Is Death Really the Punishment for Apostacy?

By: Sir Muhammad Zafrulla Khan

This article is taken from the book “Punishment of Apostacy in Islam” which was written in order to debunk some of the myths surrounding the punishment of apostacy in Islam as portrayed by various so-called Orthodox Muslim divines.


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.


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