Can we force people to accept Islam?


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INTRODUCTION

Islam and Muslims frequently come in the press and are 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 the notion that Islam is to be spread by the sword was in the past and is still popularized by its critics to scare those outside the faith. It is not within the scope of this article to present or comment on human rights matters in those countries that label themselves as Islamic or where the majority of population is Muslim. What I aim to present here is how the subject has been dealt with in the Qur’an and how the book addresses themes related to freedom of religion and belief.

To be kept in mind that 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. The authority for all beliefs and practices in Islam rests with the Qur’an. Therefore, dear readers, let us 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

Animals, plants, insects, and non human 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 given the 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. Ever heard if any goat or sheep was charged with grazing in a pasture that wasn’t their own? The poor thing, when hungry, simply graze 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 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 free will we can benefit from our natural surrounding, or distort it and create corruption. The same faculties and free will that we posses 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, they were informed that they would get his 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 laws of Allah – which includes laws relating to the physical world as well as those pertaining to social and economic spheres – 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

Mankind has been shown both ways, and has been blessed with the powers to grasp whatever path it wishes:

“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

Man has been pointed out the benefits of following the laws of Allah and the consequences of going against them It is up to him to choose to accept the laws of Allah 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

NO COMPULSION IN RELIGION BY MESSENGERS OF GOD AND THEIR FOLLOWERS

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 of God cannot force people to accept the laws of Allah. He is not allowed 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 and stoop to considering supernatural feats. 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

WHO ARE THE PEOPLE WHO FORCE 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 if people changed their beliefs:

“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 UNBELIEVERS and not Muslims who have been identified as forcing people to remain in their faith and threatening 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

BELIEF IN ISLAM IS BY 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.

PUNISHMENT FOR APOSTASY

“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.

CONCLUSION

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.

Muslim Response To The Blasphemous Film


A film depicting the Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him) in an offensive manner and which has been described as “a bigoted piece of poison calculated to inflame the Muslim world” has been circulated and its worldwide response has been in the form of protests and contempt across Muslim societies. Some of these protests have turned violent and outsiders to the faith are asking questions as to why a mere film can cause violence and resentment?

An assumption underlying this appraisal is that whilst responding violently, those who label themselves as Muslims are acting on the tenets of their faith. That what you see on the TV screens and read about in the newspapers is a practice of the Qur’an to the last letter. Many are deliberately led to believe as if whatever the world’s Muslims do and believe in, is a result of the religious guidance found in their Book and the authentic teaching of their faith.

This actually, is not the case.

Behaviour that you witness as “Islamic” behaviour is not necessarily Quranic behaviour. Upon studying the Qur’an you will realise that the fringe in the Muslim world that partakes in violent protests is neither representative of Qur’anic teachings nor of the vast number of peaceful believers.

In fact it is not religion that motivates such violence but politics. Almost all violent protests will see the involvement, not of ordinary Muslims who go about their normal daily routines, but by hardcore activists of religio-political groups, in whom along with a faithful zeal is also cultivated a deep rooted resentment of all things American. It is not the love of the Prophet, but a hatred of the United States that is instrumental in rousing such sentiments, for Prophetic teachings never command believers to act in a violent and disorderly manner.

It should also be borne in mind that elections are close by in many Muslim societies and political groups see situation created by the release of the film as an opportunity to test their street power. What better opportunity do they have by which under the cover of religion they can appear heroic? How else can they gain anti-American credentials that are so much needed to safeguard their vote bank?

Thus it is not religion, and to be specific religious teaching in the Qur’an, that is motivating people to act violent and disorderly, but it is largely politics and social deprivation that is orchestrating the violence. To be taken into account is the fact that due to corrupt and inept governments in Muslim societies there already exists much frustration and anger among the masses. When unemployment is high, there is deprivation, inflation is sky rocketing and you have a large and angry young population, then it is no rocket science to fathom that a protest of this category is bound to snowball into violence. People are frustrated and need an outlet, and politics has provided them a target and a means to vent that anger. The fuel is already there and all it needs is a match!

Here it is also important to bring on record what exactly is the Islamic ruling on such a matter as that which has come about as a result of the inflammatory film?

The Qur’an is not silent about situations when the Prophet (peace be upon him) was insulted and abused by rejecters of his message. It very well does show his behaviour, as to what his response was in such instances. It also gives clear and unambiguous instructions to Muslims as to what their conduct should be when people mock, ridicule or scoff their faith.

(1) God is sufficient against those who mock the Prophet

إِنَّا كَفَيْنَاكَ الْمُسْتَهْزِئِينَ

“For sufficient are We unto thee against those who scoff.” 15:95

It follows from this verse that if God is indeed sufficient against the scoffers, then there is no room left for believers to respond.

(2) The Prophet never commanded anyone to respond violently in face of insults

The Prophet was commanded by Allah:

وَلَا تُطِعِ الْكَافِرِينَ وَالْمُنَافِقِينَ وَدَعْ أَذَاهُمْ وَتَوَكَّلْ عَلَى اللَّهِ ۚ وَكَفَىٰ بِاللَّهِ وَكِيلًا

“And obey not [the behests] of the Unbelievers and the Hypocrites, and heed not their annoyances, but put thy Trust in Allah. For enough is Allah as a Disposer of affairs. ” 33:48

As Allah commanded the Prophet “and heed not their annoyances..” therefore the Prophet and his true followers did not pay any heed to insults and abuses they received from the rejecters.

(3) True believers in Allah bear the hurts of rejecters with patience, not violence

A statement that believers in Allah gave to rejecters is recorded in the Qur’an as:

وَمَا لَنَا أَلَّا نَتَوَكَّلَ عَلَى اللَّهِ وَقَدْ هَدَانَا سُبُلَنَا ۚ وَلَنَصْبِرَنَّ عَلَىٰ مَا آذَيْتُمُونَا ۚ وَعَلَى اللَّهِ فَلْيَتَوَكَّلِ الْمُتَوَكِّلُونَ

“No reason have we why we should not put our trust on Allah. Indeed He Has guided us to the Ways we [follow]. We shall certainly bear with patience all the hurt you may cause us. For those who put their trust should put their trust on Allah.” 14:12

The words “..We shall certainly bear with patience all the hurt you may cause us…” make it absolutely clear that true believers do not respond violently to the hurtful things they hear from rejecters but tolerate them with patience.

(4) Believers commanded to be patient in the face of insults

لَتُبْلَوُنَّ فِي أَمْوَالِكُمْ وَأَنفُسِكُمْ وَلَتَسْمَعُنَّ مِنَ الَّذِينَ أُوتُوا الْكِتَابَ مِن قَبْلِكُمْ وَمِنَ الَّذِينَ أَشْرَكُوا أَذًى كَثِيرًا ۚ وَإِن تَصْبِرُوا وَتَتَّقُوا فَإِنَّ ذَٰلِكَ مِنْ عَزْمِ الْأُمُورِ

“Ye shall certainly be tried and tested in your possessions and in your personal selves; and ye shall certainly Hear much that will hurt you, from those who received the Book before you and from those who worship many gods. But if ye persevere patiently, and guard against evil,-then that will be a determining factor in all affairs. ” 3:186

The divine command given to believers as to what to do in the face of abuse as “..if ye persevere patiently, and guard against evil…” leaves no room for doubt that true believers do not respond violently when faced with insults and abuse but remain calm and patient.

(5) Believers are forbidden to insult other religions, hence responding violently is ruled out.

وَلَا تَسُبُّوا الَّذِينَ يَدْعُونَ مِن دُونِ اللَّهِ فَيَسُبُّوا اللَّهَ عَدْوًا بِغَيْرِ عِلْمٍ ۗ كَذَٰلِكَ زَيَّنَّا لِكُلِّ أُمَّةٍ عَمَلَهُمْ ثُمَّ إِلَىٰ رَبِّهِم مَّرْجِعُهُمْ فَيُنَبِّئُهُم بِمَا كَانُوا يَعْمَلُونَ

“Revile not those unto whom they pray beside Allah lest they wrongfully
revile Allah through ignorance. Thus unto every nation have We made their deed seem fair. Then unto their Lord is their return, and He will tell them what they used to do.” 6:108

If believers are commanded by Allah not to even verbally insult deities, then how can they turn physically violent?

A question that immediately comes to the mind is that if indeed the Qur’an calls for calm and restraint in the face of insults and abuse, then why do so many people who identify themselves as staunch believers in Islam behave otherwise? Why do people resort to violence, damage property and attempt to riot? The answer to this is also given in the Qur’an. The reality is that the Qur’an categorises two types of believers. Those who are believers in deed, and those who are believers only by name. It is the latter who resort to violence and destruction in the name of religious reform:

وَمِنَ النَّاسِ مَن يَقُولُ آمَنَّا بِاللَّهِ وَبِالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ وَمَا هُم بِمُؤْمِنِينَ

“Of the people there are some who say: “We believe in Allah and the Last Day;” but they do not [really] believe. ” 2:8

Whilst refuting the claim of such, the Qur’an also exposes them by virtue of their conduct and behaviour in the world:

وَإِذَا قِيلَ لَهُمْ لَا تُفْسِدُوا فِي الْأَرْضِ قَالُوا إِنَّمَا نَحْنُ مُصْلِحُونَ

“When it is said to them: “Make not Fasaad (disorder) on the earth,” they say: “Why, we only Want to reform!” 2:11

Pinpointing the people who go about flaunting their Imaan (belief) to be in fact fake, the above verses also identify their modus operandi to do Fasad (disorder),  assuming it to be a means to Islah (reform from sin). When we come across individuals who make it their mission to “destroy evil and vice”, we see the truthfulness of the above description. These are the type of people who bomb establishments that appear sinful to them and display violent rage in the name of religion. They style themselves as believers, do Fasaad fil Ard (disorder and mischief in the land), without realising that far from acting on Allah’s laws, they are in fact grossly violating them.

Hence there are two types of people in the world who would claim to be within the fold of Imaan. Those whose characters are trained on Quranic guidance, who in the face of insults, invectives and abuse act patiently and do not resort to a tit-for-tat or violent response.

While others are those who, while claiming to be believers, actually defy the divine injunctions. These are the people who resort to violence and destruction and justify their conduct in the name of religion.

The fundamental mistake we would make is to accept people by the labels they carry or the claims they make, instead of identifying them by the behaviours they display. Behaviours that go against the teachings of the Qur’an are never a part of Islam and their actors are never its true representatives.

Indeed the film is contemptuous, and vulgar but we must not forget that the best defence to any attempted character assassination of the Prophet (peace be upon him) is the one contained in the Qur’an. Instead of losing control, we must hold fast to Qur’anic guidance in such matters. The Qur’an is Allah’s word and is not silent. Allah is fully aware of what situations come in the life of a believer and He has given remedies in His word. The only response that a true Muslim is to give is the one which the Prophet gave and which is to abide by the teaching contained in the Qur’an.