Concept of Religious Liberty in Islam




The phrase ‘Religious Liberty’ can be taken as a very loaded terminology because it consists of two words that have always been a target of heated debates, each in its own capacity. The term ‘religion’ over the years has been defined as an organized collection of belief systems, cultural systems and world views that relate humanity to spirituality and moral values.[1] Whereas, liberty can be defined as immunity from arbitrary exercise of authority: political independence; freedom of choice or personal freedom from servitude, confinement or oppression. Thus, religious freedom is can be explained as the freedom of an individual (or a society) to manifest or practice religion or worship as one wants to, including the freedom to change the religion, leave one religion or not follow any religion. In order to fully understand the concept of liberty of religion (or religious liberty) it is necessary to understand the term ‘human rights’ because that is where the debate starts from. There are two categories in the non-Western societies; one, for whom the conceptualization of human rights is a product of Western civilization, according to which it has a neo-imperialistic[2] tone and is used to dominate, control and restrict the progress of non-Western societies while for the other, it reflects the concerns of a vast majority of people and thus the fact that it began as a Western construct does not mean that it’s a western idea or concern.[3] These two categories divide the non-Western societies into conservative and liberal schools of thought respectively that would further the debate in the two divergent directions.

The basic premise of human rights is based on the idea that individuals possess rights simply by destiny of being a human. And liberty of religion is seen is one of the important elements of human rights that are addressed in the Abrahamic religions.

Islam and Religious Freedom

The major debate that comes within Islam with respect to religious liberty is regarding the act of apostasy, where a Muslim leaves the religion to convert his/her religion or chooses not to follow any religion. However, the Universal declaration of UN provides a complete liberty on religion stating in Article 18 that:

‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes the freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.’

There are varying views of Muslims regarding the Universal Declaration human rights. Those who support almost all of the articles of the UDHR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights) are of the view that these articles do not deviate away from Quranic teachings. However, regarding the aspect of religious freedom, they argue in the favour of retaining the pre-modern Islamic legal view which says that the human rights instruments Islam provided fourteen hundred years ago are very comprehensive and provide every detail including the freedom to practice religion stating that ‘each person has the right to freedom of belief and worship according to one’s religion’[4] whose essence comes from the Quranic verse, ‘To you your religion, to me my religion’. But the question of changing one’s religion from Islam is not addressed very clearly in the Quranic documents and therefore remains a sensitive topic for most of the Muslims.

Although the Orthodox school of thought of Muslims agrees upon the freedom of right of religion given by the Quran which is evident from the verse which says, ‘There shall be no coercion in the matters of faith’; it still has reservations with the article 18 of UDHR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

Religious Freedom and the Views of Various Muslim Scholars

One of such scholars is Sultan Hussain Tabandeh from Iran who argues that in an Islamic state those religions that follow Abrahamic religions and believe in one true God form the basis of Islamic religion and thus enjoy complete religious freedom in their faiths. However, followers of other religions that do not believe in one God and therefore are contrary to Islam do not have the official right to freedom religion under the Islamic state laws.

Tabandeh also disagrees with the freedom to change one’s religion by saying that this decision might be under force or pressure or could be induced by false motives such as getting divorce etc and therefore it is not appreciated. He also strengthens his argument based on the premise that no man of sense would ever turn down the better in favour of the inferior and therefore anyone who penetrates beneath the surface is bound to recognize Islam’s superiority over other religions. Tabandeh is of Shia sect whereas many Sunni scholars share similar thinking when asked about their points of view regarding the freedom to religion. One of the Sunni scholars from Egypt, Hassan Ahmad Abidin states that ‘belief is a fundamental human right’ and ‘Islam does not force anyone to profess it’, he talks about the time of Prophet (PBUH) when apostasy was prohibited because people would profess Islam only to harm the religion and therefore Islam prohibited apostasy in order to safeguard the Muslim community. He says that Muslim community is strong today and therefore does not need such protection and therefore there is no need to retain the ruling. This argument of Abidin looks like taking a very secular point of view at the face of it. However, he further goes on to elaborate that question on which religion should an apostate convert to and says that if he is going to convert to a better religion than Islam, then Islam should not punish the apostate i.e. if an apostate is going to convert to a religion that guarantees better rights for him and his community than Islam, then no one would support Islamic ruling of punishing the apostate. However, in reality, Islam is the best and the perfect religion which gave rights to human beings that had never even been thought of before. And therefore, he indirectly indicates towards the Islamic ruling of punishment.

The right to freedom of choosing religion has hence been given by Islam according to the majority of Muslim scholars however the right to apostasy is not. The classical Muslims jurists argue on the premise that Islam is one true religion and hence turning away from such religion which is perfect and addresses all the problems and rights of human beings cannot be tolerated.

The Cairo Declaration of Human rights in Islam as well as the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights formed by the Islamic Council of Europe also deal with the aspect of freedom of religion however they do not address the problem of apostasy as it has been addressed in the UDHR of 1948. Both the charters follow a more conventional approach to religious freedom which could rather be taken as ‘limited’ freedom to religion. For example, the article 10 of Cairo declaration on Human Rights states that:

‘Islam is a religion of unspoiled nature. It prohibits any form of compulsion on Man or the exploitation of his poverty or ignorance in order to convert him to another religion or atheism.’

Although this article allows the freedom from compulsion on any religion, it suggests that conversion is from Islam to any other religion is prohibited as it could be used for the exploiting the basic rights of a human being.

In case of further looking at the liberty to profess religion, it is important to look at the point of view of Professor Abdulaziz Sachedina, born in Tunisia and is from Indian origin, he teaches subjects associated with Islam at the University of Virginia. According to him, there is a fundamental problem with interpreting the word ‘Irtidad’ as apostasy, since the term ‘Irtidad’ meaning ‘turning away’ was originally used for the battles that were fought against those Muslims who would refuse to pay taxes to the Islamic state after the demise of Prophet (PBHU). He compares this with the Christian concept of apostasy where it means ‘historically an abandoning of exclusive and institutionalized religion for another.’[5] He agrees that question of apostasy in Islam is very complex, and says that the treatment of that offence in the light of Quran is beyond human jurisdiction. As Quran says:

‘And, whosoever turns (yartadid) from his religion, and dies disbelieving – their works have failed in this world and the next; those are the inhabitants of the Fire; therein they shall dwell forever.’ (K. 2:217)

This verse according to Sachedina makes it clear that if a person turns away from his religion (Islam), he is punishable by Allah only and although it is a serious offence, its punishment depends upon the civil interpretation of the act by the political and judicial authority of the Islamic state.

Furthermore, Abdulaziz Sachedina holds the Muslim political authority solely responsible for determining the act of turning away from Muslim public order (Ridda) by proposing that in the absence of an ‘ecclesiastical body’, it is the responsibility of the state authority to determine the criminality of ‘Ridda’ and take appropriate action to deal with it. Therefore, basically the act of apostasy in Islam has been shaped by the civil considerations which have shown a harsh reaction towards the act of apostasy, without taking into account the Quranic doctrine of freedom religion which emphasizes that no human agency can confer an individual’s spiritual destiny. As long as apostasy remains a private matter and does not harm the society at large, there is no particular punishment in the Quran. Instead, when it defies sanctity and intrudes the rights of Muslims, then it is treated as a physical belligerence towards the faith. When such conditions prevail, it is no mere apostasy, rather it is treated as an act of subversion that may cause chaos and thus may threaten the unity of Islamic society. Sachedina agrees that under such circumstances, apostasy is punishable by the severest penalties, a violent rebellion against God, the Prophet and the whole Islamic community.

While Abdulaziz Sachedina reflects a softer picture of Islam by depicting his views about apostasy, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a highly influential Islamic cleric of Egyptian origin depicts a completely opposite view regarding the treatment of apostates. Also the spiritual and intellectual leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Qaradawi is of opinion that Islam’s diligent use of executing apostates is one of the reasons that ensured Islam’s survival since the 15th century, saying, “If they had gotten rid of the apostasy punishment Islam wouldn’t exist today.” He gave this Fatwa on Al-Jazeera television on the show Life and Shariah which has an estimated audience of 60 million. His work, “Crime of Apostasy and Its Punishment in The Light of The Quran and Sunnah,” exclusively deals with the issue of apostasy. According to Qaradawi, Islamic faith rests on two portions of testimony, faith in the oneness of God and the finality of Prophet-hood which ends at Muhammad (PBUH) with universal message which renewed all of the previous religions, and thus the second portion of the testimony compliments the first and similarly the denial of second would be the denial of first. And therefore, the denial of any two of the portions of the testimony would be considered apostasy which according to Qaradawi is a serious crime and should be punished severely. He further goes on to explain how is threatening for Islam and Muslims as it is not only a change of mind of apostates but it also threatens the faith of other Muslims by their conspiracies.

Building his case of the serious threat that apostasy is, he proposes it to be resisted in every form possible. As prescribed by four out of eight schools of Muslim thought, the traditional punishment for apostasy is death. He quotes various sayings of the Prophet to support the verdict of death as punishment for apostates. One of the Hadith as narrated by Ibn Abbas says:

‘Whosoever changed his faith, you should kill him.’

Also Ibn Masud narrates another Hadith of Prophet:

‘The blood of Muslims, who testify that there is no god but Allah and that I am the messenger of Allah, is not lawful (to be killed) except for one of the three reasons: revenge for killing a soul, a mature person committing adultery, and one who has abandoned his faith.’

Considering his strong position as being one of the most influential Sunni Muslim clerics in the world and the author of more than 100 books on Islam, his fatwa automatically carries weight. However, it is upon the discretion of Muslims as well the Islamic states as to how they approach the problem of apostasy.

Kemal. A Faruqi, a Pakistani, Islamist and Modernist who articulates a position that is embedded deeply in Islam while at the same time aligning that position that is compatible with post-enlightenment modernity. His analysis of the law against apostasy says that there should be no punishment for religious apostasy since the tradition of this punishment was actually focusing on political treason, given the fact that it was protecting the first Islamic state which had a minority of Muslims and thus could not afford losing Muslims (basically hypocrites) who were converting to other religions in order to harm Islam.     Mark Gould,[6] who has analysed Faruqi’s work, however says that this tradition was an error and it goes against the fundamental right of one’s freedom to choose any religion and Islam’s point of view of ‘there would be no coercion in religion.

 Apostasy, as translated by various Muslim Countries

Although most of the Muslim states recognize the religious liberty of their people in terms of professing and practising their religions, however there have been strict laws in place when it comes to the liberty to leave Islam for any other religion or atheism. For example, in Saudi Arabia, public apostasy is a serious crime under Saudi law and is punishable by death. Similar is the case with Sudan that declares death penalty for apostasy which was introduced in 1983. Yeman also applies the same law for apostates. However, in Malaysia, the topic is controversial and although highly prohibited, it does not punish the apostates. Same is the case with Iran and Oman. However, on the other end is Morocco where the conversion of Muslim to another religion may pass unpunished and is not a crime under civil codes.

Pakistan maintains a strict position in terms of religious freedom and has formed a ‘Blasphemy law’ (in 1986 under Zia’s regime) which also covers the aspect of apostasy.


Looking at the various points of view of various scholars all around the world as well as the laws that have been established by various Islamic states in order to address religious liberty, it is clear that different schools of thought use different approaches to tackle the question of freedom to exercise religion. Throughout the analysis, it has been observed that Islam allows no coercion in terms of converting people to any religion including Islam; however, the freedom to change religion to a Muslim to convert into another religion has not been clear. In addition, there is also a heated debate as to whether an apostate has to be punished or not, and if yes, under whose jurisdiction does this responsibility fall into. While most of the states that practice capital punishment for the act of apostasy, the question still remains: Are these Muslim states practising Shariah law to such an extent in the other spheres of life as well that such a serious punishment be justified on their behalf rather than resting their case under the jurisdiction of God?


  • Abdulaziz Sachedina, ‘Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism’ (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 96-101.
  • Abdullah Saeed and Hassan Saeed, ‘Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam’. 2004
  • Beckwith, Grant Garrard , ‘Uzbekistan: Islam, Communism, and Religious Liberty–An Appraisal of Uzbekistan’s 1998 Law ‘On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations’’. Brigham Young University Education & Law Journal, 2000, Issue 3
  • David Little and John Kelsay, “Freedom of Conscience and Religion in the Qur’an,” in Human Rights and the Conflict of Cultures: Western and Islamic Perspectives on Religious Liberty’. (Columbia: Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1988), pp. 53-90.
  • Frank Crimi, ‘Al Jazeera Star: Death to Apostates’, Feb 20, 2013
  •   Paola Bernardini, ‘Religious Liberty, A common Challenge for Catholic Muslim Dialogue.’ 2012


[1] Definition taken from Wikipedia. Several definitions from various dictionaries were taken into consideration while looking for one fine definition and the one written above integrated all the definitions of ‘religion’.

[2] Dominance of some nations over others by means of unequal conditions of economic exchange.

[3] Abdullah Saeed and Hassan Saeed, Freedom of Apostasy, Religion and Islam; 2004

[4] Abdullah Saeed and Hassan Saeed, Freedom of Apostasy, Religion and Islam; 2004

[5] ‘Apostasy’ in ‘The Encyclopedia of Religion’, Vol. 1, p. 353ff. and fn. 20.

[6] Author of Kemal. A Faruqi’s Reconstruction of Islam(ic Law): A modernist Position in Islam(ic Jurisprudence).