Apostacy (Irtidad) in Islam
by: Sayyid Muhammad Rizvi
In the question forwarded to me by the 'Aalim Network about the punishment given to an apostate, I could sense the plea for understanding the law of Islam and the rationale behind that law. The issue of apostacy in Islam is a very complex and sensitive issue; and, therefore, I intend, with the tawfiq of Allah, subhanahu wa ta'ala, to answer in detail using the notes I have from a talk I gave in Toronto in May 1990.
First we shall explain our view about faith in God and whether or not Islam can be forcefully imposed on others; then comes the Islamic view on the choices a person has after he has willingly joined the Islamic faith; and, finally, we shall discuss the issue of apostacy.
1. Faith in God: A Force or a Choice?
According to Islam, every child is born with the built-in ability to know and believe in his Creator; he has the cognition that has been placed by Allah in his nature (fitra). Allah describes the human soul in a very beautiful way. After swearing by the most majestic signs of His creation, Allah says:
"...and by the soul and He who perfected it! Then He inspired to it [the ability to understand] what is good for it and what is evil for it. Successful is he who purifies it, and failure is he who corrupts it." (91:1-10)
Allah has made our souls such that we are able to distinguish what is good and what is evil. But for a human soul to function on its fitra, there is a condition-it must be kept pure, it must be immunized against spiritual corruption. The soul is like a bulb which can give light, provided it itself is not surrounded with a thick cover or dust; every human being has that light in his soul; however, those who keep it pure can enlighten their path with it, while those who allow the 'spiritual dirt' to accumulate on it cannot see their path towards Allah. (Incidentally, kufr literally means a cover.) The Prophet of Islam emphasized the same thing when he said, "Every child is born with the believing nature (al-fitra), it is his parents who make him into a Jew or a Christian."
Besides this fitra, Allah has also provided us with various means to know Him and believe in Him; He sent prophets and messengers, He sent books, and above all He created thousands of signs in nature which remind us of Him. "Soon We shall show them Our signs on the horizon (afaq) and in themselves (anfus), until it becomes clear to them that this is the Truth." (41:53)
2. Can Islam be Imposed Forcefully on Others?
Having accepted that from the Islamic point of view, faith in God is ingrained in human nature, and that it is only the parents and the society that corrupt the soul and divert it from the Right Path, the question comes: Can Islam be imposed forcefully on non-Muslims? Or we may even ask: Is jihad a means of imposing the faith of Islam on non-Muslims?
I do not intend to get into the issue of jihad; but, briefly stated, the majority of Shi'a mujtahideen do not believe in initiating a jihad without the clear permission of a ma'sūm Imam. Even those who allow the initiation of jihad, do not believe that jihad can be used to impose Islam on non-Muslims. At most, they say that jihad can be initiated to remove tyranny and oppression from a non-Muslim society in order to remove the factors which prevent the Divine message from reaching to the masses. Jihad cannot be used for imposing Islam on others; it is just for putting an end to the aggression on Muslims or for helping the oppressed non-Muslims. (The history of Muslims bears out this idea; an unbiased historian can clearly separate the spread of the Muslim rule over areas outside Arabia [by military might] and the spread of Islam [without force] in those same regions.)
The Qur'an clearly says that, "There is no compulsion in the religion."
(2:256) What this verse actually means is that: "There is no compulsion in [accepting] the religion of Islam." Why? The verse continues, "Surely the Right Path is clearly distinct from the crooked path." So Muslims can always show the difference between the right and the wrong paths, but not force the non-Muslims to accept Islam.
3. What After Submission?
What we have said above was about accepting Islam, coming into the fold of Islam. We have made it very clear that no one can be forcefully brought into the fold of Islam; Islam cannot be imposed on any person or society. This was all about a person who is outside the fold of
Now we move on to the next step. If a person is raised in a society which protects his soul from the impurities of kufr and shirk, or if a person is shown the Right Path and accepts it willingly - can such a person reject the Islamic faith? Is he allowed to apostate (become murtad)? Can he declare that he does not believe in God, Prophet Muhammad and the Day of Judgement?
Once a person enters into the fold of Islam, the rules change. As soon as you become a Muslim by your own choice, you are expected to submit yourself to Allah totally and completely. "O You who believe! Enter into submission, kaffatan!" (2:208) K?ffatan in the sense of "all" and "completely". Once a person becomes a believer, he surrenders the right of making decisions to Allah and Messenger: "No believing man and no believing woman has a choice in their own affairs when Allah and His Messenger have decided on an issue." (33:36)
Now even the question of apostacy, irtidad or deserting of one's faith, for a Muslim, becomes a shar'a/religious issue-even in this issue he is governed by the laws of Islam. And Islam clearly says: No! You cannot become an apostate. After coming into the fold of Islam, rejection of the fundamentals is not tolerated. If there are doubts in your mind about the fundamental beliefs of Islam, then discuss, question, debate, study and solve them BUT you are not allowed to leave Islam, desert your own fitra! There are quite a few examples of such discussions by people like Ibn Abi 'l-'Awja' (during the days of Imam Ja'far as-Sadiq) and Ishaq al-Kindi (during the days of Imam Hasan al-'Askari) who were attempting to write an answer to the Qur'an!
On the issue of openly rejecting Islam, Islam cannot just stand aside and see one of its followers going astray. It would allow discussions to understand and solve the problems, but not allow its followers to lower themselves from the sublime status of "surrendering to the will of Allah-Islam" to the status of those "who have hearts but do not understand, ears but do not hear, and eyes but do not see."
4. Apostacy is Equal to Treason
Why does Islam not allow apostacy? Apostacy or irtidad in Islam is equal to treason.
The Western world limits treason to political and military terms. In the USA, treason consists "only in levying war against Americans, and in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort."
However, sometimes even the Western world stretches the concept of political treason to include things which are not related to politics or military matters. For example, in England, treason includes violating the King's consort, or raping the monarch's eldest married daughter, as well as the sexual violation of the wife of the eldest son and heir. Even now, "polluting" the Royal bloodline or obscuring it is included in the definition of treason. (See Professor Ali Mazrui, The Satanic Verse or a Satanic Novel, p. 4-5, who probably is the first Muslim to have used the term treason in comparison with apostacy in the context of the Rushdie affair.)
Why has England included such non-political and non-military matters in treason? Because the Royal family and the purity of its bloodline is one of the most significant part of the British society and culture. In Islam, the concept of treason is not limited to political and military affairs, it also has a spiritual and cultural dimension to it. In the Islamic order of sacredness, Allah, then the Prophet and then the Qur'an occupy the highest positions.
Tawhid, nubuwwa, and qiyama form the constitution of Islam. Just as upholding and protecting the constitution of a country is sign of patriotism, and undermining it is a form of treason-in the same way open rejection of the fundamental beliefs of Islam by a Muslim is an act of treason. Apostacy, i.e., the public declaration of rejecting the fundamentals of Islam, has also negative influence on the Muslim society; it is indeed a major fitna.
And that is why Islam has prescribed harsh punishment for irtid?d. It must be emphasized that irtidad which we are discussing here involves open rejection, without any force and with the realization of what one's statements or actions imply. The punishment prescribed by the shari'a for apostacy is death.
Even the terms used by the shari'a for apostates give the idea of treason to this whole phenomenon. "Murtad" means apostate. Murtad can be of two types: fitri and milli.
(1) Murtad Fitri means a person born of a Muslim parent and then he rejects Islam. Fitri means nature or natural. The term "murtad fitri" implies that the person has apostated from his nature, the nature of believing in God.
(2) "Murtad Milli" means a person who converted to Islam and then later on he rejects Islam. Milli is from millat which means a community. The term "murtad milli" implies that the person has apostated from his community.
In the first case, the apostacy is like treason against God; whereas in the second case, the apostacy is like treason against the Muslim community. Probably, that is why there is also a difference in dealing with these two kinds of murtads:
A former kafir who became a Muslim and then apostates (Murtad Milli) is given a second chance; if he repents, then he is not to be killed.
But one who is born as a Muslim and then apostates (Murtad Fitri) he is to be killed even if he repents. His repentance might be accepted by Allah but he still has to go through the punishment prescribed for his treason in this world.
This punishment is only applicable in case of apostacy by men; in case of women, the punishment is not death but life imprisonment. And if such a woman repents, then her repentance is accepted and the punishment is suspended.
In the writings of some of the mujtahideen, I have sensed that the punishment of a murtad is to be implemented only in daru 'l-Islam (i.e., the Muslim world) and not if the murtad flees to daru 'l-kufr (i.e., the abode of kufr).
What are the sources for these laws? The sources on which these punishments have been outlined in the shara'a are the authentic and reliable ahadith from the Imams of Ahlul Bayt (a.s.). Those who know Arabic and have the aptitude to handle the fiqh istidlali text may refer to the late Ayatullah al-Khu'i's Takmilatu Minhaju 's-Salihiyn, vol. 1, pp. 324-337 for the ahadith used by our jurists.
This is not a new issue or a controversial one among the Shi'a jurists. Even the scholars of the past centuries had the same views; for example, Shaykh at-Tusi (d. 460 AH) in an-Nihaya; Ibn Idris (d. 598 A.H.) in as-Sara'ir; Ibn Hamza at-Tusi in al-Wasila, al-Muhaqqiq al-Hilli (d. 676 A.H.) in Sharaya'u 'l-Islam, al-'Allama al-Hilli (d. 726 A.H.) in Qawa'idu 'l-Ahkam, and the First Martyr (d. 786 A.H.) and the Second Martyr in Sharhu 'l-Lum'ati 'd-Dimishqiyya.
Those who might suspect a division on this issue between the "usuli" and the "akhbari" schools, they should know that even the muhaddithin have chapters in their collections of hadith on "the punishment for murtad" citing the ahadith on this subject. See, for example, Shaykh Hurr al-'Amili, who has seven pages of ahadith under the title "abwab haddi 'l-murtad - sections on the punishment for murtad" in volume 18 of his Wasa'ilu 'sh-Shi'a.