What about punishment for apostasy?
A plain and simple no.
But you didn’t come here for a brief answer! So, here’s the explanation:
The Qur’an addresses disbelief more than 150 times. Yet, man is never given authority to punish a disbeliever.
If Islam sanctioned death for apostasy, why does the Qur’an address—but never sanctions—any worldly punishment for an apostate who repeatedly believes and disbelieves (1)?
Neither the Holy Quran nor the sayings of practice of Muhammad support any corporal punishment for apostasy, let alone death as punishment. The Holy Quran is quite categorical in this matter and states:
“And say, ‘It is the truth from your Lord; wherefore let him who will, believe. And let him, who will, disbelieve…” (18:30).
Furthermore, the Qur’an is the first religious scripture to categorically declare:
“There shall be no compulsion in religion.” (2:257)
Similarly, the Qur’an repeatedly states that Muslims, including Prophet Muhammad (the founder of Islam, peace be upon him), can only admonish non-Muslims regarding religious matters. If someone should have been permitted to use coercion, it would have been the founder of Islam, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Yet, addressing him, Allah says in the Holy Qur’an:
“Thou art but an admonisher; Thou hast no authority to compel them.” (88:22-23)
That is the Quran’s verdict. You are just an admonisher. No more. You are given no authority to coerce.
Any form of religious coercion is not permitted by Allah.
Again, all through his life, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) taught and practiced complete freedom of religion. Not a single instance exists of Prophet Muhammad punishing an individual because they had apostatised.
On the other hand, Prophet Muhammad’s example corroborates the view that no punishment for apostasy exists in Islam.
We present here only two of many examples, as proof of point:
- Once, a Bedouin convert to Islam suffered a fever while in Medina. He asked to be released from his pledge three times and was refused three times. Still, he left Medina unharmed (2).
- The obligation undertaken by the Holy Prophet in the treaty of Hudaibiyyah (3), that if a Muslim had repudiated Islam and went and identified himself with the Meccans, he would not be restored to the Holy Prophet, also establishes that apostasy was not a punishable offence. Had it been punishable as an offence, the Holy Prophet would not have accepted this term of the treaty. He would have told the Meccan envoy, who represented the Meccans at Hudaibiyah, that he could not agree to a term that was contrary to the divine command that an apostate was punishable with death. Nor did any of the Companions of the Holy Prophet protest against this term of the treaty that it was inconsistent with a Divine commandment.
Yes, Islam admonishes Muslims to remain Muslims. But what faith encourages its adherents to leave?
But even then, Islam is quite liberal. Certain Christians declare eternal hell for those who leave Christianity. Certain Jews consider themselves the chosen people, to the exclusion of all others. Certain Hindus believe in the caste system, forbidding anyone from joining or leaving their caste. Therefore, it is surprising that critics object to the Islamic admonition to not forsake Islam.
Islam does not restrict apostasy.
The Holy Quran states: “Those who believe, then disbelieve, then again believe, then disbelieve and thereafter go on increasing in disbelief, Allah will never forgive them, nor guide them to any way of deliverance.” (4:138)
“If thy Lord had enforced His Will, surely all those on the earth would have believed without exception. Will thou then take it upon thyself to force people to become believers?” (10:100).
Hence, any “punishment” an apostate incurs is a matter between that person and God.
The Qur’an is clear: apostasy is not a worldly crime and that apostates are not to be harmed—let alone put to death, and those who choose to leave Islam have every right to do so.
Now, if you are wondering that if Islam’s stance is so clear cut that apostasy is not a worldly crime and that apostates are not to be harmed—let alone put to death, then what about the 16 out of 49 Muslim majority countries that have the abhorrent laws criminalising apostasy?
- Such laws are created to consolidate religiopolitical power, with no basis in Islam.
- If that wasn’t the case, why wouldn’t the other 33 Muslim majority countries also outlaw apostasy?
- Wherever such laws still exist, we strongly condemn them and such countries alone are answerable for their human rights violations, not Islam. Prophet Muhammad always taught and practiced complete freedom of religion. And it would be a grave injustice to consider him responsible for something he so vehemently rejected all his life.
(1) The Holy Qur’an 2:218; 3:21, 73, 91; 4:138; 5:55, 62, 93, 100; 9:3, 66-68, 74; 16:107; 47:26-27; 63:2-7.
(3) Bukhari, Egyptians edition, Vol. II, p. 76