Asif Munir, Missionary New Zealand and Jazib Mehmood, Jamia Ahmadiyya International Ghana
We recently published an article addressing the allegation that Islam instructs Muslims to punish apostates by putting them to death. In response, Brother Rachid, one of the ex-Muslim, Christian guests on the PBD podcast, asked online which version of Islam people should follow; the one that the Muslim guests on the PBD podcast presented, or the Ahmadi Muslim viewpoint presented by us.
Our answer is simple. We presented the teachings of Islam from the fundamental sources: the Holy Quran and the practice of the Holy Prophetsa. We even showed why believing apostates should be punished with death was a logical fallacy. We did not hide the fact that many Muslims today are misguided in their belief that apostates should be tried and killed for their ‘crime’.
In this article, we will address many of the allegations raised by Rachid Hammami and Robert Spencer against Islam and Prophet Muhammadsa, and show how shallow their understanding of Islam really is.
Christianity and apostasy
The Christians on the podcast were quick to disown the Old Testament and its harsh commandments for apostates and other guilty people, citing the fact that the New Testament and Jesus came to cancel out those laws and that Jesus was a peaceful preacher.
However, the New Testament records Jesusas stating:
“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.” (The Holy Bible KJV, Matthew 23:17)
In any case, it is still pertinent to discuss a few excerpts from both the Old Testament and the New for the benefit of our readers. In Deuteronomy 13:6-12, we read:
“If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying, “let us go and serve other gods,” which neither you nor your fathers have known, some of the gods or the peoples who are around you, whether near you or far off from you, from one end of the earth to the other, you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. But you shall kill him. Your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people.
“You shall stone him to death with stones, because he sought to draw you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. And all Israel shall hear and fear and never again do any such wickedness as this among you.”
Similarly, we read:
“And they entered into a covenant to seek the Lord God of their fathers with all their heart and with all their soul; that whosoever would not seek the Lord God of Israel should be put to death, whether small or great, whether man or woman.” (The Holy Bible KJV, 2 Chronicles 15:13)
In Christian tradition, apostates were to be shunned by other members of the church. Titus 3:10 indicates that an apostate or heretic needs to be “rejected after the first and second admonition.” Hebrews 6:4-6 affirms the impossibility of those who have fallen away “to be brought back to repentance.”
As Christians claim that the Bible is their primary source of guidance, perhaps that is why we read in the Catholic Encyclopedia that:
“When the Roman Empire became Christian, apostates were punished by deprivation of all civil rights. They could not give evidence in a court of law, and could neither bequeath nor inherit property. To induce anyone to apostatize was an offence punishable with death.”
The entry “Apostasy” further goes on to state that in the Middle Ages, both civil and canon law classed apostates with heretics. Pope Boniface VIII, head of the Catholic Church from 1294-1303, classed apostates with heretics in respect of the penalties which they incurred. This decretal, which only mentions apostate Jews by name, was applied indifferently to all.
“The Spanish Inquisition was directed, at the end of the fifteenth century, chiefly against apostates, the Maranos, or new Christians, Jews converted by force rather than by conviction; while in 1609 it dealt severely with the Moriscos, or professedly-converted Moors of Spain.” (The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 624-625  New York: Robert Appleton Company under “Apostasy”)
From another source, we read:
“Medieval Christians believed that the first apostates were fallen angels. According to the influential theologian Hostiensis (c. 1250), there were three forms of apostasy.
“The first was converting to another faith and was considered traitorous and worse than never having been Christian in the first place; it could bring confiscation of property and even the death penalty.
“The second form of apostasy was breaking major commandments (such as ‘you shall not kill’), and the third form was the breaking of holy vows for those who had taken religious orders. Culprits were expelled from home and imprisoned.” (The Middle Ages Unlocked: A Guide to Life in Medieval England 1050-1300 by Gillian Polack and Katrin Kania, p. 112)
We could make statements based on facts, but it is far more effective to directly quote what others have written, to prevent bias. In New World Encyclopedia, we read:
“Many of the early martyrs died for their faith rather than apostasizing, but others gave in to the persecutors and offered sacrifice to the Roman gods. It is difficult to know how many quietly returned to pagan beliefs or to Judaism during the first centuries of Christian history.
“For more than a millennium after Julian’s [Emperor Julianus II (331-363 C.E.)—known to history as Julian the Apostate for his policy of divorcing the Roman state from its recent union with the Christian Church] death, Christian states used the power of the sword to protect the Church against apostasy and heresy. Apostates were deprived of their civil as well as their religious rights. Torture was freely employed to extract confessions and to encourage recantations. Apostates and schismatics were not only excommunicated from the Church but persecuted by the state.” (Apostasy, (2023, August 11), New World Encyclopedia. Retrieved September 25, 2023, www.newworldencyclopedia.org/p/index.php?title=Apostasy&oldid=1119829)
Islamic stance regarding Jesusas
Having described what Christianity teaches concerning apostates, it is once again necessary to quote what Brother Rachid stated just a few days ago. He states that when Muslims “fail to defend” the “law” concerning apostasy, they tend to attack Christians and point out that they too have such laws (as we admittedly just did).
He challenges Muslims to produce any instance where Jesusas killed an apostate, or ordered the killing of an apostate. Drawing a comparison between Jesus and Prophet Muhammadsa, he writes:
“However they fail to prove that Jesus killed anybody for apostasy nor His disciples; even Judas who betrayed Jesus He didn’t order His disciples to kill him. Mohamed ordered the apostate to be killed and his companions carried it. The difference is clear but they keep spinning it.” (See the full post on X here: https://x.com/BrotherRasheed/status/1706074855286689882)
We would like to directly address his claim. We provided all these aforementioned references to prove to our readers that Christianity has traditionally been harsh in its dealings with apostates. We do not suggest even for a moment that Jesusas, who we believe to be a prophet of God and therefore worthy of enormous respect, killed apostates, or even ordered the killing of apostates.
As we stated in our previous piece, Allah the Almighty affirms in the Holy Quran that no prophet ever did such a thing.
However, it is worth pointing out that Christians believe him to be co-equal with God by attaching divinity to him. This inadvertently means that it was the same “God”, i.e., Jesus, who revealed the harsh commandments in the Old Testament.
Brother Rachid, whose clarity apparently did not fail him when it came to Jesusas, seems to have failed him when it comes to the Holy Prophetsa. The “apostate” he is referring to in his post is Ka‘b bin Ashraf; we know this for a fact because he stated it in the PBD podcast. (See timestamp 36:45 at www.youtube.com/watch?v=VzjoHtYN05k)
Which account do we believe?
Let us delve into this allegation, and see where the truth resides. In describing the events surrounding the killing of Ka‘b bin Ashraf, it is important to remember that many conflicting narratives must be reconciled.
Thus, in 2020, the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society published a detailed paper on this issue and critically analysed different accounts of the assassination. The author states:
“Aside from the conflicting scholarly opinion as to the authenticity of some details of the story, and the inconsistent chronological indications in the source material with which previous studies took issue, the contemporary scholarship does not seem to have thrown serious doubt on the historicity of the assassination of Ka‘b b. al-Ashraf.
“However, there still seem to be some contradictory elements and vague accounts that have been, either utterly ignored, or for which a satisfactory explanation is lacking. To begin with, the exact nature of the assassins’ relationship with their victim is shrouded in obscurity and controversy.” (The Murder of the Jewish Chieftain Ka‘b b. al-Ashraf: A Re-Examination by Ehsan Roohi, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Series 3, 2020, p. 2)
Therefore, instead of reanalysing the issue ourselves by citing the entire body of work done by various venerated Islamic scholars, we refer our readers to the aforementioned research paper to merely demonstrate just how most narratives concerning this issue are muddled.
A very detailed and comprehensive research done on this issue discusses how various Islamic texts have presented this issue, and delivers a reasonable account of what really occurred with complete citations. This research was conducted by Hazrat Mirza Bashir Ahmadra, the son of the Promised Messiahas who wrote a biography of the Holy Prophetsa, published in English under the title: The Life & Character of the Seal of Prophets.
The reader is invited to delve into this treatise to better understand this matter, which is dealt with in brevity below. (For a full discussion on this subject and the Ahmadiyya point of view on this matter, please refer to The Life & Character of the Seal of Prophets, Vol. 2, pp. 297-311, available here: www.alislam.org/library/books/Seal-of-Prophets-Vol-2.pdf)
Who was Ka‘b bin Ashraf?
Ka‘b was not an apostate. He was Jewish by religion, not by descent. Rather, he was an Arab. His father exerted great influence within the Medinite Jewish tribe of Banu Nadir. As a result, he married the daughter of the head chief of the Banu Nadir, from whom Ka‘b bin Ashraf was born. Since the Jewish faith is generally inherited matriarchally, Ka‘b is commonly recognized as Jewish.
Ka‘b came to attain an even greater status than his father, such that all the Jews of Arabia began to accept him as their chief. In addition to being a well-built and attractive man, Ka‘b was also an eloquent poet and a very wealthy man.
Through generous spending, he would always keep the scholars and other influential personalities of his nation under his own control. This is a notable point.
When the Holy Prophetsa migrated to Medina, it is reported that despite participating in the treaty which the Holy Prophetsa drafted between the Jews with regard to mutual friendship, peace and security, Ka‘b would use his money to control the prevailing opinion of the scholars against the truthfulness of the Holy Prophetsa.
This he would do by withholding their regular stipends until they professed their disbelief that the Holy Prophetsa was the same prophet prophesied in their scriptures. (Sharh al-Mawahib al-Ladunniyyah (Arabic) by Muhammad al-Zurqani (1996), Vol. 2, p. 368)
His treason grows
However, up until this time, i.e., prior to the Battle of Badr, Ka‘b thought this religious zeal was a temporary one, and that the message of Islam would die down. However, when the Muslims were granted an extraordinary victory on the occasion of Badr, and most of the chieftains of the Quraish were slain, he began seeing matters differently.
Hence, after Badr, he resolved to exert his best efforts to abolish and utterly destroy Islam. The first expression of his heartfelt rancour and jealousy was at the occasion when news of the victory of Badr reached Medina. Upon hearing this news, from the outset, Ka‘b said the news seemed to be false. This was because, according to him, it was impossible for Muhammad[sa] to triumph over such a large army of the Quraish, and for such renowned chieftains of Mecca to be mixed to dust; if the news was true, then death was better than such a life. (The History of al-Tabari (1987), Vol. 7, p. 94)
When this news had been confirmed, Ka‘b was filled with anger and rage. This is apparent since it is reported that he immediately prepared for the journey and took to Mecca, and upon reaching there, by the power of his persuasive speech and poetic tongue, inflamed the fire that was kindling in the hearts of the Quraish.
He filled their hearts with sentiments of revenge and enmity. Then, when their emotions had become immensely sparked as a result of his incitement, Ka‘b took them to the courtyard of the Ka‘bah, and handing them the drapes of the Ka‘bah, had them swear that they would not rest until Islam and the Prophetsa had been wiped out from the face of the earth. The Arabic words are:
فَحَالَفَهُمْ عِنْدَ أَسْتَارِ الْكَعْبَةِ عَلَى قِتَالِ الْمُسْلِمِينَ
It literally means that “he took their oaths by the curtains of the Ka‘ba that they would kill the Muslims.” (Fathul-Bari by Ibn-e-Hijr (1959), Vol. 7, p. 337)
After creating this fiery atmosphere in Mecca, he turned to the other tribes of Arabia. Travelling tribe to tribe, he incited people against the Muslims. Then, he returned to Medina and whilst composing tashbib [evocative poetry], he alluded to the Muslim women in a very filthy and obscene manner in his provocative couplets.
In doing so, he did not even spare the women from the household of the Holy Prophetsa in his amorous couplets and had these couplets widely publicised throughout the country. We wish to make this matter clear to readers that these verses are so sickening that they cannot be repeated here.
It is also important to bear in mind that Ka‘b bin Ashraf’s poetry, with its blatant derogation of Muslim women, served not merely as personal insult but aimed to diminish the wider Muslim community’s reputation. His verses, crafted to manipulate public opinion, risked portraying Muslims as unworthy of any respect and rendering their societal rights and covenants void. Such denigration, especially in the politically charged environment of the time, could easily embolden acts of violence and war against Muslims. Thus, it was not just poetry but an insidious call to violence. Otherwise, the Holy Prophetsa did not punish individuals for personal insults, as is evident from the case of Abdullah ibn Ubayy ibn Salul.
At this juncture, it is also important to remind the reader that the Holy Prophetsa was the Head of the State of Medina. Even today, insulting a head of state (or in some cases, members of the Royal Family), can land you in prison or cost you a fortune in fines in 13 European countries alone. (www.politico.eu/article/european-countries-where-insulting-head-of-state-can-land-prison-belgium-denmark-france-germany/)
Someone might object that although there might be laws against insulting a head of state, none of them involve killing the convicted person. To answer this, we need to look no further than the condition of Europe during the later Middle Ages. During this time, the sort of laws that governed most of Europe were so severe that one wonders how people could object to the killing of Ka‘b, which was done with great justice.
For example, in France in the 1500s and 1600s, torture was freely employed to elicit confessions for crimes like treason and rebellion. Almost without exception, the depositions of witnesses were hidden from the accused.
If torture failed to elicit a confession, and if witnesses failed to convict him, the accused could “be imprisoned for a long time and by ‘exclamasse,’ [meaning proclamation by public hue and cry] to ascertain if any [evidence] will appear against him.” (The Continental Legal History Series, Vol. 5, A History of Continental Criminal Procedure by A. Esmein [Boston, 1913], p. 128)
As such, one eye-opening reference is shared with the readers below:
“In England, conspirators were held equally guilty with those who committed overt treasonable acts. He who had knowledge of any traitorous design was expected to reveal it immediately, on pain of sharing in the guilt. The punishment meted out to traitors was more severe than that inflicted on other convicted criminals.
“In France, they might be flayed alive or hanged and quartered, first being dragged, as in England, to execution at the horse’s tail. All their goods were generally forfeited, usually to the king, and their fiefs went to their feudal lords.
“Punishment did not necessarily cease with the traitor’s death and the forfeiture of his possessions. His children might also lose their lives. The argument was that the crime of treason was so horrible that the traitor’s offspring were contaminated by his misdeed and ought to be destroyed with him. If in fact the lives of the children were spared they might still suffer civil death.
“The severity of the punishment was only moderated in regard to daughters: they were supposed to be allowed a quarter of the property of their mother. Some details of emphasis were slightly different, but in general, the punishment of traitors, like the scope of high treason, was similar all over Europe at this time.” (The Law of Treason in England in the Later Middle Ages by J. G. Bellamy [Cambridge University Press, 1970), p. 13)
Why did the Muslims kill him secretly?
Thus, when the state of affairs escalated to such an extent, and charges of infraction of treaty, rebellion, inciting war, sedition, use of foul language and conspiracy to assassinate the Holy Prophetsa had been established, he issued the verdict that Ka‘b bin Ashraf was liable to be put to death due to his actions. The Holy Prophetsa, therefore, instructed some of his Companions to execute him.
However, because of Ka‘b, the atmosphere of Medina at the time was such that if a formal announcement had been made before his execution, there was a possibility that civil war may have erupted in Medina.
If a civil war had erupted, Medina would be in a dangerously vulnerable position from the Meccans, who had already sworn revenge for the Muslim victory at the battle of Badr. Due to the inflammatory actions of Ka‘b, the tribes surrounding Medina were also hostile to the Muslims at the time. There was no telling how much massacre and carnage would have ensued as a result.
The notable reaction of the Jewish people
It is also interesting to observe the reaction the Jews had to the killing of Ka‘b. Naturally, they were deeply enraged. The next morning, they sent a delegation to the Holy Prophetsa, and submitted to him that Ka‘b had been killed.
The Holy Prophetsa did not deny their statement, nor did he profess ignorance on the matter. Instead, he reminded them of the criminal activities of Ka‘b, which made it apparent that he was indeed liable to be killed. The delegation had no reply to this, for the list of crimes of their leader was rather long. The Arabic words of the narration are:
فَخَافُوا فَلَمْ يَنْطِقُوا
Meaning, “They became fearful, and did not speak.” (Fathul-Bari by Ibn-e-Hijr (1959), Vol. 7, p. 340)
Upon this, the Muslims and the Jews came to an agreement and renewed their treaty with the Holy Prophetsa. (Sunan Abi Dawud, Kitab Al-Kharaj, Wal-Fai’ Wal-Imarah, Hadith 3000)
It must be apparent to the reader at this time that if the Holy Prophetsa had been wrong to have Ka‘b killed, the Jews would not have exhibited such a tame reaction.
An important clarification by Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmadaa
Hazrat Khalifatul Masih Vaa, the current head of the worldwide Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, narrated this incident in great detail in his Friday Sermon on 20 July 2018, and concluded with this necessary clarification:
“However, it should also be made clear that nowadays, extremists and governments misinterpret such incidents and believe that it is justified to execute people in this manner.
“First of all, disorder is not being spread in the manner it was being done then. Those people who are executed, are not among those who spread disorder.
“Secondly, on that occasion, it was only the criminal who was punished, not his family or anyone else. When these people carry out executions, they kill innocent people, women and children, leaving many others handicapped and disabled.
“Nevertheless, according to the rules and laws of today, this is not permissible. However, this form of punishment was applicable and compulsory at that time and it was prescribed by the government.” (Al Hakam 17 August 2018, Issue 22, p. 10)
Raihana allegation and other recycled claims
A vile and completely fabricated allegation of rape was raised by Rachid against the Holy Prophetsa regarding a woman named Raihana. Various historians have mentioned that among the prisoners of Banu Quraizah, there was a lady named Raihana. Notably, even Sir William Muir, who has expressed negative views about the Holy Prophetsa in his writings, references Raihana in his book. However, it’s important to clarify that Muir did not make any allegations of physical coercion or force regarding the Holy Prophet’ssa relationship with Raihana.
Some historical accounts suggest that Raihana was captured as a slave during that time and that the Holy Prophetsa freed her and married her. However, what sets apart the Holy Prophet’ssa conduct is his compassionate and kind treatment of her. He emancipated Raihana, an act of generosity and empathy. Subsequently, she chose to leave Madinah and return to her parents, a fact mentioned by Ibn Hajr in his records. (Al-Isabah fi Tamizis-Sahabah, Vol. 8, pp. 146-147)
It is worth noting that while there are historical accounts that suggest the Holy Prophetsa freed and then married Raihana, there is a significant degree of ambiguity and contradiction surrounding her name, genealogy, and tribe in various historical records. (Sharhul-Allamatiz-Zarqani Alal-Mawahibil-Ladunniyah by Shihabuddin Al-Qustalani, Vol. 3, p. 88)
This uncertainty can raise questions about whether she existed or not, in the context of the well-documented life of the Holy Prophetsa.
The Holy Prophet Muhammadsa is one of the most well-documented historical figures in the world. His Companions memorised and preserved every detail about him such as his actions and his sayings. This commitment to preserving history is demonstrated by the second Khalifa, Hazrat Umarra, who initiated the Hijri calendar to ensure that all the significant dates and events in the life of the Holy Prophetsa were accurately remembered and commemorated.
In light of this rigorous historical documentation, Rachid’s severe allegations against our Prophetsa appear not only absurd but also lacking in credibility and honesty. It is important to critically assess the sources and evidence when discussing such sensitive matters involving the life of the Holy Prophet’ssa, rather than making such statements which stem from pure emotion.
In fact, many of the allegations raised by Rachid are not new but rather recycled claims. From these are the marriage to Hazrat Safiyyara, and the age of Hazrat Aishara at the time of her marriage. These allegations have been examined and academically refuted. I encourage you to read these articles for a better understanding of these topics:
Marriage of Hazrat Safiyyara: www.alhakam.org/islam-today-did-prophet-muhammad-force-safiyya-bint-huyayy-into-marriage-after-killing-her-father/
Age of Hazrat Aishara: www.alhakam.org/age-of-hazrat-aisha/
The state of Muslims today
It is indeed a pitiable state of Muslims today that they harbour delusions about the alleged punishment for apostates in Islam. Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmadrh was the fourth head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. In 1986, he delivered an incredibly detailed address titled The Truth about the Alleged Punishment for Apostasy in Islam, which was later published as a book.
We would like to end with an excerpt from this magnificent treatise in defence of Islam. He states:
“Today even the Christians say with reference to their historical past that if they had killed their fellow Christians mercilessly for the crime of apostasy then they have greatly wronged themselves and are now embarrassed to note that history.
“They say that their heads hang in shame reading the history of the Spanish Inquisition or the details of the punishments meted out in England for apostasy and say that they now renounce all that. Similarly, various other faiths that once held this belief, have now relinquished it.
“What a warped scenario is this that today among those who claim death penalty to be the punishment of apostasy, are none other than those who are associated with the Holy Prophetsa. Can a scenario more agonizing than this be imagined?” (The Truth about the Alleged Punishment for Apostasy in Islam, pp. 170-171)