The Punishment Of Apostasy
The punishment of apostasy has arisen by misunderstanding a Hadith. This Hadith has been narrated by Ibn Abbas (rta) in the following way:
مَنْ بَدَّلَ دِينَهُ فَاقْتُلُوهُ
Execute the person who changes his faith.
Our jurists regard this verdict to have a general application for all times upon every Muslim who renounces his faith from the times of the Prophet (sws) to the Day of Judgement. In their opinion, this Hadith warrants the death penalty for every Muslim who, out of his own free will, becomes a disbeliever. In this matter, the only point in which there is a disagreement among the jurists is whether an apostate should be granted time for repentance before executing him, and if so what should be the extent of this period. The Hanafite jurists however, exempt women from this punishment. Apart from them, there is a general consensus among the jurists that every apostate, man or woman, should be punished by death.
In my opinion, this view of our jurists is not correct. The verdict pronounced in this Hadith has a specific application and not a general one: it is only confined to the people towards whom the Prophet (sws) had been directly sent to do itmam al-huujjah (conclusive communication of the truth). The Qur’an uses the words mushrikin for these people.
I now elaborate upon this view.
In this world, we are well aware of the fact that life has been endowed to us not because it is our right but because it is a trial and a test for us. Death puts an end to it whenever the duration of this test is over, as deemed by the Almighty. Commonly, He fixes the length of this period on the basis of His knowledge and wisdom. However, in case of the direct and foremost addressees of a rasul (Messenger of God), once the truth is unveiled to them in its ultimate form after which they have no excuse but stubbornness and enmity to deny it, they lose their right to live. The Almighty had blessed them with life to try and test them, and since after tmam al-hujjah this trial becomes totally complete, therefore the law of the Almighty in this regard is that generally such people are not given any further right to live and the death sentence is imposed upon them.
This punishment is enforced upon the direct addressees of a rasul in one of the two ways depending upon the situation which arises. In the first case, after doing itmam al-hujjah upon his nation, a rasul and his Companions (rta) are not able to achieve political ascendancy in their territory and migrate from their people. In this case, divine punishment descends upon their nation in the form of raging storms, cyclones and other calamities, which completely destroy them. The nations of the ‘Ād and the Thamud and the people of Noah (sws) and Lot (sws) besides many other nations met with this dreadful fate, as is mentioned in the Qur’an. In the second case, a rasul and his companions are able to acquire political ascendancy in a land where after doing ittmam al-hujjah upon their people they migrate. In this case, a rasul and his Companions subdue their nation by force, and execute them if they do not accept faith. It was this situation which had arisen in the case of the rasul Muhammad (sws). On account of this, the Almighty bade him declare that those people among the mushrikin who had not accepted faith until the day of hajj al-akbar (9th hijrah) should be given a final extension by a proclamation made in the field of ‘Arafat on that day. According to the proclamation, this final extension would end with the last day of the month of Muharram, during which they had to accept faith, or face execution at the end of that period. The Qur’an says:
فَاِذَا انۡسَلَخَ الۡاَشۡہُرُ الۡحُرُمُ فَاقۡتُلُوا الۡمُشۡرِکِیۡنَ حَیۡثُ وَجَدۡتُّمُوۡہُمۡ وَ خُذُوۡہُمۡ وَ احۡصُرُوۡہُمۡ وَ اقۡعُدُوۡا لَہُمۡ کُلَّ مَرۡصَدٍ ۚ فَاِنۡ تَابُوۡا وَ اَقَامُوا الصَّلٰوۃَ وَ اٰتَوُا الزَّکٰوۃَ فَخَلُّوۡا سَبِیۡلَہُمۡ ؕ اِنَّ اللّٰہَ غَفُوۡرٌ رَّحِیۡمٌ.(5:9)
When the forbidden months are over, slay the Idolaters wherever you find them. Seize them, besiege them and every where lie in ambush for them. But if they repent from their ill beliefs and establish the prayer and pay zakah , then spare their lives. God is Most-Forgiving and Ever-Merciful. (9:5)
A Hadith illustrates this law in the following manner:
أُمِرْتُ أَنْ أُقَاتِلَ النَّاسَ حَتَّي يَشْهَدُوا أَنْ لَا إِلَهَ إِلَّا اللّٰہُوَاَنَّ مُحَمَّدًا رَسُوْلُ اللّٰہِوَيُقِيمُوا الصَّلَاةَ وَيُؤْتُوا الزَّكَاةَ فَتِذَا فَعَلُوا ذَلِكَ عَصَمُوا مِنِّي دِمَاءَهُمْ وَأَمْوَالَهُمْ إِلَّا بِحَقِّ الْإِسْلَامِ وَحِسَابُهُمْ عَلَي اللّٰہِ
I have been directed to wage war against these people until they testify to the oneness of God and to the prophethood of Muhammad, establish the prayer and pay zakah . If they accept these terms, their lives will be spared except if they commit some violation that makes them lose this protection from Islamic law and [in the Hereafter] their account rests with God.
This law, as has been stated before, is specifically meant for the mushrikin on whom Muhammad (sws) had directly done itmam al-hujjah. Apart from them, it has no bearing upon any other person or nation. So much so, that even the people of the Book who were present in his times were exempted from this law by the Qur’an. Consequently, where the death penalty for the mushrikin is mentioned in the Qur’an, adjacent to it has also been stated in unequivocal terms that the People of the Book shall be spared and granted citizenship if they pay jizyah. The Qur’an says:
قَاتِلُوا الَّذِیۡنَ لَا یُؤۡمِنُوۡنَ بِاللّٰہِ وَ لَا بِالۡیَوۡمِ الۡاٰخِرِ وَلَا یُحَرِّمُوۡنَ مَا حَرَّمَ اللّٰہُ وَ رَسُوۡلُہٗ وَ لَا یَدِیۡنُوۡنَ دِیۡنَ الۡحَقِّ مِنَ الَّذِیۡنَ اُوۡتُوا الۡکِتٰبَ حَتّٰی یُعۡطُوا الۡجِزۡیَۃَ عَنۡ یَّدٍ وَّ ہُمۡ صٰغِرُوۡنَ.(29:9)
Fight against those among the people of the Book who neither believe in God nor in the Last Day, and who do not forbid what God and His Prophet have forbidden and do not accept the religion of truth as their own religion, until they pay jizyah out of subjugation and lead a life of submission. (9:29)
The foregoing discussion outlines a law of the Almighty. There is a natural corollary to this divine law as obvious as the law itself. As stated earlier, the death penalty had been imposed upon these mushrikin if they did not accept faith after a certain period. Hence, it follows that if a person among the mushrikin after accepting faith reverted to his original state of disbelief, he had to face the same penalty. Indeed, it is this reversion about which the Prophet (sws) is reported to have said: “Execute the person who changes his faith.”
The relative pronoun “who” in the above quoted Hadith qualifies the mushrikin of the times of the Prophet (sws) just as the words “the people’ (al-nas) in the Hadith quoted earlier are specifically meant for the mushrikin. When the basis of this law as narrated in these Ahadith has been specified in the Qur’an, then quite naturally this specification should also be sustained in the corollary of the law. Our jurists have committed the cardinal mistake of not relating the relative pronoun “who” in the Hadith “Execute the person who changes his faith” with its basis in the Qur’an as they have done in the case of “the people” (al-nas) of the Hadith quoted above. Instead of interpreting the Hadith in the light of the relationship between the Qur’an and Hadith, they have interpreted it in the absolute sense, totally against the context of the Qur’an. Consequently, in their opinion the verdict pronounced in the Hadith has a general and an unconditional application. They have thereby incorporated in the Islamic Penal Code a punishment which has no basis in the shari‘ah.
(Javed Ahmed Ghamidi)
(Translated by Dr Shehzad Saleem)
. Al-Bukhari, Al-Jami‘ al-sahih, vol. 3, 1098, (no. 2854).
. Muslim, Al-Jami‘ al-sahih, vol. 1, 53, (no. 22).
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