Praise be to Allah, Lord of the worlds, and the most honorable prayer and peace be upon the master of the first and the last, our master, Muhammad, the chosen, the trustworthy, and upon his pious and pure family, his faithful companions, and those who followed them in goodness until the Day of Judgment, may Allah Almighty be pleased with them all.

Prophet Muhammed peace be upon him said: “He who changes his religion (i.e. apostates) kill him” (Al-Bukhari, Book 9, 1214). This hadith was narrated by Ibn Abbas, the Prophet’s cousin and many other companions. Many books of hadith, other than Bukhari, contain this hadith. It is an authentic hadith and most of the scholars took is as a basis of the crime labelled riddah and its punishment, which is death. These scholars attached details concerning the conditions and deterrents pertaining to the person, such as being an adult Muslim, fully knowing that he is committing an act of apostacy and doing it out of his free will no compulsion or under any threat. This last condition is because any act that a Muslim does under coercion or threat drops his capacity and removes his criminal responsibility. Allah said in the Qur’an: “Whosoever disbelieves in Allah after believing, except he who is forced while his heart remains in his belief, but he who opens his chest for disbelief, shall receive the anger of Allah and for such awaits a mighty punishment” (Surah 16, Ayah 106).

An example of this is one day when the polytheists captured Ammar bin Yaser, may Allah be pleased with him, and they did not leave him until he cursed the holy Prophet, peace be upon him, and said good words about their idols, after which they left him. When the Prophet, peace be upon him, came he asked him: “What has happened to you?” He said, “Evil happened to me O Prophet of Allah, I was not released until I cursed you and said good words about their idols.” The Prophet peace be upon him inquired, “How do you find your heart?’ Ammar answered, “Assured with faith.” Then the Prophet, peace be upon him, said, “If they come back then come back” (Al-Mustadrak, 2:389, al-Sunan al-Kubra, 8/208). It is clear that cursing the Prophet is regarded as apostacy, but when the Prophet knew that Ammar bin Yaser had been coerced to do so he told him to do it again if it happened again to him.

Extremist groups like ISIS and Al-Shabaab often label those who disagree with them as Islamic apostates, even though they are in fact faithful believers, and then utilize this verse and hadith to justify killing people after labeling them as apostates. They even turn to accusing people of apostacy and disbelief who might have a different understanding of the same text than these groups do, and they make these riddah accusations without consulting our scholars who made it clear that there are strict conditions which have to exist and deterrents which have to be absent in order to call a person an apostate. The extremists then also link apostacy to falsely justifying a punishment by death and call their actions of executing even believers, who may even call out the Islamic shahada as they are being executed, as the just judgement of Allah.

Unlike these practices by extremists, we are called to follow the methodology established by our scholars to analyze the Qur’an and Hadith. This is that we need to read the text in relation to its context which contains the environment which was surrounding the incident which the text came to deal with, the occasion in which the text was said, the attitude of the speaker and the listener, and other important factors which affect the process of analysis and understanding. One of the most important factors is the custom and tradition of the people to whom the text was sent, as a Qur’an or Hadith. So, in order to have a full understanding of the text we have to put it in its original context, mainly the custom and tradition at that time, otherwise we might commit a grave mistake, especially when it is pertaining to a capital punishment, i.e. the death penalty. The question now is: what was the situation of riddah at that time?

I stated previously that “most” scholars took the hadith narrated by Bukhari as a basis of the riddah death penalty. This is the basis by which groups like ISIS and al Shabaab apply the death penalty, although they do so without considering the other conditions as they are called to by our scholarly traditions in Islam. For example, ISIS routinely killed women as well as men, often killing whole families of Shia, or other people from the Book, who Islam says to protect, saying they were apostates.  Yet, Abu Hanifa, one of the prominent scholars and the founder of one of the famous jurisprudence schools, i.e. the Hanafi school, stated that: ‘the one who committed riddah is to be killed if he was a man, not a woman, because the Prophet of Allah, peace be upon him, said: “Do not kill a decrepit old man/woman, or a young infant, or a woman.” and in another hadith, the Prophet, peace be upon him, again forbade killing women, and because killing is to prevent the evil of aggression, and killing is not for apostacy, for aggression’s result is greater than killing before Allah, thus, it is specific for the person who commits the aggression, which is the man, not the woman, because her body structure is not fit for that.’ (al-Mabsut 10,98) (Fath al-Qadeer 4, 385) (Tabyeen al-Haqa’iq 3,384). This hadith then argues that there is no justification for execution for riddah.  Moreover, in the Qur’an there are about 11 ayahs which deal with apostacy, and none of them establish any punishment in this life. Instead, they all tell that the punishment is in the hereafter. We can safely say that in the Qur’an there is no riddah (apostacy) punishment in this life. So, we are left to also untangle the additional meanings we have with the hadith, specifically the narrations which deal with this punishment.

One of the methodologies to analyze the hadith is to collect the similar hadiths to create a full image, for some hadiths are summarized and others are generic. The Prophet peace be upon him said: It is not permissible to spill the blood of a Muslim except in three [instances]: the married person who commits adultery, a life for a life, and the one who forsakes his religion and separates from the community” (Bukhari and Muslim). This would seem to justify the death penalty for riddah. Yet, there is another hadith which is similar to this hadith narrated by Abu Dawud, that states that is not so.  In this hadith the Prophet, peace be upon him said, “The blood of a Muslim man who testifies that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is Allah’s Apostle should not lawfully be shed except only for one of three reasons: a man who committed fornication after marriage, in which case he should be stoned; one who goes forth to fight against Allah and His Apostle, in which case he should be killed or crucified or exiled from the land; or one who commits murder for which he is killed” (Sunan Abi Dawud, 4353). We notice in the two hadiths above that both are talking about the same three instances in which a Muslim can be killed, as it is shown in the table below:

Bukhari’s hadith

Abu Dawud’s hadith

The married person who commits adultery A man who committed fornication after marriage, in which case he should be stoned
A life for a life One who commits murder for which he is killed
The one who forsakes his religion and separates from the community One who goes forth to fight against Allah and His Apostle, in which case he should be killed or crucified or exiled from the land


According to the Islamic methodology, the instances on both sides of the table should be identical and matching, sometimes one explains the other. We can clearly see that the one who forsakes his religion and separates from the community is not exactly identical to the one who goes forth to fight against Allah and His Apostle unless we realize that at that time in history, the default attitude of the people who left Islam, was that they were going directly to the camp of the enemy, as this was the normal tradition then. Thus, we must interpret this hadith contextually in regards to the environment, norms and traditions practiced by the community. The punishment here is to be killed or crucified or exiled from the land but this punishment is for not simply forsaking Islam, but becoming a fighter against Allah and his Apostle.

These three punishment options listed above are available in the Qur’an, but they are for people who strive to cause mischief, as it said: “The recompense of those who make war against Allah and His Messenger and spread corruption in the land is that they are to be killed or crucified, or have their hand and a foot cut off on opposite sides, or be expelled from the land. For them is shame in this world and a great punishment in the everlasting life.” (Surah 5, Ayah 33).

When we say it was the default attitude of apostates to join the enemy it means that if they did not join them there would be no reason to kill, crucify or exile anyone, and here is a good evidence for that. A Bedouin gave the pledge of allegiance to Allah’s Messenger peace be upon him for Islam and the Bedouin got a fever where upon he said to the Prophet peace be upon him “Cancel my pledge.” But the Prophet peace be upon him refused. He came to him (again) saying, “Cancel my pledge.’ But the Prophet peace be upon him refused. Then (the Bedouin) left (Medina). Allah’s Apostle said: “Medina is like a pair of bellows (furnace): It expels its impurities and brightens and clears its good” (Sahih al-Bukhari 7209). It is obvious that the Bedouin left Medina as an apostate, and it is obvious, as well, that the Prophet, peace be upon him, did not send anybody to kill him because he was not joining enemies who were committing aggression against Islam and Muslims. Thus, we see that aggression against Muslim is punishable by death but forsaking one’s religion or a believer, particularly a female believer, simply having another interpretation of the faith than groups like ISIS or al Shabaab can hardly be justifiably put to death.  This is a brutality practiced by such groups to intimidate, coerce and take power.  But we should remember there is no coercion in Islam, as Allah says in the Qur’an: “There is no compulsion in religion. Righteousness is now distinct from error. He who disbelieves in the idol and believes in Allah has grasped the firmest tie that will never break. Allah is Hearing, Knowing” (Surah 2, Ayah 256).  Believers are called to Islam by free choice and no one should be executed for walking away from Islam, as Allah says in the Qur’an: “Had your Lord willed, whosoever is in the earth, all would have believed. Would you then constrain people until they believe?” (Surah 10, Ayah 99).  Allah will punish in the next life as He sees fit.

This is a concise exhibition of this important issue in Islam, and I pray to Allah that I was blessed by His Grace to explain and clear the misunderstanding which caused many deaths and pains.

Praise be to Allah the Lord of all creations


Sheikh Ali




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