Abdullah bin Mas’ud (May Allah be pleased with him) narrated that the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) said,
“It is impermissible to take the life of a Muslim who bears testimony that there is no god but Allah, and I am the Messenger of Allah, except in one of three cases: the adulterer, a life for a life, and the renegade Muslim (apostate), who abandons the Muslim community.”
[Bukhari – Kitab Ad-Diyyat (Book on Blood Money), hadith 6878; Muslim – Kitab Al-Qasamah (Book on Oaths) 1676/25]
Commentary of the hadith
These are the three cases in which it is permissible to take the life of a Muslim who testifies that there is no god but Allah, and that Muhammad (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) is the Messenger of Allah. Killing in each of these cases is agreed upon among the Muslims.
The adulterer and adulteress
The legal punishment for an adulterer and adulteress in Islam according to the consensus of Muslims, is stoning to death. The Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) stoned Ma‘iz and the woman coming from a tribe called Ghamid. Ibn ‘Abbas deduced that stoning is the legal punishment from the Qur’anic verse that reads,
“O people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians)! Now has come to you Our Messenger [Muhammad (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam)] explaining to you much of that which you used to hide from the Scripture and pass over (i.e., leaving out without explaining) much.” (Surah AI-Ma’idah, 5 : 15)
Ibn ‘Abbas said, “He who denies stoning, purposelessly denies the Qur’an.” Then, he recited the above verse and said, “Stoning was one of the legal rules concealed by the people of the Scripture.” [Nasa’i – hadith 11139; Mustadrak Hakim – hadith 4/359; Adh-Dhahabi has agreed with An-Nasi’ and authenticated the hadith]
Muslim recorded the story of stoning the two Jews narrated by Al-Bara’ bin ‘Azib. 1 In the hadith, Al-Bara’ bin ‘Azib said, “Allah has revealed the following verses concerning the disbelievers,
“O Messenger, Let not those who hurry to fall into disbelief grieve you.” (Surah Al-Ma’idah, 5 : 41)
“And whosoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed, such are the Kafirun (i.e. disbelievers of a lesser degree, as they do not act on Allah’s Laws)” (Surah Al-Ma’idah, 5 : 44)
The legal punishment of adulteresses was originally to imprison them until they die or Allah ordains some other way for them. Then Allah ordained something else (stoning) for them.
‘Ubadah narrated that the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) said, “Receive (teaching) from me, receive (teaching) from me. Allah has ordained a way for those (women). When an unmarried male commits adultery with an unmarried female (they should receive) one hundred lashes and banishment for one year. And in case of a married male committing adultery with a married female, they shall receive one hundred lashes and be stoned to death.” [Muslim – Kitab Al-Hudud (Book on Legal Punishments), 1690/12]
A life for a life
“A life for a life” means that if a responsible Muslim kills another on purpose, without any legal cause, he shall be killed. The following Qur’anic verse indicates this legal ruling which means,
“And We ordained therein for them, ‘Life for life’.” (Surah Al-Ma’idah, 5 : 45)
“O you who believe, Al-Qisas (the law of Equality in punishment is prescribed for you in case of murder, the free for the free, the slave for the slave, and the female for the female.” (Surah Al-Baqarah, 2 : 178)
The renegade Muslim
The renegade Muslim who abandons the Muslim community is one who becomes an apostate. He is one of those whose killing is considered permissible, even though he bore witness that there is no god but Allah. This is because he used to profess this testimony before becoming an apostate. Therefore, the legal ruling stipulated for apostasy applies to him. Accordingly, he is asked to repent and revert to Islam.
It is also possible that he could abandon the Muslim community while still professing the testimony [that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) is His Messenger] and claiming to be a Muslim.
For example, he may deny one of the pillars of Islam, or blaspheme Allah and/or His Messenger (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam). Otherwise, he may disbelieve in some angels, Prophets or Scriptures mentioned in the Qur’an despite the fact that he knows that they are cited in the Qur’an.
It is recorded in Sahih Al-Bukhari that Ibn ‘Abbas narrated that the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) said, “If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him.” [Bukhari – Kitab Al-Jihad was-Siyar (Book on for Allah’s Cause and Biography of the Companions)]
The Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) also referred in the hadith to, “the renegade Muslim who abandons the Muslim community.” This indicates that if he repents and reverts to Islam, he shall not be killed, as he would no longer be considered a renegade after reverting to Islam, neither would he be considered a deserter of the Muslim comminute any more.
The hadith narrated by Ibn Mas’ud indicates that killing a Muslim is only permissible in three cases: apostasy, committing a murder, or committing adultery. These are the only three cases in which it is permissible to kill a Muslim.
As for committing adultery, it is mentioned in the hadith that it refers to adultery not fornication (committing adultery by a man and a woman who have never been married). This is only by way of example and Allah knows best. This is due to the fact that a married person has been favored with satisfying his sexual desire through marriage. If he/she then commits adultery, it would be permissible to shed his/her blood. The condition of being married before committing adultery in order to be killed applies to homosexuality and incest as well, whether such illegal sexual intercourse is contracted or not.
Regarding illegal bloodshed, it is controversial whether it is equal to the incitement of turmoil leading to bloodshed or not. Examples of such incitement are disuniting the Muslim community, disobeying the imam, acknowledging a person other than the recognized caliph as an imam, or guiding the unbelievers to the weaknesses of the Muslims. Ibn ‘Umar narrates some hadith that indicate the permissibility of killing Muslims in such cases.
A similar controversial issue is the permissibility of killing highway-men/women for robbery only without murder, because it might lead to illegal bloodshed. However, Allah’s says,
“If anyone killed a person not in retaliation of murder or (and) (by way of punishment) to spread mischief in the land, it would be as if he killed all mankind.” (Surah Al-Ma’idah, 5 : 32)
This indicates that it is only permissible to kill a Muslim in two cases: first, if he kills another; second, if he spreads discord within the society. Robbery, apostasy and adultery are but examples of spreading discord.
Apostasy and abandoning the Muslim community refer to apostatizing the religion of Islam even if the person testifies that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) is the Messenger of Allah.
If he blasphemes Allah [or His Messenger (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam)] while he bears this testimony, it shall be permissible to shed his blood. This is because he, thus, becomes a renegade.
The same ruling applies if he shows disrespect for the Qur’an, or throws it in filth, or denies a basic principle of Islam, such as prayer and other similar behavior that turns a Muslim into an apostate.
(1) Muslim – Kitab Al-Hudud (Book on Legal punishments), 1700/28.
By: Imam Ibn Rajab Al-Hanbali , From the book: Jami’ al Ulum wal Hikam.