Apostasy means abandoning Islam for another religion, speaking against Islam, and/or denying the religion’s central tenets. As will be noted, in many Muslim countries apostasy is punishable by death. We will look at the example set by the Prophet Muhammad (570-632 CE) and his words and deeds in the Hadith. The Qur’an’s view of apostasy will also be considered.
Some Muslim apologists argue that no one is to be forced or compelled to accept Islam. The apologist justifies this position through the Qur’an and argues that according to the Qur’an, killing of someone because of that person changing his or her religion is a taboo,
“A close study of the life of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), which serves as an example for all Muslims to learn how to practice Islam and carry out its injunctions, will show us that he never killed people who changed their religion or left Islam, for the reason of their leaving Islam… there is no clear evidence in Islam to say that a person who leaves Islam has to be killed” (1).
Contrary to this view, Muhammad commanded the killing of apostates. A retort is that Muhammad’s commanding the killing of apostates had nothing to do with their apostasy but was rather defensive. But other Muslims strongly disagree and find justification for their views in authoritative Muslim texts and traditions. In thirteen Muslim majority countries, apostasy and blasphemy are punishable by death (2). In several other Muslim majority countries, apostates face imprisonment and fines. The killing of apostates has also been carried out by terrorist groups like the Taliban and ISIL.
The Qur’an speaks often of apostasy (2;108; 2:217; 3:90; 4:137; 5:54; 9:66; 16:106; 9:11-12; 88:22-24). It says that those who apostatize have “gone astray” (3:90), “strayed from the Right Way”, “are in sin” (9:66), are under the “wrath of Allah” (16:106), and will not be guided or forgiven by Allah (4:137). Importantly, nowhere in the Qur’an is it commanded that apostates must be put to death. Instead, the Qur’an conveys that apostates commit a severe sin and will experience Hellfire on the Day of Resurrection (2:217).
The death penalty for apostasy is commanded in the trusted Hadith traditions and collections on the words and deeds of Muhammad accepted by most Muslim scholars. Much can be drawn from Sahih al-Bukhari. For example, in the following passage Muhammad commands the killing of those who reject Islam,
Narrated `Ikrima: Some Zanadiqa (atheists) were brought to `Ali and he burnt them. The news of this event, reached Ibn `Abbas who said, “If I had been in his place, I would not have burnt them, as Allah’s Messenger forbade it, saying, ‘Do not punish anybody with Allah’s punishment (fire).’ I would have killed them according to the statement of Allah’s Messenger, ‘Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him‘” (Vol. 9, Book 84, Hadith 57, emphasis added).
Sahih al-Bukhari continues,
“Allah’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 Apostle, cannot be shed except in three cases: In Qisas for murder, a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse and the one who reverts from Islam (apostate) and leaves the Muslims” (Vol. 9, Book 83, Hadith 17, emphasis added).
Concerning a man who embraced Islam only to then revert to Judaism, “Mu’adh said, “I will not sit down unless you kill him (as it is) the verdict of Allah and His Apostle.” (Vol. 9, Book 89, Hadith 271, also see Sahih al-Bukhari Vol. 9, Book 84, Hadith 58, emphasis added).
In another Hadith collection, Muwatta Imam Malik composed by Imam Malik (711-795 CE), we read of the violent death of an apostate,
“A man came to Umar ibn al-Khattab from Abu Musa al-Ashari. Umar asked after various people, and he informed him. Then Umar inquired, ‘Do you have any recent news?’ He said, ‘Yes. A man has become a kafir after his Islam.’ Umar asked, ‘What have you done with him?’ He said, ‘We let him approach and struck off his head.‘ Umar said, ‘Didn’t you imprison him for three days and feed him a loaf of bread every day and call on him to tawba that he might turn in tawba and return to the command of Allah?’ Then Umar said, ‘O Allah! I was not present and I did not order it and I am not pleased since it has come to me!’” (Book 36, Hadith 1420).
Apostasy is also a topic in at least one biography on the Prophet Muhammad. In one case, when Muhammad succeeded in conquering Mecca, he order several killings (six men and four women), some of whom were apostates. These victims are also named,
“The apostle of Allah entered through Adhakhir, [into Mecca], and prohibited fighting. He ordered six men and four women to be killed, they were (1) Ikrimah Ibn Abi Jahl, (2) Habbar Ibn al-Aswad, (3) Abd Allah Ibn Sa’d Ibn Abi Sarh, (4) Miqyas Ibn Sababah al-Laythi, (5) al-Huwayrith Ibn Nuqaydh, (6) Abd Abbah Ibn Hilal Ibn Khatal al-Adrami, (7) Hind Bint Utbah, (8) Sarah, the mawlat (enfranchised girl) of Amr Ibn Hashim, (9) Fartana and (10) Qaribah” (Tabaqat, Vol 2, page 168, emphasis added)
How have Muslim apologists attempted to make sense of these brutal passages in the Hadith collections? Some outright reject that Muhammad had anything to do with the killing of apostates. This apologist argues that “there is no single incident in the life of the Prophet to prove that he killed anyone for leaving Islam”. But this appears to be contradicted by the Hadith and biography in which Muhammad did command the killing of apostates.
Other Muslim apologists support the death penalty for apostasy since it prevents Islam from being taken trivially: “Do you not see that this would make the one true religion, that everyone should follow, like a shop or store which a person can enter when he wants and leave when he wants, and it may encourage others to forsake the truth” (3). Punishment by death for apostasy is appropriate because it is the will of God,
“In conclusion, the answer is that Allaah is the One Who revealed this religion and enjoined it. He is the One Who ruled that the one who enters it and then leaves it is to be executed. This ruling does not come from the Muslims’ ideas or suggestions. As this is the case, then we must follow the ruling of Allaah so long as we are content to accept Him as our Lord and God.”
Arguably, that apostasy is punishable by death and imprisonment in several Muslim countries is one reason among several why Islam remains the fastest-growing religion in the world. This is because so many Muslims are too fearful to reject or leave Islam for the consequences that this might have.
There are many real-life cases in which the principles set forth by Muhammad and the Hadith have been applied.
In Sudan, for example, a pregnant woman was found guilty of apostasy and for marrying a Christian man, and sentenced to death (4). In Saudi Arabia, a court sentenced a Yemeni man to 15 years in prison for apostasy and allegedly promoting “apostasy, unbelief, and atheism” (5). The man was fortunate since the death penalty is prescribed for apostates in Saudi Arabia (6). A Pakistani teacher, Junaid Hafeez (d. 2019), was sentenced to death for comments he made “insulting” Muhammad on social media (7). In Pakistan, at least 17 individuals were sentenced to death on blasphemy charges in 2019 (8). In Algeria, people who convert from Islam to another religion are unable to receive inheritances. In Afghanistan, Brunei, Iran, Mauritania, and Nigeria, violations of blasphemy laws can carry the possibility of the death penalty.
1. IslamOnline. n.d. Should an Apostate be Killed? Available.
2. For, Loius. 2017. The countries where apostasy is punishable by death. Available.
3. Islamqa. 2010. Why is the apostate to be executed in Islam? Available.
4. BBC News. 2014. Sudan death penalty reignites Islam apostasy debate. Available.
5. Human Rights Watch. 2021. Saudi Arabia: Yemeni Man Sentenced for Apostasy. Available.
6. US Department of State. 2014. Saudi Arabia. Available.
7. US Department of State. n.d. 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom: Pakistan. Available.
8. Pew Research Center. 2022. Four-in-ten countries and territories worldwide had blasphemy laws in 2019. Available.