April 2, 2006
Apostasy in the Quran, Traditions, and Islamic LawBy James Arlandson
In 2006 in Pakistan, Christians have been arrested for converting from Islam to Christianity.
In 2006 in Afghanistan, Abdul Rahman was prosecuted for converting from Islam to Christianity, a 'crime' that carries the death penalty. He has safely arrived in Italy, after his release on account of "mental illness."
As East and West meet through the worldwide web, we will hear more of such stories, and I fear even of Christian martyrs.
Apostates are those who leave a religion, in this case Islam, whether they become atheists or converts to another religion. What should happen to them according to the Quran, the traditions (or hadith), and later legal rulings? Have these modern clerics and judges strayed from original Islam?
This article exposes and analyzes the source of these anti—freedom of religion laws in Islam today.
It must be conceded that death for apostasy is not as prominent a theme in the Quran as one would expect. For instance, these verses condemn apostasy, but its punishment is reserved for divine judgment in the Last Day, or its punishment is not clearly stated as taking place down here on earth: Suras 2:217; 3:72, 86—87, 90; 4:137; 5:54; 16:106; 33:14; 73:11; and 74:11.
Further, according to the historical context of Sura 5:33, which commands mutilation and crucifixion for striving against Allah and Muhammad, some Arab tribesmen turned away from Islam, but they also murdered a shepherd and stole livestock. Thus, more than apostasy is in view here. Nonetheless, the hadith uses this context to justify death for apostates, as reviewed in this article.
Are there clear verses about execution down here on earth for apostasy alone? The next three passages are sufficient to justify this, in earliest Islam, the original community that Muhammad was founding.
(1) Sura 4 was revealed in Medina over a period of three years (AD 625—627). At this point some Muslims have not immigrated to Medina when the invitation had been given. A group of them, called the hypocrites, had embraced Islam with reservations. Sometimes they supported Muhammad from a geographical and religious distance, for example in saying prayers the Muslim way. At other times, they seemed to help the enemies of Islam (see Abul A'La Maududi, The Meaning of the Quran, vol. 1, pp. 361—62, notes 116—117).
In verses 88—89 Allah tells the prophet how to deal with these particular hypocrites.
We should note two facts from these verses. First, Allah himself made the hypocrites go astray, yet he orders them killed. Second, the Arabic verb qatala is used (root is q—t—l), and this word means exclusively to fight, kill, war, battle, or slaughter. Thus, there is no ambiguity about Muhammad's policy.
For the next two passages, we allow Sayyid Abul A'La Maududi (d. 1979), a traditional and respectful commentator of the Quran, to walk us through Islamic policy on apostasy, as revealed in the Quran (The Meaning of the Qur'an, vol. 2 of 6).
(2) Sura 9 is regarded as the last one to be revealed in its entirety, and Muhammad has a strong military. These verses continue Muhammad's policy of threatening the polytheists in Sura 9:1—5 with death, ambushes, and besiegements.
Maududi says that according to the historical context, the 'compacts' and 'oaths' are not political treaties, but the acceptance of Islam. But after this renunciation and mockery of Islam, they become apostates. Muslims are therefore commanded to fight them. The Arabic root word q—t—l is used. Recall that it means to fight, kill, war, battle and slaughter. It has no ambiguity or broader meaning, as jihad does.
It must be noted that Maududi's interpretation is not as secure as it first seems. It could very well be the case that 'compacts' and 'oaths' are political. Verses 3 and 4 support this political interpretation, for Muhammad warns the polytheists that his treaty obligations with them will come to an end, and at that time they were not Muslims. So the polytheists did not leave Islam because they were not part of it in the first place. But at least Maududi works hard at finding Quranic justification for killing apostates from Islam, ironically.
Source; scroll down to 'The Proof from the Qur'an for the Commandment to Execute the Apostate'
(3) Sura 9 also commands striving (jihad) and then fighting (qital) against hypocrites and unbelievers in three verses (73—74 and 123). In these two verses, the hypocrites and unbelievers are not full apostates, according to Maududi.
These two verses say three things about these near—apostates.
First, hypocrites stood aloof from Islam, yet they mouthed words of support—sometimes. At other times they opposed Muhammad, especially in his long and difficult Tabuk Crusade against the Byzantine Christians in late AD 630. They refused to go. Muhammad could not tolerate this wishy—washy behavior. Most important, he could not tolerate opposition, at this late stage.
Second, the more ambiguous word jihad is used. This implies that the ultimate command to kill the hypocrites and unbelievers has not yet been given. The Muslim community has other methods of 'striving' to deal with them, such as ostracism, denial of their oaths in a court of law, closed doors of offices and positions, and contempt in social meetings (Maududi vol. 2, p. 219, note 82).
Third, the hypocrites are still given the opportunity to repent. 'If they now repent of their misbehavior, it will be good for them' . . . . This means that they are not full apostates, even though they uttered words of unbelief. But this chance for repentance is short lived, as the next verse reveals.
This verse leaves no room for ambiguity. The hypocrites have been merged with the unbelievers, thus making them full apostates.
Maududi notes two differences between verses 73 and 123. First, jihad (j—h—d) and qital (q—t—l) are used in each, respectively; and, second, only one key word describes the enemies of Islam in verse 123, whereas two words describe them in verse 73.
The only difference between the two Commands is that in v. 73 the Muslims were asked to do Jihad with them, while in this verse  stronger words, 'fight with them,' have been used, which were meant to impress on them that they should crush the hypocrites thoroughly and completely. Another difference in the wording is that in v. 73, two different words 'disbelievers and hypocrites,' have been used, while in this verse  only one word, 'disbelievers,' has been used so that the hypocrites should forfeit all their claims as Muslims, for there was room for this concession in the word 'hypocrite.' (vol. 2, p. 253, note 121, insertions mine)
Maududi says that the word 'hypocrites' means a reprieve, but this word has been removed, and 'disbelievers' has been supplied, which eliminates the reprieve. Recall that Sura 9:73—74 says that the hypocrites made some confession of unbelief after they professed Islam, so the implication is clear from verse 123, added to verses 73—74, even though Maududi does not use 'apostasy' as such. Be that as it may, now they shall be fought as full apostates.
The hadith are the records or traditions about Muhammad's words and actions outside of the Quran. This body of literature and the Quran form the foundation of later classical law. Bukhari (d. AD 870) is considered one of the most reliable hadith collectors and editors, if not the most reliable. Three examples from Bukhari and two hadiths cited by Maududi suffice to give us an idea of how harshly early Islam treats apostates.
(1) This hadith says that some 'atheists' were brought to Ali, Muhammad's son—in—law and cousin, and he burned them alive.
Evidently, these 'atheists' were once Muslims, but they no longer followed Muhammad's way. The Islam of Ali and Ibn Abbas, Muhammad's family, would not tolerate freedom of religion, so Ali burned them alive. Ibn Abbas would have beheaded them because fire as a punishment is reserved only for Allah.
(2) After Muhammad dies of a fever in AD 632, the tribes in Arabia revolted against Islam. Evidently, they honored this religion only because the Prophet grew in military prowess. But shortly after he died, they dropped their allegiance to him. However, his right—hand companion Abu Bakr was appointed successor or Caliph upon Muhammad's death (ruled AD 632—634). This is how he deals with the revolt.
In this passage, zakat 'is the compulsory right to be taken from the wealth' of the Arab tribes. Abu Bakr zealously fights for every last scrap of wealth from them. Even if they withhold a 'tying rope,' he will battle them for it. In the end, the first Caliph was successful. The tribes were subdued.
(3) As the final example from Bukhari's collection, this hadith promises a reward on the Day of Resurrection for killing apostates in the last days:
Next, Maududi cites two hadiths that he considers reliable. Both say that a Christian or Christians converted to Islam, disliked it, and then switched back to Christianity. Ali is Muhammad's cousin and son—in—law and fourth Caliph (ruled AD 656—660), who was assassinated while praying in a mosque. How does he treat these Christians? Tolerantly?
(4) This Christian was martyred after he proclaimed the Lordship of Jesus Christ over himself and possibly even over Ali.
(5) These Christians were martyred after they realized that their first religion, Christianity, was far more excellent than all other religions, even Islam. Note what Ali does to their children.
Slavery has a long and dreadful history in Islam.
Source; for the last two hadiths; and scroll down to 'Views of the Rightly Guided Caliphs,' nos. 6 and 7
Classical Islamic law
Sharia is Islamic law based on the Quran and the hadith. Fiqh is the science of applying and interpreting sharia, done by qualified judges and legal scholars. We look at two of the most widespread and influential schools in orthodox Sunni Islam: those of Shafii (d. 829) and Malik (d. 795).
(1) Malik was also a reliable collector of hadith.
In one long hadith, Malik first lays the foundation that execution is legal.
The first class of apostates leaves Islam for something else, but they are not given the opportunity to repent. They are killed without being called to repent because their repentance is not recognized. They were concealing their disbelief and making Islam public, so I do not think that one should call such people to repent and one does not accept their word.
The second group of apostates leaves Islam and divulges it. What happens to him?
(2) The following medieval manual compiled mainly by Ahmad ibn Naqib al—Misri (d. 1368), Reliance of the Traveler: A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law, (rev. ed., trans. Nuh Ha Mim Keller, Beltsville, Maryland: Amana, 1994), summarizes rulings in the Shafii School of fiqh.
These two laws cover the two requirements that make an apostate liable for death and the obligation of the caliph or his representative.
There is no monetary compensation for executing an apostate.
The following eighteen acts, which are broad in scope, entail leaving Islam.
This law says that the speaking with a clear mind and deliberation the doctrine of the Trinity makes one an apostate:
A later legal scholar adds the following:
This law leaves no room for ambiguity about the ultimate goal of Islam:
To sum up, these laws are all about abstract doctrine and belief, not about physical acts like murder, yet they elicit death. No one is allowed even to be sarcastic about Islamic law. Some are highly doctrinal and designed to crush different Islamic doctrines (nos. 5 and 6). No one may deny a passage in the Quran (no. 7). So how can the violent verses be renounced? Secular science is not permitted to flourish (no. 17). Clearly, these laws chill and stifle free thought and speech.
Can or will Islamic countries revise or move past classical fiqh that is rooted in the Quran and sound hadith?
The reason Islam today shuts down freedom of religion is obvious. It is following its origins. The Quran came down from Allah through Gabriel, and Muhammad was inspired by his deity. Islamic law flows out of these two sources.
However, when a religion suppresses free speech and dissent, it testifies against itself. What are the religious leaders trying to hide? Why is criticism shut down? If Islam really holds the Ultimate Truth and Final Revelation, then it should fear no challenge. The leaders should be able to defend it by words alone, for its appeal should be self—evident. People should flock to it willingly and without threat of violence. On the other hand, if people want to leave it—an unimaginable thought since Islam is so awesome—then they should be allowed to go without persecution or a sword hanging over their heads.
The ideal is for Islam to reform itself. Can or will it do this?
If not, then another strategy must be played out.
First, Islamic law must never be imposed or legitimized around the world. Freedom of religion must be given wide latitude. If it means criticizing the Prophet, the Quran, and Islamic law itself, then freedom is still better than repression.
Second, free leaders all over the world must put pressure on oppressive Islamic governments. This news report shows exactly that happening.
Third, with advent of the worldwide web, information flows freely, shining a light in the darkness. Ordinary citizens should keep track of Islamic oppression, sending emails to each other and reputable web logs (blogs). An informed citizenry is a free one, and maybe free citizens can help the oppressed across the globe.
If the readers would like to see the Quran in multiple translations, they should click on this website.
This article explains why the West must preserve freedom of speech and the Biblical basis of such freedom. Scroll down to the section on the New Testament, which diametrically opposes the Quran on freedom. Unlike Muhammad, Jesus never persecuted anyone who decided to leave him (John 6:60—70).
This report tracks the application of apostasy laws around the world, citing many examples.
This older but still accurate dictionary has a brief entry. Scroll down to "Apostasy from Islam."
This mid—sized chapter was written by an older generation Christian who knew Islam and Arabic thoroughly. It also analyzes some legal rulings.
This is a short section in an online book. It surveys the main ideas on apostasy.
This short entry in an index to Islam has a list of Quranic verses and explains some Arabic words.
This short article contrasts Islam's coercion of conscience with Christianity's freedom of conscience.
This website has a booklet on apostates.
Contact James Arlandson.