Does Quran Verse 2:54 Refer to a Death Penalty for Apostasy?

Verse 2:54 of the Quran is a contentious one because it says the following in the standard Quran translations:

Word by word grammar and Arabic of verse 

Sahih International: And [recall] when Moses said to his people, “O my people, indeed you have wronged yourselves by your taking of the calf [for worship]. So repent to your Creator and kill yourselves. That is best for [all of] you in the sight of your Creator.” Then He accepted your repentance; indeed, He is the Accepting of repentance, the Merciful.

Pickthall: And when Moses said unto his people: O my people! Ye have wronged yourselves by your choosing of the calf (for worship) so turn in penitence to your Creator, and kill (the guilty) yourselves. That will be best for you with your Creator and He will relent toward you. Lo! He is the Relenting, the Merciful.

Yusuf Ali: And remember Moses said to his people: “O my people! Ye have indeed wronged yourselves by your worship of the calf: So turn (in repentance) to your Maker, and slay yourselves (the wrong-doers); that will be better for you in the sight of your Maker.” Then He turned towards you (in forgiveness): For He is Oft-Returning, Most Merciful.

Shakir: And when Musa said to his people: O my people! you have surely been unjust to yourselves by taking the calf (for a god), therefore turn to your Creator (penitently), so kill your people, that is best for you with your Creator: so He turned to you (mercifully), for surely He is the Oft-returning (to mercy), the Merciful.

Some have said that this is the justification for having a death penalty for apostasy, as described in the Hadith. Therefore, I think it is important to examine this verse and whether this may or may not be true. Indeed if one takes the hadith as a divine authority, they would accept that the penalty for apostasy is death.

Hadith al-Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 52, Number 260:

Narrated by Ikrima: Ali burnt some people and this news reached Ibn ‘Abbas, who said, “Had I been in his place I would not have burnt them, as the Prophet said, ‘Don’t punish (anybody) with Allah’s Punishment.’ No doubt, I would have killed them, for the Prophet said, ‘If somebody (a Muslim) abandons his religion, kill him.’”

However, if one does not take the Hadith as a divine authority, and only the Quran, or the Quran above the Hadith, one might come to a different conclusion.


EDIP YUKSEL’S TRANSLATION – “KILL YOUR EGO”?

Edip Yuksel seeks to understand and translate the Quran outside of the influence of the Hadith. He has written and published Quran: a Reformist Translation. Buy it here on Amazon. Read the PDF here for free.

Disclaimer: I’m not saying I necessarily agree with this. I am just examining his argument. 

Here is his argument below: 

Ego, the self-exaggerating or self-worshiping self, should be avoided while the realist
or appreciative self should be nourished. It is astonishing to see that many translations of the Quran render the phrase uqtulu anfusakum as “kill each other.”

How could they not notice thirty verses down, that is, the 84th and 85th verses of this very chapter [“Do not shed each other’s blood”]? The Arabic word nafs is a multiple-meaning word and its intended meaning can be inferred by considering its proximate context consistent with the entire text of the scripture. The multiple meanings ascribed to the word nafs (person) suggest that our personhood is a complex program with multiple layers and one part of it, the ego, needs to be controlled with reason and submission to God alone.

However, there is another way. We should be open to read the text of the scripture without being restricted to the traditionally codified readings. We should be
able to read the oldest texts that do not contain dots or vowels, in all possible readings, with the condition that they fit the context well and do not create internal or external contradictions within the ayat (signs) of the scripture or the ayat of nature.

There is a divine blessing and purpose in such flexibility. For instance, we might read the following verses differently. If the alternative readings change the
meaning dramatically, they are exclusive.

However, sometimes both alternative readings can co-exist at the same time. One of the following, however, is a linguistic marvel; with its four alternative combinations, it excludes and includes at the same time, depending on the reference of the key word
(3:7)! The following is a sample list:

• 2:243 Kharaju or Khuriju (inclusive)
• 3:7 Putting full stop after the word God
and/or not stopping after the word God
(both exclusive and inclusive!)
• 5:43; 5:6 Arjulakum or Arjulikum
(exclusive)
• 11:46 Amalun or Amila (inclusive)
• 21:112 Qala or Qul (exclusive)
• 30:1 Yaglibun or Yughlabun (exclusive)
• 42:52 Nashau or Yashau (inclusive)
• 54:3 Kullu or Kulla (inclusive)
• 74:24 Yuthir or Yuthar (inclusive)

Kitab or Kutub (inclusive or exclusive) in numerous verses

Let’s now discuss the alternative reading we are suggesting for 2:54.

The expression faqtulu anfusakum is traditionally mistranslated as “kill yourselves” or “kill each other” and it contradicts a proximate verse (2:84); thus, we may choose to translate the word nafs as “ego.” If we prefer consistency in using “person/self” for translation of nafs, then we may follow the following alternative reading: Faqbilu anfusakum, that is, “turn to yourselves,” or “accept yourselves,” or “face yourselves.” To discover other examples of different yet consistent and meaningful readings, we are hoping to systematically study the entire Quran in the future.


EXAMINING THE STORY OF THE GOLDEN CALF IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

When the Prophet Mohammad was reciting the Quran, he was speaking to people who were well aware of the stories in the Old and New Testament. Thus, to read the Quran without awareness of the Old and New Testament is to read the text without much of its context. Let us examine the story of the Golden Calf in the Old Testament.

The golden calf was worshipped by the Hebrews during the period of Exodus from Egypt in the 13th century BC and during the age of Jeroboam I, king of Israel, in the 10th century BC. Mentioned in Exodus 32 and I Kings 12 in the Old Testament, worship of the golden calf is seen as a supreme act of apostasy, the rejection of a faith once confessed. The figure is probably a representation of the Egyptian bull god Apis in the earlier period and of the Canaanite fertility god Baal in the latter. (Britannica)

In Exodus 32 of the Bible, the Hebrews who escaped Egypt asked Moses’s brother Aaron to fashion up a golden calf during the long absence of Moses on Mount Sinai.

The Lord threatened disaster upon the people for doing this, but Moses begged the Lord to show them forgiveness. So the Lord did not kill them. The second time this happened, and Moses saw what the people were doing, he had the idol melted and made the people drink it.

Then the following happened:

25 Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies. 26 So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him.

27 Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’” 28 The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. 29 Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.” (Bible Gateway)

So the “kill yourselves” in the Quran may refer to Moses’s command for the men in this biblical verse to kill those who were running wild and worshipping the golden calf.


DOES VERSE 2:54 COMMAND THE DEATH PENALTY FOR APOSTASY?

HOW CAN THERE BE A DEATH PENALTY FOR APOSTASY IF THERE IS NO COMPULSION IN RELIGION? 

If we are to understand 2:54 in its biblical context, it is a situation where God commanded one of his prophet’s to take a particular action because the particular people were running wild and out of control. Because of this, there were growing threats from the enemies of the people and it had become a matter of safety and survival to subdue them in that particular situation.

However, there is no law in the Quran mandating this into the civil laws of everyday human beings. If anything the Quran speaks against the compulsion of religion.

Quran-Islam.org has some good responses to this, so I will share some of what they said instead of reinventing the wheel. Be sure to read the articles on their website.

Does the Quran authorise ‘hadd al-riddah’?

How “quranic” is the death penalty for apostasy?

Here shall be no compulsion in religion. 2:256 (word by word grammar and Arabic of verse)

These words confirm that no one is to be forced to believe nor punished for disbelieving.

Say, “The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills shall believe and whoever wills shall disbelieve. We have prepared for the transgressors a Fire whose walls will surround them. If they call for help, they will be helped with a liquid like molten brass that scalds the faces. What a miserable drink and a terrible resting place! 18:29 (word by word grammar and Arabic of verse)

Once again, confirming that God gives complete freedom to all people to either believe or disbelieve, then it is God who punishes the disbelievers and not the humans.

How can God guide people who disbelieved after their belief, when they had already witnessed that the messenger was truthful, and when clear proofs had come to them? God does not guide the transgressing people. The penalty for those is that God’s curse will be upon them, as well as the angels, and all the people. Therein they shall permanently remain. The punishment will not be lightened for them, nor will they be granted respite, except for those who repent after that and reform, then indeed, God is Forgiver, Merciful. 3:86-89

The words (disbelieved after their belief) in 3:86 clearly speak of those who abandon their faith after having been believers. (word by word grammar and Arabic of verse)

Then, in 3:89 we read about those who repent after disbelieving and that they are forgiven by God. The question is, how would they have the opportunity to repent and be forgiven if they were killed for disbelieving?

The promoters of the ‘hadd al-riddah’ try to wiggle out of this tricky situation by saying that the repentance can take place just before they are to be killed.

Immediately, the Quran exposes their false claim. The fact that God says in 3:89 that He forgives them excludes those who are sentenced to death then repent just before being executed. This is because the words in 4:18 state that repentance is not accepted by those who repent when they feel death coming.

Finally, the following verse totally demolishes any remnants of the notorious non Quranic ‘hadd al-riddah’:

Those who believed, then disbelieved, then believed, then disbelieved, then increased in disbelief, God is not to forgive them, nor will He guide them to a path. 4:137 (word by word grammar and Arabic of verse)

The obvious question is: If a murtad (a Muslim who deserts Islam) was to be killed, how then would anyone believe, then disbelieve, then believe, then disbelieve? Surely after the first episode of disbelief his head would have been chopped off?


DOES ABROGATION REMOVE THE COMMAND FOR TOLERANCE? 

How can one believe the Quran states, “Here shall be no compulsion in religion (2:256), while simultaneously believing that the penalty for apostasy is death? A view populated by scholars is that the later revealed verses of the Quran abrogate verses that were revealed at an earlier point.

It is difficult for me to fathom that an omniscient, all knowing all powerful God would change His mind in the short period of the 23 years of Mohammad’s prophethood.

The following verse is used to promote this principle of abrogation.
“We do not abrogate a verse or cause it to be forgotten except that We bring forth [one] better than it or similar to it. Do you not know that Allah is over all things competent (2:106)?” 

Quran-Islam.org has a great response to this as well.

The word translated to “verse” here also means “sign.” So the verse could actually be saying:

Whichever ‘ayat’ (miracle/sign) We instate or cause to be forgotten, We replace it with that which is better than it or similar to it. Did you not know that God is Capable of all things?

The idea that verses of the Quran can abrogate themselves also contradicts the following other verses:

A.L.R. A Book whose verses have been perfected. 11:1 (word by word grammar and Arabic of verse)
There is no changing the Words of God. 10:64  (word by word grammar and Arabic of verse)

How is it that the Quran is the well preserved word of God, but is simultaneously so difficult to understand and contradictory that we need Hadith to understand it?

How could the Quran be a book that is perfected and the unchanging word of God if it changes over a short period of some 23 years? Some may say this was to reflect the changing conditions Mohammad and the Muslims faced. And yet even so, there is not a single command in the Quran for people to insert the death penalty for apostasy in their legal systems.

The Quran makes it clear that human life is precious.

“Because of that We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone killed a person not in retaliation of murder, or (and) to spread mischief in the land – it would be as if he killed all mankind, and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind.” – Quran 5:32

That’s not to say there are no punishments for murder in the Quran 2:178. The Quran also gives people the right to kill others in warfare and self defense. 22:39. 2:190.

But there is nothing I see clearly giving people the command to put the death penalty for apostasy in their legal systems. And such a punishment seems to contradict the verses of the Quran if the Quran is to be read as a comprehensive, complete and non-contradictory text from God most high.


 CONCLUSIONS

I am hesitant to agree with Edip Yuksel’s conclusion that 2:54 means “kill your ego,” because it is an interpretation made out of context of the story that Mohammad is referring to in the Old Testament, which clearly discusses the people killing each other.

My own analysis is that in 2:54 the Prophet Mohammad was referring to an instance in which God commanded Moses to kill those among his people who were running wild and causing havoc. For all we know, these people were violent as well, since they forced Aaron to construct that calf under violent threats. There are many instances in the Quran where God punished a wildly arrogant, idolatrous and impudent people with his power. But this is the power of God and God alone (and in the case of 2:54, something God did through Moses). But it is not a power given to human beings to wield over each other, and it certainly does not seem to be something that the Quran was telling us to put in place in our legal systems.

2 thoughts on “Does Quran Verse 2:54 Refer to a Death Penalty for Apostasy?

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