Lecture 3 in the Ramadaan series:
UNPACKING THE MOST INTRIGUING QUESTIONS IN THE QURAN
Monday 27 April 2020 (3 Ramadaan 1441)
Ahlul Bait (a.s) Masjid, Ottery, Cape Town
Mowlana Syed Aftab Haider
Today, being 27 April, is Freedom Day in South Africa. We are celebrating the hard-earned freedom, including freedom of religion. We are enjoying this freedom in our country, by freely practicing our religion and establishing our acts and places of worship without any restrictions.
It is therefore the most opportune time to speak about freedom of religion in the Holy Quran, because this is again a hotly debated question pertaining to Islam and the Quran. The question is, does the Quran believe in freedom of religion, or does the Quran compel people to follow one particular religion or faith tradition?
The answer to this question is very simple and clear. Beyond the smallest of doubt, the Holy Quran believes in and establishes freedom of religion for all of mankind. Quran does not place any kind of compulsion on people to select a particular religion.
IS THERE COMPULSION IN ISLAM?
There are plenty of verses of the Holy Quran, some of them directly and some indirectly, addressing this issue, and make it crystal clear that there is no compulsion in religion. Almighty Allah (SWT) makes this abundantly clear in verse 256 of Surah Baqarah (chapter 2 of the Holy Quran), which is well-known since it is part of Ayatul Kursi:
لَا إِكْرَاهَ فِي الدِّينِ ۖ قَدْ تَبَيَّنَ الرُّشْدُ مِنَ الْغَيِّ ۚ
“There is no compulsion in religion; truly the right way has become clearly distinct from error.”
The background to the revelation of this verse explains its message more clearly. There was a companion of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) from the Ansar of Madina. His two sons were inclined toward Christianity and eventually became Christian. This man was naturally very concerned by this chain of events with his sons and tried to force them to accept Islam and abandon Christianity.
It is against this background that this verse was revealed, saying that there is no compulsion in religion, and we have no right to force our children to accept Islam. Truth is very evidently distinguished from falsehood and hence there is no need for compulsion. If people use their intellect and common sense, they will find the path of Truth, but we cannot force them to take a particular path when it comes to their belief system.
We have heard this verse being used repeatedly to establish that the Quran does not believe in force or compulsion of faith. Freedom of religion is therefore the clear Islamic position.
VARIOUS QURANIC VERSES ON FREEDOM OF RELIGION
There are many other verses of the Holy Quran which very clearly speak about the same issue, that there is no compulsion in religion. An example is verse 48 of Surah Shura (chapter 42 of the Holy Quran) where Almighty Allah (SWT) clarifies to our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) what his responsibility is in conveying the divine message:
فَإِنْ أَعْرَضُوا فَمَا أَرْسَلْنَاكَ عَلَيْهِمْ حَفِيظًا ۖ إِنْ عَلَيْكَ إِلَّا الْبَلَاغُ ۗ
“If then they run away, We have not sent thee as a guard over them. Thy duty is but to convey (the Message).”
This verse highlights that the responsibility of Rasulullah (SAWA) is to convey the divine message. There are many verses like this in the Holy Quran, where the role of Rasulullah (SAWA) is reaffirmed to communicate the divine message to the people. His role is not to force Islam on the people. It is their choice whether to accept or not.
Another verse along the same lines is verse 29 of Surah Kahf (chapter 18 of the Holy Quran) where Almighty Allah (SWT) says people should choose from their own free will whether to believe or not:
وَقُلِ الْحَقُّ مِنْ رَبِّكُمْ ۖ فَمَنْ شَاءَ فَلْيُؤْمِنْ وَمَنْ شَاءَ فَلْيَكْفُرْ ۚ
“And say: The truth is from your Lord, so let him who please believe, and let him who please disbelieve.”
Then, another relevant verse on this point is verse 99 of Surah Yunus (chapter 10 of the Holy Quran), where Almighty Allah (SWT) addresses this issue of compulsion and free will in a different way:
وَلَوْ شَاءَ رَبُّكَ لَآمَنَ مَنْ فِي الْأَرْضِ كُلُّهُمْ جَمِيعًا ۚ أَفَأَنْتَ تُكْرِهُ النَّاسَ حَتَّىٰ يَكُونُوا مُؤْمِنِينَ
“And if your Lord had pleased, surely all those who are in the earth would have believed, all of them; will you then force men till they become believers?”
The discussion on these verses regarding compulsion and free will can be quite extensive. There is an interesting point to note here, especially when understanding these verses with other verses which talk about us being divided into different groups and faith traditions. It appears that somehow Quran acknowledges diversity of religions and faith traditions in human society.
Verses 21 and 22 of Surah Ghaashiya similarly reminds Rasulullah (SAWA) that he does not have control over the people. His job is to remind, warn and guide the people, but he does not have control over them:
فَذَكِّرْ إِنَّمَا أَنْتَ مُذَكِّرٌ
“Therefore do remind, for you are only a reminder.
لَسْتَ عَلَيْهِمْ بِمُصَيْطِرٍ
You are not a watcher over them.”
We can continue with more and more verses from the Holy Quran which very clearly establish this principle that there is no compulsion in religion. Despite this, there are many questions on this principle which arises.
CAN YOU FORCE ME TO BELIEVE?
We need to understand a few important points on this. The Holy Quran acknowledges diversity in religions and faith traditions, and different approaches of the people.
Religion, specifically belief, is a matter of heart and mind. Now, our actions of heart and mind is not in an area where compulsion is possible. You can force somebody to do something, but it is literally impossible to force somebody to believe in something. Belief is an internal deed of a person. We do not have any power over the hearts and minds of the people. We can control their movement, actions and force them to do certain things, but we cannot compel their hearts and minds to believe in something.
Belief is a matter of the heart, mind and soul, and hence there is no room for compulsion. Therefore, commentators of the Holy Quran have made a delicate point that “La iqraha fiddin” is not a command of Almighty Allah (SWT), but rather the explanation of a reality. It means that compulsion in religion is not possible, rather than saying “do not compel”.
The reality is that we cannot compel, because faith is not something that can be forced. Perhaps I can verbalize my faith tradition, but in my heart only I know what I am, and nobody can force me to believe. I can believe whatever I want. That is how Almighty Allah (SWT) has created us, resulting in compulsion not being possible.
CONVENIENCE-BASED FREEDOM OF RELIGION GOES AGAINST THE TENETS OF COMMITMENT
There is a confusion when we say “La iqraha fiddin”. What is the meaning of Deen in this verse? I explained a moment ago that Deen, in this context, refers to faith/belief. Deen, in this verse, does not refer to the whole system of religion. In other words, according to the Holy Quran, you are free to make a choice in religion. But once you have made a choice, you are supposed to follow that religion!
Many people misinterpret this verse “La iqraha fiddin” by saying that since there is no compulsion in religion, I do not need to pray or fast or perform the other mandatory acts of worship, even though I believe in Islam! This is clearly a warped understanding, because once you have by your own free choice accepted Islam, the result and consequences of this free choice is that you have to accept the commands and teachings of Islam or the faith which you subscribe to out of your own free will.
This is another important point to remember, and not to misinterpret this verse thinking that it absolves one from our responsibility in terms of the Sharia.
FREEDOM IS NOT THE PURPOSE – FREEDOM IS THE TOOL!
The next point I would like to explain is that freedom of religion means that you can follow whichever religion you choose. However, can you follow just old anything, claiming it to be religion? Example, can you follow a cult or superstitions? Can you follow anything which has no base? Not at all. Islam does not believe in unrestricted freedom.
The key point to remember is that freedom is not the purpose; freedom is the tool! It is through freedom that we can achieve great perfection, because it is only with free will that human beings can evolve, develop and achieve. If you take away this free will from human beings, then we cannot achieve anything close to perfection. Therefore, freedom is a means to achieve perfection, because freedom itself is not a goal.
Let us look at this concept through a simple example relevant to Freedom Day. Yes, we have freedom of choice in South Africa, inscribed in our constitution. We can supposedly do as we please and go wherever we want, making our own choice about the style of life we want to live. Our bill of rights guarantees this.
Now, let me ask a simple question associated with our freedom of choice. Let’s say someone would like to choose slavery as a way of life. Would you allow this person to practice his freedom? Similarly, would you allow someone to practice his freedom if he wants to be chained? Or how about someone wanting to express freedom of choice to practice Apartheid?!
These abhorrent choices will never be allowed in any civilized society, despite our South African constitution and Bill of Rights being the most liberal and progressive in the world. You cannot claim freedom of choice for these.
Similarly, when it comes to religion, Islam does not believe that you can simply follow anything if you have freedom of religion, even if it has no theological base. This would amount to slavery of the mind and in contradiction with the very dignity of humanity and respect, freedom and liberation of the human being and mankind.
Practices which insult human dignity cannot be seen as freedom and therefore, Islam disagrees with this type of freedom which is propagated in the world today. This is another very important point I wanted to clarify on the subject of freedom.
IS FREEDOM OF RELIGION SYNONYMOUS WITH PLURALISM?
The next point to expound upon is – when we say that Islam believes in freedom of religion and freedom of choice, can it be interpreted that Islam and the Holy Quran acknowledges that all religions are good and that they all take us to the same goal, and on that basis, we are free to choose one of them, and finally you will end up at the same place? Not at all – this is not the meaning of freedom of religion in the Holy Quran.
This is where we naturally differ with Western thought and others who have such inclinations. Clearly, the Holy Quran does not agree with this pluralist approach, where everything is supposedly OK. Freedom of religion does not mean that everything is OK. Again, the Holy Quran is very clear, where Almighty Allah (SWT) says in verse 85 of Surah aal-Imraan (chapter 3):
وَمَنْ يَبْتَغِ غَيْرَ الْإِسْلَامِ دِينًا فَلَنْ يُقْبَلَ مِنْهُ وَهُوَ فِي الْآخِرَةِ مِنَ الْخَاسِرِينَ
“If anyone desires a religion other than Islam (submission to Allah), never will it be accepted of him; and in the Hereafter He will be in the ranks of those who have lost (All spiritual good).”
Let us now try to reconcile this. Yes, you are free to practice any religion. It is your choice, but once you have made a choice, you have to stand for the consequences of that choice as well. If you made a wrong choice, you will be responsible for that wrong choice. You cannot blame Islam for your wrong choice, because Islam has given you freedom.
Deen which is correct, and the only true path towards Almighty Allah (SWT) and salvation, is Islam. Yes, we are all free to decide whichever way we want to go, but we should remember that in the hereafter, only those who have chosen Islam will be successful. Those who have not will be responsible for their choice. This is what we understand from the above verse.
Verse 19 of Surah aal-Imraan (chapter 3 of the Holy Quran) further establishes this position:
إِنَّ الدِّينَ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ الْإِسْلَامُ ۗ
“The Religion before Allah is Islam (submission to His Will).”
In summary, the meaning of freedom of religion is that you are free to make a choice, and we respect your choice. That said, this respect does not mean that we believe there is a salvation for you as well. Salvation depends on you taking the right path and striving for the best, searching for the truth and surrendering before it. Almighty Allah (SWT) will reward you for what you found.
FREEDOM OF CHOICE IS NOT AN UNFETTERED RIGHT
Freedom of choice of religion is nowadays very clear from our understanding of the Holy Quran, especially in this lockdown situation. Many times, when we reflect on these limitations of freedom which I was trying to explain a moment ago.
We have a basic right of freedom of association and freedom of movement, but then there is a greater interest which overrides this right and says that we do not have these freedoms. While freedom of association means that you can create and belong to any social club or movement, it clearly does not mean that you can create a gang or join a cult, in the name of freedom of association!
There is a greater interest involved, which brings some sort of limitation in that basic right or freedom which is applied. I hope the point is abundantly clear from this discussion, that freedom is not an unfettered right.
WHY THE HEAVY-HANDED POSITION ON APOSTASY IF ISLAM BELIEVES IN NO COMPULSION?
The question which plays in our minds is that even if in this world, if freedom of religion is what the Quran and Islam believes in, then why does Sharia (Islamic law) command for a person to be condemned and punished if he/she has become Murtad (apostate – rejecting Islam after accepting it)? We even find that in certain circumstances, Sharia orders for the person to be executed.
This is naturally a very serious question, because the person has renounced Islam out of his/her free choice and chosen a different faith. Is this not practicing freedom of religion as guaranteed by the Holy Quran? Why is such a person ordered by Sharia to be punished (even to the extent of death sentence in certain cases)? And this punishment is in the dunya (this world), let alone Akhirah…
This is a great question of what freedom of religion then means! The reality is that we often misunderstand apostasy. The apostasy which is strongly condemned and punishable by law is not the apostasy which we understand, which in simple words is renunciation of faith.
If someone changes his faith without making it public and using the apostasy as a tool for attacking Islam and trying to weaken it, then of course it is not punishable. This is the religious decree (fatwa) from almost all leading spiritual authorities (Marja).
WE CAN ONLY HAVE FIRM CONVICTION IN ISLAM AFTER GOING THROUGH DOUBT!
One great scholar wrote something very interesting. He said that he does not think that there is anybody (even a great scholar) who has not gone through this period of doubt about the basic belief of Islam.
We discuss this in Usul-e-Deen (roots of religion), in our belief system, where to simply follow is Haraam (forbidden). We are commanded to do thorough research when it comes to our belief system, and reach conclusions based upon clear evidence and sound reasoning and rational arguments.
This scholar writes that any critical thinking mind (whether Muslim or not) who wants to embrace Islam as their religion of choice and wants to adopt and absorb it fully, cannot reach certainty in belief without going through doubts and lots of questions about the basic belief system of Islam. Such a person reaches certainty and builds his religious identity after sound reasoning and intellectual debates.
This period of doubt, to strengthen your belief system is therefore not apostasy. Similarly, if someone becomes doubtful and misguided after having faith, then that is not a punishable crime according to the Quran. Of course, this person has lost the path, and will need to face the consequences in the Akhirah (hereafter).
However, apostasy is not punishable in this world, for as long as it remains a private matter, because it is regarded as an individual choice.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN APOSTASY AND TREASON?
Now, when you speak out about your renunciation of Islam, then there is a difference of opinion amongst religious scholars. My view is that when we study the Quranic position on the punishment for apostasy, it refers to punishment in the hereafter, and not in this world. Such a person dies as a non-believer, and then has to face the consequences in the hereafter.
This shows, that even if a person shows their renunciation of Islam publicly, without provocation and insult to Islam, then it is not punishable in this world. Such a person is granted that freedom to change his/her choice, even after accepting Islam.
Those issues which are mentioned in recordings of Hadith and in Islamic history, where severe punishment on apostasy is established, are more socio-political induced, rather than purely renunciation of the person’s Islamic belief system. In this case, the issue at hand is not apostasy per se, but rather a matter of treason, in the form of apostasy.
This crime of treason is not only punishable by Islam, but rather commonly punished in almost every constitution in the world. You cannot live in a country and decide to cut the roots of that society you reside in. If you live in an Islamic society, and abandon Islam and become a spy of the enemy, working in their interests, then it is clearly impossible to leave this unchallenged from a socio-political standpoint. This is not acceptable in any society, and Islam’s position is no different.
Therefore, changing your faith is not punishable in this world if it is not targeting the socio-political landscape of the society, with ulterior motives of using apostasy to destabilize society. It is not punishable in this world, according to the teachings of Islam, for as long as it is not treason.
Of course, it is a terrible crime in the Akhirah (hereafter) for which such a person will be held accountable, as the person has renounced faith after being exposed to the real teachings of Almighty Allah (SWT), with all the rational arguments and clear evidence available. There are severe consequences for such a person in the hereafter.
That concludes this evergreen discussion about freedom of religion from an Islamic perspective.