Critics of Islam often put Muslims on the defensive by pointing out that Islam is the most intolerant religion among all other faiths on the question of apostasy. They point out that its uncompromising attitude on punishment by death has no place in the civilised world where freedom of religion is a fundamental human right which is globally recognised all over the world. Knowing that Islam stands for the dignity of human life and justice, this argument often made me uncomfortable until I came across the following passage in the book: “The Great Arab Conquests” by Sir John Glubb, KCB, CMG, DSO OBE, MC (Published by Hodder and Stoughton Limited, London 1963).
“It was a peculiar feature of the Prophet’s policy that he was generous to unbelievers and idolaters but merciless to apostates. An idolater, even if overtaken in arms fighting against the Muslims, had only to call out the profession of faith and his life must be spared. In the lifetime of Muhammad, believers had at times complained to him of the manifest insincerity of such conversions. Galloping after some fugitive polytheist, they said, they had been in the act of raising sword or lance to kill the enemy of God, when he had quickly called, ‘There is no god but God and Muhammad is his Apostle.’ Thereupon the sword must be lowered and the idolater escape. Was it just that in such circumstances their professions be accepted, and the Muslims defrauded of their spoils (war booty)? The Prophet, however, insisted on regarding such persons as true Muslims. If, however, such men, having once professed Islam, subsequently recanted, Muhammad exacted extremely severe retribution, normally the death sentence.”
After reading this passage it becomes clear that Islam is the most accommodating faith when it comes to freedom of life and religion. However, if someone having taken advantage of this beneficent faith tries to play with its softer values, then it is justified that he should be punished for taking undue advantage of Islam when it suites him personally and dump it conveniently when it does not suit him. This is exactly what happened after the demise of the Prophet when about ten imposters all around Makkah and Madina declared false prophethoods. In response to their rebellion, the first Caliph Abu Bakr Siddiq who was known for his kindness and compassion since the time of the Prophet, became the most unforgiving leader of Muslims who did not rest until all the false prophets were confronted militarily and were given the option to recite the phrase ‘There is no god but God and Muhammad is his Apostle’ or were killed in combat. This is the background to how apostasy became an unacceptable offence in Islam and remains so to this date.