Islamic Studies Apostasy
Andrew March
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0008


Apostasy (ridda, irtidad) is an important theological and legal problem in Islam. As a legal matter, virtually all classical jurists, and many modern ones, regard death as the mandatory punishment for apostasy, citing a number of authoritative Hadith on the question. Much of the debate, therefore, centers on how to identify apostasy, particularly on the part of those claiming to be faithful Muslims. A crucial issue is that the early Muslim community faced a political revolt on the part of certain Arabian tribes after the death of Muhammad, which became known as the “Wars of Apostasy” (Hurub al-ridda), which raises the questions of whether apostasy is a crime only when it is accompanied by political rebellion, and whether all political rebellion is potentially apostasy. A further matter relates to the political-social institutions of Muslim societies. While orthodox doctrines insist on socio-political expression for religion, achieved primarily through law, Sunni Islam never developed a formal church-like institution of authority that would be empowered to rule on the boundaries of theological orthodoxy. Accusations of apostasy are, thus, very much related to the perennial Islamic contest over authority, legitimacy, orthodoxy, and acceptability, which plays out in a dispersed, polycentric manner rather than from a central authority.

General Overviews

Griffel 2008 is an excellent entry to the range of problems, main treatments, and secondary literature, and Kraemer 1980 focuses on the important link between apostasy and rebellion against the state.

  • Griffel, Frank. “Apostasy.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, 3d ed. Edited by Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas and Everett Rowson. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2008.

    Important encyclopedia entry that focuses on the origin of the terms ridda and irtidad, the historical evolution of the problem of apostasy (with particular reference to Shafiʿi and Ghazali), and some modern developments.

  • Kraemer, Joel. “Apostates, Rebels and Brigands.” Israel Oriental Studies 10 (1980): 34–73.

    A much cited article that focuses on Islamic legal and political responses to the problems of rebellion and brigandage and their relation to apostasy. The treatment of rebellion in classical Islamic law has now received comprehensive treatment by Abou El Fadl (Rebellion in Islamic Law).

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