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Death Penalty for Apostasy?
The Qur’ânic position on apostasy (رِدّة [ridda], a noun form of the verb يَرْتَدَّ [yartadda, “to renounce”]) can be understood from the following verse:
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا مَن يَرْتَدَّ مِنكُمْ عَن دِينِهِ فَسَوْفَ يَأْتِي اللَّهُ بِقَوْمٍ يُحِبُّهُمْ وَيُحِبُّونَهُ
“O you who believe! If anyone of you should renounce his Faith (let him remember that) Allâh will bring forth (in his stead) a people (more zealous in faith) whom He will love and who will love Him. . . .” (5:54)
There is a particular beauty in these divine words يُحِبُّهُمْ وَيُحِبُّونَهُ, “whom He will love and who will love Him,” which come from the use of pronouns of absence (third-person plural) and a future tense without end, indicating that Allâh’s love for His servants will be endless. The Holy Qur’ân lays down a simple principle:
وَقُلِ الْحَقُّ مِن رَّبِّكُمْ ۖ فَمَن شَاءَ فَلْيُؤْمِن وَمَن شَاءَ فَلْيَكْفُرْ
“And say, ‘It is the truth from your Lord, therefore let him who wishes (it) believe (in it) and let him who wishes (otherwise) disbelieve (in it).’” (18:29)
The death penalty for apostasy (renouncing the faith) is falsely thought of as a part of Sharia Law. In actuality, such a penalty is not consistent with Qur’ânic principles. Conversion by force amounts to the convert confessing a faith without being convinced in his or her heart and would bring the convert into a state of hypocrisy (cf. 2:8). It is not possible that the Holy Qur’ân denounces hypocrisy (cf. 2:9–10), on the one hand, but would allow forced conversion, on the other hand. The Holy Prophet (pbuh) conformed fully to this principle on all occasions whenever he overpowered his foes. When he entered Makkah victoriously, for example, he told the vanquished polytheists: “This day there is no reproof against you. Go! You are free.” In the Qur’ân, you read the well-known, frequently quoted (but poorly understood) verse 2:256:
لَا إِكْرَاهَ فِي الدِّينِ ۖ قَد تَّبَيَّنَ الرُّشْدُ مِنَ الْغَيِّ
“There is no compulsion of any sort in religion (as) the right way does stand obviously distinguished from the way of error.”
The famous Kurdish scholar ‘Alî Ibn Athîr, while commenting on this verse in Al-Kȃmil fî al-Tȃrîkh (The Complete History) sums up its meaning in the following words: “You do not need to force anyone to accept Islam and follow its rules, as it is so manifest and clear, and arguments and reasoning in its favor are so powerful and convincing that there is no need of any force. Whosoever receives guidance from Allâh, opens his breast to the Truth, and possesses the wisdom to understand the arguments in this Book will accept it voluntarily. And if a person is so blind as not to see any reason, his acceptance of Islam is useless.”
إِنَّكَ لَا تَهْدِي مَنْ أَحْبَبْتَ وَلَـٰكِنَّ اللَّهَ يَهْدِي مَن يَشَاءُ ۚ وَهُوَ أَعْلَمُ بِالْمُهْتَدِينَ
“(Prophet!) It is not possible for you to guide whomsoever you wish, but Allâh guides whomsoever He will. He knows fully well those who would accept guidance.” (28:56)
This message is also supported by verse 10:99: “And if your Lord had (enforced) His will those who are on the earth would have believed one and all.” Now if the Lord does not want to apply force to enforce His will, how can He want us to apply force to convert a nonbeliever? There are other verses in the Holy Qur’ân that convey the same Message (cf. 18:29; 26:3–4; 76:3). “Scholars” of Islam who insist on the death penalty for apostasy fail to explain how and why Islam is threatened if a person leaves his or her Muslim faith. This law, like the law against blasphemy, cannot be called a moral law. Instead of promoting righteousness in people, it breeds fear and hypocrisy.
The following verses argue against any worldly punishment for leaving the faith. Rather, the authority of punishment is left with Allâh (3:154).
كَيْفَ يَهْدِي اللَّهُ قَوْمًا كَفَرُوا بَعْدَ إِيمَانِهِمْ وَشَهِدُوا أَنَّ الرَّسُولَ حَقٌّ وَجَاءَهُمُ الْبَيِّنَاتُ ۚ وَاللَّهُ لَا يَهْدِي الْقَوْمَ الظَّالِمِينَ
“How is Allâh to guide a people who renounce their faith after having accepted it and after testifying to the truth of the Messenger and after clear and sound proofs had come to them? And Allâh never guides a people who cannot discriminate between right and wrong.” (3:86)
There is no mention of any punishment for the one who renounces his faith. Similarly, the Qur’ân tells us that there is no punishment of any kind for the one who converts a Muslim to another faith.
وَدَّ كَثِيرٌ مِّنْ أَهْلِ الْكِتَابِ لَوْ يَرُدُّونَكُم مِّن بَعْدِ إِيمَانِكُمْ كُفَّارًا حَسَدًا مِّنْ عِندِ أَنفُسِهِم مِّن بَعْدِ مَا تَبَيَّنَ لَهُمُ الْحَقُّ ۖ فَاعْفُوا وَاصْفَحُوا حَتَّىٰ يَأْتِيَ اللَّهُ بِأَمْرِهِ
“Many of the people of the Scripture would love to turn you back after your having believed, into disbelievers, out of selfish envy, and after the truth (of this Qur’ân) has become apparent to them. But pardon (them) and overlook until Allâh shall make manifest His will, indeed Allâh is Possessor of every power to do all He will.” (2:109)
Peace treaties and other obligations and contracts are to be respected:
Covenants, contracts, and engagements are to be made for the welfare of the individual and society; they are fundamental in social and international relations. Thus, respect for law is made obligatory:
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا أَوْفُوا بِالْعُقُودِ
“O you who believe! Abide by all (your) obligations [and covenants].” (5:1)
This is a comprehensive Divine Command to maintain peace. The word ‘uqûd, عُقُود, “obligations,” denotes a solemn undertaking or engagement involving more than one party. Complying with these obligations brings peace and harmony to a society and to our souls; breaching them leads to discord and enmity and is the source of restlessness in individuals and society.
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