What Does Islam Teach About Apostasy?

Andy Derkson asks:
Does Islam teach and support freedom of conscience, so that if a Muslim decides to convert to another religion, he is free to do so without fear of reprisal?

The case in point is the claim that apostasy is punishable by death. Non-Muslims must be excused for believing this, when so many Muslims (most recently including the Afghani professor of law quoted in the Washington Post, “For Afghans, Allies, A Clash of Values”) have made assertions to that effect. Non-Muslims are not in the position to appreciate, as Muslims should, that legal opinions based on debatable interpretations of traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) cannot abrogate the teachings of the Qur’an that are clear and unambiguous upon the following relevant points: (1) that a person’s choice of religion can not be coerced and that (“Let there be no compulsion in religion….” 2:256) and (2) capital punishment applies only to acts of murder or waging war against society (e.g., terrorism, “… if anyone slew a person unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land it would be as if he slew the whole people…” (5:32).

Without doubt renegades who abandoned Islam to join the enemy forces in war against the Muslims were punished by early generations of Muslims with the death penalty, as those engaged in treason have been subject to the death penalty throughout history around the world. Treason, however, is distinct from mere conversion. According to the BBC, Abdul Rahman’s response to the charges against him was, “I am not an infidel or a fugitive. I am a Christian.” His conversion is not subject to hudûd punishments. As Muslims, by definition, believe that the Qur’an is the word of God, we must submit to the Qur’anic commandment, “Leave Me alone (to deal) with the creature I created (bare and) alone” (74:11).

The recent call for the release of Abdul Rahman by the Council on American Islamic Relations citing the opinion of the Fiqh Council of North America (an association Islamic legal scholars) is a welcome sign that Muslims may be ready to challenge intemperate rulings born out of historical periods of conflict to return to the recognition that our belief that “there is no god but God” has as its corollary that no one has the right to interpose himself between the individual and his Creator in matters of belief.

Minaret of Freedom Institute president Dr. Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad is one of 100 prominent Muslims who have affirmed “The freedom of faith and the freedom of changing one’s faith” in Islam. They have signed a proclamation that “In light of the Qur’anic guidance and the Prophetic legacy, the principle of freedom of faith does not lend itself to impose in this world any punishment or retribution solely for apostasy; thus there ought not to be any punishment in the name of Islam or fatwa calling for the same.” Dr. Ahmad notes that to argue that the fact that most traditional jurisprudents have taken the position that conversion is a capital crime makes such a position part of shariah is as faulty as claiming that as most Western philosophers and legal scholars denied equal rights to non-white races makes racial inequality part of natural law. It is rather an error that members of particular schools are now working to correct. For example, the Hanafi scholar Shah Abdul Hanan, a member of the Editorial Board of Bidhiboddho Islami Ain (Codified Islamic Law) published by Islamic Foundation of Bangladesh writes, “On this issue of punishment of apostasy I hold the same view as that of Dr. Jamal Badawi, Dr. Hashim Kamali, Dr. AbdulHamid AbuSulayman and such scholars. Those who are familiar with my activities have seen how I have forwarded all the articles/interviews of scholars who hold that apostasy has no punishment unless in conjunction with rebellion or violence.”

Imran Malik
Minaret of Freedom Institute


Minaret of Freedom Institute Program Assistant

One Response to “What Does Islam Teach About Apostasy?”

  1. […] As conservative Christians use Rifqa’s story to further an “extremist political, religious agenda”, Muslims are reminded that there is no earthly punishment apostasy in Islam: […]

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