In the Name of God, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful
You know, it never ceases to amaze me. I thought the overwhelming evidence in the Qur’an against the notion that the apostate is to be killed would be enough to end the matter. It has not, however.
Those who insist on believing that Islam demands the head of the apostate on a platter cite a number of Prophetic traditions that seem to suggest that all those who leave Islam must be killed. The clearest of these is this hadith in the collection of Bukhari:
“Whoever changes his religion, then kill him.”
Yet, why is it that no one seems to understand that this hadith was a particular commandment for a particular time, and it was not meant to be a general exhortation for all times? It is, in fact, a gross misunderstanding of this hadith which has led to numerous scholars – throughout the ages – to conclude that the apostate is to be killed.
This hadith, according to Asad Subhani – author of the book, Apostasy in Islam, and head of the Faculty of Islamic Studies in the College of Education in Zanzibar, Tanzania – was a command by the Prophet (pbuh) to counter a plan by the Jews of Medina to create turmoil and instability among the nascent Muslim community. Specifically, they had planned to have some of them embrace Islam for some time and then return to Judaism later on. Then others would do the same. This plan was even mentioned in the Qur’an:
And some of the followers of earlier revelation say [to one another]: “Declare your belief in what has been revealed unto those who believe [in Muhammad] at the beginning of the day, and deny the truth of what came later, so that they might go back [on their faith]; (3:72)
It is obvious that this hadith was not meant to be a perpetual commandment, because it is so generally worded that it would also require the execution of a Christian or a Jew who becomes a Muslim. This would make absolutely no sense if it were true.
Moreover, Asad Subhani regards only some of the hadith reports about killing apostates to be genuine, and these need to be examined, once again, in their proper historical context. Indian journalist Yoginder Sikand, who reviewed Asad’s book, wrote:
Subhani claims that many of the Hadith reports that lay down death for
apostates relate specifically to those Muslims who abandon Islam and actively
engage in treason or what Subhani calls “conspiracies” against the Islam and the
“Islamic state.” These reports, he argues, do not apply to other apostates, who
are free to choose any religion they want.
Many times, at the time of the Prophet (pbuh), when people would leave Islam, they would join the ranks of those actively fighting against the Muslims. It is against these people that the Prophet would attack. For example, take this hadith in Bukhari:
Some people from the tribe of ‘Ukl came to the Prophet and embraced Islam. The climate of Medina did not suit them, so the Prophet ordered them to go to the (herd of milch) camels of charity and to drink, their milk and urine (as a medicine). They did so, and after they had recovered from their ailment (became healthy) they turned renegades (reverted from Islam) and killed the shepherd of the camels and took the camels away. The Prophet sent (some people) in their pursuit and so they were (caught and) brought, and the Prophet ordered that their hands and legs should be cut off and that their eyes should be branded with heated pieces of iron, and that their cut hands and legs should not be cauterized, till they die.
Some people quote this hadith as “proof” that apostasy in Islam is punishable by death. But, the Prophet (pbuh) attacked these people because they attacked and murdered a Muslim, not because they left Islam. In fact, there is a hadith narrated by A’isha (r) that apostasy relates to the one who left his religion and fought against the Muslims.
Another hadith that was quoted to me to “prove” apostates are to be killed is this one in Bukhari:
Narrated Abdullah: God’s Messenger said, “The blood of a Muslim who confesses that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that I am His Messenger, cannot be shed except in three cases: in Qisas (equality in punishment) for murder, a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse and the one who reverts from Islam (Apostate) and leaves the Muslims.”
This proves nothing. What did the Prophet (pbuh) mean when he said “leaves the Muslims”? Did he mean “leaves the Muslims” and go about his peaceful way, or “leaves the Muslims” and fights against them? This distinction is crucial. I believe he meant the latter, because there were many instances in which people left Islam and the Prophet did nothing. For instance, a man had come to the Prophet (pbuh) on three consecutive days and told him he wanted to leave the religion of Islam. The Prophet (pbuh) took no action against him, even after he left Madina. Another example is the case of Abdullah ibn Ubay.
He was the chief of the Hypocrites, a group of Madinites who feigned Islam, but were secretly disbelievers who continually plotted for the destruction of the Muslim community. Everyone knew ibn Ubay was a Hypocrite, including the Prophet (pbuh). Clearly, Abdullah ibn Ubay was an “apostate,” but the Prophet (pbuh) never had him killed. Another case was ‘Uyayna ibn Hisn. He was the leader of the tribe of Ghatafan, and he accepted Islam. During a battle, he met with the enemy and encouraged them to fight against the Muslims. Doesn’t this make him an “apostate”? The Prophet (pbuh) knew of this, but he did not have him killed either.
Moreover, the scholars who claim that apostates are to be killed based on the hadith “Kill whoever changes his religion” may not be on firm Islamic legal ground. In his article, “Is Killing An Apostate in the Islamic Law?“, Dr. Ibrahim B. Syed, President of the Islamic Research Foundation International, wrote:
Muslims who support the death penalty for apostasy use as their foundation the
above cited hadith, in which the Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said: “Kill
whoever changes his religion.” But this is a weak foundation because this hadith
was only transmitted from Muhammad (pbuh) by one individual. It was not
confirmed by a second person. According to Islamic law, this is insufficient
confirmation to impose the death penalty. The Shari`ah has not fixed any
punishment for apostasy.
So, what am I saying here? Am I saying all hadith is invalid? No. What I am saying is that the hadith has to be understood in its proper context. So frequently, Muslims will base an entire ruling on a one-sentence hadith without examining the historical and situational context of the saying of the Prophet (pbuh). This is not the proper way to deduce the sacred law. Just like one should not quote the Bible or the Qur’an out of context, one should not quote the Prophet (pbuh) out of context as well.
Furthermore, the Prophet (pbuh) would never do something that contradicts the Qur’an. If the Prophet said, “Whoever changes his religion, then kill him,” then there must be a specific circumstance and situation. Why? Because the Qur’an, which was revealed to the Prophet (pbuh), says in unambiguous language: “Let there be no compulsion in matters of faith” (2:256).
This entire subject is dealt with in a much comprehensive manner in Asad Subhani’s book Apostasy in Islam. Yet, this raises another question: could this mean that the legions of Muslim scholars throughout the centuries who have ruled that apostates are to be killed have been wrong this whole time? Umm…
1. Sikand, Yoginder. “Afghan Convert Controversy: A CounPerspectivetive on Apostasy in Islam.”
2. Syed, Ibrahim D. “Is Killing An Apostate in the Islamic Law?”