Despite a majority consensus within traditional Islamic law that apostasy–abandoning one’s religion—is punishable by death, the Qur’an doesn’t make a single mention of any worldly punishment. There’s also no reliable evidence that the Prophet Muhammad ever imposed the death penalty on apostates. So why is apostasy widely considered to be a crime punishable by death in Islam?
Traditional Islamic law states that Muslims who abandon the religion should be killed. However, this concept doesn’t originate from the Qur’an, but from three main hadiths attributed to the Prophet Muhammad:
Whoever changes his religion, kill him.
A man who leaves Islam and engages in fighting against God and his Prophet shall be executed, crucified, or exiled.
Executing the apostate is the ruling of God and his messenger.
The hadiths mentioned are in reference to ridda, not simple apostasy. The Arabic word for apostasy is ridda, which during and after the times of the Prophet Mohammed, was understood as the “public act of political secession from the Muslim community” and didn’t apply to the individual’s choice to renounce Islam. Historically, the death sentence for apostasy originates from its association with waging war against Islam.
Several accounts highlight Muhammed’s actions towards apostates, including a man who converted to Islam and, a day later, wanted to return to his previous religion. When he asked for the Prophet’s permission to revert, he was free to go without punishment. Abdullah ibn Saad ibn Abi Sarh, one of Muhammad’s scribe, left Islam, allegedly killed some of the Prophet’s Companions, fled and rejoined Quraysh—the tribe at war with Muslims—and became a satirist insulting the Prophet. Muhammad initially ordered his execution, not for apostatizing but for his acts of treason, and then spared his life. Ibn Abi Sarh wasn’t killed for his actions, converted to Islam a second time and later became the governor of Egypt.
Still unconvinced? Let’s break it down even more. The word Islam means voluntarily submitting to the will of God. So forcing someone to remain a Muslim and threatening to kill apostates directly counters Islam’s very definition and foundations. Don’t get me wrong, leaving Islam is considered a great offense, but the Qur’an only mentions a punishment for apostates in the afterlife, which, if you think about it, those who’ve left Islam aren’t too worried about that anymore.
Now let’s get to the final, and most important part: religious freedom in the Qur’an is absolute and three key verses underscore this:
And had thy lord willed, all those who are on the earth would have believed all together (Jonah, 10:99). Basically, if God had wanted everyone to believe or be Muslim, then he would’ve done so. Instead, he gave everyone the free will to choose whether or not to believe.
There is no coercion in religion (al-Baqarah, 2:256). This verse highlights religious freedom in the Qur’an and, by default, extends to those who shouldn’t be forced to remain Muslims against their will.
It is the truth from your Lord! So whosoever wants, let him believe, and whosoever wants, let him disbelieve (al- Kahf, 18:29).