In virtually every Muslim-majority country today there are severe restrictions on religious freedom along with political freedom and civil liberties. Certain Muslim-majority countries have instituted laws that criminalize blasphemy and apostasy. I strongly believe that such things are contrary to the letter and spirit of Islam as understood from the enlightened teachings of the Holy Quran. Regarding religious freedom, Allah Most High says:
وَقُلِ الْحَقُّ مِن رَّبِّكُمْ ۖ فَمَن شَاءَ فَلْيُؤْمِن وَمَن شَاءَ فَلْيَكْفُرْ
And say, the Truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills let him believe; and whoever wills let him disbelieve
Humans are granted free will, and as individuals are entirely free to either accept or reject Islam. No one has the authority to compromise this essential freedom, especially not in the name of our Religion and Scripture. A large segment of our medieval minded and bigoted Mullas who ascribe authority to themselves on the basis of possessing knowledge of the Religion and expertise in the divine Law, claim that the penalty for apostasy from Islam is death. This flies in the face of the fundamental principle laid down in the blessed Ayah of the Quran:
لَا إِكْرَاهَ فِي الدِّينِ
There is no compulsion in Religion
It is quite strange that the majority of contemporary, and perhaps historical, traditionalist Muslim scholarship has been adamant about the death penalty for the “crime” of apostasy. As a Muslim, I of course believe that anyone who outright renounces Islam, the Oneness of Allah and the Prophesy of Muhammad صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم, shall be condemned to Hell in the Afterlife, but that there is no prescribed legal punishment to be enforced by the state for the “crime” of apostasy in this transient world. The Verse “there is no compulsion in Religion” is definitive and decisive. No amount of sophistry or polemical gymnastics can nullify the Word of God. Although Islam, the message of the Prophets, stresses the imperative of worshiping Allah alone, it simultaneously grants everyone the right to worship whoever or whatever they want instead of Allah:
فَاعْبُدُوا مَا شِئْتُم مِّن دُونِهِ
So worship what you wish besides Him
On what basis do the narrow-minded Mullas and so-called Islamists restrict the application of this universal principle of religious freedom enshrined in the holy Scripture? How can it be said that everyone is free to worship as they please except the apostate from Islam, who is liable to capital punishment?
Now consider the following Ayah of the holy Quran which manifestly debunks the idea that the apostate is meant to be killed by the Muslim government:
إِنَّ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا ثُمَّ كَفَرُوا ثُمَّ آمَنُوا ثُمَّ كَفَرُوا ثُمَّ ازْدَادُوا كُفْرًا لَّمْ يَكُنِ اللَّـهُ لِيَغْفِرَ لَهُمْ وَلَا لِيَهْدِيَهُمْ سَبِيلًا
Indeed, those who have believed then disbelieved, then believed, then disbelieved, and then increased in disbelief - never will Allah forgive them, nor will He guide them to a way
In other words, it is possible that an individual will go back and forth between belief and apostasy, indicating there is no worldly punishment for apostasy in our Shari’ah. Those who argue that according to the Shari’ah, an apostate is not immediately executed but given a brief respite (three days according to most) to reconsider his apostasy and so there is the possibility of recanting and returning to the Faith must nevertheless reflect carefully on the words: “then increased in disbelief”. What this illustrates is a scenario in which an apostate, after having renounced Islam, is not executed, but persists in his apostasy and gradually becomes hardened in his rejection of and animosity to Islam. Logically, such a scenario as illustrated by the holy Quran cannot occur in an Islamic state in which apostates are executed within days of having renounced Islam.
Apparently, the basis for the apostasy law propounded by the Mullas is the noble example of the Prophet’s first successor, Abu Bakr رضوان الله عليه. Upon the death of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم and the election of Abu Bakr رضى الله عنه to the office of succession and leadership of the community of Believers, there was a mass apostasy from Islam by the various tribes throughout Arabia. Sayyidina Abi Bakr رضى الله عنه waged holy war against these apostate tribes and subdued them against the odds with divine aid. This is the precedent cited by the Mullas and politically inclined “Islamic” parties as justification for their doctrine that the apostate is liable to execution. But a deeper analysis of the Ridda Wars (the Wars of Apostasy) reveal that caliph Abu Bakr and the sincere, devoted Companions of the Prophet رضى الله عنهم who raised the sword against the apostate tribes did so to put down armed insurrections that were openly challenging the writ of the state. It was not an inquisition, nor were the apostates killed merely on the basis of their individual apostasy. They were fought and killed for rebellion against the only legitimate political administration of Arabia - namely the caliphate of Abu Bakr رضى الله عنه based in Medina. This is further indicated by the fact that Abu Bakr رضى الله عنه insisted on fighting even those tribes which did not technically renounce faith in Islam but failed to acknowledge the authority of the caliphate. Here I am referring to the tribes that refused to pay their share of the Zakat to the Caliphate which was authorized to collect it and distribute it on their behalf, while they had previously given it to the Prophet صلوات الله والسلام عليه for him to distribute on their behalf when he was alive. All of the Prophet’s Companions, including sayyidina Umar رضى الله عنه who would later become the second successor, implored sayyidina Abi Bakr رضى الله عنه not to fight those tribes which denied the Caliphate and wished to distribute their Zakat independently. But he disregarded their counsel because he was being divinely inspired in his determination to fight the opponents of the Caliphate, even if they were confessionally Muslim.
Therefore, the Arabic word murtad which is translated to mean apostate, may be applied to an individual who though confessionally a Muslim, has back peddled in another way, such as by breaking his allegiance to the Caliph or Imam of the Muslims, or by rebelling against the state, or by isolating himself from the congregation and broader society of the Muslims.
As for an individual who renounces Islam as his personal faith, without any element of violent rebellion against the political administration of the Muslims under which he is legally subject, in my view the blood of such an individual is still inviolable. Here I can cite instances from the life of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم to demonstrate this fact:
عَنْ أَنَسٍ ـ رضى الله عنه ـ قَالَ كَانَ رَجُلٌ نَصْرَانِيًّا فَأَسْلَمَ وَقَرَأَ الْبَقَرَةَ وَآلَ عِمْرَانَ، فَكَانَ يَكْتُبُ لِلنَّبِيِّ صلى الله عليه وسلم، فَعَادَ نَصْرَانِيًّا فَكَانَ يَقُولُ مَا يَدْرِي مُحَمَّدٌ إِلاَّ مَا كَتَبْتُ لَهُ، فَأَمَاتَهُ اللَّهُ فَدَفَنُوهُ
Anas رضى الله عنه narrates that there was a Christian man who became a Muslim and would recite al-Baqarah and Aali Imran. He used to write (the Revelation) for the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم. Then he went back to Christianity and would say “Muhammad knows only what I have written for him”. So Allah caused him to die and they buried him. (Sahih al-Bukhari)
Note that the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, who possessed temporal power and authority at the time of this individual’s apostasy, did nothing to him and the apostate died without being killed or executed. It is also noteworthy that this apostate did not keep his renunciation of Islam a private affair, but actually went about propagandizing against Islam and the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم. Nevertheless, because his activity was non-violent he was unharmed and enjoyed the right of religious freedom until his last breath.
I must point out that there isn’t a single verse in the holy Quran, which otherwise contains many laws and regulations for the Believers, that stipulates any kind of Earthly punishment for apostasy or blasphemy. On the contrary, as I have already demonstrated, the Quran and Sunnah clearly establish the principles of religious liberty and freedom of conscience.
To be continued إن شاء الله