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).
‘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?