Gibril Fouad Haddad

Apostasy, ridda in Arabic, denotes “the annulment of [one’s own] Islam by intention, speech, or deed” (al-Nawawī, Taḥrīr p. 338) and constitutes disbelief, while its synonym irtidād also means “retracing one’s steps” in a general sense (Rāghib, Mufradātsub r-d-d) and connotes going back on one’s declaration of faith.

Usage and Context

The Qurʾān mentions apostasy in four contexts:

  • as the promotional agenda of the enemies of Muslims with the intensive form radda (Zabīdī, Tāj), to repel, in reference to the incessant military and ideological efforts of non-Muslims to promote apostasy among Muslims: Many of the people of the Scripture long to turn you back (yaruddūnakum) into unbelievers after your belief (Q 2:109); And they will not cease from fighting against you till they have made you renegades from your religion (yaruddūkum ʿan dīnikum), if they can (Q 2:217, cf. 17:73-75); O you who believe, if you obey a party from among those who have received Scripture, they will turn you back into unbelievers (yaruddūkum…kāfirīn) after you have believed (Q 3:100, cf. 3:149). The infinitive nouns radd and irtidād have the sense of return (rujūʿ), while the latter also has the sense of apostasy and recanting, like the infinitive noun ridda (Ibn Durayd, Jamhara and Fayrūzābādī, Qāmūs). “The apostate (murtadd) was thus named because he repelled himself (radda nafsahu) to his unbelief” (Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs);
  • as a historical hypothesis on an individual and mass scale (Q 5:54, 6:89, see third section below);
  • as consisting in a wilful act, except in case of actual coercion: Whoever disbelieves in Allah after his belief—save him who is forced thereto and whose heart is still content with the Faith—but whoever finds ease in disbelief: on them is wrath from Allah. Theirs will be an awful doom (Q 16:106);
  • and in the parable of a past apostate to whom We sent Our signs, but he sloughed them off (ātaynāhu āyātinā fansalakha minhā) (Q 7:175), where the sloughing is conveyed by the reflexive verb insalakha, the triliteral transitive salakha (infinitive noun salkh) denoting flaying and skinning an animal hide as well as, figuratively, closure in time: “Salkh is the stripping of the hide from the body. Salakhtu al-shahr means ‘I am leaving the month behind,’ ‘I have reached the last day of the month’” (Farāhīdī, ʿAyn, sub s-l-kh). “The distinction between salkh and merely taking something out (ikhrāj) is that salkh means taking out an envelope or something serving the same purpose” (al-ʿAskarī, Furūq p. 298). Thus the reflexive sloughing off of religion points to the discarding of one’s existential envelope as a snake discards its entire skin, a “concomitant metaphor” (istiʿāra makniyya) that reduces the apostate’s act to that of a snake coming out of its skin, in the process associating with the former the negative qualities of the latter and pointing to the erstwhile intimacy of the apostate’s connection with his former religion the way skin once adhered to flesh and bones (Ḥabannaka, Maʿārij 5:36).

The Storied Apostate: Archetype or Historical Character

The exegetes differed over the identity of him to whom We sent Our signs, but he sloughed them off (fa-nsalakha min-hā) (Q 7:175), stating he was either the Israelite or Canaanite Balʿā/am b. Bāʿūr/Bāʿūrāʾ; or the jinn-familiar, Arab poet, and pseudo-prophet Umayya b. Abī al-Ṣalt al-Thaqafī (d. 5/626), who had read the Scriptures and who taught the Quraysh the expression bismik Allāhumma (“in Your Name, O Allah our Lord”); or a priest named Abū ʿĀmir (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Baghawī, Ibn al-Jawzī, Qurṭubī, al-Balansī, al-Biqāʿī, sub Q 7:175). His identity, however, is of little consequence since he is an archetype of the onetime believer who recants (Rāzī, Tafsīr) and, more specifically, of the rank and file of learned Christians and Jews—as shown by the context and chronology of the verses—who are individually responsible for lapsing from Divine election into worldliness and unbelief (Ḥabannaka, Maʿārij).

The passage on apostasy in Sūrat al-Aʿrāf is paradigmatic: it encapsulates the styles of the Qurʾān—narrative, sapiential, prescriptive, dialectic, and eschatological—and dramatically contrasts the Divine gifts with human defection followed by Satanic embroilment; uplifting guidance with self-abasing and suicidal misguidance (see Guidance and Misguidance); and humanity with animality:

Recite unto them the tale of him to whom We sent Our signs, but who sloughed them off, so that Satan went after him and then he became one of the misguided. And had We willed We could have elevated him by their means, but he clung to the earth and followed his own lust. So his likeness is as that of a dog: if you attack him he lolls out his tongue, and if you leave him alone he [still] lolls out his tongue. That is the similitude of those who reject Our signs. So relate the story, so that perhaps they may reflect. Evil is the example of the folk who deny Our revelations and wrong their own souls. Whomever Allah guides is truly led aright; but whomever Allah sends astray, they indeed are the losers. Already have We urged unto Hell many of the jinn and humankind, having hearts wherewith they understand not, and having eyes wherewith they see not, and having ears wherewith they hear not. These are as cattle—nay, but they are worse! These are indeed the heedless ones. (Q 7:175-179)

The recurrent images of animality—first, the snake implied in the skin-sloughing image, then the dog, then cattle—culminating in sub-animality (nay, but they are worse) suggests that the doffed “existential envelope” mentioned in Type IV above consists in one’s honorific humanity, as is stated elsewhere in the Qurʾān: Verily We have honored the Children of Ādam (Q 17:70); and Surely We created man of the best stature. Then We reduced him to the lowest of the low, save those who believe and do good works; for them is an unfailing reward (Q 95:4-6). Al-Ghazālī (450-505/1058-1111) saw this dog-like apostate as a representation of false teachers (see Beguilement): "Such is the depraved scholar: for Balʿām had been given the Book of Allah Most High, but he clung to the earth and so was made dog-like; that is, whether he was granted wisdom or was never granted anything, he panted after his lusts." (Ghazālī, Iḥyāʾ, ʿIlm, p. 6: āfāt al-ʿilm, wa-bayān ʿalāmāt ʿulamāʾ al-ākhira wal-ʿulamāʾ al-sūʾ)

The “Wars of Apostasy” and Early False Prophets

Allah Most High announced the eventuality of apostasy on an individual and a mass scale, just as He announced that those committing it would be replaced by Muslims who would show steadfastness and not break their word: O you who believe, whoever among you turns back (yartadd) from his religion, Allah shall bring forth a people whom He loves and who love Him: humble toward the believers, mighty against the unbelievers, striving in the way of Allah, and fearing not the blame of any blamer (Q 5:54). Those are they unto whom We gave the Scripture and command and prophethood. But if these disbelieve therein (yakfur bihā hāʾulāʾ), then indeed We shall entrust it to a people who will not be disbelievers therein (Q 6:89, cf. 47:38). Such an event took place for the first time in the Caliphate of the first of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs (12 Rabīʿ al-Awwal 11-21 Jumādā al-Ākhira 13/7 June 632-22 August 634, two years and three months), Abū Bakr al-Ṣiddīq (d. 13/634) , who fought and won the “Wars of Apostasy” (ḥurūb al-ridda) against (i) the Arab tribes who had withheld payment of the zakāt in the wake of the Prophet’s demise, following which they all returned to paying it, and (ii) the pseudo-prophets of Najd: Ṭulayḥa al-Asadī (who later repented and died a martyr on the Muslim side in the battle of Nahāwand in the year 21/642), Musaylima the Arch-Liar and his wife Sajāḥ, who were killed in the devastating war of al-Yamāma (the harshest of these campaigns), and Fujāʾat al-Sulāmī; as well as the pseudo-prophet of Yemen, al-Aswad al-ʿAnsī (al-Dhahabī, Siyar, Siyar al-Khulafāʾ al-Rāshidīn, Abū Bakr al-Ṣiddīq). ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib (d. 40/660), al-Ḍaḥḥāk (d. 102/ca.721), al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī (d. 110/728), Qatāda (d. 117/735), and Ibn Jurayj (80-150/700-767) glossed the people whom He loves and who love Him as “Abū Bakr and his companions” (Tafsīrs of Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Ṭabarī, Rāzī, Qurṭubī, sub Q 5:54). This was a vital period in the life of the early Islamic state and its impact on later conquests was incalculable.

Types of Apostasy and Status of the Apostate

All schools of jurisprudence agree that ridda legally means reversion to unbelief (kufr) after Islam through one’s effecting something that brings one out of Islam, whether by utterance, conviction, or intention, effective skepticism (shakk yanqul ʿan al-Islām), or, in certain cases, deed, “whether explicit or virtual” according to al-Dardīr (1127-1201/1715-1786),

such as, for example, casting a volume of the Qurʾān into the trash; wearing a non-Muslim’s belt (zunnār) and entering a church or synagogue; [confecting] witchcraft; saying the universe is self-created or expressing skepticism concerning it; saying that souls become reincarnated; denying an article of faith that commands consensus and is among those that are known through the Qurʾān or the Sunna; conceding the attainability of Prophethood; insulting a Prophet, insinuating the same or disparaging one in his physique, intellect, or self-denial… (al-Dardīr, Aqrab al-masālik, Ridda; cf. ʿAbd al-Munʿim, Muʿjam, “Ridda”)

Unbelief, the greatest of the enormities (kabāʾir) and worst of the destructive sins (muhlikāt), is further described as threefold:

  • Nescient (jahlī), when one fails to give ear or pay any attention to or reflect in the least on the outward and inward signs of creation as well as the proofs of religion; this category of unbelief is typified by common-folk unbelievers who are entirely wrapped up in materiality and have no idea of the rational and transmissive sciences;
  • Negatory (juḥūdī) and willful (ʿinādī), caused by arrogance, such as the unbelief of Firʿawn (Pharaoh) and his throng;
  • De facto (ḥukmī), which is what the Lawgiver has described as the telltale sign of denial—slighting what must be revered, such as Allah Most High, His Books, His angels, His Messengers, the Last Day and its integrals, the Sacred Law (Sharīʿa) and its sciences; or insulting the religion of Islam, or Allah Most High, or the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace; or rejecting any article of the Religion that is obligatory to know… (al-Naḥlāwī, al-Durar wal-mubāḥa p. 91-92).

Furthermore, there is (i) consensus that the legal punishment of a sane, adult, male, willful, unrepentant, and public apostate is execution after summons to repent (istitāba), some specifying that the person be summoned a hundred times over thirty days. The Companions understood Q 5:33, the “Verse of armed hostility” (āyat al-muḥāraba), covering banditry and acts of war, The only reward of those who make war upon Allah and His Messenger and strive after corruption in the land will be that they will be killed or crucified… to apply to such people; and (ii) consensus of the Umma (see Community) that apostates must be forced to revert to Islam (Ibn Qaṭṭān, Iqnāʿ 4:1925-1931 §3726-3739, Dhikr aḥkām al-murtadd; Abū Ḥabīb, Ijmāʿ 1:435-438).

As for the fate of apostates in the Hereafter, it is the same as that of unbelievers: And whoever of you becomes a renegade (yartadid… ʿan dīnih) and dies in his disbelief, such are they whose works have collapsed both in the world and the Hereafter. Such are rightful owners of the Fire: they will abide therein (Q 2:217).

Apostasy Literature

One of the most elaborate manuals on the verbal expressions and physical acts and gestures that do, may, or do not constitute apostasy on the part of a Muslim who says or does them is Ibn Ḥajar al-Haytamī’s (909-973/1503-1565) al-Iʿlām bi-qawāṭiʿ al-Islām min qawl aw fiʿl aw niyya aw taʿlīq mukaffir (“Serving Notice of the Utterances, Acts, Intentions, or Conditional Statements that Annul [One’s] Islam”), which he described in another work as a compilation of the apostatizing blasphemies (mukaffirāt) which I have done my utmost to gather according to the schools of the Four Imams in an indispensable comprehensive book I have named al-Iʿlām bi-qawāṭiʿ al-Islām. So be sure to read it, for this subject is the gravest of them all. (Tuḥfat al-muḥtāj 9:93)

The jurists of the Ḥanafi School have distinguished themselves with much research on apostasy, culminating with al-Badr al-Rashīd Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl b. Maḥmūd’s (d. 768/ca.1367) compilation entitled Risālat alfāẓ al-kufr which Mullā ʿAlī al-Qārī (d. 1014/1605) appended to his Minaḥ al-rawḍ al-azhar (p. 452-525)—his commentary on the classic al-Fiqh al-akbar—and commented upon (to which the text’s editor, Wahbī Sulaymān Ghāwjī, appended an eight-page call to moderation in anathemizing). Another thorough compilation can be found toward the end of the book of Siyar in the eighteenth-century Fatāwā Hindiyya.

Al-Badr and al-Qārī list many scenarios that may seem innocuous to most but are in fact—depending on intention—tantamount to unbelief. Examples are quoting a verse of the Qurʾān in levity, such as saying, “He has made his house [as big] as By the heaven and the Morning Star! (Q 86:1)” or handing over a book while saying, “O Yaḥyā, take the book with power! (Q 19:12)”; or exclaiming “Enough with Truly We have given you al-Kawthar (Q 108:1)”; or reciting the Qurʾān to the sound of percussion including clapping (see Etiquette With the Qurʾān); or saying Bi-smi-Llāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm or al-Ḥamdu li-Llāh before or after knowingly committing a sin such as imbibing alcohol, fornicating, gambling, taking illicit sustenance or income, or fortune-telling; or declaring something licit illicit or vice-versa, or wishing it was actually the case; or answering “Yes?” or “At your service!” or “Let’s say I am!” to the calls “O unbeliever!” “O Zoroastrian!” “O Jew!” or “O Christian!” as well as many situations involving slighting, disrespecting, impugning, or insulting the people of Islamic learning without true justification—or slighting the Law itself (see Idle Speech).

A Saudi scholar, Bakr Abū Zayd, gathered “about 800 phrases” qualifying as blasphemies which he arranged alphabetically in his 1989 Muʿjam al-manāhī al-lafẓiyya, which in its third edition seven years later had grown to “about 1,500 phrases.” The doctrine of Sunni Muslims is that nothing literally entails unbelief except directly disbelieving in one of the pillars of the faith (see Belief). The concern of the early scholars was to bring people into the Religion rather than to take them out.


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See also

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