The Reality of Apostasy in Islam

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The following article is taken from “The Reality of Apostasy in Islam” by Shaykh ‘Ali Juma’ahThe issue of executing apostates represents a great ambiguity for Westerners who think that Islam compels people to follow it.  They disregard the Muslims’ constitution concerning freedom of belief, which is found in His Saying,

Let there be no compulsion in religion.  Truth stands out clear from error ... (Surah al-Baqarah:256)

The issue of executing apostates can be examined from two vantage points.  The first is the theoretical legal text that permits the execution of Muslims who leave their religion and divide the community.

The other is the legislative implementation and the method of dealing with apostasy in the time of the Prophet (s.a.w.) and the caliphs.  In his own time the Prophet did not have ‘Abdullah ibn Ubay executed, even though he said, “If we were to return to Madina, the lower would expel the higher;” nor did he have Dzu al-Khuwaysirah at-Tamimi executed, even though he said, “Be just; you have not been just;” nor did he have executed the person who told him, “They say you refrain from transgressing, but transgression is your constant companion;” nor did he have executed the one who told him, “Allah’s Pleasure was not intended by this allotment;” nor did he have executed the one told him, “You would not have given Zubayr to drink first if he were not your cousin;” nor others from whom he was shown harm and disrespect.  All of these are expressions by which those who utter them apostatise, for they involve accusations of the Prophet (s.a.w.) of that which denies his trustworthiness and justice.

In not executing those mentioned, and others besides, there was great benefit towards bringing people together and not driving them away, both in the Prophet’s (s.a.w.) lifetime and continuing after his passing.  If it had reached people that he had his companions executed, they would have fled from him, something to which he alluded when ‘Umar (r.a.) indicated that he should have ‘Abdullah ibn Ubayy executed and he said, “People will not hear that Muhammad kills his companions.”

He did not use the means of avenging himself of and punishing the hypocrites which Allah (s.w.t.) had Permitted him as is related in Surah al-Ahzab:

Truly if the hypocrites, and those in whose hearts is a disease, and those who stir up sedition in the City, desist not, We shall Certainly Stir thee up against them: then will they not be able to stay in it as thy neighbours for any length of time:   They shall have a Curse on them: wherever they are found, they shall be seized and slain (without mercy). (Surah al-Ahzab:60-61)

That which Jabir ibn ‘Abdullah (r.a.) related is similar: a man from the desert pledged allegiance to the Prophet (s.a.w.).  The man took ill so he came to the Prophet (s.a.w.) and said, “Release me from my pledge,” but the Prophet (s.a.w.) refused; then the man came again to him and said, “Release me from my pledge,” but he refused; then the man came to him again and said, “Release me from my pledge,” but he refused.

The man left and the Prophet (s.a.w.) said, “Madina is like a forge, it removes its filth and makes it goodness known.”  The Prophet (s.a.w.) did not have him executed.  Why did he not execute all of these to whom the following Words of our Lord apply?

… but indeed they uttered blasphemy, and they did it after accepting Islam... (Surah at-Tawbah:74)

During the rule of the righteous caliphs, and more specifically during the rule of ‘Umar al-Faruq (r.a.) it is related that Anas (r.a.) returned from Tustar and approached ‘Umar (r.a.) who asked him, “What did the six groups from Bakr ibn Wa’il who made themselves apostates from Islam and joined the polytheists do?”

He responded, “O Commander of the Faithful, a group of people apostated themselves from Islam, joined the polytheists, and were killed in battle.”

‘Umar (r.a.) said, “Verily we are unto Allah, and to Him we are returning.”

Anas (r.a.) asked, “And was their fate other than to be killed?”

‘Umar (r.a.) replied, “Yes, I would have offered them Islam, and if they refused I would have put them in prison.”  He did not think it was necessary to have them executed even though they were apostates and fought against the Muslims.

These occurrences, which were during the age of legislation, caused Muslim jurists to understand the issue of “executing apostates” as not being linked with freedom of belief, freedom of thought, or persecution.  The source texts that strictly called for the imposition of such a punishment did not refer to leaving Islam as much as they referred to coming out against Islam.  It is this coming out against Islam which is considered a crime against the public order of the state, just as it is a coming out against the rulings of the religion that have been embraced by the community.  In this case apostasy is tantamount to high treason, which is forbidden by all legal systems, constitutions, and laws.

Shaykh Shaltut (r.a.), the Shaykh of al-Azhar Mosque previously held the opinion that the execution of apostates was not a corporal punishment, hadd, saying, “The perspective from which this issue is looked at may change if it is considered that many scholars hold that corporal punishments cannot be affirmed by a hadits narrated by one person, that disbelief alone does not make the shedding of one’s blood permissible, rather it is fighting against the Muslims, attacking them, and attempting to separate them from their religion, and the apparent meaning of the Qur’an in many verses rejects compulsion in religion.”

The execution of apostates was not just for apostasy, but for something in addition to it that divides the Muslim community by using apostasy to cause Muslims to leave their religion; this is waging war on religions as Allah (s.w.t.) Says:

A section of the People of the Book say, “Believe in the morning what is revealed to the believers, but reject it at the end of the day; perchance they may (themselves) turn back.” (Surah Ali ‘Imran:72)

This is also supported by what Shaykh ibn Taymiyyah (r.a.) mentioned: “The Prophet (s.a.w.) accepted the repentance of some apostates and ordered the execution of others who had added to their apostasy other matters that included doing ill and causing harm to Islam and Muslims.  For example, he ordered the execution of Maqis ibn Hubabah, the day Makkah was conquered, because in addition to his apostasy, he had killed Muslims and taken property and had not repented before his capture; he ordered the execution of al-Quraniyyun when they compounded their apostasy with similar matters as well; he ordered the execution of ibn Khatal when he compounded his apostasy with curses and the killing of Muslims; and he ordered the execution of ibn Abu as-Sarh when he compounded his apostasy with accusations and slander.”

From what has preceded it is clear that the issue of executing apostates is not actually applied in the reality of everyday life.  It is present in the sources of legislation not as a punishment preventing freedom of thought and belief, but rather as being subject to administrative law.  And Allah (s.w.t.) is Most High and Knows Best.


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