Isn’t the Islamic Apostasy Punishment against Freedom of Belief?

Name of Questioner: Carnel

Date: 25-8-2019 05:54:58 PM

Consultant: Ask About Islam Editorial Team


Hello. Im a non-Muslim and a student. I have been interested in Islamic religion (and legal code) for some time already and I have found one specific matter that I do not understand properly. My question is concerning so-called "death fatwa" or “apostasy punishment”. If you dont mind, could you please answer some of my questions? Firstly, do people know when it was first used? So, is it basically since the foundation of the religion, or have it developed later? And secondly, does every religious person accept this? Or can there be some objections to this kind of fatwa? I would be grateful for any other information concerning this topic. Thank you very much in advance.

Dear Carnel,

Thank you for your question.

Answering your question, Dr. Jasser Auda, Professor and Al-Shatibi Chair of Maqasid Studies at the International Peace College South Africa, the Executive Director of the Maqasid Institute, states:

The expression 'death fatwa' that you used in your question is not an expression that is used in the Islamic law. It has been used extensively in the recent past, however, as the media expression for what is called 'apostasy punishment' or hadd al-riddah.

Some 'fatwas' were issued to permit the killing of some 'apostates', such as Salman Rushdie, Hersi Ali, Faraj Fouda, and others.

These fatwas made international news and did have an impact on the current debates concerning the Islamic law.

The valid reference in such matters is not the record of history, which is sadly full of such persecutions, especially against Muslim scholars and philosophers who held non-mainstream opinions. The valid reference for Islamic law is the Quran and the prophetic tradition.

In the Quran, there is no such mention of an 'apostasy punishment' or hadd al-riddah. On the contrary, the relevant verses offer a very different tone. For instance:

There shall be no compulsion in matters of faith. (Quran 2:256)

You cannot compel them to believe. (Quran 88:21-22)

You cannot by no means force them [to believe]. Yet none the less, remind, through this Quran, all such as may fear My warning. (Quran 50:45)

Yet if God had so willed, they would not have ascribed divinity to aught beside Him; hence, We have not made you their keeper, and neither are you responsible for their conduct. (Quran 6:107)

Your duty is no more than to deliver the message; and the reckoning is Ours. (Quran 13:40)

Don't you, then, think that you could not compel people to believe? (Quran 10:99)

In the Sunnah/tradition of the Prophet (peace be upon him), there are a number of accounts and hadiths that require analysis. It is a complex and highly specialized issue, the most comprehensive analysis of which that I know is Sheikh Taha Al-Alwani's recent book, 'No compulsion in matters if Faith' (La ikraha fi al-din). I recommend that you refer to it for a full analysis.

For the sake of this answer, however, I would like to highlight a number of significant points.

First, I am not aware of any historical account in which the Prophet (peace be upon him) ordered the persecution of a person for the crime of 'apostasy'. The persons who were killed during the prophetic era were 'war criminals', rather than 'apostates', and their crimes were closer to 'treason' or 'mass murder' in today's terms, rather than merely changing their belief.

However, there are narrations allegedly attributed to the Prophet, ordering that the apostate be killed. One of the most widely cited among Muslim jurists, and which they have specifically relied on in defense of the death penalty for apostasy, is the following: "If anyone changes his religion, put him to death."

However, there is a number of technical problems with this narration, and similar ones, which we will examine briefly here, with credit due to Sheikh Al-Alwani's book (mentioned above).

First of all, if the 'content' (al-matn) of the various versions of this hadith is understood in isolation from and in contradiction to the Quranic historical account mentioned above, the hadith can easily become incomprehensible. It is a matter of fundamental importance to view the Quran as reigning supreme over the Sunnah and its narrations, not the other way around.

In other words, it is the Quran which verifies the truthfulness of the Sunnah, and not vice-versa. When this fact is clearly established, and when the Sunnah takes its natural place as that, by way of analogy, which revolves in the Quran's orbit, this will give us the correct context for the 'apostasy' narrations and save us from false conclusions.

Moreover, the content of the "put him to death" hadith contradicts with a number of other narrations in which killing of apostates is deemed unacceptable, and thus are closer to the Quranic spirit.

For example, Malik relates in al-Muwatta' on the authority of Abd al-Rahman ibn Muhammad ibn Abd Allah ibn Abd al-Qari, on the authority of his father, that "Umar ibn al-Khattab was approached by a man who had come from Abu Musa al-Ashari. `Umar asked him about the people and he informed him. Umar said to him, 'Have there been any new developments after the war?' 'Yes,' he replied, 'there is a man who reverted to unbelief after becoming a Muslim.' 'And what did you do to him?' Umar asked. 'We brought him in,' he replied, 'and beheaded him.' 'Why did you not imprison him for three days,' Umar asked, 'giving him a loaf of bread to eat every day and urging him to repent in the hope that he might return to God?!' Then Umar added, 'O God, I was not present, I gave no instructions [in this matter], and I did not express my approval when news [of it] reached me!'"

Secondly, in terms of the chains of narrators (al-sanad) of the "put him to death" hadith, problems have been noted by hadith scholars in relation to its chains of narrators and chains of transmission.

The hadith has been handed down on the authority of a few companions, primarily Abdullah ibn Abbas. Regarding the narrations by the companions other than Ibn Abbas, the stories of the context of which the hadith has been related are inconsistent, to start with. For the sake of illustration, let us examine only Ibn Abbas's narration in some detail.

The hadith has been passed down through Ibn Abbas's servant Ikrimah, and hinges on one narrator by the name of Ayyub ibn Abi Tamimah al-Sikhtiyani, through whom –alone- the hadith gained wide circulation through the following ten individuals, namely, Hammad ibn Zayd, Sufyan ibn Uyaynah, Abd al-Warith ibn Said, Wuhayb ibn Khalid, Mamar ibn Rashid, Said ibn Iyyas al-Jariri, Said ibn Abi Urubah, Abd al-Wahhab ibn Abd al-Majid al-Thaqafi, Jarir ibn Hazim, and  Isma`il ibn Ibrahim ibn Ulayyah.

If we focus here only on Ikrimah, again for the sake of illustration, we will see that Ali ibn Abdullah ibn Abbas, the son of Abdullah ibn Abbas himself, accused Ikrimah of lying about his father! It was narrated that he bound his hand and foot, and confined him at the door to a public lavatory. When asked about this, Ali replied, "This malicious man lies about my father."

Ikrimah's reliability was also challenged by Ibn Sirin, a renowned authority, who simply called him 'a liar'. Speaking of Ikrimah, Ibn Abi Dhi'b said, "People do not cite his hadiths as evidence in support of their arguments, and they speak of him [in a manner which casts doubt on his trustworthiness]." Said ibn Jubayr, the companion, stated concerning Ikrimah, "On Ikrimah's authority you [people] narrate hadiths which, if I were present with him, he himself wouldn't narrate."

Similarly, Said ibn al-Musayyab, another renowned authority, used to be wary of him and warn others against him, saying, "Sooner or later, he is going to be led about with a rope around his neck."

This same Said would often say to his own servant, Burd, "Don't lie about me the way Ikrimah lied about Ibn Abbas." And Ibn Umar used to say the same thing to Nafi.

Thus, Imam Muslim used to avoid narrating hadiths on the authority of Ikrimah alone, while according to Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Malik refrained from narrating on his authority. In fact, Malik did not like Ikrimah to be mentioned. And Al-Bukhari was criticized for narrating hadiths on the authority of Ikrimah. Ibn al-Salah states that " …Al-Bukhari cited [hadiths narrated by] a group of narrators whose reliability had previously been challenged, including Ikrimah."

And this is in addition to the fact that narrators differ widely in their accounts of the incident referred to and many of the narrations are quite problematic. For example, a number of these narrations state that Ali ibn Abi Talib, during his Caliphate reign, gave orders that a group of 'apostates' be publicly killed, after which 'he caste their corpses into the fire' (!), which is something that is unprecedented in the Islamic history before and after Ali!

Besides, an event of this magnitude would have been witnessed by thousands, and accounts of it would likewise have been related by thousands, not just one narrator, especially in view of the fact that Ali had many supporters and helpers, as well as numerous enemies and opponents.

If the account is true, surely the later would have exploited it as a way to discredit him, claiming that he tormented people with the chastisement that could only be used by God in the Afterlife, as every Muslim knows. Moreover, it is incomprehensible that the alleged narrator of these incidents is Ali's cousin Abdullah ibn Abbas, the person closest to him!

Nevertheless, when we tie the Sunnah securely to the Quran, we begin to perceive the mutual harmony which exists between them (with the one complementing the other), and it becomes possible for us to overcome many of the problems which are raised in relation to hadith literature in general.

Then, even when we are faced with weak or problematic accounts, there is no longer any need to preoccupy ourselves with debate over their chains of transmission, how they are to be understood or how they apply to Islamic jurisprudence, so long as there are other sound, authentic narrations which revolve around the Quran in perfect harmony.

We hope this answers your question.

Keep in touch.