24th September 2023
Sarmad Naveed, Canada
Recently, the famous PBD Podcast hosted a discussion between Christians and Muslims to exchange views and discuss the different perspectives of their respective religions.
During the the discussion which lasted more than two hours, the Christian side levelled many accusations and false allegations against the religion of Islam. It was interesting to note that many of these allegations seemed to stem not from the Islamic corpus, but from the erroneous interpretation of Islamic teachings by certain Muslims.
It’s sad because these erroneous interpretations were effectively on display during this very podcast.
One of the first points of discussion was surrounding apostasy and whether Islam sanctions the death penalty for apostasy. Whereas a Christian may raise this allegation due to their ineptitude in understanding Islam, it was truly saddening to see the gentlemen who were supposed to be representing Islam, double down in the assertion that Islamic law does indeed sanction the death penalty for apostasy. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Suffice it to say, the true Islam was not represented on this podcast.
What is the Actual Islamic Law Regarding Apostasy?
If not the death penalty, then what is the punishment for apostasy according to Islam?
It may come as a shock to some…but there is no worldly punishment for apostasy in Islam.
How could there be, when the Holy Qur’an very clearly sets the standard that, ‘There should be no compulsion in religion’. (The Holy Qur’an, 2:257). In fact, compulsion in matters of religion is attributed in the Qur’an to enemies of religion, like the Pharaoh threatening to kill those who followed the religion of Moses (as) instead of him. (The Holy Qur’an 20:72)
How could anyone be compelled in faith, when God Himself has not compelled anyone, as He states: ‘And say, “It is the truth from your Lord; wherefore let him who will, believe, and let him who will, disbelieve.”’ (The Holy Qur’an, 18:30)
It would be quite nonsensical to present the provision of not believing if one so chooses, but then enforce a punishment for leaving the faith.
Some raise the allegation – as Robert Spencer did in the podcast – that the following verse of the Holy Qur’an instructs the killing of apostates:
‘They wish that you should disbelieve as they have disbelieved, so that you may become all alike. Take not, therefore, friends from among them, until they migrate in the way of Allah. And if they turn away, then sieze them and kill them wherever you find them; and take no friend or helper from among them.’ (The Holy Qur’an, 4:90)
This verse discusses the hypocrites who apparently professed faith but fraternised with the enemies of faith. However, as the Holy Qur’an itself supports in chapter 2 verse 62, given the context, the Arabic اقْتُلُوْھُمْ which has been translated as ‘kill them’ can also mean ‘boycott them’. This is made evident by the proceeding words ‘and take no friend or helper from among them.’ How could a friend or helper be taken from people who have supposedly already been killed?
Furthermore, God states that just as one has the freedom to leave the faith, they are free to return to the faith as well:
‘Those who believe, then disbelieve, then again believe, then disbelieve, and then increase in their disbelief, Allah will never forgive them nor will He guide them to the way.’ (The Holy Qur’an, 4:138)
How could Islamic law dictate that an apostate must be killed, when God, the very source of the Islamic law, has clearly stated that it is possible for a person to revert back to faith after becoming apostate?
The above verse and many others in the Holy Qur’an have clearly addressed the matter of apostacy, yet none have stated the death penalty as a consequence, but all have indicated that it is a matter which will be taken up by God Himself in the hereafter (eg. the Holy Qur’an, 16:107-110, 47:26)
When the source of Islam has clearly refuted any sort of worldly punishment, let alone death, for apostacy, then there is no basis to claim that Islamic law adjudicates death for apostacy.
This is further demonstrated through the example of the founder of Islam, and the greatest advocate of Islamic law, the Holy Prophet (sa). The same Holy Prophet (sa) whose duty was never to compel people to accept Islam, rather he was entrusted by God to convey the message. (The Holy Qur’an 10:109).
It is recorded by Imam Tabari that after the spiritual night journey of the Holy Prophet (sa) from Makkah to Jerusalem, there were some who did not believe him and abandoned him and the faith. Yet, there was no action taken against them.
There was the Treaty of Hudaibiyyah, an agreement between the Holy Prophet (sa) and the Quraish of Makkah, in which it was agreed that if a Muslim were to leave and go to the polytheists they would not be returned. Had the punishment for apostacy been death, the Holy Prophet (sa) would have never agreed to this condition.
Then, there was a Bedouin man who fell ill after accepting Islam, and thinking it was because he had accepted Islam, he decided to abandon the faith and leave Madinah, yet the Holy Prophet (sa) took no action against him.
There are some who cite a tradition of the Holy Prophet (sa) stating to kill apostates, to prove their stance of Islam enforcing the death penalty for apostacy. However, they must remember, context is crucial.
Foremost, when studying the traditions and sayings of the Holy Prophet (sa), the primary litmus test of understanding their meanings is the Holy Qur’an. The meanings of authentic traditions can never contradict the Holy Qur’an.
Hence, punitive action was never taken against someone simply on the basis of apostasy. In fact, these statements of the Holy Prophet (sa) were made at times of war, when people some not only became apostates, but actively rebelled and endeavoured to kill Muslims. It was only in these defensive wars, which were primarily to protect religious freedom, that any such action was taken. Certainly, no objection can be raised to defending against those who actively attacked not only Muslims, but religion altogether.
So, to the Christians, Muslims, or anyone else under the illusion that Islam warrants the death penalty for apostasy, let it be known that the Holy Qur’an, the practice of the Holy Prophet (sa), and the sayings of the Holy Prophet (sa) all prove unequivocally, that according to Islam, there is not death penalty for apostasy.
For an in-depth analysis, read: No Capital Punishment for Apostasy in Islam
About the Author: Sarmad Naveed is an Imam of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community who graduated from the Ahmadiyya Institute for Languages and Theology in Canada. He serves as Online Editor and is on the Editorial Board for The Review of Religions, and also coordinates the Facts from Fiction section. He has also appeared as a panelist and host of programmes on Muslim Television Ahmadiyya (MTA) such as ‘Ahmadiyyat: Roots to Branches.’
 Ibn Jarir al-Tabari Tafsir Jami’ al- Bayan, under 17:60
 Sahih al-Bukhari, Hadith 7216
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