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Freedom of Religion and Apostasy in Islam


By Dr. Ahmed Raysunī *

Published by Suhaib Webb June 25th, 2009 in General

Freedom of Religion and Apostasy in Islam


By Dr. Ahmed Raysunī *


“This topic, as noted in the title, addresses two issues:


The first relates to the freedom of religion in the general sense; and the right to choose ones faith prior to becoming Muslim. In this scenario there is absolutely no doubt regarding the right to embrace any faith one feels comfortable with. If one were a Christian, Jew or Zoroastrian, then that is his choice; he is free to live amongst the Muslims practicing his faith and none can compel him to accept Islam and leave his religion. Islamic history and the current state of affairs bear witness to this. Every religion and faith group that resided in the lands which Islam entered still exists there today, and whoever wants to remain a member of one of those congregations is free to do so.


The second matter is the main subject of this lesson and that is the case of one who embraced Islam only to renounce it latter. There is no doubt; this is a problematic issue in Islamic law. If classical legal scholars sought to solve this problem in light of their historical and political contexts, contemporary legal scholars are called to re-examine and re-evaluate this issue in light of their circumstances as well. Present-day scholars have taken up this challenge but with great caution and reverence due to the fact that earlier scholars came to a consensus, or seemingly reached one, as to the punishment for those who leave Islam.


Before I offer my thoughts on this issue, I would like to address the following points that will serve as an introduction to my conclusion:


The Qur’an mentions those who renounce Islam in a number of places without prescribing their worldly punishment

Allah says,


“And if any of you Turn back from their faith and die in unbelief, their works will bear no fruit in this life and in the Hereafter; they will be companions of the Fire and will abide therein.” [al-Baqarah] 217


“Those who turn back as apostates after Guidance was clearly shown to them,- the Evil One has instigated them and busied them up with false hopes.” [Muhammad] 25


There is no questioning the fact that the Qur’an pays special attention in prescribing punishments for certain criminal acts. It outlines the punishments for murder, theft, fornication and terrorizing the innocent. However, it makes no mention of the punishment for apostasy while mentioning it numerous times along with its punishment in the Hereafter? How is this possible when, in comparison to other unlawful acts whose punishments are outlined in the Qur’an, apostasy is a greater offense? Does that not lead to the following:


The act in itself has no prescribed punishment in this life

Its case is different than other criminal acts outlined in the Qur’an

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Apostasy was a strategy that made a mockery of the pure Islamic call. It was used by some Jews of Medina to motivate the polytheists and hypocrites breeding dissention within the community. The Qur’an exposes this trickery.

Allah says:


“And a party of the People of the Scripture says: Believe in that which hath been revealed unto those who believe at the opening of the day, and disbelieve at the end thereof, in order that they may return.” [‘Ali-Imrān] 72


The Qur’an mentions the plans of the hypocrites in the following verse:


“When they meet those who believe, they say: “We believe;” but when they are alone with their evil ones, they say: “We are really with you: We (were) only jesting.” [al-Baqarah] 14




“Those who believe, then reject faith, then believe (again) and (again) reject faith, and go on increasing in unbelief,- Allah will not forgive them nor guide them nor guide them on the way.” [al-Nisā] 137


The Prophetic traditions related to this issue reveal another angle to the strategy of apostasy that took place during Islam’s first generation. Apostasy during that time was not merely switching faiths, nor a simple change in creed or thinking. It was an act of sedition; renouncing one army for another declaring war on the former. This is alluded to in a few authentic prophetic traditions the most famous being the statement of the Prophet [sa] “The blood of a Muslim is sacred save in three cases…”

Different Wording of This Hadith and Benefiting from Us̩ūl al-Fiqh


In the narration of the scholar al-Tirmidhi’s text on behalf of the Prophet’s companion, ‘Abdullah bin Mas’oud, we find the Prophet’s statement, “The blood of a Muslim is sacred save in three cases: murder, illegal fornication and the one who renounced Islam and fought against the community [of Muslims].” This statement of the Prophet did not restrict itself to “one who renounced Islam” but added “fought against the community” “abandoned the Muslims” or, in another narration, “rebelled against the Muslims.” It is inconceivable that this addition failed to bring any benefit that impacted the ruling.


The statement “fought against the Muslims” implies an act of war, insubordination against the Muslim community; and joining ranks with its enemies. This is clarified by the narration of Imām Abū Dawūd and Imām al-Nasāī on behalf of ‘Āisha who narrated that the Prophet said, “The blood of the Muslim who testifies that there is nothing worthy of worship save Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah, is not permissible to be spilt save in three cases: A man who commits adultery, he should be stoned; and a man who sets out declaring war upon Allah and His messenger. He should be killed, crucified or expelled and if he murdered, he should be killed.”


In the narration of al-Nasāī and Imām al-Tahāwī in his text on problematic hadiths we find, “A man who renounced Islam declaring war upon Allah and His messenger. He should be killed, crucified or expelled from the land.”


These narrations serve to restrict and clarify the texts which allude to the general punishment of killing anyone who apostates. Their generality illustrates that the apostasy of a person who should be killed, was that related to insubordination and fighting against the Islamic community, linked to making mockery of the religion, while joining the ranks of the enemies of the Muslim community.


If this is the case, then the punishments for compound apostasy [coupled with insubordination] are not from the class of punishments that are fixed for certain crimes [Ar. Hudūd], rather they are from the class of discretionary punishments [Ar. t’azirāt] related to Shari’ah politics and the executive orders of the state. These orders were ultimately determined by the realities facing the Islamic state regarding stability, turmoil, strength and weakness; in consideration of the overall societal harms caused by the apostate guilty of sedition.


As for plain apostasy, whether done in open or secret, then this is not the apostasy mentioned in the Qur’an and the Prophet’s statements above. Therefore, I understand that this type of apostasy is not related to the apostasy linked to the punishments mentioned above. Rather there are another group of texts that address this type of apostasy namely,


“There is no compulsion in religion.” [al-Baqarah] 256


This verse confirms, in definitive fashion, that there is absolutely no place in Islam for coercion; that there is absolutely no room for it in areas of faith and that it could never serve as the platform for belief to flourish nor bring about any benefit. This is a certain fact which none can deny. Religion is based on faith; and faith is based on recognition and acceptance. It comes through affirmation, satisfaction and a tranquility which settles in the mind and heart.


Allah says,


“Allah has endeared the Faith to you, and has made it beautiful in your hearts, and He has made hateful to you Unbelief, wickedness, and rebellion: such indeed are those who walk in righteousness.” [al-Hujurāt]:7


If there were a place in Islam for coercion and forcing others to enter it, then it would be for Allah [the Glorified] to do so. For He is the Unique, the Dominator, guiding whom He wills from disbelief to faith. If He willed, He could guide all of humanity [to Islam]. However, from His majestic wisdom He refused to do so:


“And if your Lord had pleased, surely all those who are in the earth would have believed, all of them; will you then force men till they become believers?” [Yunus]: 99


“Say: Then Allah’s is the conclusive argument; so if He please, He would certainly guide you all.” [Al-An’ām]: 149


“And if Allah had pleased, they would not have set up others (with Him) and We have not appointed you a keeper over them, and you are not placed in charge of them.” [Al-‘An’ām]: 107


Therefore, if Allah [the Most High] did not compel His creation to believe in Him, nor did he permit His prophet [sa] to do so instructing him,


“Remind them, for thou art but a reminder. You art not to manage (men’s) affairs.” [Al-Ghāshiyah]: 21-22


Then, how could He allow, or order, the leaders of the Muslims to force one to remain as a Muslim or return to it under the threat of death?”


Dr. Ahmad Ar-Raysouni is a professor of principles of Islamic jurisprudence at Moroccan Universities, and he is also a member of the Moroccan Scholars Association. Dr. Ar-Raysouni earned his PhD in Shari`ah in 1992. He is the author of many books on Islam, such as Nazariyyāt Al-Maqāsid `inda Al-’Imām Ash-Sh̄atib̄i, Madkhal ‘ila Maqāsid Ash-Shari`ah, Al-Ijtihād wa An-Nass wa Al-Maslahah wa Al-Waqi`


Translated and abridged from here


Translated and abridged by Suhaib Webb


Edited by Sr. Mona




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