This answer first appeared at www.arabnews.com. It is republished with kind permission with slight editorial modifications.
Salam (Peace) Dear David,
Thank you for you your question.
Your observation is accurate. Many are the Quranic verses that make clear that all people are free to choose the faith they want. There can be no compulsion with regard to faith.
Indeed, over the fourteen centuries since Islam began, compulsion was never a policy of any Islamic government anywhere in the world. On the contrary, followers of other faiths, including those who worship idols, lived freely among Muslim communities.
Today, you find Christian and Jewish communities, as well as followers of other faiths, in the overwhelming majority of Muslim countries. This testifies to the fact that Islam operates a policy of freedom of faith and worship.
The hadith you have mentioned is often quoted in support of the death penalty for apostasy. Many scholars mention that this penalty is mandatory, which means that it is prescribed and cannot be changed.
However, a fair number of profoundly perceptive scholars are of the view that this punishment is discretionary, which means that it can be reduced or even waived. This is the view that seems to be better supported by Quranic and Hadith texts.
When we consider a ruling about a particular offense, we must look at all the texts that have a bearing on it. We often find that one hadith or a Quranic verse gives us a more precise meaning of another. This enables us to determine when a particular text is of general or specific import.
In connection with apostasy, we have the hadith that states that:
“A Muslim may be punished by death only in three situations: “1) a murderer; 2) a married adulterer; and 3) one who abandons his religion deserting the community.” (Al-Bukhari)
If we take the two hadiths together, we touch on an important point that justifies the capital punishment. It is “deserting the community”, which means that the person concerned did not merely choose to follow a religion other than Islam, but also he deserted his community and stood in opposition to it.
Scholars make clear that the Arabic statement implies rebellion. They cite cases of people who changed their faith after adopting Islam during the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his two immediate successors, Abu Bakr and Umar (may Allah be pleased with them), and none of them was executed.
It is to that early period of Islam that we look for practical guidance in understanding Islamic rules. Had the death penalty for apostasy been mandatory, none of them would have refrained from enforcing it.
From another point of view, all scholars who view apostasy as punishable by death agree that the apostate must first be examined, proven to be of sound mind, and questioned by scholars who have the duty of explaining to him any question that might have created doubt in his mind about Islam.
They should then call on him to revise his attitude, giving him a period of time for doing so. They should try every possible means to avert enforcing the penalty. This is indeed a clear standpoint in Islamic law: The judge must try everything possible to avoid enforcing a mandatory punishment.
To suggest that terrorism is the product of statements used by the Prophet or given in the Quran is, I am sorry to say, naïve. People do not resort to violence as a result of something they have read or heard.
What has brought terrorism about in our world is injustice. Over the past one hundred years, the Muslim world has been subjected to numerous acts of injustice, perpetrated mainly by Europe and the US. Consider how the US is now acting to deprive the Palestinian people of even the means to survive, simply because they elected an authority that the US dislikes.
Consider how the US supports Israeli aggression against civilians; how they occupied Afghanistan and Iraq; how they are threatening other Muslim countries. Do you still wonder why so many Muslims feel aggrieved at the US policies?
I hope this answers your question. Please, keep in touch.