is also supported by other evidence, such as the fact that neither the prophet himself nor any of his companions ever compelled anyone to embrace Islam nor did they sentence anyone to death solely for renunciation of the faith."

Dr Khaled Abou El Fadl
Distinguished scholar and professor of Law and Islamic Studies, University of California, Los Angeles, USA.

"But while the Koran mentions riddah, it never calls for the execution of apostates. There is no record of the prophet killing an apostate himself. And executions of apostates have been rare in Islamic history. ‘The common argument is that it clearly contradicts the Koran, which says there should not be compulsion in religion,’ said Khaled Abou El Fadl, an Islamic law expert and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles."

Dr Fathi Osman
Islamic scholar and author based in southern California, USA.

"This principle of freedom of faith is assured in many other Koranic verses. As examples, we read 10:99, 11:28, 88:21-22. Forcing any person to act in any way nullifies the moral and legal responsibility of that person in such an action whether it is good or evil; consequently, he/she cannot be respectively rewarded or punished for that forced action. Accordingly, imposing Islam by force on any human being will never bring out god’s acceptance and reward to the imposer or the one upon whom it was imposed…

"Another report attributed the reason of revelation (of 2:256) to another incident in which two sons of a Yathribi were persuaded to be Christians by some Syrian merchants whom they joined. Their parents wanted to get them back by force but the prophet stressed their right to make their own free decision and the verse was revealed to support what the prophet had said. Al-Zamakhshari, the distinguished linguist and commentator of the Koran, commented on the above verse: ‘God has not conducted the matter of faith through compelling and forcing but through enabling (the person to make his/her own decision) and wilfully choosing’."

Dr Sheikh Mohammed Ali Al-Hanooti
Mufti of Greater Washington, USA.

"The issue of apostasy falls under the umbrella of man’s free will, freedom of expression and belief. The holy Koran states unequivocally that nobody can be compelled to either become a Muslim or remain one. In surah 4: 137, Allah says, ‘Behold, as for those who come to believe and then deny the truth and again come to believe and again deny the truth and thereafter grow stubborn in their denial of the truth, god will not forgive them nor will he guide them in any way.’ This ayaat (verse from the Koran) very clearly shows that even after rejecting Islam twice no punishment is prescribed for the apostates.

"The punishment for apostasy mentioned in Islamic literature is derived from Hadiths whose authenticity is not certain (as these Hadiths are ahad – from one source, but not mutawatir – from a consensus of sources). Even among those scholars who accept them as authentic, there is vast difference of opinion on the interpretation and elaboration of the Hadiths. Such Hadiths have been traditionally cited as justification for executing apostates but these were circumstantial rulings where legal authorities of that time deemed the punishment justified, as the act of apostasy in question, or in some cases, mass apostasy, was comparable to treason or to an organised crime outfit where the apostates would ally themselves with the opponents of the state.

"Such Hadiths, which have, in the past, been cited to justify punishment for apostasy therefore cannot stand against the Koran, which provides no textual evidence for such action. On the contrary, the Koran states in surah 10:99: ‘If it had been the will of your lord that all the people of the world should be believers, all the people of the world would have believed! Would you then compel them against their will to believe?’

"In conclusion, the Koran is the definitive clear authority for protecting the rights of an individual in expressing himself in faith and supersedes any of the distorted interpretations of the Hadiths in question. Executing a person because of conversion to another faith contradicts the Koran, the ultimate source of Shariah."

Islamic Center of Long Island,
New York

"The Koran states categorically and unequivocally, there shall be no coercion in matters of faith (2:256). This cornerstone tenet of Islamic faith is violated when an individual is put on trial for converting away from Islam. This verse very clearly teaches that faith is a personal matter between the individual and god."

Dr Asghar Ali Engineer
Director, Institute of Islamic Studies, India.

"No wonder then that the Koran not only does not prescribe any punishment for apostasy, it is against any such punishment… In view of such clear exposition how can one maintain that one who becomes apostate should be punished with death? Such a punishment goes completely against the principle of freedom of faith laid down in the Koran. Since according to the Koran human beings are responsible for their acts, they have been created free and only a free agent can be held responsible for one’s acts, good or bad. This is quite clear from the story of Adam who was warned not to go near a tree in paradise but was left free to decide and he decided to test the fruit of the tree and as a result was expelled from it (paradise). This story itself is sufficient to establish the principle of freedom of choice in the Koran… Today human rights are of vital importance and modern scholars are also engaged in the project of showing these rights as quite compatible with Islam. And if some ulema insist on the death sentence for apostasy it is not only a crime against freedom of conscience and democratic rights but also a serious disservice against Islam."

Dr Abdullah Saeed
Director, Centre for the Study of Contemporary Islam, University of Melbourne, Australia.

"This book (co-authored by Saeed) argues that the law of apostasy and its punishment by death in Islamic law is untenable in the modern period. Apostasy conflicts with a variety of foundation texts of Islam and with the current ethos of human rights, in particular the freedom to choose one’s religion. Demonstrating the early development of the law of apostasy as largely a religio-political tool, the authors show the diversity of opinion among early Muslims on the punishment, highlighting the substantial ambiguities about what constitutes apostasy, the problematic nature of some of the key textual evidence on which the punishment of apostasy is based and the neglect of a vast amount of clear Koranic texts in favour of freedom of religion in the construction of the law of apostasy.

"Examining the significant challenges the punishment of apostasy faces in the modern period inside and outside Muslim communities – exploring in particular how apostasy and its punishment is dealt with in a multi-religious Muslim majority country, Malaysia, and the challenges and difficulties it faces there – the authors discuss arguments by prominent Muslims today for an absolute freedom of religion and for discarding the punishment of apostasy."

Dr Mohamed Shahrour
Islamic thinker and scholar; Syria.

"Let us consider how the history of Islamic jurisprudence has dealt with the issue of freedom and justice in relation to apostasy. We have to distinguish between two types of apostasy: that of politics and that of creeds and beliefs. To rebel against the government and attempt to oust it and rule in its stead is political apostasy… when we persuade or coerce people into believing or disbelieving, we are actually disregarding and belittling god’s word… I wish to emphasise that Islamic respect for freedom and Muslims’ awareness of its value cannot be established by force and coercion, for the enforcement of any democratic ideal would be no different from ‘just tyrannical’ leadership."

Dr Irfan Ahmad Khan
Respected scholar of the Koran; president of the World Council of Muslims for Interfaith Relations; chair of the Inter-religious Engagement Project; trustee of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions; author of a new Koranic translation and commentary, Reflections on the Quran: Understanding Surahs Al-Fatihah & Al-Baqarah; Illinois; USA.

"(N)o one has any right to use pressure of any kind to make a person change or stop from changing his/her religion. An individual out of his/her own free will should himself or herself do entering into a religion or coming out of a religion."

Dr Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad
President/director, Minaret of Freedom Institute, Maryland, USA.

"Discussions of Islamic law by non-Muslims (and all too often by Muslims as well) suffer from confusion between the concepts of apostasy and treason. The majority view is that the death penalty applies only to treason during wartime, including providing aid and comfort to the enemy, rather than mere conversion. According to the Constitution (Article III, Section 3), treason consists only ‘in levying war against (the United States), or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort’. That Muhammad shared this view can be seen in the fact that he never executed apostates except when they made war or propaganda against the Muslims."

Shaikh Dr Taha Jabir Al-Alwani
Former professor of Fiqh and Usul al Fiqh at Imam Muhammad Ibn Sa’ud Islamic University in Riyadh; founding member, the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in the USA in 1981; founder member of the Council of the Muslim World League in Mecca; member of the OIC Islamic Fiqh Academy in Jeddah since 1987; president of the Fiqh Council of North America since 1988.

"Apostasy is not a simple act. It has several parts. We cannot simply say that someone left the religion. We must look at the reasons and actions that come before leaving the religion. Suppose one becomes an expatriate and fights against the US (for example). This person would be tried and convicted of treason and usually killed. But if one leaves a religion without causing harm to others or engaging in treason, then there is no punishment. The Koran is blatant about the fact that there is no compulsion in religion. Some people at the time of the prophet would convert in the morning and leave Islam at night. The prophet then announced that those joining Islam in good faith are welcome but those who join only to then leave and discredit Islam and then encourage others to fight Islam, that is considered treason and treated as a crime in the same way as US law."

Dr Louay Safi
Executive director of the ISNA Leadership Development Center;
ex-president, Association of Muslim Social Scientists; USA

"Traditionalist scholars have long embraced classical positions on apostasy that consider the rejection of Islam as a capital crime punished by death. This uncritical embrace is at the heart of the drama that was played in the case of the Afghan convert to Christianity and which would likely be repeated until the debate about Shariah reform and its relevance to state and civil law is examined and elaborated by authentic Muslim voices… Indeed, one cannot find in the Koran any support for the apostasy penalty… I am inclined to the increasingly popular view among contemporary scholars that riddah does not involve a moral act of conversion but a military act of rebellion whose calming justifies the use of force and the return of fire… A Christian or a Jew who converts to Islam is no more a Christian or a Jew but a Muslim and must be respected as such. By the same token, a Muslim who converts to Christianity is no more a Muslim but a Christian and must be respected as such."

Dr Zaki Badawi
Principal of the Muslim College; chairman of the Imams and Mosques Council, UK; chairman of the Muslim Law (Shariah) Council UK; vice-chairman of the World Congress of Faiths; director and trustee of UNICEF UK.

"(F)orcing people to believe things just makes them hypocrites. The Koran has no compulsion, no punishment for going away."

Muslim Public Affairs Council, USA

"We strongly oppose the state’s use of coercion in regulating Islamic belief since faith is a matter of individual choice on which only god can adjudicate."

Dr Saif Ad-Deen ‘Abdul-Fattah
Professor of Political Theory at Cairo University; known for his remarkable contribution to the branch of jurisprudence that deals with al-maqasid (the objectives of Shariah).

"I think that the rule that governs the issue here is Allah’s saying (There is no compulsion in religion, al-Baqarah 2:256). Religion cannot by any means be compared to a trap; whoever is trapped in it can never get out. Muslims are in no need of new hypocrites. From this point, I can assure that those who apostatise are always to be asked to repent. The incidents of apparent apostasy in our history are those of collective apostasy. This kind of collective apostasy is considered as cases of state security and national security in which the penalty for apostasy is applied to protect the whole state."

Sheikh Muhammad Al-Mukhtar
Director, Islamic Center of South Plains, Lubbock, Texas, USA.

"What I understand from different Hadiths on the issue is that apostasy has two different aspects: one, as an intellectual position i.e. a Muslim who is no longer convinced of the truth of Islam. The second apostasy is in the meaning of political treason and military rebellion against Muslims. During the time of Prophet Muhammad, the person that changed his religion joined the pagan army and fought against Muslims and that is, in my view, what is meant by ‘one who reverts from Islam (apostate) and leaves the Muslims’. Therefore, apostasy as purely an intellectual position has no prescribed punishment in Islamic law but if a Muslim committed treason against the Muslim ummah and joined the enemy fighting against Muslims then he would deserve the death punishment, especially at times of war. Even in secular laws in some countries the penalty for treason is capital punishment.

"This does not mean that apostasy is not a great sin – indeed it is the worst of all sins and Allah says that he will punish those who committed such a heinous act. But not every sin that is punishable on the day of judgement has punishment in this world."

Muslim American Society (MAS)

"We at MAS Freedom oppose the possible execution of Mr Abdul Rahman on both humanitarian and religious grounds. To pursue such an action would not only be a flagrant violation of the standards of human rights which the Karzai regime claims to embrace but it also runs contrary to the holy Koran which forbids compulsion in religion."

Dr ME Asad Subhani
Head of the faculty of Islamic Studies at the College of Education in Zanzibar, Tanzania.

"(Subhani) argues that the dominant Muslim position on apostasy as deserving death is, in fact, not sanctioned in the primary sources of Islam, the Koran and the Hadith, the traditions attributed to Prophet Muhammad."

Maulana Inayatullah Asad Subhani
Scholar; author of several thought provoking books on Islam; India.

"Inayatullah Subhani says that neither does Islam force any person to embrace Islam nor does it force him to remain within its fold. He writes, ‘apostasy has been mentioned several times in the Koran. 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.’ Maulana mentions three ayaat from the Koran on apostasy (al-Baqarah 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. He mentions several other ayaat on the same issue and then concludes that none of these ayaat prescribes either the 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 the Koran but no punishment was prescribed.

"He emphasises that people who were awarded the death penalty for reverting to other religions from Islam during either the time of the prophet 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."

Islamic Center of Southern California

"We believe this trial, as well as apostasy laws in Afghanistan and other so-called Muslim states mandating the killing of apostates, violates two fundamental tenets of Islam.

"a) Freedom of religion – The Koran states categorically and unequivocally, ‘There shall be no coercion in matters of faith’ (2:256). This cornerstone tenet of Islamic faith is violated when an Islamic nation puts on trial individuals for converting away from Islam. Based on this verse, we see that faith is an intimate matter between a person and god. There is no room for a nation, or a pseudo-religious clergy, to take on a role that god has reserved for himself in judging the relationship between a person and the almighty.

"b) Sanctity of human life – one of the paramount goals of Islamic law is the protection of human life."

Dr Abidullah Ghazi
Executive director, IQRA International Educational Foundation, Skokie, Illinois, USA.

"The instances of mutual respect and cooperation afforded those Muslims living in North America are too numerous, while incidents of impudence and intolerance, seemingly inspired by the Shariah code, have displayed the exact opposite in several Muslim majority lands…

"There has also existed historically a long tradition of acceptance of diversity of culture and faith in Islamic civilisation, a fact that has to be remembered by those wishing to jettison this value in favour of insularity and narrow-mindedness. The question nowadays for the Muslim community in the West is how we want this very same culture of freedom and choice that we enjoy as minorities reflected in Muslim majority societies. In the globalised reality of today, western Muslims have a special duty to promote similar attitudes of respect for human rights, tolerance and mutuality in Muslim majority societies…

"As a believing and practising Muslim who is deeply involved in inter-religious dialogue and understanding, I call on all Muslim judicial systems and legislatures worldwide (where the riddah law exists) to contemplate the decorum for this modern age in which we live and bring our age-old and well-tested values in line with universal values. It is high time that Muslims learn to respond to all such challenges intellectually and academically, not through passionate or repellent reaction."

Dr Ziauddin Sardar
Cultural critic, Muslim scholar, prolific author and editor of Futures: The Journal of Planning, Policy and Futures Studies; UK.

"Most Muslims consider the Shariah, commonly translated as ‘Islamic law’, to be divine. Yet there is nothing divine about the Shariah. The only thing that can legitimately be described as divine in Islam is the Koran. The Shariah is a human construction; an attempt to understand the divine will in a particular context. This is why the bulk of the Shariah actually consists of fiqh or jurisprudence, which is nothing more than legal opinion of classical jurists. The very term fiqh was not in vogue before the Abbasid period when it was actually formulated and codified. But when fiqh assumed its systematic legal form, it incorporated three vital aspects of Muslim society of the Abbasid period. At that juncture, Muslim history was in its expansionist phase and fiqh incorporated the logic of Muslim imperialism of that time. The fiqh rulings on apostasy, for example, derive not from the Koran but from this logic."

Dr Amir Hussain
Department of Theological Studies, Loyola Marymount University, California, USA.

"Unfortunately, many Muslims and non-Muslims alike are unaware of the historical contexts that shaped the development of Islamic law. The harsh measures that some Muslims impose on those who leave the faith must be understood in light of Islam’s beginnings as a persecuted tradition. Muslims were threatened by the polytheists in Mecca and a series of battles occurred between Muhammad’s community in Medina and the polytheists of Mecca. In that context the death penalty as a punishment for apostasy was not so much a matter of religious affiliation as a matter of political identity. By reverting back to polytheism after having converted to Islam one would actively be siding with the polytheists of Mecca and would therefore undermine the Muslim community. In effect, apostasy was comparable to treason, an offence which still carries the death penalty in several jurisdictions in the United States though no longer in Canada…

"When Muslims take upon themselves god’s role as judge of a person’s faith, they flout the Koranic injunction given to Prophet Muhammad himself, that he was to warn people but not force them to obey: ‘So therefore remind, for you (Muhammad) are one to remind, but you are not a warden over them. But whoever turns back and disbelieves, god will punish him with a mighty punishment. For to us (god) is their return and it will be for us to call them to account’ (88:21 – 26). It is therefore god who will inflict punishment when human beings return to god at the end of this life."

Muslim Women’s League (MWL)

"The Muslim Women’s League … (calls) for the release of the Afghan Christian convert recently on trial for apostasy. We follow the Koranic mandate that ‘There is no compulsion in religion’ and hope that this case will be resolved justly, as required by Islam."

Imam Yahya Hendi
Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University; imam of the Islamic Society of Frederick; member and spokesperson of the Islamic Jurisprudence Council of North America; adjunct faculty with Evergreen Society of John Hopkins University’s School of Professional Development, Maryland, USA.

"I call on the government of Afghanistan to release Abdul Rahman, a man facing the death penalty for converting from Islam to Christianity. According to my understanding of Islamic law, belief is a personal matter not subject to the intervention of the state. Shariah law safeguards the right of every human being to choose his/her own faith and tradition. Shariah law should not and must not be used by politicians to justify inhumane and cruel treatment of converts and religious minorities living in so-called Muslim lands."

Imam Sadullah Khan
Executive director of Religious Affairs at the Islamic Center of Irvine, California, USA.

"There is not a single instance that Prophet Muhammad did treat apostasy as a prescribed offence under hudud only for leaving Islam. The prophet never put anyone to death for apostasy alone, rather he let such person go unharmed."

Dr Reza Aslan
Research associate at the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy; author of No god but God; USA.

"It’s important, first of all, to understand that the Koran says nothing about apostasy at all. There is no punishment for apostasy. This idea of death as a punishment for apostasy actually arose at a time in which Islam and the state were one. So apostasy and treason were considered the same thing. And therefore the punishment of death was for all of it.

"Not all Islamic law, schools of Islamic law, actually agree upon this, just the very conservative ones. And there are few more conservative schools of law than in Afghanistan."

Dr Ahmad Shafaat
Distinguished mathematician and currently, professor, department of Decision Sciences and MIS, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada; noted scholar in his own profession; also specialised in Comparative Religion and authored many books and pamphlets about Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

"It is a significant fact that the book of god does not prescribe any punishment for apostasy. Many Muslims would immediately say, the Koran does not tell us everything. We need to go to the Hadith to find guidance on matters not touched by the Koran. But… (t)he punishment for apostasy is not a detail that we can expect god to leave for Hadith, especially if that punishment is death, since taking the life of a person, if done without a just cause, is regarded by the Koran as tantamount to killing all human beings (5:32)."

Zainah Anwar
Executive director, Sisters in Islam, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

"(E)ven though apostasy is a great sin it is not a capital offence in Islam. Therefore a personal change of faith merits no punishment. Yet in its attempt to introduce the hudud law in the 21st century, the Islamic party in power in Terengganu chose the most extremist juristic opinion to codify into law. It is a well known fact that the Koran is explicit in its recognition of freedom of religion and there exists as well within the Islamic juristic heritage a position that supports freedom of religion."

Dr Hasan Zillur Rahim
Physicist; former editor of IQRA, South Bay Islamic Association, California, USA.

"Many Muslims have already pointed out the absurdity, illegality and immorality of apostasy-killing as the hapless Rahman’s impending fate filtered out of Afghanistan. The most powerful indictment comes, of course, from the Koran: ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion’ (2:256)…

"Hopefully, killing for apostasy and stoning to death (only women need apply) for adultery will soon be a thing of the past as absolutist clerics realise that their hold over Muslim minds and hearts is rapidly dissipating…

"Even in conservative societies, Muslims are beginning to realise that faith is a matter of personal responsibility and not a consequence of authoritarian decree. The days of religious leaders thundering: ‘I am right, you are dead’ will soon, let us pray, be over once and for all."

Islamic Networks Groups (ING)
Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, USA, ING, an entrepreneurial, educational outreach organisation with affiliates and partners in 20 states, Canada and the United Kingdom, promotes interfaith dialogue and education.

"Nowhere in the Koran does it mention punishment for apostasy although the subject of disbelief is mentioned repeatedly and (surah 4:137) specifically describes a person who disbelieves repeatedly without any mention of punishment… (A)ccording to numerous Islamic scholars, the death penalty was meant not for simple acts of apostasy but for political betrayal of the community, or treason, which is punishable in numerous societies… ING calls on all Muslims to re-examine universal Islamic principles that uphold the rights of all people to freedom of religion."

Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin
Youngest national mufti, Malaysia.

"‘Islamic leaders must squarely address the question of apostates and other challenges and not further damage the Muslim community by their own failure to live up to religious values.’

"Asked to comment on tensions raised by the issue of apostasy, Asri said religious leaders were culpable because they divert focus from the reasons that lead Muslims to apostatise. Instead, they issued threats of punitive measures against apostates and non-Muslim supporters."

Iman Al-Qahtani
A Saudi journalist, she is also an author and activist based in Saudi Arabia.

"There is no basis for executing an apostate in Islam. It is nothing more than an invention by narrow-minded men who accuse everyone in disagreement with them of apostasy."

Dr Sohirin Solihin
Professor of Qur’anic Studies, International Islamic University, Malaysia.

"The Koran forbids Muslims to abandon their faith but it doesn’t specify the penalties."

Imam Kamara Abdil Haqq Muhammad
Islamic teacher and associate imam at ADAMS Center of Northern Virginia, USA.

"Of the many things we try to remember, we must remember this clear fact: Allah is not in need of anyone or anything in his creation… I have found that the less educated people are in the Koran and social life, the harder they are on others. The prophet never punished those around him who sometimes said shahaadah (declaration of faith) in the morning and changed to something else in the evening."

Sisters In Islam
Sisters in Islam (SIS) is an independent non-governmental organisation, formed in 1988, which believes in an Islam that upholds the principles of equality, justice, freedom and dignity; Malyasia.

"(P)rominent ulema from the seventh to the 20th centuries have come out with the position that there can be no death penalty for apostasy… If an Islamic state means a dictatorial theocratic political system that condemns those who question or challenge its authority as apostates or deviants and then impose the death penalty on them, then why would those whose fundamental liberties are protected by a democratic state support such an intolerant concept of an Islamic state?"

Shah Abdul Halim
Chairman of Islamic Information Bureau, Bangladesh.

"In fact there is not a single instance that Prophet Muhammad did treat apostasy as a prescribed offence under hudud only for leaving Islam. The prophet never put anyone to death for apostasy alone, rather he let such person go unharmed."

Muhammad Ridzwan Rahmat
Editor, Ewadah.com.

"Islam is a religion that has never been forced upon (anyone). The very idea that a conversion to Islam is a one-way street which one can never turn from is a much dissipated myth. The Koran prohibits Muslims to force Islam on to an individual. Muslims past and present have largely converted to Islam out of their own free will… Again, no authority has been granted to Muslims to specifically kill the apostates of Islam should they mean no harm. Apostates are to be treated fairly as non-Muslims. Compulsion will not make sense in Islam."

Professor Shahul Hameed
Consultant, Discover Islam Section, Islamonline.net; former head of the department of English, Farook College, Calicut University, India; president of the Kerala Islamic Mission, Jamaat-e- Islami, Hind, Kerala Zone, Calicut, India.

"(T)he noble Koran does not prescribe death penalty for deserters of Islam but rather states that they would be in hell in the hereafter (2:217)… the ruling was with reference to certain specific cases of miscreants who wished to undermine Islam by joining Islam first and then deserting it… the killing of apostates would undermine the freedom of will Allah has bestowed on each human, as is made clear in the verses."

Anwaar Hussain
Columnist, Pak Tribune.

"In a screaming instance of a heart-rending paradox in the Muslim world, an Afghan convert to Christianity is to be tried in a Kabul court for apostasy, a ‘crime’ that is punishable by death in that country. Despite clear injunctions in the Koran that ‘there is no compulsion in religion’ and ‘to you, your own religion and to me, mine’, an innocent man may be executed while we stand by and watch this gruesome charade in the name of god… Fortunately, some highly distinguished contemporary Islamic scholars on renewed ijtihad (independent interpretation of legal sources) hold absolutely differing views on the subject of apostasy… The historic fact remains that the prophet never put anyone to death for apostasy alone. No one was sentenced to death solely for repudiation of faith unless accompanied by certain other crimes. Those other crimes would have been punishable by death in any contemporary state of the time. As a matter of fact, the Koran is completely silent on the question of death as a punishment for apostasy. Apostasy simply does not qualify for temporal punishment."

The Iraqi Women Leaders Conference
A joint project of the American Islamic Congress, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Independent Women’s Forum.

"It is important to note that wine drinking (shrub) and apostasy (riddah) are not hudud crimes and the Koran specifies no punishment for these two offences. Yet, fiqh manuals have, erroneously, included shrub and riddah in the category of hudud."

Inayat Bunglawala
Media secretary at the Muslim Council of Britain; co-presenter of the weekly ‘Politics and Media Show’ on the Islam Channel (SKY 813).

"To force someone to remain in a faith they do not believe seems rather absurd as it negates the whole basis of sincere belief and seems closer to officially endorsing hypocrisy.

"There is a famous remark attributed to the 19th century Egyptian Muslim activist and scholar Muhammad Abduh, who visited various European countries and said, ‘I have been to many Muslim countries and found many Muslims there but little Islam. I have also been to some European countries and found few Muslims there but a lot of Islam’."


Archived from Communalism Combat, November-December 2007 Year 14    No.126, Apostasy, Cover Story 1



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