Q&A: Apostasy & Treason Laws in Islam

In the Name of God--the Most Gracious, the Most Compassionate

Praise be to Him, the Lord and Cherisher of the Universes

And Peace and Blessings Upon Our Leader Mohammad

Oh my Lord! Expand my Chest

And Facilitate My Task

Untie Knots in My Tongue

Making My Words Clear


Back in early 2012, during my first few months in Saudi Arabia, I was introduced to an extremely popular blog titled American Bedu.  This blog is maintained by a beautiful, eloquent American named Carol who married a Saudi man named Abdullah, may God bless his soul.

On one random post, an individual calling himself Jay Kactuz made the following comment: "Don’t waste your time asking hard questions because Muslims can’t even answer the easy ones."  He apparently emailed producers of a Muslim-ey film thingy and was jaded by the lack of response.  Over the course of a few days, he concluded, "As to a response, I am not holding my breath."

And this bothered me.   

At the time, I was extremely busy and overwhelmed with work, family, a brand new fiancé, and the stresses of adapting to life in KSA.  But I promised myself that, by the will of God, I would respond to this man one day. 

And I feel very blessed to call today the day. 

The man wrote five primary questions that he wanted a Muslim response to, and I decided to break up his letter into five different posts, due to the lengthy response I may wind up dedicating to each.  I wanted to preface anything I write by emphasizing that if any good comes from these words on this screen, it is by the blessings and grace of God, and if anything I write is inaccurate or wrong, then it is by my own deficiencies and in no way reflects upon my beautiful faith. 

Here is Jay Kactuz (hereby referred to as JK)'s Question Number One: 

"Why do Muslims always quote the “no compulsion verse” from the Quran yet do nothing to change the fact that all Islamic schools of Jurisprudence, both Sunni and Shiite, agree that the penalty for apostasy is death? It seems that Muslims are either insincere or deceitful since they say one thing to infidels and do another. None of the apostasy or blasphemy laws that are so common in Muslim countries have been repealed. Why don’t Muslims in the West preach to and correct their brethren instead of wasting time with us over a matter that suggests hypocrisy?"

(Taken with permission from AmericanBedu.com )


I wanted to begin by asking to pause for a moment on the beautiful verse referenced above.  Many times, when an individual comes in front of a group of Muslims with the intention of pronouncing the testimony of faith (i.e. wanting to become a Muslim), you will notice that the question is first posed, "Has anyone pressured you into doing this?" Islamically, it is absolutely unacceptable under any circumstances to force someone to become a Muslim, or even to coerce someone to join Islam.  This is such a sensitive issue that even classical Muslim scholars were of the opinion that it is wrong for a Muslim to proselytize to individuals of other faiths in a country where Islam is the majority, out of fear that this may lead to a violation of the verse referenced above.

The verse itself is in the second chapter of the Quran, aya number 256.  A rough translation of the whole verse, or aya, would be:

"Let there be no compulsion in religion, [because] verily the straight path shows clearly from falsehood; so whosoever rejects false deities and believes in [One] God has, then, grasped the most trustworthy handhold that will never break; and God is the All-Hearing, All-Knowing."

This is one of the verses that brings tears to many a believer's eyes, including my own, not only because of the brief part of the verse which you mentioned above.  For me, it emphasizes our unrelenting confidence as Muslims that Islam is so beautiful, it stands by itself and there is no need to "force" or "pressure" people into the faith.  The level of appeal of Islam is not merely my personal opinion, but is clearly demonstrated by statistics: Islam is the second largest--and fastest growing--religion in the world.

Its pure form of monotheism coupled with its emphasis on wholesome righteousness (note: there is NO PLACE in the entire Quran in which you will find the words "Those who believe" except that it will be followed with the words, "And do righteous deeds,"), is powerful and life-altering.  This confidence that we, as Muslims, are taught to have in our faith is further demonstrated by the Muslim belief in predestination by God--He guides, we don't.  In fact, there are many verses in the Quran reminding the Prophet Mohammad (peace and blessings upon him), who used to cry for those of his nation who rejected his message, that God is the Guider and He chooses who He wills for this religion--not us as humans.   One of these verses is in the twenty-eighth chapter, or surah, titled "al-Qasas" ("The Stories"), aya number 56, which reads:

 "You do not guide whom you love, but God guides whom He wills, and He Knows best those who receive guidance"

(As a parenthetical thought, usually you will see the words "Oh Mohammad" in parenthesis in the translation of the verse, but I didn't include it above.  It is important, however, to note that the Arabic "innaka laa tahdee" ("you do not guide") is singular masculine, meaning that this verse was in fact directed towards the Prophet Mohammad himself, peace be upon him, as opposed to other verses calling upon the Muslim community as a whole (plural).)

Now, having elaborated a bit on the above verses, I think it's time for us to move on--or, rather, to move back.  In order to answer the question, "Why is apostasy punishable by death?" we actually need to go back to the time of the Prophet Mohammad, peace and blessings upon him, and the struggles of the Muslim community at that time.

One example I would like to begin with is the story of Bilal, a former slave who was one of the first individuals to enter Islam (may God be pleased with him).  Bilal was known for being an obedient servant, but made the decision to become a Muslim much to the disdain of his masters.  He was dragged out into the scorching sun and huge boulders were placed on his back; he was beaten heavily, dehydrated, and thoroughly abused.  His masters tortured him with the intention of forcing him to denounce his faith in Prophet Mohammad's message (p.b.u.h.), but he refused.  

Many other Muslims were abused similarly.  The Prophet Mohammad himself, peace and blessings upon him, was stoned in Mecca and there are numerous narrations of his daughter Fatima (may He be pleased with her) crying at the sight of her father arriving home, injured and bloody, as she hastened to tenderly care for his wounds.  

To put it simply, choosing Islam was not easy.  It involved expulsion, starvation, public ostracizing and abuse, disownment from family members, relocation, and, yes, even war.  There is even a verse in the Quran that was revealed to comfort the companions of the Prophet (p.b.u.h.) who pronounced words of disbelief whilst being tortured because they could not handle the pain.  They were worried that God would subsequently reject their faith, and the comforting response to them came in surah number 67, titled "al-Mulk" ("The Dominion"), aya number 13:

"And conceal your speech or proclaim it; verily He is knowledgeable of what is inside the chests." 

So, if becoming a Muslim must be made 100% by choice, and even hiding or denying faith in God and the Prophet Mohammad (peace and blessings upon him) to avoid persecution in the absence of a Muslim state to protect you is explicitly allowed in Islam, then what gives?  Where does the whole apostasy thing come to play?

First, let's not forget that a Muslim community was established with no separation between mosque and state.  And as Islam began to grow more quickly, a new phenomenon arose in the Muslim community.  When Muslims were in the lead (economically, in battle, etc.), many people would enter Islam.  These same people would attempt to flock out of the Muslim community just as quickly as they came in whenever the community came under any sort of attack or they felt their safety threatened.  The Quran has many a verse condemning the hypocrites--those "fair weather believers," as a westerner might put it.

 One verse from surah Al-Munafiqun, aya 2 says:

“They have taken their oaths as a cover, so they averted [people] from the way of God. Indeed, it was evil that they were doing.”

Another verse from surah Al-Taubah, Aya 67 describes the hypocrites:

“The hypocrite men and hypocrite women are of one another. They enjoin what is wrong and forbid what is right and close their hands. They have forgotten God, so He has forgotten them [accordingly]. Indeed, the hypocrites - it is they who are the defiantly disobedient”.

The truth is, becoming a Muslim at the time of the Prophet Mohammad (p.b.u.h.) meant a lot more than it does today.  You not only became part of a huge family, but you also became a citizen.  You took a commitment to do your part to establish and protect your new state.  You made an oath to be fully loyal, just like any oath taken by a naturalized citizen of the United States or various other countries of the world today.  You were not only a believer, but when the need arises, you were a soldier as well.  Just like men can be drafted in the United States army, or any other country in the world, and do not have a choice in the matter--such was the case for men in the Muslim community at the time of the Prophet Mohammad (p.b.u.h.).  And, just like a soldier in any normal country today convicted of treason would be punished--even by capital punishment--such was the case at the time of the Prophet Mohammad (p.b.u.h.).  

This makes sense when judging by the "lesser of evils" logic.  Muslims had a community to protect, and for someone to abandon Islam when the Muslim community came under attack, only to join again when the coast was clear, would absolutely be costing the innocents in the community their own lives.  So the jurisprudence rule became clear and simple: no one is forcing you to become Muslim, but once you do enter into the Muslim community, you have taken upon an obligation and cannot back out when your community needs you.  Backing out is considered treason and is punishable by death.

Now, the issue with blasphemy is another one entirely.  In the Quran, God states (note, I am only quoting a fraction of this verse because I am totally borrowing it from its context):

"'Was not the earth of God spacious enough for you to emigrate therein?'" 


During the same time mentioned above when treason became an issue for the Muslim community, another issue came up: Morale.  Even the strongest believers went through ups and downs emotionally and many in the community experienced good times as well as times of very low morale.  In fact, they are even referenced in the Quran (comforting verse #2 for the day), in the second surah titled "al-Baqarah" ("The Cow") aya number 214, which states (the "..." signify me beginning the quote from the middle of the blessed verse):

"...They were afflicted with such severe poverty and hardships that they were shaken until [even] their Messenger and those who believed with him said, 'When will the help of God come?' Alas, the help of God is near.

Because those participating in the initial establishment of the Muslim community teetered between life and death for many years, expressions that lowered morale were deemed intolerable.  The attitude was this: God's earth is huge, so if you don't like this faith, then by all means, leave.  It was that simple.  To remain amongst Muslims (who are happy with what they believe and struggling to practice their faith against all odds) in order to preach to them against their religion was simply not allowed.  Anyone insisting on doing so could be shunned or expelled.  

Now, going back to the topic of jurisprudence;  I am sure that you noticed in my above response, I emphasized that an individual choosing to become a Muslim at the time of the Prophet Mohammad (p.b.u.h.) was also taking an oath to be a law-abiding citizen of an Islamic state.  Obviously, in today's world, we no longer have any true Islamic state, and new reverts to Islam find themselves experiencing an entirely different phenomenon today.  All the jurisprudence scholars you spoke of lived hundreds of years ago, before the fall of the Islamic Empire.  

In my opinion, this is a huge issue that contemporary Muslim scholars have failed to appropriately respond to (which in no way reflects negatively on our faith, merely on the adherents, who are all imperfectly fallible humans, much like yourself).  Why were the doors of ijtihad (personal effort to make decisions regarding Islamic law) closed?  The Prophet Mohammad (p.b.u.h.) taught us that differences in opinions in his community is a mercy.  So, are reputable Muslim scholars of today working on this issue?  Most definitely, yes.  Creating a new "Fiqh of the West" ("Jurisprudence of the West") has been an issue championed by many Muslim notables, including Tarek Ramadan.  However, I believe that we, arguably and more importantly, need a "Fiqh of the East," as clearly there exist many classical scholarly interpretations that were built on a set of circumstances no longer existing today.  And this is okay.  Islam--even the most orthodox Islam--has historically allowed freedom of thought, of expression, of interpretation by the knowledgeable in our community.  And there are many practicing Muslims--myself included--who are working towards reviving this lost practice.  But to assume that we are hypocritical because you fail to understand historical origins is not conducive to intellectual dialogue.

As a final after-thought, I wanted to apologize for the length of this article.  Truth be told,  I could have probably answered your question in one paragraph if I tried.  But I didn't want to do that because, in doing so, I would only be answering your question.  It seems to me that you don't actually need an answer to your "hard" question, but instead, you need clarification on wrongful assumptions that you, yourself, have made.  Your misunderstanding stemmed from you somehow removing two separate issues (the verse you quoted plus the issue of treason, which you referred to as apostasy), from their original contexts and then warping them strangely together, subsequently jumping to the conclusion that Muslims are insincere and deceitful instead of entertaining the fact that perhaps you misunderstood something somewhere.  

I am not trying to mention this to be disrespectful, so forgive me if that comes across as such, but I just want to point out that the wording of your question "Why don't Muslims in the west preach to and correct their brethren instead of wasting time with us..." implies, to me, that you think you already have your conclusion and you simply want to rub Muslims' faces in your perceived intellectual victory.  Not only is it insulting, but when your misconception is responded to, it kind of makes you appear hasty and stupid.  The fact is that I, as a Muslim, find it dually my responsibility to help rectify issues within my community while simultaneously responding to questions such as yours, and this is logical.  And if you begin posing your "hard" questions by first requesting Muslims to stop "wasting [our] time" responding to "[you,]" then why did you complain that your inquiry went without a response in the first place?

Having said that, I totally appreciate you finding the time and taking the effort to post your questions--in any way or form--and I hope that my feedback can be taken constructively.  I welcome more questions, counter-questions, and comments.  Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts, and I hope I have been able to provide at least one answer you have been looking for.  As my time allows, I hope to respond to more (by His will).

- Dena  


Dena Atassi2 Comments