Asif Munir, Missionary New Zealand and Jazib Mehmood, Student Jamia Ahmadiyya International Ghana
During a recent episode of the popular PBD Podcast, which featured a debate between Christians and Muslims, the topic of punishment for apostasy in Islam was brought up by a Christian convert to Islam. Surprisingly, the two Muslim participants, who one might expect to be staunch defenders of their faith, appeared to align with the Christian’s perspective, openly and unequivocally endorsing the concept of the death penalty as a punishment for apostasy within Islamic law. (Watch the full discussion here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=VzjoHtYN05k)
The Muslims involved in the discussion seemed to assert – rather disconcertingly – that apostates deserved capital punishment, a sentiment they reiterated proudly throughout the debate. This position, which they championed, has since stirred considerable controversy, both within and beyond their faith community.
It is baffling to witness this idea amongst such Muslims living in the West, where they enjoy absolute religious freedom and rights, which the Holy Quran also affords, yet assert that leaving Islam in an “Islamic country” would result in immediate death.
Unfortunately, such views are not isolated. On 2 March 2023, Rotana Khalijiya TV in Saudi Arabia aired a show in which Saudi Islamic scholars discussed the Islamic punishment for apostasy.
During the discussion, Abd Al-Rahman Abd Al-Karim from the Saudi Fiqh Association insisted, despite opposition from a fellow guest and Islamic scholar, that the Quran prescribes the death penalty for apostates, and affirmed that there was a “consensus” amongst Islamic jurisprudents on the subject. (www.memri.org/reports/saudi-islamic-scholar-ahmed-al-ghamdi-tv-debate-islam-does-not-sanction-killing-apostates)
Does the Holy Quran support any punishment for apostasy?
In the recent podcast by PBD, not a single verse was presented to show that apostates deserve to be killed – nor will they find such a verse. In fact, we find numerous verses that present the contrary. Here, for the sake of brevity, we shall only discuss a few fundamental verses.
The following verse is fundamental to understanding the Quranic perspective on apostasy. Allah the Almighty states:
إِنَّ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا ثُمَّ كَفَرُوا ثُمَّ آمَنُوا ثُمَّ كَفَرُوا ثُمَّ ازْدَادُوا كُفْرًا لَمْ يَكُنِ اللَّهُ لِيَغْفِرَ لَهُمْ وَلَا لِيَهْدِيَهُمْ سَبِيلًا
“Those who believe, then disbelieve, then again believe, then disbelieve, and then increase in disbelief, Allah will never forgive them nor will He guide them to the way.” (Surah An-Nisa’, Ch.4:V.138)
It is abundantly clear that if an apostate is killed after his declaration of disbelief, he cannot revert to belief. Therefore, even after repeated acts of apostasy, the door of repentance remains open. That door is closed only when, after apostatizing, an apostate goes on “increasing in disbelief,” as the verse clearly puts it. Even then, Allah the Almighty does not grant any human the power to punish such a person.
This is not the only verse that rejects a punishment for apostasy. For example, the Holy Quran states:
وَمَنْ يَرْتَدِدْ مِنْكُمْ عَنْ دِينِهِ فَيَمُتْ وَهُوَ كَافِرٌ فَأُولَئِكَ حَبِطَتْ أَعْمَالُهُمْ فِي الدُّنْيَا وَالْآخِرَةِ وَأُولَئِكَ أَصْحَابُ النَّارِ هُمْ فِيهَا خَالِدُونَ
“And whoso from amongst you turns back from his faith and dies while he is a disbeliever, it is they whose works shall be vain in this world and the next. These are the inmates of the Fire and therein shall they abide.” (Surah al-Baqarah, Ch.2: V.218)
This verse addresses the fate of apostates both in this world and in the hereafter. It unequivocally states that those who die in a state of disbelief will indeed face severe consequences in the hereafter. Yet, the verse does not advocate for any death penalty for apostasy. It emphasises that only God Almighty possesses the authority to judge and punish apostates, reaffirming the principle that the power of retribution lies solely with Him.
If someone who does not adequately understand Islam decides to leave it, how can any man judge him for reverting to his previous religion? The matter of faith, belief and disbelief is such that Islam does not allow any human to declare someone a believer or a disbeliever, and those who end up leaving Islam are also not allowed to take any action to oppose them in any way.
Again, another detailed verse reads:
إِذَا جَاءكَ الْمُنَافِقُونَ قَالُوا نَشْهَدُ إِنَّكَ لَرَسُولُ اللَّهِ وَاللَّهُ يَعْلَمُ إِنَّكَ لَرَسُولُهُ وَاللَّهُ يَشْهَدُ إِنَّ الْمُنَافِقِينَ لَكَاذِبُونَ اتَّخَذُوا أَيْمَانَهُمْ جُنَّةً فَصَدُّوا عَن سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ إِنَّهُمْ سَاء مَا كَانُوا يَعْمَلُونَ ذَلِكَ بِأَنَّهُمْ آمَنُوا ثُمَّ كَفَرُوا فَطُبِعَ عَلَى قُلُوبِهِمْ فَهُمْ لَا يَفْقَهُونَ
“When the hypocrites come to thee, they say, ‘We bear witness that thou art indeed the Messenger of Allah.’ And Allah knows that thou art indeed His Messenger, but Allah bears witness that the hypocrites are surely liars. They have made their oaths a shield; thus they turn men away from the way of Allah. Evil surely is that which they have been doing. That is because they first believed, then disbelieved. So a seal was set upon their hearts and consequently they understand not.” (Surah al-Munafiqun, Ch.63:V.2-4)
These verses address such hypocrites, who first accepted Islam but then disbelieved and tried to hinder others from converting. The Holy Prophetsa and the companions knew who these disbelievers were because, two verses later, we read:
“And when it is said to them, ‘Come, that the Messenger of Allah may ask forgiveness for you,’ they turn their heads aside, and thou seest them keeping back while they are full of pride.”
This illustrates that Holy Prophetsa and his Companions were aware of certain individuals reverting to disbelief. However, their response was not to execute them. Instead, these individuals were offered an opportunity for redemption, as they were invited to repent and seek forgiveness from the Holy Prophetsa.
The emphasis here is not on the Holy Prophetsa taking their lives, rather, it’s an invitation for them to amend their ways. It’s noteworthy that despite these apostates actively discouraging others from embracing Islam and displaying arrogance, the Holy Prophet did not advocate for their execution.
Furthermore, when we examine the Holy Quran, we find that it addresses those who disbelieve after having believed, and notably, there is no mention of the death penalty for apostasy in this context. In fact, Allah states: “except those who repent and thereafter and amend […]” which clearly shows apostates do not get killed after leaving Islam, rather, the doors are always open for them to re-enter the fold of Islam. (Surah Aal-e –ʿImran, Ch.3: V.87-90)
Similarly, in Surah Al-Baqarah, Ch.2: V.257, the Quran states there should be “no compulsion in religion”:
لاَ إِكْرَاهَ فِي الدِّينِ
In yet another verse, Allah clearly states, “wherefore let him who will, believe, and let him who will, disbelieve.” (Surah Al-Kahf, Ch.18: V.30)
Nowhere in the Quran is there any prescribed punishment in this life for apostasy, as religion is fundamentally a personal matter between individuals and God. People have the freedom to believe in any religion and to change their beliefs without facing any punishment from fellow humans. Their accountability for their beliefs rests solely with God.
An example of the Holy Prophetsa from early Islam
After verses of the Holy Quran, let us take a brief look at what the blessed model of the Holy Prophetsa has said regarding hypocrites and apostates.
The following incident mentioned in a hadith of Sahih al-Bukhari definitively resolves the matter that, according to the shariah, there is no punishment for an apostate for simply abandoning their faith.
Once, a bedouin came to the Holy Prophetsa and accepted Islam by pledging allegiance. The next day in Medina, the Bedouin developed a fever. Thrice, he came to the Holy Prophetsa and said to take back his pledge.
Each time, the Holy Prophetsa ignored his request. Then the bedouin left Medina. Upon hearing that he had left the city, the Holy Prophetsa merely stated: “Medina is like a furnace – it expels impurities and leaves behind the pure.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab fazaili l-madinah, Bab al-madinatu tanfi l-khabatha, Hadith 1883)
The absence of a specified punishment for apostasy during that time is evident from the bedouin’s actions. He repeatedly sought the Holy Prophet’s counsel, which suggests he did not fear a predetermined penalty for leaving Islam. If Islamic law dictated death as the punishment for apostasy, the bedouin might have clandestinely renounced his faith to avoid detection.
One might wonder why the Holy Prophetsa did not caution this individual about the supposed consequences of apostasy. If death were indeed the prescribed penalty, logic would dictate that he should have been warned. The Prophetsa could have instructed his companions to apprehend the individual, ensuring that he faced the death penalty. However, notably, the Holy Prophetsa refrained from taking such measures. On the contrary, his words were to the effect that “it is better that he has left as he was not worthy enough to remain amongst the Muslims; God Almighty has removed him from us by His own Hand.”
Thus, the example of this bedouin is categorical proof that there is no punishment in Islam for an apostate, and there was no such practice amongst the Muslims that they would kill apostates simply on the basis of them abandoning their faith. (Qatl-e-Murtad awr Islam, Maulvi Sher Alira, pp. 109-111, 1925)
Aside from this, there are many other incidents that make it clear that during the lifetime of the Holy Prophetsa, a few people became apostates, but they were never punished owing to their apostasy, and it was only in the case that they rebelled and were guilty of waging war.
A logical fallacy
Hazrat Mirza Bashirudin Mahmud Ahmadra has elaborated on this issue in light of another verse of the Holy Quran, which states:
وَمَا عَلَى الرَّسُولِ إِلَّا الْبَلَاغُ الْمُبِينُ
“And the Messenger is not responsible but for the plain delivery of the Message.” (Surah al-Nur, Ch.24: V.55)
Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmadra states:
“This is the summary of the entire Quran in that religious people use the power of their argument to convince others and not through compulsion. It is a pity that up till now the world has failed to understand this point, and even amongst the Muslims, death as the punishment for apostasy is considered lawful.”
He continues to write that regardless of which religion is right or wrong, the adherent of every faith considers his faith to be true. Therefore, if it is deemed lawful for one to take someone’s life simply on the basis of considering their faith to be true and the other’s false, then why can a Christian not kill another Muslim or why does a Hindu not have the right to compel others to adopt the Hindu faith or else they will kill them?
He writes, “Why does the USA not have the right to force the Muslims living in their country to accept Christianity? Why does Russia not have the right to force people to become Christians or communists? If Muslims have the right to force people to adopt the same faith as theirs, then, logically, others also have the right to do the same.
“However, could there be any peace in the world if such a right were established? By establishing this right, can anyone tell their sons or wives that this is a correct practice in that Christians have the right to force Muslims to become Christians? Likewise, the Muslims have the right to force the Christians to become Muslims; the people of Iran have the right to force the followers of the Hanafi school of thought to become Shia; and the Hanafis have the right to force everyone to become Sunni.
“Thus, this is such an illogical notion that no one can even accept it for a minute. Whenever the nations of the earlier prophets refused to accept divine guidance, God Almighty addressed them, stating:
أَنُلْزِمُكُمُوهَا وَأَنْتُمْ لَهَا كَارِهُونَ
“Meaning: ‘[if you do not wish to accept guidance] shall we force it upon you, while you are averse thereto?’ (Surah Hud, Ch.11: V.29) […]
“If the world were to understand this point, then most surely cruelty and injustices in both religious and political spheres will come to an end. People will neither forcefully impose their faith on others, nor will they try to impose their political agendas on other countries.” (Tafsir-e-Kabir, Vol. 7, pp. 606–607)
Although there is a plethora of proof in the corpus of primary and secondary sources of Islamic literature to prove that there is no punishment for apostasy in Islam, we cannot discuss all of them here. In any case, the few references discussed here are enough to remove all doubt regarding this subject.
For further reading, see The Truth about the Alleged Punishment for Apostasy in Islam by Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih IVrh: www.alislam.org/library/books/Apostasy-in-Islam.pdf