For the Consideration of the Paris Conference — The Penalty of Apostasy in Islam

by Khawaja Kamal-ud-Din [Imam of the Mosque, Woking]

The Light (Pakistan), 1st May 1922 Issue (Vol. 1, No. 10, pp. 3–4)

“Surely (as for) those who believe then disbelieve, again believe and again disbelieve, then increase in dis­belief, Allah will not forgive them nor guide them in the (right) path” (The Holy Quran, 4:137).

If there existed any doubt as to the penalty of apostasy in Islam, and the fate of the apostate, the above-quoted verse dispels it at once. It is clear and definite, leaving no room for discussion, requiring no comment. It speaks of one who em­braces Islam and then forsakes it; who becomes a Muslim yet again, and yet again recants and be­comes rooted in apostasy; while the latter part of the verse states the punishment which will be meted out to the apostate, which is that Allah will not forgive him, nor will Allah guide him anymore in the path of righteousness.

The offence of apostasy, like a deadly sin, is to be judged by God alone, and not by human agency. Un­fortunately, the role played by the missionary propagandist in Europe in the last century has been largely delegated to the politician, and the orgy of political blunders already perpetrated, with the effect of alienating the Muslim world from British Rule, is, by now, an open secret. Everyone knows that it is Philhellenism rather than any “dictates of humanity” which threatens the integrity of the Turkish domination.

Now that the question of the reconstruction of the Turkish Empire is under consideration by the “Near East” Conference in Paris, the “protection of minori­ties under the Turk” shibboleth may lead to many issues, of which one may very possibly turn on the penalty erroneously supposed to attach to apostasy in Islam, a word or two on this subject would seem to be therefore not only advisable, but most necessary.

Muslims take their religion from the Quran and from the actions of the Prophet Muhammad, and these latter are only followed by way of practical explanation of the former.

“My words cannot abrogate the words of God, but the words of God can abrogate mine.”

So says the Noble Prophet.

The sole test of authenticity to be applied to his own words is the Quran, and it is to the Quran therefore that we must look to discover the penalty for apostasy. The verse I have quoted makes no mention of any actual punishment in a material sense. A return to unbelief after belief is mentioned more than once and neither death nor any other human punishment is so much as hinted at. In two other passages the Quran treats of apostasy, and in these the very word irtitad has been used, which bears the technical significance of apostasy. One of them is the 54th verse of the fifth chapter, which I quote from [Maulana] Muhammad Ali’s translation:

“O you who believe! Whoever from among you turns back from his religion, then Allah will bring a people; He shall love them and they shall love Him; lowly before the believers, mighty against the unbelievers, they shall strive hard in Allah’s way and shall not fear the censure of any censurer. This is Allah’s grace; He gives it to whom He pleases. And Allah is Ample-giving, Knowing.” [The Holy Quran, 5:54]

The verse speaks of no penalty for the renegades from Islam, but tells by way of prophesy that apostasy will be followed by coming of a better people into the fold of Islam.

In Chapter 2, the concluding portion of verse 217 speaks thus of apostasy:

“And whoever of you turns back from his religion, then he dies while an unbeliever — these it is whose works shall go for nothing in this world, and the here­after, and they are the inmates of the fire; therein they shall abide.” [The Holy Quran, 2:217]

I append Sale’s translation of the same verse:

“Whoever among you shall turn back from his religion, and die an infidel, their works shall be vain in this world, and the next; they shall be the companions of hellfire; they shall remain therein for ever.”

And Rodwell’s version is in nearly the same words. The penalty to the apostate is not death but, in the translation of Rodwell,

“their works shall be fruitless in this world and in the next”;

and in the rendering of Sale,

“their works shall be vain in this world and the next.”

Then comes the punishment in the life after death:

“They shall be the companions of hellfire.”

I do not find any other mention of apostasy in the Quran, and certainly nothing to justify the suggestion that death is, or ever was, the penalty of apostasy in Islam.

The misconstruction or misinterpreta­tion of Islam seems, unfortunately, to have fallen to the lot of certain Christian writers, and in their opportunity. [Maulana] Muhammad Ali translates it:

“then he dies while an unbeliever”;


“and die an infidel”;

and Rodwell:

“and die an infidel.”

But the Christian propagandist has translated it:

“he shall be put to death.”

This is not only a gross misinterpretation on his part, but evinces, if intended sincerely, his utter ignorance of the Arabic language. Sale, whose maligning-Islam-tendencies are well-known, could hardly have failed to make much of it if the verse had allowed him the least latitude.

In the days of the Prophet, all the reliable records of his life are silent on the subject. There were many apostasies, doubtless, but no one was punished, for it is, and has ever been, the watch­word of Islam that there shall be

“no compulsion in religion” (The Holy Quran, 2:256).

We, however, read in our traditions of the putting to death of the party of Ukl, who, after professing Islam, feigned that the climate of Medina was insalubrious [unpleasant], and being told to go to the place where the herds of camels belonging to the State were grazed, murdered the keepers and drove the herds along with them. They were charged under the crime of murder and dacoity, for which the punishment of death is provided in Chapter 5, verse 331. This episode has generally been cited by the Quranic commentators under the verse which ordains the death penalty for murder and dacoity, and there is no other case which can even be twisted to show that the punishment of death was ever indicted on apostasy from Islam.

Reference may be made to wrong actions on the part of subsequent followers of Islam who assumed the garb of religion merely to further their political aims; but this is not peculiar to Muslims. Has not the modern politician most infelicitously [inappropriately] compared the recent fighting in the neighbourhood of Jerusalem with the Crusades, and gone so far as to hail Salonika as the gate of Christianity?

If Christianity is not responsible for the horrors of the Inquisition, before which the horrors of hell fade into insignificance, wrongs done by some few Muslim zealots, if done against the clear teachings of the Quran, cannot be put to the account of Islam.

The deliberators of the Paris Conference should bear in mind that if this supposed death penalty for apostasy in Islam is to be used as a pretext for tampering with the authority of the Sultan, it will amount to nothing more nor less than an uncalled-for attack on our religion. We take it as an insult and a slur on our religion, and the Philhellenists should think twice before they allow the question of apostasy to influence their decision. Let us have no more blunders.

We Muslims do believe in freedom of conscience, and we do denounce the action of a Muslim Government, even under which capital punishment is meted against apostasy. The Book which says,

“All Muslims, Jews, Christians and Sabians who believe in God and the Last Day, and do good works, shall have their reward with their Lord” (The Holy Quran, 2:62),

cannot allow its followers to look with hatred towards Christian and Jews, no matter if they be so by birth or are renegades from Islam.

Islam is the proverbial enemy of idolatry, the sworn foe of polytheism in every form. Yet millions of temples, pagodas and shrines, consecrated to numberless gods, goddesses and demi-gods, teeming with valuable golden and marble images and idols, have survived the most triumphant rule of Islam in India. They still possess the artistic beauty and sublimity of the ancient workmanship and excite the wonder of the modern craftsman. Does not this fact speak highly of that largeness of soul which the holy texts have infused into the notorious breakers of idols?

But where are the remains of our art and culture in places which were taken from us by the Christians of Spain?


  1. The only punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is that they should be murdered, or crucified, or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides, or they should be imprisoned. This shall be a disgrace for them in this world, and in the Hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement. (The Holy Quran, 5:33)]