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It is commonly believed that if someone leaves Islam, by Sharia law the punishment is death. Is that true?

I have heard some different opinions. Dr. Zakir Naik was once asked a similar question and he responded that the punishment is death only if you tarnish Islam image in public and are publically against it. In that scenario the situation is similar to a revolt against an Army and hence punishment in that case is death.

However, Islam is not an Army but a religion. What is the correct verdict in this regard?

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There's an in depth article on this here and here. – Mateen Ulhaq Jun 27 '12 at 2:57
Didn't Dr. Zakir Naik mentioned about the verse number associated with it? – Inshan Jun 29 '12 at 4:27
up vote 26 down vote accepted

Yes, it is true that leaving Islam, in an Islamic state, can be a reason for someone to be put to death. Note the caveat: in an Islamic state. We do not have any Islamic state today; only Muslim countries who mix some parts of Islamic law with other types of law.

I think the question you're asking is more about why this might be the case. As you mentioned, Zakir Naik mentioned some points about tarnishing the image of Islam.

Consider also the following cases, as happened historically around the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him): individuals and groups who fought against Islam would enter Islam in the morning, leave it in the evening, and declare it to be false. Not because of any flaw of the deen, but in order to attack and denounce it further. There are some historical accounts of this happening.

One of the benefits and reasons that Allah declared this law, therefore, can be for the protection of the religion itself (which is one of the five aims of Islamic law).

Allah knows best; sometimes we know the reasoning and benefits behind certain laws of Islam, and sometimes we don't. As Muslims, we only need to submit, we do not need to understand the intricacies of each issue and the proofs surrounding it.

In response to some comments about Muslim countries versus Islamic states: Muslim countries are Muslim countries, not Islamic states. Their rulers pick and choose what laws they want -- Islamic, British, secular, or personal whims, often against Islam itself. Will they implement Islamic law, or this particular part of it? I don't know.

Are we all obliged to rule by the law of Allah?

Yes. Allah says:

enter image description here

Translation: But no, by your Lord, they will not [truly] believe until they make you, [O Muhammad], judge concerning that over which they dispute among themselves and then find within themselves no discomfort from what you have judged and submit in [full, willing] submission. (Surah Nisaa, verse 65)

Another verse criticizes the People of the Book for throwing away Allah's law after it was revealed to them:

enter image description here

Translation: [Say], "Then is it other than Allah I should seek as judge while it is He who has revealed to you the Book explained in detail?" And those to whom We [previously] gave the Scripture know that it is sent down from your Lord in truth, so never be among the doubters. (Surah An'aam, verse 114)

Allah describes and depicts the correct attitude of the believers:

enter image description here

Translation: The only statement of the [true] believers when they are called to Allah and His Messenger to judge between them is that they say, "We hear and we obey." And those are the successful. (Surat An-Noor, verse 51)

Islamic law applies to Islamic states. If you're not living in an Islamic state, then you need to worry about local laws, not the laws of an Islamic state.

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My question was not about why aspect but your answered it appropriately. – muslim1 Jun 20 '12 at 15:12
Living in today's world, where the media portrays this as barbaric and backward, I think it's very important to understand why. Feel free to upvote if you believe this is a good answer. – ashes999 Jun 20 '12 at 15:13
Good answer, but it would also be good to provide support from the Qur'an and specific hadith to support it. – Ryan Jun 20 '12 at 18:52
@Ryan I don't know any, unfortunately; I have never studied this topic in depth. – ashes999 Jun 20 '12 at 18:55
Great answer. Given the controversy that this law could cause, I agree it is important to understand why. +1 – Badger Cat Jun 21 '12 at 7:56

I have three points to make:

  1. For a hadith like "If somebody changes his religion, kill him", the following context is present in the Muwatta:

    It is related from ‘Ikrima that ‘Ali burnt some people and that reached Ibn ‘Abbas who said, “If it had been me, I would not have burned them because the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, ‘Do not punish with Allah’s punishment.’ I would have killed them as the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, ‘If someone changes his religion, kill him.’” [Book 21, 15]

The context is somewhat unclear here, as someone else is narrating Ibn 'Abbas' reference to something the Prophet said in the past tense in a rather unclear situation. It is possible that the Prophet was speaking in reference to the people who made a theatrical/hypocritical show of conversion to Islam or more seriously, to discover the Muslim armies military weaknesses and report back to the enemy if this event occurred during the wars fought by the Muslims. Hence can make the argument that this is not advocating violence against people who are deemed to have "changed their religion."

  1. The following is an example of how the Prophet dealt with apostasy:

    A bedouin gave the Pledge of allegiance to Allah's Apostle for Islam. Then the bedouin got fever at Medina, came to Allah's Apostle and said, "O Allah's Apostle! Cancel my Pledge," But Allah's Apostle refused. Then he came to him (again) and said, "O Allah's Apostle! Cancel my Pledge." But the Prophet refused Then he came to him (again) and said, "O Allah's Apostle! Cancel my Pledge." But the Prophet refused. The bedouin finally went out (of Medina) whereupon Allah's Apostle said, "Medina is like a pair of bellows (furnace): It expels its impurities and brightens and clears its good. [Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 9, #318]

    Notably, as Dr. M. E. Subhani explained in his book:

    This was an open case of apostasy. But the Prophet neither punished the Bedouin nor asked anyone to do it. He allowed him to leave Madina (of his own will). Nobody harmed him.” [Apostasy in Islam (New Delhi, India: Global Media Publications, 2005), pp. 23-24.]

  2. This is the earliest musannaf (a hadith collection arranged in topical chapters) work in existence:

    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 on them. [Musannaf Abdur Razzaq, pp. 171-10, cited in M. E. Subhani,Apostasy in Islam (New Delhi, India: Global Media Publications, 2005), pp. 23-24. Abdur Razzaq ibn Humama (d. 211 AH). ]

One more point worth mentioning: in the hadith mentioned in point 1, the word "religion" has been brazenly translated from the Arabic word "din". This is a mistranslation, as din does not stand for religion properly, but it "sort of" means way of life. The Arabic language does not even have a word for religion, strictly speaking: the word din, customarily translated as such, differs in significant important respects from the European concept. (From the book The Meaning and end of religion by W.C. Smith).

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regarding #2, it could be an early time in Medina, where the rule was not enforced. Since Ali executed the rule by burning people and Abbas (RA) confessed he would have done the same, establishes that death is indeed the punishment. The two major sahabas could not be wrong. – muslim1 Jan 13 '13 at 12:39
@muslim1 than I rather stick to the example of our prophet Mohuhamed (saws). Your view also contradicts that Allah (swt) created men with free will. A man can't leave Islam is like not having a free will. I fear Allah to judge people. – AndaluZ Mar 4 '15 at 12:08

Apostasy is an issue that has caused debate for quite sometime. In the end, the answer does should not apply to any people today since there is no Islamic state to uphold the judgement. And anyone who is carrying our Shari'ah criminal punishment is doing so against the Islamic law, since that would require an Islamic state with an established court. That being said, let's see how well I can answer this.

There are two types of apostasy in Islam. Simply Apostasy and Complete Apostasy. Let's look first at the two different definitions of these terms.

Simple Apostasy = No longer wishing to follow the Muslim faith and simply wishing to practice a separate religion other than Islam.

Complete Apostasy = Rejecting the faith of Islam while simultaneously attempting to undermine the Islamic state via violence or civil disorder by joining in the enemies of Islam in the sense of waging war on Muslims.

There is a consensus among scholars that complete apostates should be put to death. It basically equals the treason law that many countries follow. It is when you get to the idea of execution for simple apostasy you start seeing the differences of opinion.

It is the consensus of all four schools of thought within the Sunni tradition that apostates should be executed, however the argument comes from the question if these apostates are simple or complete apostates. Many people who support the execution law will quote the founding scholars of the four schools of thought saying that apostasy should be punished with execution, however, I have not seen any evidence explaining which types of apostates they are referring too. It also must be noted that some of the schools of thought traditionally supported the idea of fallibility among scholars and that fatwas were not the "rulings of God" but rather the opinions of those scholars. Traditionally the Hanafi school of though, the largest school of thought, even stated that fatwas be limited to specific times and places according to Islamic scholar Hamza Yusuf.

Bearing all of this in mind let us look at the Quran. Apostasy is mentioned 26 times in the Quran but yet there is no earthly punishment mentioned within the Quran. Muhammad himself was confronted with multiple apostates during his lifetime and there is no recorded evidence of him putting those apostates to death. Rather, he simply let them leave as long as they were peaceful about it.

There are also many quotes from the Quran that agree with this stance:

There is no compulsion in religion. Right has become distinct from wrong. So whoever rejects evil and puts faith in God has grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold that never breaks. And God is hearing, knowing. (2:256)

The apostasy law is first thought to gain large support during a time of struggle and religious upheaval within the time of the Islamic state. Bearing that in mind it's easy to see why the four schools of thought came down so hard on this decision, it was created as a way of protecting the state and religion during that time.

It is my firm belief from the research that I have done that there is no call for execution for simple apostasy within Islam. And, unfortunately, the apostasy law has been twisted to encompass people outside of it's original meaning.

Allow me to be clear, this seems to be a minority opinion based on the people I have dealt with. But I hope that it provides some insight into the debate. Since I am a new user, I can only post two links within my sources. I've provided the two that I feel best present my argument. One is a detailed look at the apostasy law, and the other is a video explaining how scholarly issued fatwas can become twisted into the dichotomy of the religion. I hope that you find the satisfactory.

Sources ##

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+1 good answer, little opinionated, but I hope you will move away from that with more participation on the site. This isn't reddit :) – Ansari Jun 27 '12 at 22:17
Thanks. I'll attempt to be less opinionated on other things but I found it difficult on this one since I was trying to be fair and show that I was presenting the minority's take on it. – idosillythings Jun 27 '12 at 22:37

Based on the excellent discussion above, the issue may be summarized as:

  • If it is an Islamic state and the apostasy is political, then it is akin to treason and the state should deal with it as such
  • If it is not an Islamic state, or if it is and it is a bona fide decision of an individual's conscience, then there is no ikrah (compulsion)
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my friend what is a political apostasy. This question is not about politics. My question is about individual decision. – muslim1 Feb 24 '13 at 15:42

I remember the verses in Al-Kahfi related to this. It's about Prophet Moses and Khidr. One of three things Khidr show to Prophet Moses is about him (Khidr) killed a boy.

فَانطَلَقَا حَتَّىٰ إِذَا لَقِيَا غُلَامًا فَقَتَلَهُ قَالَ أَقَتَلْتَ نَفْسًا زَكِيَّةً بِغَيْرِ نَفْسٍ لَّقَدْ جِئْتَ شَيْئًا نُّكْرًا

So they set out, until they met a boy, al-Khidhr killed him. [Moses] said, "Have you killed a pure soul for other than [having killed] a soul? You have certainly done a deplorable thing." (QS. Al-Kahfi 18: 74)

After a while, Khidr explain the reason behind his action,

وَأَمَّا الْغُلَامُ فَكَانَ أَبَوَاهُ مُؤْمِنَيْنِ فَخَشِينَا أَن يُرْهِقَهُمَا طُغْيَانًا وَكُفْرًا

And as for the boy, his parents were believers, and we feared that he would overburden them by transgression and disbelief. (QS. Al-Kahfi 18: 80)

فَأَرَدْنَا أَن يُبْدِلَهُمَا رَبُّهُمَا خَيْرًا مِّنْهُ زَكَاةً وَأَقْرَبَ رُحْمًا

So we intended that their Lord should substitute for them one better than him in purity and nearer to mercy. (QS. Al-Kahfi 18: 81)

Khidr act with God's revelation, to show that the punishment of disbelief is sometimes death. With all the requisites of it. Allahu a'lam.

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My answer is purely an opinion and not backed with extensive study on law and history.

So I was asking myself what I would do if I have to create a stable environment of peace and have to protect this environment from people who refuse peace. You could let those people leave, so the environment keeps clean. But what if they disturb the peace and they won't leave, than you can put them in jail if jails exist in the time of our Prophet Mohammed (pbuh). What if they hurt people, rape women, abuse slaves and so on in a time where it's hard to find justice? Because that is when you leave Islamic faith 1400 years ago. I think the punishment would be much bigger, right. The problem is, we're not robots to make a simple decision Yes or No. We're humans, so if someone decides to leave Islam, we should understand why, what's the consequence and what are the necessary steps to take for protecting the Islamic religion. No one likes killing, except extremists, and a Muslim is not a murderer, but a believer of our Creator Who give us love, forgiveness, care, patient, even a smile, Subhanlah. May Allah guide us all.

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