Apostasy in Islam

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Apostasy in Islam (Arabic: ردة‎‎ riddah or ارتداد irtidād) is commonly defined[by whom?] as the conscious abandonment of Islam by a Muslim in word or through deed.[1][2] It includes the act of converting to another religion by a person who was born in a Muslim family or who had previously accepted Islam.[3] The definition of apostasy from Islam, and whether and how it should be punished are matters of controversy – Islamic scholars differ in their opinions on these questions.[4][5][6]

Apostasy in Islam includes within its scope not only the wilful renunciation of Islam by a Muslim through a declaration of renunciation of the Islamic faith (whether for another religion or irreligiosity), or (in the absence of a declaration) by specific deed of undergoing the rites of conversion into another religion, but also even denying, or merely questioning, any "fundamental tenet or creed" of Islam, such as the divinity of God, prophethood of Muhammad, or mocking God, or worshipping one or more idols.[7][8] Different Muslim denominations and schools of thought may hold different additional views of what each considers a fundamental tenet of the faith. It does not include individuals who were forced to embrace Islam under conditions of duress, or acts against Islam or conversion to another religion that is involuntary, forced or done as concealment out of fear of persecution or during war (Taqiyya or Kitman).[9][10]

The term "apostate" has also been applied to people of religions that trace their origins to Islam, such as the Bahá'ís in Iran, even when the modern adherents of said religions may never have actually been Muslims themselves.

Until the late 19th century, the vast majority of Islamic scholars in Madh'hab (Sunni) and Imamah (Shia) schools of jurisprudence held that for adult men, apostasy from Islam was a crime as well as a sin, an act of treason punishable with the death penalty,[5][11] typically after a waiting period to allow the apostate time to repent and to return to Islam.[5][12][13][14] The kind of apostasy which the jurists generally deemed punishable was of the political kind, although there were considerable legal differences of opinion on this matter.[15] Wael Hallaq states that "[in] a culture whose lynchpin is religion, religious principles and religious morality, apostasy is in some way equivalent to high treason in the modern nation-state".[16] Nevertheless, Muslim jurists from the early period, from different Muslim denominations and schools of thought, developed legal institutions to circumvent harsh punishment in cases of allegations or charges of apostasy. These institutions set the standard for what counts as apostasy from Islam so high that at least prior to the 11th century practically no judgment of apostasy could be passed.[17] Subsequently, authorities in the Muslim World have not consistently applied these high standards of what counts for apostasy. In the late 19th century the use of criminal penalties for apostasy fell into disuse, although civil penalties were still applied.[5]

According to Abdul Rashied Omar, the majority of modern Islamic jurists continue to regard apostasy as a crime deserving the death penalty.[12] Some regard apostasy in Islam as a form of religious crime, although others do not.[4][5][18] Others argue that the death penalty is an inappropriate punishment,[19][20][21][22] inconsistent with the Qur'anic injunctions such as Quran 88:21–22[23] or "no compulsion in religion";[24] and/or that it is not a general rule but was enacted at a time when the early Muslim community also faced internal enemies who threatened its unity, safety, and security, and needed to prevent and punish the equivalent of desertion or treason,[25] and should be enforced only if apostasy becomes a mechanism of public disobedience and disorder (fitna).[26] According to Khaled Abou El Fadl, moderate Muslims do not believe that apostasy requires punishment.[23] Critics[27][28] argue that the death penalty or other punishment for apostasy in Islam is a violation of universal human rights, and an issue of freedom of faith and conscience.[19][29]

As of 2014, laws in various Muslim-majority countries prescribed for the apostate (or murtadd مرتد) sentences ranging from execution to a prison term to no punishment.[30][31] Sharia courts in some countries use civil code to void the Muslim apostate's marriage and to deny child-custody rights as well as inheritance rights.[32] In the years 1985-2006, three governments executed four individuals for apostasy from Islam: "one in Sudan in 1985; two in Iran, in 1989 and 1998; and one in Saudi Arabia in 1992."[24] Twenty-three Muslim-majority countries, as of 2013, additionally covered apostasy from Islam through their criminal laws.[33] The Tunisian Constitution of 2014 stipulates protection from attacks based on accusations of apostasy[34]

Scriptural references[edit]


The Quran discusses apostasy in many of its verses. For example:[35]

But those who reject Faith after they accepted it, and then go on adding to their defiance of Faith, – never will their repentance be accepted; for they are those who have (of set purpose) gone astray.

— Quran 3:90

They wish you would disbelieve as they disbelieved so you would be alike. So do not take from among them allies until they emigrate for the cause of Allah. But if they turn away, then seize them and kill them wherever you find them and take not from among them any ally or helper.

— Quran 4:89

But if they repent, establish prayer, and give zakah, then they are your brothers in religion; and We detail the verses for a people who know. And if they break their oaths after their treaty and defame your religion, then fight the leaders of disbelief, for indeed, there are no oaths [sacred] to them; [fight them that] they might cease.

— Quran 9:11 - Quran 9:12

Make ye no excuses: ye have rejected Faith after ye had accepted it. If We pardon some of you, We will punish others amongst you, for that they are in sin.

— Quran 9:66

He who disbelieves in Allah after his having believed, not he who is compelled while his heart is at rest on account of faith, but he who opens (his) breast to disbelief-- on these is the wrath of Allah, and they shall have a grievous chastisement.

— Quran 16:106

Other Qur'anic verses[36] refer to apostasy. According to professor of anthropology Dale F. Eickelman, some verses in the Quran appear to justify coercion and severe punishment for apostates.[37] In contrast, legal historian Wael Hallaq writes that "nothing in the law governing apostates and apostasy derives from the letter" of the Quran.[38] There is no mention of any specific corporal punishment for apostates to which they are to be subjected in this world,[39][40][41] nor do Qur'anic verses refer, whether explicitly or implicitly, to the need to force an apostate to return to Islam or to kill him if he refuses to do so.[42]


In contrast to the Qur'an, hadith literature gives contradictory statements about punishments for apostasy.[21][43]

The death penalty for apostasy can be found eight Hadiths of Bukhari, five of Muslim, one of Abu Dawood and one of Malik.[44]

  • Bukhari 4:52:260
  • Bukhari 5:59:632
  • Bukhari 9:83:17
  • Bukhari 9:83:37
  • Bukhari 9:84:57
  • Bukhari 9:84:58
  • Bukhari 9:84:64
  • Bukhari 9:89:271
  • Muslim 16:4152
  • Muslim 16:4153
  • Muslim 16:4154
  • Muslim 16:4155
  • Muslim 20:4490
  • Dawood 38:4341
  • Malik 36:1815

In the two Sahihs, the most trusted books in Sunni Islam after Quran, punishments for apostasy are described as follows:[45][46]

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."

Ali burnt some people and this news reached Ibn 'Abbas, who said, "Had I been in his place I would not have burnt them, as the Prophet said, 'Don't punish (anybody) with Allah's Punishment.' No doubt, I would have killed them, for the Prophet said, 'If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him.'

A man embraced Islam and then reverted back to Judaism. Mu'adh bin Jabal came and saw the man with Abu Musa. Mu'adh asked, "What is wrong with this (man)?" Abu Musa replied, "He embraced Islam and then reverted back to Judaism." Mu'adh said, "I will not sit down unless you kill him (as it is) the verdict of Allah and His Apostle.

On the other hand, there are hadiths stating apostates were not sentenced to death:

There was a Christian who became Muslim and read the Baqarah and the Al Imran, and he used to write for the Prophet. He then went over to Christianity again, and he used to say, Muhammad does not know anything except what I wrote for him. Then Allah caused him to die and they buried him.[47]

A bedouin gave the Pledge of allegiance to Allah's Apostle for Islam and the bedouin got a fever where upon he said to the Prophet "Cancel my Pledge." But the Prophet refused. He came to him (again) saying, "Cancel my Pledge.' But the Prophet refused. Then (the bedouin) left (Medina). Allah's Apostle said: "Medina is like a pair of bellows (furnace): It expels its impurities and brightens and clears its good."

And in the Muwatta of Imam Malik one finds:

Malik related to me from Abd ar-Rahman ibn Muhammad ibn Abdullah ibn Abd al-Qari that his father said, "A man came to Umar ibn al-Khattab from Abu Musa al-Ashari. Umar asked after various people, and he informed him. Then Umar inquired, 'Do you have any recent news?' He said, 'Yes. A man has become a kafir after his Islam.' Umar asked, 'What have you done with him?' He said, 'We let him approach and struck off his head.' Umar said, 'Didn't you imprison him for three days and feed him a loaf of bread every day and call on him to tawba that he might turn in tawba and return to the command of Allah?' Then Umar said, 'O Allah! I was not present and I did not order it and I am not pleased since it has come to me!'

In some instances, one finds Hadiths where open cases of apostasy were left unpunished.[48]

According to Wael Hallaq, the hadith advocating execution do not correspond to the actual deeds of Muhammad. It is more likely that the first executions of apostates didn't happen until the reign of Abu Bakr.[49]

What constitutes apostasy in Islam[edit]

Apostasy is called irtidād (which literally means relapse or regress) or ridda in Islamic literature; an apostate is called murtadd, which means 'one who turns back' from Islam.[50] According to some, someone born to a Muslim parent or one who has previously converted to Islam becomes a murtadd if he or she verbally denies any principle of belief prescribed by Qur'an or a Hadith, deviates from approved Islamic tenets (ilhad), or if he or she commits a blasphemy such as treating a copy of the Qurʾan with disrespect.[51][52][53] A person born to a Muslim parent who later rejects Islam is called a murtad fitri, and a person who converted to Islam and later rejects the religion is called a murtad milli.[54][55][56]

The jurist Imam Ibnul Humam (d. 681) wrote in his book Fathul Qadir:

The reason to kill an apostate is only with the intent to eliminate the danger of war, and not for the reason of his disbelief. The punishment of disbelief is far greater with God. Therefore, only such an apostate shall be killed who is actively engaged in war; and usually it is a man, and not a woman. For the same reason, the Holy Prophet has forbidden to kill women. And for this very reason, an apostate female could be killed if she in fact instigates and causes war by her influence and armed force at her disposal. She is not killed because of her apostasy, but for her creating disorder (through war) on earth.

— Imam Ibnul Humam[57]

A person is considered apostate if he or she converts from Islam to another religion.[51] Apostasy can occur even if one does not formally renounce Islam.[51]

Evidence of apostasy in Islam, according to Reliance of the Traveller, a 14th-century manual of the Shafi'i school of jurisprudence (Fiqh), includes:[8]

(a) bowing before sun, moon, objects of nature, idols, cross or any images symbolically representing God whether in mere contrariness, sarcastically or with conviction;
(b) intention to commit unbelief, even if one hesitates to do so;
(c) speak words that imply unbelief such as "Allah is the third of three" or "I am Allah";
(d) revile, question, wonder, doubt, mock or deny the existence of God or Prophet of Islam or that the Prophet was sent by God;
(e) revile, deny, or mock any verse of the Quran, or the religion of Islam;
(f) to deny the obligatory character of something considered obligatory by Ijma (consensus of Muslims);
(g) believe that things in themselves or by their nature have cause independent of the will of God;

Al-Ghazali held that apostasy occurs when a Muslim denies the essential dogmas: monotheism, Muhammad's prophecy, and the Last Judgment.[58]

In early Islamic history, after Muhammad's death, the declaration of Prophethood by anyone was automatically deemed to be proof of apostasy.[59] This view has continued to the modern age in the rejection of the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam as apostates by mainstream Sunni and Shia sects of Islam, because Ahmadis consider Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, founder of Ahmadiyya, as a modern-day Prophet.[59][60][61]

There are disagreements among Islamic scholars, and Islamic schools of jurisprudence, as to who can be judged for the crime of apostasy in Islam. Some in Shafi'i fiqh such as Nawawi and al-Misri state that the apostasy code applies to a Muslim who

(a) has understood and professed that "there is no God but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God" (shahada),
(b) knows the shariah necessarily known by all Muslims,
(c) is of sound mind at the time of apostasy,
(d) has reached or passed puberty, and
(e) has consciously and deliberately rejected or consciously and deliberately intends to reject any part or all of Quran or of Islam (Sharia).[62][verification needed][63][need quotation to verify]

Maliki scholars additionally require that the person in question has publicly engaged in the obligatory practices of the religion.[64][need quotation to verify] In contrast, Hanafi, Hanbali and Ja'fari fiqh set no such screening requirements; a Muslim's history has no bearing on when and on whom to apply the sharia code for apostasy.[65]

In the contemporary Islamic Republic of Iran, at least one conservative jurist, Ayatollah Mohsen Araki, has attempted to reconcile following the traditional doctrine while addressing the principle of freedom of religion enshrined in the Islamic Republic's constitution. At a 2009 human rights conference at Mofid University in Qom, Araki stated that "if an individual doubts Islam, he does not become the subject of punishment, but if the doubt is openly expressed, this is not permissible." As one observer (Sadakat Kadri) noted, this "freedom" has the advantage that "state officials could not punish an unmanifested belief even if they wanted to".[66]

While there are numerous requirements for a Muslim to avoid being an apostate, it is also an act of apostasy (in Shafi'i and other fiqh) for a Muslim to accuse or describe another devout Muslim of being an unbeliever,[8] based on the hadith where Muhammad is reported to have said: “If a man says to his brother, ‘You are an infidel,’  then one of them is right.”[67]


"Execution of a Moroccan Jewess (Sol Hachuel)" a painting by Alfred Dehodencq

Proselytization and apostasy of Muslims to leave Islam and join another religion is considered a religious crime by many writers.[68][69] Throughout the history of Islam, proselytization and apostasy of Muslims was forbidden by law.[70][71][72]

There are differences of opinion among Islamic scholars about whether, when and how apostasy in Islam should be punished.[4][73][74]


Legal opinion on apostasy by the Fatwa committee at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, concerning the case of a man who converted to Christianity: "Since he left Islam, he will be invited to express his regret. If he does not regret, he will be killed according to rights and obligations of the Islamic law." The Fatwa also mentions that the same applies to his children if they entered Islam and left it after they reach maturity.[75]

In Islamic law (sharia), the view among the majority of medieval jurists was that a male apostate must be put to death unless he suffers from a mental disorder or converted under duress, for example, due to an imminent danger of being killed. A female apostate must be either executed, according to Shafi'i, Maliki, and Hanbali schools of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), or imprisoned until she reverts to Islam as advocated by the Sunni Hanafi school and by Shi'a scholars.[74][76]

Many Islamic scholars have viewed apostasy as a hadd (pl. hudud) crime, i.e. a crime with a scripturally prescribed punishment,[77][78] although this classification has been contested by Hanafi and Shafi'i jurists,[79] as well as by some notable scholars of other schools, such as the Malikite Abu al-Walid al-Baji and Hanbalite Ibn Taymiyyah.[80]

Under traditional Islamic law an apostate may be given a waiting period while in incarceration to repent and accept Islam again and if not the apostate is to be killed without any reservations.[81] This traditional view of Sunni and Shia Islamic fiqhs, or schools of jurisprudence (maḏāhib) each with their own interpretation of Sharia, varies as follows:[82][83][84]

Hanafi – recommends three days of imprisonment before execution, although the delay before killing the Muslim apostate is not mandatory. Apostates who are men must be killed, states the Hanafi Sunni fiqh, while women must be held in solitary confinement and beaten every three days till they recant and return to Islam.[85] Penalty for Apostasy limited for those who cause Hirabah after leaving Islam, not for personal religion change.[86]
Maliki – allows up to ten days for recantation, after which the apostate must be killed. Both men and women apostates deserve death penalty according to the traditional view of Sunni Maliki fiqh.[84]
Shafi'i – waiting period of three days is required to allow the Muslim apostate to repent and return to Islam. After the wait, execution is the traditional recommended punishment for both men and women apostates.[84]
Hanbali – waiting period not necessary, but may be granted. Execution is traditional recommended punishment for both genders of Muslim apostates.[84]
Ja'fari – waiting period not necessary, but may be granted according to this Shia fiqh. Male apostate must be executed, states the Jafari fiqh, while a female apostate must be held in solitary confinement till she repents and returns to Islam.[84][85]

However, according to legal historian Sadakat Kadri, while apostasy was traditionally punished by death, executions were rare because "it was widely believed" that any accused apostate "who repented by articulating the shahada" (LA ILAHA ILLALLAH "There is no God but God") "had to be forgiven" and their punishment delayed until after Judgement Day. This principle was upheld "even in extreme situations", such as when an offender adopts Islam "only for fear of death", based on the hadith that Muhammad had upbraided a follower for killing a raider who had uttered the shahada.[87][88][89]

Civil liabilities[edit]

In Islam, apostasy has been traditionally considered both a religious crime and a civil liability; the punishment for former includes death or prison while the latter leads to civil penalties.[90][91] Therefore, in all madhhabs of Islam, (a) the property of the apostate is seized and distributed to his or her Muslim relatives; (b) his or her marriage annulled (faskh); (c) any children removed and considered ward of the Islamic state.[90] In case the entire family has left Islam, or there are no surviving Muslim relatives recognized by Sharia, the apostate's property is liquidated by the Islamic state (part of fay, الْفيء). In case the apostate is not executed, such as in case of women apostates in Hanafi school, the person also loses all inheritance rights.[21][22][not specific enough to verify] Hanafi Sunni school of jurisprudence allows waiting till execution, before children and property are seized; other schools do not consider this wait as mandatory.[92]

Other views on punishment[edit]

Various early Muslim scholars did not agree with the death penalty, among them Ibrahim al-Nakha'i (d. 715) and Sufyan al-Thawri and their followers, who rejected the death penalty and prescribed indefinite imprisonment until repentance. The Hanafi jurist Sarakhsi also called for different punishments between the non-seditious religious apostasy and that of seditious and political nature, or high treason.[93][94]

Medieval Islamic scholars also differed on the punishment of a female apostate: death, enslavement, or imprisonment until repentance. Abu Hanifa and his followers refused the death penalty for female apostates, supporting imprisonment until they re-embrace Islam. Hanafi scholars maintain that a female apostate should not be killed because it was forbidden to kill women under Sharia.[94] In contrast, Maliki, Shafii, Hanbali and Ja'fari scholars interpreted other parts of Sharia to permit death as possible punishment for Muslim apostate women, in addition to confinement.[95]

Contemporary reform Muslims such as Quranist Ahmed Subhy Mansour,[96] Edip Yuksel, and Mohammed Shahrour have suffered from accusations of apostasy and demands to execute them, issued by Islamic clerics such as Mahmoud Ashur, Mustafa Al-Shak'a, Mohammed Ra'fat Othman and Yusif Al-Badri.[97] Despite claiming to have received death threats, Edip Yuksel also believes that high-profile apostates who are controversial should be killed. He wrote, “Apostasy is not what gets one killed. It’s a combination of being controversial and having a high profile.”[98]

Prominent recent examples of writers and activists killed because of apostasy claims include Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, executed by the Sudanese government, as thousands of demonstrators protested his execution,[99][100] and Faraj Foda, victim of Islamic extremists who were later arrested and imprisoned for 20 years.[101][102] The Egyptian Nobel prize winner Najib Mahfouz was injured in an attempted assassination, paralyzing his right arm.[103] The case of Abdul Rahman, an Afghan who converted from Islam to Christianity, sparked debate on the issue. While he initially faced the death penalty, he was eventually released as he was deemed mentally unfit to stand trial.[104]

Opposition to execution[edit]

Over the centuries a number of prominent ulema, including the Maliki jurist Abu al-Walid al-Baji (d. 474 AH) and Hanbali jurist Ibn Taymiyyah (1263–1328), held that apostasy is not a hadd crime and thus is liable only to a discretionary punishment (ta'zir).[80] Some early authorities, such as Ibrahim al-Nakhai and Sufyan al-Thawri, as well as the Hanafi jurist Sarakhsi (d. 1090), believed that an apostate should be asked to repent indefinitely and never condemned to death.[80][105] According to Sarakhsi, apostasy from Islam is a great offense, but its punishment is postponed until the Day of Judgement.[105] The view that the Quran speaks only of otherworldly punishment for apostasy was also held by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar (1958-1963) Mahmud Shaltut, who held that the prescription of death penalty for apostasy found in hadith was aimed at prevention of aggression against Muslims and sedition against the state.[80] Contemporary scholar Mirza Tahir Ahmad quotes a number of companions of Muhammad or early Islamic scholars (Ibn al-Humam, al-Marghinani, Ibn Abbas, Sarakhsi, Ibrahim al-Nakh'i) to argue that there was not a ijma (consensus among scholars or community) in favor of execution of murtadd in early Islam.[106]

Contemporary Islamic Shafi`i jurists such as the Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa[107][108] and fiqh scholar Taha Jabir Alalwani[109] along with Shi'a jurists such as Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri[110] and Grand Ayatollah Hussein Esmaeel al-Sadr[111] and some jurists, scholars and writers of other Islamic sects,[who?] have argued or issued fatwas that the changing of religion is not punishable, but these minority opinions have not found broad acceptance among the majority of Islamic scholars.[4][112] However others have successfully argued that the majority view, in both the past and the present, wasn't a severe punishment for mere apostasy.[113]

Javed Ahmad Ghamidi writes that punishment for apostasy was part of divine punishment for only those who denied the truth even after clarification in its ultimate form by Muhammad (Itmaam-i-hujjat), hence, he considers it a time-bound command and no longer punishable.[114]

Tariq Ramadan states that given "the way the Prophet behaved with the people who left Islam (like Hishâm and 'Ayyash) or who converted to Christianity (such as Ubaydallah ibn Jahsh), it should be stated that one who changes her/his religion should not be killed". He further states that "there can be no compulsion or coercion in matters of faith not only because it is explicitly forbidden in the Qur'an but also because free conscious and choice and willing submission are foundational to the first pillar (declaration of faith) and essential to the very definition of Islam. Therefore, someone leaving Islam or converting to another religion must be free to do so and her/his choice must be respected."[115]

Reza Aslan argues that the idea that apostasy is treason rather than exercise of freedom of religion is not so much part of Islam, as part of the pre-modern era when classical Islamic fiqh was developed, and when "every religion was a `religion of the sword`".[116]

This was also an era in which religion and the state were one unified entity. ... no Jew, Christian, Zoroastrian, or Muslim of this time would have considered his or her religion to be rooted in the personal confessional experiences of individuals. ... Your religion was your ethnicity, your culture, and your social identity... your religion was your citizenship.[116]

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, a minority sect found in South and Southeast Asia, rejects any form of punishment for apostasy whatsoever in this world, citing hadith, Quran, and the opinions of classical Islamic jurists to justify its views.[117] However, Ahmadiyya Muslims are widely considered as non-Muslim apostates and persecuted by mainstream Islam, because of their beliefs.[59][61]


The basis for an opposition to execution for mere apostasy in the Qur'an stems from the following:[118][119][120]

There is no compulsion in religion; truly the right way has become clearly distinct from error; therefore, whoever disbelieves in the Shaitan and believes in Allah he indeed has laid hold on the firmest handle, which shall not break off, and Allah is Hearing, Knowing.

— Quran 2:256

Say, "The truth is from your Lord": Let him who will believe, and let him who will, reject (it): for the wrong-doers We have prepared a Fire whose (smoke and flames), like the walls and roof of a tent, will hem them in: if they implore relief they will be granted water like melted brass, that will scald their faces, how dreadful the drink! How uncomfortable a couch to recline on!

— Quran 18:29

And if your Lord had pleased, surely all those who are in the earth would have believed, all of them; will you then force men till they become believers?

— Quran 10:99

Therefore do remind, for you are only a reminder. You are not a watcher over them;

He said: "O my people! See ye if (it be that) I have a Clear Sign from my Lord, and that He hath sent Mercy unto me from His own presence, but that the Mercy hath been obscured from your sight? shall we compel you to accept it when ye are averse to it?

— Quran 11:28

Jonathan A.C. Brown explains that "According to all the theories of language elaborated by Muslim legal scholars, the Qur'anic proclamation that 'There is no compulsion in religion. The right path has been distinguished from error' is as absolute and universal a statement as one finds. The truth had been made clear, and now, 'Whoever wants, let him believe, and whoever wants, let him disbelieve,' the holy book continues (2:256, 18:29). ", and hence the Qur'an granted religious freedom.[118] Peters and Vries, in contrast, write that the Quranic verse 2:256 was traditionally interpreted in a different way, considered abrogated (suspended and overruled) by later verses of Quran by some classical scholars.[121] Peters and Vries note that some interpreted this verse has been that it "forbids compulsion to things that are wrong but not compulsion to accept the truth".[121] However, that isn't true since Muslim scholars have established the abrogated verses and (2:256) isn't among them,[122][123] moreover, many Qur'anic commentators and Muslim scholars interpret (2:256) by reasoning that the truth of Islam is so self-evident that no one is in need of being coerced into it; and embracing Islam because of coercion would not benefit the convert in any case.[124][125][126][127][128]

Khaled Abou El Fadl explains that the verses (88:21–22) emphasizes that even the Prophet does not have the right to think of himself as a warden who has the power to coerce people. This is reaffirmed by many of the historical reports regarding the Qur'anic revelation that emphasize that belief and conviction cannot be coerced. He further states that moderates consider the verse (2:256) to be enunciating a general, overriding principle that cannot be contradicted by isolated traditions attributed to the Prophet. He concludes that moderates do not believe that there is any punishment that attaches to apostasy.[129]

S. A. Rahman, a former Chief Justice of Pakistan, argues that there is no indication of the death penalty for apostasy in the Qur'an.[130] W. Heffening states that "in the Qur'an the apostate is threatened with punishment in the next world only."[131] Wael Hallaq holds that nothing in the law governing apostate and apostasy derives from the letter of Quran.[132] The late dissenting Shia jurist Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri stated that the Quranic verses do not prescribe an earthly penalty for apostasy.[110]

Islamist author Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi argued that verses [Quran 9:11] of the Qur'an sanction death for apostasy. In contrast, Pakistan's jurist S. A. Rahman states "that not only is there no punishment for apostasy provided in the Book but that the Word of God clearly envisages the natural death of the apostate. He will be punished only in the Hereafter…"[133] Rahman also highlights that there is no reference to the death penalty in any of the 20 instances of apostasy mentioned in the Qur'an. Ahmet Albayrak explains in The Qur'an: An Encyclopedia that regarding apostasy as a wrongdoing is not a sign of intolerance of other religions, and is not aimed at one’s freedom to choose a religion or to leave Islam and embrace another faith, but that on the contrary, it is more correct to say that the punishment is enforced as a safety precaution when warranted if apostasy becomes a mechanism of public disobedience and disorder (fitna). At this point, what is punished is the action of ridiculing the high moral flavour of Islam and posing a threat to public order. Otherwise, Islam prohibits spying on people and investigating their private lives, beliefs and personal opinions.[26]


Writing in the Encyclopedia of Islam, Heffening holds that contrary to the Qur'an, "in traditions [i.e. hadith], there is little echo of these punishments in the next world... and instead, we have in many traditions a new element, the death penalty."[134][page needed] Wael Hallaq states the death penalty reflects a later reality and does not stand in accord with the deeds of Muhammad.[132]

Ayatollah Montazeri holds that it is probable that the punishment was prescribed by Muhammad during early Islam to combat political conspiracies against Islam and Muslims, and is not intended for those who simply change their belief or express a change in belief. Montazeri defines different types of apostasy; he argues that capital punishment should be reserved for those who desert Islam out of malice and enmity towards the Muslim community, and not those who convert to another religion after investigation and research.[110]

Historic impact[edit]

The charge of apostasy is often used by religious authorities to condemn and punish skeptics, dissidents, and minorities in their communities.[40] From the earliest history of Islam, the crime of apostasy and execution for apostasy has driven major events in Islam. For example, the Ridda wars (civil wars of apostasy) shook the Muslim community in 632-633 AD, immediately after the death of Muhammad.[40][135] These apostasy wars split the two major sects of IslamSunni and Shia, and caused numerous deaths.[136][137] Sunni and Shia sects of Islam have long called each other as apostates of Islam.[138][need quotation to verify]

From the 7th century through the 18th century, atheists, materialists, Sufi, and Shii sects were accused and executed for apostasy in Islam. In the 8th century, apostates of Islam were killed in West Asia and Sind.[139] In the 8th century, the founder of Hanifi fiqh of jurisprudence in Islam, Abū Ḥanīfa, was charged with apostasy and punished.[citation needed] In 9th-century Spain, apostasy and blasphemy charges were brought against residents who refused to accept Islam;[140][page needed] 10th-century Iraq, Sufi mystic Al-Hallaj was executed for apostasy; in 12th-century Iran, al-Suhrawardi along with followers of Ismaili sect of Islam were killed on charges of being apostates;[40] in 14th-century Syria, Ibn Taymiyyah declared Central Asian Turko-Mongol Muslims as apostates due to the invasion of Ghazan Khan;[141] in 17th-century India, Dara Shikoh and other sons of Shah Jahan were captured and executed on charges of apostasy from Islam by his brother Aurangzeb.[142]

Other sources say that executions of apostates have been "rare in Islamic history".[24] While Al-Hallaj was officially executed for possessing a heretical document suggesting hajj pilgrimage was not required of a pure Muslim, it is thought he would have been spared execution except that the Caliph at the time Al-Muqtadir wished to discredit "certain figures who had associated themselves" with al-Hallaj.[143] (Previously al-Hallaj had been punished for talking about being at one with God by being shaved, pilloried and beaten with the flat of a sword. He was not executed because the Shafi'ite judge had ruled that his words were not "proof of disbelief."[143]) According to historian Bernard Lewis, in the "early times" of Islam, "charges of apostasy were not unusual, and ... the terms `unbeliever` and `apostate` were commonly used in religious polemic ... in fact such accusations had little practical effect. The accused were for the most part unmolested, and some even held high offices in the Muslim state. As the rules and penalties of the Muslim law were systematized and more regularly enforced, charges of apostasy became rarer."[144] When action was taken against an alleged apostate, it was much more likely to be "quarantine" than execution, unless the innovation was "extreme, persistent and aggressive".[144]

During the colonial era, death for apostasy was abolished in many Muslim-majority colonies. Similarly, under intense European pressure, death sentence for apostasy from Islam was abolished by the Edict of Toleration, and substituted with other forms of punishment by the Ottoman government in 1844; the implementation of this ban was resisted by religious officials and proved difficult.[145][146] A series of edicts followed during Ottoman's Tanzimat period, such as the 1856 Reform Edict. Despite these edicts, there was constant pressure on non-Muslims to convert to Islam, and apostates from Islam continued to be persecuted, punished and threatened with execution, particularly in eastern and Levant parts of the then Ottoman Empire.[145] The Edict of Toleration ultimately failed when Sultan Abdul Hamid II assumed power, re-asserted pan-Islamism with sharia as Ottoman state philosophy, and initiated Hamidian massacres in 1894 against Christians, particularly of Armenians, Assyrians and crypto-Christian apostates from Islam in Turkey (Stavriotes, Kromlides).[147][148][149][not specific enough to verify]

In "recent decades" before 2006, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom listed four cases of execution for apostasy in the Muslim world: one in Sudan in 1985; two in Iran, in 1989 and 1998; and one in Saudi Arabia in 1992.[24]

Apostasy in the recent past[edit]

Penalties (actual or proposed) for apostasy in some Muslim-majority countries as of 2013.


More than 20 Muslim-majority states have laws that declare apostasy by Muslims to be a crime.[30] As of 2014, apostasy was a capital offense in Afghanistan, Brunei, Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.[30] Executions for religious conversion have been infrequent in recent times, with four cases reported since 1985: one in Sudan in 1985; two in Iran, in 1989 and 1998; and one in Saudi Arabia in 1992.[30][24] In Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Yemen apostasy laws have been used to charge persons for acts other than conversion.[30] In addition, some predominantly Islamic countries without laws specifically addressing apostasy have prosecuted individuals or minorities for apostasy using broadly-defined blasphemy laws.[150] In many nations, the Hisbah doctrine of Islam has traditionally allowed any Muslim to accuse another Muslim or ex-Muslim for beliefs that may harm Islamic society. This principle has been used in countries such as Egypt, Pakistan and others to bring blasphemy charges against apostates.[151]

The violence or threats of violence against apostates in the Muslim world in recent years has derived primarily not from government authorities but from other individuals or groups operating unrestricted by the government.[152][page needed] There has also been social persecution for Muslims converting to Christianity. For example, the Christian organisation Barnabas Fund reports:

The field of apostasy and blasphemy and related "crimes" is thus obviously a complex syndrome within all Muslim societies which touches a raw nerve and always arouses great emotional outbursts against the perceived acts of treason, betrayal and attacks on Islam and its honour. While there are a few brave dissenting voices within Muslim societies, the threat of the application of the apostasy and blasphemy laws against any who criticize its application is an efficient weapon used to intimidate opponents, silence criticism, punish rivals, reject innovations and reform, and keep non-Muslim communities in their place.[153]

Similar views are expressed by the non-theistic International Humanist and Ethical Union.[154]

A survey based on face-to-face interviews conducted in 80 languages by the Pew Research Center between 2008 and 2012 among thousands of Muslims in many countries, found varied views on the death penalty for those who leave Islam to become an atheist or to convert to another religion.[155] In this survey, Muslims who favored making Sharia the law of the land were asked for their views on the death penalty for apostasy from Islam.[155] The results are summarized in the table below. Note that values for Group C have been derived from the values for the other two groups and are not part of the Pew report.[155] These values do not include Muslims who may not support sharia but do support the death penalty for apostasy.

Middle East and North Africa
Country Group A:  % Muslims support sharia Group B: Support death for apostasy as a % of Group A Group C: Group B as % of all Muslims
Egypt 74 86 63.6
Palestine 89 66 58.7
Jordan 71 82 58.2
Iraq 91 42 38.2
Tunisia 56 29 16.2
Lebanon 29 46 13.3
South and Southeast Asia
Country Group A:  % Muslims support sharia Group B: Support death for apostasy as a % of Group A Group C: Group B as % of all Muslims
Afghanistan 99 79 78.2
Pakistan 84 76 63.8
Malaysia 86 62 53.3
Bangladesh 82 44 36.1
Thailand 77 27 20.8
Indonesia 72 18 13.0
Southeast Europe and Central Asia
Country Group A:  % Muslims support sharia Group B: Support death for apostasy as a % of Group A Group C: Group B as % of all Muslims
Russia 42 15 6.3
Tajikistan 27 22 5.9
Kyrgyzstan 35 14 4.9
Bosnia 15 15 2.3
Kosovo 20 11 2.2
Turkey 12 17 2.0
Albania 12 8 1.0
Kazakhstan 10 4 0.4

Overall, the figures in the 2012 survey suggest that the percentage of Muslims in the countries surveyed who approve the death penalty for Muslims who leave Islam to become an atheist or convert to another religion varies widely, from 0.4% (in Kazakhstan) to 78.2% (in Afghanistan).[155] The Governments of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait) did not permit Pew Research to survey nationwide public opinion on apostasy in 2010 or 2012. The survey also did not include China, India or Syria.


Article 130 of the Afghan Constitution requires its courts to apply provisions of Hanafi Sunni fiqh for crimes of apostasy in Islam. Article 1 of the Afghan Penal Code requires hudud crimes be punished per Hanafi religious jurisprudence. Prevailing Hanafi jurisprudence, per consensus of its school of Islamic scholars, prescribes death penalty for the crime of apostasy. The apostate can avoid prosecution and/or punishment if he or she confesses of having made a mistake of apostasy and rejoins Islam.[156] In addition to death, the family of the accused can be deprived of all property and possessions, and the individual’s marriage is considered dissolved in accordance with Hanafi Sunni jurisprudence.[157]

In March 2006, an Afghan citizen Abdul Rahman was charged with apostasy and could have faced the death penalty for converting to Christianity. His case attracted much international attention with Western countries condemning Afghanistan for persecuting a convert. Charges against Abdul Rahman were dismissed on technical grounds by the Afghan court after intervention by the president Hamid Karzai. He was released and left the country to find refuge in Italy.[152]

Two other Afghan converts to Christianity, Sayed Mussa and Shoaib Assadullah, were arrested back in March 2006. In February 2006, yet other converts had their homes raided by police.[152] After serving five years in jail, Sayed Mussa was released in 2011,[158] and Shoaib Assadullah was released in March 2011.[159]


Djemila Benhabib: "Freedom of conscience has never been recognised", and Islam is not separated from the state.

Freedom of religion in Algeria is regulated by the Algerian Constitution, which declares Islam to be the state religion (Article 2) but also declares that "freedom of creed and opinion is inviolable" (Article 36); it prohibits discrimination, Article 29 states "All citizens are equal before the law. No discrimination shall prevail because of birth, race, sex, opinion or any other personal or social condition or circumstance". In practice, the government generally respects this, with some limited exceptions. The law does not recognize marriages between Muslim women and non-Muslim men; it does however recognise marriages between Muslim men and non-Muslim women. By law, children follow the religion of their fathers, even if they are born abroad and are citizens of their (non-Muslim-majority) country of birth.

Religion plays an important role in Algerian society, making it relatively homogeneous. For the average Algerian, being Algerian means being Muslim. However, this is not always so.

People without religious affiliation tend to be particularly numerous in Kabylie (a Kabyle-speaking area) where they are generally tolerated and sometimes supported; notably, Matoub Lounes is widely seen as a hero among Kabyles, despite (or because of) his lack of religion. In most other areas of the country, the non-religious tend to be more discreet.

The study of Islam is a requirement in the public and private schools for every Algerian child, irrespective of his/her religion.[160]

Muslim women cannot marry non-Muslim men (Algerian Family Code I.II.31),[161] and apostates are disinherited (Family Code III.I.138). A marriage is legally nullified by the apostasy of the husband (presumably from Islam, although this is not specified; Family Code I.III.33).

The majority of cases of harassment and security threats against non-Muslims come from the now nearly destroyed Armed Islamic Group, an organization fighting the government who are determined to rid the country of those who do not share their extremist interpretation of Islam. However, a majority of the population subscribes to Islamic precepts of tolerance in religious beliefs. Moderate Islamist religious and political leaders have criticized publicly acts of violence committed in the name of Islam.

Eating in public during Ramadan (particularly for people who "look Muslim") is legal but attracts public hostility in most areas, except for some areas of Kabylie; most restaurants close during Ramadan.

"Offending the Prophet," however, is a criminal charge. If indicted, the defendant faces up to five years' imprisonment and a heavy fine (Abdelkarim Siaghi case - May 2011).[162]

In general noncitizens who practice faiths other than Islam enjoy a high level of tolerance within society; however, citizens who renounce Islam generally are ostracized by their families and shunned by their neighbors. The Government generally does not become involved in such disputes. Converts also expose themselves to the risk of attack by radical extremists.


Bonya Ahmed speaking about the attack on her and Avijit Roy (18:54), and putting it in a broader context.

Bangladesh does not have a law against apostasy, but incidences of persecution of apostates have been reported. Dozens of atheist and secularist Bangladeshis have been targeted for practicing free speech and "disrespecting" Islam, such as Humayun Azad, who was the target of a failed machete assassination attempt, and Avijit Roy, who was killed with a machete. Some Bangladeshi Imams have encouraged the killing of converts from Islam. An example is the stabbing of a Bangladeshi Christian evangelist (a "murtad fitri" or Muslim-born apostate) while returning home from a film adaptation of the Gospel of Luke.[163]


Brunei is the latest Muslim-majority country to enact a law that makes apostasy a crime punishable with death. In 2013, it enacted Syariah (Sharia) Penal Code. Section 112(1) of the new law states that a Muslim who declares himself non-Muslim commits a crime punishable with death, or with imprisonment for a term not exceeding thirty years, depending on evidence.[164] Under the required wait period between notification of law and its validity under Brunei’s constitution, its new apostasy law and corporal punishment will be applied starting October 2014, and capital punishment will be imposed starting October 2015.[165]


Legal situation[edit]

Kareem Amer, a few days after his release from 4 years in jail.[166]
Stencil graffiti depicting Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, in the form of the nude blog photo of herself.

The blasphemy laws and Article 98(f) of Egyptian Penal Code, as amended by Law 147, has been used to prosecute Muslims who have converted to Christianity.[167] For example, in May 2007, Bahaa El-Din El-Akkad, a former Egyptian Muslim and someone who worked on Dawah to spread Islam, was imprisoned after he converted to Christianity, under the charge of “blasphemy against Islam”. He was freed in 2011.[167]

Egypt's penal code is silent about any punishment for apostasy from Islam. Contemporary Egyptian jurisprudence prohibits apostasy from Islam, but has also remained silent about the death penalty.[168] Article 2 of the Constitution of Egypt enshrines sharia.[169] Both Court of Cassation and the Supreme Administrative Court of Egypt have ruled that, “it is completely acceptable for non-Muslims to embrace Islam but by consensus Muslims are not allowed to embrace another religion or to become of no religion at all [in Egypt].”[168] The silence about punishment for apostasy along with the constitutional enshrinement of Sharia, means the death sentence for apostasy is a possibility. In practice, Egypt has prosecuted apostasy from Islam under its blasphemy laws using the Hisbah doctrine;[170] and non-state Islamic groups have taken the law into their own hands and executed apostates.[171]

A 2010 Pew Research Center poll showed that 84% of Egyptian Muslims believe those who leave Islam should be punished by death.[172]

Cases and incidents[edit]

In 1992, Islamist militants gunned down Egyptian secularist and sharia law opponent Farag Foda. Before his death he had been declared an apostate and foe of Islam by the ulama at Al Azhar. During the trial of the murderers, Al-Azhar scholar Mohammed al-Ghazali testified that when the state fails to punish apostates, somebody else has to do it.[171]

In 1993, a liberal Islamic theologian, Nasr Abu Zayd was denied promotion at Cairo University after a court decision of apostasy against him. Following this an Islamist lawyer filed a lawsuit before the Giza Lower Personal Status Court demanding the divorce of Abu Zayd from his wife, Dr. Ibtihal Younis, on the grounds that a Muslim woman cannot be married to an apostate – notwithstanding the fact his wife wished to remain married to him. The case went to the Cairo Appeals Court where his marriage was declared null and void in 1995.[173] After the verdict, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad organization (which had assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981) declared Abu Zayd should be killed for abandoning his Muslim faith. Abu Zayd was given police protection, but felt he could not function under heavy guard, noting that one police guard referred to him as "the kafir".[174] On 23 July 1995, he and his wife flew to Europe, where they lived in exile but continued to teach.[173]

In April 2006, after a court case in Egypt recognized the Bahá'í Faith, members of the clergy convinced the government to appeal the court decision. One member of parliament, Gamal Akl of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, said the Bahá'ís were infidels who should be killed on the grounds that they had changed their religion, this despite the fact that most living Bahá'í have not, in fact, ever been Muslim.[175]

In October 2006, Kareem Amer became the first Egyptian to be prosecuted for their online writings, including declaring himself an atheist. He was imprisoned until November 2010.[176]

In 2007 Mohammed Hegazy, a Muslim-born Egyptian who had converted to Christianity based on "readings and comparative studies in religions", sued the Egyptian court to change his religion from "Islam" to "Christianity" on his national identification card. His case caused considerable public uproar, with not only Muslim clerics, but his own father and wife's father calling for his death. Two lawyers he had hired or agreed to hire both quit his case, and two Christian human rights workers thought to be involved in his case were arrested. As of 2007, he and his wife were in hiding. In 2008, the judge trying his case ruled that according to sharia, Islam is the final and most complete religion and therefore Muslims already practice full freedom of religion and cannot convert to an older belief.[177][178][179]

In February 2009, another case of a convert to Christianity (Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary), came to court. El-Gohary's effort to officially convert to Christianity triggered state prosecutors charging him of "apostasy," or leaving Islam, and seeking a sentence of death penalty.

"Our rights in Egypt, as Christians or converts, are less than the rights of animals," El-Gohary said. "We are deprived of social and civil rights, deprived of our inheritance and left to the fundamentalists to be killed. Nobody bothers to investigate or care about us." El-Gohary, 56, has been attacked in the street, spat at and knocked down in his effort to win the right to officially convert. He said he and his 14-year-old daughter continue to receive death threats by text message and phone call.[180]

Some commentators have reported a growing trend of abandoning religion following the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, reflected through emergence of support groups on social media, although openly declared apostates still face ostracism and danger of prosecution and vigilante violence.[181][182] A well-known example is the Internet activist Aliaa Magda Elmahdy (then-girlfriend of Kareem Amer), who protested the oppression of women's rights and sexuality in Islam by posting a nude photo of herself online.[183]


Indonesia does not have a law against apostasy, and the constitution provides for freedom of religion, accords "all persons shall be free to choose and to practice the religion of his/her choice".[184] But Indonesia has as a broad blasphemy law that protects all six official religions (Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism) (Article 156) and a Presidential Decree (1965) that permits prosecution of people who commit blasphemy.[185] The Decree prohibits every Indonesian from “intentionally conveying, endorsing or attempting to gain public support in the interpretation of a certain religion; or undertaking religious based activities that resemble the religious activities of the religion in question, where such interpretation and activities are in deviation of the basic teachings of the religion.”[186] These laws have been used to arrest and convict atheist apostates in Indonesia, such as the case of 30-year old Alexander Aan who declared himself to be an atheist, declared “God does not exist”, and stopped praying and fasting as required by Islam. He received death threats from Islamic groups and in 2012 was arrested and sentenced to two and a half years in prison.[187][188]


Salman Rushdie is a prominent[189] contemporary figure accused of apostasy. In 1989 a fatwa was issued by Ayatollah Khomeini, the ruler of Iran at the time, calling for the death of Salman Rushdie for the blasphemy of authoring the book The Satanic Verses.

Hossein Soodmand, who converted from Islam to Christianity when he was 13 years old, was executed by hanging in 1990 for apostasy.[190]

According to US think tank Freedom House, since the 1990s the Islamic Republic of Iran has sometimes used death squads against converts, including major Protestant leaders. Under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the regime has engaged in a systematic campaign to track down and reconvert or kill those who have changed their religion from Islam.[152]

15 ex-Muslim Christians[191] were incarcerated on 15 May 2008 under charges of apostasy. They may face the death penalty if convicted. A new penal code is being proposed in Iran that would require the death penalty in cases of apostasy on the Internet.[192]

Ex-Muslim Armin Navabi, founder of Atheist Republic, escaped Iran.

At least two Iranians – Hashem Aghajari and Hassan Youssefi Eshkevari – have been arrested and charged with apostasy in the Islamic Republic (though not executed), not for self-professed conversion to another faith, but for statements and/or activities deemed by courts of the Islamic Republic to be in violation of Islam, and that appear to outsiders to be Islamic reformist political expression.[193] Hashem Aghajari, was found guilty of apostasy for a speech urging Iranians to "not blindly follow" Islamic clerics;[194] Hassan Youssefi Eshkevari was charged with apostasy for attending the 'Iran After the Elections' Conference in Berlin Germany which was disrupted by anti-regime demonstrators.[195]

The Bahá'ís in Iran, the nation of origin of the Bahá'í Faith and Iran's largest religious minority, were accused of apostasy in the 19th century by the Shi'a clergy because of their adherence to religious revelations by another prophet after those of Muhammad. These allegations led to mob attacks, public executions and torture of early Bahais, including the Báb.[196] More recently, Musa Talibi was arrested in 1994, and Dhabihu'llah Mahrami was arrested in 1995, then sentenced to death on charges of apostasy.[197]


Ex-Muslim Faisal Saeed al Mutar, founder of Global Secular Humanist Movement (2010), fled Iraq in 2013.

Although the Constitution of Iraq recognizes Islam as the official religion and states that no law may be enacted that contradicts the established provisions of Islam, it also guarantees freedom of thought, conscience, and religious belief and practice. While the Government generally endorses these rights, unsettled conditions have prevented effective governance in parts of the country, and the Government's ability to protect religious freedoms has been handicapped by insurgency, terrorism, and sectarian violence. Since 2003, when the government of Saddam Hussein fell, the Iraqi government has generally not engaged in state-sponsored persecution of any religious group, calling instead for tolerance and acceptance of all religious minorities.

In October 2013, 15-year-old Ahmad Sherwan from Erbil said he no longer believed in God and was proud to be an atheist to his father, who had the police arrest him. He was imprisoned for 13 days and tortured several times, before being released on bail; he faced life imprisonment for disbelief in God. Sherwan tried to contact the media for seven months, but all refused to run his story until the private newspaper Awene published it in May 2014. It went viral, and human rights activists came to his aid.[198]

The 2014 uprising of the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) has led to violations of religious freedom in certain parts of Iraq.[199] ISIS follows an extreme anti-Western interpretation of Islam, promotes religious violence and regards those who do not agree with its interpretations as infidels or apostates.[200]

Islam has given me nothing,
no respect, no rights as a woman.
– Huda Mohammed[201]

In the 2010s, an increasing amount of Iraqis, especially young people in the capital city of Baghdad and the Kurdistan Region, were leaving Islam for a variety of reasons. Some cite the lack of women's rights in Islam, others the political climate, which is dominated by conflicts between Shia Muslim parties who seek to expand their power more than they try to improve citizens' living conditions. Many young ex-Muslims sought refuge in the Iraqi Communist Party, and advocated for secularism from within its ranks. The sale of books on atheism by authors such as Abdullah al-Qasemi and Richard Dawkins has risen in Baghdad. In Iraqi Kurdistan, a 2011 AK-News survey asking whether respondents believed God existed, resulted in 67% replying 'yes', 21% 'probably', 4% 'probably not', 7% 'no' and 1% had no answer. The subsequent harsh battle against Islamic State and its literalist implementation of Sharia caused numerous youths to dissociate themselves from Islam altogether, either by adopting Zoroastrianism or secretly embracing atheism.[201]


Jordanian Atheists Group founder Mohammed AlKhadra encouraging ex-Muslims to be 'out, loud and proud'.

Islam in Jordan does not explicitly ban apostasy in its penal code; however, it permits any Jordanian to charge another with apostasy and its Islamic courts to consider conversion trials.[202] If an Islamic court convicts a person of apostasy, it has the power to sentence a prison term, annul that person’s marriage, seize property and disqualify him or her from inheritance rights. The Jordanian poet Islam Samhan was accused of apostasy for poems he wrote in 2008, and sentenced to a prison term in 2009.[203][204]


According to a 2002 journal paper, Kuwait does not have a law that criminalizes apostasy.[205] In practice, Kuwait's family law prosecutes apostates.[206] If an Islamic family court convicts a Muslim of apostasy, the court has the power to annul that person's marriage and disqualify him/her from property and inheritance rights.[207][208] For example, the prosecution of Hussein Qambar ‘Ali in an Islamic family court, on charges of apostasy, after he converted from Islam to Christianity.[209][210] Theoretically, death penalty can also be pronounced[211].

Blasphemy is criminalized. Law 111 of Kuwait's Penal Code allows usage of statements posted on internet as evidence of blasphemy.[212]


Malaysia does not have a national law that criminalizes apostasy and its Article 11 grants freedom of religion to its diverse population of different religions.[213] However, Malaysia's constitution grants its states (Negeri) the power to create and enforce laws relating to Islamic matters and Muslim community.[213] State laws in Kelantan and Terengganu make apostasy in Islam a crime punishable with death, while state laws of Perak, Malacca, Sabah, and Pahang declare apostasy by Muslims as a crime punishable with jail terms. In these states, apostasy is defined as conversion from Islam to another faith, but converting to Islam is not a crime. The central government has not attempted to nullify these state laws, but stated that any death sentence for apostasy would require review by national courts.[214][215]

National laws of Malaysia require Muslim apostates who seek to convert from Islam to another religion to first obtain approval from a sharia court. The procedure demands that anyone born to a Muslim parent, or who previously converted to Islam, must declare himself apostate of Islam before a Sharia court if he or she wants to convert. The Sharia courts have the power to impose penalties such as jail, caning and enforced “rehabilitation” on apostates – which is the typical practice. In the states of Perak, Malacca, Sabah, and Pahang, apostates of Islam face jail term; in Pahang, caning; others, confinement with rehabilitation process.[214]

The state laws of Malaysia allow apostates of other religion to become Muslim without any equivalent review or process. The state laws of Perak, Kedah, Negeri Sembilan, Sarawak, and Malacca allow one parent to convert children to Islam even if the other parent does not consent to his or her child's conversion to Islam.[214]


Article 306 of the criminal code of Mauritania declares apostasy in Islam as illegal and provides a death sentence for the crime of leaving Islam.[216] Its law provides a provision where the guilty is given the opportunity to repent and return to Islam within three days. Failure to do so leads to a death sentence, dissolution of family rights and property confiscation by the government. The Mauritanian law requires that an apostate who has repented should be placed in custody and jailed for a period for the crime.[216]

In 2014, Jemal Oumar, a Mauritanian journalist, was arrested for apostasy, after he posted a critique of Mohammad online.[217] While local law enforcement agencies held him in prison for trial, local media announced offers by local Muslims of cash reward to anyone who would kill Jemal Oumar. In a separate case, Mohamed Mkhaitir, a Mauritanian engineer, was arrested for apostasy in 2014 as well, for publishing an essay on racism in Mauritanian society with criticism of Islamic history and a claim that Mohammad's discriminated in his treatment of people from different tribes and races.[218]


Imad Iddine Habib on blasphemy and apostasy in Morocco.

The penal code of Morocco does not impose the death penalty for apostasy. However, Islam is the official state religion of Morocco under its constitution. Article 41 of the Moroccan constitution gives fatwa powers (habilitée, religious decree legislation) to the Supreme Council of Religious Scholars, which issued a religious decree, or fatwa, in April 2013 that Moroccan Muslims who leave Islam must be sentenced to death.[219][220] However, Mahjoub El Hiba, a senior Moroccan government official, denied that the fatwa was in any way legally binding.[221] This decree was retracted by the Moroccan High Religious Committee in February 2017 in a document titled "The Way of the Scholars."[222] It instead states that apostasy is a political stance rather than a religious issue, equatable to 'high treason'.

When he was 14, Imad Iddine Habib came out as an atheist to his family, who expelled him. Habib stayed with friends, got a degree in Islamic studies and founded the Council of Ex-Muslims of Morocco in 2013. Secret services started investigating him after a public speech criticising Islam, and Habib fled to England, after which he was sentenced to seven years in prison in absentia.[223]


Magdulien Abaida, Libyan human rights activist[224] and ex-Muslim, on 'murtad under Islamic Sharia'.

Atheism is prohibited in Libya and can come with a death penalty, if one is charged as an atheist.[225]

In June 2013, Libya’s General National Council assembly (GNC) voted to make Islamic Sharia law the base for all legislation and for all state institutions, a decision have an impact in banking, criminal and financial law.[226] In February 2016, Libya’s General National Council assembly (GNC) released adecree No.20 Changing on provisions of the Libyan Penal Code.[227]


Oman does not have an apostasy law. However, under Law 32 of 1997 on Personal Status for Muslims, an apostate's marriage is considered annulled and inheritance rights denied when the individual commits apostasy.[228] The Basic Law of Oman, since its enactment in 1995, declares Oman to be an Islamic state and Sharia as the final word and source of all legislation. Omani jurists state that this deference to Sharia, and alternatively the blasphemy law under Article 209 of Omani law, allows the state to pursue death penalty against Muslim apostates, if it wants to.[228][229]


Maryam Namazie interviews Palestinian ex-Muslim Waleed Al-Husseini (2016).

The State of Palestine does not have a constitution; however, the Basic Law provides for religious freedom. The Basic Law was approved in 2002 by the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and signed by then-President Yasir Arafat. The Basic Law states that Islam is the official religion, but also calls for respect and sanctity for other "heavenly" religions (such as Judaism and Christianity) and that the principles of Shari'a (Islamic law) shall be the main source of legislation.[230]

The Palestinian Authority (PA) requires Palestinians to declare their religious affiliation on identification papers. Either Islamic or Christian ecclesiastical courts handle legal matters relating to personal status. Inheritance, marriage, and divorce are handled by such courts, which exist for Muslim and Christians.[230]

Citizens living in the West Bank found to be guilty of 'defaming religion' under the old Jordanian law, run the risk of years of imprisonment, up to for life. This happened to 26-year-old blogger Waleed Al-Husseini in October 2010, who was arrested and charged with defaming religion after openly declaring himself an atheist and criticising religion online.[230] He was detained for ten months. After being released, he eventually fled to France, as the PA continued to harass him, and citizens called for him to be lynched.[231] He later found out he was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison in absentia.


Ex-Muslim Fauzia Ilyas, co-founder of Atheist & Agnostic Alliance Pakistan, tells her story (15:53–19:02).

As of 2014, there is no law that criminalizes apostasy in Pakistan.[232] A bill was proposed in 2007 to criminalize apostasy, but it failed to pass. It has been noted that, in theory, the principle of "a lacuna" could apply where a gap in statute law could be filled with Islamic law. However, as of 2014, there were no known cases of anyone being prosecuted for apostasy in Pakistan.[232] Apostates can be prosecuted under Pakistan's blasphemy law, if they desecrate the Quran or make derogatory remarks against the Islamic Prophet Muhammad.[233] Further, Pakistan has blasphemy law that carries death penalty, but the law does not define blasphemy. Under Article 295-C of its penal code, any Pakistani Muslim who feels his or her religious feelings have been hurt, directly or indirectly, for any reason or any action of another Pakistani citizen can accuse blasphemy and open a criminal case against anyone.[234] Inheritance and property rights for apostates was prohibited by Pakistan in 1963.[20]

In 1991, Tahir Iqbal, whose had converted to Christianity from Islam, was arrested on charges of desecrating a copy of the Qur'an and making statements against Muhammad. While awaiting trial, he was denied bail on the presumption by a Sessions Court and the appeals Division of the Lahore High Court that conversion from Islam was a "cognizable offense". However, it has been noted by multiple sources that there conversion from Islam is not an offense under Pakistani law.[232][235][236] In 1992, a local imam asked Iqbal to be sentenced to death for converting to Christianity. The Pakistani judge hearing the case rejected the idea, saying that Iqbal could only be sentenced if it could be proven he had committed blasphemy.[235]

In 2016, Pakistan's Sindh province passed legislation to protect religious freedom by banning forced conversions of people, Sindh has a large Hindu minority compared to other Pakistani provinces.[237]


Apostasy in Islam is a crime in Qatar.[238] Its Law 11 of 2004 specific traditional Sharia prosecution and punishment for apostasy, considering it a hudud crime punishable by death penalty.[239]

Proselytizing of Muslims to convert to another religion is also a crime in Qatar under Article 257 of its law,[239] punishable with prison term. According to its law passed in 2004, if proselytizing is done in Qatar, for any religion other than Islam, the sentence is imprisonment of up to five years. Anyone who travels to and enters Qatar with written or recorded materials or items that support or promote conversion of Muslims to apostasy are to be imprisoned for up two years.[240]

Casual discussion or “sharing one’s faith” with any Muslim resident in Qatar has been deemed a violation of Qatari law, leading to deportation or prison time.[241] There is no law against proselytizing non-Muslims to join Islam.

Saudi Arabia[edit]

The 2016 Vice News film Rescuing Ex-Muslims: Leaving Islam documents the case of Saudi ex-Muslim Rana Ahmad fleeing to Germany.[242]

Saudi Arabia has no penal code, and defaults its law entirely to Sharia and its implementation to religious courts. The case law in Saudi Arabia, and consensus of its jurists is that Islamic law imposes the death penalty on apostates.[243]

Apostasy law is actively enforced in Saudi Arabia. For example, Saudi authorities charged Hamza Kashgari, a Saudi writer, in 2012 with apostasy based on comments he made on Twitter. He fled to Malaysia, where he was arrested and then extradited on request by Saudi Arabia to face charges.[244] Kashgari repented, upon which the courts ordered that he be placed in protective custody. Similarly, two Saudi Sunni Muslim citizens were arrested and charged with apostasy for adopting the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam.[245] As of May 2014, the two accused of apostasy had served two years in prison awaiting trial.[246]

Saudi Arabia school textbooks include chapters with justification for the social exclusion and killing of apostates.[247]

According to the "Online Saudi-arabian Curriculum مناهج السعودية الألكترونية",[248] taught at schools, we read under the title "Judgements on Apostates أحكام المرتدين" the following (in Arabic):[249] "An Apostate will be suppressed three days in prison in order that he may repent ..... otherwise, he should be killed, because he has changed his true religion, therefore, there is no use from his living, regardless of being a man or a woman, as Mohammed said: "Whoever changes his religion, kill him", narrated by Al-Bukhari and Muslim."


Ex-Muslim Amal Farah on Somali attitudes to apostasy.

Apostasy is a crime in Somalia.[238] Articles 3(1) and 4(1) of Somalia's constitution declare that religious law of Sharia is the nation's highest law. The prescribed punishment for apostasy is the death penalty.[250][251]

There have been numerous reports of executions of people for apostasy, particularly Muslims who have converted to Christianity. However, the reported executions have been by extra-state Islamist groups and local mobs, rather than after the accused has been tried under a Somali court of law.[252][253]


Sudanese ex-Muslim Nahla Mahmoud on Islamic hate speech and apostasy culture in the UK.

Article 126.2 of the Penal Code of Sudan (1991) reads,

`Whoever is guilty of apostasy is invited to repent over a period to be determined by the tribunal. If he persists in his apostasy and was not recently converted to Islam, he will be put to death.`[citation needed]

Some notable cases of apostasy in Sudan include: Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, a Sudanese religious thinker, leader, and trained engineer, who was executed for apostasy in 1985 at the age of 76 by the regime of Gaafar Nimeiry.[254][255] Meriam Ibrahim, a 27-year-old Christian Sudanese woman was sentenced to death for apostasy in May 2014, but allowed to leave the country in July after an international outcry.[256]


Following the 2010-2011 "Jasmine Revolution" Tunisia became in 2014 the first country in the Arab world to protect its citizens from prosecution for renouncing Islam. This freedom of conscience is enshrined in the new constitution.[257]

United Kingdom[edit]

CEMB's #ExMuslimBecause campaign, late 2015.

The Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB) is the British branch of the Central Council of Ex-Muslims, who represent former Muslims who fear for their lives because they have renounced Islam. It was launched in Westminster on 22 June 2007. The Council protests against Islamic states that still punish Muslim apostates with death under the Sharia law. The Council is led by Maryam Namazie, who was awarded Secularist of the Year in 2005 and has faced death threats.[258] The British Humanist Association and National Secular Society sponsored the launch of the organisation and have supported its activities since.[259]

CEMB assists about 350 apostates a year, the majority of whom have faced death threats from Islamists or family members.[260] The number of ex-Muslims is unknown due to a lack of sociological studies on the issues and the reluctance of ex-Muslims to discuss their status openly.[260] Writing for The Observer Andrew Anthony argued that ex-Muslims had failed to gain support from other progressive groups, due to caution about being labelled by other progressive movements as Islamophobic or racist.[260]

In November 2015, the CEMB launched the social media campaign #ExMuslimBecause, encouraging ex-Muslims to come out as apostates, and explain why they left Islam. Within two weeks, the hashtag had been used over a 100,000 times. Proponents argued that it should be possible to freely question and criticise Islam, opponents claimed the campaign was amongst other things 'hateful', and said the extremist excrescences of Islam were unfairly equated with the religion as a whole.[261]

Besides the CEMB, a new initiative for ex-Muslims, Faith to Faithless, was launched by Imtiaz Shams and Aliyah Saleem in early 2015.[260][262]

United Arab Emirates[edit]

Apostasy is a crime in the United Arab Emirates.[263] In 1978, UAE began the process of Islamising the nation's law, after its council of ministers voted to appoint a High Committee to identify all its laws that conflicted with Sharia. Among the many changes that followed, UAE incorporated hudud crimes of Sharia into its Penal Code - apostasy being one of them.[264] Article 1 and Article 66 of UAE's Penal Code requires hudud crimes to be punished with the death penalty.[265][266]

UAE law considers it a crime and imposes penalties for using the Internet to preach against Islam or to proselytize Muslims inside the international borders of the nation. Its laws and officials do not recognize conversion from Islam to another religion. In contrast, conversion from another religion to Islam is recognized, and the government publishes through mass media an annual list of foreign residents who have converted to Islam.[267]


Apostasy is a crime in Yemen. Articles 12 and 259 of the Yemen Penal Code address apostasy, the former requires Sharia sentence be used for apostasy and the latter specifies death penalty for apostates of Islam.[268] Yemeni law waives the punishment to an apostate if he or she recants, repents and returns to Islam while denouncing his or her new faith.

In 2012, Yemeni citizen Ali Qasim Al-Saeedi was arrested and charged with apostasy by Yemeni law enforcement agency after he posted his personal views questioning the teachings of Islam, on a Yemeni blogging site and his Facebook page.[269]

Other countries[edit]

Apostasy is also a crime in smaller Muslim-majority countries such as Maldives and Comoros.[238] In Nigeria, there is no law that explicitly makes apostasy a crime; however, several Muslim-majority states of Nigeria such as Zamfara have laws invoking Sharia, which have been used to persecute Muslim apostates, particularly Muslims who have converted to Christianity.[270]

In December 2005, Nigerian pastor Zacheous Habu Bu Ngwenche was attacked for allegedly hiding a convert. In January 2006, in Turkey, Kamil Kiroglu was beaten unconscious and threatened with death if he refused to reject his Christian religion and return to Islam.[152] In a highly public case, the Malaysian Federal Court did not allow Lina Joy to change her religion status in her I/C in a 2–1 decision.[citation needed]

Ehsan Jami, co-founder of the Central Committee for Ex-Muslims in the Netherlands has received several death threats, and due to the amount of threats its members received, the Committee was dismantled.[271]

A 2007 poll by the Policy Exchange think-tank revealed that 31% of British Muslims believed that leaving the Muslim religion should be punishable by death.[272]

Universal Declaration of Human Rights[edit]

Laws prohibiting religious conversion run contrary[273] to Article 18 of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states the following:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.[274]

Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Syria voted in favor of the Declaration.[274] The governments of other Muslim-majority countries have responded by criticizing the Declaration as an attempt by the non-Muslim world to impose their values on Muslims, with a presumption of cultural superiority,[275][276] and by issuing the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam—a joint declaration of the member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference made in 1990 in Cairo, Egypt.[277][278] The Cairo Declaration differs from the Universal Declaration in affirming Sharia as the sole source of rights, and in limits of equality and behavior [279][page needed][280][281] in religion, gender, sexuality, etc.[278][282] Islamic scholars such as Muhammad Rashid Rida in Tafsir al-Minar, argue that the "freedom to apostatize", is different from freedom of religion on the grounds that apostasy from Islam infringes on the freedom of others and the respect due the religion of Islamic states.[283]

In popular culture[edit]

Films and documentaries[edit]

Among Nonbelievers, a 2015 Dutch–English film about ex-Muslims.

Books by ex-Muslims[edit]

Ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel: My Life (2007).

See also[edit]


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  2. ^ Hebatallah Ghali (2006), Rights of Muslim Converts to Christianity Ph.D. Thesis, Department of Law, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, The American University in Cairo, Egypt, p. 2; “Whereas apostate (murtad) is the person who commits apostasy (’rtidad), that is the conscious abandonment of allegiance, and renunciation of a religious faith or abandonment of a previous loyalty.”
  3. ^ Peters & De Vries (1976), Apostasy in Islam, Die Welt des Islams, Vol. 17, Issue 1/4, p. 3, quote: "By the murtadd or apostate is understood as the Moslem by birth or by conversion, who renounces his religion, irrespective of whether or not he subsequently embraces another faith".
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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]