This sounds great, right? A Muslim writing about the Yusef Nadarkhani case says that there is no Islamic justification for the death penalty for apostates. The only problem is that he doesn’t even mention the fact that some Muslim authorities, contrary to his claims, do root the death penalty for apostasy in the Qur’an. Nor does he mention Muhammad’s words about death to apostates.
Does he not know about this material? Or is he just being dishonest?
Islamic authorities generally base the death penalty for apostasy in two Qur’anic verses, 2:217 and 4:89. Here is 2:217:
They ask thee concerning fighting in the Prohibited Month. Say: “Fighting therein is a grave (offence); but graver is it in the sight of Allah to prevent access to the path of Allah, to deny Him, to prevent access to the Sacred Mosque, and drive out its members.” Tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter. Nor will they cease fighting you until they turn you back from your faith if they can. And if any of you turn back from their faith and die in unbelief, their works will bear no fruit in this life and in the Hereafter; they will be companions of the Fire and will abide therein.
What does it mean that the works of those who “turn back from their faith and die in unbelief” will “bear no fruit in this life” as well as in the next? Let’s go for an answer to the Tafsir al-Qurtubi, a classic and thoroughly mainstream exegesis of the Qur’an. About 2:217, Qurtubi says this:
Scholars disagree about whether or not apostates are asked to repent. One group say that they are asked to repent and, if they do not, they are killed. Some say they are given an hour and others a month. Others say that they are asked to repent three times, and that is the view of Malik. Al-Hasan said they are asked a hundred times. It is also said that they are killed without being asked to repent.
Did you notice one option that Qurtubi never mentions? That’s right: he never says anything like “some say the apostate should not be killed.” The only point of contention seems to be how long the Muslim must wait before he kills the apostate.
Meanwhile, 4:89 says this:
They but wish that ye should reject Faith, as they do, and thus be on the same footing (as they). But take not friends from their ranks until they flee in the way of Allah (from what is forbidden). But if they turn renegades, seize them and slay them wherever ye find them; and (in any case) take no friends or helpers from their ranks.
Thus those who have fled from what is forbidden, i.e., embraced Islam, should be killed if they “turn renegades.” The Tafsir al-Jalalayn, another venerable and respected commentary on the Qur’an, explains that a Muslim should not trust these people “until they emigrate in the way of God, a proper emigration that would confirm their belief” — that is, if they leave their homes to join up with the Muslims. “Then, if they turn away, and remain upon their ways, take them, as captives, and slay them wherever you find them.” Here again, no attempt is made, in this Qur’an commentary or any of those that Muslims revere as trustworthy, to explain that this does not actually mean that one should kill the “renegade.”
Hasan focuses narrowly on the Qur’an. He never mentions, although he surely must know, that Muhammad said “Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him” (Bukhari 9.84.57) and that this statement in the Hadith (in which it appears several times) became the foundation for the unanimous verdict of all the schools of Islamic jurisprudence: the apostate must be killed.
“This brutality is not Islam,” by Mehdi Hasan in the Guardian, September 30 (thanks to Paul):
In 1948, most of the world’s Muslim-majority nations signed up to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including article 18, “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” which includes, crucially, the “freedom to change his religion or belief”. The then Pakistani foreign minister, Muhammad Zafarullah Khan, wrote: “Belief is a matter of conscience, and conscience cannot be compelled.”
Fast-forward to 2011: 14 Muslim-majority nations make conversion away from Islam illegal; several — including Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Sudan — impose the death penalty on those who disbelieve. The self-styled Islamic Republic of Iran has sentenced to death by hanging a Christian pastor, born to Muslim parents, for apostasy. At the time of writing, Youcef Nadarkhani, head of a network of Christian house churches in Iran, is on death row for refusing to recant and convert back to Islam.
The decision to execute Nadarkhani beggars belief. For a start, the sentence handed down by judges in the pastor’s home city of Rasht a year ago, and affirmed by the country’s supreme court in June, is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but Iran’s own constitution. Article 23 is crystal clear: “The investigation of individuals’ beliefs is forbidden, and no one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief.”
Pleas for clemency from the archbishop of Canterbury, the UK’s foreign secretary and Amnesty International, among others, have fallen on deaf ears in Tehran. Meanwhile the silence from the world’s Muslims — especially the UK’s usually voluble Muslim organisations and self-appointed “community leaders” — has been shameful. The irony is that I have yet to come across an ordinary Muslim who agrees that a fellow believer who loses, changes or abandons his or her faith should be hanged. Yet frustratingly few Muslims are willing to speak out against such medieval barbarism. We mumble excuses, avert our eyes.
There is a misguided assumption among many Muslims that such an abhorrent punishment is divinely mandated. It isn’t. Classical Muslim jurists wrongly conflated apostasy with treason. The historical fact is that the prophet Muhammad never had anyone executed for apostasy alone. In one well-documented case, when a Bedouin man disowned his decision to convert to Islam and left the city of Medina, the prophet took no action against him, remarking only that, “Medina is like a pair of bellows: it expels its impurities and brightens and clears its good”.
Nor does the Qur’an say that a Muslim who apostasises be given any penalty. Freedom of religion is guaranteed by Islam’s holy book in the famous verse: “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256). Apostasy is deemed a sin, but the Qur’an repeatedly refers to punishment in the next world, not this one. Take the 137th verse of chapter 4: “Those who believe then disbelieve, again believe and again disbelieve, then increase in disbelief, God will never forgive them nor guide them to the Way” (4:137). This verse, which explicitly allows for disbelief, followed by belief, followed once again by disbelief, suggests any punishment is for God to deliver — not judges in Iran, Saudi Arabia or anywhere else.
Interestingly, the judgment in the Nadarkhani case is based not on Qur’anic verses but the fatwas of various ayatollahs. Fatwas, however, differ. For example, the late Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, a grand ayatollah and one-time heir apparent to Ayatollah Khomeini, argued that the death penalty for apostasy was originally prescribed to punish only political conspiracies against the nascent Islamic community; Montazeri believed Muslims today should be free to convert to another religion….