In a previous article published in Public Discourse, I argue that there is no support for a death penalty for apostasy in the Quran, which is the most important source for Islamic norms and values. However, as hadith (traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) is considered the second most important source for Islam, an argument could be made that if hadith strongly supports the death penalty for apostasy, then this penalty should apply today.

In the classical legal texts, all surviving Islamic schools of law argue that the apostate should be put to death, despite the fact that some of the leading figures of early Islam argued that the death penalty should not be applied. In juristic literature, one finds claims of “consensus” among Muslims on the death penalty for apostasy. Naturally, the claimed “consensus” ignores the views of this “minority” that did not support the death penalty.

Before discussing the issue of hadith and apostasy, a number of observations should be noted. First, the Quran, the most important text of Islam, does not specify any worldly punishment for apostasy, let alone death. This is especially noteworthy considering that the Quran describes two episodes that bear on the issue of apostasy. The first of these concerns the Muslims in the Medinan period (622-632 CE) of Islam—the last ten years of Prophet Muhammad—who professed Islam outwardly, but attempted to destroy the community from within, using every opportunity to discredit the Prophet. For all practical purposes, from a Quranic point of view, these people should be considered “apostates.” The Quran also describes Muslims who rejected Islam and then returned to it, only to reject it for a second or even a third time for their former religions. The Quran does not suggest the death penalty in either of these cases, but specifies a severe punishment for the apostates, almost certainly in the life after death. This absence of the death penalty is understandable, as the Quran emphasises again and again that belief is essentially a matter between the individual and God.

Second, there is no evidence to indicate that the Prophet Muhammad himself ever imposed the death penalty on any apostate for a simple act of conversion from Islam. If such evidence had existed, it would have provided the necessary prophetic authority to back the death penalty. On the contrary, however, one hadith in the collection of Bukhari (one of the most important collections of hadith for Sunni Muslims) details a man who came to Medina and converted to Islam. Shortly after his arrival, this man wanted to return to his former religion and asked the Prophet for permission to do so. The Prophet let him go free, without imposing the death penalty or, indeed, any punishment.

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The important question is, therefore, if there is no clear evidence either in the Quran or in the actual practice of the Prophet to support the death penalty, how did the classical Muslim jurists support their position that apostasy should be punished by death? The answer lies mainly in a few sayings (hadith) attributed to the Prophet. Such sayings, while considered “reliable,” do not appear to reach the level of certainty that is required from textual evidence to justify the penalty of taking one’s life. More importantly, these few sayings contradict a large number of Quranic texts that emphasize freedom of belief. Given that the Quran, as the most important source for Islam, emphasises freedom of belief and does not appear to support the death penalty, any contrary sayings attributed to the Prophet should be read with a high degree of caution.

Perhaps the most important saying attributed to the Prophet in this regard is “Whoever changes his religion, kill him.” This seems to explicitly permit or even command Muslims to kill anyone who changes his religion from Islam. Although this hadith is considered “reliable” (as it is found in the collection of Bukhari), there are concerns about taking it at face value.

Firstly, at least in its most well-known version, the hadith appears first to have surfaced decades after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, from Ibn Abbas, who was only around 12 years old when the Prophet died in 632. It is reported that Ibn Abbas mentioned this saying in the context of an event that occurred roughly 25 years after the death of the Prophet, when the caliph (ruler) Ali apparently ordered that certain rebellious heretics be burned. When news of their executions reached Ibn Abbas, he stated that burning anyone with fire was prohibited, but that he still would have had these people executed, on the grounds that the Prophet had once said, “Whoever changes his religion, kill him.”

It is strange that such an important message remained hidden for decades after the death of the Prophet. Ali, being a Muslim from his early childhood, one of the Muslims closest to the Prophet, and an advisor to the first three caliphs of Islam, should have known of such a penalty if it existed at the time of the Prophet, particularly since it involved taking a life, not a small matter.

Secondly, there are concerns about the hadith’s content: it is very brief and general. If one were to take this hadith literally, the punishment of death would apply even to those who wish to convert to Islam, or to those who want to convert, say, from Christianity to Judaism. Such an interpretation is obviously incomprehensible and highly problematic.

The majority of Muslim jurists, therefore, narrowed down the meaning of this hadith to a more specific one: that the convert to be killed is a Muslim who converts to another religion. Jurists have since limited this meaning further with a series of exceptions to the general rule. For example, religious hypocrites who outwardly profess Islam but are not really Muslims should not be killed; neither should minors or women (according to the Hanafi school of law). Likewise, anyone who professes Islam under duress and then returns to his former religion should not be killed. The question of interpretation, then, lingers.

Even if we consider this hadith and those with similar meanings to be historically reliable, such hadith have to be understood in their proper context. At the time of Prophet Muhammad, there was no “state” akin to modern-day states. Rather, a tribal system prevailed in much of Arabia. With the rise of Islam and its consolidation in Medina during the last 10 years of the Prophet’s life (622-632 CE), people from various tribes joined the supra-tribal community of Muslims. Given the hostility and the state of war that often existed between the Muslims and their opponents, converting from Islam generally took a person out of the Muslim community and placed them in that of their opponents. Conversion, or apostasy, was, then, not only a matter of renouncing faith, but also the rejection of membership of the community, which provided a person with security of life and property. Often, the only option for an apostate was to join the “enemy” and take up arms against the Muslim community.

Thus any reported sayings of the Prophet about the death penalty can be understood relatively easily, as communities had the right to kill their opponents in war, in line with the norms that existed then. In a modern state, however, the situation often is quite different. Membership (or, as we would call it, citizenship) does not generally depend on being part of a particular religious community; a clear distinction can be made between a person’s religious and political identities. In the multi-religious, pluralistic societies of today, it is normal for people to belong to different religions and still enjoy the fundamental rights of a citizen, except, of course, in a very few countries.

Based on this reading of the hadith discussed above, opponents of the death penalty argue that even if there was a death penalty in early Islam for apostasy, it was because, at that time, apostasy was equivalent to the crime of treason. Such an interpretation can be supported by other hadith. The second most important hadith used to support the death penalty for apostasy links apostasy with separating oneself from the community. The following hadith emphasizes this meaning:

The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: The blood of a Muslim who confesses that there is no god but Allah and that I am the messenger of Allah cannot be shed except in three cases: a life for life, a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse, and the one who turns away from Islam and leaves the community.

This hadith has a number of different versions, each with slightly different wording. A number of these emphasise that the person who is referred to in the hadith is not just a simple apostate. According to another version, “A man who leaves Islam and engages in fighting against God and his Prophet shall be executed, crucified, or exiled.” This hadith, therefore, makes a very clear connection between apostasy and the crime of taking up arms and fighting against the community/state.

There is also other evidence to support this reading. Some prominent Muslim scholars make a connection between apostasy and the taking up of arms against the community. In the second most important Sunni hadith collection—that of Muslim ibn Hajjaj—one of the chapter titles is: “Ruling relating to those who take up arms against the community and apostates.” The Hanafi school of law argues that a female apostate should not be put to death, because a female apostate in those days would not usually take up arms to fight against the Muslim community/state.

A number of today’s top Muslim scholars (for example, Muhammad Hashim Kamli, Hasan al-Turabi, Rashid Ghannouch, and Taha Jabir al-Alwani) argue that there is no evidence in the actual practice of the Prophet to suggest that he put anyone to death simply because of his or her conversion from Islam. Any association of the death penalty with apostasy in sayings attributed to the Prophet should therefore be interpreted in light of the socio-political context of the time.

In the modern period, in which religious freedom has been guaranteed in major international human rights documents and is considered one of the most important rights of a human being, Muslims should emphasise the Quranic position on freedom of belief; that is, there is no coercion in matters of faith and belief. Any hadith that exist on this issue should be interpreted (or reinterpreted) in light of the guidance of the Quran, which has supremacy over all other forms of evidence in Islamic norms and values.