6 Freedom Of Religion In Early Islam
Can Modern Islam Move Past Its Restrictive Laws?
by James M. Arlandson, Ph.D.
This series of articles about Islamic shariah law is written for educators, legislators, city council members, judges, lawyers, government bureaucrats, think tank fellows, TV and radio talk show hosts, and others who occupy various “check points” in society. They initiate the national dialogue and shape (not to say control) the flow of the conversation. They are the policy and decision makers.
They have been told that shariah has no problem, certainly not to the degree that its critics claim. Islam is a world religion, after all, and the critics exaggerate. They just must be “Islamophobic.”
Yet the decision makers may have a private, gnawing feeling that shariah does have problems. Can the critics be all wrong, all the time?
Defenders of shariah work hard at allaying those private fears.
This next quotation represents Muslim religious scholars who proclaim that Islam easily conforms to modern standards of religious freedom.
In October 2011, the Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA) issued a fatwa (religious ruling or opinion) on the compatibility of the Quran and authentic hadith (traditional reports and narrations about Muhammad and his closest companions outside of the Quran) with the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, specifically about the freedom of religion.
The scholar writes:
Contrary to erroneous perceptions and Islamophobic propaganda of political extremists from various backgrounds, the true and authentic teachings of Islam... uphold religious freedom and adherence to the same universal moral values which are accepted by the majority of people of all backgrounds and upon which the US Constitution was established and according to which the Bill of Rights was enunciated.
Then the fatwa adds that the Quran and authentic hadith are the sources of the universally accepted supreme objectives of Islamic shariah, which is to protect religious liberty” . . . .
The goal of being loyal Americans and religious is certainly promoted in the Constitution, which advocates religious freedom. So far, so good. That’s anyone’s political right, to connect his religion with patriotism.
However, before we accept that fatwa in its entirety, we must find out what original – “true and authentic” – teaching and hadith and shariah say about the freedom of religion.
Non-MuslimsConverting to a Non-Islamic Religion
This article is about religious freedom generally. There are verses that eliminate freedom of religion or severely restrict it.
It is sometimes claimed that Islam was constantly helpless against the Meccan enemies. This may have been true in Mecca and the first few months in Medina. However, Islam’s military grew rapidly in Medina, particularly near the end of Muhammad’s life. Eventually he conquers Mecca in early A.D. 630 and wages war on Christians and Jews later in that year. It is important to realize this historical context, for then the verses in this entire section on the Quran will make sense.
For more about the growth of Islam’s military, see The Mission of Muhammad and the Sword.
While Muhammad lived in Mecca, his hometown, he was nonviolent towards the pagans; they worshipped at the sacred Kabah shrine, and so did he. He told them, “You have your religion and I have mine” (Quran 109:6). But his preaching of monotheism (worship of one God) bothered them. They were polytheists (those who worship many gods). They became so angry, they chased him out of town in A.D. 622.
He departed northward to the city of Medina. This flight is called the Hijrah.
Chapter 2 of the Quran is the first chapter to be revealed in Medina, though some verses may have been written later (the Quran is a hodge-podge). When Muhammad arrived in that city in 622, he found a thriving community of Jews. At first he intends to be friendly with them, maybe reform them.
Quran 2:256 is a strong statement of tolerance. The key clause simply says:
There is no compulsion in religion….(Quran 2:256)
Perhaps that verse reflects his goal of peaceful coexistence and the use of words alone to persuade the Jews. But the rest of the chapter is filled with numerous verses that remind the Jews how they were disobedient in the past. Muhammad’s rhetoric heats up.
Three examples of strong rhetoric against the Jews of Medina: Quran 2:47-61 says Allah performed miracles for the children of Israel when he led them out of Egypt, but they worshipped the golden calf, while Moses was on Mt. Sinai. They were also ungrateful when Allah did other miracles, like sending manna and quail. Quran 2:87-92 says Allah sent messengers, even Jesus, to the Jews, but they became arrogant, disbelieved and killed prophets of old. Quran 2:246-251 recounts how Israel wants their first king (Saul). But when they were commanded to fight because they were chased out of their homeland, which was what happened to Muhammad, they turn away. But eventually David defeats Goliath.
So Muhammad uses these Old Testament stories – garbled as they were because he heard them over the years from professional traveling poets and storytellers who plied their verbal craft along the trade routes – to his own advantage. But heated words do not have to lead to violence.
However, this nonviolence is untrue of Muhammad’s ten years in Medina. His military grew rapidly. By the time his life ends in 632, because, he believed, he was poisoned by Jews, he will have expelled them from Medina and massacred one tribe, the Qurayza, selling their women and children into slavery. He even conquered the Jewish settlement of Khaybar, to the north of Medina, in 628.
Quran 33:26-27 discuss the massacre and enslavement of the Qurayza tribe of Jews, the People of the Book (the Bible):
26 He brought those People of the Book who supported them [the Meccans and their allies] down from their strongholds and put panic into their hearts. Some of them you [believers] killed and some you took captive. 27 He passed on to you their land, their houses, their possessions, and a land where you had not set foot: God has power over everything.
This verse reflects the Battle of the Trench in A.D. 627. Meccan pagans got fed up with Muhammad’s raiding their caravans, so they sent up 10,000 Meccans and their allies to finish the matter. However, he dug a trench along his most vulnerable points, to neutralize the Meccan cavalry. After about a month, the Meccans withdrew without a victory.
Now, flush with a victory of sorts (at least not a defeat), Muhammad turns his attention to the Jews.
They were supposed to remain neutral in the Battle, but they seem to have intrigued with the Meccans and to have been on the verge of attacking Muhammad from the rear – though they did not. Tradition says that while he was bathing, the archangel Gabriel appeared to him and told him to attack the large tribe. He besieged them and forced them to surrender. For their alleged betrayal, they must be put on trial.
The sentence: Death by decapitation for around 600 men (one source says as high as 900), and enslavement for the women and children. The executions lasted throughout the night, as the heads and bodies were dragged into trenches.
So, those verses in Quran 33:26-27, while not necessarily canceling or abrogating Quran 2:256, balances out the positive claim in the verse that there is no compulsion in religion. And the verses that follow in the next sections clarify 2:256, as well.
Chapter 9 of the Quran is the last chapter, in its entirety, to be revealed in the Quran. In early A.D. 630, Muhammad and 10,000 jihadist conquered Mecca. This was done with little bloodshed – though there was some. He conquered the Kabah shrine there, where pagans for centuries had worshiped the black stone.
He needs to hunt down specific polytheists or idolaters who defied him and, he believed, broke an oath. If they convert to Islam and pay an alms tax, they can go free. If not, they will be killed.
5 When the [four] forbidden months are over, wherever you encounter the idolaters, kill [q-t-l] them, seize them, besiege them, wait for them at every lookout post; but if they repent, maintain the prayer, and pay the prescribed alms, let them go on their way, for God is most forgiving and merciful.(Quran 9:5)
This Quran passage goes on to say that if the idolaters (polytheists) seek protection, they may find it (v. 6).
However, that treaty (of sorts) to let them go their way is rescinded. Quran 9:11-15 says:
11 If they repent, keep up the prayer, and pay the prescribed alms, then they are your brothers in faith: We make the messages clear for people who understand. 12 But if they break their oath after having made an agreement with you and revile your religion, then fight these leaders of disbelief – oaths mean nothing to them – so that they may stop. 13 How could you not fight a people who have broken their oaths, who tried to drive the Messenger out, who attacked you first? Do you fear them? It is God you should fear if you are true believers. 14 Fight [q-t-l] them: God will punish them at your hands, He will disgrace them, He will help you to conquer them, He will heal the believers' feelings 15 and remove the rage from their hearts. God turns to whoever He will in His mercy; God is all knowing and wise. (Quran 9:11-15)
Thus, these pagans do not have freedom of religion, because they broke their oath (so says Muhammad) (v. 12). They have to convert and pay the alms tax (v. 11). Muhammad connects pagan oath breaking with conversion to his religion; that is, pagans do not have to pay a fine and keep their religion or say they are sorry and keep their religion. But they have to convert to Islam and pay an alms tax (v. 11). If not, Muhammad will fight, disgrace, and conquer them (v. 14). This will heal the rage in the believers’ and Muhammad’s hearts (v. 15; see 5:2).
Forcing conversion by the sword is a perfect description of a holy war.
As noted, while in Mecca, Muhammad was nonviolent, but he preached against polytheism. But after years of his preaching, they were so angry, they chased him out of Mecca and barred him from the Kabah shrine (sacred Mosque). He went north to Medina (this flight is called the Hijrah).
While in Medina, he looked back on what just happened to him and concluded that his fellow Meccans had committed an injustice in persecuting him and barring him from the shrine (sacred Mosque). These verses, read in this chronological order, reflect his sense of injustice.
Quran 22:25 predicts that Allah shall punish the Meccans for barring him and others.
25 As for those who disbelieve and bar others from God’s path and from the Sacred Mosque – which We [Allah] made for all people, residents and visitors alike – and who try to violate it with wrongdoing, We shall make them taste a painful punishment. (Quran 22:25)
Quran 2:217 says Muhammad has permission to fight:
217 They ask you [Prophet] about fighting [q-t-l] in the prohibited month. Say, “Fighting [q-t-l] in that month is a serious offence, but to bar others from God’s path, to disbelieve in Him, prevent access to the Sacred Mosque [Kabah], and expel people, are still greater offences in God’s eyes: persecution is worse than killing.(Quran 2:217)
Quran 8:34 says Allah will punish the Meccans for barring people from the sacred Mosque; the Meccans are not the rightful guardians of it:
34 Yet why should God not punish them when they debar people from the Sacred Mosque, although they are not its [rightful] guardians? (Quran 8:34).
Quran 3:96-97 says that the Old Testament figure Abraham himself stood at the Mosque in Mecca:
96 The first House [of worship] to be established for people was the one at [Mecca]. It is a blessed place; a source of guidance for all people; 97 there are clear signs in it; it is the place where Abraham stood to pray; who ever enters it is safe.(Quran 3:96-97)
Muhammad implies that he is the rightful owner of the Mosque, because he accepts (or invents) the legend that Abraham traveled a thousand miles and sanctified the shrine. Abraham was the first monotheist, and Muhammad is one too (Quran 2:122-129; 8:34-36).
Quran 5:2 says Muhammad hates the people who barred him from the Mosque:
2...“Do not let your hatred for the people who barred you from the Sacred Mosque induce you to break the law: help one another to do what is right and good; do not help one another towards sin and hostility.”… (Quran 5:2, emphasis added)
Then he reveals a monetary motive to fight to get it back. Quran 5:97 says:
97 God has made the Ka‘ba [Kabah] – the Sacred House – a means of support for people.”…(Quran 5:97)
People from all over Arabia went to Mecca during seasons of pilgrimage, and this generated a lot of money.
Quran 48:25 says Muhammad’s sacrifice at the Mosque in Mecca was somehow prevented:
25 They were the ones who disbelieved, who barred you from the Sacred Mosque, and who prevented the offering from reaching its place of sacrifice.” (Quran 48:25)
A Reversal of Fortunes
However, Muhammad military grows. He was successful in his raids, so many men joined his religion. His raiders turned into a jihad army. He conquers the Meccans and their city in early A.D. 630. Some verses in Chapter 9 of the Quran incorporate this conquest.
Specifically, now that he has the military power, he is not about to let the pagans or idolaters guard houses of worship, particularly the Kabah shrine. Only Muslims may maintain these places.
Quran 9:17-18 says:
17 It is not right for the idolaters to tend God's places of worship while testifying to their own disbelief: the deeds of such people will come to nothing and they will abide in Hell. 18 The only ones who should tend God's places of worship are those who believe in God and the Last Day, who keep up the prayer, who pay the prescribed alms, and who fear no one but God: such people may hope to be among the rightly guided…. (Quran 9:17-18)
And finally Quran 9:28 shuts the door completely:
28 Believers, those who ascribe partners to God [polytheists] are truly unclean: do not let them come near the Sacred Mosque after this year…. (Quran 9:28)
Muhammad’s ability to deny the pagans (polytheists) access to their shrine coincides with his growing military, by the time Chapter 9 is given.
This is a 180-degree reversal of fortunes. And it does not promote religious freedom.
See The Mission of Muhammad and the Sword for more detail about the historical context of that lineup of verses.
At that link, we speculate, since nothing in history is inevitable, about what might have been, if Muhammad had let go of his need for the shrine back in Mecca and had said: “Polytheists! You have controlled the shrine for centuries. It is yours. I have set up my own Mosque, here in Medina. It’s extra-holy. Come to it of your own freewill. You don’t have to bow in the direction of a black stone. You don’t have to kiss my sacred Mosque (as you kiss the black stone). But if you don’t come to Islam, you are free to go on your way. ‘You have your religion and I have mine.’ ‘There is no compulsion in religion.’”
That was a genuine option for him. Quran 109:6 and 2:256 say so.
But that hypothetical is contrary to fact, unfortunately for world peace.
Now that the pagans were subdued, and Muhammad has control over the sacred shrine, he turns his attention to Jews and Christians.
Muhammad heard a rumor that the Byzantines had amassed a huge number of troops in Tabuk (in northern Saudi Arabia today). So in late A.D. 630, he marched northward with 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers to confront them. However, the Byzantines never materialized. But on his way up there and back again, he encountered small tribes of Jews and Christians. Rather than waste his military campaign without rewarding his soldiers and filling the growing treasury in Medina, he extracted a tax, called the jizyah, from these tribes.
More specifically, he gave the People of the Book (Jews and Christians; the Book is the Bible) three options:
29 Fight [q-t-l] against those who (1) believe not in Allah, (2) nor in the Last Day, (3) nor forbid that which has been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger (Muhammad), (4) and those who acknowledge not the religion of truth (i.e. Islam) among the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians), until they pay the Jizyah with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.
The three options for the People of the Book are (1) fight and die; (2) convert; or (3) keep their religion and pay the jizyah or submission tax. What is so interesting about that verse is that Muhammad’s motive to fight is his belief that Jews and Christians do not believe in the Last Day and do not forbid what he has forbidden.
Quran 9:30-31 confirms the religious motive to attack:
30 The Jews said, “Ezra is the son of God.” and. the Christians said, “The Messiah is the son of God”: they said this with their own mouths, repeating what earlier disbelievers had said. May God thwart them! How far astray they have been led! 31 They take their rabbis and their monks as lords beside God, as well as Christ, the son of Mary. But they were commanded to serve only one God: there is no god but Him; He is far above whatever they set up as His partners!(Quran 9:30-31)
Scholars have been hard pressed to find independent confirmation that says a sect of Jews called Ezra the son of God. But what if such a sect existed? Why couldn’t they have religious freedom to follow their theology? Why do they have to pay a second-class submission tax?
However, it is true that Christians call Jesus Lord and the Son of God (taking rabbis and monks as lords besides Allah is another matter). Muhammad considers this heretical and shirk (associating anything or anyone with Allah). Christians of course do not see things that way and conclude Muhammad was misinformed about their doctrine. But in any case, why can’t these seventh-century Arab Christians have their religion without paying a second-class submission tax?
In Islamic history, vanquished Jews and Christians became known as dhimmis. This word appears in Quran 9:8 and 10, meaning a “treaty” or “oath,” but it can also mean those who are “condemned” “reviled” or “reproved” (Quran 17:18, 22; 68:49).
The word “willing submission” in v. 29 can also be translated as “humiliation,” “utterly humbled,” “contemptible” or “vile.” It can mean “small” as opposed to “great.”
It seems then that the Quran, backed by the Islamic military, defines what proper doctrine is. Military might makes right. Military might makes doctrine.
That is a perfect description of a holy war.
For more information about jihad, qital and the jizyah tax, see Part Four in this series; and also see A Brief Explanation of the Trinity.
Automatic death for apostasy is not as prominent a theme in the Quran as one would first expect from today’s news reports. Some verses condemn apostasy, but its punishment is reserved for divine judgment in the Last Day, or its punishment is not clear down here on earth. However, there are a few verses (Quran 9:73-74 and 9:123) that may advocate execution for apostasy, but other interpreters disagree.
By the time Chapter 9 of the Quran is being written, Muhammad has a strong military, so three verses in this chapter command striving (jihad) and then fighting (qital) against hypocrites and unbelievers.
In the following two verses, the hypocrites – Muslims who follow Islam and the commands of Muhammad from a distance – do not seem to be full apostates yet. The Quran says:
73 Prophet, strive [j-h-d] against unbelievers and the hypocrites and be tough on them. Hell is their final home – an evil destination. 74 ...They would be better off turning back [to God]: if they turn away, God will inflict terrible punishment on them in this world and the Hereafter, and there will be no one on earth to protect or help them. (Quran 9:73-74)
Hypocrites refused to go on Muhammad’s Tabuk campaign against the Byzantine Christians in late A.D. 630. He could not tolerate this wishy-washy behavior.
In v. 73, the slightly more ambiguous word “jihad” is used, which is translated as “strive against.” This implies that the ultimate command to kill the hypocrites and unbelievers has not yet been given clearly. The Muslim community had other methods of "striving" with them instead of killing them, such as ostracism, denial of their oaths in a court of law, closed doors of offices and positions, and contempt in social meetings.
The hypocrites are still given the opportunity to repent. “They would be better off turning back [to God]”.... This means they are apostates and are given the chance to turn back or repent. But this chance for repentance is short lived, as the next verse in our study reveals (v. 123).
God will punish them in this world. How?
Ibn Kathir (d. 1373) is one of the most authoritative and highly regarded classical commentators in the Sunni world. He writes about the hypocrites in Quran 9:73, citing early Muslim authorities in the hadith:
"With the hand, or at least have a stern face with them.'' Ibn Abbas said, "Allah commanded the Prophet to fight the disbelievers with the sword, to strive against the hypocrites with the tongue and annulled lenient treatment of them.'' Ad-Dahhak commented, "Perform Jihad against the disbelievers with the sword and be harsh with the hypocrites with words, and this is the Jihad performed against them.'' Similar was said by Muqatil and Ar-Rabi.…
So even in this verse the sword can be used, but so far only against the unbelievers. The hypocrites are fought with words.
However, in Quran 9:123 the hypocrites have been merged with the unbelievers, so they are now apostates.
The Quran says:
123 You who believe, fight [q-t-l] those of the disbelievers near you and let them find you standing firm: be aware that God is with those who are mindful of Him. (Quran 9:123)
Recall that the word qital (root is q-t-l) means more than just a struggle or striving; it means warring, fighting, killing, and slaughtering.
Recall that Muhammad waged war against Christians and Jews in the Tabuk campaign. After the Muslims returned to Medina, Muhammad scolded the "hypocrites" who had stayed behind and failed to support him. Then he turns to those people who stirred up strife in the community by expressing doubt in his revelations; they needed to be silenced. This latter group is whom he attacks in v. 123 – the "unbelievers." He may wage war (qital) on them.
Another aspect of the historical context should be considered. Muhammad urges his fighters forward in order to kill the unbelievers, even if the latter belong to the fighters’ own family, as seen in the words "near you" in v. 123, which implies a relational nearness as well as a geographical one. “Believers, do not take your fathers and brothers as allies, if they prefer disbelief to faith” (Quran 9:23). Now v. 123 raises the stakes and says fighting (q-t-l) them is necessary.
The immediate textual context of the verse shows conflict with those refusing to support or even opposing Muhammad. For example, in v. 121 Muhammad complains that the hypocrites do not spend any money in Allah’s cause, so Allah will recompense them accordingly.
Next, Muhammad instructs his troops in v. 122 that not all Muslims should go out on a campaign of jihad, but some should stay behind to teach Islam, so they may warn people to beware of evil.
Finally, in the verses after v. 123 Muhammad condemns the unbelievers for mocking his revelations. Thus, the literary context does not consist of peace and friendship with Muhammad’s opponents, and that is why he deals with them harshly in v. 123.
So combining the historical context and the textual context, we can see that the elements within v.123 yield three truths.
First, Muhammad uses the Arabic word qital (three letter root is q-t-l), which, as noted, always means physically slaying, slaughtering, fighting, killing, and warring, depending on the context. This word is usually stronger than jihad (three letter root is j-h-d), which Muhammad uses in Quran 9:73, a companion to v. 123.
To repeat Quran 9:73 and 123:
73 Prophet, strive [j-h-d] against unbelievers and the hypocrites and be tough on them. Hell is their final home – an evil destination. (Quran 9:73)
123 You who believe, fight [q-t-l] those of the disbelievers near you and let them find you standing firm: be aware that God is with those who are mindful of Him. (Quran 9:123)
Thus, jihad and qital can barely be distinguished in vv. 123 and 73, since the means (swords) and the goal (submission or death) of fighting are the same in both verses. Not only does Muhammad say that his Muslims should fight the unbelievers and hypocrites, but they should do so harshly or sternly.
Second, the translations in the two verses (73 and 123) “tough” and “standing firm” can be translated as “harsh,” “hard,” “severe,” “vehement,” “rigid,” “fierce,” and “stern.”
By now Muhammad has had enough. They hypocrites crossed the line and were not given the chance to return to Islam. The more restrictive word q-t-l is used.
Third, the root of “near” is w-l-y, and there are many references to it in the Quran. For our purposes it can mean, depending on the context, “kindred” or “kinship” or close “friendship.” This indicates that the unbelievers had once been near the Muslim community, but now they have turned away. The Quran says these renegades or apostates can be killed [q-t-l].
Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi (d. 1979) was an Indo-Pakistani scholar who tied to bring about shariah law through his political party Jamaat-i-Islami party. In this thorough commentary he says the hypocrites and unbelievers in v. 73 have been merged in v. 123, so the hypocrites are unbelievers now. Therefore, they may be fought [q-t-l].
From the apparent wording of this verse , it may be inferred that only those Muslims have at first been held responsible to fight with those enemies of Islam who live near their territory. But if we read this verse along with the succeeding passage, it becomes clear that here "disbelievers who are near you” refers to those hypocrites who were doing great harm to Islamic Society by mixing up with the sincere Muslims. This very thing was stated in v. 73 at the beginning of this discourse. The command has been repeated at its end in order to impress on the Muslims the importance of the matter and to urge them to do jihad and crush these internal enemies, without paying the least regard to the racial, family and social relations that had been proving a binding force with them. The only difference between the two commands is that in v. 73, the Muslims were asked to do jihad with them, while in this verse stronger words, "fight with them," have been used, which were meant to impress on them that they should crush the hypocrites thoroughly and completely. Another difference in the wordings is that in v. 73, two different words, "disbelievers and hypocrites," have been used, while in this verse only one word, "disbelievers," has been used so that the hypocrites should forfeit all their claims as Muslims, for there was room for this concession in the word "hypocrite."…
However, Ibn Kathir says “near” means geography, not necessarily family relations, and he does not say the hypocrites in v. 73 have been merged with the unbelievers in v. 123. Therefore, combining these verses (73 and 123) is not clear.
So, the Quran is not as explicit about waging qital on apostates (i.e. executing them) as one might first think. Maybe this Quranic silence offers hope to reform the penalties for the religious “crime” of leaving Islam (see the section Modern Islam, below).
This section on the Quran is long, so the main points are numbered here for clarity.
1. In Mecca, Muhammad preaches monotheism (belief in one God), while his fellow Meccans are polytheists (those who believe in many gods). But he still was attached to their Kabah shrine, the sacred Mosque. Yet, he can have his religion, and they can have theirs (Quran 109:6). Nonetheless, he angers them after a while, because of his message.
2. They chase him out of Mecca and bar him from their Kabah shrine. He considers this unjust.
3. He arrives in Medina in A.D. 622. This flight is called the Hijrah.
4. He finds thriving tribes of Jews in Medina. He preaches that there is no compulsion in religion (Quran 2:256). But tension existed between them from the beginning. Chapter 2 of the Quran has many passages that are polemical against Jews.
5. He has no military to speak of, but he sends raiders out against Meccan caravans, to harass them. His raids are successful, so his raiders grow into a jihad army.
6. Tension and conflict between the Jews and him grow so immense, that he exiles and massacres them.
7. He conquers Mecca and takes over the Kabah shrine in early A.D. 630. So he wages war on pagans or polytheists and bars them from their shrine. He takes it over (Quran 9:5, 11-15; 17-18, 28).
8. He wages war on Christians and Jews in late A.D. 630 (Quran 9:29-31).
9. He also wages jihad against hypocrites or “halfway” Muslims around the same time (Quran 9:73 and 123).
10. Chapter 9 of the Quran is revealed at this time (nos. 7, 8, and 9), and it is filled with jihad and qital verses.
11. Many religious scholars and leaders today believe the tolerant verses (109:6 and 2:256) have been abrogated or canceled by the later jihad and qital verses.
12. However, surprisingly, formal governmental punishments of apostates are not completely clear in the Quran. But the punishments are clear in the traditions (hadith) and classical law, in the next two sections.
Given this sequence of events, it is no wonder that Islam today is so intolerant of other religions. The Quran and Muhammad set the institutional genetic code. Can that code be broken today?
The hadith are the reports, narrations, or traditions about the words and deeds of Muhammad outside of the Quran. Classical legal scholars – and jurists today – search through them to find guidance about various issues. See the article titled, What Is Shariah? in the series, for more discussion about hadith. We also include historian, commentator, and jurist Tabari (d. 923). Modern historians consider him a reliable source (except some elements of chronology and surprisingly few miracles).
The hadith and Tabari, together, form a coherent picture about apostasy and freedom of religion.
Authentic hadith collector and editor Bukhari (d. 870) records this tradition traced back to Muhammad himself, in a legal context. It gives three reasons for shedding a Muslim’s blood. One of them is apostasy.
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 [like-for-like punishment] for murder, a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse and the one who reverts from Islam (apostate) and leaves the Muslims."
The next hadith says that some "atheists" were brought to Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin, and Ali burned them alive. Ibn Abbas, also Muhammad’s cousin, would not have inflicted that specific punishment.
...The news of this event reached Ibn Abbas who said, "If I had been in his [Ali’s] place, I would not have burnt them, as Allah’s Messenger forbad it, saying, ‘Do no punish anybody with Allah’s punishment (fire).’ I would have killed them according to the statement of Allah Messenger, ‘Whoever change[s] his Islamic religion, then kill him.’"
It is not clear if they were “atheists” in the modern sense, but no matter, for Islam considered them as such. Evidently, these "atheists" were once Muslims, but they no longer followed Muhammad’s way, so Ali burned them alive. Ibn Abbas would have executed them in another way, probably beheading, because fire as a punishment is reserved only for Allah – in hell.
In the next hadith Muhammad’s emissary to Yemen saw a man who was tied up, and the emissary asked about him. The bound man had converted to Islam, but decided to return to Judaism. For his apostasy he was executed.
Narrated Abu Burda: Allah's Apostle sent Abu Musa and Muadh bin Jabal to Yemen. He sent each of them to administer a province as Yemen consisted of two provinces... Muadh came riding his mule till he reached Abu Musa and saw him sitting, and the people had gathered around him. Behold! There was a man tied with his hands behind his neck. Muadh said to Abu Musa, "O Abdullah bin Qais! What is this?" Abu Musa replied. "This man has reverted to Heathenism after embracing Islam." Muadh said, "I will not dismount till he is killed." Abu Musa replied, "He has been brought for this purpose, so come down." Muadh said, "I will not dismount till he is killed." So Abu Musa ordered that he be killed, and he was killed....
In one hadith a Bedouin converted to Islam, but got a fever in Medina and asked his pledge to Islam to be canceled. Muhammad refused, but let him leave Medina unharmed.
Narrated Jabir bin 'Abdullah As-Salami: A Bedouin gave the pledge of allegiance for embracing Islam to Allah's Apostle, and then he got an attack of fever in Medina and came to Allah's Apostle: and said, "O Allah's Apostle! Cancel my pledge." Allah's Apostle refused to do so. The Bedouin came to him again and said, "Cancel my pledge," but he refused again, and then again, the Bedouin came to him and said, "Cancel my pledge," and Allah's Apostle refused. The Bedouin finally went away, and Allah's Apostle said, "Medina is like a pair of bellows (furnace), it expels its impurities while it brightens and clears its good.'
The comment at the end says that the Bedouin left Medina and so the city was purified of an impurity (either the fever or the apostate Bedouin or both). Maybe Muhammad recognized he had not conquered Mecca yet, as one modern Muslim scholar argues. So Muhammad was lenient on the one Bedouin.
Recall that Quran 9:5, 11-15 were revealed after the conquest of Mecca. In those verses, Muhammad says to slay the idolaters wherever the Muslims find them, after the sacred months have passed. So this tolerance in the above hadith was connected to military action, not a personal policy of apostasy; he had not conquered Mecca when that hadith was given. But by the time 9:5, 11-15 were written, he had conquered Mecca, so the tolerance ends.
The following hadith promises a reward on the day of resurrection for killing apostates in the last days:
Narrated Ali: ...No doubt I heard Allah's Apostle saying, "During the last days there will appear some young foolish people who will say the best words but their faith will not go beyond their throats (i.e. they will have no faith) and will go out from (leave) their religion as an arrow goes out of the game. So, wherever you find them, kill them, for whoever kills them shall have reward on the day of resurrection."
As noted, Ali was Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law and future fourth caliph. There is no doubt that he is a reliable transmitter of hadith. It may be true that this execution is done in the last days, but this hadith coheres with other ones that are not about that time.
Tabari (d. 923) was an historian and jurist, so he does not carry as much weight as the hadith collectors like Bukhari. But Tabari also analyzed the traditions, and in his history he records some incidents that took place just before Muhammad died. Some tribes broke with Islam, and their leaders claimed that angels and spirits spoke through them. The Islamic prophet – who also claimed a spirit named Gabriel spoke to him – could not tolerate the dissent and competition, because by his way of thinking they were apostates. So he waged war on them and prevailed.
The Messenger of God waged war against the false prophets by sending messengers. He sent a messenger to some of the descendants of the Persian soldiers in the Yemen . . . instructing them [to get rid of] al-Aswad by artful contrivance. He [further] instructed them to seek help of some people whom he named from the Banu [tribe] Tamim and Qays, sending [word] to the latter to help the former. They did [as instructed]. The means of [escape] for those who apostatized were cut off, and they were attacked [while they were] in a state of warning. Since they were isolated, they were occupied with themselves. Al-Aswad was killed while the Messenger of God was [still] alive, a day or a night before the latter's death. Tulayhah, Musaylimah and the likeness of them were driven away by the messengers.
Tabari’s entire history is taken very seriously by western and other scholars. And his tradition about Muhammad eliminating apostates during his lifetime is consistent with the hadith.
The final example of executing or waging war on apostates in the hadith: soon after Muhammad died in A.D. 632, the tribes in Arabia revolted against Islam. Evidently, they honored this religion only because he grew in military prowess, but they dropped their allegiance to him. However, his right-hand companion Abu Bakr, the first caliph (r. 632-634) was appointed successor or caliph upon Muhammad’s death.
This is how he deals with the revolts:
When Allah's Messenger died and Abu Bakr was elected as a caliph after him, some of the Arabs reverted to disbelief. Umar [the future second caliph] said to Abu Bakr, "How dare you fight the people while Allah's Messenger said, ‘I have been ordered to fight the people till they say, "None has the right to be worshipped but Allah." And whoever says: "None has the right to be worshipped but Allah" saves his wealth and his life from me unless he deserves a legal punishment justly, and his account will be with Allah!"’" Abu Bakr said, "By Allah, I will fight him who discriminates between zakat [required charity tax] and salat (prayers), for zakat is the compulsory right to be taken from the wealth. By Allah, if they refuse to give me even a tying rope which they use to give to Allah's Messenger, I would fight them for withholding it."
Zakat is “the compulsory right to be taken from the wealth” of the Arab tribes. Abu Bakr zealously fights for every last scrap of wealth from them. In the end, he was successful, from Islam’s point of view. The tribes were subdued.
The early Muslims followed the institutional genetic code that Muhammad set out. The Quran says he limited the freedom of religion of Jews and Christians and eliminated this freedom for pagans; so does the hadith (and Tabari). Muhammad ordered apostates to be killed, though the Quran goes at this indirectly (Quran 9:73-74 and 123). Muslims who left Islam could be killed, in the traditions. Atheists could be killed, in the hadith. Both the traditions and history say that Arab tribes revolted against Islam, but they were subdued, reflecting Muhammad’s conquest of pagans in Quran Chapter 9 and of Mecca in A.D 630. History says Muhammad waged war on other prophets.
Shariah is based firmly on the Quran and the traditions (hadith) about Muhammad. We look at various schools of jurisprudence or interpretations in orthodox Sunni Islam: Malik (d. 795); Imam Muhammad (d. 795), a pupil and later a colleague of Abu Hanifah (d. 767), one of the four main founders of the schools of Islam; Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri (d. 1368), an adherent of the Shafi’i school; Ibn Rushd (d. 1198), who conveniently summarizes all the various schools of interpretation; and two accounts by two Muslim historians: Tabari (d. 923), a commentator, jurist, and historian; and Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), who was an historian and Maliki jurist.
For more information about shariah, see the article titled What Is Shariah? in the series.
Not only was Malik a jurist, he was also a reliable collector of hadith. So his collection on which his rulings are based could be placed in the hadith section, but this placement here will do, for our purposes.
He records the tradition that says two religions shall not co-exist in the Arabian Peninsula. The context is the expulsion of Jews from the town north of Medina, Khaybar.
Yahya related to me from Malik from Ismail ibn Abi Hakim that he heard Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz say, "One of the last things that the Messenger of Allah… said was, 'May Allah fight the Jews and the Christians. They took the graves of their Prophets as places of prostration. Two deens [religions] shall not co-exist in the land of the Arabs.'"
Yahya related to me from Malik from Ibn Shihab that the Messenger of Allah . . . said, "Two deens [religions] shall not co-exist in the Arabian Peninsula."
Malik said that Ibn Shihab said, ''Umar ibn al-Khattab searched for information about that until he was absolutely convinced that the Messenger of Allah... had said, 'Two deens [religions] shall not co-exist in the Arabian Peninsula,' and he therefore expelled the Jews from Khaybar."
It is not clear if Muslims succeeded in kicking out Christians and Jews from the entire peninsula, but they were removed from the Hijaz (in western Saudi Arabia today). To this day, no church building or Christian gathering is allowed in all of Saudi Arabia (we do not need to talk about a synagogue).
Malik lays out the example set by Muhammad, and then Malik interprets it.
Yahya related to me from Malik from Zayd ibn Aslam that the Messenger of Allah . . . said, “If someone changes his %