Does the Sharia prescribe a punishment for apostasy?
The issue of apostasy and the claim that Sharia imposes the death penalty for leaving Islam has been the subject of controversy in recent times, especially in liberal democracies which consider freedom to practice religion as a fundamental right of every human being. The Quran does not prescribe the death penalty for apostasy and limits the punishment of death to two specific cases: in retribution for unjust killing (2: 179) and for causing disorder and unrest in the land (5:33). Even as people were feigning acceptance of Islam and later renouncing it to confuse believers and weaken their faith in the formative years of Islam, Quran did not impose the death penalty (3:72). On the contrary, the sanctity of life is highly revered in Islam as is apparent from the oft quoted verse:
“Whoever kills a soul unless for a soul, or for corruption in the land, it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one, it is as if he had saved mankind entirely...” (5: 32).
Furthermore, the Quran appreciates the intrinsic diversity within creation, “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other…” (49:13) and emphasises that there is no compulsion in religion (2:256). Thereby, implicitly allowing for freedom of thought and belief.
In contrast to the Quran, which does not prescribe punishment for turning away from Islam, there are several reports attributed to the Prophet and Caliphs that prescribe death penalty for apostates. It is on the basis of these reports that few scholars concluded that the Sharia punishment for an apostate is death. However, there are numerous methodological issues with consulting these reports
- There are internal inconsistencies amongst these reports. Some prescribe death without any concessions for those who repent for turning away from Islam. However, other narrations insist that Muslims should propagate the message of Islam and offer apostates the chance to repent. It is reported that the second Caliph, ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb was enraged when he was informed of the immediate execution of a man who abandoned the faith without being given the chance to repent.
- The hadith are inconsistent with historical accounts during the life of the Prophet. Even in the most extreme case of apostasy when Musaylima al-Kadhdhāb declared himself to be a prophet, the death penalty was not imposed by Prophet Muhammad.
- The hadith are not in consonance with the aforementioned verses of the Quran.
Accordingly, it can be concluded that the punishment of death for apostasy is not grounded in the primary sources of Sharia. Human life has a distinctive status in Islam which cannot be taken away by any expression of disbelief.