Is Apostasy a Cognizable Offense in the Qur’an?


Apostasy is the formal disaffiliation, or abandonment or renunciation of a religion by a person. One who commits apostasy is an apostate. The Qur’an mentions that deserting the true religion of God is a sin, but it does not stipulate a worldly punishment for this act. There is no imperative given to believers to punish those who are guilty of apostasy and it is for God to judge the individual. The Qur’an goes much further when we study it, and not only is there no imperative issued to believers to take punitive action against apostates, but we also find clear-cut evidence that capital punishment is not possible for this sin. Following is proof to this effect:

(1) Qur’an shows that a person cannot be killed because of apostasy because Allah has given the individual an opportunity to repent and become a believer again.

إِنَّ ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ ثُمَّ كَفَرُوا۟ ثُمَّ ءَامَنُوا۟ ثُمَّ كَفَرُوا۟ ثُمَّ ٱزْدَادُوا۟ كُفْرًا لَّمْ يَكُنِ ٱللَّهُ لِيَغْفِرَ لَهُمْ وَلَا لِيَهْدِيَهُمْ سَبِيلًۢا

“Surely (as for) those WHO BELIEVE THEN DISBELIEVE, AGAIN BELIEVE AND AGAIN DISBELIEVE, then increase in disbelief, Allah will not forgive them nor guide them in the (right) path.” 4.137

If for apostasy capital punishment were prescribed, then the above verse would not have mentioned the states of believing in Islam, then leaving it, then AGAIN believing in it, as after disbelieving in the first instance, the culprit would have incurred the punishment, but as we see there is room for repentance, it is clear in showing that in Islam, apostates are not to be killed.

(2) In 3:86-89 apostates are reminded that if they return to the true religion they will be forgiven. If capital punishment were invoked, then how will the apostates be able to return to the true religion and gain forgiveness for their past actions?

كَيْفَ يَهْدِى ٱللَّهُ قَوْمًا كَفَرُوا۟ بَعْدَ إِيمَٰنِهِمْ وَشَهِدُوٓا۟ أَنَّ ٱلرَّسُولَ حَقٌّ وَجَآءَهُمُ ٱلْبَيِّنَٰتُ ۚ وَٱللَّهُ لَا يَهْدِى ٱلْقَوْمَ ٱلظَّٰلِمِينَ

“How will God guide a people who disbelieved after having believed, and had witnessed that the Messenger is true, and the clear proofs had come to them? God does not guide the unjust people.”3:86

أُو۟لَٰٓئِكَ جَزَآؤُهُمْ أَنَّ عَلَيْهِمْ لَعْنَةَ ٱللَّهِ وَٱلْمَلَٰٓئِكَةِ وَٱلنَّاسِ أَجْمَعِينَ

“Those-their penalty is that upon them falls the curse of God, and of the angels, and of all mankind.” 3:87

خَٰلِدِينَ فِيهَا لَا يُخَفَّفُ عَنْهُمُ ٱلْعَذَابُ وَلَا هُمْ يُنظَرُونَ

“Remaining in it eternally, without their punishment being eased from them, and without being reprieved.” 3:88

إِلَّا ٱلَّذِينَ تَابُوا۟ مِنۢ بَعْدِ ذَٰلِكَ وَأَصْلَحُوا۟ فَإِنَّ ٱللَّهَ غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ

“Except those who repent afterwards, and reform; for God is Forgiving and Merciful.” 3:89

“Except those WHO REPENT AFTER THAT AND AMEND, then surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” 3.89

This is clear evidence that they are not to be condemned to death, as otherwise it is meaningless to say that their repentance will be accepted and have a chance to amend.

(3) The Prophet (p) of Islam was ordered not to compel people to join the religion.

The Prophet (p) of Islam is commanded in numerous verses that he is not to use force to win converts:

لَوْ شَآءَ رَبُّكَ لَءَامَنَ مَن فِى ٱلْأَرْضِ كُلُّهُمْ جَمِيعًا ۚ أَفَأَنتَ تُكْرِهُ ٱلنَّاسَ حَتَّىٰ يَكُونُوا۟ مُؤْمِنِينَ

“And if your Sustainer had pleased, surely all those who are in the earth would have believed, all of them; WILL YOU (O MUHAMMED) THEN FORCE MEN TILL THEY BECOME BELIEVERS?” 10.99

As the Prophet (p) followed and practised the Qur’an all his life, he never did such a thing. Forcing people to remain in one’s own belief system (religious or non religious) and killing of apostates means compelling people to be believers.

(4) Threatening to kill apostates is a trait of unbelievers, and not believers, hence law of rejectors of Islam does not become an Islamic law.

Qur’an shows that killing those who desert your beliefs is the behaviour of those who reject God, and not of Muslims and true believers in God. About a tyrant, it is said:

قَالَ ءَامَنتُمْ لَهُۥ قَبْلَ أَنْ ءَاذَنَ لَكُمْ ۖ إِنَّهُۥ لَكَبِيرُكُمُ ٱلَّذِى عَلَّمَكُمُ ٱلسِّحْرَ فَلَسَوْفَ تَعْلَمُونَ ۚ لَأُقَطِّعَنَّ أَيْدِيَكُمْ وَأَرْجُلَكُم مِّنْ خِلَٰفٍ وَلَأُصَلِّبَنَّكُمْ أَجْمَعِينَ

“Said he: You believe in him BEFORE I GIVE YOU PERMISSION; most surely he is the chief of you who taught you the magic, so you shall know: CERTAINLY I WILL CUT OFF YOUR HANDS AND YOUR FEET ON OPPOSITE SIDES, AND CERTAINLY I WILL CRUCIFY YOU ALL.” 26.49

As it is a behaviour trait of rejectors of Islam, it is inconceivable to think that death for apostates will be an Islamic law itself.

Conclusion

Thus when we study the Qur’an it becomes clear that every individual is free to believe or disbelieve as per his wish and believers are not under any obligation by any Quranic injunction to compel anyone to remain within Islam. Islam is to be accepted by one’s free will and not through coercion.

Further Reading

Islam and Religious Freedom

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