WHY IS THE APOSTATE KILLED IF HE OR SHE DECIDES TO LEAVE ISLAM?
To understand apostasy, it may be best to start by referring to the example of Thumana ibn Uthal, from the time of Muhammad (PBUH). Thumana pretended to come into Islam and when presented with an opportunity, killed a group of Muslims but was soon after captured and tried for his crimes. Muhammad (PBUH) however decided to forgive him instead and ordered his release. Seeing this, Thumana accepted Islam and became a real Muslim. This eventual conversion of course was not always the case.
At the time of Muhammad (PBUH), many tribes were against Muhammad (PBUH) and his small but fast-growing number of Muslims. In order to dissuade, disburse and/or make a dent in the overall number of people joining Islam and forming a true Islamic state, the opponents of Muhammad (PBUH) developed a strategy of nominating people from within their tribes and asking them to falsely accept Islam and when faced with the right opportunity, kill as many Muslims as they possibly could get their hands on (note: shades of similarity with a common strategy used by Islamophobes today who enlist the help of certain ex-Muslims or “reformed” Muslims who conflate fact with fiction and present their misinterpreted version of Islam to prevent people from really understanding the religion).
It is however important to note, no one was ever killed under this law during the time of Muhammad (PBUH), since the purpose of this law was not only to protect Islam, but the freedom of conscience for those of all faiths, which was being threatened at the time. Nonetheless and given the particular circumstances at the time, it successfully acted as a useful deterrent.
WHAT IS THE LOGIC NOW OF IMPOSING CAPITAL PUNISHMENT FOR LEAVING ISLAM AS IF, HE OR SHE IS COMMITTING TREASON?
In modern day societies, we call the act of entering a state as a citizen and betraying it treason, which is often punishable by death, life imprisonment without pardon or solitary confinement.
However since this matter relates to theology, it is best to include an excerpt from an article that explains the entire controversy relating to apostasy: The death penalty for apostasy relies at the core of it on an authentically verified Hadith from Prophet Muhammad [PBUH] who said, “Whoever changes his religion kill him.” (Source: Sahih al-Bukhari Book 84 Hadith 57).
This statement, however, would seem to contradict numerous verses in the Qur’an that guarantee freedom of belief, few of which include “There is no compulsion in religion” [2:256], and “Whoever so wills may believe and whoever so wills may deny” [18:29] . . . How could one reconcile the Qur’an with the Hadith in this issue without committing an inconsistency whereby the Hadith is rejected out of hand, even though the same transmission rules for accepting veracity of any other Hadith were applied to this one?
Although the above-mentioned quotes are all authentic, it is also established that Prophet Muhammad [PBUH] never ordered the death penalty to be carried out on people known during his time to have apostatised.
Of such people was a Bedouin man who came to Medina (during a time of political and military power for Muslims) to announce his Islam, but apostatised and left the city a short period later without receiving any penalty for his subsequent rejection.
Given how the Prophet [PBUH] treated individuals who entered and left Islam, and the numerous verses in the Qur’an guaranteeing freedom of belief, the Hadith decreeing a death penalty for apostasy becomes more puzzling. This can be resolved by turning to another authentic Hadith where this penalty is mentioned, but with a qualifier: “. . . the one leaving his religion and abandoning the group”. In addition, another verse in the Qur’an, which can further resolve this conundrum speaks to a strategy adopted by a rival sect in Medina in one of their attempts to create a schism within the nascent Muslim community by pretending to enter Islam in the morning, then leaving it in the evening [3:72] . . . It is interesting to note here that prior to entering Islam, the two biggest tribes in Medina were engaged in a lengthy civil war that only ended when their allegiances were redefined from the tribal to the religious. If these new allegiances were jeopardised, it was highly likely to lead to civil strife and loss of life again.
Hence, the Hadith about the death penalty is not about apostasy in the strict sense of no longer believing in Islam per se. Rather, it is about what can be considered in modern terms political treason.
Contemporary Muslim scholar Abdallah bin Bayyah previously commented on a problem in how modern Muslims approach scriptural sources where they “misunderstand the text, ignore the context, and thus misapply the ruling”. (Source: Islam, Saudi and apostasy: Does Islamic law really proscribe the death penalty for apostasy? By Mohamed Ghilan on 10 May 2014 on Aljazeera.com)
WHY THEN DO SOME MUSLIM-MAJORITY COUNTRIES IMPOSE THE DEATH PENALTY FOR APOSTASY?
Here is another article (excerpts only) that talks about Sudan (but is just as equally applicable to many, many Muslim-majority countries today), which has a government that claims to be “Islamic” but has done little to demonstrate just that:
Governments like that of Omar al-Bashir’s love to use religion to legitimise their authority and call themselves and believe to be Islamists. It appears that whatever directive is taken, be it legal, social or military, it uses religion as the underlying justification and legitimisation for it. But as with all like-minded, undemocratic governments, such rulings are based on twisted truths and the bending of religious teachings to suit political needs. (Source: Sudan: A misconception of apostasy: Sudan’s recent apostasy death sentence is a manifestation of the wrongful use of religion in politics by Dallia M Abdelmoniem, Aljazeera.com)
In a nutshell, calling yourself an Islamic country does not make you “Islamic” and therefore, countries that claim to call themselves Islamic do it for political and diplomatic reasons more than religious reasons.
To illustrate this point, to kill a human being for allegedly eating beef when this is more communal or politically motivated does not mean India where the majority of citizens are Hindus, is behaving like a rogue Hindu state. On the contrary, this is about politics, pure and simple.
Coming back to the issue of apostasy, implementing a punishment for apostasy that was never once handed out even at the time of Muhammad (PBUH) calls into question the basis of what these so-called “Muslim” countries like Nigeria, Saudi, (Aceh) Indonesia, Pakistan, Sudan, etc., are pretending to do.