Killing the Apostate?- An In-Depth Look

It seems to be an accepted narrative among Muslims that the Apostate (Arabic: Murtad) must be killed. In Bangladesh, vigilantes have carried out a spate of public executions of people who have either left Islam or have chosen to criticise its tenets openly. Ananta Bijoy Das, Washiqur Rahman and Avijit Roy were all hacked to death with machetes in the streets for daring to oppose or leave the Islamic faith. A group calling itself the Defenders of Islam has published a hit list of bloggers, most of them secularists, and has taken responsibility for many acts of barbaric violence in Bangladesh. Organisations that cater for ex-Muslims claim that many ex-Muslims are forced to seek asylum in Western countries because they fear being tortured or even killed by their own families as well as the state.

Many Muslim scholars claim that Islam mandates the death penalty for apostasy; others go even further, calling for the death of anyone who insults or criticises our beloved Prophet Muhammad (May the peace and blessings of the Almighty be upon him). Yet there is no order to kill the apostate in the Quran. In fact, the contrary is true.:

“There is no compulsion in religion, for truth has been made clear from error.”
(Surah Al Baqarah 2:256)

The great exegist Imam At Tabari records that this verse may have been revealed when the two sons of a man called Abul Husayn were converted to Christianity by merchants, and had then left for Syria with these merchants. Their father asked for permission to chase and bring them back, but the blessed Propher responded:

“There is no compulsion in religion.”

The famous scholar Ibn Kathir commented on this verse, saying,

“Islam is not in need such that one should be compelled to enter it. Rather, the one whom God guides to Islam and expands his heart and illuminates his vision, he will enter it because of clear proofs. It is no use to enter the faith through force.”

The following verse is often, but incorrectly, used to justify the death penalty for apostasy:

The punishment for those who wage war against God and His Messenger and spread terror in the land is that they should be killed, or crucified, or their hands and feet cut off from opposite sides, or be exiled from the land. That is their disgrace in this world, and a great punishment awaits them in the Hereafter.”
(Surah Al Maida 5:33)

This verse needs to be studied in some depth. Firstly, the various options of punishment given are for the courts and judges to decide, not for armed vigilantes to roam the streets and hand out arbitrary punishments. In fact, the behaviour of vigilantes handing out capital punishment is in itself an act of terror.

Secondly, the punishment is not for apostasy per se but for spreading terror and fear in the land. Anyone who promotes sedition instead of loyalty, war instead of reconciliation, and violence instead of harmony, is a traitor and is a danger to the state. It is the right and the duty of the state to punish him as it deems fit.

Thirdly, the context of this verse is crucial. In pre-modern times, the identity of a person was not related to the land in which they lived but to the religion to which they belonged. The hostility that the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) encountered throughout his life was related directly to the fact that he had abandoned the gods and faith of his clan and tribe. A person’s religion was not simply an act of worship but also defined his loyalty in times of war. To abandon one’s religion could often lead to committing high treason, and so most cultures carried strict punishments for any act that endangered the safety of the community. In Britain, for example, the offence of high treason has included “aiding the sovereign’s enemies”. As it threatened the security of the state, high treason was usually punished by hanging, drawing and quartering.

The story of William Wallace, a Scottish knight who fought against English cruelty, has been immortalised into folklore, not least by Mel Gibson’s portrayal in ‘Braveheart’.  Wallace was captured and tried in Westminster in 1305 for a number of crimes, including murder and treason. It was decided that he should die a traitor’s death by being hanged, drawn and quartered. He was first strapped to a wooden hurdle and dragged through the streets of London until the procession reached Smithfield. He was hanged from the gallows, but was cut down while still alive. His body was then disembowelled, his head was chopped off and his body was cut into quarters. These quarters were then sent to Berwick, Newcastle upon Tyne, Sterling and Perth to show the people the price of treason against the state. His head was then placed on a spike above London Bridge.

The last treason trial in Britain was that of William Joyce, who was executed by hanging in 1946.

The constitution of the United States says that:

Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason and shall suffer death, or shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States.

Acts of terror that affect the security of the state are thus taken seriously by all cultures, religions and countries. The early Muslim state of Madina was a fledgling state that needed to be protected with vigour if Islam was to survive. The death penalty was thus imposed on those who left Islam as their allegiance would automatically transfer to the people of their faith. They would know military tactics and secrets that could destroy the young Muslim state.

Apostasy in itself is not an act leading to capital punishment. The Quran tells us in no uncertain terms:

“Indeed those who believe, then disbelieve, then believe again, then disbelieve again, and go on increasing in disbelief, Allah will not forgive them nor will He guide them on the right way.”

(Surah An Nisaa 4: 137)

If apostasy merited immediate death, then the apostate would not get the chance to keep switching from faith to disbelief. But God allows him the freedom to do so. Furthermore, the punishment that God ordains for such a person is that he will not receive God’s mercy and that he will remain misguided all his life.

Sahih al Bukhari contains an incident in which a bedouin came to the blessed Prophet to embrace Islam and offer the pledge of allegiance. The bedouin then became ill with fever and wanted to leave the city. He came to the Prophet three times asking to be freed from the pledge of allegiance, but the Prophet refused to do so. The bedouin finally left Madinah, at which the Prophet commented:

Madinah is like a furnace. It expels its impurities and brightens the air.”

The bedouin was clearly permitted to leave Madinah in peace, and no punishment was mandated for a clear act of apostasy.

Ubaydullah ibn Jahsh was an early Muslim who migrated to Abyssinia after much persecution from the enemies of Islam. In Abyssinia, he embraced Christianity, turned to drink and divorced his wife. However, he remained on friendly terms with his Arab kinsmen and was never punished for leaving the faith.

Although many traditional scholars of Islam have ruled that the death penalty is to be applied to the apostate, there are also many traditional scholars who have disagreed with this ruling. Ibrahim An Nakha’i and Sufyan At Thawri were leading jurists who argued that the apostate must not be punished but should be invited back to Islam for as long as is necessary.  The great Hanafi jurist Imam Shamsuddin As Sarakhsi wrote,

“The prescribed penalties are generally not suspended because of repentance, especially when they are reported and become known to the head of state. The punishment for highway robbery, for instance, is not suspended because of repentance; it is suspended only if the property is returned to the owner prior to arrest. Renunciation of the faith and conversion to disbelief is admittedly one of the greatest offenses, yet it is a matter between man and his Creator, and its punishment is postponed until the day of Judgement.”

The great Hanbali jurist Imam Ibn Taimiyya ruled that apostasy is a sin which carries no hadd punishment. Subhi Mahmassani wrote similarly,

“The death penalty was not meant to apply to a simple change of faith but to punish acts such as treason, joining forces with the enemy and sedition.”

In the modern age where most societies are multi-cultural and multi-religious, and in which citizenship is defined by country and not by faith, it is important that we listen to the voices that encourage freedom of belief. After all, it was for freedom of belief that the Prophet (peace be upon him) fought so hard all his life. And it is freedom of belief that Muslims in Europe are fighting for when we oppose restrictions on the hijab, the niqab, halal meat, minarets on mosques and so forth. We Muslims want the freedom to practice our faith without being criminalised for it. We should also welcome this freedom for those who wish to leave the faith. The loss is theirs, not ours.

And Allah knows Best.

By Ustadha Khola Hasan
October 2016.

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