Death for Apostasy: Is it Islamic?

An opinion piece was recently published in the blog of the Foreign Policy Association. The  article, written by a well meaning Muslim attorney, was in response to Iranian Pastor Youcef  Nadarkhani who was convicted of apostasy and sentenced to death. The author makes the argument that Pastor Youcef should go free because there is no support in Islam for the crime of apostasy. I disagree.

The author errs in concluding that the Quran is the final source of authority for the faith and practice of Islam. She concludes further that if a practice cannot be supported from the Quran alone, that practice is illegitimate.

While I appreciate her position that Pastor Youcef should be released, her assertion that there is no support in Islam for punishing apostates is erroneous. She uses a Quran-only approach to reach her conclusion. In other words, if it cannot be supported by the Quran, it is not part of Islam. A Quran-only approach is untenable.

Muslims Must Follow the Quran and Muhammad

The Quran itself commands Muslims to obey Muhammad. Note the following verses from the Quran:

Sura 4:80  “He who obeys the Messenger obeys Allah: But if any turn away, We have not sent thee to watch over their (evil deeds).”

Sura 24:54 “Say: Obey Allah and obey the Messenger, but if you turn away, he is only responsible for the duty placed on him and you for that placed on you. If you obey him, you shall be on the right guidance.”

Sura 64:12 “Obey Allah and obey the messenger, but if you turn away then the duty of our Messenger is only to convey.”

Sura 47:33 “Oh you who believe: Obey Allah and obey the Messenger and render not your deeds vain.”

Sura 3:132 “And obey Allah and the Messenger that you may obtain mercy.”

Not to belabor the point, but the same can be found in Sura 4:59, 8:1, 5:92, 3:32, 24:56, 8:46, and 33:33. If one can obtain mercy only by following Allah and his messenger, how is one supposed to know what the messenger said or did, in order to follow him? If one can only be rightly guided by following Allah and his messenger, how is one to obtain guidance without knowing what Muhammad provided as guidance?

The guidance of Muhammad is found only in hadith, not Quran

The faith and practice of Muslims derives not solely from the Quran, but from the hadith also. For example, Sunni Muslims pray five times a day, but from where do they obtain authority for this practice? It is not in the Quran; it is found in the example set by Muhammad and recorded in the hadith. How do Muslims know how many prostrations are required for each of the daily prayers? Again, not from the Quran but from the hadith. Even the foundational pillar of Islam, the shahada or confession of faith, comes from the hadith and not the Quran. Nowhere in the Quran is an injunction found whereby Muslims must repeat the words, “I confess there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” When Muslims engage in certain ritual practices during the hajj, these practices are not stipulated in the Quran and can only be found recorded in the hadith.

In his book “The Authority And Importance of the Sunnah,” Sheikh Jamaal al-Din M. Zarabozo  states, “Allah clearly commands obedience not only to Himself but also to His Messenger. Many of these verses are addressed explicitly addressed to believers, ‘O you who believe.’ This means that the command to obey and follow the Messenger (peace be upon him) was not just restricted to the Prophet’s lifetime and to his Companions. Instead, the command is addressed to everyone who claims to be a believer.”[1] The Sheikh further notes, “Indeed, there is no real Islam without the Sunnah. The Prophet (peace be upon him) explained the Quran. Without his explanation and implementation of the Quran, there would be no way for anyone to know exactly and correctly how the Quran is to be applied. In other words, Allah revealed the Quran but He revealed it in such a way that it cannot be divorced from the sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him). Any claims or attempts to do so are nothing but folly.”[2]

In the hadith collection of Imam Nasa’I, the introduction to the science of hadith contains states the following: “The Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad is therefore, next to Qur’an, the second source of Islamic law and social and personal behavior. In fact we must regard the Sunnah as the only valid explanation of the Qur’anic teachings and the only means to avoid dissensions concerning their interpretation and adaptation to practical use. The Messenger of Allah said ‘I am leaving you two things amongst you after my death… the one is the Qur’an and the other is my sunnah or Hadith.’ Following hadith therefore is as important as following the injunctions of Qur’an, without which the religion of Islam would be incomplete and would create dissensions among the believers.”

Thus, in practical terms, the hadith serves as more an authority than perhaps even the Quran for the daily practices of Islam.

The Hadith contains explicit punishment for apostasy

The hadith, or Sunnah of Muhammad, is replete with examples of the punishment required for apostasy.

Narrated Ikrima: Ali burnt some people and this news reached Ibn ‘Abbas, who said, “Had I been in his place I would not have burnt them, as the Prophet said, ‘Don’t punish (anybody) with Allah’s Punishment.’ No doubt, I would have killed them, for the Prophet said, ‘If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him.’ ” Sahih al-Bukhari, volume 4, book 52, hadith 260.

Narrated ‘Abdullah:
Allah’s Apostle said, “The blood of a Muslim who confesses that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that I am His Apostle, cannot be shed except in three cases: In Qisas for murder, a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse and the one who reverts from Islam (apostate) and leaves the Muslims.” Sahih al-Bukhari, volume 9, book 83, hadith 17

Narrated ‘Ikrima
Some Zanadiqa (atheists) were brought to ‘Ali and he burnt them. The news of this event, reached Ibn ‘Abbas who said, “If I had been in his place, I would not have burnt them, as Allah’s Apostle forbade it, saying, ‘Do not punish anybody with Allah’s punishment (fire).’ I would have killed them according to the statement of Allah’s Apostle, ‘Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him.'” Sahih al-Bukhari, volume 9, book 84, hadith 57

Narrated Abu Musa: A man embraced Islam and then reverted back to Judaism. Mu’adh bin Jabal came and saw the man with Abu Musa. Mu’adh asked, “What is wrong with this (man)?” Abu Musa replied, “He embraced Islam and then reverted back to Judaism.” Mu’adh said, “I will not sit down unless you kill him (as it is) the verdict of Allah and His Apostle  Sahih al-Bukhari, volume 9, book 89, hadith 271

‘Abdullah (b. Mas’ud) reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: It is not permissible to take the life of a Muslim who bears testimony (to the fact that there is no god but Allah, and I am the Messenger of Allah), but in one of the three cases: the married adulterer, a life for life, and the deserter of his Din (Islam), abandoning the community.  Sahih Muslim, hadith 4152

It has been reported on the authority of Abu Musa who said: I went to the Holy Prophet (may peace be upon him) and with me were two men from the Ash’ari tribe. One of them was on my right hand and the other on my left. Both of them made a request for a position (of authority) while the Holy Prophet (may peace be upon him) was brushing his teeth with a tooth-stick. He said (to me): Abu Musa (or ‘Abdullah b. Qais), what do you say (about the request they have made)? I said: By God Who sent thee on thy mission with truth, they did not disclose to me what they had in their minds, and I did not know that they would ask for a position. The narrator says (while recalling this hadith): I visualise as if I were looking at the miswak of the Holy Prophet (may peace be upon him) between his lips. He (the Holy Prophet) said: We shall not or shall never appoint to the public offices (in our State) those who with to have them, but you may go, Abu Musa (or Abdullah b. Qais) (to take up your assignment). He sent him to Yemen as governor. then he sent Mu’adh b. jabal in his wake (to help him in the discharge of duties). When Mu’adh reached the camp of Abu Musa, the latter (received him and) said: Please get yourself down; and he spread for him a mattress, while there was a man bound hand and foot as a prisoner. Mu’adh said: Who is this? Abu Musa said: He was a Jew. He embraced Islam. Then he reverted to his false religion and became a Jew. Mu’adh said: I won’t sit until he is killed according to the decree of Allah and His Apostle (may peace be upon him) (in this case). Abu Musa said: Be seated. It will be done. He said: I won’t sit unless he is killed in accordance with the decree of Allah and His Apostle (may peace be upon him). He repeated these words thrice. Then Abu Musa ordered him (to be killed) and he was killed. Then the two talked of standing in prayer at night. One of them, i. e. Mu’adh, said: I sleep (for a part of the night) and stand in prayer (for a part) and I hope that I shall get the same reward for sleeping as I shall get for standing (in prayer).  Sahih Muslim, hadith 4490.

Many more examples could be quoted here. Suffice it to say that the killing of apostates has authoritative sanction from the life of Muhammad as recorded by his closest companions and recorded in the hadith.


Although the Quran is silent regarding a penalty for apostasy from Islam, the Quran is not the only source of authority for the faith and practice of Muslims. The sunnah, or example set by Muhammad as recorded in the hadith, are just as authoritative as the Quran. Indeed, many of the practices of Islam derive not from the Quran, but from the hadith. And the hadith does indeed contain injunctions against apostasy given by Muhammad himself, with death as the prescribed penalty.

The author of the article on Foreign Policy Blogs supports her assertion with an incomplete and inaccurate explanation of Islam.

[1] Jamaal al-Din M. Zarabozo, The Authority and Importance of the Sunnah (Denver: Al-Basheer Company, 2000), p. 44.

[2] Ibid., p. 146.

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3 responses to “Death for Apostasy: Is it Islamic?”

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  1. Sahar Said says:

    I, the writer of the article you quote here, agree with your position that the Sunnah of the Prophet provide us with a lot of guidance in Islam – one of which is the practice of the five daily prayers. That said, it is Islamic Jurisprudence that anything contrary to the Qur’an cannot be considered a valid Sunna/Hadith. The way we say our prayers is not described in the Qur’an – and the way it is practiced (kneeling, bowing) is not rejected by any Ayah in the Qur’an, therefore, it is a valid and tenable Sunnah.

    The Hadith quoted by you are all stories of the companions saying they shall not sit where there is an apostate, until he is killed, because they believe that is the way of God and his Messenger.

    The only Hadith quoted in both Sahih Bukhari and Muslim (differing slightly in language) that is supposedly a direct quote of the Prophet is: ” but in one of the three cases: the married adulterer, a life for life, and the deserter of his Din (Islam), abandoning the community.” This only further proves my point – you cannot kill unless it is for one of the three reasons, the third of which is a “deserter of Islam – abandoning the community.”

    This strengthens my argument of the fact that if he has abandoned Islam and is turning against the community, that is when he is liable to death – not for JUST abandoning the religion.

    I appreciate your insight, and hope that I have been able to make my point clearer.

  2. Joe says:

    Sahar, I apologize for not approving this sooner. Some how it fell into the ‘spam’ folder of my blog instead of posted comments awaiting approval. I appreciate your comments.

    I must, however, still disagree with you. I believe you are engaging in a practice I find in my conversations with many Muslims. You are creating an Islam in the image you wish it to be, rather than what it actually is. All 7,327 ahadith of al-Bukhari have been vetted for accuracy and reliability; that is why his collection and that of Imam Muslim earn the title of ‘sahih.’ So when Muhammad is quoted saying, “Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him” (Bukhari 9:84:57), your own desires to minimize this quote of Muhammad is intellectual dishonesty. He said it unambiguously, if the ‘sahih’ hadith can be trusted; if they can’t, then we need to toss all hadith, without which there would be no Islam.

  3. Hasini says:

    That’s a sensible answer to a chlaienglng question