Islam and Muslims are frequently imparted with heavy criticism for religious freedom issues. Often examples are cited that in Muslim lands, people of other faiths are not freely allowed to profess or proclaim their beliefs, and that people are converted by force. The notion that Islam is a religion of the sword is quite popular among Islam’s critics who often cite it to scare those outside the faith.
Such accusations needs to be evaluated in the light of how the subject of religious coercion has been dealt with in the Qur’an and how it addresses themes related to freedom of religion and belief.
We must keep in mind that the conduct of individuals acting in the name of Islam does not become authoritative until or unless such behaviour is endorsed by the Qur’an. What it is that the Qur’an says is to be considered as Islamic and the practices that are refuted by it are not valid as an Islamic practice, no matter how close an affiliation with Islam the actors claim to have. As the final and absolute authority for all beliefs and practices in Islam rests with the Qur’an, therefore we must discover whether people can be forced to accept Islam, as per the directives and narratives of the Qur’an.
Freedom of belief is a God-given Right
Living and non-living beings are all programmed and designed to follow a set pattern. They do not defy that set pattern, and do not have a free will to defy their basic nature, human beings, in comparison, are distinct from animals and planets because they have a a free will to choose between right and wrong, and decide on alternate courses in matters of life.
For example, a goat eats only leaves and grass, and not meat, since it is not in its nature to do so. It does not have any freedom of choice, and no matter how hungry it may get, it will not devour meat. But we people, on the other hand, have the power and faculties to ponder on our environment, make choices – choices that may have benefits, or even harms for us. We are not compelled like animals to follow one course of action only. If we are hungry, then given the choice, we can eat vegetables, meat or a combination of both, as it is to our own volition to decide this.
It is because animals do not have a free will, that we do not hold them accountable in any court of law. We will never hear that a Goat was charged with grazing in a pasture that wasn’t its own. It simply grazes where the grass is green, and has no sense of property or ownership of land! But we humans are not like that. We have a free will. We can choose to eat from our land or steal the produce of someone else’s land. We can choose to labour for our bread, or we can choose to steal it. It is because of this free choice that we are held accountable.
As we are given faculties of intellect and a free will we can benefit from our natural surrounding, or distort it and create corruption. The same faculties and free will that we possess and employ in our social, economic or material matters, is also to be used for matters of morality and religious observance. We read in the Qur’an that when Allah sent mankind to earth, it was informed about guidance to lead peaceful lives:
“We said: Go forth from this (state) all; so surely there will come to you guidance from Me, then whoever follows My guidance, no fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve.” 2:38
But along with the merits of following the guidance of Allah mankind was also told about the consequences of disobeying such laws:
“And (as to) those who disbelieve in and reject My Ayat (Signs), they are the inmates of the fire, in it they shall abide.” 2:39
We have been shown both ways, and have been blessed with the powers to grasp whatever path we wish:
“Have We not given him two eyes, and a tongue and two lips, and pointed out to him the two conspicuous ways?” 90:8-10
We have been pointed out the benefits of following the laws of Allah as well as the consequences of going against them. Now it is up to us to choose to accept those laws or become ungrateful. The following verse reminds us of this aspect:
“Surely We have shown him the way: he may be thankful or unthankful.” 76:3
In accepting the laws of Allah, we have to use our own freedom of choice and free will, without any coercion or force applied from outside;
“And say: The truth is from your Sustainer, so let him WHO WILLS, believe, and let him WHO WILLS disbelieve..” 18:29
There is No Compulsion in Matters of Faith
If man accepts the laws of God, then it is for his own benefit and if he goes against them then the consequences will again be upon his own self. The person delivering the message of God is not a custodian over the people, as the Qur’an says:
“Surely We have revealed to you the Book with the truth for all mankind; so whoever follows the right way, it is for his own soul and whoever errs, he errs only to its detriment; and you are not a custodian over them.” 39:41
The Messenger (pbuh) was not permitted by Allah to force people into accepting his message, and the message has to be accepted by one’s own free will and own initiative, as the following verse points out:
“And if your Sustainer had pleased, surely all those who are in the earth would have believed, all of them; will you then force men till they become believers?” 10:99
The laws of Allah are to be accepted ‘on merit’ and not for any conditions, vested interests or by force. Following or disobeying them is against one’s own self. We have to use our free will to ascertain the benefits of following the law of Allah and accept them willingly without any compulsion on ourselves. The consequences of accepting or rejecting the law have been laid on our own selves. The Qur’an says;
“Indeed there have come to you clear proofs from your Sustainer; whoever will therefore see, it is for his own soul and whoever will be blind, it shall be against himself and I am not a keeper over you.” 6:104
Had Allah willed he would have made us without a free will of our own, but unlike animals we are given the freedom of choice to select our line of action:
“And if Allah had pleased, they would not have set up others (with Him) and We have not appointed you a keeper over them, and you are not placed in charge of them.” 6:107
Accepting the message of God requires intellectual analysis of the message and agreement after reasoning and pondering over its validity. Even God does not force people to disown their faculties of reasoning. The Qur’an reminds us this aspect:
“Perhaps you will kill yourself with grief because they do not believe. If We please, We should send down upon them a sign from the heaven so that their necks should stoop to it.” 26:3-4
The invitation of Qur’an is based upon evidence of its validity, insight and justification for its laws, therefore the question of forcing someone to accept it, does not arise:
“Say: This is my way: I invite unto Allah upon Insight, I and those who follow me, and glory be to Allah, and I am not from those who associate (with Allah).” 12:108
The People Who Compel Others To Their Way of Thinking
While the Qur’an has stressed that man has been given the intellectual faculty to determine his line of action and is not under compulsion to accept the law of Allah, at the same time it has also identified who those people are who use force and compulsion to make others agree to their point of view. The Pharaoh who epitomizes tyranny, oppression, and disobedience to God’s law has been identified as a person who used to force people to remain in his religion. It is people having the traits of Pharaoh who use compulsion for faith:
“Firaon said: Do you believe in Him before I have given you permission? Surely this is a plot which you have secretly devised in this city, that you may turn out of it its people, but you shall know:” 7:123
It is a Pharonic law to give death to those who change their religion and beliefs as it is he who threatened with capital punishment to Apostates:
“Said he: You believe in him before I give you permission; most surely he is the chief of you who taught you the magic, so you shall know: certainly I will cut off your hands and your feet on opposite sides, and certainly I will crucify you all.” 26:49
To be noted that in the Quran it is the disbelievers and not Muslims who have been identified as the one’s who force people to remain in their faith and it is they who threaten those who demonstrate disagreement to their doctrines, with dire consequences:
“The chiefs, those who were proud from among his people said: We will most certainly turn you out, O Shu’aib, and (also) those who believe with you, from our town, or you shall come back to our faith. He said: What! though we dislike (it)?” 7:88
“And those who disbelieved said to their Messengers: We will most certainly drive you forth from our land, or else you shall come back into our religion. So their Sustainer revealed to them: Most certainly We will destroy the unjust.” 14:13
Compared to the oppression of the unbelievers, the believers are commanded that even if a person from the opposite camp approaches them for safety then even he is to be given protection:
“And if one of the idolaters seek protection from you, grant him protection till he hears the word of Allah, then make him attain his place of safety; this is because they are a people who do not know.” 9:6
Islam calls for voluntary conviction and not forced conversion
The question of forcing someone to believe does not arise at all, because the Qur’an identifies ‘Iman’ i.e. belief as something not just professed by the lips, but something which has entered one’s heart deeply, and that is possible only if a person analyses the message through his reason and accepts it willingly:
“The dwellers of the desert say: We believe. Say: You do not believe but say, We submit; and IMAN has not yet entered into your hearts; and if you obey Allah and His Messenger, He will not diminish aught of your deeds; surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” 49:14
The above verse establishes that “Iman” is something which is deep rooted into a persons heart. In case a person does not have deep conviction on the Laws of God then that does not comprise “Iman”. Therefore it is not possible to force someone to believe, as then the person would merely declare his verbal agreement while his heart would be not be inclined.
There is No Worldly Punishment for Apostasy in the Qur’an
“He who disbelieves in Allah after his having believed, not he who is compelled while his heart is at rest on account of faith, but he who opens (his) breast to disbelief– on these is the wrath of Allah, and they shall have a grievous chastisement.”
“This is because they love this world’s life more than the hereafter, and because Allah does not guide the unbelieving people.”
“These are they on whose hearts and their hearing and their eyes Allah has set a seal, and these are the heedless ones.”
“No doubt that in the hereafter they will be the losers.” 16:106-109
The above verses clearly inform that the consequences of not agreeing to the law of Allah is deprivation of the benefits that are acquired as a result of following the divine guidance in our lives, and the wrath of Allah is incurred upon those who disbelieve.
The Qur’an proclaims that man has the freedom of choice to accept or reject the permanent values of God. He CANNOT be forced to accept those values, but has the free will to accept them, as the following verse informs:
“There is no compulsion in ‘Deen’ (way of life according to laws of Allah); truly the right way has become clearly distinct from error; therefore, whoever disbelieves in the rebel and believes in Allah he indeed has laid hold on the firmest handle, which shall not break off, and Allah is Hearing, Knowing.” 2:256
With the straight path of God having being made distinct, the consequences of not accepting the way of life prescribed by Allah are also identified:
“And whoever desires a religion other than Islam, it shall not be accepted from him, and in the hereafter he shall be one of the losers.” 3:85
In case of apostasy, i.e. a situation in which a person believes, and after believing disbelieves in the message of Allah, the consequences of such a state are also made evident to us in the Qur’an:
“How shall Allah guide a people who disbelieved after their believing and (after) they had borne witness that the Messenger was true and clear arguments had come to them; and Allah does not guide the unjust people.” 3:86
For such (apostates) the penalty is the curse of Allah, i.e. deprivation of the benefits that result from following the guidance of Allah:
“(As for) these, their reward is that upon them is the curse of Allah and the angels and of men, all together. Abiding in it; their chastisement shall not be lightened nor shall they be respited.” 3:87-88
But as the Qur’an identifies the consequences of apostasy, it also confirms that there is room forgiveness and the deserters of faith do not qualify for capital punishment at the hands of Muslims. The following verse identifies this aspect:
“Except those who repent after that and amend, then surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” 3:89
Had the punishment for apostasy been prescribed as death then the above verse would not have accommodated the room for amending one’s conduct and repentance, but with the inclusion of a condition of repentance and reform, the Qur’an confirms that worldly punishment for apostates is not death. The following verse is even more clear regarding this aspect:
“Surely (as for) those who believe then disbelieve, again believe and again disbelieve, then increase in disbelief, Allah will not forgive them nor guide them in the (right) path.” 4:137
Upon analysis we can clearly see that the above verse establishes that a person does not get the death penalty for apostasy, as it identifies stages where a person believes, then disbelieves, then again believes and after that again disbelieves. Now if we were to assume that the stipulating death were existing, then the verse refutes it clearly, as has identified stages of belief, rejection, then again of belief and of subsequent rejection, as a person who after believing in Islam rejects it would then be qualified for the death penalty at the first instance, and would not have the opportunity to believe one more time again after disbelieving. But as the above verse identifies a state of belief after one has become an apostate, it clearly shows that he has not committed a capital offense.
The above verse is abundantly clear in describing that there is room for a person who out of any reason has turned his back on Islam, to amend his conduct and revert to the guidance of God and rules out the idea that apostates should be put to death.
We Are Free To Choose Our beliefs. We Will Know On The Day of Judgement About The Truth Of Our Choice.
We have seen that the Quran cites freedom of belief for man. We have the free will to choose whatever we believe to be right for ourselves, and no human has the right to stop us by force or compulsion from choosing, professing or observing our faith. But as we have freedom of choice, so shall we be held accountable for our choices. We see that in all times and eras messengers of God and their adherents were compelled to disown their beliefs and rejectors used force and threats against them. On the issue of apostasy, though the act is abhorred in the Qur’an and stated that apostates from Islam will be requited in the hereafter by God himself, believers are not allowed by the Qur’an to compel apostates in any way from their choice. Similarly we see evidence in Qur’an that an apostate has opportunities for repentance even after his denouncing of faith, thereby proving that he is not to be put to death.
Those who use force or oppression to spread their beliefs, or who compel people and do not give them the liberty of changing their belief are identified as rejectors of Allah and not as Muslims. We also see that those who are turned away from the straight path pose no threat to the believers, provided the believers are steadfast on the law of God, therefore apostates do not pose a threat to Islam or Muslims:
“O you who believe! take care of your souls; he who errs cannot hurt you when you are on the right way; to Allah is your return, of all (of you), so He will inform you of what you did.” 5:105
Islam is not to be spread at the point of the sword. The Qur’an is full of rejoinders to this effect. A Muslims duty is to propagate the message of the Qur’an to the best of his or her ability and in propagating that message there is to be no use of force, as the following verse identifies:
“We know best what they say, and you are not one to compel them; therefore remind him by means of the Quran who fears My promise.” 50:45
To spread the message of Qur’an by wisdom and reason and not by force – this is the true practice of the Prophet that every Muslim must emulate.