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further on punishment of apostasy

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Question

I’ve read your views on the subject of punishment for apostasy. To begin with I too would be glad if what you say is true. This is because I feel such a punishment is a direct contradiction to the principle that there is no compulsion in Islam. But many scholars – both contemporary as well as those gone by – do not seem to think the same and many turn to Hadith ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh) to prove their case. You have reasoned well in your article/response but I feel you haven’t considered all the Hadith pertaining to the subject. I enlist a few of them (from Sahih Bukhari) although I am sure you must already be aware of them.

Volume 9, Book 83, Number 17:

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.”

Volume 9, Book 84, Number 57:

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.’”

Also there are the numerous hadiths wherein the same punishment is prescribed. Of the two hadiths, which I have quoted, the first one almost seals the case unless it is proved to be weak. It neither gives the impression that the narrator has narrated it out of context nor does it leave any doubt if the punishment is prescribed to “all” or some special apostates. I am in quite a fix. Hope you will be able to give a thorough and satisfactory reply. Do send me a mail as to where I will find your response if you choose to reply.

Answer

The issue of the punishment of apostasy, as we have already explained in our previous response is not merely related to the understanding and interpretation of Hadith – narratives ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh) – but is a little more complex than that. It actually relates to the inter-relationship between directives of the Qur’an and the narratives ascribed to him (Hadith). The most important question that needs to be answered in forming an opinion about this issue (and other similar issues) is whether a clear directive of the Qur’an can be altered on the basis of a saying ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh) or not. If the answer to this question is ‘Yes’, then one may form any opinion, on the basis only of a saying ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh), without any regard to the clear directive(s) of the Qur’an. On the other hand, if the answer to this question is ‘No’, then the narrative ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh) should be interpreted in the light of the clear directive(s) of the Qur’an.

Regarding the issue of the punishment of apostasy, you have yourself stated:

To begin with I too would be glad if what you say is true. This is because we feel such a punishment is a direct contradiction to the principle that there is no compulsion in Islam.

Please note your words ‘direct contradiction’ ((It may be further noted that according to the Qur’an, a person can be subjected to death penalty only in cases where he is guilty of murder or of creating unrest in the land – i.e. Fasaad fi al-Ardh, as has been clearly stipulated in Al-Maaidah 5: 32.)). If you truly feel, as we do, that the directive regarding the punishment of apostasy as it has been ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh) in Hadith, if interpreted in absolute terms, is contrary to the referred statement of the Qur’an, then you would have no other option but to:

  1. Accept the saying ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh), in its absolute connotation, and ignore the statement of the Qur’an;

  2. Accept the statement of the Qur’an and reject the narrative ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh) as falsely ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh) ((Please bear in mind that a narrative ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh) can be incorrectly ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh), even if all the narrators in the chain are honest and intelligent. A simple case in point could be where an honest and intelligent person may have been mistaken in comprehending or narrating a certain saying).

  3. Try to interpret and explain the narrative ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh), in the light of the directives of the Qur’an, in such a way that the said narrative does not alter any of the directives of the Qur’an. This would imply that in such cases where a narrative cannot be explained or interpreted in coherence with the Qur’an, the narrative would not be accepted as one correctly ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh).

As should be clear from my previous response, we always try to opt for the third option, which, obviously, is also the only one that we consider to be correct and according to the directives of the Qur’an as well as the Prophet (pbuh).

Keeping the above explanation in perspective, in our previous response to the question regarding the punishment for apostasy, we had tried to explain the narrative ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh), in the light of the directives of the Qur’an. we would interpret all the narratives ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh) on this subject, in the same way. In this manner, we are not faced with the problem of any directives of the Prophet (pbuh), which are, as you have said ‘contradictory’ to the directives of the Qur’an.

Moreover, the Qur’an has also clearly stated that a person cannot be subjected to the death penalty, unless he is guilty either of murder or of creating mischief or unrest in the land (Al-Maaidah 5: 32), whereas according to the words cited by you, the Prophet (pbuh) is ascribed to have 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.

Now just compare the two directives. You shall see that if taken in its absolute sense, the narrative ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh) has completely altered the implication of the directive of the Qur’an. In fact, except for the case of murder, the two directives differ on all accounts. It is primarily due to this point that it seems necessary that the narrative ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh) should either be explained in the light of the directive of the Qur’an or, if that is not possible, to reject the narrative as being wrongly ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh), as the Prophet (pbuh), obviously, could not have said or done anything contrary to the directives of the Qur’an.

It is due to this reason that we would be forced to interpret the referred narrative in the same manner, as we have already explained in our previous response.

However, we do accept that a difference of opinion in this case can exist.

UIUK team

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