Apostasy means the abandonment of a belief or principle. In a religious context, it generally means abandoning one’s faith.
Today, The Times carries a report about a British woman who converted to Christianity, from Islam, who is receiving police protection because of death threats received from members of her family. She is reported as saying:
“I know the Koran says that anyone who goes away from Islam should be killed as an apostate so in some ways my family are following the Koran. They are following Islam to the word. But I do not think every Muslim would actually act on that,” she said.
“…apostasy and treason were near identical terms in seventh-century Arabia. However the relationship betwen the two has endured in Islam, so that even today there are some Muslims who continue to make the unsubstantiated and un-Quranic assertion that the two sins — apostasy and treason —deserve the same punishment: death.” (page 119, emphasis added)
There is a quotation from the Koran itself, often used to bolster this message, from Sura 2,256 which, in three different translations, seems unequivocal that there should be no compulsion in religion:
“YUSUFALI: Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things.
PICKTHAL: There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is henceforth distinct from error. And he who rejecteth false deities and believeth in Allah hath grasped a firm handhold which will never break. Allah is Hearer, Knower.
SHAKIR: There is no compulsion in religion; truly the right way has become clearly distinct from error; therefore, whoever disbelieves in the Shaitan and believes in Allah he indeed has laid hold on the firmest handle, which shall not break off, and Allah is Hearing, Knowing.”
In my own copy of an edition of Rodwell’s translation of the Koran, this verse reads:
“Let there be no compulsion in religion. Now is the right way distinct from error. Whoever shall deny Thagout and believe in God – he will have taken hold of a strong handle that shall not be broken: and God is He who Heareth, Knoweth.” (page 27)
So four different translations give much the same message, suggesting the Koran does indeed suggest that “there shall be no compulsion in religion”. But this does not prove that the Koran does not prescribe death as a punishment for apostasy, it merely proves that one of its many verses would contradict any such prescription.
“YUSUFALI: They but wish that ye should reject Faith, as they do, and thus be on the same footing (as they): But take not friends from their ranks until they flee in the way of Allah (From what is forbidden). But if they turn renegades, seize them and slay them wherever ye find them; and (in any case) take no friends or helpers from their ranks;-
PICKTHAL: They long that ye should disbelieve even as they disbelieve, that ye may be upon a level (with them). So choose not friends from them till they forsake their homes in the way of Allah; if they turn back (to enmity) then take them and kill them wherever ye find them, and choose no friend nor helper from among them,
SHAKIR: They desire that you should disbelieve as they have disbelieved, so that you might be (all) alike; therefore take not from among them friends until they fly (their homes) in Allah’s way; but if they turn back, then seize them and kill them wherever you find them, and take not from among them a friend or a helper.” (emphasis added)
And from my copy of Rodwell, page 58 (as Sura 4,91, presumably due to differences in the translations):
“They desire that you should be infidels as they are infidels, and that ye should be alike. Take therefore none of them for friends, till they have fled their homes for the cause of God. If they turn back, then seize them, and slay them wherever ye find them; but take none of them as friends or helpers.” (emphasis added)
Here it seems to me that one can interpret these passages to mean that apostates should be killed, and some of the four translations above suggest that more strongly than others. However one of the translations hints that “turning back” involves enmity from the apostates (as opposed to mere disbelief), suggesting that it may be possible to interpret this passage somewhat differently.
Nevertheless there seems to be scope for somone applying a literal interpretation of the Koran to conclude, from Sura 4,89, that apostates should be killed, despite Sura 2,256.
However, I suspect the belief that apostates should be killed most likely stems from the Hadith (the traditional writings about the life of Mohammed and what he said that Muslims draw on in addition to the Koran), rather than the Koran per se. The Hadith have quotations from Mohammed that clearly state that the punishment for apostasy is death, (such as this one and this one). The Koran is ambiguous (albeit clear that Allah has a dim view of apostates), but the Hadith are not.