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Death for Apostate:Is It Islamic or Political?

November 12, 2010


Death penalty for apostasy is not new at all. Ancient cultures have practiced it for centuries and even some of our most revered religious texts, such as the Bible, approves of death punishment for apostasy. While many religious communities around the world, including Jews and Christians, have denounced such harsh punishment for apostates, why do Muslims still practice it? Is it Islāmic? Does Qur’an order it?Before beginning to discuss this matter, lets begin to analyze what was the possible reason for death penalty in the ancient times. This is important in order to understand why death penalty for apostasy is common in the Muslim-majority lands and whether it has anything to do with Islam itself.Lets look at some of the ancient cultures that killed apostates

There was no separation of religion and the state law. Romans believed that the worship of their idols was important to social unity. Anyone attempting to change such was working against the Roman society/the state. Christians of the Roman Empire could not abide by the polytheism of the Romans, and hence they were viewed as those wishing to harm the state. And that is why Christians were persecuted.

Catholic Church:
For centuries, the Catholic Church held control over majority of the modern Western States. Many people were forcibly converted to Christianity by the Church. Also, the Church carries the burden of its many crusades against various people to forcibly impose Catholicism of nations. Among many “heretics” (or apostates) of Catholicism were killed on mass, such as Cathars and Bogomils.

Ancient Israel:
Jewish Community was not innocent from death penalty for apostates either during the time where Judaism was blended into the state law of Israel. There are many clear, Biblical verses of the death punishment for apostates, one of which is this:
“And he that blasphemeth the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death, and the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the LORD, shall be put to death. (Leviticus 24:16)”

So, what about Islam?

The Muslim Holy Book—The Qur’an, does not command punishment for apostasy as shown by its many verses. Here are some who clearly show that there is no specific Islāmic punishment for apostasy in the Qur’an, except that God tells us that the apostates will be in Hell:

“There is a group of you who propagated the lie…” (Chapter an-Nur, verse 11)

“They swear to you by Allah in order to please you, but it would be more fitting for them to please Allah and His Messenger if they are believers.” (Ch. at-Tawba, v. 62)

“Among the people there are some who say, “We believe in Allah and the Last Day,” when they are not believers. They think they deceive Allah and those who believe. They deceive no one but themselves but they are not aware of it. There is a sickness in their hearts and Allah has increased their sickness. They will have a painful punishment on account of their denial.” (Ch. al-Baqara, v. 8-10)

“It is He Who sent down the Book to you from Him: verses containing clear judgements-they are the core of the Book-and others which are open to interpretation. Those with deviation in their hearts follow what is open to interpretation in it, desiring conflict, seeking its inner meaning. No one knows its inner meaning but Allah. Those firmly rooted in knowledge say, “We believe in it. All of it is from our Lord.” But only people of intelligence pay heed.” (Ch. Al ‘Imran, v. 7)

“Each time a sura is sent down there are some among them who say, “Which of you has this increased in faith?” As for those who believe, it increases them in faith and they rejoice at it.” (Ch. at-Tawba, 124)
“Each time a sura is sent down, they look at one another, implying, “Can anyone see you?” Then they turn away. Allah has turned their hearts away because they are people who do not understand.” (at-Tawba, 127)
“When they are told, “Come, and the Messenger of Allah will ask forgiveness for you,” they turn their heads and you see them turn away in haughty arrogance.” (al-Munafiqun, verse 5)

“When he is told to have fear of Allah, he is seized by pride which drives him to wrongdoing. Hell will be enough for him! What an evil resting-place!” (al-Baqara, verse 206)

“and he calls Allah to witness what is in his heart, while he is in fact the most hostile of adversaries.”( al-Baqara, v. 204)

“Even as he is now, so were you yourselves before till Allah conferred on you His Favours (i.e. guided you to Islam), therefore, be cautious in discrimination. Allah is Ever WellAware of what you do.” (Quran 4:94)

But, the contradictions come in the Hadiths (the traditional sayings of the Prophet and his life). Some of them state this, in support to the Qur’anic teaching of no compulsion in religion:

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, #318]

Other hadiths used by the Muslim supporters of death penalty for apostasy state that Prophet himself ordered apostates be killed.

So, what is the truth?

Based on many Qur’anic verses, it is clear that Islam itself differentiates between enemy non-believers, and non-believers who wish to live in peace with Muslims. Basically, the rule is if they leave you alone then you leave them alone. If they do not attack you first, you do not attack them first.

Qur’an deals a lot with hypocrisy (apostates) of some of the early members of the Muslim community as seen from the verses I have quoted. Yet, despite what is said about them in the Qur’an, their scheming, God does not command Muslim believers to punish the hypocrites despite the fact that He calls them unbelievers. And early Muslims have understood this well to mean that unless an apostate is actively working to harm the Muslim Community, he/she is not to be punished. One example of this is given in the Hadith traditions where Ali was said to have to fight against a rebellious group from the Muslim Community and after which he stated that the reason he fought them (killed them) was because they revolted (were harming the community).
Another hadith example was the story of a Muslim apostate who converted to Christianity, leaving for Abyssinia with his Muslim wife. There, he spoke many things against Islam, even claiming that he was the “author” of the Qur’an. He was not killed, and was not sought to be killed. His wife, still a Muslim, left him and returned to be with Muslims instead.

Muslim scholars, both of the past and today, have different opinions about the death punishment for apostates. Many who support death penalty look at various hadiths to find proof in them. Others resort to interpret the Qur’anic verses in a way that prescribed defensive war approach in the Qur’an is to mean to apply to apostates, too.

But certainly, if one looks at the history, it is clear that when a religion (whether polytheistic or monotheistic) or even a non-religious doctrine (i.e. communism) is blended with the state laws, any act of leaving, or acting against, such religion/state doctrine is considered to be treason by authorities. And very often, treason against the state is rewarded with the capital punishment or very long jail term. Islamic states are no exception. Apostates are viewed as the enemy of the state and the people. Certainly those apostates who have been public about their hate for Islam (i.e. Wafa Sultan, Ali Hirsi) are viewed as the enemy of their countries as they threaten their homelands’ current state laws and social order.

In America, we have no state religion even though  some of the country’s main principles are based on monotheism, specifically Christianity.  To us, it is abusrd to punish one for their beliefs. American laws do not punish one for being a member of a religion. But, we certainly would punish one in America if he/she desires to go against the country’s democracy and its ideals.

Imagine any American person who would engage in clear act of working against the current U.S. government, would plot to destroy the American people and its democratic social order, and maybe even actively harming the U.S.A. We all would say that such person is committing treason and as such should be punished by the country’s laws. American Taliban, John W. Lindh, comes to mind. He fought against the nation of America in Afghanistan and as such was arrested. He is currently serving 20 years in prison. It could be said that he was charged for treason.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Anon permalink
    April 8, 2012 9:59 pm

    I wonder why you disallowed my previous comment to be posted?

    How exactly can we understand what Quran and Sunnah says about the rule of apostasy, unless we refer to the scholars? You cannot abandon what scholars say, when they THEMSELVES cite from Quran and Sunnah to prove the death penalty. The same Quran says ask the people of knowledge. You also fail to realize the concept of Ijmaa’a, that if the concensus of scholars agree on a ruling, that ruling is true, based on an authentic narration collected by At-Tabaraani.

    Your YOURSELF are relying on the scholars, i.e. via the translations of Quran and hadith from the scholars. So, when you rely on these translations done by scholars of Arabic, why do you abandon the scholars when it comes to legal rulings. Amazing double standards.

    It’s analogous of a layman that is sick, that goes to a top medical book and tries to treat himself with medicine X, and saying to a load of doctors: “Should I follow your advice of taking medicine Y, over the medicine book I’ve read?”

    When the layman hasn’t even studied academically medicine under teachers and academic places of study, how he supposed to know what medicine can treat him, over the doctors?

    Similarly, when you’ve probably not even studied under the scholars to learn the many sciences of this religion, you are not able to derrive legal rulings.

    Your misunderstandings, misinterpretations and lack of knowledge over the Quranic verses and hadith you posted above, they’ve all been refuted for many centuries now in works that you probably have no access to. Your discussing issues way out of your league.

    • dreamadventurer permalink*
      August 22, 2013 10:26 am

      Well, you then write a blog on your own and argue how apostasy death penalty is allowed in Islam. What scholars are you referring to? Saudi Vahhabis? Find me quotes. Qur’an DOES NOT give justification for murder of apostates. I cited verses above that are clear in their intent. However, you and those who hold similar views to yours may choose to ignore them and focus instead on the verses that were directed to the war situations. You believe what you want. I have stated my opinions. A blog is about expressing one self. Yes, I am not a scholar, but so what? I have met many smart people in my life who have never been to school. And your argument about medicine is rather a weak one. There are many homeopathic remedies that do wonders compared to some modern day pills out there. There is always a balance of things. One side is not always right. I am an open minded person and am willing to evaluate what evidence do you have to provide.

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