Refutation: Punishment for Apostacy

By Hadrat Muhammad Zafrullah Khan (ra)


One of the foremost advocates of death as the penalty for apostacy in Islam, in his desperate search for at least one verse in the Holy Quran which might lend support to his misguided point of view, has had recourse to violating the context and meaning of one verse of the Holy Quran and to deduce from it his horrible doctrine. He has not a word to offer in explanation of the numerous verses of the Holy Quran that form the basis of the above exposition, which is proof enough that he has deliberately misinterpreted the particular verse from which he seeks to draw support. He also appears to be unconscious of the emphatic affirmation made in the Holy Quran, that there is no contradiction in it. Had there been any contradiction in the Quran, it would not be the Word of God, as is said: Will they not meditate upon the Quran? Had it been from anyone other than Allah they would surely have found therein much contradiction. (4.83).

Let us now examine the verse upon which this particular divine bases his whole thesis. It is verse 12 of Chapter 9. The context of the verse is that after the Holy Prophet, peace be on him, had migrated from Mecca to Medina, Quraish of Mecca had embarked upon hostilities against him and the Muslims for the purpose of wiping out Islam by force. Then after a period of repeated aggression on their part, God of His mercy and grace, established the supremacy of Islam in Arabia, but those who were still disaffected, and entertained hostile designs against the Muslims, and had not laid down their arms, were granted a period of four months within which to make their peace with the Muslims, failing which, the hostilities which they themselves had started, would be resumed against them. In this context it was pointed out that such of them as sincerely accepted Islam would form part of the Islamic brotherhood and there would be no question of any action being taken against them. That had been the situation all through. Those who, continuing disbelievers, concluded a treaty of peace with the Muslims, must carry out the obligations of the treaty strictly. If they failed to do so hostilities would be resumed against them. Verse II of Chapter 9 is to the following effect: If they repent and observe Prayer and pay the Zakat, then they are your brethren-in-faith. We expound Our commandments for a people who possess knowledge. This is followed by verse 12 which lays down: If those who break their pledge after making a covenant and ridicule your religion, in such case fight these leaders of disbelief that they may desist, for they have no regard for their pledged word. This divine construes this verse as meaning that if those who are referred to in the previous verse as having become Muslims, should repudiate Islam, they should be fought against and subdued.

Assuming that those who repudiated Islam after having expressed their belief in it, reverted to hostilities, they would, of course, be fought against, not because of their apostacy but because of their reversion to enemy status. The issue that this divine has to face is that Islam prescribes no penalty for a simple change of faith, which involves no treason or rebellion or hostility against the Islamic State. The verse under consideration relates to the breaking of a pledge to live at peace with the Islamic State. Those who are guilty of such breach are to be fought against, as rebels or enemy aliens, and not to be caught and executed for apostacy.

This is made abundantly clear by the immediately following verses which say: Will you not fight a people who have violated their oaths, who plotted to turn out the Messenger from his home and who were the first to start hostilities against you? Do you fear them? It is Allah Who is Most Worthy that you should fear Him, if you are believers. Fight them; Allah will punish them at your hands and will humiliate them, and will help you to overcome them, and will relieve the minds of the believers of fear and distress and will remove their feeling of resentment (9.13-14 ).

It is thus clear that these verses have reference to the disbelievers who have no regard for their pledged word, and who should be guilty of breach of treaties and should be bent upon armed hostilities.

[Hadith Literature]

Apostate Pardoned by the Holy Prophet

Abdullah bin Abi Sarah was one of the scribes of the Holy Prophet, peace be on him, in Medina. He became an apostate and went and joined the Meccans and identified himself with them. On the fall of Mecca, he was among those few persons who were condemned to death by the Holy Prophet, peace be on him, on account of their misdeeds. He was a foster brother of Hazrat Usman bin Affan, who gave him shelter in his house where he remained hidden for some days. When order was restored in Mecca, Hazrat Usman interceded with the Holy Prophet on his behalf, who remained silent for a while and then signified his forgiveness of Abdullah. This incident is mentioned both in the Tafseer Kabeer of Imam Razi (Vol. V, p.527), and in the commentary Ruhul Maani (Vol. IV, p.484).

This incident also furnishes clear proof that there was no penalty for apostacy in Islam. Abdullah bin Abi Sarah had been condemned on account of his political offences and not on account of his apostacy. Had the punishment for apostacy been death, Hazrat Usman would never have given him shelter, and the Holy Prophet would never have accepted Hazrat Usman’s intercession on his behalf.

It is well known that the Holy Prophet never accepted any intercession in respect of the prescribed punishment for an offence. If anyone attempted intercession in such a case, the Holy Prophet rejected it and was gravely displeased with the intercessor . This is well illustrated by the case of a woman of the Makhzoom who had been found guilty of theft. Bokhari has related on the authority of Aisha: The Quraish were much disturbed on account of a Makhzoomi woman who had committed theft. They consulted together and wondered who could approach the Holy Prophet, peace be on him, on her behalf, except Usamah bin Zaid, whom the Holy Prophet held dear. They persuaded Usamah to approach the Holy Prophet, and intercede on behalf of the woman. When he did so, the Holy Prophet rebuked him: Do you intercede in respect of a penalty prescribed by Allah? Then he stood up and, addressing his companions, said: Many people before you went astray because they overlooked the offence of a person belonging to a good family and imposed the prescribed penalty upon a common thief. I call God to witness that if Fatimah, daughter of Muhammad, were to be guilty of theft, I would certainly cut off her hand (Bokhari, Indian edition, p.lOO3).

Thus it can be seen what was the attitude of the Holy Prophet in respect of prescribed penalties. Had Abdullah bin Abi Sarah been liable to the penalty of death on account of his apostacy, the Holy Prophet would never have accepted Hazrat Usman’s intercession on his behalf and would have responded to Hazrat Usman in the same way as he had responded to Usamah.

Examination from Ahadees

Some comment may be offered on the ahadees that are set forth in support of their position by those who contend that apostacy is punishable with death. Abi Qalabah reports on the authority of Anas: Some people of Akal or Urainah came to Medina and found that its climate disagreed with them. The Holy Prophet told them to go and stay among his she-camels outside Medina and drink their milk. They followed his instructions, and when they were fully restored they killed the Holy Prophet’s keeper of the camels and drove away the camels. When the Holy Prophet was informed of this incident, he sent some men after them who caught them and brought them to the Holy Prophet. He directed that they should be tortured in the same way as they had tortured his keeper of the camels.

Now, it is true that those people had become apostates, but it is quite clear that the penalty imposed upon them was not in respect of their apostacy, but on account of the offences which they had committed on the person of the Holy Prophet’s keeper of his camels. This hadees, therefore, does not in any manner lend support to the thesis that apostacy is punishable with death.

Another instance that is cited in support of the thesis that apostacy is punishable with death is the case of Ibn Khatal who was one of the four people who were executed on the occasion of the fall of Mecca. It is true that he was an apostate, but it is not a fact that he was executed on account of his apostacy. His case is set out in Mawahibal Ludunniyyah where it is stated: The Holy Prophet directed the execution of Ibn Khatal. He had been a Muslim and the Holy Prophet, peace be on him, had sent him to collect the zakat. He was accompanied by an Ansari and a freed man of his who served him and who was a Muslim. They arrived at a place where they were to spend the night and he directed the freed man to slaughter a goat and to prepare dinner. Having given this direction, he went to sleep and when he woke up, he found that the freed man had done nothing for the preparation of dinner. He was intensely annoyed and set upon the freed man and despatched him. He then repudiated Islam and reverted to paganism, and went to Mecca and settled down there.

This recital makes it quite clear tha Ibn Khatal was not executed as a punishment for his apostacy, but on account of his murder of the Muslim freed man. Our thesis is not that no apostate has ever been punished. We concede that there are several instances of the execution of apostates, but in each case the execution was for some offence committed by the apostate and not on account of his apostacy. We repeat that there has not been a single case in which the Holy Prophet, peace be on him, directed the execution of an apostate whose only default was that he had repudiated Islam and who had not been guilty of any offence attracting the penalty of death.

The third case which is cited in support of the advocates of the penalty of death for apostacy is that of Maqees bin Sababah who was also executed on the occasion of the fall of Mecca. Concerning him Zarqani has recorded in his commentary on Mawahibal Ludunniyyah: Maqees bin Sababah had become a Muslim and thereafter he killed an Ansari who had killed his brother Hisham during the campaign of Zeeqard, mistakenly thinking that he was one of the enemy. After that incident Maqees had accepted blood money in respect of his brother from the Ansari, and yet, he killed the Ansari. He then repudiated Islam and went to Mecca and joined the Quraish. This again is a case where an apostate was executed on account of a treacherous murder that he had committed.

Having met nothing but frustration in their search for a genuine case of execution on account of simple apostacy, those who differ with us on this question have been driven to rely upon two utterly unreliable ahadees, each of which mentions the execution of a woman on account of her apostacy. These two ahadees are false on the face of them as there is good authority affirming that the Holy Prophet, peace be on him, never directed the execution of a woman for apostacy.

In certain ahadees it is merely mentioned as a hypothesis that an apostate deserves to be executed, but in every one of those ahadees, a qualification is added which requires that the apostate should have fought the Muslims or should have committed some other offence. It is not necessary, therefore, to examine those ahadees in detail.


Before concluding this review of events during the lifetime of the Holy Prophet, peace be on him, and the time of his immediate Successors, it is necessary to examine one narrative that our opponents put forward in support of their thesis that apostacy is punishable with death. I t is related that the Holy Prophet, peace be on him, appointed Muaz bin Jabal and Abu Musa Ashari governors of a part of the Yemen each. When they were about to leave him, he admonished them: Make things easy for people and do not put them to difficulty; talk to them cheerfully and not in a manner that might repel them. When either of them happened to be near the other during their tours of their respective territories, they would meet each other and spend some time together. On one occasion, when Hazrat Muaz came to meet Hazrat Abu Musa Ashari, he noticed a person sitting near the latter who had been secured with a rope. Hazrat Muaz inquired, who was this person. He was told that he was a Jew who had become a Muslim and had then become an apostate, whereupon Hazrat Muaz declared that he would not dismount till the person had been dispatched and observed that this was the judgment of God and His Messenger .

It is obvious, however, that it has been assumed in this narrative that the man had been guilty of fighting against the Muslims along with their enemies. There are several indications in the narrative in support of this assumption. For instance, Hazrat Muaz observed that his execution was in accordance with the judgment of God Almighty and His Messenger. We have already made it quite clear that according to the Holy Quran and the Holy Prophet, peace be on him, a person -can be executed only for murder or for creating disorder in the land as is said in the Holy Quran: Whoso kills a person, except for killing another or for creating disorder in the land, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind (5:33). Waging war against Allah and His Messenger is one species of disorder which attracts the penalty of death (5:34).

The practice of the Holy Prophet has also established that only such apostates were executed who had fought against the Muslims after their apostacy. Even some of them were forgiven on the intercession of some Companion of the Holy Prophet.

It is a matter of history that the wave of apostacy that followed the death of the Holy Prophet, peace be on him, had already started in the Yemen in the lifetime of the Holy Prophet when Muaz bin Jabal was governor of a part of the Yemen. There is thus every reason for assuming that the person whose execution is mentioned in this narrative had been guilty of taking up arms against the Muslims.

Then the admonition of the Holy Prophet to Hazrat Muaz and Hazrat Abu Musa at the time of their departure for the Yeman also makes it quite clear that the person mentioned in the narrative could not have been executed for simple apostacy, for such an event would be sure to repel people and to make them look upon Islam as a cruel religion.

Source: Punishment of Apostacy in Islam, Al Islam


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