Freedom of Religion and Apostasy in Islam

Abdullah Saeed & Hassan Saeed, Freedom of Religion and Apostasy in Islam, London: Ashgate,2004

Debate on freedom of religion as a human right takes place not only in the Western world but also in Muslim communities throughout the world. For Muslims concerned for this freedom, one of the major difficulties is the ‘punishment for apostasy’ – death for those who desert Islam.

This book argues that the law of apostasy and its punishment by death in Islamic law is untenable in the modern period. Apostasy conflicts with a variety of foundation texts of Islam and with the current ethos of human rights, in particular the freedom to choose one’s religion. Demonstrating the early development of the law of apostasy as largely a religio-political tool, the authors show the diversity of opinion among early Muslims on the punishment, highlighting the substantial ambiguities about what constitutes apostasy, the problematic nature of some of the key textual evidence on which the punishment of apostasy is based, and the neglect of a vast amount of clear Qur’anic texts in favour of freedom of religion in the construction of the law of apostasy.

Examining the significant challenges the punishment of apostasy faces in the modern period inside and outside Muslim communities – exploring in particular how apostasy and its punishment is dealt with in a multi-religious Muslim majority country, Malaysia, and the challenges and difficulties it faces there – the authors discuss arguments by prominent Muslims today for an absolute freedom of religion and for discarding the punishment of apostasy.

Here is a fragment from the introduction:

The central task of this book is therefore to reread the relevant foundation texts of Islam and to show that the punishment of apostasy by death cannot be justified by an appeal to the Qur’an or the practice of the Prophet. It also places the punishment in the context of the current debate on human rights, particularly freedom of religion. It concludes that such a punishment conflicts with the ethos of the Qur’an and the practice of the Prophet, as well as with the needs of the modern period.

I attach here chapter 13 of the book, in PDF form, provided free by the publisher:


The authors are from Maldives. Professor Abdullah Saeed is an Islamic scholar, while his brother, Dr, Hassan Saeed, is a politician who was in 2008 a presidential candidate in Maldives.

The book created heated debates in Maldives and retractions from Hassan Saeed and may have costed him the presidency.

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

2 thoughts on “Freedom of Religion and Apostasy in Islam”

  1. Freedom of apostasy is guaranteed by the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights, and yet several countries have laws against apostasy with penalties of imprisonment or death. The issue of crimes against humanity perpetrated against apostasy is rising as waring factions involving religion dominates world news.

    It is time for the UN to remember its charter and pressure countries that commit human rights violations against apostates to cease and desist. In an effort to improve awareness about these human rights violations and to solicit support for that cause, the following site provides further details:


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