The Qur’an famously prohibits forced conversions in Surah 2 verse 256, yet many Muslims think that Islamic law says that an apostate – someone who has left the religion – should face the death penalty. Effectively a forced reconversion to Islam and in clear contradiction to 2:256.
The basis of this law on apostacy is a generally worded saying of the prophet which states “whoever changes his religion – fight (and kill) him”
This is one of several examples where jurists have run amok in their interpretation of the fragments of sayings that got narrated. This saying is void of all context and rather than trying to fit in with the many verses in the Qur’an on this subject the hadith is taken as a general rule and only restricted in the crudest manner.
Taken literally this saying would make converting to Islam an offence deserving death. Such a ludicrous interpretation cannot be sustained of course but short of that as general a meaning as possible is accepted by some “jurists”.
There are in several verses in the Qur’an which refer to letting people believe and disbelieve and not imposing Islam on anyone. 2:256 is one, but 18:29 is another. There are more, but this is not a numbers game. The Qur’an is clear in this principle.
Where does this controversy come from then? What context does this saying have which makes sense?
There is only place in the Qur’an which spells out the rules as to when apostates should be killed. These can be found in Surah 4 verse 88 onwards:
4:88 Why should ye be divided into two parties about the Hypocrites? God hath upset them for their (evil) deeds. Would ye guide those whom God hath thrown out of the Way? For those whom God hath thrown out of the Way, never shalt thou find the Way.4:89 They but wish that ye should reject Faith, as they do, and thus be on the same footing (as they): But take not friends from their ranks until they flee in the way of God (From what is forbidden). But if they turn renegades, seize them and slay them wherever ye find them; and (in any case) take no friends or helpers from their ranks;-
4:90 Except those who join a group between whom and you there is a treaty (of peace), or those who approach you with hearts restraining them from fighting you as well as fighting their own people. If God had pleased, He could have given them power over you, and they would have fought you: Therefore if they withdraw from you but fight you not, and (instead) greet you saying “peace”, then God Hath opened no way for you (to war against them).
The verses here concern a moment when a group of people who had previously declared themselves Muslims had now clearly disobeyed the Prophet and deserted the Muslim community and army at the eve of a crucial battle known as the battle of Uhud. They had become apostates. What these verses spell out is that if someone leaves Islam, is a deserter from the army, migrates over to live with the enemy and yet does not fight the Muslims, then no Muslim has any permission to fight him.
The saying quoted above is entirely consistent with the prophet being asked to explain verse 4:89 and this must therefore have been the context of the saying.
The controversy which verse 4:88 refers to is the question of whether it would ever be legitimate to fight against those deserters and apostates. The ruling before that point had been very simple: The moment that someone becomes a Muslim by stating the Shahadah, then even if you are in the middle of a battle and about to strike him then from that moment on he is a muslim and it is totally forbidden to fight against him. So the question arose for the first time: What happens if someone who had been a Muslim now turns and fights against the Muslims? Are the Muslims allowed to fight back?
Verse 4:89 answers this. These verses several conclusions very clear:
Apostacy does not incur a death penalty.
Desertion does not incur a death penalty.
Fighting and killing is only permitted in self defence against those who fight and kill you.
So not only can civilians never be targetted in war, but even apostate deserter civilians cannot be targeted