There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong. So whoever disbelieves in Taghut and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold with no break in it. And Allah is Hearing and Knowing.

Al-Baqarah 2:256 (emphasis mine)

This Quranic verse is pretty explicit in that no one should be compelled in regards of his belief. Yet, the majority of Muslim scholars today espouse the ruling that apostates are to be put to death and cite this hadith:

Ibn 'Abbas said: "The Messenger of Allah [SAW] said: 'Whoever changes his religion, kill him.'" (Sahih)

Sunan Al-Nasai

How does one reconcile one with the other?


4 Answers 4


There are two different things here. Firstly, let me begin asking one question...

"What is the punishment for treason in most countries?"

In most countries (almost all) in the punishment for treason is death. This would be for spying, attacking ones own country etc. This applies all the more on the military.

In the time of the Prophet (pbuh) most people we drafted in the army. There are qur’anic verse that clearly frown upon people that do not go for fighting along with the Prophet (pbuh).

So let us assume, the Prophet (pbuh) were to go to war and a person learns all the plans/ battle tactics and then goes and joins the disbelievers. This would amount to treason. Deserting the Prophet (pbuh) is apostasy.

This strict punishment also prevents a disbeliever from coming to the Prophet (pbuh) accepting Islam just to spy on the Muslims.

Now the evidence...

Evidence 1: Hadith Classification

Most of these hadiths are classified in the "Books of Fighting"

Evidence 2: A more elaborate hadith

See the following hadith which elaborates more..

It was narrated from 'Aishah that:

The Messenger of Allah [SAW] said: "It is not permissible to shed the blood of a Muslim except in three cases: An adulterer who had been married, who should be stoned to death; a man who killed another man intentionally, who should be killed; and a man who left Islam and waged war against Allah, the Might and Sublime, and His Messenger, who should be killed, or crucified, or banished from the land." [Nasai Vol. 5, Book 1, Hadith 4053]

Evidence 3: Punishments to hypocrites who rejected Islam

There is no evidence of these punishments being given to hypocrites among Muslims. Those hypocrites who were simply not practicing or were practicing to be seen among people. If you read full of Surah 63 Munafiqoon. It talks about people who accepted and rejected.

That is because they believed, then they rejected Faith: So a seal was set on their hearts: therefore they understand not. [Quran 63:3]

And in the same surah ahead after they reject they went around telling people not to give money to the Prophet’s (pbuh) cause.

They are the ones who say, "Spend nothing on those who are with Allah's Messenger, to the end that they may disperse (and quit Medina)." But to Allah belong the treasures of the heavens and the earth; but the Hypocrites understand not.[Quran 63:7]

So they changed from belief to disbelief, but the fact that they had the opportunity to go around telling people not to give money to the Prophet’s (pbuh) cause implies that the same punishment didn't apply to them.

So based on all the above "death for apostasy" applies when there is a trace of treason involved.

  • 5
    Only 21% of countries retain the use of the death penalty at all; "most" is misleading. Unfortunately, there are plenty too many examples where the offence that inspires execution is not "treason", but simply: being open about having left Islam. That is not an act of treason. Indeed, it has been argued that this punishment is more to prevent others from doubting their own faith Commented Aug 4, 2012 at 22:36
  • 1
    @MarcGravell In the battlefield if a solider starts to fire at their own men or tries to run to the other side, what are the chances of that solider staying alive even if they belong to the remaining 79% of countries? Also, if someone is "being open" in saudi about leaving Islam, they are undermining the nationalistic values of the country which are Islamic values too hence it amounts to treason. Remember the key here is "being open". It simply implies intention to create mischief or dissent towards Islam rather than a personal journey or personal choice towards their new religion.
    – islam101
    Commented Aug 4, 2012 at 23:22
  • Good answer. In addition, I just knew that those who born Muslims can leave Islam as long as they didn't say the Shahada or show Islam belief after they entered adulthood. (islamweb)
    – Ghasan
    Commented Aug 5, 2012 at 14:09
  • 3
    the fallacy in your reasoning is that you are bringing religious affiliation to a par with treason, which is not acceptable in most modern world simply because religion is separate from state. it's kind of like saying why someone caught with an expired drivers license didn't get 30 years in prison because a murderer just did. so you should adjust your reasoning for the 1400 years that have elapsed since the formation of islam, during which numerous advancements took place that shape the world as is and if you choose to ignore them, your doctrine will be rightfully viewed as outdated
    – amphibient
    Commented Aug 7, 2015 at 20:18
  • 3
    it is a blatant logical fallacy to invoke the original (and outdated) association between apostasy and treason for the purposes of defending the apostasy treatment in islam. most, if not 100%, of present day apostasy is about simply leaving the religion in the times of peace in, say Pakistan, Saudi etc. there is no warfare or martial law involved YET the legal repercussions are justified by some case scenario from 1400 that by no means apply today. so that rhetoric is nothing but a fallacious defense of murder
    – amphibient
    Commented Aug 7, 2015 at 20:23

The reconciliation is that one is a general ruling (عموم), while the other is about a specific case (خصوص), i.e. an exception.

A true contradiction would have existed if:

  • the hadith too had a generic scope, e.g if it said "kill every non-muslim" OR
  • the verse too had a specific scope, and the specified subject was the same group e.g. if it said "let there be no compulsion for apostates"

In the absence of the above, both laws supplement each other, and both are applied: people are not compelled to accept Islam, but those who leave Islam are compelled to return.

There are many examples in the Quran of where an exception exists to a general ruling in a verse, even though it is not mentioned in the immediate context:

Kuffar and Mushriqeen can not be married:

ولا تمسكوا بعصم الكوافر

And hold not to marriage bonds with disbelieving women

Quran 60:10

ولا تنكحوا المشركات حتى يؤمن

And do not marry polytheistic women until they believe.

Quran 2:221

Except Jews and Christians, altough they are both Kafir and Mushriq:

حل لكم ... والمحصنات من الذين أوتوا الكتاب من قبلكم

lawful for you are ... the chaste women from among those who were given the Scripture before you

Quran 5:5

Blood and unslaughtered dead animals are haram:

حرمت عليكم الميتة والدم ... إلا ما ذكيتم

Prohibited to you are dead animals, blood, ... except what you slaughter

Quran 5:3

But not blood that does not flow forth, and not fish, although it dies without slaughter:

دما مسفوحا

blood that pours forth

Quran 6:145

احل لكم صيد البحر

Lawful to you is game from the sea ... [Also see: hadith 1 ; hadith 2 ; hadith 3 ]

Quran 5:96

Killing a Muslim intentionally is haram:

ومن يقتل مؤمنا متعمدا فجزاؤه جهنم

But whoever kills a believer intentionally - his recompense is Hell

Quran 4:93

But one can be executed for some crimes in Shariah, and the executioner is blameless:

ولا تقتلوا النفس التي حرم الله إلا بالحق ومن قتل مظلوما فقد جعلنا لوليه سلطانا فلا يسرف في القتل إنه كان منصورا

And do not kill the soul which Allah has forbidden, except by right. And whoever is killed unjustly - We have given his heir authority, but let him not exceed limits in [the matter of] taking life. Indeed, he has been supported [by the law].

Quran 17:33

The same applies to 2:256. There are exceptions, such as:

فاقتلوا المشركين حيث وجدتموهم ... فإن تابوا وأقاموا الصلاة وآتوا الزكاة فخلوا سبيلهم

Kill the polytheists wherever you find them ... but if they should repent, establish prayer, and give zakah, let them [go] on their way.

Quran 9:5

وقاتلوهم حتى لا تكون فتنة ويكون الدين كله لله

And fight them until there is no fitnah and [until] the religion, all of it, is for Allah .

Quran 8:39

تقاتلونهم أو يسلمون

you will fight them until they submit

Quran 48:16

And among the exceptions is apostasy.

The evidence for apostasy is probably too broad to cover here, but in short:

  • There are narrations to validate this from several Sahabah through various chains of transmission, including Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, Ali, Ayesha, Abdullah ibn Masud, Ibn Abbas, Muadh ibn Jabal, Khalid bin Walid, Abu Musa al-Ash'ari, Jabir ibn Abd Allah etc. Its not an anomalous and singular narration as is sometimes depicted to be.

  • There is Ijmah (consensus) of the Muslim community on the issue. No orthodox or heterodox group has historically disputed this, except in the recent past. Opposing the view and actions of generations of Muslim caliphs and scholars would be "following other than the way of the believers" [4:115]

  • "There is Ijmah (consensus) of the Muslim community on the issue. No orthodox or heterodox group has historically disputed this, except in the recent past." Could you add references for this? It is quite common to come across claims that this was not the case, or that "ridda" does not mean simple apostasy such as publicly stating "I think Islam is false", but instead refers to treasonous activities; only recently I've been confronted with the claim that death for apostasy has historically been a minority opinion. It'd be useful to have clarifying references for what exactly constitutes ridda.
    – G. Bach
    Commented May 15, 2018 at 0:38
  • @G.Bach I've listed some references here as you've asked. I think going into such details is probably not directly relevant to this question and would make it needlessly lengthy.
    – UmH
    Commented May 15, 2018 at 10:13

You'd have to look at historical context as well. First of all, there were a large power vacuum when the Prophet Muhammad died, leading to the Ridda wars. This was a clear attempt by apostates and other false prophets to gain power.

Apostasy contributed very strongly to national instability at this point, as well as a lot of killings and torture upon Muslims.

While this did not occur during the lifetime of the Prophet, some scholars argue that the Prophet foresaw the troubles that apostates would cause immediately after his death and this was what the hadith meant.

Wikipedia article on Ridda wars

The Biography of Abu Bakr As-Siddeeq by Dr. 'Ali Muhammad Muhammad As-Sallabee does a very good coverage of this too.

Second, Muslims were offered substantial benefits, such as the trust to serve in the military, thus gaining war booty, as well as other benefits. They were also given some political status to hold certain government offices, though this varied between the different Caliphates, more so in the later ones than the earlier ones.

A non-Muslim under many caliphates were required to pay a Jizya tax.

Non-Muslim men must pay a nominal tax called Jizya that gives them full citizenship rights, exempting them from National Service and taxes specific to Muslims like zakat . Jizya is means tested and there are different bands for different levels of wealth. Caliph Omar imposed three bands for the Jizya tax - 4 dinars (£108) for the rich, 2 dinars (£54) for the middle class and 1 dinar (£27) for the poor. The Jizya tax rate is much lower rate than that of zakat , t herefore the tax burden of non-Muslims is lower than that of Muslims in the Caliphate. (caliphate.co.uk)

What many Muslims who support the apostasy death penalty conveniently forget to mention today was that a death penalty was also applied to those who refused to pay the Zakat.

Both al-Bukhari, in "The Book of Calling the Apostates to Repent" in "The Chapter on Killing those who Refuse to Accept the Obligatory Laws and those Associated with Apostacy"; and Muslim, in "The Book of Faith" in "The Chapter on the Order to Fight People", report, on the authority of Abu Hurayra, who said:

"After the Prophet had died, and Abu Bakr was made his successor, there were [some] Arabs who turned to disbelief. 'Umar said: 'O Abu Bakr! How can you fight the people when the Prophet of Allah (S.A.W.) has said: 'I have been ordered to fight the people until they say: 'There is no God but Allah' and whoever says this, makes himself and his property inviolable except by legal right, and his reckoning is with Allah?' Abu Bakr replied: 'By Allah! I will fight whoever differentiates between salat and zakat , for zakat is a lawful right upon the property! By Allah! Were they to withhold even a single animal that they used to give the Prophet of Allah (S.A.W.), I will fight them over their withholding it'. Then 'Umar said: 'By Allah! I saw then that Allah had opened the heart of Abu Bakr to [the cause of] fighting, and I realized then that it was correct". (momin.com)

As quoted, this death sentence was further supported by the right to sentence an apostate to death. It's an economical move, and was done to prevent people converting in and out of Islam as a tax loophole.

So, it applies mainly for economical and political purpose. Even more so, because people identified themselves by religion more than by nationality back then. Joining a religion then exiting was akin to gaining citizenship then dropping it, which many leaders would consider treason.

The "no compulsion in religion" verse is often cited in the sense that forcing someone to join Islam does not make the conversion valid.

  • the pervasive theme that dominates your answer is that the rule was time specific. i think a reasonable comeback to counter that (to me inadequate) explanation is why is something era-specific regarded as a timeless rule that persists 1400 years later, i.e. why is it not deemed as outdated ? Because, in the present day, most, if not 100% of cases of apostasy have nothing to do with breaching wartime allegiances but to simple leaving one's faith in peacetime Saudi, Pakistan, Iran etc. if there is no war involved, why does leaving the faith carry the punishment of treason ?
    – amphibient
    Commented Aug 7, 2015 at 20:43
  • and yet another retort from the skeptical side would be, in regard to all "perishable" rules (and not all rules are perishable, e.g. don't steal is pretty timeless) is why a religion that claims perfection has stipulations that have so obviously grown outdated and inapplicable over time ?
    – amphibient
    Commented Aug 7, 2015 at 20:49
  • Just my perception - the Quran has timeless rules. The hadiths compile 'best practice', history. The Prophet Muhammad requested that the hadiths not be written... maybe this is why.
    – Muz
    Commented Aug 8, 2015 at 0:54
  • The analogue to leaving Islam, if you consider it the benchmark of citizenship, is changing your nationality, not treason. As far as I know, no country on Earth punishes changing nationality.
    – G. Bach
    Commented Mar 17, 2017 at 9:08

The reconciliation is very simple.

  1. Any Muslim is free to leave Islam if they do so without making a public issue out of it. Muslims all over Muslim countries say and do things opposed to Islam or don't pray or don't believe, and nothing happens to them, because they leave it a personal issue. They don't trumpet it on stage in the media, turning it into a political problem.

  2. A person who never accepted Islam is under no compulsion to accept it.

    But a person who HAS been Muslim, understood and accepted it as the Truth - is the same as one who has made a covenant, recognized their Lord, their Messenger, their place on earth and their purpose of life. Now, having arrived at the recognition of this truth, to turn back after this knowledge it is a betrayal. The question of freedom of religion is in place while a person is choosing their religion. Once they've studied and already chosen it, now the idea of loyalty and fulfillment kicks in.

    This is why the law of apostasy is not applicable to people whose initial acceptance of Islam was forced and not true.

  3. It is a deterrent to those who intend to appear to convert to Islam only to reject it - again in order to destroy the stability of the Muslims. This is an age-old political tactic.

    A party of the People of the Book said: 'Believe in the morning what has been revealed to those who believe, and then deny it in the evening that they may thus retract (from their faith).' (Quran: 3: 72)

  4. It is also applicable only in a state implementing the Shariah mostly for reasons of national stability. This becomes very clear when you recognize that Islam forms the legislation of such a state. Therefore to turn away from it is to make public claims against Islamic tenets, they are effectively making the claims against the law itself. In such circumstances, do you think your government would let this person free to say whatever they liked? Why - even the West, which lays claims to incredible freedoms - even that can't tolerate such things at all! http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/dilly-hussain/media-bias_b_5630884.html

    But here's the difference, since Islamic law is designed for humanity's benefit, which includes all protected non-Muslim minorities of the state, then according to Shariah, unless the apostate/blasphemer is really a threat to the state, they aren't randomly locked up or assassinated, as they are in other states, where the the authorities just want to protect their own power, and not the welfare of their citizens. Rather, according to Shariah, if the person is not a threat, they are sent a teacher to explain to them whatever problems they may have with Islamic law, and are given time to understand. Also, according to Hanafi Fiqh, women are not given capital punishment (since women are not usually political threats).

There are several more points given in detail in the following document, please read: http://miraatu.wordpress.com/2014/08/01/apostasy_blasphemy_in_islam/


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