Among the negative images of Islam is that apostasy is believed to be punishable by execution. The most recent example of this is in Iran where a pastor was convicted of apostasy and faces execution by hanging. Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was born to Muslim parents but did not practice Islam. He converted to Christianity when he was 19 and is now a pastor in the Protestant Evangelical Church of Iran. Nadrakhani was arrested in October 2009 when he protested that his son was forced to read from the Qur’an. Iranian state media, however, later reported that the real charges were rape, extortion, and security-related crimes. His case has received international attention and pressure has been put on the Iranian government to release him.
Nadarkhani’s story raises the question of apostasy and its consequences in Islam. The word in Arabic for apostasy is riddah, which means denouncing Islam as one’s religion. While the stereotype is that it is straightforward in Islam that the punishment is execution, more study of the topic shows that nuance is required to understand the diversity of opinion among scholars and the complexities of Islamic law.
Most scholars agree that the Qur’an maintains that apostasy is a sin, but it does not issue an earthly punishment for the offense. Rather, it postpones judgment to God. In verse 137 in chapter 4, the focus is on someone who believes and then recants that belief. The only punishment that is articulated is that God will not forgive or guide that person:
Those who believe then reject Faith, then believe (again) and (again) reject Faith and go on increasing in unbelief?Allah will not forgive them, nor guide them on the way.
Moreover, the Qur’an is quite clear that religion is not something that can be forced on an individual. The most commonly cited verse to illustrate this point is verse 256 in chapter 2 of the Qur’an:
Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from Error; whoever rejects Evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things.
Other verses that also demonstrate that faith is a choice are verse 29 in chapter 18 and verse 99 in chapter 10:
Say [O Muhammad], ‘The truth is from your Lord:’ Let him who wills believe it, and let him who wills, reject (it). (18:29)
If it had been your Lord’s will, they all would have believed – all who are on earth. Will you, then, compel the people, against their will, to believe? (10:99)
All these verses read together clearly show that there cannot be force or coercion in religion.
While the Qur’an does not articulate earthly punishments, early Islamic jurists have differed on whether there is a punishment for apostasy and what it constitutes. Jamal Badawi, a Canadian Muslim professor and scholar, maintains that scholars who hold the opinion that there is a punishment and that it is execution have based their position on hadith of the Prophet Muhammad. Badawi, however, disagrees with this position. First, he emphasizes that a hadith is not followed if it contradicts the Qur’anic text. Second, Badawi argues that the hadith that indicate that the Prophet ordered the execution of apostates for that crime alone are weak. Third, he explains that there is an authentic hadith which reflects what he sees as the Prophet’s real position on an apostate who does not carry out any crimes:
Jabir ibn `Abdullah narrated that a Bedouin pledged allegiance to the Apostle of Allah for Islam (i.e. accepted Islam) and then the Bedouin got fever whereupon he said to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) “cancel my pledge.” But the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) refused. He (the Bedouin) came to him (again) saying, “Cancel my pledge.” But the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) refused. Then he (the Bedouin) left (Medina). Allah’s Apostle said, “Madinah is like a pair of bellows (furnace): it expels its impurities and brightens and clear its good.”
If the punishment for apostasy were clearly execution, then the Prophet would have carried out the punishment. Instead, he lets the man to go. Badawi asserts that the question is not whether someone changes their belief, but if they actively fight against Muslims, by carrying out acts of murder and/or instilling terror in a people. For Badawi, this situation is where punishment by the state would be considered and that the punishment still would not only be for apostasy but would include other capital offenses that must be clearly proven in accordance with the strict guidelines in Islamic law.
For me, Badawi’s opinion, reflects the true nature of the faith and what has been recorded about the Prophet Muhammad. If someone no longer accepts Islam and they are not endangering the lives of Muslims or bringing harm to their property, then they should not face any consequences. In the case of Youcef Nadarkhani, I would argue, that he should be released and that Iran’s position does not represent Islam nor the complexities of its law.
What do you think of Youcef Nadarkhani’s case? Do you think that apostasy is a crime punishable by death in Islam? What do other faith traditions say about apostasy? Do you think that Iran is representative of Islam? Please share your comments below.