"The key issue for Muslim thinkers grappling with Islamic law and modernity revolves not around whether apostasy is a heinous crime, but how to deal with it. Islam Online, a Qatar-based site that attempts to explain Islamic issues, quoted the well-known Islamic scholar Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi as acknowledging that there is a difference of opinion on the issue even if most support the death penalty.
"'All Muslim jurists agree that the apostate is to be punished,' al-Qaradawi said. 'However, they differ regarding the punishment itself. The majority of them go for killing; meaning that an apostate is to be sentenced to death.'...
"Ibrahim B. Syed, president of the Islamic Research Foundation International, based in Louisville, Kentucky, believes that verse supports more lenient interpretations on apostasy. 'One grave misunderstanding of Islamic beliefs over the years is that Islam doesn't tolerate apostasy,' he wrote in the article, 'Shari'a: Is Killing An Apostate in Islamic Law?' published on the internet site TheAmericanMuslim.org.
"'Islamic scholars from past centuries -- Ibrahim al-Naka'i, Sufyan al-Thawri, Shams al-Din al-Sarakhsi, Abul Walid al-Baji, and Ibn Taymiyyah -- have all held that apostasy is a serious sin, but not one that requires the death penalty,' Syed wrote.
"Specifically, Syed noted the words of the respected scholar in the history of Islamic jurisprudence, Shamsuddeen al-Sarakhshi, who stated, 'renunciation of the faith and conversion to disbelief is admittedly the greatest of offences, yet it is a matter between man and his Creator, and its punishment is postponed to the Day of Judgment.'"
The most important point to note here is that while ulama have generally seen apostasy as deserving the death penalty, there has always been a minority which disagreed, even in the Middle Ages. The fact Ibn Taymiyya did so is particularly symbolic, since many feel he previewed modern fundamentalism during the Mamluk period. I suspect that in the near future those opposed to capital punishment will gain the advantage.
(Crossposted to American Footprints.)