The word irtidad is the measure of ifti’al from radd which means turning back. Ridda and irtidad both signify turning back to the way from which one has come, but ridda is specially used for going back to unbelief, while irtidad is used in this sense as well as in other senses (R.), and the person going back to unbelief from Islam is called murtadd (apostate). There is a great misconception on the subject of apostasy as on the subject of jihad, the general impression among both Muslims and non-Muslims being that Islam punishes apostasy with death. If Islam does not allow the taking of the life of a person on the score of religion, and this has already been shown to be the basic principle of Islam, it is immaterial whether unbelief has been adopted after being a Muslim or not, and therefore as far as the sacredness of life is concerned, the unbeliever (kafir) and the apostate (murtadd) are at par.
Apostasy in the Qur’an
The Qur’an is the primary source of Islamic laws and therefore we shall take it first. In the first place, it nowhere speaks of a murtadd by implication. Irtidad consists in the expression of unbelief or in the plain denial of Islam, and it is not to be assumed because a person who professes Islam, expresses an opinion or does an act which, in the opinion of a learned man or legist, is un-Islamic. Abuse of a prophet or disrespect to the Qur’an are very often made false excuses for treating a person as murtadd, though he may avow in the strong terms that is a believer in the Qur’an and the Prophet. Secondly, the general impression that Islam condemns an apostate to death does not find the least support from the Qur’an. Heffeming begins his article on murtadd, in the Encyclopedia of Islam, the following words:
“In the Qur’an the apostate is threatened with punishment in the next world only.”
There is mention of irtidad in one of the late Makkah revelations: “Whoso disbelieves in Allah after his belief – not he is who is compelled while his heart is content with faith, but he who opens his breast for disbelief – on them is the wrath of Allah, and for them is a grievous chastisement” (16:106). Clearly the murtadd is here threatened with punishment in the next life, and there is not the least change in this attitude in later revelations, when Islamic government had been established immediately after the Prophet reached Madinah. In one of the early Madinah revelations, apostasy is spoken of in connection with the war which the unbelievers had waged to make the Muslims apostates by force: “And they will not cease fighting you until they turn you back from your religion, if they can. And whoever of you turns back from his religion (yartadda from irtidad), then he dies while an unbeliever – these it is whose works go for nothing in this world and the Hereafter, and they are the companions of the fire; therein they will abide” (15) (2:217). So if a man becomes apostate, he will be punished – not in this life, but in the Hereafter – on account of the evil deeds to which he has reverted, and his good works, done while he was yet a Muslim, become null because of the evil course of life which he has adopted.
(15) In their zeal to find a death sentence for apostates in the Qur’an, some Christian writers have not hesitated to give an entirely wrong translation of the word fa-yamut (then he dies) as meaning then he is put to death. Fa-yamut is the active voice and yamutu means he dies. The use of this word shows clearly that apostates were not put to death. Some interpreters have drawn a wrong inference from the words “whose works go for nothing.” These words do not means that he is to be treated as an outlaw. By his “works” are meant the good deeds which he did when he was a Muslim, and these in fact go for nothing even in this life, when a man afterwards adopts unbelief and evil courses. Good works are only useful if they continue to lead a man on to better things, and develop in him the consciousness of a higher life. Elsewhere the deeds of a people are spoken of as going for nothing, when they work solely for this life and neglect the higher: “They whose labour is lost in this world’s life and they think that they are well-versed in skill of the work of their hands. These are they who disbelieve in the communications of their Lord and His meeting, so their deeds become null, and therefore We will not set up a balance for them on the Day of Resurrection” (18:104, 105). In this case habt of the works of this life means their being useless so far as the higher life is concerned.
The third chapter, revealed in the third year of Hijrah, speaks again and again of people who had resorted to unbelief after becoming Muslims, but always speaks of their punishment in the Hereafter: “How shall Allah guide a people who disbelieved after their believing and after they had born witness that the Messenger was true” (3:86); “Their reward is that on them is the curse of Allah” (3:87); “Except those who repent after that and amend” (3:88); “Those who disbelieve after their believing, then increase in disbelief, their repentance is not accepted” (3:90).
The most convincing argument that death was not the punishment for apostasy is contained in the Jewish plans, conceived while they were living under the Muslim rule in Madinah: “And a party of the People of the Book say, Avow belief in that which has been revealed to those who believe, in the first part of the day, and disbelieve in the latter part of it” (3:72). How could people living under a Muslim government conceive of such a plan to throw discredit on Islam, if apostasy was punishable with death? The fifth chapter Ma’idah is one of those revealed towards the close of the Prophet’s life, and even in this chapter no worldly punishment is mentioned for the apostates: “O you who believe! Such one of you turn back from his religion, then Allah will bring a people whom He loves and who love Him” (5:54). Therefore so far as the Qur’an is concerned, there is not only no mention of a death sentence for apostates but such a sentence is negatived by the verse speaking of apostasy, as well as by the magna charta of religious freedom, the 256th verse of the second chapter, la ikraha fi-l-din, “There is no compulsion in religion.”
Hadith in apostasy
Let us now turn to Tradition, for it is on this authority that the Fiqh books have based their death-sentence for apostates. The words in certain traditions have undoubtedly the reflex of a later age, but still a careful study leads to the conclusion that apostasy was not punishable unless combined with other circumstances which called for punishment of offenders. Bukhari, who is undoubtedly the most careful of all collectors of traditions is explicit on the point. He has two “books” dealing with the apostates, one of which is called Kitab al-muharibin min ahl al-kufr wa-l-ridda, or “the Book of those who fight (against the Muslims) from among the unbelievers and apostates,” and the other is called Kitab istiabat al-mu’anidin wa-l-murtaddin wa qitali-him, or “the Book of calling to repentance of the enemies and the apostates fighting with them.” Both of these headings speak for themselves. The heading of the first book clearly shows that only such apostates are dealt with in it as fight against the Muslims, and that of the second associates the apostates with the enemies of Islam. That is really the crux of the whole question, and is due to a misunderstanding on this point that a doctrine was formulated which is quite contrary to the plain teachings of the Qur’an. At a time when war was in progress between Muslims and the unbelievers, it often happened that a person who apostatized went over to the enemy and joined hands with him in fighting against the Muslims. He was treated as an enemy, not because he had changed his religion but because he changed sides. Even then there were tribes that were not at war with the Muslims and, if an apostates went over to them, he was not touched. Such people are expressly spoken of in the Qur’an: “Except those who join a people between whom and you there is an alliance, or who come to you, their hearts shrinking from fighting you, or fighting their own people; and if Allah had pleased He would have given them power over you so that they would have fought you; so if they withdraw from you and fight not you and offer you peace, then Allah has not given to you a way against them” (4:90).
The only case of punishments of apostates, mentioned in trustworthy traditions, is that of a party of ‘Ukul, who accepted Islam and came to Madinah. They found that the climate of the town did not agree with them, and the Prophet sent them to a place outside Madinah where the state milch-camels were kept, so that they might live in the open air and drink of milk. They got well and then killed the keeper of the camels and drove away the animals. This being brought to the knowledge of the Prophet, a party was sent in pursuit of them and they were put to death (16) (Bu. 56:12).
(16) It is stated in some traditions that they were tortured to death,. If it ever happened, it was only by way of retaliation, as before the revelation of penal laws of Islam, retaliation was the prevailing rule. In some reports it is stated that this party of the tribe of ‘Ukul put out the eyes of the keeper of the camels and threw him on hot stones to die a slow death of torture, and that they were put to death in a similar manner. (Ai. VII, p. 58). But others have denied that the law of retaliation was applied in this case. According to these reports, the Prophet had intended to put them to death by torture in the same way as they had put to death the keeper of the camels, but before they were executed he received the revelation dealing with the punishment of such offenders: “The only punishment for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is this, that they should be killed or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned” (5:33). (IJ-C. VI, p. 121). The apostates are thus spoken of here as waging war against God and His Messenger. The punishment varies according to the nature of the crime; it may be death or even crucifixion where the culprit has caused terror in the land or it may be simply imprisonment.
The report is clear on the point that they were put to death, not because of their apostasy but because they had killed the keeper of the camels.
Much stress is laid on a tradition which says: “Whoever changes his religion, kill him” (Bu. 89:2). But in view of what the Bukhari itself has indicated by describing apostates as fighters or by associating their name with the name of the enemies of Islam, it is clear that this refers only to those apostates who join hands with the enemies of Islam and fight with the Muslims. It is only by placing this limitation on the meaning of the tradition that it can be reconciled with other traditions or with the principles laid down in the Qur’an. In fact, its words are so comprehensive that they include every change of faith, from one religion to any another whatsoever; thus even a non-Muslim who becomes a Muslim, or a Jew becomes a Christian, must be killed. Evidently, such a statement cannot be ascribed to the Prophet. So the tradition cannot be accepted, without placing a limitation upon its meaning.
Another tradition relating to the same subject throws further light on the significance of that quoted above. In this it is stated that the life of a Muslim may only be taken in three cases, one of which is that “he forsakes his religion and separates himself (al-tarik) from his community (li-l-jama’ah) (Bu. 88:6). According to another version, the words are “who forsakes (al-mufariq) his community.” Evidently separation from the community or forsaking of it, which is here added as a necessary condition, means that the man leaves the Muslims and joins the enemy camp. Thus the words of the tradition show that it relates to wartime; and the apostate forfeited his life not for changing his religion, but for desertion.
An instance of a simple change of religion is also contained in the Bukhari. “An Arab of the desert came to the Prophet and accepted Islam at his hand; then fever overtook him while he was still in Madinah; so he came to the Prophet and said, Give back my pledge; and the Prophet refused; then he came again sand said, Give m back my pledge; and the Prophet refused; then he came again and said, Give me back my pledge; and the Prophet refused; then he went away” (Bu. 94:47) This tradition shows that the man first accepted Islam, and the next day on getting fever he thought that it was due his becoming a Muslim, and so he came threw back the pledge. This was a clear case of apostasy, yet it is nowhere related that anyone killed him. On the other hand, the tradition says that he went away unharmed.
Another example of a simple change of religion is that of a Christian who became a Muslim and then apostatized and went over to Christianity, and yet he was not put to death: “Anas says, there was a Christian who became a Muslim and read the Baqarah and the Al ‘Imran (2nd and 3rd chapters of the Qur’an), and he used to write (the Qur’an) for the Prophet. He then went over to Christianity again, and used to say, Muhammad does not know anything except what I wrote for him. Then Allah caused him to die and they buried him” (Bu. 61:25). The tradition goes on to say how his body was thrown out by the earth. This was evidently at Madinah after the revelation of the second and third chapters of the Qur’an, when a Muslim state was well-established, and yet the man who apostatized was not even molested, though he spoke of the Prophet in extremely derogatory terms and gave him out to be an imposter who knew nothing except what he (the apostate) wrote for him.
It has already been shown that the Qur’an speaks of apostates joining a tribe on friendly terms with the Muslims, and of others who withdrew from fighting altogether, siding neither with the Muslims nor with their enemies, and it states that they were left alone (4:90). All these cases show that the tradition relating to the killing of those who change their religion only to those who fought against the Muslims.
Apostasy and Fiqh
Turning to Fiqh, we find that the jurists first lay down a principle quite opposed to the Qur’an, namely the life of a man may be taken on account of his apostasy. Thus in the Hidayah: “The murtadd (apostate) shall have Islam presented to him whether he is a free man or a slave; if he refuses, he must be killed” (H.I, p. 576). But this principle is contradicted immediately afterwards when the apostate is called “an unbeliever at war (kafir-un karabiyy-un) whom the invitation of Islam has already reached.” (H.I, p. 557). This shows that even in Fiqh, the apostate forfeits his life because he is considered to be an enemy at war with the Muslims. And in the case of the apostate woman, the rule is laid down that she hall not be put to death, and the following argument is given: “Our reason for this is that the Holy Prophet forbade the killing women, and because originally rewards (for belief or unbelief) are deferred to the latter abode, and their hastening (in this life) brings disorder, and a departure from this (principle) is allowed only on account of an immediate mischief and that is hirab (war), and this cannot be expected from women on account of the unfitness of their constitution” (H.I, p. 577).
And the annotator adds: “The killing for apostasy is obligatory in order to prevent the mischief of war, and it is not a punishment for the act of unbelief” (ibid.). And again: “For mere unbelief does not legalize the killing of man” (ibid.). It will be seen that, as in the case of a war against unbelievers, the legists are labouring under a misconception, and a struggle is clearly seen going on between the principles as established in the Qur’an and the misconceptions which had somehow or other found their way into the minds of legists. It is clearly laid down that the apostate is killed, in a state of war, and the argument is plainly given that killing for unbelief is against the accepted principles of Islam. But the misconception is that the mere ability to fight is taken as a war condition, which is quite illogical. If it is meant that the apostate possesses the potentiality to fight, then potentially even a child may be called a harabiyy (one at war), because he will grow up to be a man and have the ability to fight; even woman apostates can not be excepted because they also possess the potentiality to fight. The law of punishment is based not on the potentialities but on facts. Thus, even the Fiqh recognizes the principle that the life of a man cannot be taken for mere change of religion and that, unless the apostate is in a sate of war, he cannot be killed. It is quite a different matter that the legists should have made a mistake in defining hirab or a state of war.