Islam prescribes the death penalty for apostasy. Does this mean there is no freedom of religion in Islam?
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
Apostasy is divided into two types: major and minor. Muslim scholars, using the Prophet’s traditions as their guide, have divided unbelief, idolatry, hypocrisy, and sin into major and minor categories. Likewise, there is a distinction between an apostate who intends to physically harm the community and an apostate who only spiritually harms himself.
Minor apostasy is when a person embraces Islam while knowing its virtues and later rejects it. There is no legal punishment for the minor apostate as long as they do not try to physically harm the Muslim community. Major apostasy is when a person embraces Islam while knowing its virtues and later rejects it and adds to this a call for violent rebellion against the Muslim authorities. Such a crime is equivalent to high treason and in its most severe case can carry the death penalty as an act of self-defense for the community.
إِنَّ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا ثُمَّ كَفَرُوا ثُمَّ آمَنُوا ثُمَّ كَفَرُوا ثُمَّ ازْدَادُوا كُفْرًا لَّمْ يَكُنِ اللَّهُ لِيَغْفِرَ لَهُمْ وَلَا لِيَهْدِيَهُمْ سَبِيلًا
Verily, those who believed and then disbelieved, then believed and then disbelieved and increased in disbelief, never will Allah forgive them nor will He guide them to a right way.
Surah An-Nisa 4:137
In this verse, Allah describes a person who apostates from Islam twice and He does not prescribe legal punishment for him, but rather He only warns the apostate about severe punishment in the Hereafter. This demonstrates that the general rule is an apostate should be left alone, as the Quran prohibits compulsion in religion.
لَا إِكْرَاهَ فِي الدِّينِ قَد تَّبَيَّنَ الرُّشْدُ مِنَ الْغَيِّ
There is no compulsion in religion. The truth is distinct from misguidance.
Surah Al-Baqarah 2:256
And He said:
وَقُلِ الْحَقُّ مِن رَّبِّكُمْ فَمَن شَاءَ فَلْيُؤْمِن وَمَن شَاءَ فَلْيَكْفُرْ
Say: The truth is from your Lord. So whoever wills let him believe, and whoever wills let him disbelieve.
Surah Al-Kahf 18:29
Because of this, the Prophet did not punish people simply because they rejected Islam.
Jabir reported: A bedouin came to the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, and gave the pledge of allegiance for embracing Islam. The next day he came with a fever and said, “Please cancel my pledge.” The Prophet refused three times and he said:
الْمَدِينَةُ كَالْكِيرِ تَنْفِي خَبَثَهَا، وَيَنْصَعُ طَيِّبُهَا
Medina is like a furnace. It expels its impurities and collects what is pure.
Source: Sahih Bukhari 1784, Grade: Sahih
In this example, a man rejected Islam after embracing it but the Prophet did not apply legal punishment to him.
Regarding the major apostasy, the Prophet was clear in advising us that legal punishment is not applied to a minor apostate, but only a major apostate.
Abdullah ibn Mas’ud reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, applied legal punishment in the following case:
وَالتَّارِكُ لِدِينِهِ الْمُفَارِقُ لِلْجَمَاعَةِ
The one who leaves his religion and separates from the community.
Source: Sahih Muslim 1676, Grade: Sahih
The reference to one who “separates from the community” (al-mufariq lil-jama’ah) indicates that a person is not legally punished simply for not practicing Islam, but rather for high treason against Muslim authorities. This is made even clearer in another narration in which the Prophet describes the major apostate as:
رَجُلٌ يَخْرُجُ مِنَ الإِسْلاَمِ يُحَارِبُ اللَّهَ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ وَرَسُولَهُ
A man who rejects Islam and wages war against Allah the Exalted and His Messenger.
Source: Sunan An-Nasa’i 4048
Ibn Abbas said:
فَمَنْ قَتَلَ وَأَفْسَدَ فِي الأَرْضِ وَحَارَبَ اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ ثُمَّ لَحِقَ بِالْكُفَّارِ قَبْلَ أَنْ يُقْدَرَ عَلَيْهِ لَمْ يَمْنَعْهُ ذَلِكَ أَنْ يُقَامَ فِيهِ الْحَدُّ الَّذِي أَصَابَ
Whoever kills others, spreads corruption in the land, wages war against Allah and His Messenger, and he joins the unbelievers before he is subdued, then there is nothing to prevent the legal punishment from being applied to him because of what he did.
Source: Sunan An-Nasa’i 4046
Indeed, some of the companions interpreted the phrase this way and described an apostate as:
حَارَبَ اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ
One who wages are against Allah and His Messenger.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 4334, Grade: Sahih
What can be understood from these narrations is that legal punishment is only applied to a person who combines apostasy with high treason. This is because the Quran prohibits compulsion in religion as a general rule and because the believers should be the most restrained of the people when it comes to taking life.
Abdullah ibn Mas’ud reported: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
أَعَفُّ النَّاسِ قِتْلَةً أَهْلُ الْإِيمَانِ
The most restrained of the people regarding killing are the people of faith.
Source: Musnad Ahmad 3720, Grade: Sahih
Furthermore, cases of major apostasy do not necessitate the death penalty if a single Muslim seeks protection for the apostate.
Ibn Abbas reported:
كَانَ عَبْدُ اللَّهِ بْنُ سَعْدِ بْنِ أَبِي سَرْحٍ يَكْتُبُ لِرَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ فَأَزَلَّهُ الشَّيْطَانُ فَلَحِقَ بِالْكُفَّارِ فَأَمَرَ بِهِ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ أَنْ يُقْتَلَ يَوْمَ الْفَتْحِ فَاسْتَجَارَ لَهُ عُثْمَانُ بْنُ عَفَّانَ فَأَجَارَهُ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ
Abdullah ibn Sa’d ibn Abi Sarh would write to the Messenger of Allah but the devil deceived him and he joined the unbelievers. The Messenger of Allah ordered that he should be killed on the day of liberation, but Uthman ibn Affan sought protection for him, so the Messenger of Allah granted him protection.
Source: Sunan Abu Dawud 4358, Grade: Sahih
In this example, a man embraced Islam and then rejected it by joining the idolaters of Mecca who at the time were waging war against the Muslims. When Mecca surrendered to the Prophet without a fight, Uthman ibn Affan sought protection for this apostate and the Prophet honored this covenant. This is because, as a general rule, the protection granted by a single Muslim should be honored by all Muslims.
Ali ibn Abu Talib reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
ذِمَّةُ الْمُسْلِمِينَ وَاحِدَةٌ يَسْعَى بِهَا أَدْنَاهُمْ
The covenant of the Muslims is one covenant, and they strive to fulfill it among the least of them.
Source: Sunan Al-Kubra Al-Bayhaqi 15464, Grade: Sahih
In conclusion, the death penalty for apostasy is restricted by the Prophet’s other statements and actions which make clear that this punishment applies only to those who commit high treason against the Muslim community.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.