The Holy Quran has set out several instances which show that the exercise of compulsion or force in the matter of religion is the practice of those who are committed to falsehood. For instance, the opponents of Noah said to him: If you do not desist you shall certainly be stoned to death (26:117). Abraham’s father said to him: Is it that thou art turning away from my gods, Abraham? If thou desist not, I shall surely cause thee to be stoned to death (19:47).
Moses and Aaron were commanded: Go, both of you, to Pharaoh, for he has transgressed grievously; but speak gently to him, perchance he may take heed or be humble (20:44-45). In contrast, the treatment accorded to Moses by Pharaoh and his people was: When he came to them with Truth from Us, they said: Slay the male children of those who have believed with him and spare their female children…Pharaoh announced: Hinder me not in putting Moses to death; and let him call on his Lord to save him. I fear lest he should change your religion or cause disturbance in the land (40:26-27).
When the magicians whom Pharoah had summoned to contend against Moses were frustrated and they realized that Moses was righteous and declared their belief in him, Pharoah was greatly incensed at their apostacy and exploded: What! You have believed in him even before I gave you leave! Surely, this is a plot that you have hatched together in the city, that you may turn out therefrom its people, but you shall soon know the consequences. Most surely will I cut off your hands and feet on alternate sides, then will I crucify you all together. They answered: What then? In any case, to our Lord shall we return. Thou art incensed with us only because we have believed in the Signs of our Lord when they came to us. We pray to our Lord: Send down on us steadfastness and cause us to die in a state of submission to Thee (7:124-127). Again it is said: Pharoah stormed: What! Do you believe in him before I give you leave? He must be your chief who has taught you magic. Therefore, I will certainly cut off your hands and your feet on alternate sides, and I will surely crucify you on the trunks of palm trees. Then shall you know which of us can inflict severer and more lasting punishment. They retorted: We cannot prefer thee to the manifest signs that have come to us, nor to Him Who created us. So decree what thou wilt decree, thou canst but terminate this present life. We have believed in our Lord that He may forgive us our sin and forgive us the deceit that thou hast forced us to practise. Allah is the Best and Most-Abiding (20:72-74).
Those who contend the punishment of an apostate is instant death, identify themselves with the opponents of truth in all ages. In the case of Pharaoh and the magicians who announced their faith in Moses, the magicians were clearly apostates in the estimation of Pharaoh who himself claimed to be their god and could, therefore, not tolerate their believing in any other god. According to those Muslim divines who advocate death for an apostate he was in the right in threatening them with instant execution, but the Holy Quran clearly condemns Pharaoh’s attitude as cruel and tyrannical. How would the advocates of death for apostacy resolve this difficulty?
Another absolutely conclusive verse of the Holy Quran on this subject is: A section of the people of the Book urge some from among themselves: Why not affirm, in the early part of the day, belief in that which has been revealed unto the believers and repudiate it in the latter part of the day, perchance they may turn away from their faith. (3:73). This was a Jewish device whereby they hoped to create doubt and confusion among the Muslims in the hope that some of them might thereby be beguiled into repudiating Islam. If that was the purpose of their device the verse is conclusive proof that there was no punishment prescribed for apostacy. In the first place, those of the Jews who, according to this device, would announce their belief in Islam during the early part of the day, and then would repudiate Islam in the latter part, would render themselves liable to execution if the Holy Quran had prescribed death as the penalty for apostacy; and in the second place, their execution would have operated as a deterrent in the case of those who might otherwise have been tempted to follow their example and thus the design would have been frustrated both ways.
The advocates of the death penalty for apostacy urge that this verse merely mentions this design of the Jews which remained part of their thinking and was never put into practice and that, therefore, this verse cannot be relied upon in support of the thesis that the Holy Quran does not prescribe any penalty for apostacy. This argument is devoid altogether of any validity. Even if it sets out only a hypothetical case which was only contemplated but was never put into practice, the verse would still be conclusive proof that the Holy Quran had prescribed no penalty for apostacy. If the extreme penalty had been prescribed the Jews would never have contemplated any such device as is mentioned in the verse. But in fact it was not a merely hypothetical case. This is clear from the following extract taken from page 493 of Vol. II of the commentary Bahral Muheet: Hasan and Sady relate that twelve Jewish divines of Khaibar and Urainah agreed among themselves that they should declare belief verbally in Islam during the early part of the day, without any conviction in their hearts, and that in the latter part of the day they should repudiate Islam on the ground that they had again studied their books and had discussed the matter with other divines and had come to know that Muhammad was not a true prophet and that his falsehood and that of his religion had become patent to them. When they would do that, the companions of Muhammad would fall into doubt and thinking that as they were the people of the Book and knew these matters better than themselves, they would be disgusted with their own religion (Islam) and would turn to their religion (Judaism).
This incident is mentioned in several other commentaries, in some of which the names of the divines who had so agreed are also mentioned.
Another verse of the Holy Quran also indicates that some such incidents actually took place. That verse is as follows: When the people of the Book come to you, they say: We believe; but they come in disbelieving and go out disbelieving and Allah knows best that which they seek to hide (5:62).
Another relevant verse is: He who turns back on his heels shall not harm Allah a whit (3:145). In this verse, turning back on his heels obviously means repudiation of Islam and apostacy, and no punishment for apostacy is mentioned. Also, the affirmation that such a one shall not be able to harm the Muslims at all also indicates that there was no such punishment for apostacy as is now alleged, for if such a one was to be executed immediately, there could have been no apprehension of his doing any harm to anyone.
Another verse to the same effect is: Whoever takes disbelief in exchange for belief has undoubtedly gone astray from the right path (2:109). This also indicates that there was no worldly punishment for apostacy. All that is mentioned is that an apostate goes far astray from the right path.
Thus there is nothing whatsoever in the Holy Quran from which any inference might be drawn that apostacy is punishable with death or indeed with any worldly penalty. It must, however, be clearly understood that we are concerned with plain and simple repudiation of Islam without any complication, such as an apostate joining the enemies of Islam and fighting along with them against the Muslims, or committing any other offence.