Leaving Islam is a controversial subject among Muslims since the Quran and Hadith – the collected sayings of the Prophet Muhammad – are not in agreement about its consequences. The Quran itself does not specify a punishment for apostasy, or the “leaving, departing away from, or deserting, one's religion." However, some Muslims scholars suggest various Quranic verses can be interpreted to support the death sentence for individuals who leave the faith. Unlike the Quran, the Hadith is not ambiguous on the subject and, in several verses, appears to prescribe execution for those who abandon Islam.
What the Quran Says
Some liberal Muslims scholars insist freedom of religion is advocated by the Quran, as evidenced by al-Baqarah 256 which states “there is no compulsion in religion.” Although it is one of the most quoted phrases of the Quran, there is disagreement about the limits of this freedom. However, other verses appear to deplore those who leave the religion – known as apostates – and order believers to “fight” against those who do not believe in Islam (9:11-120). Still, the Islamic Research Foundation International reports that the Quran is silent on any worldly punishment for apostasy.
Quran on the Death Penalty
The Quran only specifically calls for the death penalty for two crimes. The first is for intentional murder. According to verse 2:178, the family of the victim can either demand the perpetrator's death for the crime, or accept monetary compensation instead. The second crime punished by execution literally translates to “spreading mischief in the land.” Islamic countries that practice strict Sharia law may interpret that verse to include several activities they believe cause unrest in society, including apostasy.
Hadith on Leaving Islam
The Prophet Muhammad is recorded as saying: “‘Whosoever changes his religion, kill him,” a statement that is often used to support the death penalty for Muslims who leave Islam. But other verses in the Hadith suggest changing one’s religion alone is not enough to warrant execution. In fact, the IRFI reports that that penalty only applies to those who leave the faith and then are found to be working against the interests of the Islamic state.
Punishments in Modern States
As of 2011, 20 countries – most of them Islamic states -- still had laws that prohibited apostasy. In these countries, it is a criminal offense for a person to abandon his faith to convert to a different religion or declare himself an atheist. In Iran, Pakistan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Qatar and Yemen, there are still laws that punish apostasy with capital punishment, although in many countries it is rarely applied. In some nations, the accused are offered a chance to repent and accept Islam rather than face death. Other punishments imposed for apostasy include imprisonment, flogging and fines.
- BBC News: What Islam Says on Religious Freedom
- Islamic Research Foundation International: Is Killing an Apostate in the Islamic Law?
- ProCon.org: Does Islam Support the Death Penalty?
- Pew Research Center: Rising Tides of Restrictions on Religion
- Pew Reseach Center: Laws Penalizing Blasphemy, Apostasy and Defamation of Religion are Widespread
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