Conversation Guide #12: Apostasy in Islam – by Razi H. Quadir

Apostasy in Islam is a sensitive and topical subject. In certain Muslim majority countries, apostasy is a punishable offence, including by the death penalty, even though some of these countries have embraced the Universal Declaration of Human rights, which guarantees freedom of religion. Apostasy in Islam or al-riddah (or al-irtidād) is defined as voluntarily renouncing Islam. A person who renounces Islam is called murtadd. There is no distinction in Islam between leaving, that is, apostasy, and conversion from Islam to another religion. Thus, whether a Muslim converts to Christianity, Judaism, or becomes an atheist, this all boils down to apostasy, and such a person is considered an apostate (murtadd). Nevertheless, in some cases, apostasy is more sensitive than in others. For example, in countries  inhabited by both large numbers of Christians and Muslims or Muslim countries with Christian minorities, the situation is extremely precarious when it comes to apostasy in Islam.

Legal Punishment for Apostasy in Islam

The overwhelming majority of both classical and modern scholars view apostasy as impermissible and consider it mandatory to put an unrepentant apostate to death. Whereas Muslim scholars differ about repentance, it appears that a majority find that the apostate should be given the opportunity to repent.

Although in the Qur’ān apostasy is viewed as a heinous sin, it does not mention any earthly punishment for it. Rather, it is up to God to judge the apostate in the Hereafter.

Although the Qur’ān appears to be quite clear on apostasy, namely, there is no penalty in this world, the Sunna is unequivocal about it. The Sunna, which is the collected teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, is known through the aḥādīth, that is, the reports of the Prophet deemed authentic. The Sunna encompasses his sayings, actions, and tacit approval.

The overwhelming majority of  Muslim scholars rely on the verbal ḥadīth “whoever changes his religion, kill him” (narrated among others by al-Bukhārī, ḥadīth no. 3017 and 6922) with the corollary that the apostate should be executed. This ḥadīth is considered authentic by the vast majority of Muslim scholars.

Another ḥadīth on which the proponents for capital punishment for apostasy in Islam rely and which is also deemed to be authentic by most Muslim scholars is the following:

The blood of a Muslim, who confesses that there is no God but Allah and that I am His Apostle, cannot be shed except in three cases: In Qiṣāṣ [retaliation] for murder, a married person who commits adultery and the one who reverts from Islam [apostates] and leaves the [Muslim] community. (Narrated among others by al-Bukhārī, ḥadīth no. 6878)

A Special Case: Female Apostates

The overwhelming majority of classical and modern Muslim scholars do not distinguish between a male and a female apostate; both deserve capital punishment. Among these Muslim scholars are the founders of the current Sunni schools of law, Imam Mālik (d. 795), Imam alShāfīʿi (d. 820), and Imam ibn ḥanbal (d. 855). However, the founder of the Ḥanafi school of law, Imam Abū Ḥanīfa differentiates between male and female apostates. Although he too holds that a male apostate is to be executed, he argues that a female apostate should be imprisoned and invited back to Islam but never be killed. He argues that a female apostate is not active in combat or capable of warfare.

It seems that the Ḥanafī school of law views apostasy as a political crime. Females, older men, and hermaphrodites are, in their views, incapable of fighting and combating. Therefore, they form no danger to the community, even if they are apostates.

Apostasy as a Political Crime

Also, contemporary scholars who support capital punishment for apostasy conceive the apostate as someone who is disloyal to the Muslim community and forms an imminent threat to this community. The apostate is also viewed as someone who causes disintegration of the Muslim society, which cannot be accepted. In short, apostasy is viewed as a political crime.

Muslim scholars who object against the death penalty for apostasy

Even though the majority of both classical and modern Muslim scholars favour the death penalty for apostasy, some Muslim scholars are against it. The classical scholars Ibrāhīm al-Nakhaʿī (d. 713) and Sufyān al-Thawrī (d. 778) believe that the apostate should always be allowed to repent but never be executed.

Modern Muslim scholars who object to capital punishment for apostasy put several arguments forward. First, there are more than two hundred verses in the Qur’ān that emphasise freedom of choice, as the modern Muslim scholar Taha Jabir Alalwani (d. 2016) points out.

The second argument against capital punishment for apostasy is the earlier mentioned ḥadīth “whoever changes his religion, kill him”. This ḥadīth is a so-called solitary or aḥad narration that became prominent after the early period of Islam and was not known during the time of the Prophet. During the early days of Islam, it was a solitary ḥadīth and incompletely transmitted as well. Also, the chain of narrators (isnād) of this ḥadīth contains ʿIkrimah (d. 723), who was the slave of Ibn ʿAbbās (d. 687). From this stage, this ḥadīth got wide circulation. Some Muslims scholars consider ʿIkrimah as reliable, whereas others do not. Thus, the opponents of the death penalty  for apostasy consider this ḥadīth weak, and therefore this narration in their opinion cannot be used as evidence that apostasy merits capital punishment.

The third argument against apostasy that Muslim scholars put forward is that the Prophet never killed anyone for apostasy. Several narrations support this claim. The fourth and final argument against capital punishment is the assumption that apostasy goes hand in hand with hostility or taking up arms against the Muslim community. However, the argument that apostasy is tantamount to high treason, rebellion, or waging war against the Muslim community is in my opinion not valid today because an apostate can merely change their personal beliefs while still accepting the social order of the Muslim society in which they live. Furthermore, killing an apostate for simply the possibility of taking up arms or demonstrating hostility towards the Muslim community is treating this possibility as an actual fact. In Islamic jurisprudence, there has to be definitive proof for capital punishment as a divinely prescribed punishment; a mere possibility is not a sufficient cause for such a severe punishment.



  1. Can apostasy in Islam today still be considered a political crime?
  2. Should apostasy be considered a private matter?
  3. Should a distinction be made between a female and male apostate?
  4. Freedom of religion in general: what should be done when freedom of religion (which is a human right) collides with other human rights?
  5. Is the issue of apostasy unique in Islam, or does this also apply to other religions?


This summary belongs to a more extensive article of Razi Quadir, which can be found here: Apostasy in Islam: An Overview of Sources and Positions.
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