The Reality of Apostasy in Islam
The 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, There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is henceforth distinct from error [2:256].
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.1 The other is the legislative implementation and the method of dealing with apostasy in the time of the Prophet and the Caliphs.
In his own time the Prophet did not have ‘Abd Allah ibn Ubay executed, even though he said, “If we were to return to Medina the lower would expel the higher;”2 nor did he have Dhu al-Khuwaysirah al-Tamimi executed, even though he said, “Be just; you have not been just;”3 nor did he have executed the person who told him, “They say you refrain from transgressing, but transgression is your constant companion”;”4 nor did he have executed the one who told him, “God’s pleasure was not intended by this allotment;”5 nor did he have executed the one told him, “You would not have given Zubair to drink first if he were not your cousin;”6 nor others from whom he was shown harm and disrespect. All of these are expressions by which those who utter them apostatize, for they involve accusations of the Prophet 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 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 indicated that he should have ‘‘Abd Allah ibn Ubay executed and he said, “People will not hear that Muhammad kills his companions.”7 He did not use the means of avenging himself of and punishing the hypocrites which God had permitted him as is related in Surah al-Ahzab, If the hypocrites, and those in whose hearts is a disease, and the alarmists in the city do not cease, We verily shall urge thee on against them, then they will be your neighbors in it but a little while. Accursed, they will be seized wherever found and slain with a (fierce) slaughter [33:60-61].
That which Jabir ibn ‘‘Abd Allah related is similar: a man from the desert pledged allegiance to the Prophet. The man took ill so he came to the Prophet and said, “Release me from my pledge,” but the Prophet 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 said, “Madina is like a forge, it removes its filth and makes it goodness known.”8 The Prophet did not have him executed. Why did he not execute all of these to whom the words of our Lord, They have said words of disbelief and become disbelievers after having submitted [al-Tawbah: 74] apply?
During the rule of the righteous caliphs, and more specifically during the rule of ‘Umar al-Faruq it is related that Anas returned from Tustar and approached ‘Umar who asked him, “What did the six groups from [the tribe of] 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 said, “Verily we are unto God, and to Him we are returning.” Anas asked, “And was their fate other than to be killed?” ‘Umar replied, “Yes, I would have offered them Islam, and if they refused I would have put them in prison.”9 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.
Sheikh Shaltut, the Sheikh of the al-Azhar Mosque previously (may God have mercy on him) 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 hadith narrated by one person, that disbelief (kufr) 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.”10
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 God Most High has said, And a party of the People of the Scripture say: Believe in that which hath been revealed at the opening of the day, and disbelieve at the end thereof, in order that they may return [3:72]. This is also supported by what Ibn Taymiyah mentioned, “The Prophet 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 Mecca 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-Quraniyun 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 Al-Sarh when he compounded his apostasy with accusations and slander.”11
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 God is Most High and Knows Best.