Facts From Fiction

The Fate of an Apostate in Islam – Death or Freedom?


Azhar Goraya, Mexico

Many Muslims today accept the validity of the death punishment for apostasy (Pew Forum). Most of the classical jurists (with a few notable exceptions) of the four schools of Sunni Jurisprudence, as well as the Shia, believed that apostasy merited the death sentence. Modern Sunni scholarship has in some cases allowed for apostasy, but without the license to speak out or question Muslim beliefs.

The viewpoint of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, based on the Qur’an, Sunnah [practice of the Holy Prophet (sa)], and Ahadith [sayings of the Holy Prophet (sa)], is that there is no earthly punishment for apostasy – certainly not death. This article is merely an overview of a comprehensive work which serves as a rebuttal to the notion of a death penalty for apostasy in Islam; whilst explaining the true Islamic stance on the matter.

Apostasy means voluntary recantation of Islam through a verbal declaration. A declaration of faith is necessary for someone to be considered a Muslim. So too is a verbal recantation necessary to renounce Islam, and to be considered an apostate by others. No one can declare another Muslim an apostate of their own accord.

There are three sources of Islamic information. In order of the most authentic, there is the Holy Qur’an, the Sunnah (practice of the Holy Prophet (sa)) and the Ahadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (sa)). Any ambiguous tradition must be referred to the Holy Qur’an for its true interpretation. 

In the case of apostasy, the Holy Qur’an is clear that freedom of religion is a fundamental right of every individual (2:257). Compelling others to accept any faith is attributed to the enemies of religion (19:47). The responsibility of the Prophet Muhammad (sa) was never to force or compel people to stay in the religion of Islam on pain of death; rather, only to convey the message of Islam to them (10:109). Moreover, the death penalty for apostasy would encourage hypocrisy, the worst of sins (4:146) within the Muslims rather than fostering a society of sincere believers. The Qur’an declares that there is complete freedom for all people – apostates or otherwise – to engage in respectful religious dialogue with Muslims (2:112). There is no verse in the Holy Qur’an that institutes any worldly punishment for apostasy, even though the Qur’an has discussed apostasy in detail. The Qur’an mentions the possibility of an apostate accepting and once again leaving the faith (4:138), something that would be impossible if apostasy amounted to certain death. 

Turning to the Sunnah, we find a number of occasions where apostates were not killed for leaving Islam. Many Muslims left Islam after disbelieving in the Isra, or night journey of the Prophet Muhammad (sa). At the treaty of Hudaibiya, the Prophet (sa) agreed to a clause that allowed apostates to return from Medina to Mecca unharmed. There were Jews who would mischievously accept the message of Islam in the morning and thereafter leave the faith in the evening. A prominent apostate, Abdullah bin abi Sarh, was not killed, even though he was presented before the Prophet Muhammad (sa) at the victory of Mecca.

Coming to the ahadith, we find that there are certain narrations that are sometimes ambiguous and are at times understood as supporting the death penalty for apostasy. For example, there is a hadith which states, ‘kill him who changes his faith’, and another which states, ‘kill him who leaves his faith and separates himself from the community’. Being a tertiary source of Islamic knowledge, these ahadith cannot be understood in a way which run counter to the Qur’an. 

Historically, these ahadith were stated during the time of religious, theological war between the Muslims and the non-believers before the signing of the treaty of Hudaibiya. Leaving Islam and the community of Muslims during this time was tantamount to abandonment of the army and was considered high treason during war, which was (and even today, in many cases still is) punishable by death. Outside the years of this religious war, the Sunnah of the Prophet (sa) demonstrates that apostates were not killed.

A separate term was not used for treason because it was not necessary at the time. Moreover, Islamic legal theory posits that the same crime in view of the extenuating circumstances can merit different punishments. Therefore, apostasy during a religious war with non-believers, and apostasy outside of such a war, within the Islamic legal paradigm, would be seen and dealt with differently.

During the time of the successors of the Prophet Muhammad (sa), we find the same adherence to the above principles. During the time of Hadhrat Abu Bakr (ra), the first successor, most of Arabia left Islam and many raised arms against the Islamic state. Hadhrat Abu Bakr (ra) fought against them because of their armed and vicious rebellion, not simply because they had merely left Islam. 

The writings of the Promised Messiah (as) provide us guidance on this manner. He spoke at length about apostasy during British India in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. He never stated that such apostates should be killed, rather, he taught the importance of replying to their allegations against Islam and showing them sympathy and compassion. After him, his successors and other scholars of the Jama’at have written extensively about how apostasy does not merit any worldly punishment. 

Read the full version here: No Capital Punishment for Apostasy in Islam

About the Author: Azhar Goraya is a graduate from the Ahmadiyya Institute of Languages and Theology in Canada. He is currently serving as an Imam of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Mexico. He is also the Central American Coordinator for The Review of Religions en Español.