Religious Freedom in Islam: A Permanent Principle


Originally Published in OnFaith

“There is no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an 2:257)
     Throughout the dark ages and the periods before this, Europe was very intolerant toward religious differences. The Puritans faced persecution in England and consequently migrated to the Americas to seek out religious freedom. However, this did not immediately lead to religious freedom across North America. In the 17th century pioneers like Roger Williams started advocating religious freedom and the separation of church and state after the colony of Massachusetts had been coercive to their religious practices. America and Europe would gradually accept this concept of freedom of religion until it finally became ingrained, for the most part, in their legal systems. However, nearly fourteen centuries before this Islam mandated this principle of “No compulsion in religion” within the Qur’anic text (2:257) and the practice of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (SAW). The revelation of this verse was historic as it established religious freedom as a key principle of Islam guiding Muslim nations to become the leaders in protection of that freedom for centuries to come. This was because no other religious scripture had explicitly guaranteed this freedom before and religious minorities of these Muslim nations generally enjoyed a relatively greater amount of religious freedom than in other nations for several centuries.
     However, this bright spot in Islamic history has not stopped opponents and extremists alike from trying to shoot down the noble ideals of this verse. Critics claim it was an early verse revealed at Mecca, and was then abrogated late in the Prophet’s mission once he had obtained power. They go on to claim that Muslims then went on to attack others based on their faith with the intention of forcing them to accept Islam. However, these claims don’t hold up to scrutiny and contradict the broader injunctions of the Qur’an, the practice of the Prophet Muhammad and that of his successors. We of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community reject the idea that one Qur’anic verse can abrogate or cancel out another verse, they can only limit the scope of another verse. However, this debate is out of the scope of this discussion, so for the sake of argument, we will still examine the claim, as there is more than adequate evidence to dispel the myth that this critical verse was abrogated.
     The idea that this was an early verse does not hold any water and there are a number of reasons for this. First, it was not relevant to the early part of the mission. The Holy Prophet would generally receive revelations at times when they were relevant to events that were taking place which would provide the Muslims with clear context to understand the meaning of the revelation. In this early part of the mission the Muslims faced bitter persecution. They were powerless; many of them were killed or tortured because of their faith. Others had to hide their acceptance of Islam and it was a struggle for them to practice their faith let alone proselytize to others. The idea of trying to force anyone to accept Islam at that point was unimaginable and was not applicable to their circumstances. It wasn’t until the Holy Prophet arrived in Medina that circumstances appeared for the application of this verse.
     The different chapters of the Qur’an are generally known to have been either revealed in the Meccan period or the Medinite period after the Hijrah, or migration to Medina. The chapter in which this verse appears is universally known as a Medinite chapter. It contains many verses that mark the character of the Medinite period including verses of a legislative nature and even verses related to fighting in self-defense which never occurred until the Muslims arrived in Medina. For verses to be revealed early and then placed in the latter part of a chapter that is well established as a Medinite chapter is highly unlikely and puts the onus on those making the claim to provide evidence to prove such a claim.
     The final and most powerful argument against this claim is the evidence provided by the Hadith (sayings of Muhammad) and early historians of Islam that detail the circumstances of when the revelation was received. These stories relate the verse was revealed when the Jewish tribe of the Banu Nadir were expelled from Madinah for acts of treason including inciting outside tribes to attack Medina and a failed assassination attempt on the Prophet Muhammad. Some children of the Muslims of Medina had been brought up with this Jewish tribe and wished to leave with the Banu Nadir. The Muslim families of these children objected and wished to compel them to stay in Madinah as Muslims. At this time the Qur’anic verse was revealed, and consequently, they were allowed to leave with the Jewish tribe and practice Judaism (Sunan Abu Dawood, 14:2676 ; Tafsir Tabari). This event occurred in about the 4th year into the Medinite period, or about the 17th year of Muhammad’s Prophethood. This puts to rest the idea that this verse was revealed in the early Meccan period. Furthermore, it forcefully confirms that the purpose of the revelation was to protect non-Muslims from being forced to accept Islam.
     The argument that this verse was abrogated by a later verse is equally weak. There exists no Hadith attributed to the Holy Prophet that this verse was abrogated (or any other verse for that matter). Proponents of the idea claim that it was abrogated by another Qur’anic verse (9:5). If this verse really abrogates the other, then there should be some demonstrable conflict between the two. The verse 9:5 states:
“Fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war). But if they repent and observe Prayer and pay the Zakat, then leave their way free. Surely, Allah is Most Forgiving, Merciful.” (Qur’an 9:5)
     The surrounding verses provide the context for a greater understanding of this particular verse. Verse 9:4 tells us:
“Excepting those of the idolaters with whom you have entered into a treaty and who have not subsequently failed you in anything nor aided anyone against you. So fulfill to these the treaty you have made with them till their term. Surely, Allah loves those who are righteous.”
     This verse indicates that the command in verse 5 is only directed towards those who have failed to honor their peace treaties. These idolaters had previously made a treaty and failed to honor that treaty, thus establishing at pattern of violating their peace agreements. This is reiterated in the verse 10:
“They observe not any tie of relationship or covenant in respect of anyone who trusts them. And it is they who are transgressors.”
     Furthermore, the very next verse tells us that their freedom of religion is not to be violated and they are to be given a place of security if they afterwards seek peace:
“And if anyone of the idolaters ask protection of thee, grant him protection so that he may hear the word of Allah; then convey him to his place of security.” (9:6)
     There is nothing in these verses that would justify the abrogation of 2:256. They only give permission to the Muslims to take defensive action against those polytheistic tribes who had already taken aggressive actions of war against the Muslims in violation of previous treaties. Furthermore, they specifically mention granting security to those polytheists who seek peace.
     The practice of prophet Muhammad up until the end of his life completely contradicts the idea that the principle of freedom of religion was abandoned. In the example of his disposition with Christians, the Prophet is known to have written four separate covenants guaranteeing freedom of belief and religious practice, full rights of citizenship and protection against internal or external aggression. In his “Covenant with the Christians of the World” he declared he would:
“defend them from any damage, harm or retribution. I am behind them, protecting them from every enemy or anyone who wishes them harm . . . In virtue of this pact, [Christians] have obtained inviolable rights to enjoy our protection, to be protected from any infringement of their rights, and they are not to be disputed, rejected or ignored so that they will be bound to the Muslims both in good and bad fortune.”
     Likewise, the Caliphs, or successors of the Prophet, continued to honor and establish new covenants with Christian subjects as well as those of other faiths. The second Caliph Umar established a similar covenant with the Christians of Jerusalem. When Umar visited Jerusalem the Bishop of Jerusalem offered for Umar to pray inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, however, Umar declined out of fear that future generations of Muslims may try to turn the church into a mosque. He also ended the ban on Jews from entering and practicing their religion in Jerusalem enforced by the Christian clergy.
     It has been recorded on two separate occasions that Umar invited individual Christian subjects to accept Islam. When they declined, he cited the Qur’anic verse “There is no compulsion in religion” and let them be. Clearly, neither he nor any of the companions of his time believed the verse to be abrogated otherwise it would have been raised at that point. Umar took great care to ensure the religious freedom of the Christian subjects as did the other rightly guided Caliphs.
     Those who have declared the verse to be abrogated came at a later time and have no authority to make such a declaration, especially given that they do not have supporting evidence from the Qur’an, the Prophet, nor the rightly guided Caliphs. Many have simply tried to use this theory of abrogation as a free pass to ignore the Qur’an and Sunnah and manipulate its message in order to grab power and fulfill the misguided political objectives of their time. The Holy Prophet warned against such treachery on the part of Muslims in future generations which is written into the very covenants that he wrote for the Christians. In the covenant for the Christians of St. Catherine’s Monastery he wrote:
“None of their churches or other places of worship will be desolated or destroyed or demolished, no material of their churches will be used for building mosques or houses for the Muslims. Any Muslim doing so will be regarded as recalcitrant to God and his Prophet.”
     Yet in the last decade we have seen terrorists murder thousands of Christians and destroy dozens of churches in complete disobedience to the Holy Prophet. They have traded this beautiful teaching and gift from God for something ugly and repulsive. Christians, Yazidis, Jews and the followers of other religions have coexisted with and lived under Muslim rule for centuries in peace and prosperity with the exception of the occasional tyrant who violated Islamic teaching and the covenants of the Holy Prophet Muhammad. The extremists of today want to cast aside the longstanding Islamic traditions of tolerance and pluralism to serve their extreme political interests while defaming the reputation of the Holy Prophet and his Companions and trampling on Islamic principles through faulty interpretations and opinions. The great irony is that at the Holy Prophet did more to establish the freedom of religion than any one before him, but now many Muslim nations are lagging behind on the very principle that they should be touting ownership of.


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Richard Reno
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By Richard Reno