Islam and Apostasy
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Apostasy (ارتداد, irtidād and ردة ridda), or leaving the religion, is a serious offense in Islam. Rejecting any part of Islamic doctrine, whether derived from the Quran or from what are held by Islamic scholars to be incontrovertibly reliable hadith, amounts to apostasy. The punishment for apostasy as prescribed by Muhammad and as delineated in all four schools of Islamic law is execution. Numerous Sahih (authentic) hadiths attribute this punishment as explicitly prescribed by Muhammad. In Sahih Bukhari, for instance, it is recorded that “Allah's Apostle said, 'Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him'”. Apostasy is also famously one of only three reasons, according to Muhammad, for which killing a Muslim is permitted. One who commits apostasy is called a murtad (مرتد, or 'apostate'). One who hides his apostasy is referred to as a munāfiq (منافق, or 'hypocrite').
Islamic law draws heavily on the desert tribal norms that characterized its birthplace in 7th century Arabia. In this context, as in much of the ancient world, religion was a primarily communal rather than personal affair - commitment to the belief system of one's people was at the same time the basis of one's membership among those people. To abandon one's religion was to renounce not only a system of belief, but also (in the absence of strong secular notions of nationhood) the the society or community that was founded upon that belief. Thus, the norm in Arabia at the birth of Islam was to view apostasy as tantamount to a form of treason and renunciation of one's belonging to one's community. This did not, however, merit execution in all cases. After all, Muhammad himself was allowed to live in Mecca despite abandoning the 'religion of his forefathers', even if he was made to face some amount of persecution. Once Muhammad's movement of military conquest based out of Medina began, however, his group of believers was in a constant state of war with his neighbors. Since Muhammad cemented rather than overturned most of the contemporary tribal norms, this meant that apostasy at any point amounted to treason during a state of war, and thus merited execution. Islamic scholars, drawing on Muhammad's life, took these norms and turned them into the perennial dictates of Islamic law. Even among classical scholars born hundreds of years after Muhammad, the Islamic caliphate was held to be in what was essentially a perpetual state of conquest, based on the Dar al-Harb and Dar al-Islam (the Abode of War and the Abode of Peace) dichotomy, perpetuating the justification of this ruling. Since Islamic law is unchanging, however, and since a collapse of the Islamic state was not anticipated, the overwhelming majority of traditional Islamic scholars today continue to hold execution as the proper punishment for apostasy. Today, the punishment for apostasy is execution in 11 Muslim-majority countries and is outlawed and otherwise punishable in many, many more.
In early Islam
There are no accounts in the hadith considered authentic by traditional Islamic scholars of Muhammad executing apostates, largely due to the absence of individuals apostatizing during Muhammad's life. Academic historians have also shown that, despite the pretensions Islamic orthodoxy, Muhammad's original criteria for one to qualify as a 'believer' was in all likelihood a minimal monotheistic faith rather than the outright acceptance of the entirety of the Quran or Muhammad's individual dictates, which may account for the lesser number of apostates. Nonetheless, there is an incident in Sahih Bukhari where Muhammad is reported to to have banished a Bedouin who expressed the desire to discard his religion. This may, however, be due moreso to the very early Medinan stage of Islam at which this event is said to have taken place, a time when most of Islamic law and doctrine had not yet been formulated, rather than what the Islamic tradition holds to have been Muhammad's ultimate judgement on apostasy.
The ruling of execution given by Muhammad according to numerous hadith falls into sharp relief upon Muhammad's death and under the caliphate of Abu Bakr, when thousands of converts to Islam "apostatized" and were summarily killed in what became known as the Riddah (lit. "apostasy") Wars (632–633 CE). These "apostates" had, in fact, only refused to pay the Zakat tithe and not openly renounced Islam. Refusing to accept even a single part of Islamic doctrine, however, is considered apostasy, and Abu Bakr dealt with them as such, reportedly prompted by a Quran 9:5, which commands Muslims to embattle Islam's enemies until they surrender the tithe and commit to offering prayers. Abu Bakr did not bring the bloody Riddah Wars to an end until all the apostates were either killed or had reverted to Islam. Several other narrations report Muhammad's companions (sahabah) implementing his command and executing atheists, Christians, and Jews for leaving Islam.
By the time of the Abbasid Empire, execution for apostasy as well as for aiding and abetting the crime had become routine. Amira K. Bennison, a Cambridge historian, records the following incident:
In Islamic law and scripture
In the Qur'an
The Qur'an does not assign a specific punishment for leaving the religion, as it does for instance for zina. Rather the Qur'an promises the punishment and wrath of Allah upon the believer who later leaves the faith:
This verse was, according to the traditional reckoning, revealed to the prophet in the case of 'Ammar ibn Yasir, a Mekkan who had been put under pressure of torture of himself and his family to renounce Islam. The prophet ruled that upon the end of this persecution, 'Ammar could be allowed back into the Muslim community. This is a stark departure from the Christian tradition, which sees holding fast to the faith under persecution as the ultimate virtue of the believer. This story and verse would end up providing the grounding for the (largely realized as Shi'ite) doctrine of Taqiyya. Although usually thought of as a Shi'a idea, ibn Kathir himself provides grounding for this idea:
As such, this verse provides for no hadd punishment for apostasy, but rather gives excuse to Muslims who have apostasized under pressure of persecution to return to the community when it is safe to do so.
In addition to providing a rational for fighting the mushrikeen (idolators or unbelievers), this verse again deals with the punishment in the hereafter of those who leave the faith and lacks any mention of the punishment to be meted out to unbelievers. Qurtubi notes in his tafsir on this verse:
month. Others say that they are asked to repent three times. That is related from ‘Umar and ‘Uthmān and that is the view of Mālik. Ibn al-Qāsim related it from him. Al-Ḥasan said they are asked a hundred times. It is also said that they are killed without being asked to repent. Ash-Shāfi‘ī says that in one of his two views and it is one of the positions of Ṭāwūs and ‘Ubayd ibn ‘Umayr. Saḥnūn mentioned that ‘Abd al-‘Azīz ibn Abī Salmah al-Mājishūn said that apostates are killed without being asked to repent. He argues that based on the ḥadīth of Mu‘ādh and Abū Mūsā. It says: ‘When the Prophet f sent Abū Mūsā to Yemen, he sent Mu‘ādh ibn Jabal after him. When he came to him, he dismounted and Abū Mūsā gave him a cushion. There was a man in shackles beside him. Mu‘ādh asked, “Who is this?” He replied, “He is a Jew who became Muslim and reverted and returned to Judaism.” He stated, “I will not sit down until he is killed. This is the judgment of Allah and His Messenger.” “Sit,” Abū Mūsā said. He repeated, “No, I will not sitdown until he is killed. This is the judgment of Allah and His Messenger.” He said it three times and he commanded that he be killed.’ Muslim and others transmitted it.
Qurtubi clearly believes that some manner of punishment is due for apostates, but justifies his belief in this punishment with reference to the hadith. It's clear that Qurtubi does not see the Qur'an itself as supporting this punishment and feels the need to reach outside of it into other traditions in order to justify this recieved belief.
In the four schools
Islamic jurisprudence is derived from the reported words of Muhammad, especially as interpreted and implemented by the Rashidun ("rightly guided") Caliphs and his other companions.
Imam Abu Hanifa’s prescription, as found in his student al-Shaybani's Kitab al-Siyar, grants the apostate a period of three days to revert back to Islam before facing the death penalty. All four schools of Sunni jurisprudence are in agreement with this ruling, with only slight variations on whether and how the grace period and punishment are to be applied to females. The Hanafi school of jurisprudence, the most popular school of jurisprudence in the world today, holds that female apostates form an exception to the rule and, rather than being killed, ought to be beaten every three days and put under confinement until death or repentance, while the remaining Shafi'i, Maliki, and Hanbali schools all agree the verdict for the female apostate is the same as for the male. In Shia Islam, according to the Ja'fari school, the male is to be executed, but females imprisoned and beaten at the times of the daily prayers (salah). All four schools also hold that the apostate must be: performing an act of free will, of adult age (beyond the puberty, in Islamic law), is of sound mind, and acting intentionally. It is important to note that the Islamic ruling on apostasy only applies to apostates from Islam, not to those who apostatize from other religions, and especially not to those who apostatize from other religions in order to convert to Islam, as this final act is considered to be highly meritorious.
The specific rulings for the four Sunni schools as well as the Ja'fari school of Shia Islam are as follows:
- The Hanafi school recommends three days of imprisonment before execution to allow repentance and reversion, although the delay before killing the apostate is not mandatory. Male apostates must be executed, while female apostates must be held in solitary confinement and beaten every three days until they recant and return to Islam.
- The Maliki school allows a waiting period of three days for repentance and reversion, after which the apostate must be killed. This applies to both males and females.
- The Shafi'i school requires a waiting period of three days for repentance and reversion, after which the apostate must be killed. This applies to both males and females.
- The Hanbali school recommends a waiting period of three days for repentance and reversion. Then, the apostate is to be invited three times to repent and revert. If the apostate refuses this invitation, they must be executed. This applies to both males and females.
- The Ja'fari school does not require a waiting period, but allows one to be granted if the apostate was born a disbeliever (rendering them a murtad al-milli). Male apostates must be executed, while female apostates must be held in solitary confinement and beaten at the times of the daily prayers and restricted to light rations of food until she repents and reverts.
Civil law penalties for apostates who are imprisoned, awaiting execution, or who have taken flight have also been prescribed. In all school other than the Hanafi school, the apostate's right to dispose of property is suspended pending repentance. An apostate also loses the right to inherit (from anyone, Muslim or otherwise). The four schools and the individual jurists within them differ on whether all an apostate's property goes to their Muslim heirs, or just that acquired before his apostasy (if the apostate is a male). The apostate's marriage contract is annulled upon the act of apostasy, even if they repent, or is suspended pending repentance for the length of the wife's 'waiting period' in the Shafi'i school (if their marriage was already consummated) and Shia Ja'fari school (if the apostate was born a disbeliever).
In scripture and scholarly writing
Authoritative Islamic sources (the Qur'an, hadith, and both classical and modern scholars) have commented at length on what constitutes apostasy and how apostates are to be dealt with.
Ali burnt some people and this news reached Ibn 'Abbas, who said, "Had I been in his place I would not have burnt them, as the Prophet said, 'Don't punish (anybody) with Allah's Punishment.' No doubt, I would have killed them, for the Prophet said, 'If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him.'"
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."
Modern revisionary perspectives
A select few modern Islamic scholars, flouting more a millennium of scholarly consensus, have interpreted Quran 2:256 as annunciating a principle which, they say, overrides all scriptural commandments with contrary implications. The Islamic scholars espousing this revision point to reports of apostates who were permitted to continue living during Muhammad's lifetime, despite his ruling. They also reference a small number of early Islamic figure who punished apostasy with punishments lesser than the death penalty. These scholars also read the version of one relevant hadith which prescribes execution for those individuals who leave Islam and "the Muslims" as only being applicable in a context where the apostate's 'leaving the Muslims' amounts to political treason. Interestingly, however, for many of these scholars, speaking openly about one's apostasy in an Islamic state is considered a type of insurrectionary treason which necessarily seeks to undermine the political order.
While this revisionary perspective has had effectively no purchase among establishment traditionalists and has widely been ridiculed as an instance of 'succumbing to Western influence', it has nonetheless helped a number of modern Muslims, especially those living in liberal cultures in the West, reconcile their faith with the dictates of modern society.
In the Muslim world
Popular Muslim opinion
2013 Pew poll
A Pew poll released on April 30, 2013 asked Muslims in 39 countries between 2008 and 2012 questions about religion, politics and society based on 38,000 face-to-face interviews. In one question, asked in 37 of these countries with a combined Muslim population of just over 1 billion people, the survey asked participants whether they favored or opposed the death penalty for leaving Islam. Using the complete dataset for this question on page 219 of the full report, and weighing the responses by Muslim population indicates that overall, 40% of Muslims in these countries favor the death penalty for apostasy from Islam. The percentage was below 10% in Central Asia, Turkey and Balkan countries included in the survey. It was above 50% in Afghanistan (79%), Egypt (88%), Jordan (83%), Malaysia (58%), Pakistan (75%), Palestinian Territories (62%), and Djbouti (62%).
One noteworthy mistake has frequently been made by commentators on the 2013 Pew poll, likely as a result of neglecting the full dataset made available by Pew at the of the report. The table found in chapter one of the report shows support for the death penalty for apostasy among those who answered that they were 'in favor of Sharia in their country' in an earlier question. Multiplying the percentages in these two tables yields significantly lower percentages compared to those mentioned above (Egypt, for example appears by this calculation to have 64% support for the death penalty, and overall support in the countries surveyed falls to approximately 35% after weighing by Muslim population). This approach fails to accounts, however, for the support for the apostasy death penalty among those who answered that they 'do not support' or 'don't know whether they support' Sharia being the official law in their country, which, perhaps surprisingly, makes a significant difference. Only the table on page 219 of the report reveals support for the apostasy death penalty for all respondents in each country. This was confirmed by an independent analysis of the data and correspondence with Pew's Director of International Survey Research. Nevertheless, a strong correlation can be seen in the results for the two questions on support for Sharia and support for the death penalty for apostates.
Changes since 2013
It is possible and even likely that support for the penalty has fallen in the years since the survey was conducted due to near-global outrage at the actions of ISIS and subsequent attempts by leading Muslim figures to distance Islam from the actions of that group. A similar decline in support may also have resulted from generally the negative experience of Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt between 2011 and 2013.
Persecution of apostates
Apostates from Islam are regularly persecuted and killed in the Muslim world. While a great deal of this violence comes from government authorities, an equally great deal (if not the majority) of this violence is meted out by private citizens, often including the victim's family members and persons though to be friends. Very often, those operating outside the bounds of or on independent behalf of the law, in this respect, are allowed by the government to act with impunity. Similar persecution and even murder has recently been observed among Western Muslim diasporas. In 2007, for instance, the daughter of a British Imam was taken under police protection after receiving death threats from her father (a leader of a mosque in Lancashire) for converting to Christianity.
Apostasy and human rights
In 2005, the ex-Muslim writer Ibn Warraq presented a paper at the panel discussion on "Apostasy, Human Rights, Religion and Belief" held at the the 60th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights on April 18th, 2005 in Geneva, Switzerland. The following is an excerpt:
Similarly, IV. 89: "They would have you disbelieve as they themselves have disbelieved, so that you may be all like alike. Do not befriend them until they have fled their homes for the cause of God. If they desert you seize them and put them to death wherever you find them. Look for neither friends nor helpers among them..." Baydawi [d. c. 1315-16], in his celebrated commentary on the Koran, interprets this passage to mean: "Whosover turns back from his belief (irtada), openly or secretly, take him and kill him wheresoever ye find him, like any other infidel. Separate yourself from him altogether. Do not accept intercession in his regard". Ibn Kathir in his commentary on this passage quoting Al Suddi [d. 745] says that since the unbelievers had manifested their unbelief they should be killed.
The number recent apostates is unprecedented in the history of Islam.
According to one estimate made in 2000, In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, 6 million Muslims leave Islam every year. In the recent past, Christianity has traded places with Islam as the majority faith of the African continent.
According to a Pew survey conducted in 2014, "About a quarter of adults who were raised Muslim (23%) no longer identify as members of the faith, roughly on par with the share of Americans who were raised Christian and no longer identify with Christianity (22%)". According to a Pew survey conducted in 2017, "a similar estimate (24%) of the share of those who were raised Muslim but have left Islam". According to the 2017 survey, 55% of these ex-Muslims thereafter identified with no religion, 22% converted to Christianity, 21% became "something else", and 3% said they "didn't know" how to describe themselves.
- Apostasy - Answering Islam
- Questions about Apostasy (Blasphemy) - Al Sunna.org
- Quran 2:85
- M. Muhsin Khan (Translator) - Sahih Bukhari Volume 9, Book 84 - Dealing with Apostates, Number 57 - USC-MSA, Compendium of Muslim Texts
- M. Muhsin Khan (Translator) - Sahih Bukhari Volume 9, Book 83 - Blood Money (Ad-Diyat), Number 17 - USC-MSA, Compendium of Muslim Texts
- Abul Ala Maududi - The Punishment of the Apostate According to Islamic Law - Islamic Publications Ltd., Lahore, 1963
- M. Muhsin Khan (Translator) - Sahih Bukhari Volume 9, Book 84 - Dealing with Apostates, Number 58 - USC-MSA, Compendium of Muslim Texts
- 'Abdurrahmani'l-Djaziri - The Penalties for Apostasy in Islam According to the Four Schools of Islamic Law - "The Case of the Female Apostate" (Pg. 19)
- Peters, R.and G.J.J.De Vries (1976-77), 'Apostasy in Islam'. Die Welt des Islams 17, 1/4:1-25 [dare.uva.nl/document/228850 pdf of the article] or jstor article with free read access
- webcitation archive Sunni books of jurisprudence (translations) quoted in The Rationaliser, Apostasy in Islam, 2014
- imam-khomeini.ir Imam Khomeini, Tahrir al-Wasilar Volumie IV (English translation), Tehran: Institute for Compilation of Imam Khomeini's works, 2011, p.255
- A Shiite Opinion on Apostasy - Originally from Kayhan International, March 1986
- islamqa.info Fatwah 134339: Effect of apostasy on marriage before and after consummation]
- The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society Pew Research Centre, 30 April 2013, p.219 (responses by country to the question on apostasy)
- Future Global Muslim Population Pew Research Centre, 2011, pp.156-163 (Estimated Muslim population by country in 2010)
- Check the original source! How so many writers got the facts wrong after the Maher vs. Affleck Islam debate Archive
- Survey Reports - The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society - Chapter 1: Beliefs about Sharia - Pew Research Center, April 30, 2013
- Imam's daughter in hiding after her conversion to Christianity sparked death threats - London Evening Standard, December 6, 2007
- Sheikh Ahmed Katani; Maher Abdullah, "al-Tansir fi Ifriqiya [Christianization in Africa]", Al Jazeera, 12/12/2000, https://www.aljazeera.net/programs/shareea/articles/2000/12/12-12-6.htm An English translation of the article has been made available here.
- Besheer Mohamed; Elizabeth Podrebarac Sciupac, "The share of Americans who leave Islam is offset by those who become Muslim", Pew Research Center, January 26, 2018 (archived from the original), https://web.archive.org/web/20200414092507/https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/01/26/the-share-of-americans-who-leave-islam-is-offset-by-those-who-become-muslim/