Is There Compulsion in Islam?

Is There Compulsion in the Islamic Religion? You’d Better Believe It!

By Archi Medes

“There is no compulsion in religion.”

In their attempts to present Islam as an open, tolerant religion, apologists typically present the famous “no compulsion” part of the Koran’s verse 2:256, as above. This snippet, on its own, seems to convey an attitude of relaxed, care-free, come-and-go-as-you-please religious freedom and tolerance. But does this snippet represent, truthfully, what the Koran says? For starters, let’s look at the actual verse, as it applies to Muslims, together with the very next verse (2:257), as it applies to non-Muslims.

2:256: “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.”
2:257: “Allah is the protecting guardian of those who believe. He bringeth them out of darkness into light. As for those who disbelieve, their patrons are false deities. They bring them out of light into darkness. Such are the rightful owners of the Fire [of Hell]. They will abide therein [forever].”

Both verses together certainly convey a different message than the typical apologist snippet from 2:256. The pair of complete verses show the Koran’s respective policies for Muslims (believers) and non-Muslims (disbelievers). Believers are warned not to slip into disbelief, and disbelievers are warned to become believers — or else. In other words, according to this passage, there is compulsion in Islam, despite the initial “no compulsion” statement. Verse 18:29, itself, bears some similarities to the 2:256-257 pair:

18:29: “Say: (It is) the truth from the Lord of you (all). Then whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve. Lo! We have prepared for disbelievers Fire. Its tent encloseth them. If they ask for showers, they will be showered with water like to molten lead which burneth the faces. Calamitous the drink and ill the resting-place!”

The policy in the Koran does not appear to be “Believe it or not,” but instead is “Believe it or else!” The damnation of disbelievers in 2:257 and 18:29 is consistent with Allah’s policy throughout the Koran. There are over 250 separate damnations of disbelievers in the Koran. True believing Muslims, on the other hand, are promised with the reward of Paradise in the Hereafter.

Despite its 250+ separate condemnations of disbelievers to hell-fire for the crime of disbelief, the Koran says many times that Allah is “Forgiving” and “Merciful.” The Koran says that disbelievers who do good works do so in vain, because they are going to hell anyway (5:5, 18:104-106, also 18:30, 33:19, 47:1, 47:32). This contradicts the claim that Allah is forgiving and merciful. (Indeed, it refutes the claims that he is at all wise and just). Were these statements all made by the same author?! Given the contradictions among the statements in the Koran, what are we to make of it when we read, “There is no compulsion in religion”? One way of looking at 2:256-2:25 is as just another contradictory pair of propositions in the Koran. Nevertheless, it is important to consider how the verse has traditionally been understood by respected commentators. Ibn Kathir’s tafsir (commentary) on verse (ayah) 2:256 explains:

“(There is no compulsion in religion), meaning, ‘Do not force anyone to become Muslim, for Islam is plain and clear, and its proofs and evidence are plain and clear. Therefore, there is no need to force anyone to embrace Islam. Rather, whoever Allah directs to Islam, opens his heart for it and enlightens his mind, will embrace Islam with certainty. Whoever Allah blinds his heart and seals his hearing and sight, then he will not benefit from being forced to embrace Islam.’
It was reported that the Ansar were the reason behind revealing this Ayah, although its indication is general in meaning.

In other words, the truth of Islam is so obvious and clear that only a fool, an evil fool worthy of eternal damnation (2:257), would fail to accept its validity. This clarifies the probable intended meaning of the verse somewhat, but the contradictory concepts remain: It is wrong to force anyone to become a Muslim (and other tafsirs agree on this point), but if they don’t become a Muslim, Allah will burn them in hell. But more than that, as will be shown later in this article, the Koran says that disbelievers will be punished in this world by Allah and by Muslims who are acting according to Allah’s policies (i.e., the Koran and Mohammad’s example). The only way that the disbelievers can escape these punishments in the world and in the hereafter is to convert to Islam. As we will see, according to the Koran, there is plenty of compulsion in religion.

The apologists’ snippet from 2:256 is misleading when presented to those who have not read the Koran (e.g., most non-Muslims), because the snippet belies the strong interrelationship between belief, obedience, fear, and submission in Islam. The word “Islam” in fact means “submission” or “surrender.” These aspects of belief are emphasized throughout the Koran. Obedience is a major aspect. For example, Iblis (Satan) first becomes a “disbeliever” when he refuses to bow prostrate before Adam in accordance with Allah’s orders (7:11, 20:116-117, 18:50, 38:74-76). In that story, Iblis does not deny that Allah exists. Rather, he disobeys what Allah commands him to do. It’s disobedience, arrogant defiance, that gets him into trouble with Allah, and that makes him a disbeliever. The apologists who present the 2:256 snippet likely are familiar with such verses as 49:14-17:

49:14-17: “The wandering Arabs say: We believe. Say (unto them, O Muhammad): Ye believe not, but rather say ‘We submit,’ for the faith hath not yet entered into your hearts. Yet, if ye obey Allah and His messenger, He will not withhold from you aught of (the reward of) your deeds. Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. The (true) believers are those only who believe in Allah and His messenger and afterward doubt not, but strive with their wealth and their lives for the cause of Allah. Such are the sincere. Say (unto them, O Muhammad): Would ye teach Allah your religion, when Allah knoweth all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth, and Allah is Aware of all things? They make it a favour unto thee (Muhammad) that they have surrendered (unto Him). Say: Deem not your Surrender a favour unto me; but Allah doth confer a favour on you, inasmuch as He hath led you to the Faith, if ye are earnest.

And consider 8:1-2:

8:1: “They ask thee (O Muhammad) of the spoils of war. Say: The spoils of war belong to Allah and the messenger, so keep your duty to Allah, and adjust the matter of your difference, and obey Allah and His messenger, if ye are (true) believers.
8:2: They only are the (true) believers whose hearts feel fear when Allah is mentioned, and when His revelations are recited unto them they increase their faith, and who trust in their Lord.”

Those passages show that the elements of fear, obedience, and submission, are linked to faith/belief. In 49:14, submission and obedience are necessary for faith. That all sounds like compulsion. According to 49:17, Allah himself compels people to Islam. The following verses also confirm the assertion that it is Allah that either guides people to Islam or leads them astray.

16:93: “And had Allah willed, He could have made you (all) one nation, but He sends astray whom He wills and guides whom He wills. But you shall certainly be called to account for what you used to do.”

76:29-31: “Verily! This (Verses of the Qur’an) is an admonition, so whosoever wills, let him take a Path to his Lord (Allah). But you cannot will, unless Allah wills. Verily, Allah is Ever All-Knowing, All-Wise. He will admit to His Mercy whom He will and as for the Zalimun, (polytheists, wrong-doers, etc.) He has prepared a painful torment.”

10:99-100: “And if thy Lord willed, all who are in the earth would have believed together. Wouldst thou (Muhammad) compel men until they are believers? It is not for any soul to believe save by the permission of Allah. He hath set uncleanness upon those who have no sense.”

49:7: “And know that the messenger of Allah is among you. If he were to obey you in much of the government, ye would surely be in trouble; but Allah hath endeared the faith to you and hath beautified it in your hearts, and hath made disbelief and lewdness and rebellion hateful unto you. Such are they who are the rightly guided.

5:3: “…This day have those who disbelieve despaired of your religion, so fear them not, and fear Me. This day have I perfected for you your religion and completed My favor on you and chosen for you Islam as a religion…

The above verses say that Allah controls a person’s choice of religion. Allah has even compelled believers to love faith (in Islam) and hate disbelief (in Islam). These passages state that Allah is actually controlling peoples’ thoughts and regulating their emotions and preferences — “you cannot will, unless Allah wills“! In other words, the believer’s will must be one with Allah’s, a “single-minded slave of Allah.” Verse 10:99, which says that Mohammad should not try to compel people to become believers, is inconsistent with much of the Koran (see below), and is, arguably, abrogated or cancelled by the later verses (cited below, see “Abrogation”). There is no contradiction, of course, if it is understood to mean “don’t compel people to become believers yet, at this time, in these circumstances (but compel them later when you have the power to do so).” The following passage makes clear that Allah has full control over religious belief; Allah himself makes it impossible for the disbelievers to grasp his message, and then he punishes them for not grasping it!

2:6-10: “Verily, those who disbelieve, it is the same to them whether you (O Muhammad Peace be upon him) warn them or do not warn them, they will not believe. Allah has set a seal on their hearts and on their hearings, (i.e. they are closed from accepting Allah’s Guidance), and on their eyes there is a covering. Theirs will be a great torment. And of mankind, there are some (hypocrites) who say: “We believe in Allah and the Last Day” while in fact they believe not. They (think to) deceive Allah and those who believe, while they only deceive themselves, and perceive (it) not! In their hearts is a disease (of doubt and hypocrisy) and Allah has increased their disease. A painful torment is theirs because they used to tell lies.

The above passages demolish the general claim that ‘there is no compulsion in Islam.’ In theory, non-Muslims could dismiss these verses as irrational fatalist mythology about some ancient tyrant of a god. Unfortunately, the reality is that hundreds of millions of Muslims believe these to be true statements about the non-Muslims, and this affects how they perceive and act toward non-Muslims. Some non-Muslims who are learning more about Islam are concerned about the real behaviour of some of Islam’s more zealous followers. This legitimate and healthy fear, which Islamist activists misleadingly call “Islamophobia,” is nothing new. Mohammad (Allah) was keenly aware of this, as illustrated by this verse, 59:13. “You [Muslims] are certainly greater in being feared in their hearts than Allah; that is because they are a people who do not understand.” Actually, non-Muslims’ legitimate fear of zealous Islamists, in Mohammad’s time, throughout history, and today, arises out of a clear understanding of the real threat posed. Mohammad boasted of the effectiveness and critical importance of this “terror” (i.e., fear of being killed), according to this report (Hadith):

“Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah’s Apostle said, ‘I have been sent with the shortest expressions bearing the widest meanings, and I have been made victorious with terror (cast in the hearts of the enemy), and while I was sleeping, the keys of the treasures of the world were brought to me and put in my hand.’ Abu Huraira added: Allah’s Apostle has left the world and now you, people, are bringing out those treasures (i.e. the Prophet did not benefit by them).” Sahih Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 52, Number 220.

Religious Intolerance

Is the Islamic religion, according to the Koran, tolerant? Many verses in the Koran say that believers should strive against the disbelievers universally (e.g., Muslims should ________ the non-Muslims: fight/oppose/shun/strive against/regard as the enemy/never help/never befriend/sever family ties with/never compromise with/never obey/never forgive/chastise/curse/be ruthless toward/be stern toward/etc. [3:118; 3:28, 3:56; 3:87-88, 4:50, 4:63, 4:101, 4:139-140, 4:144, 5:54, 5:57, 8:65, 9:14, 9:23, 9:73-74, 9:123, 25:52, 28:86, 31:7, 33:48, 45:7-8, 48:28-29, 53:29, 58:5, 58:22, 60:1, 60:4, 60:10, 60:13, 63:6, 66:9, 68:8-9, 76:24, 84:24]. No statements in the Koran contradict this policy toward the disbelievers. That is, there are no verses that say “Be genuine friends with the disbelievers,” or “Treat the disbelievers kindly, as good as you would treat Muslims”). The policy of total opposition to non-Muslims applies to almost all interactions except the attempt to convert them to Islam, or to the making of temporary peace arrangements with them when Muslims are politically or militarily weak. The Koran repeatedly identifies the disbelievers as the enemy, evil, wicked, wrong-doers, evil-doers, on the side of Satan and fighting against Allah, etc. (16:27, 2:91, 2:99, 80:42, 9:125, 42:45, 2:254, 5:45, 42:44, 4:76-77, 58:19, 7:27, 7:30, 25:55, 63:4). Christians and Jews are also condemned and insulted many times (2:61, 4:48, 4:50, 4:116, 4:47-52, 4:55, 4:157, 4:160, 5:12-5:13, 5:37, 5:51, 5:53, 5:59-60, 5:72-73, 5:79, 18:52, 33:26, 59:14, 98:1). Again, there are no verses that contradict this thorough demonization of disbelievers. There are no statements such as “Disbelievers are good people,” or “Disbelievers truly do good deeds,” or “Disbelievers help the Muslims,” etc. Verse 60:4 says Muslims will hate the disbelievers forever until they believe in Allah only. The Koran states explicitly that non-Muslims are “guilty” of disbelief (45:31, 83:29). The worst possible sin is disbelief in or denial of Allah (10:17, 11:18-19, 18:15, 32:22). Disbelief or turning away from Allah is a persecution worse than warfare (2:217) or slaughter (2:191). (For a discussion of 2:191, see http://www.faithfreedom.org/faq/70.htm, by Ali Sina). According to the Koran (and Hadith), disbelief may be punishable through jihad against non-Muslims, through execution of apostates, and through slaying hypocrites, critics, and satirical poets (see below). Non-Muslims living under Islamic rule also face the prospect of being forced into dhimmitude (see below) or slavery.

Abrogation

According to the doctrine of abrogation, which is accepted among the majority of Islamic scholars, verses that were revealed later in sequence abrogate earlier revealed ones where an apparent contradiction arises in the meanings of the respective verses. Support for this type of abrogation comes from the Koran itself (Arberry’s translation):

16:101: “And when We exchange a verse in the place of another verse and God knows very well what He is sending down — they say, ‘Thou art a mere forger!’ Nay, but the most of them have no knowledge.”

2:106: “And for whatever verse We abrogate or cast into oblivion, We bring a better or the like of it; knowest thou not that God is powerful over everything?”

Some scholars claim that verse 2:256 is not abrogated, but this is unlikely if the principle of abrogation is assumed to be valid. Sura 9 is often regarded as the last or second last revealed out of 114 Suras (Chapters). It contains verses compelling believers to wage war in the name of religion against the disbelievers. (Sura 5, or parts of it, are also often regarded as last. But whether Sura 5 is last or Sura 9 is last, the open-ended calls to violent jihad against all non-Muslims in Sura 9 are not abrogated).

A skeptical assessment of 2:256, carried out by M. Rafiqul-Haqq and P. Newton, can be found at this link: http://debate.domini.org/newton/tolerance.html. In that article, they argue that the seemingly positive sentiment in 2:256, if taken at face value (as in the apologists’ snippet), is abrogated by later-revealed 9:73. They also point out that verse 3:85, which states that only Islam is acceptable to Allah, abrogates many earlier “religiously tolerant” verses (e.g., the much earlier revealed 109:6). Abdullah Al Araby also argues that the famous Verse of the Sword, 9:5, abrogates 124 earlier-revealed verses that seemingly promoted peace and tolerance (2:256 and 109:6 are, again, among the abrogated): http://www.islamreview.com/articles/quransdoctrine.shtml.

The commonly-reported assumption that People of the Book (Christians and Jews) are somehow protected from damnation is not clearly supported in the Koran; many passages suggest that what Mohammad (Allah) requires is that people from among the Christian and Jewish populations convert to Islam. As for those among the Christian and Jewish populations who reject Islam, Mohammad (Allah) refered to them as “the worst of created beings” (98:6). Verse 3:85 leaves no doubt: Only Islam (“the Surrender”) is acceptable to Allah, period. Finally, verse 9:29 (see below) makes it clear that Muslims must fight the Jews and Christians, killing, converting, or subjugating them.

Whether verse 2:256 is abrogated or not, taken together with verse 2:257, it is basically consistent with the entire Koran: Strict believers, who reject all religions except Islam, are safe, but disbelievers are going to receive the maximum penalty. All of the “compulsion” (persecution, subjugation, threats, etc.) directed against non-Muslims still applies. That is, they’re still guilty of the worst crime and must be punished in this world and in the hereafter.

Lack of Religious Freedom

Religious freedom requires the ability to freely express criticism of a religion. The Koran forbids this (2:2). As everyone now knows, it is not possible to criticize Islam openly without risking being killed by an Islamist who wishes to obey the Koran and follow Mohammad’s example. Mohammad’s/Allah’s policy with regard to freedom of expression was exceedingly harsh and restrictive. For example, those who malign the prophet and Allah will be cursed in this world and in the Hereafter (33:57); those who malign Muslims will be doomed (33:58). Those guilty of either hypocrisy, adultery or lechery, or sedition (alarmism; spreading false news), will be seized wherever they are found and slain with a (fierce) slaughter (33:60-62). For those transgressions, a brutal death seems like quite an excessive penalty by our modern standards. Nevertheless, 33:62 states that this harsh penalty had always been in accordance with Allah’s law, and that it would remain so.

Another similar passage along the same theme also threatens damnation (painful doom, etc.) to critics who dismiss Mohammad mockingly (37:34-40; the mockers and critics called him a “mad poet”). In those passages (and in 33:57-58), Mohammad condemned critics to a painful doom. In order to clarify whether Mohammad only meant they should be damned (i.e., by Allah) or, in addition, actually killed by believers, it is necessary to turn to the Hadith and Sira. According to these Islamic sources, Mohammad had many of them assassinated or executed, e.g., see http://www.answering-islam.org/Muhammad/Enemies/index.html,
http://answering-islam.org/Authors/Arlandson/free_speech.htm, http://answering-islam.org/Authors/Arlandson/dead_poets.htm. Because the Koran states that Mohammad is an example that (male) believers should emulate (33:21), the killing of critics and satirists of Islam is mandatory.

The classical Hanbali jurist Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), provides a historical example of an Islamic ruling that POWs and captured non-combatants, including the elderly, handicapped, women, and children, could be put to death for verbal expressions against Islam. (Source, Taymiyya, Ibn (1996). From al-Siyasa al-Shariyya, translated by Rudolph Peters in Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam, p. 44-54, especially see p. 49. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener). That example, though in a different context, is at least consistent with Mohammad’s own divinely-ordained conduct in ordering the assassinations of many critics and poets, such as an elderly man (Abu Afak), and a mother of five children (Asma bint Marwan) (see above, answering-islam links). Therefore, it cannot be claimed that the killing of those who speak against Islam represents a misunderstanding of the Koran and other Islamic texts.

Another aspect of religious freedom of expression concerns the believers’ freedom to engage in debate about their beliefs, should they differ in their opinions about the deity. The Koran forbids this. Those believers who argue amongst themselves about Allah will incur His wrath and will receive an awful doom (42:16).

Religious freedom also entails that people can, if they wish, pick and choose the parts of the doctrine they like, and put aside what they don’t like. The Koran explicitly forbids this kind of subjectivity. Those (adults of sound mind) who fail to accept/follow the whole Koran are disbelievers and will be doomed (4:150-151), if they do not repent. Religious freedom also entails that people can interpret parts of the doctrine allegorically. Again, the Koran itself explicitly denounces this practice, and calls for literalism:

3:7. He it is Who has sent down to thee the Book: In it are verses basic or fundamental (of established meaning); they are the foundation of the Book: others are allegorical. But those in whose hearts is perversity follow the part thereof that is allegorical, seeking discord, and searching for its hidden meanings, but no one knows its hidden meanings except God. And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: “We believe in the Book; the whole of it is from our Lord:” and none will grasp the Message except men of understanding.

In other words, believers should not try to explain the fables about talking ants, birds of clay, etc., but should take heed of the clear commands and rules. The Koran is an “admonition” (76:29), a guide about which there can be no doubt (2:2).

Other aspects of religious freedom concern how much of one’s life should be dedicated to the religion as such. How important should religion be, compared to other aspects of life? According to the Koran, a Muslim man’s wives and children are mere temptations and should not distract him from his devotion to Allah (63:9, 64:14-15). As was already noted above, the Koran says that believers should sever family ties with disbelievers and should not make friends with the disbelievers. If there were no compulsion in Islam, then these important relationships would not be so restricted by the tenets of the religion.

As is well-known, Islam requires that one follow a very long list of rituals, restrictions, and customs. Islam also requires that Muslims oppose a wide variety of non-Muslim words, deeds, customs, and institutions, each of which supposedly constitutes “oppression” of Muslims. (For a sample list of some of these “oppressive” un-Islamic activities, see Abul Kasem’s discussion: http://www.faithfreedom.org/oped/AbulKasem51205.htm). This all constitutes an excessive amount of compulsion in religion for devout Muslims.

Compulsory Jihad

Several verses emphasize the extreme obligatory nature of participation in jihad for those able-bodied individuals called for it. Believers must not turn away from fighting the unbelievers, otherwise they’ll go to hell (8:15-16) or possibly be put to death (4:89-91). Believers must fight, or receive a painful doom from Allah (9:39). Believers must wage war for Allah, whether they like it or not (2:216). Allah tests believers by compelling them to kill unbelievers (8:17); when believers kill non-believers, it is Allah that is doing the killing; true believers will kill or be killed for Allah. Allah could punish the disbelievers directly, but instead he tests some people (believers) by using other people (disbelievers); those believers who are slain in battle for Allah will be rewarded (47:4). Allah uses the prospect of battle to find out what is in men’s hearts; disbelievers stay away from the fight for Allah, but true believers go into the fight for Allah (3:154-159; 3:167-172). Those who die fighting for Allah will be rewarded in Paradise.

This compulsion/coercion is foundational to Islam itself. Islam’s mission to the world is an imperialistic one, as described by contemporary scholar Bassam Tibi:

“At its core, Islam is a religious mission to all humanity. Muslims are religiously obliged to disseminate the Islamic faith throughout the world. ‘We have sent you forth to all mankind’ (Q. 34:28). If non-Muslims submit to conversion or subjugation, this call (da’wa) can be pursued peacefully. If they do not, Muslims are obliged to wage war against them. In Islam, peace requires that non-Muslims submit to the call of Islam, either by converting or by accepting the status of a religious minority (dhimmi) and paying the imposed poll tax, jizya. World peace, the final stage of the da’wa, is reached only with the conversion or submission of all mankind to Islam… Muslims believe that expansion through war is not aggression but a fulfillment of the Qur’anic command to spread Islam as a way to peace. The resort to force to disseminate Islam is not war (harb), a word that is used only to describe the use of force by non-Muslims. Islamic wars are not hurub (the plural of harb) but rather futuhat, acts of ‘opening’ the world to Islam and expressing Islamic jihad. Relations between dar al-Islam, the home of peace, and dar al-harb, the world of unbelievers, nevertheless take place in a state of war, according to the Qur’an and to the authoritative commentaries of Islamic jurists. Unbelievers who stand in the way, creating obstacles for the da’wa, are blamed for this state of war, for the da’wa can be pursued peacefully if others submit to it. In other words, those who resist Islam cause wars and are responsible for them. Only when Muslim power is weak is ‘temporary truce’ (hudna) allowed (Islamic jurists differ on the definition of ‘temporary’).”
(Source: Tibi, Bassam. (1996). “War and Peace in Islam”, in Terry Nardin (ed.), The Ethics of War and Peace: Religious and Secular Perspectives, p. 129-131. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).

This policy is again confirmed in the Shafi’i Sunni manual “Reliance of the Traveler,” which is still officially endorsed by Sunni Islam’s most respected authority in the world, the Al-Azhar University in Cairo. The manual states that jihad is “a communal obligation” to make “war against non-Muslims.” It also states that “the caliph makes war upon Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians… until they become Muslim or else pay the non-Muslim poll tax…” Moreover, “The caliph fights all other peoples until they become Muslim.” If there is no caliph, jihad must still be carried out. (Source: Ahmed ibn Naqib al-Misri (1999). Reliance of the Traveler (‘Umdat al-Salik): A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law. (Translated by Nuh Ha Mim Keller). Beltsville, MD: Amana Publications. See law numbers o9.0, o9.1, o9.6, o9.8, and o9.9).

This policy of obligatory imperialistic jihad is abundantly clear in the Koran’s Sura 9. Here are just some of the verses from Sura 9 that clearly refute the claim that there is no compulsion in Islam. [I include my paraphrasing in brackets beneath the quotes].

9:5: “Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush. But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free. Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.”
[In the imperialistic jihad, slay idolaters, unless they surrender to Islam and worship Allah].

9:29: “Fight against such of those who have been given the Scripture as believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, and forbid not that which Allah hath forbidden by His messenger, and follow not the Religion of Truth, until they pay the tribute [jizya tax] readily, being brought low.”
[This verse, in the context of Sura 9, orders that People of the Book be fought, killed, converted, or else subjugated (to dhimmi status, a humiliating, onerous, second-class citizen position, dhimmis can convert to Islam or else keep their religion and pay the jizya ("protection") tax. Refusal to pay the jizya results in execution]. Note that the oppressive conditions of dhimmitude could compel some dhimmis to opt for conversion to Islam. Obviously, such conversions would constitute yet another form of compulsion in Islam.

9:33: “He it is Who hath sent His messenger with the guidance and the Religion of Truth, that He may cause it to prevail over all religion, however much the idolaters may be averse.
[This states the ultimate, overriding goal of Islam. Note the "however much the idolaters may be averse." Clearly, that is compulsion in religion. No upper limit is set here as to how much coercive force may be imposed upon the idolaters, and upon disbelievers generally (also see 48:28, 61:9)].

9:38: “O ye who believe! What aileth you that when it is said unto you: Go forth in the way of Allah, ye are bowed down to the ground with heaviness. Take ye pleasure in the life of the world rather than in the Hereafter? The comfort of the life of the world is but little in the Hereafter.”
9:39: “If ye go not forth He will afflict you with a painful doom, and will choose instead of you a folk other than you. Ye cannot harm Him at all. Allah is Able to do all things.”
[Some believers may be reluctant to fight for the cause of religion, but if they don't, they'll receive a painful doom].

9:73: “O Prophet! Strive against the disbelievers and the hypocrites! Be harsh with them. Their ultimate abode is hell, a hapless journey’s end.”
9:74: “They swear by Allah that they said nothing (wrong), yet they did say the word of disbelief, and did disbelieve after their Surrender (to Allah). And they purposed that which they could not attain, and they sought revenge only that Allah by His messenger should enrich them of His bounty. If they repent it will be better for them; and if they turn away, Allah will afflict them with a painful doom in the world and the Hereafter, and they have no protecting friend nor helper in the earth.”
[The disbelievers, and those hypocrites and apostates of Islam who fail to repent, will receive a painful doom in this world and in the Hereafter].

9:111: “Lo! Allah hath bought from the believers their lives and their wealth because the Garden [of Paradise] will be theirs: they shall fight in the way of Allah and shall slay and be slain. It is a promise which is binding on Him in the Torah and the Gospel and the Qur’an. Who fulfilleth His covenant better than Allah? Rejoice then in your bargain that ye have made, for that is the supreme triumph.”
[Slay and be slain for Allah; you are bound by divine contract to do so].

9:123: “O ye who believe! Fight those of the disbelievers who are near to you, and let them find harshness in you, and know that Allah is with those who keep their duty (unto Him).”
[Fight and be harsh against the disbelievers. It is a religious duty].

Apostasy

Apostates, those adults of sound mind who reject their belief in Allah, and who fail to repent after a grace period, will receive an awful doom “because they have chosen the life of the world rather than the Hereafter” (16:106-107). Apostates are condemned, doomed (47:25, 47:32, 47:34). Some verses could be interpreted to mean apostates are to be put to death (e.g., 9:11-12; 9:73-74). Those who abandon the jihad (the hypocrites and apostates) should be slain wherever they are found (4:89-91), if they do not surrender or are not protected by treaty. For more information on apostacy, see http://www.faithfreedom.org/oped/IssacSchrodinger51208.htm, http://www.faithfreedom.org/Articles/sina/apostasy.htm. Also see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murtadd. Note that 2:217 may imply that the death penalty is for apostasy, partly because it says disbelief is a worse persecution (against Muslims, Islam, Mohammad, Allah) than killing (a believer), and that apostates’ works have fallen in this world. Also, several reliable Hadith show clearly that the death penalty was used for apostasy (see above links), with Mohammad’s (Allah’s) blessing. For example, in Bukhari, volume 4, book 52, number 260, it is reported that “The Prophet said, ‘If a Muslim discards his religion, kill him.’” This policy of executing apostates is confirmed in the Sira, e.g., Ishaq: 550, 551.

Slavery

Slavery is permitted (4:3, 4:36, 23:6, 24:58, 30:28, 33:50). While there are instances where slaves are to be set free, Allah (Mohammad) sees no need to put an end to the institution, and allows it. How can there be no compulsion in Islam if Allah allows slavery?

Mistreatment of Women

There are many examples of compulsion in Muslim and non-Muslim women’s lives due to Islam. Allah (Mohammad) may replace wives who criticize their husband (66:5). Wives who are false (i.e., show the slightest sign of disbelief in Allah) to their husbands are to be killed by Allah (66:10). The wives of disbelievers will also be doomed with their husbands (37:22-31). Muslims (women or men) may not marry any person of the idolater religions (2:221), unless the idolater converts to Islam. Women guilty of lewdness (adultery) must be confined to the house until death (4:15). Women must wear covering veils except when they are with their immediate family (24:31, 33:59). Muslim men are permitted to have or take female captives and slaves for sex (4:24, 23:6, 33:50-52). According to the Hadiths, some of these women were acquired as “spoils of war.” They were taken captive, raped, and in some cases forcibly impregnated:

Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri:
That during the battle with Bani Al-Mustaliq they (Muslims) captured some females and intended to have sexual relation with them without impregnating them. So they asked the Prophet about coitus interruptus ['azl]. The Prophet said, “It is better that you should not do it, for Allah has written whom He is going to create till the Day of Resurrection.” Qaza’a said, “I heard Abu Sa’id saying that the Prophet said, ‘No soul is ordained to be created but Allah will create it.’”
Sahih Bukhari Volume 9, Book 93, Number 506 (also see Sahih Muslim Book 8, Number 3373).

While this most abominable form of coercion is certainly not unique to Islamic warfare, the prophet does not condemn it. “Allah” also has nothing to say on the matter. The men and the prophet are more concerned about whether or not coitus interruptus is acceptable.

Throughout the Koran, women are treated very badly, unfairly, and as inferior (2:223, 4:3, 4:11, 4:14, 4:15, 4:19, 4:20, 4:24, 4:34, 4:176, 24:31, 63:9, 64:14-15, 70:10). Note that 4:34, the notorious wife-beating verse, does say “beat” her (or hit, or scourge). At least 10 available respectable translations of the Koran say “beat” (or scourge, or hit). A discussion of 4:34 and the word “beat” can be found at http://answering-islam.org/Silas/wife-beating.htm. Here is the verse:

4:34: “Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Lo! Allah is ever High, Exalted, Great.”

The Hadiths confirm Mohammad’s wife-beating policy [I add my comments in brackets]:

“Ayesha said, ‘I have not seen anyone suffering as much as the believing women. Look! Her skin is greener than her clothes!’” Bukhari. vol. 7, book 72, no. 715. [The "green" adjective is in reference to the bruising from the beating. In this incident, Ayesha brought to the prophet's attention a woman who had been badly beaten by her husband in a domestic quarrel. In response, the prophet did not condemn the beating, and "Allah" did not substitute a new verse in place of 4:34].

“…He (Muhammad) struck me (Aisha) on the chest which caused me pain…” Muslim, book 4, no. 2127. [Mohammad's child-wife Ayesha tells of how the prophet struck her hard enough to cause pain, and an enduring memory of the event].

“I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-Fire were women….[because] they are ungrateful to their husbands and they are deficient in intelligence.” (The Prophet Muhammad). Bukhari vol. 2, book 24, no. 541.

This latter report illustrates how severely women are compelled to follow the Islamic religious code in being subservient and obedient to their husbands (and it shows Mohammad’s misogyny).

Marriageable age in some Islamic countries for females is nine years of age. Obviously, a child does not have the capacity to form a proper consent, but is under a religiously-based compulsion or coercion to accept it. This follows the prophet Mohammad’s example, because the age at which he consummated his marriage with Ayesha was 9. He married her when he was in his fifties and when she was 6 or 7 years of age. Sources: Sahih Muslim Book 8, Number 3311; Sahih Bukhari Volume 5, Book 58, Number 236; Sahih Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 62, Number 65; also see Tabari IX:131).

Can Reform or Reinterpretation Remove Compulsion in Islam?

Some progressive Islamic scholars argue that true Islam is a peaceful, tolerant religion that respects women’s rights (e.g., Sheikh Ahmed Subhy Mansour, http://www.eyewitnessspeakers.org/DrAhmedMansour.asp). Likewise, Thomas Haidon argues that a non-literalist reinterpretation of the Koran, and a rejection of Hadiths, will reveal Islam’s peaceful, tolerant core (see http://www.freemuslims.org/links.php). While I believe these authors are well-intentioned and hope they are successful, the main stumbling block is the Koran itself. There are, according to an on-line skeptical annotation of the Koran, 403 verses showing religious intolerance, 529 verses showing injustice, 331 verses showing cruelty and violence, 51 verses showing disrespect or mistreatment of women, and only 62 verses showing what would generally be considered good moral values (Source, retrieved December, 2005: http://www.skepticsannotatedbible.com/quran/index.htm). Even the ‘good’ verses mostly only apply to Muslims; the positive sentiments are not extended to the treatment of non-Muslims. To argue that the ‘no compulsion in religion’ statement applies straightforwardly, and protects religious freedom and other human rights, one must argue against much of what is contained in the Koran.

Conclusions

Verses 2:256-257 make it clear that there is compulsion in Koran-based Islamic religion. The passage is a warning for believers to stay in line, and is also a warning to disbelievers to not be disbelievers – or else! This policy is consistent with many other verses in the Koran. The ‘no compulsion’ phrase in context is seemingly contradictory, rather like when “Allah” claims he is forgiving and merciful, and then condemns disbelievers to the hell-fires to torture them. The Koran orders Muslims to strive against, oppose, and humiliate the non-Muslims, bringing Allah’s punishment to them in this world. Muslims must compel the disbelievers to accept Islam, or accept rule under Islamic Laws, or else be put to death.

Even if 2:257 were ignored, and the snippet from 2:256 was intended to mean “no compulsion,” as a modern non-Muslim audience would normally understand that phrase, on this reading it is abrogated by Sura 9. Sura 9 is loaded with verses that show extreme compulsion in religion.

The snippet from verse 2:256 should not be presented as a statement of religious freedom and tolerance. The idea that Koran-based Islam is without compulsion is not merely falsity; it is an absurdity. And it is disturbing that Islamic apologists, knowing what the Koran contains, typically present the “no compulsion” snippet to unsuspecting non-Muslim readers.

Online Resources for Skeptics of Islam

Readers can find, on the web (and free of charge), multiple translations of the Koran, Hadiths (brief reports of the deeds and words of the prophet) such as Bukhari and Muslim compilations, and the Sira (the life story of Mohammad). The Koran, Hadiths, and Sira constitute the core foundational Islamic texts.

Ibn Kathir’s interpretation of verse 2:256 can be found at http://tafsir.com/default.asp?sid=2&tid=6832. Readers can look up interpretation (tafsir) of any verse or passage on that site.

Verse 2:256 has been annotated at http://www.skepticsannotatedbible.com/quran/index.htm. Readers can view a skeptical annotation of the Koran at that site.

Forced Conversion in Islam
http://www.hraicjk.org/forced_conversion_and_prophet_muhammad.html

Compulsion in Sunni Islam Sharia Law (Thanks to Mentat)
http://boston.indymedia.org/newswire/display_any/21475