The Old ‘Punishment for Apostasy is Death’ Chestnut


It is easy to watch the above video for just 23 seconds (to hear that in Islam, apostasy means death) then stop, pack our bags, go home with our understanding that Islam is a wicked religion and have our prejudice against Islam, confirmed.

If we continue to watch after 23 seconds, suddenly we realise there is a bit more to understand.

This is Assim Al-Hakeem and in summary, the content of his talk after 23 seconds is as follows:

1. Not anyone can mete out the judgment for apostasy.

2. The ‘procedure’ must be understood first.

3. He gives an example: If a random person says ‘I don’t believe anymore’, can we kill him? No.

4. The ‘Procedure’ = i) check that the condition has been fulfilled; ii) check that the criteria can be made to NOT apply to this person [as a fail-safe].

5. How is the ‘Procedure’ performed? a) a panel of Muslim judges/scholars to question the person, first, to try and persuade them out of apostasy; b) if he still insists to apostatise, the verdict is given ONLY by the Muslim ruler (the ‘Imam’, meaning ‘leader’ – not ‘Imam’, meaning ‘the normal guy that leads the prayer’); c) then the Muslim ruler must make a decision.

6. Al-Hakeem then gives random, modern anecdotes of people applying and meting out judgements against perceived-apostates on a day-to-day level. This is blatantly wrong. The doer of that action could end up in hell! Because the layman does not have the right to issue takfir (identify and confirm in a legal sense that a person is a kaffir (‘The one that covers the Truth’/  ‘unbeliever’/ ‘disbeliever’).

7. Never do anything without knowledge. One must be really careful when dealing with these things.

Now, there is something very important that is not noted in this video. Check out the next link to contextualise the issue:


This is Dr Jonathan Brown. He makes mention of a few things that adds nuance to the discussion:

A) Examples from the time of the Prophet give a different picture:

Bi) The Story of Abdallah Ibn Sa’ad, who came to the town; became Muslim; then became a scribe for the Prophet amongst other scribes;  decided to leave Islam and went back to Mecca; He wrote works that insulted Islam; later on he became Muslim again; later still he was made governor of Egypt!

[Bii) Another account of Al-Ma’arri is sketched out by Humza Yusuf, elsewhere. Watch this HERE from 1:50. (Please note that at 1:18 to 1:45, HY contests the part-simplistic/part-false method as outlined on Wikipedia, which seems to be a caricature of Al-Hakeem’s method.)]

C) The account Bi and Bii) does not concur with the death penalty offence of apostasy, as indicated above. Why?

D) During life of the Prophet and early Islamic history [presumably, the time of the first four caliphs]: “I can’t think of any person who is actually killed for leaving Islam.” This is significant.

E) Dr Brown explains that this difference was because of the way they [in the classical period of Muslim history] understood apostasy to be more a matter of ‘allegiance to the religious-polity’ rather than about personal conscience.

F) People’s private convictions was never really a problem in Muslim history. What they were more careful about was ‘public behaviour’ because of the threat to social order.

G) That is why contemporary scholars (i.e. Y. Qaradawy, A. Gomaa and others) make an interesting distinction:

It used to be a given that allegiance/identity was tied to your religious-polity. In the Medieval period, Christians belonged to ‘Christendom’ and in the classical period, Muslims belonged to ‘Dar us-Salaam’ [Abode of Peace]. And so leaving that religion was a possible act of treason to that polity.

But now we have to distinguish the fact that in the modern period, our world is not like that. Allegiance/identity is not now tied to a religious-polity as it used to be, but rather it is now tied to the modern nation-state/culture.

H) So crimes of apostasy (if it is to do with religious conviction) need not be dealt with as severely. So the crime of apostasy that is considered dangerous to scholars today is really nothing to do with changes of religious conviction but to do with political crimes against the state, which we know as ‘High Treason’.

CONCLUSION – So does apostasy mean death in Islam? It depends on what you mean by apostasy… And even then, not necessarily.


Part 3

Dr Brown’s conclusion is interesting. And I agree with his reasoning. However, the real issue underlying the tensions about allegiance and identity in the modern period – to which Dr Brown alludes – for Muslims – and for non-Muslims alike (and the arguments/debates within each camp and across them) – is the same:   Modernity.

But that is a whole other can of worms…


FOR a further referenced discussion, please read Proof of Life for the Apostate in Islam




Filed under Thought-Comments

59 responses to “The Old ‘Punishment for Apostasy is Death’ Chestnut

  1. I think dr. Browns point (e) is really important. There was no such thing as desperation of religion and state. So to rebel against the religion was an act of treason against the state. Interesting how people who commit treason in the ‘west’ today are treated as criminals. To bad – as you said – people rather have quick superficial answers. God bless!!


    • Agreed. Dr Brown’s point (E) is fundamental.

      The need for people to have ‘quick superficial answers’ is the spirit of the age – like fast food – we need to eat a quick bite of info and think we know and go: it looks good, tastes good, you’re happy because the jingoism in the adverts told you that you’re part of an ideological brand of view – but it’s so unhealthy, too much of it will end up making your blood boil and give you a heart attack.

      This point applies to Muslims and non Muslims btw. We’re all affected. It takes time and careful study to really get to understand something important. And I’ve merely tried to navigate through the views of experts. I might be wrong. Allah knows best.

      With the advent of modern nation-states, we have a different set of problems. But I’ll save that for a rainy day.


      Jzk for your perceptive words.


      • hahaha. Words taken out of my mouth!! Im actually doing my graduate work on this so im trying to navigate through it all too!!

        Many blessings and thank you for bringing to light a more honest and nuanced view 🙂


      • Jazakallahu khairan.

        (Perhaps you might open a blog following your graduate work, or charting your thoughts after its finished. Sounds very intriguing. Just an idea 😉 )


      • Hyde

        ‘quick superficial answers’ that phrase describes the entire damn world we see today. Probably the unseen world is still keeping pace with the old.


      • You said it brother!

        Quick, quick, hurry, hurry, now, now, my, time, what, happened.

        Modernity happened.


  2. In this Arabic video, titled “Penalty for Apostasy: Haddiyyah [mandatory, not negotiable] or Ta‘zeeriyyah [negotiable, versatile]?” the international Egyptian speaker Fadel Soliman (who is a former member and current supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and would thus have no axe to grind) voices the exact same tack, mentions uncanonical schools of thoughts that did not touch upon rulings on apostasy (e.g., al-Awzā‘i, al-Layth ibn Sa‘d, and Dawood az-Zāhiri), and adds that Imam Abu Haneefa stipulated death only for male apostates because women do not engage in combat, implying that the term “apostasy” was a matter of a political threat to the Islamic state and was not so facilely about mere, peaceful public recantation of Islam. To boot, later Hanafi scholars even reprieved 14 types of male apostates.

    Advocates of the death penalty rely on the hadeeth “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 religion, ABANDONING THE COMMUNITY” ( Ibn Taymiyyah, in his book as-Sārim al-Maslool ‘Alā Shātim ar-Rasool, makes reference to an opinion (although he himself does not appear to hold it) that superimposes on this hadeeth another in which the third category is replaced, and thus clarified, by “the one who goes forth to fight with Allah and His Apostle, in which case he should be killed or crucified or exiled from the land” (, which is the known penalty for hirābah, or highway robbery, inter alia, found in Quran 5:33.

    As for the hadeeth “Whoever changes his religion, kill him,” where advocates of the death penalty for apostasy have taken “religion” to refer to Islam, Soliman says it is instead ambiguous and does not necessarily refer to Islam, and that some scholars ascribe it to a Jewish conspiracy in the Prophet’s time to keep embracing and leaving Islam so as to undermine it as a feeble new religion and so that the so-called apostates would have more credence when attacking Islam than do Jewish outsiders who had never embraced it, especially that Jews were generally considered a gauge of claims of prophecy. Thereupon the Prophet decreed any conversion, whether out of or into Islam, tentatively impermissible. To this also attests Quran 3:72, describing the Jewish plot: “A party of the People of the Book said: ‘Believe in the morning what has been revealed to those who believe, and then deny it in the evening that they may retract (from their faith).'”

    I’m definitely no authority on Islamic jurisprudence and do not mean to fall back on sophistry with this, but I think we are fain to defer to the Prophet’s paramount exhortation to ward off hadd penalties by the presence of ambiguities. So, seeing as the two stances at stake seem at least equally cogent, human lives are worthier of protection than is daftness about a purportedly traditional stance and than is the parvanimous notion that the more stringent, the more Islamic and the more “salafi.”

    He carries on for a few more minutes, but my time is tight. You keep up these edifying rundowns. =)


    • Jazakallahu khairan for this feedback. The first hadith for the death penalty, I’ve heard of, from Islamwich’s post (referenced at the end of my post) – but you add further details that strengthen the overall point.

      I am aware of the Jewish plots from Madinan history – but the possible connection of this to the second hadith is very interesting.

      And your statement to “defer to the Prophet’s paramount exhortation to ward off hadd penalties by the presence of ambiguities” is – or should be – the slogan for those in positions of authority, God help them!

      Now, you have touched on an important point here about “the more stringent” apparently equals “the more Islamic”… But – like you – not the time now to deal with it. Yes, time is short. But let me pause for a moment and ponder on your superb use of the word ‘parvanimous’… Nice! MashaAllah 😀


  3. Hehehe! =) It has come in by email from Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Day just yesterday. Great classic words everyday.


  4. Enjoyed the post. Attacking the topic in stages, what a great way to expound on a particularly difficult issue. In fact, it reminds me of the sunnah of Allah. Perhaps it was your point to mimic the perfection of the creator.
    Thank you for siting my blog post. I feel it pales in comparison to yours.
    Alas, I have some thoughts of my own *quick, someone shut the woman up!*
    1- “The need for people to have ‘quick superficial answers’ is the spirit of the age – like fast food” Have we, in the modern age, not been taught by our various governments not to dig to deeply? Our addiction to superficial answers is perhaps less dangerous to their agendas (also boosts Fox News rating) and more satisfying to our nature to want to be coddled.
    2. “Abu Haneefa stipulated death only for male apostates because women do not engage in combat” — I know it was beside the point that the brother was making. but seriously, must we marginalized the female scholars, soldiers, and benefactors in our rich Islamic history at every turn? Would that Aisha (ra) were alive so that she would set folks straight like she did back in the day.
    3. I am listening a third thing because why make a list if there is no third thing?
    Keep compound, complex answers alive, I am addicted.


    • You’re right. There are many threats that women can pose to a state in disciplines other than warfare and that were reckoned without. Or, contrariwise, it may actually bespeak how men’s prowess is all down to muscle and the rest is left to women! But that was the ethos back in the day even for the non-Muslim world.


    • Hyde

      Politely I would disagree with you on “pale in comparison part”.


    • Jazakillahu khairan sister for your feedback.

      “I feel it pales in comparison…” Don’t be absurd, sister. Yours has detailed references to a variety of ahadith (sources included) and commentary on isnad. Even your comments section on that post was valuable. I feel I wanted to complement yours with a alternative approach so the overall series of points you made is supported from another angle. I find time and again (alhamdulillah) that there is never a need to argue forced or contrived points (the points are always so self-evident once they are known). And that is the point: to make them known, at least. Should we not see each other as striving for the same task and not approach this task as though we’re alone in the wilderness, as isolated voices in the darkness? This way, we will be better able to simply present/relay the case in as succinct a way as possible that WE are able to. And we might be heard. Or not. (And we might need our errors corrected by others, after contesting and testing their validity, this way, which is fine. Let us, inshaAllah, put our egos at the door. We can only do what we can do. Alhamdulillah.)

      I completely agree with your no.1 point.

      If you have a link-post, perhaps, to your point no.2, feel free to supply it here. No problem. And very fascinating.

      Here’s a contrived point for you: Is your point 3. a Muslim case for the justification of Trinitarianism? Lol. Only kidding.:-)


      • For point # 2 here is a good link, it talks about early female companions who fought in the battles alongside men. I hope this is a well known fact. But it also highlights women in later centuries of the Islamic empire who were scholars and even rulers, and they were -surprise, surprise- very influential. I know the brothers’ point was to quote Abu Hanifa about apostasy only being punishable offense for men, which I disagree for anyone. But the point in not punishing women was, to boil it down, because women can have no effect because they have no agency. Which is just not true. Although we have come to a place in Islam where we have whittled away so many rights that Islam brought to women that it may seem that women have no agency in their lives, community, or Islamic society at large.
        #3 indeed I have been indoctrinated at the alter of higher learning to perpetuate the trinitary list or forever perish in grammar purgatory.


      • Jzk khr sis. I will check this out shortly, ia

        In terms of #3, it seems the Manichean heresy of ‘Either/or’ has lost out.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. David Kemball-Cook

    Brown says that apostasy back then is more like high treason today. The implication is that apostasy nowadays is not worthy of the death penalty, as it is not treasonable to change one’s religion.

    If that is so, why is the death penalty for changing one’s religion required by all Islamic schools of law?


    • Assuming that the “death penalty for changing one’s religion” nowadays “[is] required by ALL Islamic schools of law,” (emphasis mine) I guess, one might try to understand the answer to your question, as follows:

      1. The fact is that even ‘back then’ the death penalty for apostasy was the huduud punishment (the maximum penalty). However, the default position when pronouncing a verdict is NOT the huduud punishment in Islamic law – which is nearly always (deliberately or not) misunderstood by some. The point of the huduud is supposed to serve as a serious deterrent.

      2. The analogy Brown makes that the type of ‘apostasy’ that is more likely to require the death penalty are those that resemble ‘high treason’ is used to explain ‘nowadays’ what has always been the case.

      3. Presumably the 5a stage during the ‘Procedure’ as briefly expounded by Al-Hakeem (above) is the moment where Judges make a verdict whether to mete out the huduud or a lesser punishment or whether to forgive, depending on the nature of the apostate’s ‘apostasy’. Islamically speaking, Judges are taught to make excuses for – and think up clever ways of NOT meting out the hudud – which, I guess is the point of stage 4ii and 5a.

      4. Of course, the system falls apart if a) the judges are corrupt and bow to political pressure of rulers and States or b) are intellectually inept.

      5. However, the actual / non-theoretical case studies given already (above) of the Prophet’s (s) leniency is significant.

      6. If you prefer to talk directly to Prof. Brown, for a more informed response, please feel free to do so:

      I hope this helps, God-Willing. Peace.


      • David Kemball-Cook

        Thanks for this detailed reply
        But I don’t understand why there should be ANY punishment at all for changing one’s religion.


      • Howdi.

        1. Perhaps the clue might lie in what we mean by ‘religion’, which is a word from the lingua-cultural root of Medieval French via Latin. Even the modern understanding of ‘religion’ might differ from its original meaning and its meaning might have altered in different stages over time. By ‘religion’ are we talking about conscience, ethics, spirituality, personal conviction, political affiliation, traditional-cultural affinity…? I suspect the individual characterised by that definition that veers towards the changing of political affiliation to one that is (actively) hostile to the Islamic ambit might lend itself to deserving punishment. Common sense, right?

        2. A European (historical) equivalent as a point of comparison ONLY (and is not meant as a replacement meaning) – just so you can see a possible connection – is the term ‘renegade’ [“1580s, “apostate,” … from Spanish renegado, originally “Christian turned Muslim,” from Medieval Latin renegatus, noun use of past participle of renegare “deny” (see renege). General sense of “turncoat” is from 1660s.” From etymonline.]

        When we think of renegades now we think of (active) political ‘turncoats’ (and incidentally and slightly off topic – ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ comes to mind. Lol!) – And yet the term is really a religio-cultural one that designates the political. This term was used when the Spanish Inquisition were hunting ethnically Spanish Muslims from what was once Muslim Spain after the brutal Frankish-Christian takeover. Such an attitude is not indicative of what all religions do (but what Roman Catholic Christianity once did); Muslim Spain under early Muslim rule and culture did famously allow a magnificent flourishing of Christians, Muslims and Jews working effectively together, heralding the Renaissance of Europe; this positivity is, I believe, a legacy of the Prophetic ideal. But because of the political threat of Muslims (and Jews) to the Franks (without the toleration of the Prophetic guidance) they ALL (men, women, children) had to be wiped out (forced conversions, expulsions, death).

        3. Btw, ‘Deen’ in Arabic is often mistranslated as ‘Religion’. Deen means ‘Way of life’, which is a more holistic conception and encompasses all spheres of life, including the ‘political’. So if a Muslim rebels and changes their political stance to one that is (actively) against the Islamic polity, then you might begin to see why “changing ‘religion’” really might mean ‘changing one’s politics against the state’ and might deserve punishment as an act of high treason. Please note that the state in the Prophetic and Rashidun period is not as totalitarian as the Modern nation state, so we ought to be careful/considered with our comparisons when attempting to understand what is an ‘Islamic polity’ nowadays.

        4. If I’ve communicated anything incorrectly, then that is my error in understanding or expression. Please note, I am not an Islamically trained judge – so this is my (fallible) attempt in understanding/explaining.

        5. P.S. Have you contacted Prof. Brown about your queries?


      • David Kemball-Cook

        No I have not contacted Brown, because his views were pretty clear on that clip. The laws against apostasy were for a different time, and are no longer valid (as I understood him).

        I am talking about today, not what people may have thought about ‘renegades’ in the past. In that sense you have not answered my question.
        Why can’t a Muslim, in (say) Saudi Arabia or in the US or Britain, decide to change his religion to (say) Christianity without being killed?



      • Q: Why can’t a Muslim, in the US or Britain, decide to change his religion to (say) Christianity without being killed?

        A: They can. Who’s gonna kill them? (Note, the rules about who’s allowed to issue the judgement, above.) There’s something absurd in this question, David. Your Saudi Arabia one is, at least, a more plausible question to ask, right?

        Q: Why can’t a Muslim, in Saudi Arabia decide to change his religion to (say) Christianity without being killed?

        A: I’ll have to get back to you on this one, as I’m not an expert on (and care little about) the Saudis. Muslims refer back to the example of the Prophet – and not the example of the Saudis – to ascertain how a Muslim ought to conduct oneself… i.e. to answer questions that begin with ‘why can’t a Muslim…’

        So, does the Saudi system 1) kill Muslims willy-nilly for changing religion? Or 2) kill them if there was a political, (treasonable) threat proved?

        If the answer is 1), then please help us to let the Saudis and others know by-the-by that the example of the Prophet (s) differs from the practice that is apparently the case nowadays, as already referenced by Professor Brown and Hamza Yusuf (above).



      • David Kemball-Cook

        There was a recent report of a Saudi man who emigrated to NZ, converted to Christianity, and was then abducted back to Saudi Arabia

        You must know how many Islamic countries have the death penalty for apostasy, at least six I think. You remember the Sudanese woman who was shackled in prison while giving birth.

        But there don’t seem to be many (any) Muslims telling these countries that their death penalties are contrary to Islam. How could they, given that the death penalty is there according to all Islamic schools of law?



      • It’s a rather acrimonious issue in Egypt and, to the best of my experience, most people seem ambivalent about it, not least because they are not so keen on formal, rigorous knowledge of the minutiae of the Islamic tradition at large, not just apropos of apostasy. It’s quite a dreary state of affairs, yes, and it is thus not right to appeal to the majority’s fallible cognizance – in such a chaotic society – to pass a judgement on such a subtle issue. That said, it is not really a quotidian pressing concern for Muslims and Christians in Egypt, and the coup’s constitution – not that the constitution’s lip service to sharia has ever packed a punch – does not dictate the death penalty.

        There is actually the Muslim preacher I commented on above, who, to reiterate, was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, is still associated informally with it, and supports a caliphate. Forgive me, but you seem to be going round the houses when I think you’ve been duly answered by the blogger. If you insist that the Muslim world is not, or has never been, perfect in these terms, be our guest, because we will agree with you. But the point here is what Islam is in theory (regarding which I think you’ve been thoroughly answered), however divorced the actual application or lack thereof may be.

        Liked by 1 person

      • PS: There is no way a bona fide modern-day scholar of Islam would explicitly say that in theory the unity of Muslim-majority countries worldwide under one polity is not an obligation. But they presently aren’t and, in fact, have not been rightly so since the 9th century AD. Why do you seem wont to force the status quo to define Islam? It doesn’t work that way, tout court. The same is true for human rights charters, conventions, etc., and for the death penalty for apostasy.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. PS: And there aren’t many Muslims actively and directly working for the caliphate, either. Does this status quo somehow consign to oblivion this Islamic injunction? Obviously not.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. David Kemball-Cook

    Thanks both of you.
    Please let me get this straight. I think that you are saying that ‘in theory’ there should be no punishment in Islam for changing one’s religion, but ‘in practice’ there is the death penalty.

    If this is what you are saying, then let me say that it is an unsatisfactory state of affairs, and it shows that there is something seriously wrong with Islam today.



    • You are welcome, Mr. David.

      There is something wrong with Muslims today, indubitably. And I myself have just said, “It’s quite a dreary state of affairs.” There is, and there has always been, something wrong with everything in this imperfect world. You need only open a history book.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Just to add to br Muhammad’s comments: I agree with much of what you’ve said here – except “there is something seriously wrong with Islam today” should read “there is something seriously wrong with Muslims today”: Islam is the theory (based on Qur’an and Sunnah (the practice/demonstration by Prophets as guides); Islam is not (determined by) the practice of Muslims – and certainly not nowadays.


      • Saudi Arabia, the soi-disante bone fide super-ultra-uber-conservative patriarchal Islamic state that prescribes death for apostates is also a hereditary monarchy, is arguably the US’s foremost ally in the region next to Israel, and permits usury – things that actually ruin many more lives than the aforementioned penalty for apostasy may ever take. But, it is Islam that there is something wrong with withal.


      • David Kemball-Cook

        Yes, lots of things are wrong all over the world. But this post was about the death penalty for apostasy.

        I repeat my point that there is something wrong with a religion that enforces it.


      • And on that we are in perfect concordance, Mr. David. Sincere apologies if I were rudely trenchant.


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