No compulsion in religion . . . .

No compulsion in religion . . . . November 12, 2012

The Qur’an, in Chapter 2, verse 256, states “There is no compulsion in religion” or in some translations “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” This is very different from the Western concept of freedom of religion.

The verse from the Qur’an, often cited, raises several questions. First – to whom does it apply? Classically it was taken to mean that “people of the book” could not be compelled to be Muslims. On the other hand both theoretically and historically Arab polytheists and other polytheists were compelled to become Muslim by Muhammad’s successors.

Related to this is the question of whether it applies to Muslims who want to leave Islam. Here there is much more uniformity in the Islamic tradition. Muslims can be compelled to remain Muslim. In classical Islamic law apostasy was and is punishable in a variety of ways, up to and including death. Put another way, once a person becomes a Muslim he or she no longer enjoys freedom of religion. It is an irrevocable change of status.

An incident in Malaysia has fully underscored this very contemporary reality.

A Muslim woman, and member of the Malaysian Parliament, Nurul Izzah Anwar spoke at a seminar organized to discuss what is meant by the term “Islamic State” in relationship to Malaysia. She had reminded those in attendance that the Qur’an states that there is “no compulsion in religion.” When she was asked whether this applied to Malay Muslims as well she answered affirmatively.

Which was the wrong answer for Malaysia’s Islamic establishment, because it implied that Malay Muslims could also choose their religion, and thus choose to leave Islam.

Immediately she was condemned by every Muslim leader from the former Prime Minister, to the sitting Prime Minister, to the various heads of state religious councils, imams, heads of Islamic think tanks, and the head of the federal government department regulating Islam, who determined to “take action again Nurul Izzah.” (

All these religious leaders stated clearly that a Muslim is not free to quit being Muslim. And indeed, Muslims in Malaysia seeking to change their religious status have faced everything from harassment to imprisonment by the government, and have not been allowed to change that status. (see my article, “Can Muslims Engage in Interreligious Dialogue” in Muslim World, Vol. 99, No. 4)

To understand this we need to understand the tension between religion as a set of personal convictions, religion as a set of social obligations, and religion as an obligation to God. It is simply realistic to say that personal conviction should not be compelled. After all, once it is compelled it fails to be personal conviction. The former prime minister of Malaysia said that this is the only sense that “no compulsion in religion” applies to Muslims. They can be compelled to remain Muslims, but they cannot be compelled to be good Muslims.

It is trickier with one’s obligations to God. In the past both Islam and Catholic Christianity have been clear that a person cannot walk back a pledge made to God. And both, until the rise of the modern West, have recognized that political entities should enforce God’s claim on a person provisionally, if only to save a person from a harsher judgment by God at the day of judgement.

In the contemporary Western world governments are no longer willing to enforce pledges that individuals have made to God. If a person becomes a Muslim, or a Christian (or for that matter Jew, Hindu, or Buddhist) and then changes his or her mind that is a matter between the individual and God. This is one contemporary understanding of “freedom of religion”: freedom from government interference in making religious choices.

There are Muslims (including Muslims in Malaysia) who would agree. But across the great majority of the Muslim world governments still take responsibility for enforcing pledges of loyalty made by people to God if they are Muslim. And, it must be noted, the Fiqh Council of North America offers only the opinion that Islamic law does not support punishing apostasy by death and decisions about apostates must be left to appropriate authorities. It does not affirm the right of Muslims to change their religion. (

And what about the final meaning of religion: a set of social obligations. Can an individual who has been born into a particular social group, or joined it later, then pull out? Here again, up until the modern era Christians and Muslims agreed that such contracts were perpetually binding. But again in the modern West this is no longer the case. The obligations take on when joining a religious group can be revoked by either party at any time, and a Western government will take no sides and has no interest. This again is part of the meaning of freedom of religion in the West.

And again in the modern Muslim world this isn’t the case. In dominantly Muslim states and societies, and in universally accepted Islamic law, the set of social obligations that one undertakes when becoming a Muslim are always valid. This means that Muslim governments will actually enforce certain demands of Islamic law against those who claim to no longer be Muslim. This is particularly important because many of these obligations are legal obligations related to religious status. For example the obligation of a Muslim man to his wife, or the obligations of child custody or inheritance.

The challenge for Muslims considering this issue is nicely illustrated by Dr.Jamal Badawi’s essay on apostasy on the website of the Fiqh Council of North America (cited earlier). The Qur’an is largely silent on the issue of how to deal with apostasy. And authoritative sayings of the prophet refer to a situation in which the social obligations of a Muslim and the obligations to God were declared in a single oath. It becomes almost impossibly to tease out the difference between apostasy and treason.

Equally challenging is the fact that all the relevant hadith deny that a Muslim has the choice to leave his or her religion. Thus the best that Dr. Badawi can do is assert that apostasy is not punishable by death, and that in determining how to deal with apostasy the appropriate authorities must take several things into account. He cannot, based on his own legal reasoning, assert that Muslims in an Islamic state possess freedom of religion as understood in a modern western state.

And so again we see the challenge of real religious difference.

The modern Protestant assertion of freedom of religion is not at all the same as the Muslim interpretation of the Qur’anic injunction that there is no compulsion in religion. The modern Protestant understanding, which deeply affects contemporary western understandings of separation of church and state, is based on the fundamental ideal that each individual must continually choose, and should be freely able to choose, to have a relationship with God and God’s community. Apostasy is simply another word for honesty – and that is what God prizes above all else in God’s human subjects.

For this reason for Christians an irrevocable human oath, especially enforced by human authorities, is the greatest possible danger to authentic religious faith. The freedom to accept or reject one’s religious obligations at any time is the only basis for genuine religious faith. And this is why an essentially secular state, one that neither forbids nor coerces in the realm of religion, is the best possible society for the cultivation of authentic faith.

For Christians only God’s promises are irrevocable, only God’s claims on humans are unchanging. And God alone should press these claims upon us – through God’s Word both read and preached, through God’s Spirit at work in the human heart, and ultimately at God’s judgment on our lives.

Islam is different but, it must be noted, because it works from an essentially different understanding of authority, human society, and the obligations of religious belonging.

In the next blog I’ll talk more about the differences in the ways that modern secular states and classically Islamic states understand the role of the state, and explore how these different ideas might be reconciled.

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