Let there be no compulsion in religion

Javeed Akhter

Posted Feb 23, 2010      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Let there be no compulsion in religion

by Javeed Akhter

Sura 2 - Al-Baqara (MADINA) : Verse 256
“Let there be no compulsion in religion.”

This rather startling directive appears in the Qur’an right after the Verse of the throne, which extols the virtues of Allah ST. In Qura’nic rhetoric the word “La” is used to convey to the reader the notion “without doubt” or “let there be no doubt.”  Other well known instances when a verse starts with “La” are the Muslim confessional statement “La ilaha illal lah”, variously translated as there is no god but God or Ggod is one.  The rest of the verse goes on to state that there is no reason for compulsion because with the advent of Islam “the Truth stands out clear from Error.”  The verse concludes “whoever rejects Evil and believes in God (in Arabic Allah) has grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold that never breaks. And Allah is all hearing and all knowing.”

Even those who are skeptical of Islam’s value in modern world would be startled by this extraordinary verse.  It set the stage for a dramatic change in the history of religions from coercion and forced conversions to an appeal to the heart and mind of individuals.  There was active proselytization but through persuasion not coercion.  The word used by those Muslims who are active in proselytization is dawa, which means to invite, to reason and to ponder over the message and its meaning. 

This simple and emphatic edict was responsible for a paradigm shift in the way minorities were protected and respected and allowed to live in peace and dignity in the Muslim world.

There were exceptions of an occasional ruler who violated these rules.  While visiting Istanbul I saw a dramatic example of an aberration from this norm.  The Hagia Sophia, one of the oldest and largest churches, was converted in to a Masjid by Suleiman the magnificent.  The king, I learned, rode in to the Church on his horse and declared that it be converted to a Masjid forthwith.  He probably forgot how the Khalifa Umar would not pray in a church, even at the invitation of the cardinal of the city of Jerusalem, for the fear that his followers may turn it into a Masjid. 

There are many monuments, too numerous to recount, of Muslim tolerance and broad mindedness.  The most dramatic is Jerusalem itself.

Some of this history has been distorted by Muslim haters and Islamophobes.

Some is being shredded by ignorant Muslim mobs like those who rioted against Copts in Egypt. 

Some is being misinterpreted and mangled by faux Imams.

In a handful of conservative societies this edict of “no compulsion” runs up against another edict that exhorts Muslims to uphold right and prevent wrong; “Amar bil maruf wa nahi anl munkar.”  These societies, basing their actions on the interpretations of the ignorant Imam, have taken upon themselves the right to enforce practice of religion as they see is the correct way.  Hence the religious police in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent in Iran, will go around checking proper attire and performance of rituals. 

Religion cannot be forced down anyone’s throat.  You cannot win over hearts by coercion.  When compelled to convert Muslims in ancient Spain simply went underground and became crypto Muslims.  Same happened recently to Muslims in communist Russia.  Human nature will react against coercion. Persuasion is more difficult tool and requires both patience and leading by example.  The effect however can be long lasting.

There is a deeper understanding of the “Amar bil maruf” edict, which is understood to mean freedom to criticize authority, to demand transparency and accountability and fight for human rights and civil rights of all people but minorities in particular.

In a famous hadith Prophet Muhammad is reported as saying; “The best Jihad is to say what is just (or truth) in the face of a tyrant” (Abu Daud, Tirmidhi, Nisai and Ibn Majah).

Still another hadith goes farther suggesting the responsibility is with all of us; “When people see a tyrant and do not stop his excesses (his cruelty), it is not inconceivable that God sends a common punishment on them.” (Abu Daud and Tirmidhi)

I have often imagined if a modern Muslim majority state that practiced governance by these principles then it would be an inspiration to all and may even have a positive influence on other nations.  The only nation that gives me some hope is Turkey, the same nation that has Hagia Sophia, which under Erdogan is turning into a nation that we can be proud of.  Erdogan has brought a culture of religious tolerance to Turkey and has tried to neutralize its illiberal secularism.  He is the only Muslim head of state that has raised a voice against human rights violations in parts of the Muslim world.  His and his party’s position is still precarious but there is always hope.