Now at the Patheos Book Club
Tackling the Tough Questions
By Harris Zafar
The most fundamental verse in the Quran in regard to freedom of religion comes in chapter 2, when it declares, "There is no compulsion in religion. Surely, the right way has become distinct from error." The Quran holds firmly to the principle that God has certainly made humans capable of understanding His signs and, thus, distinguishing right from wrong. For this reason, God states very directly—and with no ambiguity—that no compulsion is allowed in matters of religion. He Himself has provided all guidance and clear proofs for the right path, and He has provided humans with the free will to follow that path.
Note that this verse was revealed during the Prophet Muhammad's ministry in Medina, when he was already in a position of authority after being asked by its diverse people to be their head of state. There is immense wisdom in God revealing at that time this instruction that people cannot be compelled in religious matters. Had Muhammad received this revelation in Mecca, some would have had the room to allege that this verse only applied when Muslims were in a weak state, being physically and economically persecuted due to their religion. But Muhammad received this revelation after he had gained a position of authority as a commandment to protect freedom of religion for all people. Consequently, we see no example during Muhammad's lifetime in which he ever compelled anyone in matters of religion. He championed freedom of religion, and it is the duty of every living and breathing Muslim today to do so as well.
This is not the only verse in the Quran that forbids Muslims from compelling others in matters of religion. The Quran repeatedly prohibits compulsion in religious affairs. God tells Prophet Muhammad that he is responsible only for delivering the message and warning to all people as a messenger of God. He has not been permitted to watch over people and ensure they are abiding by his instructions. The Quran quotes God's words to Muhammad as "Admonish, therefore, for thou art but an admonisher; Thou art not appointed a keeper over them."
When speaking about those who associate other gods with the one true God, the Quran states, "If Allah had enforced His Will, they would not have set up gods with Him. And We have not made thee a keeper over them, nor art thou over them a guardian." This verse establishes the free will that God has granted to humankind out of His abundant grace. It vouches that God is so powerful that He could have forced people to worship Him alone, but He did not do so because He has made every person a free agent in matters of faith. This verse fittingly ends with an instruction to Muhammad that he has not been given any authority to compel people in matters of personal belief. If God did not compel people to accept the truth, clearly Muhammad would not be permitted to do so. This is repeated later in the Quran where it states, "If the Lord had enforced His Will, surely, all who are in the earth would have believed together. Wilt thou, then, force men to become believers?" This leaves no doubt that Islam forbids the use of force for spreading the faith. Accordingly, Muslims are forbidden from imposing religion upon anyone, regardless of whether they are Muslim or not.
This is again witnessed when the Quran states, "Whoever follows guidance, follows it only for the good of his own soul; and as to him who goes astray, say, 'I am only a Warner.'"Islam views religion as a personal matter sent to guide humankind on the right path, and any soul who chooses to follow this path does so only for his or her own good. As for those who then go astray by disbelieving or disobeying God's commandments, this verse contains no instruction to punish them. Rather, it instructs believers to respond to such disbelievers by simply saying, "I am only a Warner." Instead of threatening to punish them, believers are instructed to do nothing more than warn and admonish.
Prophet Muhammad is constantly informed by God to tell disbelievers that he gains and loses nothing irrespective of whether or not they follow his teachings. His duty has been confined to delivering the message. As such, the Quran states that Muhammad said to the people: "O men, now has the Truth come to you from your Lord. So whoever follows the guidance, follows it only for the good of his own soul, and whoever errs, errs only against it. And I am not a keeper over you." A true message from God is strong enough to stand on its own merit; he need not compel anyone to accept something that is true.
With so many clear proofs in the Quran and the life of the Prophet Muhammad, it is appalling to hear accusations that Islam prohibits freedom of religion or forces its followers to adhere to it. And the most inexcusable and unthinkable case of transgression is when Muslims themselves claim that Islam permits Muslims to be compelled in matters of religion. Such is the case of Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips --a Jamaican-born convert to Islam who now writes, speaks, and preaches about Islam and even founded an online Islamic university. During a series entitled "Contemporary Issues" on Sharjah Television, Dr. Philips boldly claimed that Islam's prohibition against compelling people in matters of religion only applies to non-Muslims, whereas Muslims could indeed be forcibly compelled.