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Any Punishment for Apostasy, Let Alone Capital Punishment, is Anti-Islamic

By Muhammad Yunus,

(Joint Author, Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA, 2009.)

26 Nov 2011

A set of Qur’anic verses  that are fundamental to its message clearly and conclusively refute the notion of punishing a Muslim man or woman who wants to convert to any other faith, or even renounce God. They are listed below under three headings. 

1.  Universality of the concept of Islam and of the criterion of divine judgment.

The Qur’an’s use of the noun Islam and its other roots (asslama, Muslim) demonstrates that members of all faith communities – Christians, Jews, and others – regardless of whether or not they are mentioned in the Qur’an (4:164, 40:78) belong to the universal din (way of life) of Islam that espouses submission (orienting oneself, asslama) to God and doing good deeds. The followers of the Prophet Muhammad are also given this name.

“Indeed! Whoever commits (asslama) his whole being to God, and does good deeds - will get his reward from his Lord. There will be no fear upon them nor shall they grieve” (2:112).

“And who can be better in faith (din) than the one who commits (asslama) his whole being to God, and does good deeds, and follows the way of Abraham, the upright one, and God took Abraham as a friend” (4:125).

“And who is finer in speech than the one who invites to God, does good deeds and says: ‘I am of those who submit to God (Muslimun)’” (41:33).

“When his Lord said to him (Abraham), ‘Submit (aslim)’, he said, ‘I submit (Aslamtu) to the Lord of the worlds’ (2:131). Abraham enjoined his sons to do so, as did Jacob: ‘O my sons, God has chosen the religion (din) for you; so you should not die unless you have submitted to God (Muslimun)’ (2:132). Were you (among) witnesses when death came to Jacob? He said to his sons, ‘What will you serve after I am gone?’ They said, ‘We will serve your God; the God of your fathers, Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac - the One God; and to Him we have truly submitted (Muslimun)’” (2:133).

“Those who believe, and those who are Jews, Christians and Sabians - and (in fact) anyone who believes in God and the Last Day, and does good deeds - shall have their reward with their Lord. They have nothing to fear, nor will they regret” (2:62).

 “Those who believe, and those who are Jews, Sabians and Christians - (in fact) anyone who believes in God and the Last Day, and does good deeds - they have nothing to fear, nor will they regret” (5:69).

“And do not debate with the People of the Book, but in a way that is better (than theirs), except with those of them who oppress (others); and say ‘We believe in what was revealed to us, and what was revealed to you, for our God and your God is One (and the same), and it is to Him that we (all) submit (Muslimun)’” (29:46)

“…This day, those who reject (this Qur'an) despair of (ever harming) your religion. Therefore, do not fear them; fear Me. This day I have perfected your religion for you, completed My favor on you, and have chosen Islam for your religion…” (5:3).

Note: This has also been discussed at length in light of Qur’anic illustrations in a recent publication [1], but reproduced above to avoid any need for cross reference.

2 There is no compulsion in religion. 

The Qur’anic spirit of religious pluralism, intrinsic to the universality of the concept of the Islam (1 above) is reflected in its following pronouncements on the freedom of religion:

“(There is) no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clearly from falsehood; so whoever rejects false deities and believes in God, has grasped a firm handhold, which never breaks. (Remember,) God is All-Knowing and Aware” (2:256).

“If your Lord so willed, everyone on earth would have believed, all together. Will you then compel people until they become believers” (10:99)?

 “We know best what they say; but you (O Muhammad,) are not to force them. So remind with the Qur'an those who fear My warning” (50:45).

“So remind (them, O Muhammad) – for you are one who reminds (88:21); and have no power over them” (88:22).

The Qur’an’s position on religious freedom is amply demonstrated in a verse (60:11) dating from the Medinite period allowing pagan women to leave for Mecca, if they did not opt to convert to Islam along with their husbands:

“And if any of your wives should go over to the pagans, and then you have your turn (as many converted wives of the Meccan pagans left their pagan husbands and came over to Medina), then pay to those whose wives had left the equivalent of what they had spent (on their dower). And heed God in whom you believe” (60:11).

The Muslims who turn atheist will be punished after their death

The Qur’an declares:

“…And if any of you turn back from their faith and die in a state of atheism, their deeds will be of no avail in life, or in the hereafter; and they will be the inmates of hellfire and they will remain there” (2:217).

“…Anyone who, after believing in God, denounces his faith, - except under compulsion, his heart remaining firm in faith - but such as open their breast to atheism, on them is Wrath from God, and theirs will be a dreadful punishment” (16:106).

“Those who turn atheist after entering faith and then go on increasing in their disbelief - their repentance will never be accepted. And they are those who are astray” (3:90).

 “Those who believe, reject faith and then believe (again), and again reject faith, and go on increasing in atheism, God will not forgive them nor guide them along the (right) path” (4:137). [See also 47:25-27]

Finally, the Qur’an reassures the Muslims that “if anyone abandons his religion, God will replace him with others whom He loves and who love Him” (5:54).

These verses clearly demonstrate that apostasy will be punished only by God. Not a single verse in the Qur’an offers any basis to humans/ Muslims to punish an apostate, as apostasy is between a person and God and God is enough to deal with the apostates. Thus, there is no Qur’anic basis to legislate capital punishment, or, for that matter, any punishment for apostasy or for renouncing faith in God altogether (atheism).

Historically, in all major civilizations, the cessation from the established religion of the State was conflated with treason and carried most severe punishments. Thus, as late as ‘the eighteenth century of the Christian era, the Christian churches in Western Europe condemned the heretics to the stake or the gallows; no distinction was made on the score of sex or age’. [2] In the Islamic world, the traitors turned apostates and joined the enemy camp. So the punishment for apostasy was in true sense the punishment for treason rather than for abandoning faith.   

Conclusion. In the past centuries, the world was divided on strictly religious lines and apostasy equated with treason in the political and military sense for which death sentence was normative for the era. With a major paradigm shift in civilization in terms of the relegation of religion to the personal domain, commercialization and secularization of the armed forces, and evolution of secular nations, the religion of a soldier does not define his national identity or loyalty and the change of religion does not conflate with political treason or sedition. Therefore, in light of the Qur’an’s recognition of the divinity of all religions (1 above), and its unqualified sanction of religious freedom, there can be no Qur’anic basis whatsoever for any punishment, let alone capital punishment, for changing religion or apostasy.   


[1] Muslims have NO Qur’anic basis for Religious Supremacism:’anic-basis-for-religious-supremacism/d/5802 

[2] Asaf A.A.Fyzee, Outlines of Mohammadan Law, fifth edition 2005, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, p.178.

Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.


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