A call to abolish the death penalty for offences against religion

A call to abolish the death penalty for offences against religion

Nadirsyah Hosen | 10 October 2021

Riddah— ‘turning back’ from Islam—is probably the closest to what is known in the West as offences against religion, including apostasy and blasphemy. Riddah is punishable by death in 12 countries, and in all 12 countries, Shari’a is cited as the reason for the punishment.

But the Holy Qur’an is clear: ‘La ikraha fi-din’—'there shall be no coercion in matters of faith’ (2:256). The Qur’an is silent on any punishment for riddah, and I’m going to share three reasons why the Shari’a does not mandate the death penalty for riddah.

First, ‘One who changes his religion shall be killed’ is a famous Hadith often used to justify the death penalty, but it has only been conveyed by one narrator (ahad). Many scholars agree that a single (Ahad)Hadith is not enough to call for the death penalty.

Second, even if we accept that this Hadith prescribes the death penalty for riddah, contemporary Islamic scholars argue that the death penalty was never intended to be applied for a change of faith, but to punish treason.

Third, many classic scholars argue that the punishment for riddah is mandatory death penalty (known as hudud). However, contemporary scholars argue that the Hanafi school disputes this position. They argue that legal authorities should have the discretion (known as ta’zir) to decide the appropriate punishment from forgiveness, that is no punishment, to the death penalty.

We have seen a new position emerging among contemporary Islamic scholars. There is a growing consensus that the Qur’an prescribes no temporal punishment for offences against religion.

Indeed, Islam is the State religion in both Tunisia and Morocco but neither prescribes the death penalty for riddah.

In countries where codified legislation prescribes the death penalty for riddah, it is often vague, ambiguous, and broad, and has been directed against political opponents, minority groups, progressive scholars, and activists whose lives are under threat because of these laws.

The Qur'an embraces religious freedom. ‘Guaranteeing’ religious freedom while retaining the death penalty for such behaviour is not true religious freedom.

Islamic scholars need to come together in promoting, protecting, and maintaining religious freedom. In marking the World Day Against the Death Penalty, I invite all Islamic scholars to join our call.

Nadirsyah Hosen is a Fellow at Eleos Justice and Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Law, Monash University.

Read more about the Shari’a and religious offences in Eleos Justice's new report, ‘Killing in the Name of God: State-Sanctioned Violations of Religious Freedom'.