Fourteen passages refer to apostasy and, of these, seven refer to punishment, generally to be given in the next life.
Sura 40 says that those who reject the scriptures will have iron collars and chains placed around their necks, be dragged into scalding water and burnt in the fire. Elsewhere the Koran seems to indicate a degree of tolerance. Verse 2.256 states: “There is no compulsion in religion.” Two further suras, 10 and 18, include passages indicating that people who do not wish to believe should not be forced to.
But the Hadith, or sayings of the Prophet, condemns unequivocally those who renounce their religion. One passage advises the death penalty for murder, adultery and apostasy. Another cites Muhammad as saying: “Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him.”
According to Mufti Abdul Barkatullah, senior imam at North Finchley Mosque, North London, Islam simply took over biblical tradition and practice in this regard. Jesus promised in John xiv,6: “No one comes to the Father except by me.” Several other passages in the New Testament condemn non-Christians to eternal punishment. Mufti Barkatullah cited the Inquisition as an example of Christian intolerance.
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Muslim scholars are divided over how the texts on apostasy should be interpreted. Mufti Barkatullah said that some countries would follow the Shafi’i school of thought and eschew the death penalty for apostasy. But many, such as Afghanistan, adhere to the Hanafi tradition, and take a strict line on apostasy.