In modern Islamic declarations of human rights, among other things, there is talk of religious freedom. But does that mean that a Muslim is granted the right to turn away from Islam in order to live without religious affiliation or to accept another religion? In traditional Islam this right is denied.


The Koran on Apostasy

Various Koran verses deal with the subject of apostasy, e.g. Sura 88:23-24: “Whoever turns away and remains an unbeliever will be tormented by God with the severest pain” (cf. 16:106-109; 3:86-91; 4:137; 2:217). Here, God’s judgement is pronounced on those who were Muslims and then turned away from Islam. Nothing is said about what action the Muslim community should take against apostates. Many Islamic commentators, however, have understood the verses to mean that anyone who turns from Islam should be put to death.                (Sura 4:88-89 says that ‘hypocrites’ should be confronted and slaughtered; in the historical context they probably posed a political danger to the Muslims in Medina.)


The Hadith on Apostasy

There are reports in the Hadith that Muhammad ordered the execution of persons who had turned away from Islam and that he said: “The blood of a Muslim may only legitimately be shed in three cases: for an elderly adulterer; as punishment for murder; for those who turn away from Islam and leave the Muslim community.” (Hadith collections of Al-Buchari and Muslim – according to Adel Theodor Khoury, German, “der Koran”, p.549). There are differing statements in the Hadith as to whether a period of time should still be granted for apostates to embrace Islam again.


The Islamic Schools of Law on Apostasy

Islamic law was developed on the basis of the interpretation of the Koran and the Hadith. The four Sunni schools of law and the Schiite law are basically in agreement that a Muslim who falls away from Islam should be put to death.  Apostasy from Islam is generally regarded as a denial of the Islamic profession of faith and the rejection of basic Islamic duties, or of prohibitions such as desecrating the Koran

The marriage of an apostate will be annulled and any property confiscated. There are various views as to whether a female apostate should also be put to death or be subject to lifelong imprisonment (possibly with frequent beatings).  Usually a period of three days should precede an execution, during which time the apostate is granted the opportunity to return to Islam. The mentally ill are not held responsible for their actions.


Justifying the Death Penalty

Right up to the present day Muslim scholars justify the view that apostates from Islam have to be killed. The reason they usually give is that all healthy states punish treason and rebellion with the death sentence. Islam is not merely a personal religious opinion but rather a political judicial system that covers every area of life. Therefore, apostasy from Islam is not strictly a private change of religion but rebellion against the Islamic order- and with that rebellion against the realisation of God’s reign on earth. The Islamic community can only respond to such treachery with the severest punishment.


Current Practice

At the present time, only rarely are people in Islamic states that are accused of apostasy from Islam, officially sentenced to death. Some have been charged and executed for other offences, e.g.: Bahai followers in Iran for ‘treason’ or for ‘spying for Israel’. Individual converts like Mehdi Dibaj in Iran were imprisoned for many years and then released – and some time later found murdered.

Also in Islamic lands without laws against apostasy, there are occasional cases of former Muslims who have been killed by relatives or other members of the community. There are also countries where Muslims can leave Islam without threats from the state or from the community – and families that provide a certain amount of protection for their relatives. However, ‘safety’ for apostates can almost never be guaranteed. In an Islamic environment they live in a perpetual state of legal uncertainty or lawlessness.


A Fresh Appraisal?

In the Islamic world there are a few voices speaking out for a fresh look at the question of apostasy from Islam. They point out that there is a difference between a change in religion out of personal conviction and a falling away from Islam, which is linked with political attacks on the Islamic community. It would be a valuable step to see this differentiation reflected in Islamic law – on behalf of all those who have left Islam because of their faith in Jesus Christ without becoming enemies of their fellow citizens who are Muslim, nor breaking their loyalty to their country.

As long as Islamic law threatens with death every Muslim who turns from Islam for reasons of personal conviction, Islam can no longer in any event rightly claim to be a tolerant religion.


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