Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

The Law of Apostasy in Islam Must Change

By Rev. Bassam M. Madany

Very early in the history of Islam, a radical position became solidified against anyone who dared to go back on his or her Muslim faith. It had its origin in the defection of several Arab tribes from the Islamic Umma, soon after news about the death of Muhammad had reached them. In the summer of 632 A.D., Abu Bakr, the first caliph, and father of the Prophet’s favorite wife, Aisha, mounted military campaigns against the rebels and forced them back into the fold of Islam. Abu Bakr’s campaigns are known in Arabic as Huroob al-Radda, i.e. the wars against apostasy.

Eventually, the Four Sunni Schools for the interpretation of the Shari’ah codified the rules regarding the sin of apostasy (radda) and declared that, unless an apostate repents, he or she is to be punished with death. This harsh attitude towards Muslims who convert to other religions is based on the belief that Muhammad was Allah’s last messenger to mankind. To go back on Islam and renounce the Shahadah (Islamic confession of the radical unity of Allah, and the Prophethood of Muhammad) is tantamount to committing the unpardonable sin. Several Qur’anic verses can be adduced as a basis for this harsh treatment of the apostates; sufficient here is the following ayah from Surat Aal ‘Imran, a Medinan Chapter 3:85

"And whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it shall not be accepted from him, and in the life to come he shall be among the losers.”

“Waman yabtaghi ghair’l Islami deenan, flan yuqbala minhu, wa Huwa fi’l akhirati mina’l khasireen.”

This rigid and unbending attitude vis-à-vis Muslims who adopt the Christian faith is being discussed in the Arab online press. The following report appeared in the daily Aafaq on 24 April, 2009:

“Religious Leaders in Algeria Are Demanding the Punishment of the Apostates”

رجال الدين في الجزائر يطالبون بمعاقبة المرتدين عن الإسلام

Here are excerpts from the report, followed by my comments.

“An Algerian policeman and his daughter announced that they have embraced Christianity. This news has precipitated a tremendous amount of discussions and arguments in Algeria, causing the religious authorities to demand that the police department should dismiss him from his position, now that he has become a Murtadd (Apostate).

“The policemen explained to the Algerian newspaper al-Nahar that his previous life, as a Muslim, was filled with anxieties and a corresponding absence of peace of mind. He added that the radical Islamist movements that had massacred many women and children caused him to become fearful of Islam which he held responsible for the bloodshed. His life was caught up in a deep struggle that eventually led him to embrace Christianity which, according to him, “has given me peace of mind.”

“As to the daughter of the policeman, she explained that her reason for embracing Christianity was due to the fact that Islam treated women as maids and concubines, only to be sexually exploited by men. Muslim men regard women only from a physical point of view. Now, having adopted Christianity, she began to feel as a dignified human being. Her decision was final, and she does not regret it at all.

“The Algerian religious authorities reacted swiftly by declaring that a Murtad (Apostate) is now a Kafir (Unbeliever) and is subject to capital punishment, unless he or she repents by returning to Islam.

“It is estimated that there are around 10,000 Christians most of them live in the Kabyle district of Tizi Ouzou. Some unofficial sources claim that the number of Christians in Algeria is more than 100,000; they are to be found all over the country, especially in the west of Algeria around the cities of Oran and Mostaganem, most of these converts are young men and women. They claim that the reason that prompted them to embrace Christianity was Islam’s responsibility for murder, terror, and rape, as perpetrated by the Islamist groups who, in 1992, started their Jihad against civilians with the hope of getting closer to Allah!”

[Reference in the above paragraph is to the annulment in 1992, by the Military Government of the elections that were won by FIS (Front Islamique du Salut,) a Salafist organization. In response to the government’s action, FIS declared Jihad and began its Irhab against innocent civilians all over Algeria; the number of Algerians and foreigners killed during the civil war stands somewhere between 70,000 and 200,000]

The Law of Apostasy in Islam needs to be thoroughly aired on a global basis. For the first time in history, a great number of Muslims reside outside Daru’l Islam. They bring with them their religious baggage, and act as if their Shariah, including the punishment of a murtad (apostate,) should be enforced everywhere! Even though Western laws guarantee the freedom of religion, many Muslims do not respect these laws when their relatives embrace Christianity. In fact most converts are persecuted severely, and are often threatened with death. At the same time, these very Muslims engage in their Da’wah, calling Westerners to embrace Islam!

There is a total lack of quid pro quo in the relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. On the one hand, no missionary activities may take place in Daru’l Islam; and when Muslims convert to Christianity, the Law of Apostasy is applied. On the other hand, Muslims see no inconsistency at all as they arrogate to themselves the right to propagate Islam wherever they have settled in the world!

Western nations and governments do not get actively involved in pointing to Muslim nations this total lack of reciprocity. The U. S. State Department is to be applauded for publishing its annual report on Freedom of Religion.1 For example, when we take time to read the reports on the Middle East, we receive accurate information about the status and plight of non-Muslim minorities living in such countries as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.2 However, what is needed is much more than publishing objective information about the lack of religious freedom within Islamic lands. Western governments and societies should point out to their Muslim counterparts that freedom of religion and conversion is always to be respected in all nations as a universal human right. It is a shocking anomaly, that while Muslims enjoy complete religious freedom when they settle in the West, the same right is absent for Christians and other non-Muslims living and working in Muslim lands. Western governments which do very little or nothing to address this issue in their diplomatic dealings with Muslim nations exhibit weakness and indecision in a matter that should be manifestly obvious to all.

Recently, I was told by a Western Christian couple who had worked in Saudi Arabia for five long years, that when they met with other Christians for fellowship, they gave the impression to the Saudi authorities, that the sole purpose of their get-together was simply “to exchange recipes!”

It is indeed a very tragic situation that this total lack of religious freedom in Islam receives hardly any proper attention in the Western press. On the other hand, a reformist Arabic-language website drew attention to this deplorable tradition when it did not hesitate to report that “Religions Leaders in Algeria Are Demanding the Punishment of the Apostates.” Most Algerians have relatives in France who are free to practice and propagate their Muslim faith. And when French people convert to Islam neither church nor state begins proceedings of persecution. It’s high time for freedom of religion to be respected by Muslims in our globalized and interdependent world.


1 The Annual Report to Congress on International Religious Freedom describes the status of religious freedom in each foreign country, government policies violating religious belief and practices of groups, religious denominations, and individuals, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world. It is submitted in compliance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.