Freedom of Religion and Apostasy in Islam


By Dr. Ahmed Raysounī | Translated and Abridged by Suhaib Webb

This topic, as noted in the title, addresses two issues:

The first relates to freedom of religion in the general sense, namely, the right to choose ones faith prior to becoming Muslim. In this scenario there is absolutely no doubt that a person can embrace any religion they feel comfortable with. If they were a Christian, Jew or Zoroastrian, then that is their choice and they are free to live amongst the Muslims practicing their faith and no one can compel them to embrace Islam and leave their religion. Islamic history and current affairs bear witness to this. Every religion and faith group that resided in the lands which Islam entered still exists there today, and whoever wants to remain a member of one of those congregations is free to do so.

The second matter is the main subject of this lesson and that is the case of one who embraced Islam only to renounce it later. There is no doubt; this is a problematic issue in Islamic law. If classical legal scholars sought to solve this problem in light of their historical and political contexts, contemporary legal scholars are called to re-examine and re-evaluate this issue in light of their circumstances as well. Present-day scholars have taken up this challenge but with great caution and reverence due to the fact that earlier scholars came to a consensus, or seemingly reached one, as to the punishment for those who leave Islam.

Before I offer my thoughts on this issue, I would like to address the following points that will serve as an introduction to my conclusion:

1. The Qur’an mentions those who renounce Islam in a number of places without prescribing their worldly punishment

Allah says,

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” (Qur’an, 2:217).

Those who turn back as apostates after Guidance was clearly shown to them,- the Evil One has instigated them and busied them up with false hopes” (Qur’an, 47:25).

There is no question that the Qur’an pays actively prescribes punishments for certain criminal acts. It outlines the punishments for murder, theft, fornication and terrorizing the innocent. It, however makes no mention of the worldly punishment for apostasy, while maintaining its other worldly punishment in mention of it numerous times. How is this possible when, in comparison to other unlawful acts whose punishments are outlined in the Qur’an, apostasy is a greater offense? Does that not lead to the following:

  • The act in itself has no prescribed punishment in this life
  • Its case is different than other criminal acts outlined in the Qur’an

2. Apostasy was a strategy that made a mockery of the pure Islamic call. It was used by some Jews of Medina to motivate the polytheists and hypocrites breeding dissention within the community. The Qur’an exposes this trickery.

Allah says:

“And a party of the People of the Scripture says: Believe in that which hath been revealed unto those who believe at the opening of the day, and disbelieve at the end thereof, in order that they may return” (Qur’an, 3:72).

The Qur’an mentions the plans of the hypocrites in the following verse:

“When they meet those who believe, they say: “We believe;” but when they are alone with their evil ones, they say: “We are really with you: We (were) only jesting” (Qur’an, 2:14).

And:

“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” (Qur’an, 4:137).

3. The Prophetic traditions related to this issue reveal another angle to the strategy of apostasy that took place during Islam’s first generation. Apostasy during that time was not merely switching faiths, nor a simple change in creed or thinking. It was an act of sedition or renouncing one army for another which by default meant declaring war on the former. This is alluded to in a few authentic prophetic traditions the most famous being the statement of the Prophet (pbuh)“The blood of a Muslim is sacred save in three cases…”

Different Wording of This Hadith and Benefiting from Us̩ūl al-Fiqh

In the narration of the scholar al-Tirmidhi’s text on behalf of the Prophet’s companion, ‘Abdullah bin Mas’oud, we find the Prophet’s statement, “The blood of a Muslim is sacred save in three cases: murder, illegal fornication and the one who renounced Islam and fought against the community [of Muslims].” This statement of the Prophet did not restrict itself to “one who renounced Islam” but added “fought against the community” “abandoned the Muslims” or, in another narration, “rebelled against the Muslims.” This addition must then impact the ruling and bring about benefit.

The statement “fought against the Muslims” implies an act of war and insubordination against the Muslim community; and joining ranks with its enemies. This is clarified by the narration of Imām Abū Dawūd and Imām al-Nasāī on behalf of ‘Āisha who narrated that the Prophet said, “The blood of the Muslim who testifies that there is nothing worthy of worship save Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah, is not permissible to be spilt save in three cases: A man who commits adultery, he should be stoned and a man who sets out declaring war upon Allah and His messenger. He should be killed, crucified or expelled and if he murdered, he should be killed.”

In the narration of al-Nasāī and Imām al-Tahāwī in his text on problematic hadiths we find, “A man who renounced Islam declaring war upon Allah and His messenger. He should be killed, crucified or expelled from the land.”

These narrations serve to restrict and clarify the texts which allude to the general punishment of killing anyone who apostates. The general nature of the statement illustrates that the apostasy of a person who should be killed, was the kind related to insubordination and fighting against the Islamic community, linked to making mockery of the religion, while joining the ranks of the enemies of the Muslim community.

If this is the case, then the punishments for compound apostasy [coupled with insubordination] are not from the class of punishments that are fixed for certain crimes [Ar. Hudūd], rather they are from the class of discretionary punishments [Ar. t’azirāt] related to Shari’ah politics and executive orders. The orders were ultimately determined by the realities facing the Islamic state regarding stability, turmoil strength and weakness; in consideration of the overall societal harms caused by the apostate guilty of sedition.

As for plain apostasy, public or secret, this is not the apostasy mentioned in the Qur’an and the Prophet’s statements. Therefore, I understand that this type of apostasy is not related to the apostasy linked to the punishments mentioned above. Rather there is another group of texts that address this type of apostasy namely,

“There is no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an, 2:256).

This verse confirms, definitively, that there is absolutely no place in Islam for coercion; there is absolutely no room for it in areas of faith and that it could never serve as the platform for belief to flourish nor bring about any benefit. This is a certain fact which none can deny. Religion is based on faith: and faith is based on recognition and acceptance. It comes through affirmation, satisfaction and a tranquility which settles in the mind and heart.

Allah says,

Allah has endeared the Faith to you, and has made it beautiful in your hearts, and He has made hateful to you Unbelief, wickedness, and rebellion: such indeed are those who walk in righteousness”(Qur’an, 49:7).

If there were a place in Islam for coercion and forcing others to embrace it, then it would be for Allah [the Glorified] to do so. For He is the Unique, the Dominator, guiding whom He wills from disbelief to faith. And if He willed, he could guide all of humanity [to Islam]. However, from His majestic wisdom He refused to do so:

And if your Lord had pleased, surely all those who are in the earth would have believed, all of them; will you then force men till they become believers?” (Qur’an, 10:99)

“Say: Then Allah’s is the conclusive argument; so if He please, He would certainly guide you all” (Qur’an, 6:149).

“And if Allah had pleased, they would not have set up others (with Him) and We have not appointed you a keeper over them, and you are not placed in charge of them” (Qur’an, 6:107).

Therefore, if Allah [the Most High] did not coerce His creation towards belief in Him, nor did He permit His Prophet (pbuh) to do so instructing him, then how could He allow, or order, the leaders of the Muslims to force one to remain as a Muslim or return to it under the threat of death?

Remind them, for thou art but a reminder. You art not to manage (men’s) affairs” (Qur’an, 88:21-22).

Dr. Ahmad Ar-Raysouni is a professor of principles of Islamic jurisprudence at Moroccan Universities, and he is also a member of the Moroccan Scholars Association. Dr. Ar-Raysouni earned his PhD in Shari`ah in 1992. He is the author of many books on Islam, such as Nazariyyāt Al-Maqāsid `inda Al-’Imām Ash-Sh̄atib̄i, Madkhal ‘ila Maqāsid Ash-Shari`ah, Al-Ijtihād wa An-Nass wa Al-Maslahah wa Al-Waqi`

Originally published by Raissouni

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19 Comments

  1. abu majeed says:

    As-Salamau alaikum,

    Very thorough in gathering the texts and their indications. To someone of less knowledge,. like myself, it is quite convincing. All though we know of others more knowlegable than the
    author who don't see it that way. This opinion seems more reasonable in addition to its scholary depth. We all know that if someone left Islam in say Saudi Arabia, but never voiced it
    then there would be no punishment. The question remians what if somoene left Islam and voiced it or even called others to leave it and called toward a different religion, but as a
    peaceful member of the Muslim state?

  2. HR says:

    Asalam WR WB
    Based on the above, 'while joining the ranks of the enemies of the Muslim community.'
    Two questions naturally occur:
    1. would the countries who are attacking the Muslim lands today be considered its 'enemies'?
    2. joining the ranks would not necessarily imply militarily, but also economically, socially?

  3. J says:

    Wa alaykum as-salam, Imam Suhaib.

    May Allah [swt] reward you for your bravery in posting this.

    Fi aman Allah

  4. Pensive says:

    as-salamu 'alaikum,

    Yes I would definitely like to see the raised question responded to. Ok, what has piqued my interest is the issue whether punishment for apostasy is a 'hadd' or 'ta'zir'. Can we get more material, information on this issue?

    (also, what is the opinion held by SH. al-didou on this issue?)

    Jzakum Allahu khairan.

  5. Yus from the Nati says:

    Is he applying the following the usuli principle?

    “At-Tasees awla min at-ta'keed”.

    AKA

    “Establishing a new meaning (with seemingly repetitive phrases) is given preference over reaffirming the same meaning”?

  6. Salmaan says:

    what the article fails to touch on at all is WHY there is an apparent need to review this topic in our times?

    What exactly is it about our times that should exempt a murtad from the punishment that the classical scholars reached ijma on?

    The whole premise the author began with was that “if they reviewed it in their times, so must we in ours!” – yet he fails to specify or establish any concrete reason as to why he makes such a statement.

    Further he gives absolutely no reason or understanding as to why or how, when the greatest ulema of the nation of muhammad have reached ijma on an issue, it is actually permissible (or advisable!) to break with the ijma of scholars who without doubt were greater scholars than the author himself.

    Its ironic that when groups break with ijma of the classical scholars on issues such as the impermissibility of rising up/revolting against the leader of the state (mentioned by imam nawawi in his sahih muslim [i believe]) everyone is up in arms about this fringe groups who dont know our religion and contravene the ijma and you dont see any modern jurists writing articles to disagree with this ijma from the classical ulema yet when its a topic such as the execution of murtadeen – which the vast majority of our greatest ulema agreed upon – every is suddenly willing to challenge the ijma of the classical imams on the issue.

    Lastly, do you really think the classical ulema neglected this possible meaning or understanding when they formulated their opinions and fatawa on the issue? Do you really think the most eminent and qualified shuyukh of our nation missed this possible interpretation of the evidences and on what basis does the author disprove the validity of the classical opinion for use in our times and put forward his own opinion?

    Seems rather lacking an article if you ask me.

    • Muslimerican says:

      As-salaamu alaykum.

      Br. Salmaan, you asked, “What exactly is it about our times that should exempt a murtad from the punishment that the classical scholars reached ijma on?”

      This does not appear to be the case, actually. A number of jurists and leaders throughout history have taken the position outlined in this article.

      They include:

      Hadrat Umar Ibn Abdul Aziz [d. 97 AH/720 AD]
      [popularly known as Umar II and regarded as part of the Khulafa-i-Rashidoon]

      Ibrahim al-Nakha’i [d. 95 AH]
      [a leading jurist and traditionist among the generation succeeding the Companions]

      Sufyan al-Thawri [d. 161 AH]
      [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]

      Shams al-Din al-Sarakhsi [d. 389 AH]
      [An eminent Hanafi jurist and author of al-Mabsut]

      Abu Al-Walid Al-Baji [d. 474 AH]
      [a noted Maliki jurist; a contemporary of Imam Ibn Hazm]

      Imam Abu ‘Abdullah Al-Qurtubi [d. 1273 AD]
      [Eminent Malike Scholar of hadith and fiqh]

      Abu Hayyan al-Andalusi [d. 1355 AD]
      [Maliki scholar and author of Qur'anic commentary Bahrul Muhit]

      And Allah knows best.

  7. Yus from the Nati says:

    You do raise some interesting points as re: the double standard of fatawa and going against majority and/or established ijma'a (if there really is one on these matters? Allahualam)

    However in defense of the brother who wrote this piece. I'm sure this is either 1) a snippet or 2) a summarized essay? in regards to this issue…no?

    I mean I'm sure there is a paper out there outlining the Usuli principles used, when, why, how, history, blah blah. and if not…then I'm sure the brother (h) who wrote it, would KNOW those concerns you have listed above.

    Allahualam

  8. L says:

    I also find it interesting (and frequently point out to non-Muslims with “issues”) that a similar situation exists in the Qur’an (and the Sunnah to the best of my knowledge) regarding hijab. Although there is almost universal agreement on the obligation of hijab on each woman, there is no punishment for not wearing it. Furthermore in the verses dealing with women’s covering, it mentions that Allah is forgiving and merciful. I’d like to see this explored by you in the future.

  9. Maram says:

    An interesting article indeed. I observe that most matters pertaining to religion can be deciphered by human logic. It is thru this that Islam wins in relation to other religions! Islam appeals easily to simple human logic!
    Any issue that our simple logic finds difficulty to fathom will require a good revisit in our analysis of it. Irrespective of whether they have been discussed before by respected ulamas. They are humans, are they are not infallible? Even prophets make mistakes, and immediately corrected by Allah swt. Wallahuallam.

  10. Mike says:

    The author brings verses of the Holy Quran in order to establish his point, along with hadith and historical examples to support it. Why is that not enough for some people?

    I mean no offence, but the conclusions of scholars who died hundreds of years ago are not what we are going to be questioned about on the Day of Judgment.

  11. Paul Bartlett says:

    Salaam to all. An interesting article which I noticed only now due to a recent comment.

    In regard to the matter of apostasy of those who come to Islam and then who leave, more or less, in some way or another, it seems to me that there is not enough consideration of human weakness.

    Consider, please. A non-Muslim is genuinely attracted to Islam, although her/his understanding may be only superficial because of ineffective da’wah. Nevertheless, the attraction is genuine as far as it goes.

    However, the individual has issues. She or he may be weak in character, may have mental health issues, may already (as a non-Muslim) have substance abuse issues. Then she or he in all honesty and sincerity professes herself or himself a Muslim. Again, in all sincerity, regardless of what she or he understands, because (I speak from experience) some individuals are almost pressured to pronounce the words of the Shahada almost as if they are an end in themselves.

    Then this person (again, perhaps weak of character and/or understanding and maybe even mentally disturbed — it happens) is not well received into the Muslim community. That also happens, all too frequently (sadly) in North America. She or he with all of the personal problems and weaknesses flounders with no meaningful support.

    Let us be honest. For many people, it is not entirely easy to be a devout Muslim in many circumstances here in North America. If such a person is already weak and disturbed and receives no support from the community, is such a person to be blamed if she or he slips away from Islam?

  12. Mike says:

    I hear you Paul, thank you for your thoughts. As an American convert, I can relate to what you are saying. However, I would emphasize that each individual is really responsible for their own actions.

    However, with regard to the notion that apostates should be killed, I can tell you that no one mentioned it to me before I accepted Islam. When I found out about it I was horrified, even though I never had the notion of leaving Islam. It is really hypocritical of Muslims to accept this idea, and then complain about human rights abuses against us. What if the Christians, Jews or Hindus said “from now on we will kill anyone who becomes Muslim.” How would that sit?

    When I found out about it, I did not simply accept it or ignore it though, as I’ve seen many Muslims do. I tried to find out where the idea comes from, because as the author mentioned, it is nowhere in the Quran.

    I really think the scholars of Islam need to revisit this issue, and I’m glad some of them are doing so. The Quran states: “And do not insult those they invoke other than Allah , lest they insult Allah in enmity without knowledge….”

    If we are not allowed to even insult the false idols of non-Muslims, how can we even consider killing someone who changes their religion? How is it not insulting to the followers of a faith when we actually murder someone for adopting that faith?

    Furthermore, if you read the Quran, Chapter 4 (An-Nisa) verses 88-90, it seems to describe the problem on apostasy and its solution very clearly. Yes, it does describe the killing of apostates, but only those who actually take arms up against the Muslim community. Then it says “…Therefore if they withdraw from you but fight you not, and (instead) send you (Guarantees of) peace, then Allah Hath opened no way for you (to war against them).”

    Please someone explain why this verse of the Quran should be ignored while the opinions of dead scholars should be adopted without fully understanding their reasoning or circumstances? I am truly curious, please explain.

    I would love to hear the thoughts of the sheikh on these points.

  13. Mursyid says:

    This article failed to answer one basic fundamental question:

    Does ALLAH allows one leaving Islam? in other words does ALLAH allows Muslims to leave Islam as he/she pleases?

    • Mike says:

      That is the point of the article. Of course it is not allowed, it is considered to be disbelief. However, that does not mean the government has a right to execute the individual. Just as they don’t have a right to execute any other individual who is not Muslim.

  14. Family Members says:

    To put it another way than Mike:

    Yes, Allah allows leaving Islam. But one who does so must face the consequences – just as we must face the consequences of any action we do.

    The point of the article is that the consequences are faced in the hereafter, and not in this world (unless its a case of war/sedition).

    Nevertheless, lets be absolutely clear – the consequences faced in the hereafter will NOT be pretty…

    • Paul Bartlett says:

      Salaam to all. Allah (swt) knows best; I certainly do not. My question, as I raised before, is what about the case of someone who in all sincerity declared herself/himself Muslim, perhaps under severe urging (it happens), but who was weak in character, possibly laboring under a mental disturbance? I will in no way presume what will be the judgment of such a person in the Hereafter. I have no right to speculate on that, although I can hope that Allah (swt) will be merciful to such a troubled person. I only think that there are cases in which it is illegitimate for us limited and mortal humans, in accordance with Qur’anic principles as set out in this article, to presume to impose temporal punishment on such individuals.

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