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Does Islam prescribe punishment for apostasy?
“Admonish, therefore, for thou art but an admonisher; Thou hast no authority to compel them.” Holy Quran 88:22-23
The Quran is explicit in many places that belief is a matter of the heart, and not something that can be forced or controlled externally. The Quran prescribes no punishment whatsoever for those who give up religious beliefs. Indeed, it is the freedom of choice in having religious beliefs in the first place that makes them worthy of merit.
More Evidence From The Quran
Apostasy is the clear repudiation of a faith by a person who formerly held it. Doctrinal differences, however grave, cannot be deemed to be apostasy. The enemies of Islam have utilised the unwise religious edicts of some clerics as a basis to attack Islam. Had it been proper to use force in any shape or form in the matter of religion, God Himself would have forced the people to enter Islam and to renounce all other faiths. God says in the Holy Quran:
“And if thy Lord had enforced His Will, surely all men on the earth would have believed together. Wilt thou, then, force men to become believers?” Holy Quran 10:100
“And if Allah had enforced His will, they would not have set up gods with Him. And We have not made [Muhammad] a keeper over them nor art thou over them a guardian.” Holy Quran 6:108
“There should be no compulsion in religion.” Holy Quran 2:258
The Holy Quran and the life of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) demonstrate that Islam does not sanction death or any other worldly punishment for changing one’s faith (i.e., apostasy). In verse 3 chapter 145 God states “He who turns back on his heels shall not harm Allah a whit” – a clear indication that apostasy has no need for punishment. Similarly, Chapter 2 verse 109 states: “Whoever takes disbelief in exchange for belief has undoubtedly gone astray from the right path” – again no mention of a punishment.
The punishment for apostasy lies in the hand of God Almighty, against whom the offence has been committed. The Holy Quran says in this context:
“Those who believe, then disbelieve, then again believe, then disbelieve, and then increase in disbelief, Allah will never forgive them nor will He guide them to the way.” Holy Quran 4:138
This verse gives the example of someone entering and renouncing the faith repeatedly. If it was the teaching of Islam to kill people for renouncing their faith on the first instance, how could such an example be given? This is the teaching of God. Nothing else is needed.
Capital Punishments In Ahadith
Some might still raise the question that there is evidence in the Ahadith (narrations of the Prophet of Islam) that punishment was given by the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) and by his immediate successors, for apostasy. Any such affirmation amounts to an enormity. No action of the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) or any of his immediate successors could be in conflict with the Holy Quran. He himself warned that if anything was attributed to him which was in conflict with the Holy Quran, it must be rejected as false. It is well known that the integrity of the Holy Quran is guaranteed by God Almighty, as is said:
“Surely, We Ourself have sent down this Exhortation, and We will, most certainly, safeguard it.” Holy Quran 15:10
Some may still wonder why capital punishments occurred during the time of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). Only such apostates were executed who had fought against the Muslims after their apostasy . Even some of them were forgiven on the intercession of some Companion of the Holy Prophet .
It is also argued that Abu Bakr’s (may Allah be pleased with him) fighting the apostates in the so-called “Ridda Wars” is conclusive proof that simple apostasy is punishable with death. Some who cite this instance assume that those apostates were “harmless people”. But the case was not as they imagine. Those apostates had repudiated their allegiance to the Islamic state and had taken up arms against it. Those of them who continued to adhere to Islam were killed, and forces were ready to wage war with the Islamic state. In fact, they advanced upon Medina and laid siege to it in their effort to destroy the Muslims altogether. Therefore, Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) took up the sword against them and defeated and subdued them in order to establish peace and security .
It is worth noting that some historians said the issue was not belief in Allah and His Prophet, but the Zakat (tax). Whilst they were named apostates by the companions, most of them didn’t leave the religion of Islam, this view has been held by Ibn Abi al-Hadid , Wellhausen  and Bernard Lewis . However, history does not mention any case of a people whose default in the time of Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) was confined merely to the non-payment of Zakat and whom he fought. So far as we have been able to discover, those whom he fought had rebelled openly against the Islamic state. They had expelled from the territories under their control the functionaries who had been appointed by the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon on him); those among them who adhered to Islam were massacred and they had raised forces for the purpose of fighting the Islamic state. Some of them advanced against Medina. Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) had been left no choice but to fight them. Even if there had been any tribes whose default was limited to refusal to pay the Zakat, and who called themselves Muslims, it had become necessary to fight them also as they withheld government revenues and refused to pay them .
Imam Al-Shafi’I defines riddah as falling back from a previously adopted religion into disbelief and refusing to fulfill previously accepted responsibility. The rebels committed a breach of an agreement and according to Tabari , Ibn Khalladun , Aini  and Khamees , they also advanced upon Medina and laid siege to it in their effort to destroy the Muslims altogether. Therefore, Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) took up measures and defeated them. This lends no support to the thesis that the punishment of simple apostasy is death.
This was the teaching of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). This is the view confirmed by Hanafi jurists, Fateh al-Kadeer Chalpi , Hafiz ibn Qayyim, Ibrahim Nakhai, Sufyan Thauri and many others . The claim of consensus on the punishment of an apostate in this world, concerning the tradition some hold to be true, is a mere fiction.
A Bedouin Arab converted to Islam through the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) and soon after suffered a fever while in Medina. He asked the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) to release him from his pledge. He made this request three times and was refused three times. He left Medina unmolested .
The Promised Messiah (peace be upon him), founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, also supports the notion that the apostates were rebels: “It was the sincerity (sidq) of Hazrat Abu Bakr (ra) that suppressed the uprising and put an end to the rebels.” 
Our thesis that Islam imposes no secular penalty for simple apostasy is conclusively established on the basis of the Holy Quran and the practice of the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). It is not necessary to have recourse to any juristic opinion on the subject. We are aware that a misunderstanding on this question arose in the midst of a certain section of the jurists on this subject. The advocates of the death penalty for apostasy claim that their thesis is supported by a unanimous consensus of the believers and that no one has ever questioned it. Their claim is utterly untrue. We have just shown that leading jurists of the Hanafi school held to the position to which we adhere, that simple apostasy is not punishable with death. It is only a fighting apostate who is subject to that penalty on account of his rebellion or treason and not on account of his apostasy. In addition there have been outstanding scholars in Islam who have upheld the view that we maintain.
Islam condemns any worldly punishment levied upon an apostate because it recognizes that only God can judge any act of apostasy. Therefore, True Islam advocates freedom of conscience, religion, and speech as a fundamental tenet of Islam.
- Holy Quran 88:22-23
- Holy Quran 10:100
- Holy Quran 6:108
- Holy Quran 2:258
- Holy Quran 4:138
- Holy Quran 5:10
- Punishment of Apostasy in Islam by Sir Muhammad Zafrulla Khan.
- Tafseer Kabeer of Imam Razi, Vol. V, p.527, and in the commentary Ruhul Maani, Vol. IV, p.484. See also Punishment of Apostacy in Islam by Sir Muhammad Zafrulla Khan.
- Abd al-Hamid Hibet-u-Allah ibn al-Hadid, Sharah Nahj al-Balaghah, ed. Muhammad Abu al-Fadl Ibrahim (Cairo, 1956–64), vol. XIII, 187. See also Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad. Murder in the Name of Allah. Pg.67.
- C.H. Becker, op.cit ., 335. See also Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad. Murder in the Name of Allah. Pg.67.
- Bernard Lewis, The Arabs in History (London, 1958), 51–2. See also Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad. Murder in the Name of Allah. Pg.67.
- Punishment of Apostasy in Islam by Sir Muhammad Zafrulla Khan.
- Tabari, Vol. IV, p. 1817, 1873 and p.1875
- Ibn Khalladun, Vol. II, p.65 and p.66).
- Aini, Vol. XI, p.236
- Khamees, Vol.II, p.237
- Chalpi’s Commentary on Fatehal Kadeer, p.388
- Punishment of Apostasy in Islam by Sir Muhammad Zafrulla Khan. also Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad. Murder in the Name of Allah.
- Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad. Murder in the Name of Allah.
- Malfuzat — Volume II p.93