Freedom of Religion in Early Islam

Simply stated, there is none.

This article is Part 6 in the sharia series.

This series of articles about Islamic sharia law is written for educators, legislators, city council members, judges, lawyers, government bureaucrats, think tank fellows, TV and radio talk show hosts, and others who occupy various “check points” in society. They initiate the national dialogue and shape (not to say control) the flow of the conversation. They are the policy and decision makers.

They have been told that sharia has no problem, certainly not to the degree that its critics claim. Islam is a world religion, after all, and the critics exaggerate. They just must be “Islamophobic.”

Yet the decision makers may have a private, gnawing feeling that sharia does have problems. Can the critics be all wrong, all the time?

Defenders of sharia work hard at allaying those private fears.

This next quotation represents Muslim religious scholars who proclaim that Islam easily conforms to modern standards of religious freedom.

In October 2011, the Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA) issued a fatwa (religious ruling or opinion) on the compatibility of the Quran and authentic hadith (traditional reports and narrations about Muhammad and his closest companions outside of the Quran) with the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, specifically about the freedom of religion.

The scholar writes:

Contrary to erroneous perceptions and Islamophobic propaganda of political extremists from various backgrounds, the true and authentic teachings of Islam… uphold religious freedom and adherence to the same universal moral values which are accepted by the majority of people of all backgrounds and upon which the US Constitution was established and according to which the Bill of Rights was enunciated.[1]

Then the fatwa adds that the Quran and authentic hadith are the sources of “the universally accepted supreme objectives of Islamic sharia, which is to protect religious liberty”[2] . . . .

The goal of being loyal Americans and religious is certainly promoted in the Constitution, which advocates religious freedom. So far, so good. That’s anyone’s political right, to connect his religion with patriotism.

However, before we accept that fatwa in its entirety, we must find out what original – “true and authentic” – teaching and hadith and sharia say about the freedom of religion.

Here is the Table of Contents:


Quran 2:256: No Compulsion in Religion

Quran 9:5, 11-15: War on Pagans

Quran 9:17-18, 28: Barring Pagans from Their Shrine

Quran 9:29-31: War on Christians and Jews

Quran 9:73-74, 123: War on Hypocrites



Shedding Muslim Blood

The Right Way to Kill Atheists

From Judaism to Islam and Back Again

An Apostate Goes Free?

Heavenly Reward

War against False Prophets

Wars of Apostasy



No Two Religions in the Arabian Peninsula

Striking the Neck of an Apostate

Non-Muslims Converting to a Non-Islamic Religion

From Christianity to Islam and Back Again

Chance to Repent

Executing Female Apostates?

Which Is Worse?

Acts of Apostasy

More Wars of Apostasy



Reformist Views?

Traditional Views



This article is about religious freedom generally. There are verses that eliminate freedom of religion or severely restrict it.

It is sometimes claimed that Islam was constantly helpless against the Meccan enemies.[3] This may have been true in Mecca and the first few months in Medina. However, Islam’s military grew rapidly in Medina, particularly near the end of Muhammad’s life. Eventually he conquers Mecca in early A.D. 630 and wages war on Christians and Jews later in that year.. It is important to realize this historical context, for then the verses in this entire section on the Quran will make sense.

For more about the growth of Islam’s military, see The Mission of Muhammad and the Sword.

Quran 2:256: No Compulsion in Religion

While Muhammad lived in Mecca, his hometown, he was nonviolent towards the pagans; they worshipped at the sacred Kabah shrine, and so did he. He told them, “You have your religion and I have mine” (Quran 109:6). But his preaching of monotheism (worship of one God) bothered them. They were polytheists (those who worship many gods). They became so angry, they chased him out of town in A.D. 622.

He departed northward to the city of Medina. This flight is called the Hijrah.

Chapter 2 of the Quran is the first chapter to be revealed in Medina, though some verses may have been written later (the Quran is a hodge-podge). When Muhammad arrived in that city in 622, he found a thriving community of Jews. At first he intends to be friendly with them, maybe reform them.

Quran 2:256 is a strong statement of tolerance. The key clause simply says:

There is no compulsion in religion[4]…. (Quran 2:256)

Perhaps that verse reflects his goal of peaceful coexistence and the use of words alone to persuade the Jews. But the rest of the chapter is filled with numerous verses that remind the Jews how they were disobedient in the past. Muhammad’s rhetoric heats up.

Three examples of strong rhetoric against the Jews of Medina: Quran 2:47-61 says Allah performed miracles for the children of Israel when he led them out of Egypt, but they worshipped the golden calf, while Moses was on Mt. Sinai. They were also ungrateful when Allah did other miracles, like sending manna and quail. Quran 2:87-92 says Allah sent messengers, even Jesus, to the Jews, but they became arrogant, disbelieved and killed prophets of old. Quran 2:246-251 recounts how Israel wants their first king (Saul). But when they were commanded to fight because they were chased out of their homeland, which was what happened to Muhammad, they turn away. But eventually David defeats Goliath.

So Muhammad uses these Old Testament stories – garbled as they were because he heard them over the years from professional traveling poets and storytellers who plied their verbal craft along the trade routes – to his own advantage. But heated words do not have to lead to violence.

However, this nonviolence is untrue of Muhammad’s ten years in Medina. His military grew rapidly. By the time his life ends in 632, because, he believed, he was poisoned by Jews, he will have expelled them from Medina and massacred one tribe, the Qurayza, selling their women and children into slavery. He even conquered the Jewish settlement of Khaybar, to the north of Medina, in 628.

Quran 33:26-27 discuss the massacre and enslavement of the Qurayza tribe of Jews, the People of the Book (the Bible):

26 He brought those People of the Book who supported them [the Meccans and their allies] down from their strongholds and put panic into their hearts. Some of them you [believers] killed and some you took captive. 27 He passed on to you their land, their houses, their possessions, and a land where you had not set foot: God has power over everything.[5]

This verse reflects the Battle of the Trench in A.D. 627. Meccan pagans got fed up with Muhammad’s raiding their caravans, so they sent up 10,000 Meccans and their allies to finish the matter. However, he dug a trench along his most vulnerable points, to neutralize the Meccan cavalry. After about a month, the Meccans withdrew without a victory.

Now, flush with a victory of sorts (at least not a defeat), Muhammad turns his attention to the Jews.

They were supposed to remain neutral in the Battle, but they seem to have intrigued with the Meccans and to have been on the verge of attacking Muhammad from the rear – though they did not. Tradition says that while he was bathing, the archangel Gabriel appeared to him and told him to attack the large tribe.[6] He besieged them and forced them to surrender. For their alleged betrayal, they must be put on trial.

The sentence: Death by decapitation for around 600 men (one source says as high as 900),[7] and enslavement for the women and children. The executions lasted throughout the night, as the heads and bodies were dragged into trenches.

So, those verses in Quran 33:26-27, while not necessarily canceling or abrogating Quran 2:256, balances out the positive claim in the verse that there is no compulsion in religion. And the verses that follow in the next sections clarify 2:256, as well.

See The Sword and the Jews and Muhammad and the Qurayza Jews, for more detail about Muhammad’s tense and violent relations with the Jews.

Quran 9:5, 11-15: War on Pagans

Chapter 9 of the Quran is the last chapter, in its entirety, to be revealed in the Quran. In early A.D. 630, Muhammad and 10,000 jihadist conquered Mecca. This was done with little bloodshed – though there was some. He conquered the Kabah shrine there, where pagans for centuries had worshiped the black stone.

He needs to hunt down specific polytheists or idolaters who defied him and, he believed, broke an oath. If they convert to Islam and pay an alms tax, they can go free. If not, they will be killed.

Quran 9:5 says:

5 When the [four] forbidden months are over, wherever you encounter the idolaters, kill [q-t-l] them, seize them, besiege them, wait for them at every lookout post; but if they repent, maintain the prayer, and pay the prescribed alms, let them go on their way, for God is most forgiving and merciful.[8] (Quran 9:5)

This Quran goes on to say that if the idolaters (polytheists) seek protection, they may find it (v. 6).

However, that treaty (of sorts) to let them go their way is rescinded. Quran 9:11-15 says:

11 If they repent, keep up the prayer, and pay the prescribed alms, then they are your brothers in faith: We make the messages clear for people who understand. 12 But if they break their oath after having made an agreement with you and revile your religion, then fight these leaders of disbelief – oaths mean nothing to them – so that they may stop. 13 How could you not fight a people who have broken their oaths, who tried to drive the Messenger out, who attacked you first? Do you fear them? It is God you should fear if you are true believers. 14 Fight [q-t-l] them: God will punish them at your hands, He will disgrace them, He will help you to conquer them, He will heal the believers’ feelings 15 and remove the rage from their hearts. God turns to whoever He will in His mercy; God is all knowing and wise. (Quran 9:11-15)

Thus, these pagans do not have freedom of religion, because they broke their oath (so says Muhammad) (v. 12). They have to convert and pay the alms tax (v. 11). Muhammad connects pagan oath breaking with conversion to his religion; that is, pagans do not have to pay a fine and keep their religion or say they are sorry and keep their religion. But they have to convert to Islam and pay an alms tax (v. 11). If not, Muhammad will fight, disgrace, and conquer them (v. 14). This will heal the rage in the believers’ and Muhammad’s hearts (v. 15; see 5:2).

Forcing conversion by the sword is a perfect description of a holy war.

Quran 9:17-18, 28: Barring Pagans from Their Shrine

As noted, while in Mecca, Muhammad was nonviolent, but he preached against polytheism. But after years of his preaching, they were so angry, they chased him out of Mecca and barred him from the Kabah shrine (sacred Mosque). He went north to Medina (this flight is called the Hijrah).

While in Medina, he looked back on what just happened to him and concluded that his fellow Meccans had committed an injustice in persecuting him and barring him from the shrine (sacred Mosque). These verses, read in this chronological order, reflect his sense of injustice.

Quran 22:25 predicts that Allah shall punish the Meccans for barring him and others.

25 As for those who disbelieve and bar others from God’s path and from the Sacred Mosque – which We [Allah] made for all people, residents and visitors alike – and who try to violate it with wrongdoing, We shall make them taste a painful punishment.[9]  (Quran 22:25)

Quran 2:217 says Muhammad has permission to fight:

217 They ask you [Prophet] about fighting [q-t-l] in the prohibited month. Say, “Fighting [q-t-l] in that month is a serious offence, but to bar others from God’s path, to disbelieve in Him, prevent access to the Sacred Mosque [Kabah], and expel people, are still greater offences in God’s eyes: persecution is worse than killing.[10] (Quran 2:217)

Quran 8:34 says Allah will punish the Meccans for barring people from the sacred Mosque; the Meccans are not the rightful guardians of it:

34 Yet why should God not punish them when they debar people from the Sacred Mosque, although they are not its [rightful] guardians?[11] (Quran 8:34).

Quran 3:96-97 says that the Old Testament figure Abraham himself stood at the Mosque in Mecca:

96 The first House [of worship] to be established for people was the one at [Mecca]. It is a blessed place; a source of guidance for all people; 97 there are clear signs in it; it is the place where Abraham stood to pray; who ever enters it is safe.[13] (Quran 3:96-97)

Muhammad implies that he is the rightful owner of the Mosque, because he accepts (or invents) the legend that Abraham traveled a thousand miles and sanctified the shrine. Abraham was the first monotheist, and Muhammad is one too (Quran 2:122-129; 8:34-36).

Quran 5:2 says Muhammad hates the people who barred him from the Mosque:

2 …“Do not let your hatred for the people who barred you from the Sacred Mosque induce you to break the law: help one another to do what is right and good; do not help one another towards sin and hostility.”[13]… (Quran 5:2, emphasis added)

Then he reveals a monetary motive to fight to get it back. Quran 5:97 says:

97 God has made the Ka‘ba [Kabah] – the Sacred House – a means of support for people.”[14]… (Quran 5:97)

People from all over Arabia went to Mecca during seasons of pilgrimage, and this generated a lot of money.

Quran 48:25 says Muhammad’s sacrifice at the Mosque in Mecca was somehow prevented:

25 They were the ones who disbelieved, who barred you from the Sacred Mosque, and who prevented the offering from reaching its place of sacrifice.” (Quran 48:25)

A Reversal of Fortunes

However, Muhammad military grows. He was successful in his raids, so many men joined his religion. His raiders turned into a jihad army. He conquers the Meccans and their city in early A.D. 630. Some verses in Chapter 9 of the Quran incorporate this conquest.

Specifically, now that he has the military power, he is not about to let the pagans or idolaters guard houses of worship, particularly the Kabah shrine. Only Muslims may maintain these places.

Quran 9:17-18 says:

17 It is not right for the idolaters to tend God’s places of worship while testifying to their own disbelief: the deeds of such people will come to nothing and they will abide in Hell. 18 The only ones who should tend God’s places of worship are those who believe in God and the Last Day, who keep up the prayer, who pay the prescribed alms, and who fear no one but God: such people may hope to be among the rightly guided…. (Quran 9:17-18)

And finally Quran 9:28 shuts the door completely:

28 Believers, those who ascribe partners to God [polytheists] are truly unclean: do not let them come near the Sacred Mosque after this year…. (Quran 9:28)

Muhammad’s ability to deny the pagans (polytheists) access to their shrine coincides with his growing military, by the time Chapter 9 is given.

This is a 180-degree reversal of fortunes. And it does not promote religious freedom.

See The Mission of Muhammad and the Sword for more detail about the historical context of that lineup of verses.

At that link, we speculate, since nothing in history is inevitable, about what might have been, if Muhammad had let go of his need for the shrine back in Mecca and had said: “Polytheists! You have controlled the shrine for centuries. It is yours. I have set up my own Mosque, here in Medina. It’s extra-holy. Come to it of your own freewill. You don’t have to bow in the direction of a black stone. You don’t have to kiss my sacred Mosque (as you kiss the black stone). But if you don’t come to Islam, you are free to go on your way.  ‘You have your religion and I have mine.’ ‘There is no compulsion in religion.’”

That was a genuine option for him. Quran 109:6 and 2:256 say so.

But that hypothetical is contrary to fact, unfortunately for world peace.

Quran 9:29-31: War on Christians and Jews

Now that the pagans were subdued, and Muhammad has control over the sacred shrine, he turns his attention to Jews and Christians.

Muhammad heard a rumor that the Byzantines had amassed a huge number of troops in Tabuk (in northern Saudi Arabia today). So in late A.D. 630, he marched northward with 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers to confront them. However, the Byzantines never materialized. But on his way up there and back again, he encountered small tribes of Jews and Christians. Rather than waste his military campaign without rewarding his soldiers and filling the growing treasury in Medina, he extracted a tax, called the jizyah, from these tribes.

More specifically, he gave the People of the Book (Jews and Christians; the Book is the Bible) three options:

29 Fight [q-t-l] against those who (1) believe not in Allah, (2) nor in the Last Day, (3) nor forbid that which has been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger (Muhammad), (4) and those who acknowledge not the religion of truth (i.e. Islam) among the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians), until they pay the Jizyah with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.[35]

The three options for the People of the Book are (1) fight and die; (2) convert; or (3) keep their religion and pay the jizyah or submission tax. What is so interesting about that verse is that Muhammad’s motive to fight is his belief that Jews and Christians do not believe in the Last Day and do not forbid what he has forbidden.

Quran 9:30-31 confirms the religious motive to attack:

30 The Jews said, “Ezra is the son of God.” and. the Christians said, “The Messiah is the son of God”: they said this with their own mouths, repeating what earlier disbelievers had said. May God thwart them! How far astray they have been led! 31 They take their rabbis and their monks as lords beside God, as well as Christ, the son of Mary. But they were commanded to serve only one God: there is no god but Him; He is far above whatever they set up as His partners![36] (Quran 9:30-31)

Scholars have been hard pressed to find independent confirmation that says a sect of Jews called Ezra the son of God. But what if such a sect existed? Why couldn’t they have religious freedom to follow their theology? Why do they have to pay a second-class submission tax?

However, it is true that Christians call Jesus Lord and the Son of God (taking rabbis and monks as lords besides Allah is another matter). Muhammad considers this heretical and shirk (associating anything or anyone with Allah). Christians of course do not see things that way and conclude Muhammad was misinformed about their doctrine. But in any case, why can’t these seventh-century Arab Christians have their religion without paying a second-class submission tax?

In Islamic history, vanquished Jews and Christians became known as dhimmis. This word appears in Quran 9:8 and 10, meaning a “treaty” or “oath,” but it can also mean those who are “condemned” “reviled” or “reproved” (Quran 17:18, 22; 68:49).[37]

The word “willing submission” in v. 29 can also be translated as “humiliation,” “utterly humbled,” “contemptible” or “vile.” It can mean “small” as opposed to “great.”[38]

It seems then that the Quran, backed by the Islamic military, defines what proper doctrine is. Military might makes right. Military might makes doctrine.

That is a perfect description of a holy war.

For more information about jihad, qital and the jizyah tax, see Part Four in this series; and also see A Brief Explanation of the Trinity.

Quran 9:73-74, 123: War on Hypocrites

Automatic death for apostasy is not as prominent a theme in the Quran as one would first expect from today’s news reports. Some verses condemn apostasy, but its punishment is reserved for divine judgment in the Last Day, or its punishment is not clear down here on earth.[19] However, there are a few verses (Quran 9:73-74 and 9:123) that may advocate execution for apostasy, but other interpreters disagree.

By the time Chapter 9 of the Quran is being written, Muhammad has a strong military, so three verses in this chapter command striving (jihad) and then fighting (qital) against hypocrites and unbelievers.

In the following two verses, the hypocrites – Muslims who follow Islam and the commands of Muhammad from a distance – do not seem to be full apostates yet. The Quran says:

73 Prophet, strive [j-h-d] against unbelievers and the hypocrites and be tough on them. Hell is their final home – an evil destination. 74 …They would be better off turning back [to God]: if they turn away, God will inflict terrible punishment on them in this world and the Hereafter, and there will be no one on earth to protect or help them. (Quran 9:73-74)

Hypocrites refused to go on Muhammad’s Tabuk campaign against the Byzantine Christians in late A.D. 630. He could not tolerate this wishy-washy behavior.

In v. 73, the slightly more ambiguous word “jihad” is used, which is translated as “strive against.”[20] This implies that the ultimate command to kill the hypocrites and unbelievers has not yet been given clearly. The Muslim community had other methods of “striving” with them instead of killing them, such as ostracism, denial of their oaths in a court of law, closed doors of offices and positions, and contempt in social meetings.[21]

The hypocrites are still given the opportunity to repent. “They would be better off turning back [to God]”…. This means they are apostates and are given the chance to turn back or repent. But this chance for repentance is short lived, as the next verse in our study reveals (v. 123). God will punish them in this world. How?

Ibn Kathir (d. 1373) is one of the most authoritative and highly regarded classical commentators in the Sunni world. He writes about the hypocrites in Quran 9:73, citing early Muslim authorities in the hadith:

“With the hand, or at least have a stern face with them.” Ibn Abbas said, “Allah commanded the Prophet to fight the disbelievers with the sword, to strive against the hypocrites with the tongue and annulled lenient treatment of them.” Ad-Dahhak commented, “Perform Jihad against the disbelievers with the sword and be harsh with the hypocrites with words, and this is the Jihad performed against them.” Similar was said by Muqatil and Ar-Rabi.[23]

So even in this verse the sword can be used, but so far only against the unbelievers. The hypocrites are fought with words.

However, in Quran 9:123 the hypocrites have been merged with the unbelievers, so they are now apostates.

The Quran says:

123 You who believe, fight [q-t-l] those of the disbelievers near you and let them find you standing firm: be aware that God is with those who are mindful of Him. (Quran 9:123)

Recall that the word qital (root is q-t-l) means more than just a struggle or striving; it means warring, fighting, killing, and slaughtering.

Recall that Muhammad waged war against Christians and Jews in the Tabuk campaign. After the Muslims returned to Medina, Muhammad scolded the “hypocrites” who had stayed behind and failed to support him. Then he turns to those people who stirred up strife in the community by expressing doubt in his revelations; they needed to be silenced. This latter group is whom he attacks in v. 123 – the “unbelievers.” He may wage war (qital) on them.

Another aspect of the historical context should be considered. Muhammad urges his fighters forward in order to kill the unbelievers, even if the latter belong to the fighters’ own family, as seen in the words “near you” in v. 123, which implies a relational nearness as well as a geographical one. “Believers, do not take your fathers and brothers as allies, if they prefer disbelief to faith” [23] (Quran 9:23). Now v. 123 raises the stakes and says fighting (q-t-l) them is necessary.

The immediate textual context of the verse shows conflict with those refusing to support or even opposing Muhammad. For example, in v. 121 Muhammad complains that the hypocrites do not spend any money in Allah’s cause, so Allah will recompense them accordingly.

Next, Muhammad instructs his troops in v. 122 that not all Muslims should go out on a campaign of jihad, but some should stay behind to teach Islam, so they may warn people to beware of evil.

Finally, in the verses after v. 123 Muhammad condemns the unbelievers for mocking his revelations. Thus, the literary context does not consist of peace and friendship with Muhammad’s opponents, and that is why he deals with them harshly in v. 123.

So combining the historical context and the textual context, we can see that the elements within v.123 yield three truths.

First, Muhammad uses the Arabic word qital (three letter root is q-t-l), which, as noted, always means physically slaying, slaughtering, fighting, killing, and warring, depending on the context. This word is usually stronger than jihad (three letter root is j-h-d), which Muhammad uses in Quran 9:73, a companion to v. 123.

To repeat Quran 9:73 and 123:

73 Prophet, strive [j-h-d] against unbelievers and the hypocrites and be tough on them. Hell is their final home – an evil destination.[24] (Quran 9:73)

123 You who believe, fight [q-t-l] those of the disbelievers near you and let them find you standing firm: be aware that God is with those who are mindful of Him. (Quran 9:123)

Thus, jihad and qital can barely be distinguished in vv. 123 and 73, since the means (swords) and the goal (submission or death) of fighting are the same in both verses. Not only does Muhammad say that his Muslims should fight the unbelievers and hypocrites, but they should do so harshly or sternly.

Second, the translations in the two verses (73 and 123) “tough” and “standing firm” can be translated as “harsh,” “hard,” “severe,” “vehement,” “rigid,” “fierce,” and “stern.”[25]

By now Muhammad has had enough. They hypocrites crossed the line and were not given the chance to return to Islam. The more restrictive word q-t-l is used.

Third, the root of “near” is w-l-y, and there are many references to it in the Quran. For our purposes it can mean, depending on the context, “kindred” or “kinship” or close “friendship.”[26] This indicates that the unbelievers had once been near the Muslim community, but now they have turned away. The Quran says these renegades or apostates can be killed [q-t-l].

Sayyid Abul A’La Maududi (d. 1979) was an Indo-Pakistani scholar who tied to bring about sharia law through his political party Jamaat-i-Islami party. In this thorough commentary he says the hypocrites and unbelievers in v. 73 have been merged in v. 123, so the hypocrites are unbelievers now. Therefore, they may be fought [q-t-l].

From the apparent wording of this verse [123], it may be inferred that only those Muslims have at first been held responsible to fight with those enemies of Islam who live near their territory. But if we read this verse along with the succeeding passage, it becomes clear that here “disbelievers who are near you” refers to those hypocrites who were doing great harm to Islamic Society by mixing up with the sincere Muslims. This very thing was stated in v. 73 at the beginning of this discourse. The command has been repeated at its end in order to impress on the Muslims the importance of the matter and to urge them to do jihad and crush these internal enemies, without paying the least regard to the racial, family and social relations that had been proving a binding force with them. The only difference between the two commands is that in v. 73, the Muslims were asked to do jihad with them, while in this verse stronger words, “fight with them,” have been used, which were meant to impress on them that they should crush the hypocrites thoroughly and completely. Another difference in the wordings is that in v. 73, two different words, “disbelievers and hypocrites,” have been used, while in this verse only one word, “disbelievers,” has been used so that the hypocrites should forfeit all their claims as Muslims, for there was room for this concession in the word “hypocrite.”[27]

However, Ibn Kathir says “near” means geography, not necessarily family relations, and he does not say the hypocrites in v. 73 have been merged with the unbelievers in v. 123.[28] Therefore, combining these verses (73 and 123) is not clear.

So, the Quran is not as explicit about waging qital on apostates (i.e. executing them) as one might first think.[29] Maybe this Quranic silence offers hope to reform the penalties for the religious “crime” of leaving Islam (see the section Modern Islam, below).


This section on the Quran is long, so the main points are numbered here for clarity.

  1. In Mecca, Muhammad preaches monotheism (belief in one God), while his fellow Meccans are polytheists (those who believe in many gods). But he was still attached to their Kabah shrine, the sacred Mosque. Yet, he can have his religion, and they can have theirs (Quran 109:6). Nonetheless, he angers them after a while, because of his message.
  2. They chase him out of Mecca and bar him from their Kabah shrine. He considers this unjust.
  3. He arrives in Medina in A.D. 622. This flight is called the Hijrah.
  4. He finds thriving tribes of Jews in Medina. He preaches that there is no compulsion in religion (Quran 2:256). But tension existed between them from the beginning. Chapter 2 of the Quran has many passages that are polemical against Jews.
  5. He has no military to speak of, but he sends raiders out against Meccan caravans, to harass them. His raids are successful, so his raiders grow into a jihad army.
  6. Tension and conflict between the Jews and him grow so immense that he exiles and massacres them.
  7. He conquers Mecca and takes over the Kabah shrine in early A.D. 630. So he wages war on pagans or polytheists and bars them from their shrine. He takes it over (Quran 9:5, 11-15; 17-18, 28).
  8. He wages war on Christians and Jews in late A.D. 630 (Quran 9:29-31).
  9. He also wages jihad against hypocrites or “halfway” Muslims around the same time (Quran 9:73 and 123).
  10. Chapter 9 of the Quran is revealed at this time (nos. 7, 8, and 9), and it is filled with jihad and qital verses.
  11. Many religious scholars and leaders today believe the tolerant verses (109:6 and 2:256) have been abrogated or canceled by the later jihad and qital verses.
  12. However, surprisingly, formal governmental punishments of apostates are not completely clear in the Quran. But the punishments are clear in the traditions (hadith) and classical law, in the next two sections.

Given this sequence of historical events, it is no wonder that Islam today is so intolerant of other religions. The Quran and Muhammad set the institutional genetic code. Can that code be broken today?


The hadith are the reports, narrations, or traditions about the words and deeds of Muhammad outside of the Quran. Classical legal scholars – and jurists today – search through them to find guidance about various issues. See the article titled, What Is Sharia? in the series, for more discussion about hadith. We also include historian, commentator, and jurist Tabari (d. 923). Modern historians consider him a reliable source (except some elements of chronology and surprisingly few miracles).

The hadith and Tabari, together, form a coherent picture about apostasy and freedom of religion.

Shedding Muslim Blood

Authentic hadith collector and editor Bukhari (d. 870) records this tradition traced back to Muhammad himself, in a legal context. It gives three reasons for shedding a Muslim’s blood. One of them is apostasy.

Allah’s Apostle said, “The blood of a Muslim who confesses that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that I am His Apostle, cannot be shed except in three cases: In Qisas [like-for-like punishment] for murder, a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse and the one who reverts from Islam (apostate) and leaves the Muslims.”[30]

The Right Way to Kill Atheists

The next hadith says that some “atheists” were brought to Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin, and Ali burned them alive. Ibn Abbas, also Muhammad’s cousin, would not have inflicted that specific punishment.

…The news of this event reached Ibn Abbas who said, “If I had been in his [Ali’s] place, I would not have burnt them, as Allah’s Messenger forbad it, saying, ‘Do no punish anybody with Allah’s punishment (fire).’ I would have killed them according to the statement of Allah Messenger, ‘Whoever change[s] his Islamic religion, then kill him.’”[31]

It is not clear if they were “atheists” in the modern sense, but no matter, for Islam considered them as such. Evidently, these “atheists” were once Muslims, but they no longer followed Muhammad’s way, so Ali burned them alive. Ibn Abbas would have executed them in another way, probably beheading, because fire as a punishment is reserved only for Allah – in hell.

From Judaism to Islam and Back Again

In the next hadith Muhammad’s emissary to Yemen saw a man who was tied up, and the emissary asked about him. The bound man had converted to Islam, but decided to return to Judaism. For his apostasy he was executed.

Narrated Abu Burda: Allah’s Apostle sent Abu Musa and Muadh bin Jabal to Yemen. He sent each of them to administer a province as Yemen consisted of two provinces… Muadh came riding his mule till he reached Abu Musa and saw him sitting, and the people had gathered around him. Behold! There was a man tied with his hands behind his neck. Muadh said to Abu Musa, “O Abdullah bin Qais! What is this?” Abu Musa replied. “This man has reverted to Heathenism after embracing Islam.” Muadh said, “I will not dismount till he is killed.” Abu Musa replied, “He has been brought for this purpose, so come down.” Muadh said, “I will not dismount till he is killed.” So Abu Musa ordered that he be killed, and he was killed.[32]

An Apostate Goes Free?

In one hadith a Bedouin converted to Islam, but got a fever in Medina and asked his pledge to Islam to be canceled. Muhammad refused, but let him leave Medina unharmed.

Narrated Jabir bin ‘Abdullah As-Salami: A Bedouin gave the pledge of allegiance for embracing Islam to Allah’s Apostle, and then he got an attack of fever in Medina and came to Allah’s Apostle: and said, “O Allah’s Apostle! Cancel my pledge.” Allah’s Apostle refused to do so. The Bedouin came to him again and said, “Cancel my pledge,” but he refused again, and then again, the Bedouin came to him and said, “Cancel my pledge,” and Allah’s Apostle refused. The Bedouin finally went away, and Allah’s Apostle said, “Medina is like a pair of bellows (furnace), it expels its impurities while it brightens and clears its good.’[33]

The comment at the end says that the Bedouin left Medina and so the city was purified of an impurity (either the fever or the apostate Bedouin or both). Maybe Muhammad recognized he had not conquered Mecca yet, as one modern Muslim scholar argues.[34] So Muhammad was lenient on the one Bedouin.

Recall that Quran 9:5, 11-15 were revealed after the conquest of Mecca. In those verses, Muhammad says to slay the idolaters wherever the Muslims find them, after the sacred months have passed. So this tolerance in the above hadith was connected to military action, not a personal policy of apostasy; he had not conquered Mecca when that hadith was given. But by the time 9:5, 11-15 were written, he had conquered Mecca, so the tolerance ends.

Heavenly Reward

The following hadith promises a reward on the day of resurrection for killing apostates in the last days:

Narrated Ali: …No doubt I heard Allah’s Apostle saying, “During the last days there will appear some young foolish people who will say the best words but their faith will not go beyond their throats (i.e. they will have no faith) and will go out from (leave) their religion as an arrow goes out of the game. So, wherever you find them, kill them, for whoever kills them shall have reward on the day of resurrection.”[35]

As noted, Ali was Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law and future fourth caliph. There is no doubt that he is a reliable transmitter of hadith. It may be true that this execution is done in the last days, but this hadith coheres with other ones that are not about that time.

War against False Prophets

Tabari (d. 923) was an historian and jurist, so he does not carry as much weight as the hadith collectors like Bukhari. But Tabari also analyzed the traditions, and in his history he records some incidents that took place just before Muhammad died. Some tribes broke with Islam, and their leaders claimed that angels and spirits spoke through them. The Islamic prophet – who also claimed a spirit named Gabriel spoke to him – could not tolerate the dissent and competition, because by his way of thinking they were apostates. So he waged war on them and prevailed.

The Messenger of God waged war against the false prophets by sending messengers. He sent a messenger to some of the descendants of the Persian soldiers in the Yemen . . . instructing them [to get rid of] al-Aswad by artful contrivance. He [further] instructed them to seek help of some people whom he named from the Banu [tribe] Tamim and Qays, sending [word] to the latter to help the former. They did [as instructed]. The means of [escape] for those who apostatized were cut off, and they were attacked [while they were] in a state of warning. Since they were isolated, they were occupied with themselves. Al-Aswad was killed while the Messenger of God was [still] alive, a day or a night before the latter’s death. Tulayhah, Musaylimah and the likeness of them were driven away by the messengers.[36]

Tabari’s entire history is taken very seriously by Western and other scholars. And his tradition about Muhammad eliminating apostates during his lifetime is consistent with the hadith.

Wars of Apostasy

The final example of executing or waging war on apostates in the hadith: soon after Muhammad died in A.D. 632, the tribes in Arabia revolted against Islam. Evidently, they honored this religion only because he grew in military prowess, but they dropped their allegiance to him. However, his right-hand companion Abu Bakr (r. 632-634) was appointed successor or caliph upon Muhammad’s death.

This is how he deals with the revolts:

When Allah’s Messenger died and Abu Bakr was elected as a caliph after him, some of the Arabs reverted to disbelief. Umar [the future second caliph] said to Abu Bakr, “How dare you fight the people while Allah’s Messenger said, ‘I have been ordered to fight the people till they say, “None has the right to be worshipped but Allah.” And whoever says: “None has the right to be worshipped but Allah” saves his wealth and his life from me unless he deserves a legal punishment justly, and his account will be with Allah!”’” Abu Bakr said, “By Allah, I will fight him who discriminates between zakat [required charity tax] and salat (prayers), for zakat is the compulsory right to be taken from the wealth. By Allah, if they refuse to give me even a tying rope which they use to give to Allah’s Messenger, I would fight them for withholding it.”[37]

Zakat is “the compulsory right to be taken from the wealth” of the Arab tribes. Abu Bakr zealously fights for every last scrap of wealth from them. In the end, he was successful, from Islam’s point of view. The tribes were subdued.


The early Muslims followed the institutional genetic code that Muhammad set out. The Quran says he limited the freedom of religion of Jews and Christians and eliminated this freedom for pagans; so does the hadith (and Tabari). Muhammad ordered apostates to be killed, though the Quran goes at this indirectly (Quran 9:73-74 and 123). Muslims who left Islam could be killed, in the traditions. Atheists could be killed, in the hadith. Both the traditions and history say that Arab tribes revolted against Islam, but they were subdued, reflecting Muhammad’s conquest of pagans in Quran Chapter 9 and of Mecca in A.D 630. History says Muhammad waged war on other prophets.


Sharia is based firmly on the Quran and the traditions (hadith) about Muhammad. We look at various schools of jurisprudence or interpretations in orthodox Sunni Islam: Malik (d. 795); Imam Muhammad (d. 795), a pupil and later a colleague of Abu Hanifah (d. 767), one of the four main founders of the schools of Islam; Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri (d. 1368), an adherent of the Shafi’i school; Ibn Rushd (d. 1198), who conveniently summarizes all the various schools of interpretation; and two accounts by two Muslim historians: Tabari (d. 923), a commentator, jurist, and historian; and Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), who was an historian and Maliki jurist.

For more information about sharia, see the article titled What Is Sharia? in the series.

No Two Religions in the Arabian Peninsula

Not only was Malik a jurist, he was also a reliable collector of hadith. So his collection on which his rulings are based could be placed in the hadith section, but this placement here will do, for our purposes.

He records the tradition that says two religions shall not co-exist in the Arabian Peninsula. The context is the expulsion of Jews from the town north of Medina, Khaybar.

Yahya related to me from Malik from Ismail ibn Abi Hakim that he heard Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz say, “One of the last things that the Messenger of Allah… said was, ‘May Allah fight the Jews and the Christians. They took the graves of their Prophets as places of prostration. Two deens [religions] shall not co-exist in the land of the Arabs.'”[38]

Yahya related to me from Malik from Ibn Shihab that the Messenger of Allah . . . said, “Two deens [religions] shall not co-exist in the Arabian Peninsula.”[39]

Malik said that Ibn Shihab said, ”Umar ibn al-Khattab searched for information about that until he was absolutely convinced that the Messenger of Allah… had said, ‘Two deens [religions] shall not co-exist in the Arabian Peninsula,’ and he therefore expelled the Jews from Khaybar.”[40]

It is not clear if Muslims succeeded in kicking out Christians and Jews from the entire peninsula, but they were removed from the Hijaz (in western Saudi Arabia today). To this day, no church building or Christian gathering is allowed in all of Saudi Arabia (we do not need to talk about a synagogue).

Striking the Neck of an Apostate

Malik lays out the example set by Muhammad, and then Malik interprets it.

Yahya related to me from Malik from Zayd ibn Aslam that the Messenger of Allah . . . said, “If someone changes his deen [religion] – strike his neck!”[41]

In the long passage that follows that statement, next, Malik interprets the basic principle of death to apostates. First he says that those who change their religion are Muslim heretics or nonconformists. Their repentance is not accepted, evidently because their confusion over what Islam really is distorts the religion publicly and may cause equal confusion in people.

The meaning of the statement [to strike the neck of anyone who changes his religion] of the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, in our opinion and Allah knows best, is that “if someone changes his deen [religion], strike his neck!” refers to those who leave Islam for other than it – like the heretics and their like, about whom it is known. They are killed without being called to tawba [repentance] because their tawba is not recognized. They were hiding their kufr [unbelief] and publishing their Islam, so I do not think that one calls such people to tawba, and one does not accept their word.[42]

Malik continues with a discussion of those who leave Islam for something else, presumably another religion or maybe no religion. They are allowed to repent, which means to return to Islam. If not, they are killed.

As for the one who goes out of Islam to something else and divulges it, one calls him to tawba [repentance]. If he does not turn in tawba, he is killed. If there are people in that situation, I think that one should call them to Islam and call them to tawba. If they turn in tawba, that is accepted from them. If they do not turn in tawba, they are killed.[43]

Non-Muslims Converting to a Non-Islamic Religion

Malik discusses Christians who change to Judaism or Jews who convert to Christianity or other religions besides those two. These apostates are left unpunished.

That [command to strike the neck of anyone who changes his religion] does not refer, as we see it, and Allah knows best, to those who come out of Judaism to Christianity or from Christianity to Judaism, nor to someone who changes his deen [religion] from the various forms of deen [religion] except for Islam. Whoever comes out of Islam to other than it and divulges that, that is the one who is referred to [in that command], and Allah knows best![44]

From Christianity to Islam and Back Again

Malik’s opinion in those quoted passages in the previous two sections agrees with Ali’s (the fourth caliph’s) practice during the Civil War (656-661) against rebels, according to the historian Tabari.

Three groups were captured in a battle. One, there were Christians who remained as they were. They were let go. Two, some Christians converted to Islam and remained in their new religion. They too were free to go. Three, other Christians converted to Islam, but switched back to Christianity. They were ordered to return to Islam (a repentance of sorts), but they refused, so they were killed and their dependents were taken into captivity, on the signal of the Muslim commander.

Commentator and historian Tabari writes:

I [the narrator of this incident] was in the army that Ali b. Abi Talib [the fourth caliph] sent against the Banu [tribe] Najiyah. We came to them and found them split into three groups. Our commander said to one of these groups, ”What are you?” and they replied, ‘We are a Christian people who do not consider any religion to be better than ours, and we hold fast to it!’ Our commander said to them, “Be off with you”… He said to another band, ”What are you!” and they said, ‘We were Christians, but we accepted Islam and we hold fast to our Islam!’ He said to them, “Be off with you!” Then he said to the third group, “What are you?” and they said, ‘We are a people who were Christians. We accepted Islam but we do not think that any religion is better than our previous one!’ He said to them, ”Accept Islam!” but they refused. He said to his men, “When I rub my head three times, attack them and kill the fighting men and make captive the dependents!”[45]

Chance to Repent

We return to Malik’s interpretation of apostasy, which concerns Umar, the second caliph (ruled 634-644). Recall that in the previous section on the hadith Abu Bakr, the first caliph (ruled 632-634), waged wars on tribes that apostatized from Islam. Umar also killed apostates as a matter of policy, except he gives them three days to repent, as follows:

…Then Umar inquired, “Do you have any recent news?” He said, “Yes. A man has become an unbeliever after he was a Muslim.” Umar said, “What have you done with him?” He replied, “We let him approach and then struck off his head.” Umar said, “Didn’t you imprison him for three days and feed him a loaf of bread every day and call on him to repent that he might… return to the command of Allah?” Then Umar said, “O Allah! I was not present and I did not order it and I am not pleased since it has come to me.”[46]

Evidently Malik intends us to draw the conclusion from that hadith that a time of repentance is allowed and immediate execution is wrong. See the section, Striking the Neck of an Apostate, above, for more discussion of repentance.

Imam Muhammad Ibn al-Hasan was a pupil and then colleague of Abu Hanifah and wrote a commentary on Malik’s law book. The Imam comments on that passage about Umar, cited just above, saying that a brief time for repentance is acceptable, but so is execution if the apostate does not turn back to Islam.

[Imam] Muhammad said: “If the imam wishes he can give a respite of three days to the apostate if he hopes that he will turn in tawbah [repentance] or if the apostate has asked him for that. If there is no hope and the apostate has not asked him for that and he kills him, then there is no harm in that.”[47]

Executing Female Apostates?

Ibn Rushd, after quoting the hadith cited by Malik (if anyone leaves his religion, strike his neck), comments on whether a woman apostate could be executed.

The majority said that a woman (apostate) is to be executed. Abu Hanifah said that a woman is not to be executed and compared her to an originally non-believing woman. The majority relied upon the general meaning implied (in the tradition). One group held a deviant opinion saying that she is to be executed even if she reverts to Islam.[48]

In the rest of his summary, Ibn Rushd refers to Malik’s quotation of Umar, above, who gave the apostate time to repent.

Which Is Worse?

Ibn Rushd adds the complication of laws about an apostate who became an armed robber before or after his apostasy and committed his crimes in Islamic or enemy territory. However, we do not need to quote the lengthy passage and analyze it here because it is complicated and exceeds the scope of this article in the series. But what is odd is that Ibn Rushd does not say that becoming a highway robber is a clear sign of apostasy. Apparently renouncing religion is very technical, religiously speaking, similar to what is outlined in the Shafi’i school.

Instead of quoting the long passage, we should only note that the reason Ibn Rushd added the twist of an apostate becoming an armed robber is because Ibn Rushd found some disagreement among the schools of law regarding this new factor. Without this complication, we may assume that the schools of law agreed on the execution of an ordinary apostate – one who did not become an armed robber (see the summary section, below).[49]

Acts of Apostasy

The medieval manual compiled by Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri, and added to by later jurists, represents the outlook and rulings in the Shafi’i school of law. [50]

For Muslims, leaving Islam is “the ugliest form of unbelief… and the worst.”[51] But only sane adults are subjected to trial. “When a person who has reached puberty and is sane voluntarily apostatizes from Islam, he deserves to be killed.”[52] Repentance is accepted so that he is not killed, but if he refuses to repent, then the caliph or his representative may execute him, without indemnity or expiation for his death.[53] A Jew or Christian who kills an apostate is not subject to retaliation, and neither is a Muslim who kills him.[54]

The following acts, which are broad in scope, entail leaving Islam.

(1) To prostrate to an idol, whether sarcastically, out of mere contrariness, or in actual conviction, like that of someone who believes the Creator to be something that has originated in time. Like idols in this respect are the sun or moon, and like prostration is bowing to other than Allah, if one intends reverence towards it like the reverence due to Allah;

(2) To intend to commit unbelief, even if in the future. And like this intention is hesitating whether to do so or not: one thereby immediately commits unbelief;

(3) To speak words that imply unbelief such as “Allah is the third of three:’ or “I am Allah ” – unless one’s tongue has run away with one, or one is quoting another, or is one of the friends of Allah Most High… in a spiritually intoxicated state of total oblivion . . . for these latter do not entail unbelief;

(4) To revile Allah or His messenger; . . .

(5) To deny the existence of Allah, His beginningless eternality, His endless eternality, or to deny any of His attributes which the consensus of Muslims ascribes to Him; . . .

(6) To be sarcastic about Allah’s name, His command, His interdiction, His promise, or His threat;

(7) To deny any verse of the [Quran] or anything which by scholarly consensus belongs to it, or to add a verse that does not belong to it;

(8) To mockingly say, “I don’t know what faith is”;

(9) To reply to someone who says, “There is no power or strength save through Allah”: “Your saying ‘There’s no power or strength, etc.’ won’t save you from hunger”;

(10) For a tyrant, after an oppressed person says, “This is through the decree of Allah,” to

reply, “I act without the decree of Allah”;

(11) To say that a Muslim is an unbeliever… in words that are uninterpretable as merely meaning he is an ingrate towards Allah for divinely given blessings…

(12) When someone asks to be taught the Testification of Faith… and a Muslim refuses to teach him it;

(13) To describe a Muslim or someone who wants to become a Muslim in terms of unbelief….

(14) To deny the obligatory character of something which by the consensus of Muslims… is part of Islam, when it is well known as such, like the prayer (salat) or even one rak’a [round of prayer] from one of the five obligatory prayers, if there is no excuse….

(15) To hold that any of Allah’s messengers or prophets are liars, or to deny their being sent;

(n: Ala al-Din Abidin [d. 1889] adds the following:

(16) To revile the religion of Islam;

(17) To believe that things in themselves or by their own nature have any causal influence independent of the will of Allah;

(18) To deny the existence of angels or jinn… or the heavens;

(19) To be sarcastic about any ruling of the sacred law [sharia];

(20) Or to deny that Allah intended the Prophet’s message…  to be the religion followed by the entire world.)[55]

More Wars of Apostasy

Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) was born in Tunis and became a statesman, historian and legal scholar of the Maliki school. He explains why a dynasty rarely establishes itself firmly in lands of many different tribes and groups. But it can be done after a long time and physical force, including massacre, as seen in the Maghrib (N and NW Africa) from the beginning of Islam to Ibn Khaldun’s own time:

The first (Muslim) victory over them and the European Christians (in the Maghrib) was of no avail. They continued to rebel and apostatized time after time. The Muslims massacred many of them. After the Muslim religion had been established among them, they went on revolting and seceding, and they adopted dissident religious opinions many times. They remained disobedient and unmanageable…. Therefore, it has taken the Arabs a long time to establish their dynasty in the… Maghrib.[56]

The Christians of North Africa rebelled against Islam because they intended to keep their faith, but Muslims massacred them and imposed Islam on them, denying their freedom of religion. Apparently the jizyah tax was not sufficient. Religion, war, and taxes can become a deadly mixture.


A scholar at the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America (AMJA) offers a concise summary of the four fiqh (jurisprudence) schools of Islam in Sunni Islam (Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanafi, and Hanbali). The site consists of religious scholars, most of whom have their doctorates in Islam law or other Islamic subjects. They are qualified to write fatwas (religious opinions or rulings). The site uses the write-in Question and Answer format.

A questioner asks:

In connection to the questions that come to the Islamic centers these days, please, kindly explain in detail how to answer such questions about the Sharia ruling concerning the apostate and his/her punishment?

A scholar at AMJA replies:

I would recommend you to begin answering them on such questions by showing them that these matters are only judged by the judiciary systems in the Islamic countries, and not by the individuals, and then you tell them that the courts handle such cases, and decides upon them according to many details and considerations. As for the sharia ruling, it is the punishment of killing for the man [according to] the grand four fiqh sharia scholars, and the same with the woman with the major Sharia scholars, and she is jailed [according to] Al-Hanafiyyah scholars, as the prophet… said: “Whoever a Muslim changes his/her religion, kill him/her,” and his saying: “A Muslim`s blood, who testifies that there is no god except Allah and that I am the Messenger of Allah, is not made permissible except by three reasons: the life for the life; the married adulterer and the that who abandons his/her religion.”[57]

What is so interesting about the quotation is that the scholar still references the four classical schools of law and treats them as authoritative even today.

He goes on to quote the Torah’s anti-apostasy law (Deuteronomy 13:6-16), to show that there is nothing wrong with Islam, though Islam came about 600 years after Jesus (who did not persecute apostates) and about 2,100 years after the traditional date of the first five books of Moses (the Torah).

This series does not compare religions, but see the very last endnote, below, for articles that cover the topic. We do not need to go back to the Old Testament laws on apostasy, though many Muslims like the AMJA scholar seem to believe that a majority of Christians still teach this.


A reformist calls for the reform of Islam, while a traditionalist believes Islam, revealed in the Quran and presented in the authentic hadith, is fine the way it and defends it. Usually, religious leaders and scholars are selected in this section, but sometimes a Muslim who is in the public eye is included too.

But often the two categories blur together and are difficult to distinguish in modern Islam, as it goes through change or seeks to maintain the old laws.

Reformist Views?

As a case in point, it is difficult to discern whether this declaration offers a reform of Islamic apostasy laws, or reinforces them.

Article Ten of the 1990 Cairo Declaration of Human Rights, under the auspices of the United Nations, reads:

Islam is the religion of true unspoiled nature. It is prohibited to exercise any form of pressure on man or to exploit his poverty or ignorance in order to force him to change his religion to another religion or to atheism.[58]

But that article is ambiguous. It is well known that Christians preach the gospel to the poor, so does this proclamation equal exploitation? Does preaching amount to pressure? Under Article Ten would the Christian pastor or evangelist and his new converts suffer persecution because the new converts left Islam? Clearly they would and they do.

But in the bigger picture sharia defines basic rights in the Declaration. The last article (25) says:

The Islamic sharia is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification of any of the articles of this Declaration.[59]

However, our article proves that sharia makes apostasy from Islam to another religion or to atheism a capital crime. How will a sharia judge determine what “pressure” or “exploitation” is?

Next, Abdullah Saeed is the Sultan of Oman Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia. He wrote an article advocating Islamic reform on apostasy. To his credit he acknowledges that the Quran and hadith have some problems. But he also explains that there is room to maneuver in Islam. He concludes:

Despite current challenges, the degree of freedom available to many Muslims, particularly those who are based in intellectually free societies (many of which are in the West), can be used to challenge those who threaten religious liberty. Muslims, who now make up roughly 20 percent of the world’s population, have a political and religious duty to take into account the important values and norms that have extensive grounding in Islam’s most sacred texts and its own tradition. In doing so, Muslim thinkers will be returning to their most important sources of authority, the Qur’an and the Prophet, in support of tolerance and religious liberty.[60]

Despite his conclusion, admirable though it is in tone, it is misleading to assert in another part of his article that “the hadith themselves offer no evidence to suggest that Prophet Muhammad himself ever imposed the death penalty for the mere act of conversion from Islam.” (It may be true that he himself did not physically execute an apostate, but he ordered it done.) Saeed states in his article that Muhammad did not force anyone to convert to Islam. (But the Islamic prophet grew in military power, and an army is a powerful incentive to conform to the conquerors’ religion.) Islam during his lifetime was not as helpless as Saeed states in his article. (Islam was a powerful military force.)

But at least Saeed encourages Islam to reform.

Normally, Jamal Badawi, a member of the Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA), should not be considered a reformist; in fact, he does not like the label. About reinterpreting the Quran and hadith on apostasy, the fourth point of his conclusion reads:

  1. As religious opinions [Fatwas] change with the changing time, place, custom and circumstances, this issue should be re-examined within the basic boundaries of Islamic jurisprudence and not simply of pressures of others. No Muslim is required to change the indisputable stable and fixed aspects of sharia for the sake of pleasing others or earning the title “moderate” or “open minded.” In the meantime, Fiqhi rulings and interpretations in the non-fixed area need not be permanent either.[61]

Though his interpretation of the hadith is stretched in his article, he does point out that Islam can reinterpret difficult passages. He encourages modern Islam to take a second look at its apostasy laws, and for that reason he is placed in the reformist camp.

Traditional Views

As noted, the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America (AMJA) is made up of religious scholars who have doctorates, most in Islamic law, or they have the credentials and authority to write fatwas (religious rulings or opinions). The site uses the write-in Question and Answer format.

In the next fatwa, though they do not write about Article Ten of the 1990 Cairo Declaration of Human Rights (cited above), they leave no doubt as to how it could be interpreted or simply ignored.

Someone wrote the AMJA website about freedom of religion:

…I would like to know more about the apostate, because others argue that, since the apostate has to be killed, it can be concluded that there is nothing like freedom in Islam.

Then the scholar replies with this fatwa:

…Under the authority of the Muslim state, the People of the Book [Jews and Christians] have the right to stay on their belief without being compelled to embrace Islam. But if one of them has embraced Islam, it would not be acceptable from him to go back to his original religion.

The same rule applies to those who are born into Muslim families. According to the Islamic Law, they cannot commit apostasy.

Implementing the punishment of killing the apostate is the sole and the exclusive responsibility of the Muslim state (were there any nowadays). Nobody else has the right to implement it.[62]

In another fatwa issued by AMJA, a reader had asked a question in two parts: (1) the hadith says a stone and tree will call out to a Muslim that a Jew is hiding behind it: come and kill him! (2) Then he or she asks about another hadith that shows Abu Bakr, the second caliph (r. 632-634), vowing to kill or convert all the inhabitants of Arabia (see above in the hadith section). The questioner asks how this can be squared with religious tolerance.

The scholar replies that the first hadith talks about the end of days, so presumably we don’t need to worry about it. And he goes on to say that the second part of the question is about polytheists who do not subscribe to a divine religion. Then he offers this conclusion:

In Islam, neither of these categories of people is allowed to remain in their religion. The fact that there is no compulsion in religion does not negate the other fact that someone who has embraced Islam cannot change his mind afterward and embrace polytheism.[63]

Note that the scholar refers to Quran 2:256, in his answer. And he refuses to state categorically that 2:256 applies to all religions, even polytheism. Hence, certain scholars in Islam today do not interpret 2:256 with open arms and perfect tolerance.

Then an emailer asks AMJA a question about whether Jews and Christians are unbelievers.

The scholar replies:

The general rule is that everyone who does not attribute himself to the religion of Islam is a kafir (disbeliever). There is no difference in that between the ignorant and the obstinate. As for their final destination in the Hereafter, this is dependent on the message having reached them, which is something that must be left to Allah… It is not for anyone to interfere between Him and His slaves in this.[64]

At least he says Muslims should not judge.

On March 15, 2012, it was reported that the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, said to destroy all the churches in the Arabian Peninsula.

The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia has said it is “necessary to destroy all the churches of the region,” following Kuwait’s moves to ban their construction.

Speaking to a delegation in Kuwait, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, stressed that since the tiny Gulf state was a part of the Arabian Peninsula, it was necessary to destroy all of the churches in the country, Arabic media have reported.

Saudi Arabia’s top cleric made the comment in view of an age-old rule that only Islam can be practiced in the region.[65]

Recall that in the classical law section, above, jurist Malik, who was a reliable collector of sacred traditions, records a narration coming from Umar, the second caliph, that says Muhammad told Umar that two religions should not coexist in the Arabian Peninsula.

In the Mufti’s case, “traditional” is a misnomer. He is a fanatic who advocates destruction of churches. But at least he knows the origins of his religion.

According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom 2012 Annual Report, Egypt violates freedom of religion and conscience:

Egypt: Over the past year, the Egyptian transitional government continued to engage in and tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief. Serious problems of discrimination, intolerance, and other human rights violations against members of religious minorities, as well as disfavored Muslims, remain widespread in Egypt. Violence targeting Coptic Orthodox Christians increased significantly during the reporting period. The transitional government has failed to protect religious minorities from violent attacks at a time when minority communities have been increasingly vulnerable. This high level of violence and the failure to convict those responsible continued to foster a climate of impunity, making further violence more likely. During the reporting period, military and security forces used excessive force and live ammunition targeting Coptic Christian demonstrators and places of worship resulting in dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries. The government also continued to prosecute, convict, and impose prison terms on Egyptian citizens charged with blasphemy. Implementation of previous court rulings – related to granting official identity documents to Baha‘is and changing religious affiliation on identity documents for converts to Christianity – has seen some progress but continues to lag, particularly for Baha‘is. In addition, the government has not responded adequately to combat widespread and virulent anti-Semitism in the government-controlled media.[66]

To sum up this section on Modern Islam, in a few years these examples will appear outdated. But regardless of the particulars, they reveal that Islam is going through a struggle, though the traditionalists far outnumber and outweigh the reformists. And for good reason: the traditionalists have 1,400 years of the Quran, hadith, law, and history behind them. Islam is an extremely conservative religion and is therefore difficult, even loath to reform.


In the beginning Islam used to be religiously tolerant – that is, nonviolent towards other religions. Muhammad said very early in his ministry, while he lived in Mecca, regarding the pagans who worshiped at the Kabah shrine, “you have your religion and I have mine” (Quran 109:6). Nonetheless, pagans persecuted him and almost assassinated him at this time for his preaching his monotheistic religion.

Therefore, he migrated to Medina in A.D. 622. Early on in his new city he said, “There is no compulsion in religion” (Quran 2:256). This was written in the context of the Jewish communities thriving in his new city.

But he changed as his military grew. Jews of Medina suffered from expulsions from their city, a massacre and enslavement, even though they had lived there for a very long time and he was a newcomer. See the article The Sword and the Jews in another series.

Building up his military, he conquered Mecca in early 630 and took over the Kabah shrine that housed the black stone, from which the Meccans had barred him and many of his fellow Muslims, after the Meccans kicked him out in 622. But after the conquest, some pagans did not survive unless they converted to Islam and paid a zakat or alms tax. Then he barred the remaining pagans from the same shrine, in a 180-degree reversal of fortune. Eventually the hadith and Islamic history say Arabs could not remain pagan, but must convert or die.

At the end of 630, he launched the Tabuk military campaign toward the north. He forced the small tribes of Jews and Christians to take three options: (1) to fight and die; (2) convert to Islam; or (3) keep their religion, but pay a second-class submission tax called the jizyah. This is what happened throughout Islamic history, since extra-devout Muslims believe the Quran and their prophet’s example are universally good and applicable. The Jews and Christians who took the third option are called dhimmis. The hadith and traditions say the Jews and Christians were to be kicked out of the Arab Peninsula. There will be no two religions there. To this day church buildings and private Christian gatherings are not allowed in all of Saudi Arabia.

Waging war in the name of a religion, in order to advance that same religion, is a holy war.

After the Tabuk campaign, he attacked the “hypocrites.” He could not stand their wishy-washy and standoffish behavior. They were “halfway” Muslims. He first threatened them with the fires of hell, but after the campaign he took the sword to them. They were considered apostates.

However, it must be happily conceded that the Quran is not as clear about apostasy as one might first think. That may be a path to reform today’s apostasy laws. Yet, the traditions and classical law are clear: no apostasy or else punishment.

With this early historical and Quranic background of religious suppression, it is no wonder that Islam today has trouble allowing religious freedom. Muhammad and the Quran set the institutional genetic code. Therefore Islam has trouble relating to the modern world.

Nonetheless, the Fiqh Council of North America issued a fatwa, quoted at the beginning of this article, which simply asserts that Islam and the authentic teaching of Islam are compatible with religious freedom. The words are commendable, but how far do they go?

The last article in this series offers possible steps to reforming Islam. If reformist Muslims today would like to use the universal appeal in Quran 2:256 as a pathway to reform, they must publically admit that Muhammad did not follow the verse as the years went on in Medina. They must not withhold this information from the uninformed. If the reformers do withhold it, they give the impression of deception and lose their credibility.

The reformers must also publicly convince their more traditional fellow Muslims that Quran 2:256 cancels or abrogates the violent verses in the Quran, even though the violent ones come later, because those verses also have an historical context that has expired. What interpretive theory do the reformists use to cancel the later violent verses and replace them with the earlier tolerant one? The last article in the series suggests an approach.

But until Islam genuinely reforms on these matters and builds up a long track record of religious freedom, intellectual elites in the USA and elsewhere around the world must use extreme caution in assuming that Islam is perfectly harmless (just misunderstood). They must not form any policy, write any curriculum, issue any ruling, or pass any law based on or referencing Islam, the Quran, or sharia; those sources on such practical matters are outdated. Islam must therefore bend towards us, not we to it.

The West is accused of arrogance, and maybe the charge is sometimes valid. However, the refusal to learn from the West is also a sign of arrogance. We have learned our lesson about religious freedom, after centuries of mistakes.

As noted in the Introduction to this entire series, Thomas Jefferson’s idea is still valid today. “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my legs.”[67]

The elites must hold on to or return to Jefferson’s principle that guides the USA and has served us so well.

For example, if a church member refuses to follow God or joins another church or religion, the pastor or priest has the right to talk with him. But the cleric has no right to get the courts involved or lobby to pass a law to stop all apostasy and atheism. We (should) follow this freedom.

People should be permitted to worship (or not) according to their conscience. If they walk away from any religion, even Islam, then they should have that fundamental right. If they join any religion, they should be free. If they criticize Islam or even Muhammad, they must be free to do so without fear of retaliation or violence (see the article on freedom of speech, next).

The best way to judge sharia as wrong on its no religious freedom is by three criteria: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The West today indeed gives them this religious freedom,[68] so should Islam.

This article first appeared at Jihad Watch on August 1, 2012 and has been updated here.

Articles in the Series

More Punishments (offsite):


[1] Muzammil Siddiqi, “Being Faithful Muslims and Loyal Americans,” Fiqh Council of North America, Oct 5, 2011, If that link goes dead, copy the title and paste it in a search engine.

[2] Ibid. with slight mechanical adjustments.

[3] Abdullah Saeed, “The Islamic Case for Religious Liberty,” First Things, November 2011, and Jamal Badawi, “Is Apostasy a Capital Crime?”, June 12, 2010, though Bawadi seems unsure of this “under siege” justification in some cases.

[4] M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, the Quran, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford UP, 2010). Unless otherwise noted, this translation will be used in this article. If readers would like to see various translations of the Quran, they may go to the website and type in the references.

[5] Abdel Haleem’ translation; the first bracketed insertion is mine; the second is his.

[6] Bukhari, Jihad, 004.052.068, says the archangel Gabriel helped them after Battle of Trench to conquer the Jews:

When Allah’s Apostle returned on the day (of the battle) of Al-Khandaq (i.e. Trench), he put down his arms and took a bath. Then Gabriel, whose head was covered with dust, came to him saying, “You have put down your arms! By Allah, I have not put down my arms yet.” Allah’s Apostle said, “Where (to go now)?” Gabriel said, “This way,” pointing towards the tribe of Bani [tribe] Quraiza. So Allah’s Apostle went out towards them. (The parenthetical notes are the translator’s; the word in brackets is added.)

[7] Ibn Ishaq, Life of Muhammad, (Oxford UP, 1956), 464.

[8] Abdel Haleem’s translation.

[9] The word in brackets has been added by me.

[10] The first word in brackets was added by Abdel Haleem; the others by me.

[11] The word in brackets is Abel Haleem’s.

[12] The first words in brackets are those of the translator Abdel Haleem; the second word is mine.

[13] The word “hatred” is sh-n-’ (cf. Quran 5:8 and 108:3); and in addition to Abdel Haleem’s translation in Quran 5:2, the Arabic noun can also mean “insult,” “adversity,” “enmity,” “hostility,” “malice,” “abhorrence”; the verb can mean “to loathe.”  (Omar, Dictionary 298-99). The context of the verse is about going to the sacred shrine without violating the sacred month; the pilgrims are not allowed to kill game. When they have completed the rites of pilgrimage, they may then hunt. Whatever the case, hatred is a strong word.

[14] The bracketed word is mine. In Abdel Haleem’s footnote to this verse, he says that during the sacred months ordinary Muslims could go to Mecca and take advantage of the many pilgrims who traveled there, in order to sell them their goods and wares (note b).

[15] Hilali and Khan, The Noble Qur’an, (Riyadh: Darussalam), 2002; the parenthetical notes are theirs; the note in the bracket has been added. Karen Armstrong, former nun and essayist-historian on religion, who favors Islam, writes the following about Jews and Christians submitting to Islam. “The Dhimmi system [policies governing Christians and Jews] was not perfect. Later Islamic law evolved some rather humiliating legislation: dhimmis were not allowed to build without permission; their places of worship must not tower over the mosque; they had to bow when the presented the jizyah tax were forbidden to ride on horseback, and had to wear distinctive clothing, although these rules were not rigidly enforced” (Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths, [NY: Ballantine, 1997], 231).

[16] Back to Abdel Haleem’s translation.

[17] Omar, Dictionary, 191-92, says, “To revile, blame, reprove; treaty, good faith; covenant; protection… blamed one; disgraced; abused … miserable plight” (with slight mechanical alterations).

[18] For “humiliation,” “contempt” or “utterly humbled,” see Quran 7:13, 119; 12:32; 27:37; for “small,” see 2:82; 9:121; 10:61; 17:24; 18:49; 34:3; 54:53. The root is s-gh-r. For “vile,” see Omar, Dictionary, 316.

[19] The three-letter root for apostasy is r-d-d, but the idea is not limited to that root. In any case, these verses cover apostasy, but not automatic execution: Quran 2:109 (r-d-d), 217 (r-d-d); 3:72, 86-87, 90, 100 (r-d-d); 4:137; 5:21 (r-d-d), 54 (r-d-d); 6:71 (r-d-d); 12:96 (r-d-d); 14:43 (r-d-d); 16:106; 27:30 (r-d-d); 33:14; 47:25-27 (r-d-d); 73:11; and 74:11. Hannah E. Kassis, A Concordance of the Quran, (Los Angeles: UCP, 1983), 991-993.

[20] Omar, Dictionary, 105-06. It means “to toil, exert strenuously, overload, be diligent, struggle, strive after . . . struggle against difficulties, strive with might.” The root is j-h-d.

[21] Sayyid Abul A’La Maududi, the Meaning of the Quran, 4th ed., vol. 2, trans. Ch. Muhammad Akbar, ed. A. A. Kamal, (Lahore, Pakistan: Islamic Publications, 2003), 219, note 82. His translation and commentary are available online at

[22] Ibn Kathir, “The Order of Jihad against Disbelievers and Hypocrites,”, comment on 9:73, with slight mechanical adjustments.

[23] The root of “near” is w-l-y, and there are many references in the Quran to it. For our purposes it can mean, depending on the context, “kindred” or “kinship” or close “friendship.” See Quran 3:68; 4:135; 8:72, 75; 33:6 (the prophet is nearer to Muslims than their selves); and 74:34-35.

[24] Abdel Haleem’s translation.

[25] Abdul Mannan Omar, Dictionary of the Holy Quran (Hockessin, Delaware: 2003, 2004), 407-08. The root is gh-l-f. See Quran 3:159; 4:21, 154; 11:58; 14:17; 31:24; 33:7; 41:50; 66:6, 9. The translation by Abdel Haleem chooses the gentler words “firm” and “tough.”

[26] For more verses about the root w-l-y, see Quran 3:68; 4:135; 8:72, 75; 33:6 (the prophet is nearer to Muslims than their selves); and 74:34-35.

[27] Maududi, Meaning, vol. 2, note 121, with mechanical adjustment. The bracketed insertion is mine.

[28] Ibn Kathir, “The Order for Jihad against the Disbelievers, the Closest, then the Farthest Areas,”, comment on 9:123.

[29] See Silas, “The Punishment for Apostasy in Islam,”, for more discussion.

[30] Bukhari, Blood Money, 009.083.017; cf. Muslim, Oaths, 016.4152 and 016.4154. The hadith are searchable online at the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement, under the aegis of the University of Southern California.

[31] Bukhari, Apostates, 009.084.057. A parallel hadith: Narrated Ikrima: Ali burnt some people and this news reached Ibn Abbas, who said, “Had I been in his place I would not have burnt them, as the Prophet said, ‘Don’t punish (anybody) with Allah’s Punishment.’ No doubt, I would have killed them, for the Prophet said, ‘If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him'” (idem, Jihad, 004.052.260).

[32] Idem, Military Expeditions, 005.059.630; cf. Apostates 009.084.058 and Judgments 009.089.271.

[33] Idem, Holding Fast to the Quran and Sunnah, 009.092.424, with slight mechanical adjustments.

[34] Jamal Badawi, “Is Apostasy a Capital Crime?”, June 12, 2010.

[35] Bukhari, Apostates, 009.084.064, with slight editorial adjustments.

[36] Tabari, The Last Years of the Prophet, vol. 9, trans. Ismail K. Poonawala (Albany: SUNYP, 1987), 167. The bracketed comments are the translator’s, except “tribe.”

[37] Bukhari, Holding Fast to the Quran and Sunnah, 009.092.388 and Apostates 009.084.059. My comments are in brackets; the translator’s are in parentheses. I also made slight mechanical adjustments.

[38] Malik ibn Anas, Muwatta: the First Formulation of Islamic Law, rev. ed., trans. Aisha Abdurrahman Bewley, (Inverness, Scotland: Madina P, 1991), 45.5.17, my bracketed insertion. This law book is also available at the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement.

[39] Ibid, 45.5.18, my bracketed insertion.

[40] Ibid. my bracketed insertion. See this link of Malik online.

[41] Ibid. 36.18.15, with small mechanical adjustments. The notes in brackets are mine.

[42] Ibid. with small mechanical adjustments. The notes in brackets are mine.

[43] Ibid. with small mechanical adjustments. The notes in brackets are mine.

[44] Ibid. with small mechanical adjustments. The notes in brackets are mine.

[45] Abu Jafar Muhammad b. Jarir Tabari, The First Civil War, vol. 17, trans. G. R. Hawting (Albany: SUNYP, 1996), 188. The bracketed comments are mine. This passage reveals the character of the times in dealing with apostates.

[46] Malik, Muwatta, 36.18.16.

[47] Imam Muhammad, The Muwatta of Imam Muhammad, (London: Turath, 2004), 382. The bracketed comments are mine.

[48] Ibn Rushd, The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer, vol. 2 trans. Imran Ahsan Khan Nyazee, (London: Garnet, 1996), 552.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveler: A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law rev. ed., trans. Nuh Ha Mim Keller, (Beltsville, Maryland: Amana, 1994).

[51] Ibid. 595.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid. 583-84.

[55] Ibid. 596-98, with small mechanical changes. The words added in brackets are mine; the ones in parentheses are the translator’s.

[56] Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah 131.

[57] Hatem al-Haj, “Sharia Ruling on Apostasy,” Question ID no. 1486, April 17, 2006, with slight mechanical adjustments. I inserted the words in brackets.

[58] World Conference on Human Rights, UN GAOR, 4th Session, Agenda Item 5, Cairo Declaration on Human Rights, Doc. A/CONF.157/PC/62/Add.18 (1993), Aug 5, 1990.  University of Minnesota Human Rights Library.

[59] Ibid., with slight mechanical adjustments.

[60] Abdullah Saeed, “The Islamic Case for Religious Liberty,” First Things, November 2011.

[61] Jamal Badawi, “Is Apostasy a Capital Crime?”, June 12, 2010, with slight mechanical adjustments. His comment is in brackets.

[62] Main Khalid al-Qudah, “If Apostates Must Be Executed, How Can We Say There Is Freedom of Religion in Islam?”, Question ID or fatwa no. 77325, January 2, 2009, with slight mechanical alterations.

[63] Idem, “Kill the Jews?” Question ID or fatwa no. 78511,, April 4, 2009, with slight mechanical alterations.

[64] Salah al-Sawy, “Jews and Christians and the Conditions for Declaring Someone Kafir,” Question ID or fatwa no. 77519,, January 21, 2009.

[65] Elizabeth Broomhall, “Destroy All Churches in Gulf, Says Saudi Grand Mufti,” March 15, 2012,

[66] U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom 2012 Annual Report.

[67] Andrew M. Allison, M. Richard Maxfield et al., The Real Thomas Jefferson: The True Story of America’s Philosopher of Freedom, rev. ed. (National Center of Constitutional Studies, 2008), 602-03.

[68] And Article Eighteen of the 1948 Charter of the United Nations, the Declaration of Human Rights, states very simply: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” The United Nations, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances” (Source).

Finally, this series is not about contrasting Christianity and Islam. However, readers may be curious about it. If so, they may open this article about apostasy in the Bible. Also, see my studies, How Jesus Christ Fulfills the Law and How Christians Benefit from the Old Testament. We don’t need to bring those Old Testament verses about apostasy forward to today.

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