Apostasy, Freedom and Da’wah

Written by Mohammad Omar Farooq
Aug 31, 2007 at 06:16 AM

While Islam may have been a vanguard of freedom and progress evidenced by magnificent civilizations that it helped spawn all the way to the rise of Western civilization, some traditional or orthodox position in Islamic law, apostasy for example, remain seriously at odds with the notion of freedom. Muslim orthodoxy continues to invoke a legal position to issue fatwa against heresy, apostasy, blasphemy and so on. In the last few decades there has been cases, some widely publicized, in Muslim-majority countries where fatwas were issues against apostates.1 Because the law of apostasy is ingrained in orthodox Islamic law, one can’t approach this issue without taking a closer look at some of the fundamental precepts or even usul (source methodology) of Islamic law.

We must note that Islamic law is not monolithic: there are several schools of jurisprudence, some well-established. Also, cutting across the confines of such schools are reformist tendencies that seem unhappy being betrothed to any one school of jurisprudence. Furthermore, reformist tendencies within each established school also have positions on issues such as apostasy that differ from orthodox position(s). Incidentally, this essay is about punishment for apostasy in this world, not in the hereafter.

For those who approach or uphold Islam from a legalistic perspective, it may be difficult to look beyond the corpus and legacy of Islamic law that accumulated over centuries. They evaluate everything from that perspective, not from value or principle-oriented angles. But if concepts like freedom and apostasy are approached from the Qur’anic perspective and also with some accepted principles–including fairness and reciprocity, conclusions could be quite distinct.

The issue of apostasy is not polemical. It has ramification not only for human rights in Muslim-majority countries but also for dialogue and relationship with the non-Muslim world. However, most importantly, the traditional position on apostasy is a serious misrepresentation and misapplication of Islam and its values.

In this essay, we explore the issue of apostasy (riddah or irtidad) and Islam. We also present a business-like perspective that is rooted in the Qur’an, demonstrating that the orthodox position is at variance with some fundamental Islamic precepts.

The Orthodox Position about Apostasy

According to the traditional/orthodox Islamic position, apostasy is punishable by death. Male apostates receive capital punishment and female apostates receive life imprisonment, unless they repent.2 Also, if either spouse apostatizes from Islam then a divorce is automatic, or the marriage stands annulled. According to Islamic Law According to Four Schools, a comparative compendium of legal rulings, “The four (Sunni) Imams agree that it is obligatory to kill a person whose apostasy against Islam is proven.”3 The ruling is remarkable that apostasy is not merely punishable by death, but it is obligatory to kill an apostate!

For example, here is the opinion of the Shafi’i School, articulated by none other than Imam Shafi’i himself.

[Shafi’i] asked: Since the duty imposed on us to punish the fornicator with a hundred stripes, to scourge him who casts an imputation [of adultery] with eighty, to put to death him who apostatizes, …4

[Shafi’i] asked: How many witnesses would you required in [the case of] murder, disbelief [i.e. apostasy], and highway robbery, all of which are punishable by death?5

Muslims generally revere the period of the Khulafa-i-Rashidoon (the Rightly Guided Khalifas) and regard it as exemplary. They also view it as the earliest period that establishes the essence of Khilafah as the Islamic political system. However, interpretation of the dogmatic proponents of revival of Khilafah in contemporary times might be an obstacle to persuade the broader Muslim community in favor of Khilafah. One such group is Hizb at-Tahrir (HT) that has taken up re-establishment of Khilafah as its core mission. In a draft constitution (dustoor), proposed by its founder/leader Taqiuddin al-Nabhani and adopted by HT states in Article 7c:

“Those who are guilty of apostasy (murtad) from Islam are to be executed according to the rule of apostasy, provided they have themselves renounced Islam.”6

The above position in itself is unwarranted from Islamic viewpoint. However, even more untenably, the draft constitution goes even further (in the same Article).

If they are born as non-Muslims, i.e., if they are the sons of apostates, then they are treated as non-Muslims according to their status as being either polytheists (mushriks) or People of the Book.”7

There are fundamental problems with such statements. What if the position of one or even four imams contradicts clearly established Qur’anic principles and values? The underlying problem might be legalistic where an issue is considered not holistically, but in isolation. For example, does Islam believe in freedom of choice in regard to faith? If the answer is yes, then how is the orthodox position on apostasy compatible with such freedom of choice? As soon as such a question is raised, the orthodox position then quickly reverts from the issue of principle to hadiths or positions of classical jurists. Fortunately, at least on this issue of apostasy, even hadith cannot be conscientiously invoked to support the orthodox position, although it has been so attempted.

a. Qur’an on Apostasy

There are many verses in the Qur’an that deal with irtidad, but no verse in the Qur’an suggests earthly punishment for it. Let us review the verses.

Would ye question your Messenger as Moses was questioned of old? But whoever changes from Faith to Unbelief, Has strayed without doubt from the even way. [2/al-Baqarah/108]

They ask thee concerning fighting in the Prohibited Month. Say: “Fighting therein is a grave (offence); but graver is it in the sight of Allah to prevent access to the path of Allah, to deny Him, to prevent access to the Sacred Mosque, and drive out its members.” Tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter. Nor will they cease fighting you until they turn you back from your faith if they can. And if any of you Turn back from their faith and die in unbelief, their works will bear no fruit in this life and in the Hereafter; they will be companions of the Fire and will abide therein. [2/al-Baqarah/217]

But those who reject Faith after they accepted it, and then go on adding to their defiance of Faith, – never will their repentance be accepted; for they are those who have (of set purpose) gone astray. [3/ale Imran/90]

Those who believe, then reject faith, then believe (again) and (again) reject faith, and go on increasing in unbelief, – Allah will not forgive them nor guide them nor guide them on the way. [4/an-Nisa/137]

Any one who, after accepting faith in Allah, utters Unbelief, – except under compulsion, his heart remaining firm in Faith – but such as open their breast to Unbelief, on them is Wrath from Allah, and theirs will be a dreadful Penalty. [16/an-Nahl/106]

As evident from the Qur’an, apostasy is a great sin and as such abominable before God and there is notice of “dreadful penalty”. However, all such consequences are in the context of the life hereafter, not in this world. God is the only Judge in this regard, not any human being or group.

The clear absence of any punishment, especially capital punishment, in the Qur’an for apostasy is significant. Why would the Qur’an leave such a matter of significance to Prophetic narrations? Also, such deferment to the Prophetic narrations contradicts the Qur’an’s claims and assertions about itself.

… and We have sent down to thee the Book explaining all things, a Guide, a Mercy, and Glad Tidings to Muslims. [16/an-Nahl/89]

This day have I perfected your religion for you, completed My favour upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion. But if any is forced by hunger, with no inclination to transgression, Allah is indeed Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. [4/al-Maida/3]

How has the Qur’an explained “all things”, but not “capital punishment” of apostasy? How is the religion perfected or completed, while major matters such as sins provoking capital punishment are not clarified?

Indeed, the Qur’an has categorically specified the principle of freedom of choice in faith, rather than punishment of apostasy in this world. [2/al-Baqarah/256] More on the Qur’anic position is presented later in this essay.

b. Hadith on Apostasy

Usually, it is hadith to which the classical jurists/scholars have turned to build their case about punishment for apostasy. There are many hadiths pertaining to the punishment of apostasy; those are available in almost all major hadith collections. Some samples are presented below.

Narrated ‘Abdullah: Allah’s Apostle said, “The blood of a Muslim who confesses that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that I am His Apostle, cannot be shed except in three cases: In Qisas for murder, a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse and the one who reverts from Islam (apostate) and leaves the Muslims.” [9/al-Bukhari/17]

Once ‘Umar bin ‘Abdul ‘Aziz sat on his throne in the courtyard of his house so that the people might gather before him. Then he admitted them and (when they came in), he said, “What do you think of Al-Qasama?” They said, “We say that it is lawful to depend on Al-Qasama in Qisas, as the previous Muslim Caliphs carried out Qisas9/al-Bukhari/37] depending on it.” … I [Abu Qilaba] said, “By Allah, Allah’s Apostle never killed anyone except in one of the following three situations: (1) A person who killed somebody unjustly, was killed (in Qisas,) (2) a married person who committed illegal sexual intercourse and (3) a man who fought against Allah and His Apostle and deserted Islam and became an apostate.” [

Narrated ‘Ikrima: Some Zanadiqa8 were brought to ‘Ali and he burnt them. The news of this event, reached Ibn ‘Abbas who said, “If I had been in his place, I would not have burnt them, as Allah’s Apostle forbade it, saying, ‘Do not punish anybody with Allah’s punishment (fire).’ I would have killed them according to the statement of Allah’s Apostle, ‘Whoever changed his Islamic religion9, then kill him.’” [9/al-Bukhari/57]

Narrated Abu Musa: A man embraced Islam and then reverted back to Judaism. Muadh bin Jabal came and saw the man with Abu Musa. Muadh asked, “What is wrong with this (man)?” Abu Musa replied, “He embraced Islam and then reverted back to Judaism.” Muadh said, “I will not sit down unless you kill him (as it is) the verdict of Allah and His Apostle. [9/al-Bukhari/271]

Since there are many hadith on this issue, we have reproduced but a few. However, to understand the general relevance of hadith to Islamic laws, a few pertinent matters must be clarified. I articulated these matters in detail in a separate essay10, so I will not repeat it entirely. But one general and one particular point seem mentionable in this context.

According to the principles established by hadith scholars, only mutawatir narrations [hadiths that have been narrated in exact words through so many different chains that any possibility of forgery or manipulation is precluded] yield certainty of knowledge. Any non-mutawatir hadith is known as ahad [solitary], and such solitary narration yields only probabilistic or speculative knowledge. For detail, please refer to my aforementioned essay.

The relevance of this mutawatir or ahad distinction is that none of the hadiths pertaining to apostasy is mutawatir and thus does not yield any certainty of knowledge. Also, it is generally agreed that no hadd punishment can be established on the basis of such ahad hadith.

One the most commonly quoted narrations is:




Kamali, a contemporary scholar of Islamic jurisprudence, explains that this is a solitary (ahad) hadith – meaning that it does not yield any certainty of knowledge. Such hadith is also clearly contradicted by “the fact that neither the Prophet himself nor any of his Companions ever compelled anyone to embrace Islam, nor did they sentence anyone to death solely for renunciation of the faith.”11 [emphasis added]

A particular point in regard to hadith as a basis to determine any punishment for apostasy is that for a couple of instances of simple apostasy, the Prophet did not apply any punishment whatsoever.

A bedouin gave the Pledge of allegiance to Allah’s Apostle for Islam. Then the bedouin got fever at Medina, came to Allah’s Apostle and said, “O Allah’s Apostle! Cancel my Pledge,” But Allah’s Apostle refused. Then he came to him (again) and said, “O Allah’s Apostle! Cancel my Pledge.” But the Prophet refused Then he came to him (again) and said, “O Allah’s Apostle! Cancel my Pledge.” But the Prophet refused. The bedouin finally went out (of Medina) whereupon Allah’s Apostle said, “Medina is like a pair of bellows (furnace): It expels its impurities and brightens and clears its good. [Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 9, #319]12

As Dr. M. E. Subhani explains:

“This was an open case of apostasy. But the Prophet neither punished the Bedouin nor asked anyone to do it. He allowed him to leave Madina. Nobody harmed him.”13

As far as other hadiths that are generally cited in regard to apostasy (riddah), (a) there is not a single hadith that is authentic or without any problem as per the standards of usul (principles) of hadith, and (b) none of these hadiths pertain to solely for apostasy. After examining all the pertinent hadiths and classical commentaries on the issue of apostasy, former Chief Justice of Pakistan, S. A. Rahman, observes:

“It has been seen that even the strongest bulwark of the orthodox view, viz. the Sunnah, when subjected to critical examination in the light of history, does not fortify the stand of those who seek to establish that a Muslim who commits apostasy must be condemned to death for his change of belief alone. In instances in which apparently such a punishment was inflicted, other factors have been found to co-exist, which would have justified action in the interest of collective security. As against them, some positive instances of tolerance of defections from the Faith, with impunity for the renegades, suggest that the Prophet acted strictly in conformity with the letter and the spirit of the Qur’an and mere change of faith, if peaceful, cannot be visited with any punishment.”14

Dr. Mahmoud Ayoub, a contemporary scholar, after examining the Qur’anic exegeses and sunnah, concludes:

“From the foregoing discussion it may be concluded that there is no real basis for the riddah law in either the Qur’an or Prophetic tradition.”15

In one of the most thoroughly researched book, Dr. Abdullah Saeed and Hassan Saeed state:

“We conclude that the evidence for the death penalty for apostasy lies largely in some isolated hadith (ahad) as well as a with certain events that reportedly took place during the time of the Prophet and the Companions. Closer scrutiny of the textual evidence reveals no substantial evidence on this matter. Given the ambiguity of the evidence available for the punishment, Sarakhsi’s reading appears to be appropriate as a basis for arriving at a view in keeping with the modern period.”16

Such contemporary views are also consistent with some previous examples, as during the period of Hadrat Umar Ibn Abdul Aziz.

Some people accepted Islam during the period of Umar bin Abdul Aziz, who is called the fifth rightful caliph of Islam. All these people renounced Islam sometimes later. Maimoon bin Mahran the governor of the area wrote to the caliph about these people. In reply Umar bin Abdul Aziz ordered him to release those people and asked him to re-impose jizya17 on them.

c. Ijma on Apostasy?

Another tool of Islamic law, ijma (consensus), is often invoked, to claim there is an ijma on this issue. Since it is the orthodox position that anything based on ijma is binding upon Muslims, so is this position about apostasy. It is critical that Muslims educate themselves even minimally to realize that, on most of the things ijma is claimed, there is NO ijma. It is such a fundamental problem that there is no ijma even about the definition of ijma. Please read an essay on ijma, crucially relevant to better understand the problem with ijma (consensus) as a binding source of Islam, as it is often claimed.18

In fact contrary to the common claim, there is no ijma on the issue of any punishment for apostasy.

“It is not surprising to find a number of prominent ‘ulama’, across the centuries, subscribing to the view that apostasy is not a punishable offense. Ibrahim al-Nakha’i (d. 95/713), a leading jurist and traditionist among the generation succeeding the Companions, and Sufyan al-Thawri’ (d. 161/772), who is known as ‘the prince of the believers concerning Hadith’ (amir al-mu’minin fi’l-Hadith) and is the author of two important compilations of Hadith, namely al-Jami’al-Kabir, and al-Jami’ al- Saghir, both held that the apostate should be re-invited to Islam, but should never be condemned to death. They maintained the view that the invitation should continue for as long as there is hope that the apostate might change his mind and repent.19 ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Sha’rani has also cited the views of al-Nakha’i and al-Thawri and adds that ‘the apostate is thus permanently to be invited to repent’.20 The renowned Hanafi jurist, Shams al-Din al-Sarakhsi, is rather less explicit but what he writes amounts to saying that apostasy does not qualify for temporal punishment. He begins by stating that apostasy is not an offense for which there is a prescribed punishment (Hadd), because the punishment for it is suspended when the apostate repents:

The prescribed penalties (Hudud) are generally not suspended because of repentance, especially when they are reported and become known to the head of state (imam). The punishment of highway robbery, for instance, is not suspended because of repentance; it is suspended only by the return of property to the owner prior to arrest. … Renunciation of the faith and conversion to disbelief is admittedly the greatest of offenses, yet it is a matter between man and his Creator, and its punishment is postponed to the day of judgment (fa’l-jaza’ ‘alayha mu’akhkhar ila dar al-jaza’). Punishments that are enforced in this life are those, which protect the people’s interests, such as just retaliation, which is designed to protect life…21

Al-Sarakhsi goes on to recount the punishments for adultery, theft, slanderous accusation, wine-drinking and highway robbery – namely, all the hudud punishments -but leaves apostasy out altogether from the list.”22

Indeed, where is the ijma that is so insistently claimed about the punishment of apostasy? There is a fundamental confusion about riddah (irtidad), which is generally translated as apostasy. During the Prophet lifetime when an Islamic society or polity was nascent and vulnerable, riddah or reversion couldn’t be separated from being a believer and being a loyal believing member of the community. Hence, riddah was not just apostasy but also inextricably linked with treason, which often meant active realignment of loyalty to malevolent enemies who were ready to vanquish the nascent community. After reversion, many such people not just passively supported but, in fact, sided with enemies in actual battles. Indeed in no single case was a person punished due “solely for renunciation of the faith.” Reversion during this period was not only religious on the ground of freedom of choice, but also political. Notably from a legal standpoint, treason (or high treason) against the nation of which the person is a citizen is deemed a punishable offence in many modern, developed, and democratic Western countries. Some countries have banned capital punishment in general; hence treason may merit other discretionary punishment, subject to the law of the land.

After the initial period of stabilization and consolidation as the Islamic polity became more secure, many prominent Islamic scholars and jurists re-evaluated the issue of reversion or riddah. According to the opinions of Ibrahim al-Nakha’i, Sufiyan al-Thawri, Shams al-Din al-Sarakhsi, etc. the scholars then re-articulated the Islamic position on apostasy, distinguishing it from the riddah of the earlier period.

Kamali further explains the positions of the contemporary scholars.

“Among modern scholars, ‘Abd al-Hakim al-‘Ili and Isma’il al-Badawi have commented that by al-Nakha’i’s time, Islam was secure from the hostility of disbelievers and apostates. This, they maintain, indicates that al-Nakha’i understood the Prophetic Hadith quoted above, which made apostasy punishable by death, to be political in character and aimed at the inveterate enemies of Islam.23 On a similar note, Mahmud Shaltut analyses the relevant evidence in the Qur’an and draws the conclusion that apostasy carries no temporal penalty, and that in reference to this particular sin, the Qur’an speaks only of punishment in the hereafter:

As for the death penalty for apostasy, the jurists have relied on the Hadith reported by Ibn Abbas in which the Prophet has said, ‘Kill the one who changes his religion’ (man baddala dinahu faqtuluhu). This Hadith has evoked various responses from the ‘ulama’, many of whom are in agreement that the prescribed penalties (hudud) cannot be established by solitary Hadith (ahad), and that unbelief by itself does not call for the death penalty. The key factors that determine the application of this punishment are aggression and hostility against the believers and the [need to] prevent possible sedition (fitnah) against religion and state. This conclusion is sustained by the manifest meaning of many of the passages in the Qur’an that proscribe compulsion in religion.24

Mahmassani has observed that the death penalty was meant to apply, not to simple acts of apostasy from Islam, but when apostasy was linked to an act of political betrayal of the community .The Prophet never killed anyone solely for apostasy. This being the case, 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.25

Therefore, it is evident that there is no ijma about punishment of apostasy purely on the ground of freedom of faith/religion although there is agreement on punishment for treason, the latter being not unique to Islam or Muslims. Indeed those who claim that such ijma exists misrepresent not only this issue, but also the concept of ijma itself. It is reported that Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, founder of one of the four orthodox schools (madhab) offered a general assertion: “Whoever claims consensus (ijma) is a liar.”26 The argument of Imam Ibn Hanbal is that, while one may claim he doesn’t know of disagreement or dissent, but a positive claim of ijma (consensus) is simply not tenable without appropriate evidence.

Kamali shares the following conclusion, refuting the claim that there is an ijma on punishment for apostasy or on the issue whether apostasy is punishable at all in this world:

‘The doctors of theology and monotheism (tawhid) are in agreement that confession to the faith (iman) is not valid if it is not voluntary. In the event, therefore, wherever confession to the faith is obtained through compulsion, it is null and void.’27

“… religious belief should be, founded on conviction and considered choice, not on mere imitation or conformity to the views and beliefs of others. The Shari ah forbids compulsion in religion as it is incompatible with the courteous methods of persuasion that the Qur’an prescribes for the propagation of Islam.”28

Another renowned contemporary scholar, Abdul Hamid AbuSulayman, former rector of International Islamic University of Malaysia, points out that the issue of apostasy in Islam is not merely a polemical issue.

The traditional approach contributes to the atmosphere of fear and suspicion between Muslims and non-Muslim peoples. It minimizes communication and makes interaction and cooperation more difficult. The traditional position stems from classical interpretation of the early sources on the issues of apostasy (riddah), the historical case of the forced Islamization of Arab pagans, and the imposition of the poll tax (jizyah) on non-Muslims. Once more, these issues reveal the traditional approach to be an obstacle to introducing a constructive Islamic approach to relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims in the Muslim world today and in a modern Islamic framework in the field of international problem.

Muslim reformists and modernists, such as ‘Abduh, Rida, ‘Azzam, al-Sa’idi, and many others, made strenuous efforts to resolve this problem, but it is still not clear conceptually. Apart from other factors, the issue of freedom of belief in Muslim societies has to be made conceptually very clear. For Muslim societies, the issue is not an internad one alone, but touches on an important ideological aspect of their relations with other states and peoples. Clarification is essential if the Muslim society is to be a truly open one in which civil rights are guaranteed and available to all members of the society in a reciprocal relationship between rights and duties, along pluralistic lines free from religious and sectarian biases. Loyalty and commitment to the welfare of all people and their different systems of law is the only guarantee for the sincere exercise of rights and duties of individuals and groups. Freedom of ideology and religion assisted by peaceful and orderly means of practice and expression, is necessary for healthy, stable, expanding, and progressive societies.29

We find most traditional writers holding the opinion that denial and denunciation of Islam by adult male Muslims is apostasy, and unless they return to Islam they should be executed. The serious problems arising where are twofold: one is the space-time factor, and the other is the conceptual confusion involved in the way it has been treated by Muslim writers.30

The conceptual confusion occurs in the early period of Islam, because this political conspiracy took the form of apostasy while the real goal was to destroy the Muslim community. The confusion lies in taking the act for what it appeared to be and not for what it was meant to be. They mistook political conspiracy for an exercise of the human right for freedom of belief and responsibility of choice. The jurists seemed to exercise little analysis concerning the whole question. The word apostasy alone determined their position.

This misunderstanding of the significance of the word apostasy in the Qur’an and the punishment assigned to it in the Hadith of the Prophet (PBUH) destroyed in the classical jurisprudence the basis of the Islamic concept of tolerance and human responsibility.31

One of the pivotal historical contexts was the so-called War of Apostasy against the first Khalifah, Abu Bakr (d. 635 AH). As this war built itself around riddah (reversion or apostasy), Classical jurisprudence failed to recognize and appreciate that it:

was not an exercise of freedom of faith or conscience. It was basically an act of ever-renewed Bedouin reaction against all restraints of political and social authority. The issue in that particular act of belligerency against the government of Abu Bakr was the payment of zakah (alms) and the new central political authority of Arabia.

‘Ibn al-Qayyim seemed to realized the conceptual significance of the laws issues by the Prophet (PBUH) at Madinah vis-a-vis this kind of conspiratorial apostasy. He points to the issues involved as a political measure against subversive activity, having nothing to do with the exercise of freedom of faith and conscience. It is very important for Muslims to keep in focus the basic and central value of individual moral responsibility and freedom of belief and conscience in Islam and not to be lost in formal, legalistic, and short-sighted academic arguments about details and textual materials. Ideological freedom is a basic necessity for any constructive, peaceful, and humane ideology, both internally and externally.32

So, how did such harsh stance and laws against apostasy [riddah] found place in Islamic jurisprudence? It is a complex issue involving a multitude of factors. (a) Hadith has been elevated to an untenably high level, where in many cases, Qur’anic principles have been supplanted by hadith.33 (b) Even weak hadiths have been invoked in deriving harsh or unwarranted laws.34 (c) Instead of focusing on Islamic principles, norms and values, a legalistic approach and attitude overwhelmed the Islamic legal discourse.35 (d) Much of the Islamic laws were laid out during a period, when Islam and Muslims were predominant, and there was little empathy for the minorities or non-Muslims, who were regarded as “subjugated.” Indeed, Muslims in recent times living as minorities in non-Muslim-majority societies are making valuable contribution toward the Islamic discourse in terms of the rights of the minorities as part of general human rights. And, (e) even though Muslims tend to claim that there is no priesthood in Islam, and indeed, Islam is incompatible with any notion of priesthood, our scholars generally have not succeeded in educating the Muslim mass that, except in a limited context, the corpus of Islamic laws and rules is basically a human construct based on fallible human interpretation. Yet, Islamic laws, presented as Shariah, are presented as divine, while anything based on fallible interpretive input cannot be regarded as divine.36

Indeed, prominent juridical organizations, such as Fiqh Council of North America, European Council for Fatwa and Research, etc, should take the lead to establish a categorical position on this and enlighten the Muslim world accordingly. Furthermore, Muslim institutions dedicated to human rights issues–particularly in the Muslim world, should form to subvert any attempt to use fatwa against apostasy, which is inconsistent with fundamental Islamic notion of freedom of faith.

In this context, a critically relevant effort to document the preponderance of the contemporary views on this issue has been presented by this author at a Blog37, where views of 100+ notable Islamic voices on this issue of apostasy and freedom of faith from the Islamic perspective are available.

The Trade-like Approach in the Qur’an

Indeed there is no worldly punishment for apostasy in the Qur’an. None of the hadith about riddah is mutawatir, and thus does not confirm certainty of knowledge. None of the authenticated ones relates to a single event where a person was punished or fought against simply for change of faith, de-linked from the political context of conspiracy or threat against the nascent Muslim community. The claim of any ijma or consensus about this is patently incorrect. Thus, it should be resolved in Muslim minds and at Islamic discourses that, not only does Islam prescribe no punishment against apostasy, but also it clearly opposes any position impinging on the fundamental rights of humans in matters of faith.

What is the basis of this business-like approach in Islam? A basic pitfall of legalism is that, rather than deriving and establishing fundamental Islamic principles from a holistic approach to the revelation in the Qur’an, laws and codes are determined atomistically. Moreover, it is not uncommon to resort to hadith and other secondary sources–to change, restrict, or modify the meaning of even the clearest verses in the Qur’an, instead of upholding the Qur’an as the conclusive source for fundamental Islamic principles. In this regard let us try to understand the business-like approach of the Qur’an. Please read the following verse emphasizing the need to treat even success in the life hereafter in a business-like fashion.

“O ye who believe! Shall I lead you to a TIJARAH (means trade, business, commerce, bargain, deal) that will save you from a grievous Penalty?…” [61/as-Saff/10]

Additional verses in the language of business.

“These are they who have bartered [ishtarau’] Guidance for error: But their traffic is profitless, and they have lost true direction, …” [2/al-Baqara/16]

And remember Allah took a covenant from the People of the Book, to make it known and clear to mankind, and not to hide it; but they threw it away behind their backs, and purchased [washtarau] with it some miserable gain! And vile was the bargain [yashtarun] they made! [3/Ale Imran/187]

But when they see some bargain [tijarah] or some amusement, they disperse headlong to it, and leave thee standing. Say: “The (blessing) from the Presence of Allah is better than any amusement or bargain [tijarah]! and Allah is the Best to provide (for all needs).” [62/al-Jumuah/11]

The last verse above is noteworthy, because it delineates an important aspect of human nature and behavior that we are commonly motivated by gains or bargains. It is innate in humans. Hence, the Qur’an directly addresses humans regarding their innate instincts.

Such verses presume we understand what tijarah (trade or business) is. Indeed, as is well known, the Makkan community before whom the Prophet first presented Islam was a merchant or trading community. Trading for gain was in their legacy. How was the matter of afterlife, which is religious and spiritual in nature, framed with business terms? Trades involve transactions or decisions pertaining to potential gains and alternative choices; the same is true about this life, a gift of God for use to pursue worldly pleasures and ambitions, or utilize our life to achieve salvation and success in the life hereafter. Islam ennobles business as a profession, with categorical emphasis on business ethics.38

The language of business or trade (tijarah) recurs in the Qur’an. In the following verse Allah goes one step further about the gift. Allah endowed our life with all the possessions – so that we will trade it (meaning, we’ll utilize it in accordance with his divine guidance). In that sense believers are a party to a business contract between themselves and God. It is based not through coercion but on our own intellect and volition. However, our choices have eternal consequences.

Allah hath purchased of the believers their persons and their goods; for theirs (in return) is the garden (of Paradise): they fight in His cause, and slay and are slain: a promise binding on Him in truth, through the Law, the Gospel, and the Qur’an: and who is more faithful to his covenant than Allah? Then rejoice in the bargain which ye have concluded: that is the achievement supreme. [9/al-Tauba/111]

If the matter of Akhirah (the life hereafter) is to be treated as business, doesn’t the verse presume we understand the business orientation and how to conduct ourselves accordingly?

It is a recognized aspect of any business ethic, about which Islam is explicitly insistent. From the perspective of Islamic business ethics, “Full disclosure is a must.”39 Not just disclosure, but full disclosure of pertinent information affecting the parties to transactions is important in Islam not only from worldly, but also from other-worldly perspective.

“The religious framework of business is very different. One talks about trade, buying, selling, and transactions that deal with things and services of physical and spiritual value. All transactions must follow all rules of justice and equity and be fully understood by the parties involved. There must be full disclosure of the qualities and quantities of the merchandise. The rules for such transactions are based on the Qur’an, the traditions and practices of the Prophet and his companions and are laid out in the books of jurisprudence.”40

Prophet Muhammad, who was an accomplished businessman himself, taught:

Narrated Hakim bin Hizam: The Prophet said, “Both the buyer and the seller have the option of cancelling or confirming the bargain unless they separate.” The sub-narrator, Hammam said, “I found this in my book: ‘Both the buyer and the seller give the option of either confirming or cancelling the bargain three times, and if they speak the truth and mention the defects, then their bargain will be blessed, and if they tell lies and conceal the defects, they might gain some financial gain but they will deprive their sale of (Allah’s) blessings.” [Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 3, Book 34, #327]

It is the interest of the buyers or users of a product/service that binds regulating authorities to require disclosure of liabilities and hazards. Established, effective business practices making commerce in the West a prosperous enterprise include the provision and opportunities to try out their products. Will anyone go to a motel (or even a residence) where one can check in, but can’t check out? How many would buy a product or service warranting a stipulation that, in addition to not being able to return the product if dissatisfied, the buyer would face death for returning it? Such consequences of returning any product are preposterous, unacceptable from a business standpoint. Such business can’t endure.

The case is similar for the matter of apostasy. Anyone born in a Muslim family has the fundamental right to affirm or reject their religion when adulthood is attained. Any contrary insistence turns Islam’s basic principles on their head. No one can take away this right. If other religions try to force such restrictions and consequences upon their adherents Islam would stand firm against it. That firm stand is based on the Islamic principle for Muslims, as well.

As far as non-Muslims embracing Islam and later choosing apostasy the tijarah (business) perspective of Islam, explicated in the Qur’an, confirms that there cannot and must not be any punishment for it. In addition to its explicit verses affirming freedom of religion/faith, Qur’an’s business perspective also contradicts and repudiates the traditional Islamic position on apostasy. Small wonder that many people born and raised in Muslim families feel alienated from Islam, as they cannot reconcile such unacceptable encroachment on their inalienable right. They should know that their inalienable right is also Islamic. May it be a matter between them and God if they choose to revert from Islam.

But was it wrong to fight against those who reverted during the earlier period after the Prophet? No, because those reversions were politically motivated. The same stance won’t be appropriate against later generations, who apostatize exercising their freedom of religion/faith.

The early Muslim position on apostasy, … , was directed not against freedom of conscience and belief but toward enforcing the policy of Islamization of the warring Bedouin tribes and toward checking conspiracy.41

The same jurists and scholars who believe apostasy is a punishable offence (and the punishment is death) also generally believe that it is incumbent upon Muslims, at least collectively, to do da’wah or propagate Islam. After all, it is a Qur’anic duty.

Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right, and forbidding what is wrong: They are the ones to attain felicity. [3/Ale Imran/104]

Yet the point is, do those who believe that apostasy is punishable by death invite people to embrace Islam with explicit warning that anyone considering conversion to Islam should remember it is a one-way street: there is no way back? Indeed, a business-like approach of the Qur’an requires that at the time of embracing Islam, every such individual should be given full disclosure about its ramifications including that it is irreversible, except for reversion through punishment by death.

In learning about Islam people should turn to the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet. They should assess the thoughts, opinions and positions of others after the Prophet in light of the Qur’an and Sunnah, not the other way around. Indeed a conscientious approach, faithful to the fundamental principles and values of Islam, confirms there is no punishment for apostasy, except what a person may encounter from God in the other world. In this world we recognize and accord full respect to the principle of freedom of faith (or lack thereof) for ALL.



Fairness and the Principle of reciprocity

God has no interest in human beings’ “forcing” of people in regard to faith. This is categorically stated in the Qur’an.

If it had been thy Lord’s will, they would all have believed,- all who are on earth! Will you then compel mankind, against their will, to believe! [10/Yunus/99]

The fundamental principle of freedom of faith is unambiguously stated in the Qur’an.

Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy [2/al-Baqarah/256]

Treason against a polity by one of its members and apostasy are not interchangeable matters. Hence punishment for apostasy or forcing people to revert with a rope on their neck is indeed unislamic.

Islam also places pivotal importance on the notion of justice in a universal sense.

O ye who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for Allah can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest ye swerve, and if ye distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily Allah is well-acquainted with all that ye do. [4/An Nisa/135]

If Muslims do believe in fairness, then those who argue or assert that apostasy is punishable by death should also answer the following question: If Muslims are to mete out the punishment of apostasy as the orthodox position claims would they also agree, if non-Muslims impose the same penalty on those who give up their faith and convert to Islam? If not, then, how does that represent fairness and justice?


Indeed the Qur’an specifies no punishment for apostasy. Hadith refers to only those cases that involved political treason, not apostasy. Also, these hadiths are not mutawatir and thus do not yield certainty of knowledge. In addition, there is no ijma or consensus on this. On the contrary, even some Classical jurists have rejected such punishment.

Of greater importance is the fact that the Qur’an is explicit and insistent about the freedom of faith for all. If Islam upholds the freedom of choice in faith and if “Let there be no compulsion in deen” means anything, then orthodox position on apostasy is unacceptable and unislamic. There is no ambiguity about it. In this world we make precious choices. Muslims should propagate their faith to the best of their ability: Islam in its essence represents the ultimate truth. Nonetheless we are also to respect each other’s right to choose in this world. Muslims’ responsibility is sincere and capable propagation. And most assuredly there is no provision for compulsion of faith in Islam – before embracing the faith or after.42

**Mohammad Omar Farooq (PhD) is Associate Professor of Economics and Finance, Upper Iowa University, USA

For further information about Muslims’ initiative
to affirm the Freedom of Faith in Islam, please visit http://apostasyandislam.blogspot.com.

1 For several case of such apostasy related fatwa or prosecution, see “Apostasy (irtidad) in Islam: The act in which a Muslim abandons Islam.”

2 Typical of most aspects of Islamic law, and contrary to the popular claims or assertions, there is no consensus on such issues. In this case, one of the prominent Maliki jurists, Ibn Rushd does not differentiate between male and female in regard to the punishment for apostasy. Ibn Rushd al-Hafid al-Andalusi, Bidayatu Mujtahid wa Nihayatul Muqtasid, vol. 2 (Cairo: Maktaba al-Khanji, 1994) p. 383, quoted at http://al-islam.org/short/apostasy/7.htm, fn#20. For an eye-opening essay about ijma (consensus), see Mohammad Omar Farooq, The Doctrine of Ijma: Is there a consensus? [unpublished essay, June 2006]

3 Abdur-Rahman al-Jazairi, al-Fiqh ‘alal Madhahibil Arba’ah, vol. 5, p. 423-425, quoted at http://al-islam.org/short/apostasy/7.htm.

4 Al-Shafi’i. Al-Shafi’i’s Risala: Treatise on the Foundations of Islamic Jurisprudence [translated by Majid Khadduri; Cambridge, UK: The Islamic Texts Society, 2nd Edition, 1987], p. 290

5 Al-Shafi’i’s Risala, p. 247.

6 Taqiuddin al-Nabahani. “The System of Islam,” Hizbut Tahrir, p. 116, available online.

7 That people are born as Muslims or non-Muslims is an even more fundamental misunderstanding. One can say that a person is born in a Muslim or non-Muslim family, but not as a Muslim or non-Muslim. see Mohammad Omar Farooq, “Being born as a Muslim: Is there such as thing?” [comments posted at an internet forum].

8 Dr. M. Muhsin Khan translates Zanadiqa [plural of Zindiq] as “atheists”, which is inaccurate.

9 This is a common example of interpretive translations that do not truthfully convey the literal meaning of the original text. The literal meaning of the actual text – man baddala dinahu, faqtuluh – says “’Whoever changed his religion, then kill him.”

10 Mohammad Omar Farooq. “Islamic Law and the Use and Abuse of Hadith,” Unpublished essay, June 2006.

11 Mohammad Hashim Kamali. Freedom of religion, online excerpts from Freedom of Expression in Islam, Islamic Text Society, 1997.

12 Also, see Sahih Muslim, # 3191.

13 M. E. Subhani. Apostasy in Islam [New Delhi, India: Global Media Publications, 2005], pp. 23-24.

14 S. A. Rahman. Punishment of Apostasy in Islam [New Delhi, India: Kitab Bhaban, 1996], pp. 85-86.

15 Mahmoud Ayoub. “Religious freedom and the law of Apostasy in Islam,” Islamochristiana = Islamiyat Masihiyat, Vol. 20, 1994, pp. 75-91.

16 Abdullah Seed and Hassan Saeed. Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam [Ashgate, 2004] p. 68.

17 Musannaf Abdur Razzaq, pp. 171-10, cited in M. E. Subhani,Apostasy in Islam (New Delhi, India: Global Media Publications, 2005), pp. 23-24. Abdur Razzaq ibn Humama (d. 211 AH). This is the earliest musannaf (a hadith collection arranged in topical chapters) work in existence.

18 Mohammad Omar Farooq. “The Doctrine of Ijma: Is there a consensus?” Unpublished essay, June 2006.

19 Kamali, online excerpts, referring to Ibn Taymiyah, al-Sarim al-Maslul ‘ala Shatim al-Rasul, p. 321; al-Shawkani, Nayl al-Awtar, VII, p. 230. Notably, even though al-Nakha’i rejected any capital punishment, he considered it okay to keep the apostates imprisoned until he repents. Thus, the only part of al-Nakha’i’s view relevant is that he rejected capital punishment for apostasy. But he still approved legal prosecution of apostasy, which is fundamentally at variance with the Islamic principle of freedom of faith and conscience.

20 Kamali, online excerpts, referring to AI-Sha’rani, Kitab al-Mizan, II, p. 152

21 Kamali, online excerpts, referring to AI-Sarakhsi, al-Mabsut, X, p. 110

22 Kamali, online excerpts.

23 Kamali, online excerpts, referring to AI-‘Ili, al-Hurriyyah, p. 426; Badawi, Da’a’irn al-Hukm, p.166.

24 Kamali, online excerpts, referring to Shaltut, al-Islam ‘Aqidah wa-Shari’ah, pp. 292-93; al-Samara’i, Ahkam al-Murtadd fi al-Shari’ah al-Islamiyyah, p. 114 f

25 Kamali, online excerpts, referring to Mahmassani, Arkan, pp. 123-24

26 Quoting Ibn al-Qayyim. I’lam al-Muwaqqi’in, pt. 2, p. 179. For details, see my essay The Doctrine of Ijma: Is there a consensus?.

27 Kamali, online excerpts.

28 Kamali, online excerpts.

29 AbdulHamid A. AbuSulayman. The Islamic Theory of International Relations: New Directions for Islamic Methodology and Thought [Herndon, VA: The International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1987], p. 100.

30 AbuSulayman, p. 102.

31 AbuSulayman, p. 104.

32 AbuSulayman, p. 105

33 Mohammad Omar Farooq. “Islamic Law and the Use and Abuse of Hadith,” Unpublished essay, June 2006.

34 Ibid.

35 Mohammad Omar Farooq. “Shariah, Law and Islam: Legalism vs. Value-orientation,” Unpublished essay, October 2006.

36 Ibid.

37 Apostasy and Islam Blog at http://apostasyandislam.blogspot.com.

38 The Qur’an, 83/al-Mutaffifin/1-4; 10/Yunus/61.

39 Yahya Abdur Rahman. Lariba [online book]

40 Mohammad Shafi. “Business and Commerce in the Qur’an,” [online document]

41 AbuSulayman, p. 104

42 Mohammad Omar Farooq. “Freedom and Choice: The First Order Condition of Islam,” Message International [July 2004].


5 Responses to “Apostasy, Freedom and Da’wah”

  1. September 17, 2007 at 8:23 pm

    It is true that Qur’an do not allow to punish apostates in this world. God is the only authority to judge the apostates’ situation hereinafter, however, philosophy of freedom of faith in the Qur’an is not as same as indicated in United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights(1948), since Article 18 of the Declaration openly violates the Qur’anic principle on apostasy:

    “Article 18- Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

    In this regard, according to my understanding, Qur’an, with a definite confident, is challenging to those who is thinking of to revert from Islam simply by not indicating any worldly punishment for this sin, similar to shirk. Shirk is one of the three sins which Qur’an specifies CANNOT BE FORGIVEN under any circumstances: APOSTASY, MURDER and SHIRK.

    In sum, a Muslim, either born as a Muslim or accepts Islam later in her/his life simply CANNOT revert from Islam once he/she become a Muslim.

    Qur’an orders broad, but limited freedom of belief by excluding APOSTASY from this broad freedom without any doubt.

    Please do not be confused.

  2. September 17, 2007 at 9:00 pm

    I wanted to mention one more time that, APOSTASY is a wrongful path which ends at ETERNAL PUNISHMENT hereinafter same as SHIRK, without being left GOD’S MERCY AND FORGIVENESS ENDLESSLY. Please do not be confused and do not confuse others.

  3. 3 koranist
    September 18, 2007 at 11:09 am

    The hadith said a Jew converted to islam then reverted. However the theology of a Jew is the same as Islam.

    Not all of them are alike; a party of the people of the Scripture stand for the right, they recite the Verses of God during the hours of the night, prostrating themselves in prayer. They believe in God and the Last Day; they enjoin good and forbid wrong; and they hasten in good works; and they are among the righteous. And whatever good they do, nothing will be rejected of them; for God knows well those who are God fearing. 3:113-115

    And there are, certainly, among the people of the Scripture, those who believe in God and in that which has been revealed to you, and in that which has been revealed to them, humbling themselves before God. They do not sell the Verses of God for a little price, for them is a reward with their Lord. Surely, God is Swift in account. 3:199

    Verily! Those who believe and those who are Jews and Christians, and Sabians, whoever believes in God and the Last Day and do righteous good deeds shall have their reward with their Lord, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve . 2:62

    Say: “O People of the Book! Ye have no ground to stand upon unless ye stand fast by the Law, the Gospel and all the revelation that has come to you from your Lord, If only they had stood fast by the Law, the Gospel, and all the revelation that was sent to them from their Lord, they would have enjoyed happiness from every side. There is from among them a party on the right course: But many of them follow a course that is evil. (5,68-69)

    Let the People of the Gospel judge by what God hath revealed therein. If any do fail to judge by (the light of) what God hath revealed, they are (no better than) those who rebel. (5,47)

    But why do they come to thee for decision, when they have (their own) Law before them?- Therein is the (plain) command of God; yet even after that, they would turn away. For they are not (really) people of faith. (Surah 5, Maida, verse 43)

    The koran never condemns the Torah, but it condemned the Talmud which has the same place as hadiths Sunni Islam and both emerged the same way.

    Read my link:


  4. September 18, 2007 at 6:44 pm

    I agree.

    All the scriptures revealed from God is the part of a total. Qur’an never asks Christians or Jews to ignore their Book, however, Qur’an has sent to humanity to VERIFY the prior scriptures and also to CORRECT their forgotten, changed or replaced passages and sections.(2:41, 89, 91, 3:17, 10:68, 19:88-92, 6:92, 10:111, 5:13,14, 35:31, 3:78, 3:187)

    There is not going to be another scripture or prophet or messenger, so if there is still war, hunger, murder, blood, pollution, abuse, etc. on the earth, we, ALL including those Muslims who claim that they are the rightest one, are STILL doing something wrong.

    Let’s try to find what we are doing or believing wrong instead of spending our energy to convince each other everyone else is wrong except ourselves.


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