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The punishment for apostasy in Islam is execution.

The Western world mocks Islam for this. They say that they are more peaceful as they don't interfere with someone's personal life, blah blah blah.

How should a Muslim reply to the accusation/mockery/criticism against Islam to shut them up?

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You'd reply to them by saying that there is no punishment for apostasy in Islam and Allah has given each human free will to make a choice whether it be incorrect or correct. You should also mention that there is no reliable evidence that the Prophet Muhammadﷺ ever executed anyone for apostasy.

Freedom of Religion is in the Quran

There is no coercion in religion. Sound judgment has become clear from error. So whosoever disavows false deities and believes in God has grasped the most unfailing handhold, which never breaks. And God is Hearing, Knowing.

Quran 2:256

And say, “It is the truth from your Lord! So whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve.” Verily We have prepared for the wrongdoers a Fire whose canopies will encompass them. And if they plead for relief, they will be showered with water like molten lead that will scald faces—an evil drink indeed, and how evil a resting place!

Quran 18:29

And had thy Lord willed, all those who are on the earth would have believed all together. Wouldst thou compel men till they become believers? It is not for a soul to believe, save by God’s Leave. And He lays defilement upon those who understand not.

Quran 10:99-100

So leave Me with those who deny this discourse. We shall lead them on little by little, whence they know not.

Quran 68:44

Say, “O disbelievers! I worship not what you worship; nor are you worshippers of what I worship; nor am I a worshipper of what you worship; nor are you worshippers of what I worship. Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion.”

Quran 109

There are numerous verses in the Quran that speak about free will and the freedom of choice to choose what one wants to believe. Throughout the Quran, Allah warns the disbelievers of a bad fate while promises the believers a good one. But Allah does NOT compel anyone to believe in him as stated above in Quran 10:99-100.

The Prophet's Example

There is no reliable evidence that the Prophetﷺ ever executed anyone for apostasy, as was observed by the famous scholar of Cordoba, Ibn al-Ṭallāʿ (d. 1103).

When one of the Companions of the Prophet, ʿUbaydallāh bin Jaḥsh left Islam and became Christian while the Muslims were seeking refuge in Ethiopia, the Prophet ﷺ did NOT order him punished.

The Treaty of Ḥudaybiyya, which the Prophetﷺ concluded with the Quraysh, stated that if anyone decided to leave the Muslim community in Medina no harm would befall them. There was no mention of a punishment for apostasy. In fact, when a man who had come to the Prophetﷺ just the day before to pledge his loyalty to Islam wanted to be released from his oath, the Prophetﷺ let him go.

Islamic Civilization

Unfortunately, there were many scholars especially among the classical scholars that ignored the clear messaging of the Quran and prioritized a few hadiths over Allah's word that ascribed capital punishment for apostasy.

But even with these hadiths, many scholars understood that it was in regards to the realm of treason within a state, so a crime of treason against a state (like an American selling state secrets), not an individual act of apostasy.

Many classical and contemporary scholars, although not a majority, have declared that the mere changing of one’s religion is no cause for punishment by the community, especially in light of the Quranic passages quoted above. Rather, such a move must amount to a seditious or destabilizing act in a political sense. This was, in their view, why the first Caliph, Abi Bakr, took up arms against the tribes who left the Muslim community in the so-called riddah wars, and why the Prophet left many people alone who left the religion. It would explain, for example, why some early religious authorities, such as Ibn ‘Abbas and ‘Alt ibn Abi Talib, as well as Abu Hanifah and Sufyan al-Thawri, did not allow the execution of women who renounced Islam (Q). This would seem to reflect a political and social cause rather than an intrinsically theological one, a cause that would be contingent upon external circumstances. During certain periods of the Prophet’s life, changing religion amounted to changing sides in the political sense and thus to high treason, and hypocrites were among the deadliest of enemies of the early community, often collaborating with the Qurayshi idolaters and those tribes who were allied with them.

The Study Quran 2:217 commentary

Conclusion

There is no crime for apostasy in the religion of Islam and there never was.

So if anyone questions you about this, you tell them the truth, that there is no crime of apostasy in Islam and the Quran doesn't prescribe a punishment and that the Prophetﷺ never executed anyone for apostasy. And you should also agree with them that punishing apostasy isn't a correct recourse.

Sources and Links

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I am mindful of a famous statement, attributed to Abū Ḥanīfah’s (and also to al-Shāfi‘ī):

‘I believe that my opinions are correct but I am cognisant of the fact that my opinions may be wrong. I also believe that the opinions of my opponents are wrong but I am cognisant of the fact that they may be correct.’

It is estimated that around 18% of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims live in countries that permit the killing of apostates. I have no idea what percentage of this minority group are eager to abandon Islam; and would rush to do so, were it not for fear of reprisal. But let’s be clear: If only one disaffected Muslim – just the one – is killed for leaving the Faith, then that is one too many.

There is a great deal of diversity among Islamic scholars and jurists concerning the issue of capital punishment for apostasy. For the majority (I can’t say how large a majority) apostasy is a crime, for which the maximum penalty is death. For the minority, apostasy is a sin, with no earthly punishment.

Both sides look to the Qur’an and the aḥādīth – hearsay accounts of the Prophet’s deeds and words – for justification.

Although the Qur’an speaks of apostasy more than a dozen times; nowhere does it authorise an earthly punishment for abandoning faith. On the contrary, Allāh (subḥānahu ūta'āla) reserves for Himself the right to judge such behaviour; and to do so on the Day of Judgement.

Allāh (subḥānahu ūta'āla) declares:

‘Say: “Now the truth has come from your Lord: let those who wish to believe in it do so, and let those who wish to reject it do so.”’ (Al-Kahf: 29).

And this:

‘As for those who believe, then reject the faith, then believe again, then reject the faith again and become increasingly defiant, Allāh will not forgive them, nor will He guide them on any path.’ (Al-Nisa: 137).

In a footnote to this last verse, Dr. Mohammad Hashim Kamali, a noted Islamic scholar and former Professor of Law at the International Islamic University of Malaysia writes:

‘Had apostasy been subject to a temporal punishment, it would have been mentioned here. For this Qur’anic verse clearly visualises instances of renunciation of Islam more than once without actually mentioning a punishment for it.’ (‘Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence’).

Is it fair to say that both Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim confirm that the penalty for apostasy is death?

That is a matter of interpretation!

The ‘apostasy’ aḥādīth of Sahih Muslim are – in effect – duplicates of al-Bukhari’s, and so I intend to focus on the latter.

The principal ḥādīth offered in support of the death penalty for apostasy is this: ‘Ibn Abbas said: The Messenger of Allah said, “Whoever changes his religion, kill him.”’ (Volume 9: Book 84; Number 57).

My belief is that this ḥādīth is an outright forgery. However, Dr. Kamil, and Professor Abdullah Saeed – Sultan of Oman Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne – disagree with me

Both argue that the ḥādīth is ambiguous, and in need of interpretation, since – if taken literally – would require the death penalty for, say, the Jew who becomes a Christian; or a Christian or Hindu who becomes a Muslim.

Dr Kamil reminds us that:

‘According to the rules of Islamic jurisprudence, when a text becomes open to one level of interpretation, it is automatically reduced from the level of the definitive (qat͑i) to that of speculative (zanni) and may henceforth be subjected to further levels of interpretation, which would, in this case, most likely be that this hadith had envisaged treason as a capital offence and not apostasy as such.’ (‘A Textbook of Ḥādīth Studies – Authenticity, Compilation, Classification and Criticism of Ḥādīth’; my emphasis).

He writes of a second ḥādīth:

‘There is no evidence to indicate that the Prophet Muhammad himself ever imposed the death penalty on any apostate for a simple act of conversion from Islam. If such evidence had existed, it would have provided the necessary prophetic authority to back the death penalty. On the contrary, however, one hadith in the collection of Bukhari (one of the most important collections of hadith for Sunni Muslims) details a man who came to Medina and converted to Islam. Shortly after his arrival, this man wanted to return to his former religion and asked the Prophet for permission to do so. The Prophet let him go free, without imposing the death penalty or, indeed, any punishment.’ (Ibid; my emphases).

Abdullah Saeed writes, of this same ḥādīth:

‘This man several times sought permission from the Prophet to be released from Islam but the Prophet declined, before eventually allowing him to leave Medina and revert to idolatry. Had the Prophet wanted to impose capital punishment for apostasy, he could have done so.’ (‘Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam’; my emphasis).

Professor Saeed writes:

‘A number of today’s top Muslim scholars (for example, Muhammad Hashim Kamli, Hasan al-Turabi, Rashid Ghannouch, and Taha Jabir al-Alwani) argue that there is no evidence in the actual practice of the Prophet to suggest that he put anyone to death simply because of his or her conversion from Islam. Any association of the death penalty with apostasy in sayings attributed to the Prophet should therefore be interpreted in light of the socio-political context of the time.

‘In the modern period, in which religious freedom has been guaranteed in major international human rights documents and is considered one of the most important rights of a human being, Muslims should emphasise the Quranic position on freedom of belief; that is, there is no coercion in matters of faith and belief. Any hadith that exist on this issue should be interpreted (or reinterpreted) in light of the guidance of the Quran, which has supremacy over all other forms of evidence in Islamic norms and values.’ (Article entitled ‘Hadith and Apostasy’; published in ‘Public Discourse’ - Journal of the Witherspoon Institute; my emphases).

It is likely that the Professor had these ʾāyāt in mind:

‘There is no compulsion in religion (lā ikrāha fī’l-dīn): true guidance has become distinct from error, so whoever rejects false gods and believes in Allāh has grasped the firmest hand-hold, one that will never break. Allāh is all hearing and all knowing. Allāh is the ally of those who believe: He brings them out of the depths of darkness and into the light. As for the disbelievers, their allies are false gods who take them from the light into the depths of darkness, they are the inhabitants of the Fire, and there they will remain.’ (Al-Baqara: 256-257).

Muhammad Abdel Haleem, King Fahd Professor of Islamic Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, writes:

‘This verse begins with the phrase lā ikrāha fī’l-dīn (there is no compulsion in religion). It is introduced by ‘lā’, the particle of absolute negation in Arabic, which negates absolutely the notion of compulsion in religion. Religion in the Qur’an is based on choice, and true choice is based on knowledge and making matters clear for people to choose. The rest of the ‘there is no compulsion in religion’ verse gives reasons justifying and explaining this.’ (‘Exploring the Qur'an: Context and Impact’).

Dr Kamil writes:

‘The basic position in Islamic law is supportive of the freedom of the individual to profess the religion of his or her choice without compulsion. Neither the Prophet Muhammad, nor any of his Companions, compelled anyone to embrace Islam. They did not sentence anyone to any punishment solely for renunciation of Islam, and there is evidence also in the Qur’an to that effect.

‘The handful of cases of apostasy reported during the Prophet’s lifetime are in effect offences of treason: the individual would renounce Islam, leave Madinah, join the pagans of Quraish and fight the Muslims – all in rapid succession. This was the scenario at a time when the two communities, the pagans of Mecca and the nascent Muslim community in Madinah, were actively at war. There were no neutral grounds under those circumstances. Bearing in mind also that there were over twenty-six military engagements (and many more smaller skirmishes) between Muslims and non-Muslims in the space of about ten years, there was an active but extended state of war.’ (‘Sharia Law’; my emphases).

Apostasy is a sin, and not a crime; and there is no justification – either within the Qur’an or in the actual practice of the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) – for any kind of temporal punishment simply for leaving the Faith.

The Qur’an makes it perfectly clear that when it comes to apostasy, the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) has no say in the matter. On the contrary, his role is to convey the message – to preach and teach the Faith, as expressed in the Qur’an – and nothing more. He is not to impose it by force:

‘Ask those who were given the Scripture, as well as those without one: “Do you too devote yourselves to Him alone?” If they do, they will be guided, but if they turn away, your only duty is to convey the message. Allāh is aware of His servants.’ (Al-‘Imran: 18-20; my emphasis).

If the Prophet was given no authority from his Lord to punish apostasy, then by what right do we?

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  • Thank you for posting a fundamentally useless answer.
    – user51833
    Aug 5, 2023 at 13:11
  • You have to take into account that I will have to argue with Westerners who have zero knowledge of Islam, and its scriptures, and have hatred toward Islam.
    – user51833
    Aug 5, 2023 at 13:12
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    Anytime! I was a Christian for over 60 years. The best you can do for such folk is to speak the truth about what the Quran teaches. The simple fact of the matter is that there is no earthly punishment for apostasy in the Quran, and no evidence that the Prophet (saw) ever applied such punishment. Our duty - as Muslims - is to speak the truth....even if - as appears in your case - we don't like it. How folk react to the truth is for them.
    – Grandad
    Aug 5, 2023 at 13:55