Feb 2, 2013


Islamic Perspectives

Q & A
Part I: The Qur`anic Perspective
Dr. Ahmad Shafaat
(February, 2006)


As-salam ‘alaykum,

Dear Dr. Shafaat,

I visited your site. There is a lot of valuable information available in your site. I have many queries regarding Islam that trouble my mind. I would be much grateful to you if you could answer those queries. To start with, I have much trouble understanding the punishment of apostasy. Do you believe that the punishment of apostasy is death according to Islam? Is this not against the freedom for an individual to adopt any faith? Please explain.



Wa 'alaykum al-salam! Thank you for your email. The fact that you have many queries suggests that you think and reflect about Islamic teachings. This is wonderful, since the Book of God instructs us to do such thinking and reflection. I would insha` allah answer your questions according to the ability God grants me.

The question you have raised about the punishment of apostasy in Islam, like any other question related to Islam, needs to be answered in the light of the Qur`an and the authentic ahadith. I repeat this well-known principle here because many Muslims, even scholars are often influenced by some extraneous considerations in arriving at their Islamic opinions. Thus some reject the death penalty for apostasy out of a desire to “improve” the image of Islam among non-Muslims. Others, on the other hand, insist on that penalty out of a concern that rejection of the penalty will encourage apostasy. There are also some who are influenced by a tendency to stick to traditional views no matter what. At some point the death penalty for apostasy was widely accepted among Muslims and many of us feel that what our earlier generations accepted must be correct and must be accepted by us also. Since such extraneous influences can mislead us, let us first try to free our minds from them.

The desire to “improve” the image of Islam among non-Muslims

Most of the negative imaging of Islam is done by a relatively small minority of Christians and Jews and those writers and reporters who are under their power. These people are not going to simply stop if we rejected the death penalty for apostasy. They will just find something else to paint Islam negatively. The only way they can stop is if the challenge of Islam is removed and Muslims start behaving like them. The Holy Qur`an talks about such Jews and Christians when it says:
Neither the Jews nor the Christians will be pleased with you (O Muhammad) till you follow their millah. Say: “Surely, the guidance of God is the (true) guidance”. And if you were to follow their desires after what has come to you of knowledge, then you would not have any protector or helper against God. (2:120)
Here by “Jews and Christians” the Holy Qur`an does not mean “all Jews and Christians”, since elsewhere it says “they are not all alike” (3:113). What is meant in the above verse is that some or many Jews and Christians will not be pleased with you till you become like them. It is also relevant to note that the Holy Qur`an tells us that we should expect a lot of negative, hurtful, talk from some Jews, Christians, and other non-Muslims:
You shall certainly be tried and tested in your possessions and persons and you shall certainly hear from the people given the book before you and those who associate partners with God much grieving talk. But if you are steadfast and disciplined, then that is of the (required) resolve in affairs. (3:186)
Consequently, let us not even think about rejecting or accepting something as Islamic only in order to “improve” the image of Islam among non-Muslims. Islam as taught by God and the Messenger is beautiful and the best way to improve the image of Islam is to understand it properly and then represent it faithfully.

Concern that doing away with the death penalty may encourage apostasy

This attitude views rejection of the death penalty for apostasy as being soft on apostasy. But it misses the point that God, who knows everything in the heavens and the earth, and his Messenger who is guided by him, know the best way to protect Islam and Muslims. In the Holy Qur`an God tells the Prophet to say:
“Do you inform God of that which he knows not in the heavens and the earth?” (10:18; see also 13:22).
In their context these words are addressed to the non-believers who worship some beings other than God in the hope that they will act as intercessors before God. But the words are clearly applicable each time we try to ignore what God has sent down and start making Islamic rules on the basis of some other considerations, even if it be for the “good” of Islam and Muslims.

But is the death penalty for apostasy really “good” for Islam and Muslims? Does it prevent apostasy? The death penalty may indeed discourage some from apostasy, but it would also encourage hypocrisy. And is it really better to have a lot of hypocrites among Muslims than to have a lot of apostates?

Muslims generally do not leave their religion. In recent times the number of Muslims converting to Christianity has increased but that is because: a) Christians have power and wealth which they use in very aggressive missionary effort; b) Muslims have fallen into ignorance and poverty due to the ineffective leadership of our `umara` and ‘ulama`. Consequently, the best way to reduce apostasy is to increase knowledge of Islam and to combat poverty, ignorance and other problems that plague the Muslim world.

Tendency to stick to the traditional views

If some Muslims insist on the death penalty for apostasy out of a concern to discourage apostasy, others do so simply because of a tendency to cling to traditional views no matter how much evidence exists against them. This attitude is un-Qur`an since the Book of God says:
When it is said to them: “Follow what God has sent down,” they say, “Nay! We shall follow what we found our fathers following.” What! Even if their fathers did not understand (ya‘qilun) anything and they were not guided? (2:170)
And when it is said to them: “Come to what God has sent down and to the Messenger,” they say, “Enough for us is that which we found our fathers following.” What! Even if their fathers did not know anything and they were not guided? (5:104; see also 43:23-24)
The tendency to follow without thinking the ideas passed on by earlier generations is what misled many Jews and Christians, as we learn from the following verse:
Say (O Prophet): “O people of the book! Exceed not the limits in your religion ignoring the truth, and do not follow the vain desires of people who went astray before and who misled many, straying from right path. (5:77)
It is true that these verses are addressed to non-Muslims, but there is no reason to think that the attitude condemned here cannot be found among Muslims. Every error that was or is committed by non-Muslims can be and is committed by some Muslims also and therefore what the Qur`an says to non-Muslims also has a message for us.

Hence let us not be overly influenced by the fact that the death penalty for apostasy has been held to be Islamic by a majority of people in many previous generations of Muslims. Let us examine the evidence of the Qur`an and the authentic ahadith and then reach a decision. Some will say that the previous generations of Muslims also reached their decisions on the basis of the Qur`an and the authentic ahadith. This is true but if this means that the majority in previous generations could not be wrong, then that is precisely the sort of attitude that the Qur`an is condemning in the above verses.

If we turn to the Qur`an and authentic ahadith after freeing ourselves from the extraneous influences of the type I have mentioned above, the situation becomes crystal clear: there is no legal punishment for apostasy in Islam, whether death or any other. The Qur`an and authentic ahadith teach us to treat apostates like other kuffar, whose treatment varies from kindness to killing depending on the circumstances and on the degree of hostility they show towards Islam and Muslims. I will insha allah present evidence for this view in two parts. In this first part, I will insha allah show that the death penalty or any other legal punishment for apostasy is contrary to the Qur`an. And in the second part I examine the ahadith about apostasy and show with God’s permission that those ahadith that prescribe the death penalty do not come from the mouth of our and God’s beloved Prophet (may God bless and honor him evermore).


Before discussing the question of punishment of apostasy, it is well to define what apostasy is.

A person commits apostasy (irtidad) or becomes an apostate (murtadd) if he describes himself a Muslim and then at a later time takes one of the following actions in a public way:

1) Converts to another religion, e.g. becomes a Christian or Buddhist or Baha`i etc.
2) Rejects a part of the Qur`an after recognizing it to be a part of the Qur`an. For example, all those “Muslims” who opposed the Shari‘ah-based arbitration in family and business disputes in Ontario[1] have become apostates if they knew well that a great part of the Shari‘ah that they opposed is based on the Qur`an. May Allah guide them back to Islam.

3) In some cases when the whole ummah agrees that a certain interpretation of some Qur`anic verses or ahadith is unacceptable, then the person who holds such an interpretation may become an apostate by a decision of the ummah. For example, Ahmadis insist on being called Muslims and they indeed profess and practice much of Islam like most Sunni Muslims. But they believe that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadiyan in the British colonial India was a prophet and in order to prepare room for this belief they interpret khatm nubuwwah in a way different from the rest of the ummah.. The ummah has rejected their interpretation of khatm nubuwwah  and Mirza’s claims for which this interpretation is devised. The ummah has also declared this group as non-Muslims and banned their entry into Makkah. Finally, the falsehood of Mirza’s claims has been proved by history[2]. Consequently, all converts from Islam to Ahmadism are apostates.

Normally, however, having an interpretation of a part of the Qur`an or Hadith different from the one held by other Muslims does not result in apostasy. For example, if the people who rejected Shari‘ah-based arbitration in Ontario would have said that the way rules of Shari‘ah are interpreted and applied is not faithful to the teachings of God and his Messenger and argued for more discussion about correcting the interpretation and the application before adopting Shari‘ah-based arbitration, they would not have committed apostasy. But they opposed Shari‘ah as such and for this reason they should be considered apostates.

An apostate is different from a hypocrite (munafiq). A hypocrite is a person who is outwardly willing to say/do what a Muslim says/does but in his heart has decided not to believe in Islam. An apostate, in contrast, is someone who openly and knowingly does or says something that makes him a non-Muslim after he had called himself a Muslim.

It also needs to be pointed out that we should distinguish apostasy from a state of kufr that many Muslims may privately pass through during the process of their growth towards the state of iman. In most Muslim families we have some members who express disbelief about the existence of God or about divine revelations or about the hereafter. Muslims have wisely and correctly tolerated such disbelief because they recognize that the way to iman is not always smooth and may pass through doubts and confusion (cf. Qur`an 6:76-79, 93:7). However, if a Muslim expresses his disbelief in the form of a declared position and insists on its truth publicly, then he will be considered an apostate.


It is a significant fact that the Book of God does not prescribe any punishment for apostasy. Many Muslims would immediately say, The Qur`an does not tell us everything. We need to go to the Hadith to find guidance on matters not touched by the Qur`an. But while this is true of matters of detail, this is not true of fundamental issues. God knew that while the Qur`an would be preserved faithfully, the authenticity of ahadith will remain subject to doubts in most cases. Therefore, he would make sure that all the basic teachings would be included in the Qur`an while leaving some details to ahadith so that the size of the Qur`anic text remains manageable for memorization. Looked in this way the absence in the Qur`an of any punishment for apostasy becomes very significant.

The punishment for apostasy is not a detail that we can expect God to leave for ahadith, especially if that punishment is death, since taking the life of a person, if done without a just cause, is regarded by the Qur`an as tantamount to killing all human beings (5:32). Even lesser penalties for theft (cutting of hands, 5:38), illicit sexual intercourse (100 lashes, 24:2), and unsubstantiated accusation of adultery (80 lashes, 24.4) were not considered by God as matters of details to be left to the ahadith. Therefore there is no reason why God would consider the more serious penalty of death for a more serious sin of apostasy as a matter of detail to be left to ahadith.

It is also significant that the Qur`an refers to apostasy several times (2:217, 3:86-90, 4:137, 9:66, 9:74, 16:106-109, 4:88-91, 47:25-27) and yet does not prescribe any punishment for it. Had the Qur`an not mentioned apostasy at all, we could have perhaps argued that there was no occasion for the Qur`anic revelation to deal with this subject and it was therefore left for the Holy Prophet to deal with. It may also be noted that almost all the verses that refer to apostasy are found in surahs said to be belonging to the Madinan period when the Islamic state had been established and penalties for crimes could be prescribed and applied. Only 16:106-109 appears in a surah identified as Makkan.

It is thus a natural conclusion to draw that the absence of any legal penalty for apostasy in the Qur`an means that God never intended any such penalty to become part of Islamic Shari‘ah.

The evidence against any legally prescribed penalty for apostasy in Islam does not rest only on the fact that the Qur`an does not prescribe any such penalty while referring to the subject of apostasy many times. We can go further and state that:

a)      There is no mandatory death penalty in the Qur`an for any crime.

b) The death penalty for apostasy in fact conflicts with the Qur`an.
The truth of the above statements can be seen by examining the verses: 5:32-33, 45, 2:178 and 4:88-91.

Qur`an 5:32-33, 45, 2:178

In 5:32, after relating the story of the murder of Habil by his brother Qabil, God says:
On that account We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land - it would be as if he slew the whole humanity: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the whole humanity. Then although there came to them Our Messengers with clear (guidance), yet, even after that, many of them continued to commit excesses in the land. (5:32)
In the context of an emphasis on preserving the life of each and every individual the above verse mentions only two crimes for which a person can be killed:

1)      Murdering another human being;
2)      Spreading mischief (fasad) in the land.

Nowhere else the Qur`an mentions any other crime for which the death penalty is considered. There are, of course, verses that mention killing during a war in the way of God. But that is different from killing as a penalty for a crime. Moreover, in the Qur`anic understanding the objective of even killing in a war is to stop or punish crimes similar to the two mentioned in the above verse -- violence and mischief -- when committed in an organized way by a tribe or nation ((2:191-193, 2:217, 4:88-91 etc)).

Hence the above-mentioned two crimes exhaust all possible cases for which the Qur`an considers the death penalty[3]. And in both of these cases, the death penalty is not mandatory in the Qur`an.

In case of spreading mischief in the land, the Qur`an says in the next verse:
The recompense for those who wage war against God and his Messenger[4], and strive with might and main for mischief through the land[5] is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land. That is their disgrace in this world, and for them in the hereafter is a severe punishment. (5:33)
There is no prescribed mandatory death penalty here. Even when the person wages war against God and his Messenger along with striving in the land for mischief, death is considered only one of several options, starting from exile. If such is the case with persons who wage war against God and his Messenger and actively seek to spread mischief in the land, then the question of death as a prescribed penalty for an apostate who continues to lead a peaceful life after his sin of apostasy can hardly arise within a Qur`anic perspective.
A little later in the same surah, al-Ma`idah, the Qur`an deals with the other crime – murdering another human being -- for which death penalty can be applied:
And We ordained for them in [the Torah]: “Person for person, eye for eye, nose for nose, ear for ear, tooth for tooth, and wounds equal for equal.” But if anyone remits the retaliation as charity, it shall be an expiation for him. And whoever does not judge by what God has sent down, such are the transgressors (zalimun)[6]. (5:45) 
The above verse refers to what God commanded the Jews through the Torah, but in the following verse the Qur`an gives a more balanced law to the Muslims:
O you who believe! Retaliation is prescribed for you in the matter of the slain, the free for the free, and the slave for the slave, and the female for the female. But if one (who killed) is forgiven by the brother of (the one killed) against ransom, there should be follow up in fairness and payment to the heir in handsome gratitude. This is a concession from your Lord and a mercy (from him). Then whoever exceeds the limit (of the ransom agreement) after this he shall have a painful chastisement. (2:178)
Again there is no mandatory death penalty. If the relatives of the murdered person accept ransom, the death penalty can be removed.
Hence: a) there is no mandatory death penalty in the Qur`an for any crime; and b) since the Qur`an does not prescribe the death penalty even for crimes more serious than simple apostasy, death penalty for apostasy as such has no place within the Qur`anic perspective.

Qur`an 4:88-91

The four verses, 4:88-91, when carefully examined, also show that the Qur`anic perspective conflicts with the death penalty for apostasy. The first two verses state:
Then what is the matter with you that you are divided into two groups regarding the hypocrites? God has cast them backward (arkasa) because of what they have earned. Do you want to guide him whom God has made to go astray? And he whom God has made to go astray, you will not find for him any way. They wish that you reject faith as they have done, so that you all become the same. So take not protectors/friends from them till they emigrate in the way of God. But if they turn away, seize them and kill them wherever you find them, and take neither protectors/friends from them nor helpers. (4:88-89)
This passage begins by talking about hypocrites, that is, people who had declared themselves Muslims but in their hearts had decided not to believe in the teachings of Islam. The demand that they should do hijrah fi sabil allah (emigrate for the sake of God) shows that they are not the hypocrites of Madinah but are living among non-Muslims in Makkah and possibly elsewhere. Verse 98 of the same surah shows that these people were not doing hijrah despite the fact that they were able to. The reason for their not doing hijrah was their hypocrisy. Makkan non-believers who had persecuted Muslims for years, would not have tolerated in their midst any true Muslims. They would have accepted among them only those “Muslims” who had stopped taking their “islam” seriously and felt more comfortable among non-believers, hostile to Islam, than among Muslims. These hypocrites pretended to be Muslims because they wanted to be secure from both sides (see 4:91). And Makkan non-believers did not force them to publicly renounce their “islam” because they found them useful for gathering information about Muslims or for some other subversive actions against the ummah.

In order to defeat these hypocrites in their game and force them to clearly choose between Islam and kufr, God commanded them to do hijrah. Their obedience to this command meant that they had chosen Islam and their disobedience meant that they had chosen kufr. Those who chose kufr in this way became apostates, since previously they called themselves Muslims. Thus the verses are a source of guidance for us regarding the way the apostates are to be treated.

At first sight the words “seize them and kill them wherever you find them” would suggest that they are to be killed. But this is quickly seen to be wrong if we read the next two verses:
Except those who join a group between you and whom there is a (peace-) treaty or those who approach you with their hearts restraining them from fighting you or fighting their own people. Had God willed he would have given them power over you and they would have fought you. So if they withdraw from you and do not fight you but give you (guarantees of) peace, then God has opened no way for you against them.

You will find others that wish to gain your confidence as well as that of their people. Every time they are sent back to temptation they give in to it. If they do not withdraw from you nor give you (guarantees) of peace, nor restrain their hands, seize them and kill them, wherever you find them. In their case We have provided you with a clear warrant against them. (4:90-91).
These verses clarify the command “seize them and kill them”. The apostates who rejected Islam by failing to emigrate as commanded by God are divided into three categories:

1)      Those who ally themselves with a group with whom Muslims have a peace treaty;
2)      Those who want to keep neutrality, committing themselves to peace with both the Muslims and their own people who had not accepted Islam;
3)      Those who provide no real guarantee of peace to Muslims and by all indications ally themselves with non-believers engaged in hostilities towards Islam.

The first two types of apostates are to be left in peace while the third one is to be treated like any non-believers in a state of war: they are to be seized and killed wherever they are found. Notice that the Qur`an uses the words “God has opened no way for you against them” in connection with the apostates of the first two types. This means that the Qur`an actually prohibits killing those apostates who want to live in peaceful terms with the Muslims.

Thus according to the Qur`an the apostates are to be treated like other kuffar: If they want to live in peace with the Muslims, they are to be left in peace and if they assume a hostile attitude, then they are to be treated accordingly.

Additional Evidence

There are some other Qur`anic verses that, although not as conclusive as those discussed above, nevertheless reveal a perspective that is at odds with a legal penalty for apostasy. Thus the Qur`an is very emphatic that victory belongs to truth. It says:
“Truth has come and falsehood has vanished. Surely, falsehood was bound to vanish” (17:81)
“Nay, We fling the truth against falsehood and it destroys it and behold it then vanishes” (21:18)
In other passages it predicts the victory of Islam because it is the religion of truth:
He it is who has sent his Messenger with guidance and the religion of truth that he may make it prevail over all (corrupted expressions of) religion (48:28; see also 9:32-33, 61:8-9).
These verses show that the Qur`an is founded on a complete confidence in the validity of the following three principles:

1.      Truth is bound to win over falsehood.
2.      Islam is founded on truth.
3.      Islam will therefore prevail.

Within this perspective Islam has no need for keeping people under its fold at pain of death. Such measures befit those systems that are essentially built on falsehood because that is the only way their followers can hope to slow down their inevitable march to defeat and disappearance. For a “religion of truth” it is more advantageous if people are free to examine ideas and then choose the religion or ideology or system they want. This is why the Qur`an establishes the following famous principle:
There is no compulsion in religion. Right has become distinct from wrong. So whoever rejects evil and puts faith in God has grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold that never breaks. And God is hearing, knowing. (2:256)
This verse is usually understood to mean that people cannot be compelled to become Muslims but they can be compelled to stay Muslims. But the words, “no compulsion in religion” are very general. They should apply equally to entering or leaving any religion, including Islam. One may try to argue against this general understanding of the verse as follows:

A person cannot be compelled to enter Islam but a person who is a Muslim is subject to the laws of Islam and those laws require death for leaving Islam.

This argument would have had force only if we are able to establish that the Qur`an prescribes the death penalty for apostasy like it prescribes penalties for theft, zina` etc. But in the absence of any such prescription, we must take the words “no compulsion in religion” in their general sense and understand them to be applicable for both entering and leaving Islam[7].

Moreover, apostasy is a move from islam to kufr. But what if we cannot establish the islam of a person? For example, consider a person born in a Muslim family who at one point described himself as a Muslim according to custom but he never really believed in Islam. If he then renounces Islam, is he really moving from islam to kufr? Is he really bound by the laws of Islam considering that he never really made a choice to live by them?

From the confident conviction that the message of the Qur`an is based on truth and therefore will prevail, comes also the Qur`anic condemnation of  fitnah, persecuting people for their religion, which is described as worse than killing in battle:
And fight in the way of God those who fight you but do not transgress due limits … al-fitnah is worse than killing (in battle). … Fight them till there is no fitnah and the religion is for God (alone) (2:191-193; see also 2:217).
These verses refer to the fighting that the non-believers were waging against the Prophet and his followers. This fighting was part of their fitnah or persecution of Muslims, aimed at suppressing the Islamic movement. The verses commanded the Muslims to fight back because fitnah is worse than killing in battle and so they should choose the lesser of the two evils. The fighting should continue till there is no more fitnah and the religion is for God. The words “the religion is for God (alone)” are closely related to “there is no more fitnah” and mean that the choice of religion is a matter between a person and God and not to be determined by force. Contrary to what some commentators suggest the words do not mean, “till everyone accepts Islam” because it is definitely known that the Prophet made peace with many tribes even though they had not accepted Islam (see e.g. 4:90 discussed earlier) and because the Qur`an explicitly states that when the non-believing opponents incline to peace the Prophet should do the same (8:61).

That the death penalty for apostasy conflicts with the Qur`anic perspective is also shown by those verses in which it is stated that the Messenger came not as a watcher over people but only as one who clearly declares the truth: 5:92, 99, 13:40, 16:35, 82, 24:54, 29:18, 36:17, 42:48, 64:12. Significantly, the first of these verses is addressed to the believers, since it is after explicitly addressing the believers and giving to them some laws (5:90-91) that the verse says:
“And obey God and obey the Messenger and beware (and fear God). Then if you turn away, know that our Messenger’s duty is to simply convey (the message) clearly. (5:92)
The Qur`an then continues addressing believers, giving some further regulations, and then says again:
On our Messenger there is no obligation but conveying (the message). And God knows what you reveal and what you conceal (5:99)
In 5:92 and 99 the Muslims are not told that if you turn away then death penalty awaits you but rather they are told that the Messenger has done his duty by conveying the message to you and now it is up to you whether you want to stay faithful to him or whether you want to turn away from him[8].


As observed above the Qur`an expects us to deal with apostates like other kuffar. Therefore the Qur`anic guidance for dealing with the apostates is essentially the same as its guidance for dealing with other kuffar. Briefly, this guidance is that we should treat them according to the degree of friendship or hostility they show to Islam and Muslims. To translate this into more specific guidance we can divide apostates in three categories and see how each category is to be treated:

1) An  apostate leaves Islam because of ignorance of Islam or some confusion that leads him to think that his new religion or way is truer and better. Such a person will be willing to listen to the Muslims if they want to show him that he has made a mistake. The Muslims should treat him kindly and argue with him in the best possible way. (60:8, 16:125). But Muslims should be careful not to show him more kindness than they show to other Muslims, for, otherwise the apostate may be encouraged to stay an apostate.

2) An apostate leaves Islam, not out of a belief that he is moving to something truer and better, but to satisfy some of his worldly desires, e. g., to get greater importance or more comfortable life or greater acceptance of his lifestyle such as homosexual lifestyle. A sign of such an apostate is that he shows little inclination to listen to any reasoning. If such an apostate does not engage in any hostile activity against Islam and Muslims, he should not be subjected to any active hostility (4:90). But since he has clearly preferred kufr over iman the following commandment of God will apply: 

O you who believe! Do not take for friends and allies (even) your fathers and your brothers if they love disbelief more than faith: if any of you do so, they are the wrong doers. (9:23)
According to some traditions “this ayah was revealed concerning those nine men who after apostasy went to Makkah”. (Panipati, Tafsir Mazhari)

Beyond avoiding friendship and alliance with apostates of this second type, the Muslims can impose boycott against them, since such boycott was imposed by the Prophet on the three Companions mentioned in 9:118. These three Companions did not commit apostasy but simply failed to join the Muslims in jihad without a good reason.

3) The third type of apostate is one who leaves Islam and then engages in hostile actions against Islam and Muslims, e.g. knowingly engages in propaganda against Islam and Muslims blatantly ignoring facts that he is expected to know well, passes secrets to the enemy, takes part in fighting against the Muslims. Such an apostate can be punished by anything from exile to death.  

And God knows better!


Here we reproduce the Qur`anic verses about apostasy that have not been already discussed:  

2:17 They ask you about fighting in the sacred month. Say: “Fighting therein is a great (offence); but preventing (people) from following the way of God, denying him, preventing access to the Sacred Masjid, and driving out its people is a greater (offence) and al-fitnah (oppression) is worse than killing (in battle).” And they will not cease fighting you until they turn you back from your religion if they can. And if anyone among you turns back from his religion and dies as a disbeliever, then the works of such as these will be lost in this life and in the hereafter they will be the dwellers of the fire, abiding therein forever.

3:86 How shall God guide those who reject faith after their belief and after they bore witness that the Messenger was true and after clear (signs) had come unto them? God guides not unjust people.

3:87 They are those whose recompense is that on them (rests) the curse of God, of the angels, and of all humankind.

3:88 They will abide therein. Their torment will not be lightened and they will not be given any respite -
3:89 Except for those that repent after that, and make amends (by righteous deeds), for, verily God is forgiving, most merciful.

3:90 But surely those who disbelieved after their belief and then went on increasing in their disbelief, never will their repentance be accepted; for they are those who have gone astray.

4:137 Surely those who believe, then disbelieve, then believe (again) and (again) disbelieve, and go on increasing in disbelief, God will not forgive them nor guide them nor guide them on the way.

9:66 Make no excuses. You have disbelieved after your belief. If We pardon some of you, We (may) punish others amongst you, for they are guilty.

9:74 They swear by God that they did not say, but they did say the word of disbelief and they disbelieved after their islam and meditated a plot which they were unable to carry out. And (by this) they avenged nothing except that God and his Messenger had enriched them of his bounty! If they repent, it will be better for them; but if they turn away, God will punish them with a grievous penalty in this world and in the hereafter. And there is none for them on earth as a protector or helper.

16:106 Whoever disbelieved in God after his belief – not he who is forced to do so while his heart is content with faith but he who opens his breast to disbelief - on such wrath from God, and theirs will be a great torment.

16:107 This is because they loved the life of this world more than the hereafter and God does not guide those who disbelieve.

16:108 They are those upon whose hearts, ears, and eyes God has set a seal, and they are heedless.

16:109 No doubt, in the hereafter they will be losers.
47:25 Surely those who have turned back (to their state of kufr) after the guidance was made manifest to them, Shaytan has enticed them and filled them with false hopes.

47:26 This is because they said to those who hate what God has revealed: "We will obey you in part of the matter”. But God knows their secrets.

47:27 Then how (will it be) when the angels take their souls at death, smiting their faces and their backs?

[1] This refers to a decision made by the government of Ontario, Canada, to allow Muslims to settle family and business disputes according to the Shari‘ah, just as the Jews and Christians had been allowed for years to settle similar disputes according to their laws and traditions. But even though the decisions made by the Shari‘ah arbitration were subject to approval by the Ontario courts and going to the arbitration was completely voluntary,  there was great hue and cry against the idea of Shari‘ah arbitration. The most negative role was played by some “Muslims” who did not want anything to do with Shari‘ah under any shape or form. Finally, the Ontario government decided to do away with all faith-based arbitration.
[2] Mirza seems to have been encouraged if not produced by the British colonialists, whose hatred of Islam and practice of subversive and divisive activities among Muslims is well known. Their role in creating two of the world’s most dangerous problems – the Israeli problem and the Kashmir problem – and their recent invasion of Iraq as junior partners of the USA war machine are manifestations of the same tendencies among their ruling class.
Mirza’s claims changed over time and he finally settled for the claim that he was both the returned Jesus (may peace be upon him) and Imam Mahdi. These claims have been proved false because Mirza died without achieving any of the main things that Imam Mahdi or the returned Prophet Jesus is expected to do in his lifetime, regardless of whether we refer to Jewish or Christian or Islamic expectations.

[3] Some scholars would assert that even when a Qur`anic list is exhaustive, the Hadith can add new items to the list. For example, in 4:23-24 the Qur`an lists the categories of women with whom marriage is prohibited. After giving the list the Qur`an explicitly says: “All other women are lawful” for marriage. However, there is widespread consensus among scholars on another prohibition: marriage at the same time with a woman and her maternal or paternal aunt. This prohibition is supported by a hadith. But: 1) there are grounds for raising reasonable doubt about the authenticity of this hadith (see my book, Punishment for Adultery in Islam: A Detailed Examination, Chapter 1, Note 5, www.islamicperspective.com); 2) even if the hadith is authentic, prohibition of marriage with a woman and her aunt is a minor detail and is not to be compared with taking the life of a person.
[4] This is applicable equally to those who rebel against a properly constituted Islamic state as to those rulers who force people to disobey the laws of God, e.g. by prohibiting the wearing of hijab or jailing or torturing or executing people for criticising the rulers in the light of Islamic teachings. If Islamic forces get upper hand on such rulers they can be exiled, maimed, crucified or otherwise executed.
[5] This is applicable not only to highway robbers and other armed criminals but also to rulers who by their repressive rule cause corruption in the land and betray Islamic causes.
[6] This verse provides an illustration of the fact that even when the Qur`an explcitly refers to an earlier tradition it improves it. The provision and encouragement to forgive by not retaliating or by accepting ransom is not found in the extant Torah tradition, which only talks of retaliation. See Exodus 21:23-25, Leveticus 24:20 and Deutronomy 19:21. This last passage in fact says: “Show no pity”.

[7] Some Muslims understand the words “there is no compulsion in religion” to mean that even Muslims cannot be obliged to follow the laws of Islam. This is an error. The freedom given in the Qur`an is the freedom to choose a religion. But once a religion has been chosen, a person can be obliged to follow some of its laws (5:43, 47). In particular, once a person has freely chosen to accept Islam, he or she can and in some cases must be obliged to follow its laws. This is similar to the way a person who freely enters a country is obliged to follow the laws of that country.

[8] Here the reader should once again avoid confusion by recalling what was said in the previous note (7). 

Islamic Perspectives

THE PUNISHMENT OF APOSTASY IN ISLAM Part II: An Examination of the Ahadith on the Subject
By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat
(APRIL 2007)

After having examined in Part I the issue of the punishment of apostasy in Islam in the light of the Qur`an (see http://www.islamicperspectives.com/Apostasy1.htm) we now turn to the examination of the issue in the light of ahadith. We will insha allah show that the authentic words of the Holy Prophet do not prescribe any punishment for apostasy. Ahadith in which the Prophet is reported to have prescribed the death penalty for this sin are either unreliable or are to be interpreted differently.
To begin with we present some general considerations to demonstrate the above position before examining the ahadith in question in detail.
First, when a law is given it is given in a public way so that maximum number of people can know about it and follow it. Even ordinary law-givers promulgate laws to make them known widely. In ancient times a town crier would go around and read the king’s decree in public squares. This point can be illustrated by another example: if a professor wants his students to do some homework for credit, he would not tell it only to one or two students. He would either himself announce it to the whole class or make sure that the students to whom he mentioned the assignment will pass the information about it to the other students. If the knowledge of the assignment remained limited to a very few students for weeks, then the assignment cannot be binding on the class. The same principle would apply to a much greater degree in case of the Islamic law, which is meant to be for all people and for all times, and in the particular case of a law that prescribes the taking of a human life. We can therefore be sure that if the Holy Prophet wanted to give a law prescribing death penalty for apostasy, he would make it known to a large number of Companions who would then make it known to even a larger number of Successors and so on. It is not conceivable that he would prescribe a law by telling it to only one or two Companions. Therefore a hadith prescribing such a death penalty would be reported by many Companions, and then by even a greater number of Successors and so on. It would then be known to every major scholar of later generations. But the fact is that we do not possess any such hadith about the death penalty for apostasy. Whatever ahadith we have in books are gharib, being narrated by a very few Companions and Successors. This is a strong argument to show that these ahadith are among those thousands that were fabricated or subjected to tahrif by some early Muslims.
Second, some early Muslim scholars appear to be unaware of any hadith prescribing the death penalty. Thus a leading first-century jurist, Ibrahim al-Nakha‘i (d. 95), a teacher of Imam Abu Hanifah, ruled that an apostate is to be invited back to Islam as long as there is a hope for his repentance and is not to be condemned to death. A similar opinion is held in the second century by the hadith expert Sufyan al-Thawri (d. 161). This opinion is not likely to be held by a leading jurist and a leading hadith expert if there existed generally accepted ahadith in which the Prophet prescribed the death penalty for apostates. Our examination of the asanid of the ahadith in question would also suggest that these ahadith did not exist for most of the first century and might not have been generally known until well into the second century.
Third, the ahadith about the death penalty are called into serious question by other ahadith that show that the Holy Prophet did not consider such a penalty for apostasy.
Fourth, and most importantly, as we saw in Part I the death penalty for apostasy does not fit with the Qur`anic perspective, which rejects fitnah (persecution on religious grounds), rejects compulsion in religion, mentions apostasy many times but never mentions any legal penalty for it, and in fact permits less than the death penalty even when the crime of apostasy is accompanied by other crimes..
We now examine the relevant ahadith in some detail.
As should become clear in the sequel, the only hadith that legislates or prescribes as a law the death penalty for apostasy is found, with some variations, in Bukhari 2794, 6411, Abu Da`ud 3787, Tirmidhi 1378, Nasa`i 3991-7, Ibn Majah 2526, Ahmad 1776, 2420, 2813 (cf. Ahmad 1802). All these narrations are identical or similar to one of the following five narrations:
حَدَّثَنَا أَبُو النُّعْمَانِ مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ الْفَضْلِ حَدَّثَنَا حَمَّادُ بْنُ زَيْدٍ عَنْ أَيُّوبَ عَنْ عِكْرِمَةَ قَالَ أُتِيَ عَلِيٌّ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُ بِزَنَادِقَةٍ فَأَحْرَقَهُمْ فَبَلَغَ ذَلِكَ ابْنَ عَبَّاسٍ فَقَالَ لَوْ كُنْتُ أَنَا لَمْ أُحْرِقْهُمْ لِنَهْيِ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ لَا تُعَذِّبُوا بِعَذَابِ اللَّهِ وَلَقَتَلْتُهُمْ لِقَوْلِ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ مَنْ بَدَّلَ دِينَهُ فَاقْتُلُوهُ
Abu al-Nu‘man Muhammad ibn al-Fadl related to us: Hammad ibn Zayd related to us from Ayyub from ‘‘Ikrimah who said: “Some Zanadiqah were brought to ‘Ali and he burnt them. This reached Ibn ‘Abbas and he said: I would not have burnt them because of the prohibition by the Messenger of God: ‘Do not punish with the punishment of God.’ I would have killed them in accordance with the word of the Messenger of God: ‘Whoever changed his religion kill him’.” (Bukhari 9/57=6411)
Narrations similar to the above are also found in Bukhari 2794, Nasa`i 3992, Abu Da`ud 3787, and Ahmad 1775, 2420.
حَدَّثَنَا أَحْمَدُ بْنُ مُحَمَّدِ بْنِ حَنْبَلٍ حَدَّثَنَا إِسْمَعِيلُ بْنُ إِبْرَاهِيمَ أَخْبَرَنَا أَيُّوبُ عَنْ عِكْرِمَةَ أَنَّ عَلِيًّا عَلَيْهِ السَّلَام أَحْرَقَ نَاسًا ارْتَدُّوا عَنْ الْإِسْلَامِ فَبَلَغَ ذَلِكَ ابْنَ عَبَّاسٍ فَقَالَ لَمْ أَكُنْ لِأُحْرِقَهُمْ بِالنَّارِ إِنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ قَالَ لَا تُعَذِّبُوا بِعَذَابِ اللَّهِ وَكُنْتُ قَاتِلَهُمْ بِقَوْلِ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ فَإِنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ قَالَ مَنْ بَدَّلَ دِينَهُ فَاقْتُلُوهُ فَبَلَغَ ذَلِكَ عَلِيًّا عَلَيْهِ السَّلَام فَقَالَ وَيْحَ ابْنِ عَبَّاسٍ
Ahmad ibn Muhammad bin Hanbal related to us: Isma‘il bin Ibrahim related to us: Ayyub informed us from ‘Ikrimah that ‘Ali, peace be upon him, burned some people who abandoned Islam. This reached Ibn ‘Abbas and he said: I would not have burnt them with fire. Indeed, the Messenger of God said: ‘Do not punish with the punishment of God.’ I would have killed them in accordance with the word of the Messenger of God. For, surely the Messenger of God said: ‘Whoever changed his religion kill him’.” This reached ‘Ali, peace be upon him, and he said: ‘Woe to Ibn ‘Abbas’. (Abu Da`ud 3787)
حَدَّثَنَا أَحْمَدُ بْنُ عَبْدَةَ الضَّبِّيُّ الْبَصْرِيُّ حَدَّثَنَا عَبْدُ الْوَهَّابِ الثَّقَفِيُّ حَدَّثَنَا أَيُّوبُ عَنْ عِكْرِمَةَ أَنَّ عَلِيًّا حَرَّقَ قَوْمًا ارْتَدُّوا عَنْ الْإِسْلَامِ فَبَلَغَ ذَلِكَ ابْنَ عَبَّاسٍ فَقَالَ لَوْ كُنْتُ أَنَا لَقَتَلْتُهُمْ لِقَوْلِ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ مَنْ بَدَّلَ دِينَهُ فَاقْتُلُوهُ وَلَمْ أَكُنْ لِأُحَرِّقَهُمْ لِقَوْلِ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ لَا تُعَذِّبُوا بِعَذَابِ اللَّهِ فَبَلَغَ ذَلِكَ عَلِيًّا فَقَالَ صَدَقَ ابْنُ عَبَّاسٍ
Ahmad ibn ‘Abdah al-Dabbi al-Basri related to us: ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Thaqafi related to us: Ayyub related to us from ‘Ikrimah that ‘Ali burned some people who abandoned Islam. This reached Ibn ‘Abbas and he said: I would have killed them in accordance with the word of the Messenger of God: ‘Whoever changed his religion kill him’. I would not have burnt them in view of the word of the Messenger of God: ‘Do not punish with the punishment of God.’ This reached ‘Ali and he said: Ibn ‘Abbas has spoken the truth” (Tirmidhi 1378)
أَخْبَرَنَا مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ الْمُثَنَّى قَالَ حَدَّثَنَا عَبْدُ الصَّمَدِ قَالَ حَدَّثَنَا هِشَامٌ عَنْ قَتَادَةَ عَنْ أَنَسٍ أَنَّ عَلِيًّا أُتِيَ بِنَاسٍ مِنْ الزُّطِّ يَعْبُدُونَ وَثَنًا فَأَحْرَقَهُمْ قَالَ ابْنُ عَبَّاسٍ إِنَّمَا قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ مَنْ بَدَّلَ دِينَهُ فَاقْتُلُوهُ
Muhammad bin Muthanna informed us saying: ‘Abd al-Samad related to us saying: Hisham related to us from Qatadah from Anas that ‘Ali was brought with people from al-Zatt who worshipped idols and he burnt them. Ibn ‘Abbas said: The Messenger of God said exactly: Whoever changed his religion kill him. (Nasa`i 3997)
A narration similar to the above is also found in Ahmad 2813.
حَدَّثَنَا يَحْيَى عَنْ مَالِك عَنْ زَيْدِ بْنِ أَسْلَمَ أَنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ قَالَ مَنْ غَيَّرَ دِينَهُ فَاضْرِبُوا عُنُقَهُ
Yahya related to me from Malik from Zayd bin Aslam that the Messenger of God said: “Whoever changed his religion strike his neck” (Muwatta 1219)
Narrations similar to the above, quoting only the words “Whoever changed his religion …” are also found in Nasa`i 3991, 3993-6, and Ibn Majah 2526.
At first sight the hadith seems to be strong. It is considered sahih by Bukhari and by Tirmidhi. And Nasa`i and Abu Da`ud also find no fault with it. But despite this, the hadith is not as reliable as a hadith prescribing death penalty should be, since as we shall see it is called into question by another, better attested, hadith. Moreover, it also has the following weaknesses:
First, if we examine the chains of transmission of the hadith we find that in Bukhari, Tirmidhi, Abu Da`ud and Ibn Majah the hadith is narrated only by Ayyub al-Sakhtiyani (d. 131) in the third generation, only by ‘Ikrimah (d. 104) in the second generation, and only by Ibn ‘Abbas (d. 68) in the first generation. Nasa`i 3994, 3996, 3997 and Ahmad 2813 are related from Qatadah (d. 117) from Anas (d. 91) [or ‘Ikrimah] from Ibn ‘Abbas. In addition, we have two mursal narrations, having no Companion in their asanid: Nasa`i 3995, which is from Qatadah from al-Hasan al-Basri (d. 110) and Muwatta 1219, which is from Malik from Zayd bin Aslam (d. 136). This means that very few people narrated the hadith in the third and second generations and in the first generation either no Companion is quoted or only one Companion – Ibn ‘Abbas – is quoted. Ibn ‘Abbas was a boy of 13 when the Holy Prophet died. It is not conceivable that the Holy Prophet will give a law prescribing death penalty in a way that only a boy of less than 13 will transmit it to the future generations.
Second, if we examine the reliability of the various narrators we find that at least one of them, ‘Ikrimah, the slave of Ibn ‘Abbas, has received mixed reviews from the scholars of hadith. Some scholars such as Ahmad bin Hanbal, Yahya bin Ma‘in, Bukhari, Nasa`i, ‘Ijli, and Abu Hatim al-Razi considered or are reported to consider him reasonably trustworthy while others considered him a liar or at least untrustworthy.
Abu 'Amr 'Uthman ibn al-Salah (d. 643) in his book ‘Ulum al-Hadith, commonly know as Muqaddimah of Ibn al-Salah, says that Bukhari has reported from narrators who were not trusted by others. He mentions ‘Ikrimah as one of the narrators not trusted by others. Muhammad bin Sa'd in al-Tabaqat al-Kubra, Abu Ja‘far al-‘Aqili in Kitab al-Du‘afa` al-Kabir, al-Dhahabi in Mizan al-I‘tidal, and Ibn Hajr al-Asqalani in Fath al-Bari quote several early scholars who considered ‘Ikrimah as untrustworthy.
Ibn Sa‘d says: "His reports were not authentic and people had doubts about him". Ibn Sirin said concerning him: "He used to lie" and Ibn Abi Dhi`b said: "I met ‘Ikrimah; he was not trustworthy". Sa‘id bin Jubayr said: "You relate from ‘Ikrimah some traditions that he would not have dared to relate if I had been with him.” Sa‘id bin al-Musayyib said: "The slave of Ibn Abbas will not desist until a rope is tied around his neck and then taken around". Sa‘id also used to advise his slave: "Do not report any lies and attribute them to me as the slave of Ibn ‘Abbas did to him". A similar advice is attributed to Ibn ‘Umar for his slave, Nafi‘.
‘Abd Allah bin al-Harith says that when he visited ‘Ali, son of Ibn ‘Abbas, he was shocked to find ‘Ikrimah bound to a post outside the door of ‘Ali’s house. He asked ‘Ali if he had no fear of God in him. ‘Ali explained by saying: “This wicked man attributes false traditions to my (late) father (Ibn ‘Abbas)"
Malik and Muslim also did not trust ‘Ikrimah. Mutarrif said: "I heard Malik saying that he disliked mentioning ‘Ikrimah (as a narrator), and I do not think that he reported on his authority". Ibn Hanbal said: "Malik reported one tradition on the authority of ‘Ikrimah". Indeed, when we search for ahadith in Muwatta from ‘Ikrimah we find only one hadith (# 765) and even that is supported by Malik by a second narrator. Muslim also hardly relates any ahadith from ‘Ikrimah, except in a small number of cases when he finds his hadith supported by another chain. No wonder the hadith in question is absent from Muslim.
Third, there are several differences in the various narrations of the hadith, some of which are important.
1.      The words attributed to the Prophet are different in Muwatta 1219, although the meaning is the same: Instead of “kill him” we have “strike his neck” and the word for changed is ghayyara instead of baddala.

2.      More importantly, in narrations I – III Ibn ‘Abbas objects to the burning of people by ‘Ali while in narration IV he does not and in fact seems to be approving it. Also, in narration I we are not told whether ‘Ali came to know Ibn ‘Abbas’ objection. But in narration II ‘Ali learns about Ibn ‘Abbas’ objection and says in response:
“Woe to Ibn ‘Abbas” (wayha Ibn ‘Abbas).
In some manuscripts of Abu Da`ud the words attributed to ‘Ali are:
“Woe to the mother of Ibn ‘Abbas” (wayha umm Ibn ‘Abbas)
In narration III also a response by ‘Ali is mentioned but is very different:
“Ibn ‘Abbas said the truth.” (sadaqa Ibn ‘Abbas).
Thus either in narration I the response from ‘Ali has been removed or it has been invented and added in narrations II and III. Moreover, someone changed ‘Ali’s response from wayha (umm) Ibn ‘Abbas to sadaqa Ibn ‘Abbas or vice versa. Hadith commentators try to harmonize the two responses by saying that wayha is an expression of praise and wonder but in their natural meaning they are irreconcilable. In any case, even if the meaning of the two responses is the same, the wording has changed in a significant way.
3.      The people whom ‘Ali is said to burn to death are described variously as follows:
Narration I: Zanadiqah, a word of Persian origin translated by Muhsin Khan as “atheists”;
Narrations II and III: “those who abandoned Islam”.
Narration IV: “people from al-Zatt who worshipped idols”.
People who worship idols are not atheists and neither atheists nor idol worshippers are necessarily apostates, since they may have never accepted Islam.
Some of the variations noted above are probably unconscious but others are clearly conscious and deliberate. Hence we see that the hadith has suffered some tahrif. Therefore we cannot put sufficient trust in it to institute on its basis a law requiring the killing of a human being.
Fourth, the hadith requires us to believe that either Sayyidna ‘Ali did not know the prohibition by the Messenger of God against burning people or he knowingly acted contrary to it. Both possibilities are extremely remote. If Ibn ‘Abbas knew something prohibited by the Prophet, then it is highly unlikely that ‘Ali was ignorant about it. ‘Ali, who is said to be the door of the city of knowledge, was among the first people to accept Islam and therefore had almost 23 years to learn from the Prophet. Ibn ‘Abbas, on the other hand, was converted to Islam as a boy of about 10 years old when his father ‘Abbas accepted Islam in 7 H, only three years before the departure of the Prophet from this world.
And even if for some reason ‘Ali was ignorant about the hadith against burning, some of the many other senior Companions alive at the time would have known about it. We expect them to bring the Prophet’s words to ‘Ali’s notice when he was deciding to burn people or after he had done so.
Quite apart from the hadith prohibiting the burning of people, there is no report of burning of a human being by the Prophet, or Abu Bakr, or ‘Umar, or ‘Uthman. So why would ‘Ali depart from the practice of his illustrious predecessors? Perhaps he became very angry at those people and wanted to punish them in the severest way. But it was not the style of the khulafa` rashidun to act in anger in this way. ‘Ali’s character was closer to the one depicted in the tradition in which he was about to kill a disbeliever during a battle when the man spat on him. ‘Ali withdrew his sword and let the man go. When asked about why he withdrew his sword, ‘Ali replied in effect that the man’s spitting on him might have tainted the purity of his intention of fighting only for the sake of God. Hence killing people because of excessive anger is not expected from ‘Ali. It was something that came after the time of al-khulafa` al-rashidun when the rulers became power-loving, dictatorial and unjust.
Furthermore, had ‘Ali burned some people many Muslims would have come to know about it, not least because of the unprecedented nature of the punishment. Consequently, reports about the burning would have found their way in many books of history. But we do not seem to have any independent report about it in any reputed source.
Thus we must conclude that at least one part of the hadith is unreliable: the prohibition of burning by the Prophet or the act of burning by ‘Ali. And if one part of a hadith is not reliable, reasonable doubts arise about the whole hadith.
Fifth, laws should be sufficiently precise to provide useful guidance. But the law “whoever changed his religion, kill him” is too general and imprecise. If taken literally it would oblige us to kill, for example, a Christian who became a Jew, since he is changing his religion. Some Shafi‘i scholars have in fact interpreted the hadith in this general way, an interpretation mentioned and criticized by al-Shawkani in his Nayl al-Awtar: Sharh Muntaqa al-Akhbar.
The generality and imprecision in the law “whoever changed his religion, kill him” is further enhanced by the fact that no context is known in which the law was prescribed. Usually laws were given in some contexts, which in important cases were preserved and which helped make the law more precise. But in the case of this particular law no context is given to clarify its scope.
And even apart from the context, the Qur`an and the Hadith often start with general laws and then provide sufficient details elsewhere. Even their general formulations of laws are carefully worded. But the law “whoever changed his religion, kill him” appears almost careless in its formulation and is not further clarified and elaborated in other ahadith. It is difficult to accept that it is coming from the Holy Prophet.
Further Analysis
The above considerations are sufficient to show that the hadith under consideration is not authentic. We now present some further analysis of the hadith in order to see when and how it came to be fabricated.
We can say with some confidence that the hadith was indeed related by some third-generation narrators – Ayyub (d. 131), Qatadah (d. 117) and Zayd bin Aslam (d. 136). Several chains lead us to Ayyub, some lead us to Qatadah and we have Imam Malik’s documented word that Zayd bin Aslam (d. 136) narrated the hadith. This means that the hadith had begun to be known in the early part of the second century or even a little earlier. But the history of the hadith prior to that time is uncertain.
Zayd bin Aslam does not give any source of the hadith. Qatadah is said to relate from three narrators: 1) al-Hasan; 2) Anas bin Malik; 3) ‘Ikrimah. But all three isnads are doubtful. Both al-Hasan and Anas had many students coming to them to seek ahadith and it is unlikely that only Qatadah will report the hadith from them. It seems that originally the hadith was related by Qatadah without any isnad, like Zayd bin al-Aslam in the Muwatta. It was later that isnads were provided. Since Qatadah was known to be a companion of al-Hasan and Anas, some presumed that he narrated the hadith from al-Hasan (Nasa`i 3995) while others presumed that he narrated it from Anas (Nasa`i 3996-7, Ahmad 2813). Still others, knowing that ‘Ikrimah also narrated the hadith, assumed that Qatadah heard it from ‘Ikrimah (Nasa`i 3994). Such additions and changes in isnads must have taken place. We have very many clear examples of changes taking place in the contents of ahadith, some of which we have encountered in connection with the hadith under discussion. And if changes took place in the contents of ahadith, then they must have also taken place in their isnads.
Having dealt with Zayd bin Aslam and Qatadah, we are now left with Ayyub who is consistently said to name ‘Ikrimah (d. 104) as his source. So we can accept that ‘Ikrimah did indeed relate the hadith. Moreover, it is probable that ‘Ikrimah narrated the hadith in a form that mentioned the burning of some people by ‘Ali and the objection of Ibn ‘Abbas’ to that action (Narrations I-III). This is because it is in this form that ‘Ikrimah’s hadith is narrated by most isnads and in most books.
To move further in our analysis note that the hadith of ‘Ikrimah presents ‘Ali in a negative light. He is shown as burning people in ignorance or in violation of the command of the Prophet. This negative attitude towards ‘Ali is carried further in narration II, which tells us that when Ibn ‘Abbas’ objection to the action of burning reaches ‘Ali, he responds not by regrets for acting against the command of the Prophet but by saying, “Woe to (the mother) of Ibn ‘Abbas!” The question arises: Who would want to present ‘Ali in such a negative light?
‘Ali had two main opponents: Supporters of Bani Umayyah and the Khawarij. It turns out that the very ‘Ikrimah who narrated the hadith had sympathy with the Khawarij, if he was not actually one of them. Ibn al-Madini, ‘Ata`, and Ahmad bin Hanbal are all reported as saying that ‘Ikrimah belonged to a sect of Khawarij, although they differ as to the identity of the sect, probably because the differences between various sects of Khawarij were not very sharp in the time of ‘Ikrimah. Yahya bin Bukayr said: "‘Ikrimah came to Egypt on his way to Morocco where the Khawarij of Morocco learned much from him". Mus‘ab Zubayri said: "‘Ikrimah has adopted the views of Khawarij”, suggesting that he attributed to Ibn Abbas after his death what he used to reject during his life.
Moreover, historical reports indicate that Khawarij believed, and whenever possible practiced, the killing of those Muslims whom they considered as apostates. They fought with ‘Ali on the basis of a similar thinking. ‘Ikrimah seems to have shared this view. According to Ibn al-Madini ‘Ikrimah once stood beside the door of a masjid and said: "All who are inside are apostates". And once at the time of hajj when people were gathered around the Ka‘bah, ‘Ikrimah is reported to have said: "I wish I had a spear in my hand to kill all those who came to hajj this year". It would thus appear that the rule, "Whoever changed his religion, kill him", originated as a view held by the Khawarij and then made into a hadith by someone, probably by ‘Ikrimah, who certainly provided it with an isnad by attributing it to Ibn ‘Abbas after the latter’s death. The “hadith” began to spread in the second and third generations, thereafter becoming more and more acceptable.
The reason for the gradual and wide acceptability of the hadith is no doubt the appealing nature of the idea of loyalty to one’s group and of keeping that loyalty by executing traitors and apostates. An indication of the wide appeal of this idea is provided by the fact that the death penalty for traitors/apostates was found in all cultures and traditions near the time and place of the rise of Islam and indeed beyond. In the Jewish tradition, which is the source of many fabricated rules and ideas in Islam, the death penalty for apostasy, especially when manifested by the worship of gods other than the God of Israel, is taught in several Biblical passages including Exodus 22:20, 32:21-29, Deut 17:2-7, Lev 24:16. Similar is the case with Roman and Christian tradition or practice.
Often the punishment for traitors/apostates was death by burning. Thus Romans often burned people for treason and apostasy, including Christians whom they considered traitors to the empire and/or apostates from the Roman paganism. Later the death by burning was used by the Christians themselves against heretics and witches, considered apostates from Christianity. For example, in the Middle Ages prominent Unitarian Christians such as Servetus who believed in true monotheism and rejected the Catholic dogmas of divinity of Jesus and trinity of God were burned to death. Judaism also prescribes death by burning for a number of crimes: sex with one’s mother in law (Lev 20:14), prostitution by the daughter of a priest (Lev 21:9), for adultery (Gen 38:24), (Josh 7:15, 24-25), though not for apostasy. It may well be that the tradition of burning of some people by ‘Ali has been inspired by the influence of this non-Muslim tradition rather than by historical fact.
In view of the above analysis we are now in a position to explain significant differences among the various narrations. The most important of these differences concern the words: “Woe to the mother of Ibn ‘Abbas” (wayha umm Ibn ‘Abbas)” attributed to ‘Ali in one narration. For the following two reasons these words were probably part of the original narration of ‘Ikrimah.
First, the words fit with the negative view of ‘Ali presented in the burning of some people by him in ignorance or violation of a command of the Prophet. This negative attitude also fits with the attitude of Khawarij with whom ‘Ikrimah sympathized or associated.
Second, if we start by assuming the absence of these words from ‘Ikrimah’s original narration, then it seems difficult to explain why someone added the words after ‘Ikrimah, since none of the narrators after ‘Ikrimah is known to be among the opponents of ‘Ali. On the other hand, by assuming the words as part of the original narration we can explain why they later came to be changed or omitted. This explanation is as follows: Narrators after ‘Ikrimah were not comfortable with these words because of their negative characterization of ‘Ali and so they started to modify them in their own different ways. Some narrator toned down the harshness of the words a little by removing the reference to the mother of Ibn ‘Abbas, as we find in Narration II. Another decided to change ‘Ali’s words to a positive form found in Narration III: “Ibn ‘Abbas said the truth.” (sadaqa Ibn ‘Abbas). Still another narrator decided to simply remove ‘Ali’s response, as in narrations of type I. Yet another solution was to remove the whole episode of ‘Ali burning people and Ibn ‘Abbas objecting to it. This solution is adopted in Narration IV.
In addition to the differences connected with ‘Ali’s response, there is also the difference between narrations I – IV and narration V. In narration V only the words attributed to the Prophet and prescribing the death penalty are related; there is no mention of burning by ‘Ali. This difference is not a case of tahrif, because it was a common and acceptable practice among narrators to extract from a tradition words attributed to the Prophet and narrate them separately. The procedure is acceptable because it is the Prophet’s words that constitute the primary source of our guidance and therefore focusing on them is justified.
It is interesting to note that there is also one narration in which the Prophet’s prohibition of burning is isolated and related by itself:
حَدَّثَنَا سُفْيَانُ عَنْ أَيُّوبَ عَنْ عِكْرِمَةَ عَنِ ابْنِ عَبَّاسٍ قَالَ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ لَا تُعَذِّبُوا بِعَذَابِ اللَّهِ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ
Sufyan related to us from Ayyub from ‘Ikrimah from Ibn ‘Abbas who said: The Messenger of God said: “Do not punish with the punishment of God”. (Ahmad 1802)
It is a pertinent question to ask: Did the law prescribing death penalty for apostasy and the one prohibiting punishment by burning existed as separate ahadith before ‘Ikrimah or is he the first one to make them into ahadith? The answer seems to be the latter. For, narrations containing only one or the other of the two laws are not as well-imbedded in the Hadith literature as they would have been if they had existed as ahadith earlier than ‘Ikrimah and independently of him. Two of them have incomplete isnads and others are found only in Nasa`i, Ibn Majah, and Ahmad, of which the last two books are not known for their high reliability. In contrast, the narration of ‘Ikrimah with its reference to burning of some people by ‘Ali is more mainstream, being in Bukhari, Tirmidhi, Abu Da`ud, Nasa`i, and Ahmad. Hence ‘Ikrimah’s narration seems to be the more original and other narrations are derived from it by a process mentioned above, that is, by isolating the words attributed to the Prophet and quoting them separately.
We now discuss a hadith, which is more reliable than the one we have discussed above and which suggests that the Prophet was not thinking in terms of any penalty for apostasy. The hadith is found in three of our best sources, Muwatta, Bukhari and Muslim, as well as in Tirmidhi, Nasa`i, and Ahmad. It is found mainly in two different versions.
B-I) Narration of Muhammad bin al-Munkadir
وَحَدَّثَنِي يَحْيَى عَنْ مَالِك عَنْ مُحَمَّدِ بْنِ الْمُنْكَدِرِ عَنْ جَابِرِ بْنِ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ أَنَّ أَعْرَابِيًّا بَايَعَ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ عَلَى الْإِسْلَامِ فَأَصَابَ الْأَعْرَابِيَّ وَعْكٌ بِالْمَدِينَةِ فَأَتَى رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ فَقَالَ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ أَقِلْنِي بَيْعَتِي فَأَبَى رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ ثُمَّ جَاءَهُ فَقَالَ أَقِلْنِي بَيْعَتِي فَأَبَى ثُمَّ جَاءَهُ فَقَالَ أَقِلْنِي بَيْعَتِي فَأَبَى فَخَرَجَ الْأَعْرَابِيُّ فَقَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ إِنَّمَا الْمَدِينَةُ كَالْكِيرِ تَنْفِي خَبَثَهَا وَيَنْصَعُ طِيبُهَا
Yahya related to me from Malik from Muhammad bin al-Munkadir from Jabir bin ‘Abd Allah: A Bedouin gave a pledge of allegiance for embracing Islam. The next day he came with fever and so came to the Prophet, saying: "O Messenger of God! Cancel my pledge." The Prophet refused. He came to him again and said: “Cancel my pledge”. He refused. He came to him another time and said: “Cancel my pledge.” He refused again. The Bedouin then went out. Then the Messenger of God said: “Madinah is exactly like a furnace; it expels out the impurities and retains the good." (Muwatta 1377)
Like the above narration, most other narrations -- Bukhari 9/316=6669, 9/318 = 6671, 9/424A = 6777, Muslim 2453, Tirmidhi 3855, Nasa`i 4114, Ahmad 13766 -- come with the isnad:
Malik (d. 179) -- Muhammad bin al-Munkadir (d. 131) – Jabir bin ‘Abd Allah (d. 78)
Some -- Bukhari 3/107 = 1750, Ahmad 13781, 14409, 14682 -- also come with the isnad:
Sufyan al-Thawri (d. 161) -- Muhammad bin al-Munkadir – Jabir bin ‘Abd Allah
Without the story of the Bedouin the statement about Madinah being like a furnace is found in Muslim 2454 (from Zayd bin Thabit) and Muwatta 1378 (from Abu Hurayrah). In Ahmad 14697 the statement about Madinah is supplemented by other statements about the sanctity of Madinah and Makkah that are also mentioned in numerous other ahadith.
In Muslim 2453, the important words ‘ala al-islam are omitted. Ahmad 13781 from Sufyan has ‘ala al-hijrah. But almost all other narrations from Malik as well as from Sufyan have the words ‘ala al-islam and we can be confident that they were part of the original narration of Muhammad bin al-Munkadir.
B-II) Narration of al-Harith bin Abi Yazid
حَدَّثَنَا حُسَيْنُ بْنُ مُحَمَّدٍ حَدَّثَنَا الْفُضَيْلُ يَعْنِي ابْنَ سُلَيْمَانَ حَدَّثَنَا مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ أَبِي يَحْيَى عَنِ الْحَارِثِ بْنِ أَبِي يَزِيدَ عَنْ جَابِرِ بْنِ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ الْأَنْصَارِيِّ أَنَّ قَوْمًا قَدِمُوا الْمَدِينَةَ مَعَ النَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ وَبِهَا مَرَضٌ فَنَهَاهُمْ النَّبِيُّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ أَنْ يَخْرُجُوا حَتَّى يَأْذَنَ لَهُمْ فَخَرَجُوا بِغَيْرِ إِذْنِهِ فَقَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ إِنَّمَا الْمَدِينَةُ كَالْكِيرِ تَنْفِي الْخَبَثَ كَمَا يَنْفِي الْكِيرُ خَبَثَ الْحَدِيدِ
Husayn bin Muhammad related to us: al-Fudayl (Ibn Sulayman) related to us: Muhammad bin Abi Yahya relate to us from al-Harith bin Abi Yazid from Jabir bin ‘Abd Allah al-Ansari that some people arrived in Madinah with the Prophet and came with a disease. The Prophet prohibited them to leave till he gave them his permission. But they left without his permission. So the Messenger of God said: “Madinah is exactly like a furnace, it expels out the impurities like a furnace expels impurities of iron." (Ahmad 14600)
This narration not only has a very different isnad, but also gives a significantly different story. There are more than one person who comes to Madinah and their sin was not to cancel the bay‘ah on Islam but to leave Madinah against the Prophet’s order. It is easy to see that this narration, found only in Ahmad, is defective. The narrator Ibn Sulayman is considered weak by most scholars. Among the comments he has received are the following:
“there are some rejected ahadith from him”,
“not trustworthy”
“writes hadith, not strong”
“not strong”.
Another narrator al-Harith bin Abi Yazid is too little known to be evaluated with any confidence. Compared with this, the narration B-I (of al-Munkadir) is found in many books including Ahmad and has sound isnad. Two hadith scholars, Malik and Sufyan narrate it from Muhammad bin al-Munkadir who is considered highly reliable and who is said to narrate the hadith directly from a Companion.
One could say that the two narrations are talking about two different incidents. But, although this will remove the conflict between the two narrations, the weakness of the second narration will remain, since it arises from the fact that its narrators are not all trustworthy and it is absent from a vast majority of books. Moreover, it is too much of a coincidence that two different but very similar incidents would be narrated by the same single Companion.
Hence only the narration of al-Munkadir can have any reliability. This narration provides us with a clear case of apostasy taking place right in front of the Holy Prophet and yet he did not consider any penalty for it, much less the death penalty. Some scholars assume that the Bedouin’s bayah was for staying in Madinah. But as Qadi ‘Ayyad and others have said the Bedouin asked for cancelling his Islam. The words ‘ala al-islam, which, as shown earlier, were almost certainly part of the original narration, also clearly show that bayah of the Bedouin was for embracing Islam and his request for its cancellation meant that he was abandoning his Islam.
The narration B-II (of al-Harith bin Abi Yazid) is the result of some type of tahrif, the purpose for which seems to be to reconcile the hadith with the death penalty for apostasy. Thus in this narration the sin of apostasy becomes the sin of leaving Madinah without the Prophet’s permission. In this way the death penalty for apostasy is not called into question. The omission of the words ‘ala al-islam from Muslim 2453 and their change into ‘ala al-hijrah in Ahmad 13781 appear to have the same purpose.
A comparison of the ahadith of al-Munkadir and of ‘Ikrimah.
The hadith of al-Munkadir about the unpunished apostasy of the Bedouin is much stronger than the hadith of ‘Ikrimah prescribing the death penalty for apostasy. Scholars give special credibility to an “agreed upon” hadith, one that is accepted by both Bukhari and Muslim. The hadith of al-Munkadir is “agreed upon” while the hadith of ‘Ikrimah is not, being found in Bukhari but not in Muslim. Connected with this is the fact that Muhammad bin al-Munkadir is considered a much more trustworthy narrator than ‘Ikrimah.
In addition, there is nothing in the hadith of al-Munkadir like the burning of people by ‘Ali that raises doubts about its authenticity. And there is no tension or contradiction with the Qur`an. The Prophet’s treatment of the apostate Bedouin is perfectly consistent with the Qur`an – the apostasy is condemned but its punishment is left to God. The behavior of the Bedouin is also consistent with what the Qur`an (9:90, 97-101, 49:14 etc) and some ahadith say about Bedouins (al-a‘rab).
Like the hadith of ‘Ikrimah, the hadith of al-Munkadir is also gharib, since it is transmitted only by one narrator in the first generation and two in the second. But unlike the hadith of ‘Ikrimah, this hadith is not proved unreliable by this fact. For, this hadith does not lay down a law that had to be promulgated to reach a maximum number of people. It reports an incident that could have taken place when only a few Companions such as Jabir bin ‘Abd Allah, were present. Neither the Prophet nor the Companions had any special reason to spread it widely.
One way to reconcile the hadith about the Bedouin apostate with the hadith of ‘Ikrimah would be to say that the apostasy of the Bedouin happened before the death penalty was prescribed for apostasy. But in view of the complete absence of any indication of dates and extreme weakness of ‘Ikrimah’s hadith this harmonization is difficult to accept. Had the prescription of the death penalty come to us in a clear and certain way from many reliable sources and through many ahadith, we would be justified to attempt to reconcile it with the Prophet’s treatment of the apostate Bedouin even in the absence of any indication of dates. But given the fact that ‘Ikrimah’s hadith is the only hadith that prescribes the death penalty for apostasy and his hadith suffers from many weaknesses, we need to give priority to the hadith about the apostate Bedouin and regard it as the true indication of the Prophet’s attitude towards apostates.
The two ahadith discussed above, those of ‘Ikrimah and Muhammad bin al-Munkadir, are the most relevant to the question of whether the Holy Prophet prescribed the death penalty for apostasy. Another hadith often quoted in connection with the issue is the one that lists three conditions under which a Muslim can be justifiably killed. However, even a casual reading of the various narrations of this hadith is enough to show that it does not prescribe a death penalty for apostasy but is simply admitting the possibility that an apostate can be lawfully killed under certain conditions.
To begin our detailed examination of the hadith we categorize its various narrations and quote a typical one in each category.
C-I) Narration of Masruq from ‘Abd Allah ibn Mas‘ud

حَدَّثَنَا أَبُو بَكْرِ بْنُ أَبِي شَيْبَةَ حَدَّثَنَا حَفْصُ بْنُ غِيَاثٍ وَأَبُو مُعَاوِيَةَ وَوَكِيعٌ عَنْ الْأَعْمَشِ عَنْ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ بْنِ مُرَّةَ عَنْ مَسْرُوقٍ عَنْ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ قَالَ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ لَا يَحِلُّ دَمُ امْرِئٍ مُسْلِمٍ يَشْهَدُ أَنْ لَا إِلَهَ إِلَّا اللَّهُ وَأَنِّي رَسُولُ اللَّهِ إِلَّا بِإِحْدَى ثَلَاثٍ الثَّيِّبُ الزَّانِي وَالنَّفْسُ بِالنَّفْسِ وَالتَّارِكُ لِدِينِهِ الْمُفَارِقُ لِلْجَمَاعَةِ حَدَّثَنَا ابْنُ نُمَيْرٍ حَدَّثَنَا أَبِي ح و حَدَّثَنَا ابْنُ أَبِي عُمَرَ حَدَّثَنَا سُفْيَانُ ح و حَدَّثَنَا إِسْحَقُ بْنُ إِبْرَاهِيمَ وَعَلِيُّ بْنُ خَشْرَمٍ قَالَا أَخْبَرَنَا عِيسَى بْنُ يُونُسَ كُلُّهُمْ عَنْ الْأَعْمَشِ بِهَذَا الْإِسْنَادِ مِثْلَهُ

Abu Bakr bin Abi Shaybah narrated to us: Hafs bin Ghayath and Abu Mu‘awiyah and Waki‘ related to us from al-A‘mash from ‘Abd Allah bin Murrah from Masruq from ‘Abd Allah (bin Mas‘ud) who said: The Messenger of God said: ‘The blood of a Muslim who bears witness that there is no god but God and that I am his Messenger is not lawful except in one of three cases: a person who, being married, commits zina, a person for (the murder) of another, and a person who abandons his religion and separates from jama‘ah (of Muslims)." (Muslim 3175)

Narrations similar to the above come with the following isnad:

Al-A‘mash (d. 147) from ‘Abd Allah bin Murrah (d. 100) from Masruq (d. 63) from ‘Abd Allah ibn Mas‘ud (d. 32).

They describe the apostates who can be killed as those who separate from the community, although there are the following variations in the words used:

n      “one who abandons his religion and separates from the community” [al- tarik li din hi al-mufariq (li) al-jama‘ah] (Muslim 3175, Abu Da`ud 3788, Ibn Majah 2525, Darimi 2196, 2339, Ahmad 3438, 3859, 4024)
n      “one who abandons Islam and separates from the community” [al- tarik (li) al-islam (wa al-) mufariq (li) al-jama‘ah] (Muslim 3176, Nasa`i 3951, Ahmad 34301)
n      “one who abandons his religion and separates” [al-tarik din hu al-mufariq] (Nasa`i 4642)
n      “one who abandons his religion and separates the community” [al- tarik din hu al-fariq al-jama‘ah] (Ahmad 4197)
n      “one who separates from the religion and abandons the community” [al-mufariq min al-din (li al-din) al-tarik li al-jama‘ah] (Bukhari 6370)

C-II) Narration of ‘Ubayd bin ‘Umayr from ‘A`ishah

حَدَّثَنَا مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ سِنَانٍ الْبَاهِلِيُّ حَدَّثَنَا إِبْرَاهِيمُ بْنُ طَهْمَانَ عَنْ عَبْدِ الْعَزِيزِ بْنِ رُفَيْعٍ عَنْ عُبَيْدِ بْنِ عُمَيْرٍ عَنْ عَائِشَةَ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهَا قَالَتْ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ لَا يَحِلُّ دَمُ امْرِئٍ مُسْلِمٍ يَشْهَدُ أَنْ لَا إِلَهَ إِلَّا اللَّهُ وَأَنَّ مُحَمَّدًا رَسُولُ اللَّهِ إِلَّا بِإِحْدَى ثَلَاثٍ رَجُلٌ زَنَى بَعْدَ إِحْصَانٍ فَإِنَّهُ يُرْجَمُ وَرَجُلٌ خَرَجَ مُحَارِبًا لِلَّهِ وَرَسُولِهِ فَإِنَّهُ يُقْتَلُ أَوْ يُصْلَبُ أَوْ يُنْفَى مِنْ الْأَرْضِ أَوْ يَقْتُلُ نَفْسًا فَيُقْتَلُ بِهَا

Muhammad bin Sinan al-Bahili related to us: Ibrahim bin Tahman related to us from ‘Abd al-‘Aziz bin Rufay‘ from ‘Ubayd bin ‘Umayr from ‘A`ishah who said: The Messenger of God said: “The blood of a Muslim who bears witness that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God is not lawful except in one of three cases: a person who commits zina after marriage, for he is stoned; a person who sets out fighting God and his Messenger, for, he is killed or crucified or exiled from the land; or a person who kills another person and is killed for him." (Abu Da`ud 3789)

This type of narrations comes with the isnad:

Ibrahim bin Tahman (d. 168) from ‘Abd al-‘Aziz bin Rufay‘ (d.130) from ‘Ubayd bin ‘Umayr (d. 68) from ‘A`ishah (d. 58).

They describe the apostasy that could result in the death penalty as fighting God and his Messenger with some variations:

n      “a man who sets out fighting God and his Messenger” [rajul kharaja muhariban li allah wa rasul hi] (Abu Da`ud 3789)
n      “one who gets out of Islam and fights God and his Messenger” [yakhriju min al-islam yuharibu allah ‘azza wa jalla wa rasul hi] (Nasa`i 3980)

The understanding of crimes punishable by death found in this second type of narrations is also found in an independent hadith of Abu Qilabah (Bukhari 6390; see also 3872, 4244). This long hadith is quoted in full in the Appendix.

C-III) Narration of ‘Amr bin Ghalib from ‘A`ishah

أَخْبَرَنَا عَمْرُو بْنُ عَلِيٍّ قَالَ حَدَّثَنَا يَحْيَى قَالَ حَدَّثَنَا سُفْيَانُ قَالَ حَدَّثَنَا أَبُو إِسْحَقَ عَنْ عَمْرِو بْنِ غَالِبٍ قَالَ قَالَتْ عَائِشَةُ أَمَا عَلِمْتَ أَنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ قَالَ لَا يَحِلُّ دَمُ امْرِئٍ مُسْلِمٍ إِلَّا رَجُلٌ زَنَى بَعْدَ إِحْصَانِهِ أَوْ كَفَرَ بَعْدَ إِسْلَامِهِ أَوْ النَّفْسُ بِالنَّفْسِ
‘Amr bin ‘Ali informed us saying: Yahya related to us saying: Sufyan related to us saying: Abu Ishaq related to us from ‘Amr bin Ghalib saying: ‘A`ishah said: Did you not know that the Messenger of God said: ‘The blood of a Muslim is not lawful except (that of) a man who commits zina after he is married or disbelieved after his islam or a person for (the murder) of another’. (Nasa`i 3952)
This third type of narrations comes with the isnad:
Sufyan (and Isra`il) from Abu Ishaq (d. 128) from ‘Amr bin Ghalib from ‘A`ishah (d. 58).

They describe the apostasy that could be punished by death as committing kufr after accepting islam or committing irtidad:

n      “one who disbelieves after accepting Islam” [kafara ba‘da islam hi (ma aslama)] (Nasa`i 3952, Ahmad 23169)
n      “a man who apostates after his acceptance of Islam” [rajul irtadda bada islam hi] (Ahmad 24518, 24611)

The narrations of type C-III are the weakest of the three. They are found only in Ahmad and Nasa`i. Moreover, the narrator ‘Amr bin Ghalib is an unknown. Only two narrators are said to narrate ahadith from him and they both have the same nickname, Abu Ishaq, which may be the result of some confusion because of identity of nicknames and may imply that there is only one person who narrates ahadith from him. We do not know when he died and so we cannot tell whether or not he met ‘A`ishah. Abu Ishaq himself is trustworthy but is said to have become mentally confused in his later years.
The narration C-III makes permissible the blood of an apostate. But that does not mean that here the death penalty is prescribed for apostasy. Making something permissible is clearly not the same thing as prescribing it. This becomes even clearer if we compare the case of apostasy with another case mentioned in the hadith – the case of a murderer. In Islamic law the execution of a murderer is not prescribed in that a murderer does not have to be killed. His life can be spared if the relatives of the murdered person accept ransom, in which case his blood will not be lawful. Notice in case of a murderer this condition is not mentioned in the narration. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that the case of the apostate is similar. That is, the narration can be understood to mean that an apostate can be executed under some conditions.

The narrations C-I and C-II in fact mention some conditions under which the blood of an apostate becomes lawful. Unlike the narration C-III, which is the weakest of the three narrations, the narration C-I does not talk of simple apostasy. To the description of the apostate as “one who abandons his religion” it adds the further condition: “separates from jamaah”. This additional condition cannot possibly mean that if a Muslim leaves his religion and remains in the jamaah (Muslim community), having some interactions with the Muslims, he is not killed but if he breaks all ties with the Muslims then he will be killed. The expression rather has to be interpreted as referring to the separation that creates division, conflict, or rebellion. So the meaning is that killing of an apostate whose apostasy accompanies a conflict with the Muslims is permissible. This becomes very explicit in C-II, which says that “a (Muslim) person who sets out fighting God and his Messenger” is “killed or crucified or exiled from the land”. This is very close to what the Qur`an says (5:33) and implies that there is no penalty for apostasy as such. Only if the apostate engages in fighting God and his Messenger is he punished and even then the punishment could be just exile.

Commenting on the first narration, which is from Muslim, Nawawi talks about the shurut under which a person is killed for murder or adultery, but when it comes to apostasy he takes the words absolutely and says: “this is general for every apostate from Islam whatever may be the apostasy and so his execution is wajib if he does not return to Islam”. He also mentions the view of the scholars that the death penalty is likewise applicable to everyone who leaves the community by bid‘ah or rebellion etc, like the al-Khawarij. But if we are willing to qualify killing of a murderer under some conditions, specified elsewhere in the Qur`an and the Hadith, we can similarly qualify killing of an apostate under some conditions specified elsewhere: in Qur`an (5:33), in narration C-II, and the hadith of Abu Qilabah.

Hence we conclude that the hadith under consideration does not prescribe the death penalty for apostasy and if C-I and, especially, C-II are accepted as the original versions, then the hadith in fact conflicts with a prescribed death penalty for a simple case of apostasy.

The reliability question

In view of the above conclusion it is not really necessary to examine the hadith for reliability. It is only as a further support for the un-Islamic character of the death penalty for apostasy that we mention some reasons suggesting that the hadith is unreliable.

First, adultery is one of the three crimes for which the hadith allows the killing of a person. But the death penalty for adultery is also problematic in the light of the Qur`an (See Punishment for Adultery in Islam: A Detailed Examination in http://www.islamicperspectives.com/Stoning.htm).

Second, the hadith remained relatively little known for a very long time. From ‘Abd Allah bin Mas‘ud only Masruq narrates, from Masruq only ‘Abd Allah bin Murrah (d. 100) narrates and from him only al-A‘mash (d. 147). A similar situation exists in relation to the narration from ‘A`ishah. Hence until the second century the knowledge and/or acceptance of the hadith were very limited. It is significant that the hadith is not found in the Muwatta of Imam Malik (d. 179) even though that collection deals with the punishment of apostasy. This suggests that the hadith was not very widely known or acceptable to scholars even by the middle of the second century.

Third, we find that many ahadith simply list laws, principles etc that do not originate with those ahadith but are based on some other ahadith and/or some Qur`anic verses. The hadith in question appears to be of this type. It lists three cases under which a Muslim’s life can be taken. We know that two of the cases do not originate with this hadith but are legislated elsewhere. Thus killing of a person in retaliation for murder is legislated in Qur`an 2:178 and 5:45 and the death penalty for adultery is also based on some other ahadith. We should expect the case of apostasy to be similar. That is, as in the other two cases, the death penalty for this case is not based on this hadith but on some other ahadith and is simply being listed here. If we inquire where in case of apostasy the death penalty is legislated, we are led back to the hadith of ‘Ikrimah that we saw above to be unreliable. In other words, the hadith in question requires another authentic saying of the Messenger of God prescribing the death penalty for apostasy, but no such saying is to be found. This clearly points to the reliability of the hadith in question.

The lists were usually created by early scholars to summarize Islamic teaching on a subject for easy memorization. Many of them were later attributed to the Prophet and became ahadith. That this is a distinct possibility in the present case is shown by the hadith of Abu Qilabah. Discussing the issue of al-qasamah in the court of ‘Umar bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, Abu Qilabah says:

"By God, the Messenger of God never killed anyone except in one of the three situations:

(1) A person who killed somebody unjustly, was killed (in qisas)
(2) A married person who committed illegal sexual intercourse.
(3) A man who fought against God and his Messenger and deserted Islam."

Notice that here Abu Qilabah does not quote the Messenger of God, but gives his own list of crimes for which, in his understanding, the Prophet would apply the death penalty. Since ‘Umar bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz was khalifah between 99 H and 101 H, it appears that the list of capital crimes did not exist as a hadith even around 100 H. It became a hadith sometimes after that. This explains why very few narrators are said to narrate the hadith in the first three generations.

We earlier discussed the well-attested case of the Bedouin apostate who was not punished by death or in any other way. Some less reliable ahadith mention other cases of apostates who were not executed. We now briefly examine these ahadith...
حَدَّثَنِي مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ رَافِعٍ حَدَّثَنَا أَبُو النَّضْرِ حَدَّثَنَا سُلَيْمَانُ وَهُوَ ابْنُ الْمُغِيرَةِ عَنْ ثَابِتٍ عَنْ أَنَسِ بْنِ مَالِكٍ قَالَ كَانَ مِنَّا رَجُلٌ مِنْ بَنِي النَّجَّارِ قَدْ قَرَأَ الْبَقَرَةَ وَآلَ عِمْرَانَ وَكَانَ يَكْتُبُ لِرَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ فَانْطَلَقَ هَارِبًا حَتَّى لَحِقَ بِأَهْلِ الْكِتَابِ قَالَ فَرَفَعُوهُ قَالُوا هَذَا قَدْ كَانَ يَكْتُبُ لِمُحَمَّدٍ فَأُعْجِبُوا بِهِ فَمَا لَبِثَ أَنْ قَصَمَ اللَّهُ عُنُقَهُ فِيهِمْ فَحَفَرُوا لَهُ فَوَارَوْهُ فَأَصْبَحَتْ الْأَرْضُ قَدْ نَبَذَتْهُ عَلَى وَجْهِهَا ثُمَّ عَادُوا فَحَفَرُوا لَهُ فَوَارَوْهُ فَأَصْبَحَتْ الْأَرْضُ قَدْ نَبَذَتْهُ عَلَى وَجْهِهَا ثُمَّ عَادُوا فَحَفَرُوا لَهُ فَوَارَوْهُ فَأَصْبَحَتْ الْأَرْضُ قَدْ نَبَذَتْهُ عَلَى وَجْهِهَا فَتَرَكُوهُ مَنْبُوذًا
Muhammad bin Rafi‘ related to us: Abu Nadr related to us: Sulayman (ibn al-Mughirah) related to us from Thabit from Anas bin Malik who said: There was among us a man from Banu al-Najjar who had read Surah al-Baqarah and Al ‘Imran and used to write for the Messenger of God but later on he departed in flight and joined the people of the book. They gave him lift saying, This is he who used to write for Muhammad. And they felt good about him. He did not live for long when God struck his neck among them. They dug for him and buried him. By the morning the earth threw him on its top. They again dug for him and buried him but by the morning the earth again threw him on its top. They dug for him yet again and buried him but by the morning the earth threw him again on its top. So they left him discarded. (Muslim 6/360 = 4987; Ahmad 12846 also from Sulayman with the same isnad and very similar wording)
حَدَّثَنَا أَبُو مَعْمَرٍ حَدَّثَنَا عَبْدُ الْوَارِثِ حَدَّثَنَا عَبْدُ الْعَزِيزِ عَنْ أَنَسٍ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُ قَالَ كَانَ رَجُلٌ نَصْرَانِيًّا فَأَسْلَمَ وَقَرَأَ الْبَقَرَةَ وَآلَ عِمْرَانَ فَكَانَ يَكْتُبُ لِلنَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ فَعَادَ نَصْرَانِيًّا فَكَانَ يَقُولُ مَا يَدْرِي مُحَمَّدٌ إِلَّا مَا كَتَبْتُ لَهُ فَأَمَاتَهُ اللَّهُ فَدَفَنُوهُ فَأَصْبَحَ وَقَدْ لَفَظَتْهُ الْأَرْضُ فَقَالُوا هَذَا فِعْلُ مُحَمَّدٍ وَأَصْحَابِهِ لَمَّا هَرَبَ مِنْهُمْ نَبَشُوا عَنْ صَاحِبِنَا فَأَلْقَوْهُ فَحَفَرُوا لَهُ فَأَعْمَقُوا فَأَصْبَحَ وَقَدْ لَفَظَتْهُ الْأَرْضُ فَقَالُوا هَذَا فِعْلُ مُحَمَّدٍ وَأَصْحَابِهِ نَبَشُوا عَنْ صَاحِبِنَا لَمَّا هَرَبَ مِنْهُمْ فَأَلْقَوْهُ فَحَفَرُوا لَهُ وَأَعْمَقُوا لَهُ فِي الْأَرْضِ مَا اسْتَطَاعُوا فَأَصْبَحَ وَقَدْ لَفَظَتْهُ الْأَرْضُ فَعَلِمُوا أَنَّهُ لَيْسَ مِنْ النَّاسِ فَأَلْقَوْهُ
Abu Ma‘mar related to us: ‘Abd al-Warith related to us: ‘Abd al-‘Aziz related to us from Anas: There was a Christian who embraced Islam and read Surah al-Baqarah and Al ‘Imran. He used to write for the Prophet but later on he reverted to Christianity and started to say: "Muhammad knows nothing but what I have written for him." Then God caused him to die, and the people buried him, but by the morning the earth had thrown his body out. They said, "This is the act of Muhammad and his Companions. They dug the grave of our companion and took his body out of it because he had run away from them." They again dug the grave for him, making it deep, but by the morning the earth had thrown his body out. They said, "This is an act of Muhammad and his Companions. They dug the grave of our companion and threw his body outside it, for he had run away from them." They once again dug the grave for him as deep as they could, but by the morning the earth had again thrown his body out. So they believed that what had befallen him was not done by human beings and so left him (thrown on the ground). (Bukhari 4/814 = 3348)
حَدَّثَنَا يَزِيدُ بْنُ هَارُونَ أَخْبَرَنَا حُمَيْدٌ عَنْ أَنَسٍ أَنَّ رَجُلًا كَانَ يَكْتُبُ لِلنَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ وَقَدْ كَانَ قَرَأَ الْبَقَرَةَ وَآلَ عِمْرَانَ وَكَانَ الرَّجُلُ إِذَا قَرَأَ الْبَقَرَةَ وَآلَ عِمْرَانَ جَدَّ فِينَا يَعْنِي عَظُمَ فَكَانَ النَّبِيُّ عَلَيْهِ الصَّلَاة وَالسَّلَامُ يُمْلِي عَلَيْهِ غَفُورًا رَحِيمًا فَيَكْتُبُ عَلِيمًا حَكِيمًا فَيَقُولُ لَهُ النَّبِيُّ عَلَيْهِ الصَّلَاة وَالسَّلَامُ اكْتُبْ كَذَا وَكَذَا اكْتُبْ كَيْفَ شِئْتَ وَيُمْلِي عَلَيْهِ عَلِيمًا حَكِيمًا فَيَقُولُ أَكْتُبُ سَمِيعًا بَصِيرًا فَيَقُولُ اكْتُبْ اكْتُبْ كَيْفَ شِئْتَ فَارْتَدَّ ذَلِكَ الرَّجُلُ عَنْ الْإِسْلَامِ فَلَحِقَ بِالْمُشْرِكِينَ وَقَالَ أَنَا أَعْلَمُكُمْ بِمُحَمَّدٍ إِنْ كُنْتُ لَأَكْتُبُ مَا شِئْتُ فَمَاتَ ذَلِكَ الرَّجُلُ فَقَالَ النَّبِيُّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ إِنَّ الْأَرْضَ لَمْ تَقْبَلْهُ و قَالَ أَنَسٌ فَحَدَّثَنِي أَبُو طَلْحَةَ أَنَّهُ أَتَى الْأَرْضَ الَّتِي مَاتَ فِيهَا ذَلِكَ الرَّجُلُ فَوَجَدَهُ مَنْبُوذًا فَقَالَ أَبُو طَلْحَةَ مَا شَأْنُ هَذَا الرَّجُلِ قَالُوا قَدْ دَفَنَّاهُ مِرَارًا فَلَمْ تَقْبَلْهُ الْأَرْضُ حَدَّثَنَا عَبْدُ اللَّهِ بْنُ بَكْرٍ السَّهْمِيُّ حَدَّثَنَا حُمَيْدٌ عَنْ أَنَسٍ قَالَ كَانَ رَجُلٌ يَكْتُبُ بَيْنَ يَدَيْ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ قَدْ قَرَأَ الْبَقَرَةَ وَآلَ عِمْرَانَ وَكَانَ الرَّجُلُ إِذَا قَرَأَ الْبَقَرَةَ وَآلَ عِمْرَانَ يُعَدُّ فِينَا عَظِيمًا فَذَكَرَ مَعْنَى حَدِيثِ يَزِيدَ
Yazid bin Harun related to us: Humayd informed us from Anas that a man used to write for the Prophet. He had read al-Baqarah and Al ‘Imran. And the man when he read al-Baqarah and Al ‘Imran became important among us. But when the Prophet would dictate to him “forgiving, merciful” he would write “knowing, wise”. The Prophet would say, Write thus and thus. Write as you like. He would dictate to him, “knowing, wise” and he would say, I will write “hearing, seeing”. He would say: Write. Write as you want. Then this man turned away from Islam and joined the mushrikun. And he said I know Muhammad more than you do. I used to write what I wanted. Then this man died. The Prophet said, the earth will not accept this man. Anas said, Abu Talha told me that he went to the land where this man died and found him thrown out. So Abu Talha said (to the people), What is the matter with this man. They said, We buried him many times, but the earth does not accept him. (Ahmad 11769; see also Ahmad 13084)
The narrators Yazid bin Harun (d. 206) and Humayd (d. 142) are trustworthy, at least to the extent that they are acceptable to Bukhari. Yet the narration has obvious problem: the Prophet seems to be willing to let the man write what he wanted, something clearly impossible and very insulting to the Prophet.
In the above three narrations a man clearly commits apostasy but no order of his execution or punishment in any other way is given by the Prophet. He only predicts that the man will be rejected by the earth. In Bukhari and Muslim he does not even make this prediction. He says nothing about the man and lets God deal with him.
حَدَّثَنَا أَحْمَدُ بْنُ مُحَمَّدٍ الْمَرْوَزِيُّ حَدَّثَنَا عَلِيُّ بْنُ الْحُسَيْنِ بْنِ وَاقِدٍ عَنْ أَبِيهِ عَنْ يَزِيدَ النَّحْوِيِّ عَنْ عِكْرِمَةَ عَنْ ابْنِ عَبَّاسٍ قَالَ كَانَ عَبْدُ اللَّهِ بْنُ سَعْدِ بْنِ أَبِي سَرْحٍ يَكْتُبُ لِرَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ فَأَزَلَّهُ الشَّيْطَانُ فَلَحِقَ بِالْكُفَّارِ فَأَمَرَ بِهِ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ أَنْ يُقْتَلَ يَوْمَ الْفَتْحِ فَاسْتَجَارَ لَهُ عُثْمَانُ بْنُ عَفَّانَ فَأَجَارَهُ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ
Ahmad bin Muhammad al-Marwazi related to us: ‘Ali ibn al-Husayn bin Waqid related to us from his father from Yazid al-Nahwi from ‘Ikrimah from Ibn ‘Abbas who said: ‘Abd Allah bin Abi Sarh used to write for the Messenger of God but Shaytan made him slip and he joined the disbelievers. The Messenger of God ordered his execution on the day of the conquest (of Makkah). But ‘Uthman bin ‘Affan sought protection for him and the Messenger of God granted it to him. (Abu Da`ud 3792, see also Nasa`i 4001)

حَدَّثَنَا عُثْمَانُ بْنُ أَبِي شَيْبَةَ حَدَّثَنَا أَحْمَدُ بْنُ الْمُفَضَّلِ حَدَّثَنَا أَسْبَاطُ بْنُ نَصْرٍ قَالَ زَعَمَ السُّدِّيُّ عَنْ مُصْعَبِ بْنِ سَعْدٍ عَنْ سَعْدٍ قَالَ لَمَّا كَانَ يَوْمُ فَتْحِ مَكَّةَ اخْتَبَأَ عَبْدُ اللَّهِ بْنُ سَعْدِ بْنِ أَبِي سَرْحٍ عِنْدَ عُثْمَانَ بْنِ عَفَّانَ فَجَاءَ بِهِ حَتَّى أَوْقَفَهُ عَلَى النَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ فَقَالَ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ بَايِعْ عَبْدَ اللَّهِ فَرَفَعَ رَأْسَهُ فَنَظَرَ إِلَيْهِ ثَلَاثًا كُلُّ ذَلِكَ يَأْبَى فَبَايَعَهُ بَعْدَ ثَلَاثٍ ثُمَّ أَقْبَلَ عَلَى أَصْحَابِهِ فَقَالَ أَمَا كَانَ فِيكُمْ رَجُلٌ رَشِيدٌ يَقُومُ إِلَى هَذَا حَيْثُ رَآنِي كَفَفْتُ يَدِي عَنْ بَيْعَتِهِ فَيَقْتُلُهُ فَقَالُوا مَا نَدْرِي يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ مَا فِي نَفْسِكَ أَلَّا أَوْمَأْتَ إِلَيْنَا بِعَيْنِكَ قَالَ إِنَّهُ لَا يَنْبَغِي لِنَبِيٍّ أَنْ تَكُونَ لَهُ خَائِنَةُ الْأَعْيُنِ
‘Uthman bin Abi Shaybah related to us: Ahmad bin al-Mufaddal related to us: Asbat bin Nasr related to us saying: al-Suddi claimed (za‘ama) from Mus‘ab bin Sa‘d from Sa‘d who said: On the day of the Conquest of Makkah ‘Abd Allah bin Abi Sarh hid himself with ‘Uthman bin ‘Affan. He came with him and made him stand before the Prophet and then said: O Messenger of God! Accept the allegiance of ‘Abd Allah. He raised his head three times, each time refusing him. Then he accepted his allegiance after the third time. He then turned to his Companions and said: “Was not there among you a right-minded man who would have stood to this one when I had withheld my hand from accepting his allegiance and killed him?” They said: “We did not know what you were thinking in your heart, O Messenger of God! Why did you not give us a signal with your eye?” He said: “It is not fitting for a prophet to hoodwink by the eyes.” (Abu Da`ud 3793; see also Nasa`i 3999)
Is ‘Abd Allah bin Abi Sarh mentioned in the two narrations, D-IV and D-V, the same man as the previous three narrations? In favor of the identity of the two men is the fact that both are said to write for the Prophet. It is not likely that the Prophet, a very good judge of characters, would twice choose such bad characters to write the word of God. Against the identity of the two men is the fact that the stories about the two men are very different and that in D-V it is not mentioned that ‘Abd Allah bin Abi Sarh used to write for the Prophet.
In any case the narrations do not support the death penalty for apostasy for the following reasons:
a) In D-IV the Prophet orders the execution of ‘Abd Allah bin Abi Sarh but it is not clear whether this order is for apostasy or for some other actions also. Moreover, the order was not executed, since man was given protection. For a prescribed penalty there is no such protection. The Prophet’s attitude towards a prescribed penalty reportedly was that he would apply it even if his daughter Fatimah committed the crime.
b) In D-V the Prophet does not order the execution; only hoped that someone would kill the man. This is no way to establish and execute penalties for crimes.
c) Both narrations are weakened by the obvious contradictions between them and by the fact that both have narrators who are not very strong.
In D-IV, one narrator is ‘Ali who is described by some scholars as da‘if al-hadith. Another narrator is ‘Ikrimah whose weakness we have already documented.
In D-V also there are two narrators who have received negative comments:
Ahmad bin al-Mufaddal – munkar al-hadith.
Al-Suddi – fi hadith hi du‘f. And Abu Da`ud himself does not seem to trust al-Suddi. He uses the word “claimed” for him rather than “said” or “related”.
‘Ikrimah Again
As we noted earlier, in D-V the Prophet does not order the execution of ‘Abd Allah bin Abi Sarh while in D-IV he does. It is of great interest to note that D-IV comes from ‘Ikrimah from Ibn ‘Abbas. This is of course the same ‘Ikrimah who transmitted the only hadith in which the Prophet prescribes the death penalty for apostasy. Thus once again ‘Ikrimah is associated with the death penalty for apostasy. It is reasonable to think that in earlier narration there was no order by the Prophet to execute ‘Abd Allah bin Abi Sarh. But ‘Ikrimah, ever keen to attribute the death penalty for apostasy to the Prophet, has changed the earlier story and introduced a prophetic order to execute ‘Abd Allah bin Abi Sarh. It is also possible that some later narrator – ‘Ali or his father -- has introduced the order for ‘Abd Allah’s execution and attributed the hadith to ‘Ikrimah because he knew that ‘Ikrimah narrated ahadith prescribing the death penalty for apostasy. After the introduction of ‘Ikrimah into the isnad, it was easy to bring along Ibn ‘Abbas because ‘Ikrimah often attributed his ahadith to Ibn ‘Abbas.

Full Text of the Hadith of Abu Qilabah

حَدَّثَنَا قُتَيْبَةُ بْنُ سَعِيدٍ حَدَّثَنَا أَبُو بِشْرٍ إِسْمَاعِيلُ بْنُ إِبْرَاهِيمَ الْأَسَدِيُّ حَدَّثَنَا الْحَجَّاجُ بْنُ أَبِي عُثْمَانَ حَدَّثَنِي أَبُو رَجَاءٍ مِنْ آلِ أَبِي قِلَابَةَ حَدَّثَنِي أَبُو قِلَابَةَ أَنَّ عُمَرَ بْنَ عَبْدِ الْعَزِيزِ أَبْرَزَ سَرِيرَهُ يَوْمًا لِلنَّاسِ ثُمَّ أَذِنَ لَهُمْ فَدَخَلُوا فَقَالَ مَا تَقُولُونَ فِي الْقَسَامَةِ قَالَ نَقُولُ الْقَسَامَةُ الْقَوَدُ بِهَا حَقٌّ وَقَدْ أَقَادَتْ بِهَا الْخُلَفَاءُ قَالَ لِي مَا تَقُولُ يَا أَبَا قِلَابَةَ وَنَصَبَنِي لِلنَّاسِ فَقُلْتُ يَا أَمِيرَ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ عِنْدَكَ رُءُوسُ الْأَجْنَادِ وَأَشْرَافُ الْعَرَبِ أَرَأَيْتَ لَوْ أَنَّ خَمْسِينَ مِنْهُمْ شَهِدُوا عَلَى رَجُلٍ مُحْصَنٍ بِدِمَشْقَ أَنَّهُ قَدْ زَنَى لَمْ يَرَوْهُ أَكُنْتَ تَرْجُمُهُ قَالَ لَا قُلْتُ أَرَأَيْتَ لَوْ أَنَّ خَمْسِينَ مِنْهُمْ شَهِدُوا عَلَى رَجُلٍ بِحِمْصَ أَنَّهُ سَرَقَ أَكُنْتَ تَقْطَعُهُ وَلَمْ يَرَوْهُ قَالَ لَا قُلْتُ فَوَاللَّهِ مَا قَتَلَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ أَحَدًا قَطُّ إِلَّا فِي إِحْدَى ثَلَاثِ خِصَالٍ رَجُلٌ قَتَلَ بِجَرِيرَةِ نَفْسِهِ فَقُتِلَ أَوْ رَجُلٌ زَنَى بَعْدَ إِحْصَانٍ أَوْ رَجُلٌ حَارَبَ اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ وَارْتَدَّ عَنْ الْإِسْلَامِ فَقَالَ الْقَوْمُ أَوَلَيْسَ قَدْ حَدَّثَ أَنَسُ بْنُ مَالِكٍ أَنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ قَطَعَ فِي السَّرَقِ وَسَمَرَ الْأَعْيُنَ ثُمَّ نَبَذَهُمْ فِي الشَّمْسِ فَقُلْتُ أَنَا أُحَدِّثُكُمْ حَدِيثَ أَنَسٍ حَدَّثَنِي أَنَسٌ أَنَّ نَفَرًا مِنْ عُكْلٍ ثَمَانِيَةً قَدِمُوا عَلَى رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ فَبَايَعُوهُ عَلَى الْإِسْلَامِ فَاسْتَوْخَمُوا الْأَرْضَ فَسَقِمَتْ أَجْسَامُهُمْ فَشَكَوْا ذَلِكَ إِلَى رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ قَالَ أَفَلَا تَخْرُجُونَ مَعَ رَاعِينَا فِي إِبِلِهِ فَتُصِيبُونَ مِنْ أَلْبَانِهَا وَأَبْوَالِهَا قَالُوا بَلَى فَخَرَجُوا فَشَرِبُوا مِنْ أَلْبَانِهَا وَأَبْوَالِهَا فَصَحُّوا فَقَتَلُوا رَاعِيَ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ وَأَطْرَدُوا النَّعَمَ فَبَلَغَ ذَلِكَ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ فَأَرْسَلَ فِي آثَارِهِمْ فَأُدْرِكُوا فَجِيءَ بِهِمْ فَأَمَرَ بِهِمْ فَقُطِّعَتْ أَيْدِيهِمْ وَأَرْجُلُهُمْ وَسَمَرَ أَعْيُنَهُمْ ثُمَّ نَبَذَهُمْ فِي الشَّمْسِ حَتَّى مَاتُوا قُلْتُ وَأَيُّ شَيْءٍ أَشَدُّ مِمَّا صَنَعَ هَؤُلَاءِ ارْتَدُّوا عَنْ الْإِسْلَامِ وَقَتَلُوا وَسَرَقُوا فَقَالَ عَنْبَسَةُ بْنُ سَعِيدٍ وَاللَّهِ إِنْ سَمِعْتُ كَالْيَوْمِ قَطُّ فَقُلْتُ أَتَرُدُّ عَلَيَّ حَدِيثِي يَا عَنْبَسَةُ قَالَ لَا وَلَكِنْ جِئْتَ بِالْحَدِيثِ عَلَى وَجْهِهِ وَاللَّهِ لَا يَزَالُ هَذَا الْجُنْدُ بِخَيْرٍ مَا عَاشَ هَذَا الشَّيْخُ بَيْنَ أَظْهُرِهِمْ قُلْتُ وَقَدْ كَانَ فِي هَذَا سُنَّةٌ مِنْ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ دَخَلَ عَلَيْهِ نَفَرٌ مِنْ الْأَنْصَارِ فَتَحَدَّثُوا عِنْدَهُ فَخَرَجَ رَجُلٌ مِنْهُمْ بَيْنَ أَيْدِيهِمْ فَقُتِلَ فَخَرَجُوا بَعْدَهُ فَإِذَا هُمْ بِصَاحِبِهِمْ يَتَشَحَّطُ فِي الدَّمِ فَرَجَعُوا إِلَى رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ فَقَالُوا يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صَاحِبُنَا كَانَ تَحَدَّثَ مَعَنَا فَخَرَجَ بَيْنَ أَيْدِينَا فَإِذَا نَحْنُ بِهِ يَتَشَحَّطُ فِي الدَّمِ فَخَرَجَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ فَقَالَ بِمَنْ تَظُنُّونَ أَوْ مَنْ تَرَوْنَ قَتَلَهُ قَالُوا نَرَى أَنَّ الْيَهُودَ قَتَلَتْهُ فَأَرْسَلَ إِلَى الْيَهُودِ فَدَعَاهُمْ فَقَالَ آنْتُمْ قَتَلْتُمْ هَذَا قَالُوا لَا قَالَ أَتَرْضَوْنَ نَفَلَ خَمْسِينَ مِنْ الْيَهُودِ مَا قَتَلُوهُ فَقَالُوا مَا يُبَالُونَ أَنْ يَقْتُلُونَا أَجْمَعِينَ ثُمَّ يَنْتَفِلُونَ قَالَ أَفَتَسْتَحِقُّونَ الدِّيَةَ بِأَيْمَانِ خَمْسِينَ مِنْكُمْ قَالُوا مَا كُنَّا لِنَحْلِفَ فَوَدَاهُ مِنْ عِنْدِهِ قُلْتُ وَقَدْ كَانَتْ هُذَيْلٌ خَلَعُوا خَلِيعًا لَهُمْ فِي الْجَاهِلِيَّةِ فَطَرَقَ أَهْلَ بَيْتٍ مِنْ الْيَمَنِ بِالْبَطْحَاءِ فَانْتَبَهَ لَهُ رَجُلٌ مِنْهُمْ فَحَذَفَهُ بِالسَّيْفِ فَقَتَلَهُ فَجَاءَتْ هُذَيْلٌ فَأَخَذُوا الْيَمَانِيَّ فَرَفَعُوهُ إِلَى عُمَرَ بِالْمَوْسِمِ وَقَالُوا قَتَلَ صَاحِبَنَا فَقَالَ إِنَّهُمْ قَدْ خَلَعُوهُ فَقَالَ يُقْسِمُ خَمْسُونَ مِنْ هُذَيْلٍ مَا خَلَعُوهُ قَالَ فَأَقْسَمَ مِنْهُمْ تِسْعَةٌ وَأَرْبَعُونَ رَجُلًا وَقَدِمَ رَجُلٌ مِنْهُمْ مِنْ الشَّأْمِ فَسَأَلُوهُ أَنْ يُقْسِمَ فَافْتَدَى يَمِينَهُ مِنْهُمْ بِأَلْفِ دِرْهَمٍ فَأَدْخَلُوا مَكَانَهُ رَجُلًا آخَرَ فَدَفَعَهُ إِلَى أَخِي الْمَقْتُولِ فَقُرِنَتْ يَدُهُ بِيَدِهِ قَالُوا فَانْطَلَقَا وَالْخَمْسُونَ الَّذِينَ أَقْسَمُوا حَتَّى إِذَا كَانُوا بِنَخْلَةَ أَخَذَتْهُمْ السَّمَاءُ فَدَخَلُوا فِي غَارٍ فِي الْجَبَلِ فَانْهَجَمَ الْغَارُ عَلَى الْخَمْسِينَ الَّذِينَ أَقْسَمُوا فَمَاتُوا جَمِيعًا وَأَفْلَتَ الْقَرِينَانِ وَاتَّبَعَهُمَا حَجَرٌ فَكَسَرَ رِجْلَ أَخِي الْمَقْتُولِ فَعَاشَ حَوْلًا ثُمَّ مَاتَ قُلْتُ وَقَدْ كَانَ عَبْدُ الْمَلِكِ بْنُ مَرْوَانَ أَقَادَ رَجُلًا بِالْقَسَامَةِ ثُمَّ نَدِمَ بَعْدَ مَا صَنَعَ فَأَمَرَ بِالْخَمْسِينَ الَّذِينَ أَقْسَمُوا فَمُحُوا مِنْ الدِّيوَانِ وَسَيَّرَهُمْ إِلَى الشَّأْمِ

Qutaybah bin Sa‘id related to us: Abu Bishr Isma‘il bin Ibrahim al-Asadi related to us: al-Hajjaj bin Abi ‘Uthman related to us: Abu Raja` from the family of Abu Qilabah related to me: Abu Qilabah related to me:
Once ‘Umar bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz sat on his throne for the people. When he admitted them, they entered. He said, "What do you think of al-qasamah?" They said, "We say that it is lawful to depend on al-qasamah (in qisas), as the (previous) khulafa` depended on it." Then he said to me, "O Abu Qilabah! What do you say about it?" He let me appear before the people and I said, "O Chief of the Believers! You have the chiefs of the army staff and the nobles of the Arabs. If fifty of them testified that a married man had committed illegal sexual intercourse in Damascus but they had not seen him (doing so), would you stone him?" He said, "No." I said, "If fifty of them testified that a man had committed theft in Hums, would you cut (off his hand) though they did not see him?" He replied, "No." I said, "By God, the Messenger of God never killed anyone except in one of the three situations:

(1) A person who killed somebody unjustly, was killed (in qisas)
(2) A married person who committed illegal sexual intercourse.
(3) A man who fought against God and his Messenger and deserted Islam."

Then some people said, "Didn't Anas bin Malik narrate that God’s Messenger cut off (the hands of some people) for theft, branded their eyes and then, threw them in the sun?" I said, "I relate to you the hadith of Anas. Anas related to me that eight persons from the tribe of 'Ukl came to God’s Messenger and gave the pledge of allegiance for Islam. The climate of the place (Medina) did not suit them, so they became sick and complained about that to God’s Messenger. He said (to them), "Won't you go out with the shepherd of our camels and drink of the camels' milk and urine (as medicine)?" They said, "Yes." So they went out and drank the camels' milk and urine, and after they became healthy, they killed the shepherd of God’s Messenger and took away all the camels. This news reached God’s Messenger, so he sent (men) to follow their traces and they were captured and brought (to the Prophet). He then ordered to cut their hands and feet, and their eyes were branded (with heated pieces of iron), and then he threw them in the sun till they died." I said, "What can be worse than what those people did? They deserted Islam, committed murder and theft."

Then ‘Anbasah bin Sa‘id said, "By God, I never heard (this narration) of today." I said, "O ‘Anbasah! You deny my narration?" He said, "No, but you have related the narration in the way it should be related. By God, these people will stay in a good condition as long as this Shaykh (Abu Qilabah) is among them." I added, "Indeed in this event there has been a tradition set by God’s Messenger. The narrator added: Some Ansari people came to the Prophet and discussed some matters with him; a man from amongst them went out and was murdered. Those people went out after him, and behold, their companion was swimming in blood. They returned to God’s Messenger and said to him, "O God’s Messenger, we have found our companion who had talked with us and gone out before us, swimming in blood." God’s Messenger went out and asked them, "Whom do you suspect or who do you think has killed him?" They said, "We think that the Jews have killed him." The Prophet sent for the Jews and asked them, "Did you kill this (person)?" They replied, "No." He asked al-Ansar, "Do you agree that I let fifty Jews take an oath that they have not killed him?" They said, "It matters little for the Jews to kill us all and then take false oaths." He said, "Then would you like to receive the diyah (blood-money) after fifty of you have taken an oath (that the Jews have killed your man)?" They said, "We will not take the oath." Then the Prophet himself paid them the diyah."

The narrator added, "The tribe of Hudhayl repudiated one of their men (for his evil conduct) in the pre-lslamic period of ignorance. Then, (at a place called) al-Batha', the man attacked a Yemenite family at night to steal from them, but a. man from the family noticed him and struck him with his sword and killed him. The tribe of Hudhayl came and captured the Yemenite and brought him to ‘Umar during the (hajj) season and said, "He has killed our companion." The Yemenite said, "But these people had repudiated him." ‘Umar said, "Let fifty persons of Hudhayl swear that they had not repudiated him." So forty-nine of them took the oath and then a person belonging to them, came from Sham and they requested him to swear, but he paid one-thousand dirhams instead of taking the oath. They called another man instead of him and this man went to the brother of the murdered man and shook hands with him. Some people said, "We and those fifty men who had taken the (false) oath set out, and when they reached (a place called) Nakhlah, it started raining. So they entered a cave in the mountain, and the cave collapsed on those fifty men who took the oath, and all of them died except the two persons who had shaken hands with each other. But a stone fell on the leg of the brother of the deceased and broke it, whereupon he survived for one year and then died." I further said, "‘Abd al-Malik bin Marwan sentenced a man to death on the basis of al-qasamah, but later on he regretted that judgment and ordered that the names of the fifty persons who had taken the oath, be erased from the register, and he exiled them in Sham." (Bukhari 9/37 = 6390)


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