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Compulsion in Religion: Why Two Interpretations?

18 January, 2024
Q Dear consultants, first of all, thank you for this website. I've visited some websites about Islam during the last months and it is nice to see one that is just trying to inform and encourage instead of preaching some fanatic point of view. I am a 23-year-old student from Germany and I am very interested in learning more about Islam. While it is easy to hear bad things about Muslims by just switching on the TV, I have heard and read many wonderful and good things, too. However, one question really troubles me and I would be happy to read your answer to it. The question is about one contradiction I find in the question of whether one is free to believe whatever one wants or not. On the one hand, you very often quote the Quran saying that "there is no compulsion in religion." As I have read it, there are two possible interpretations of this sentence. First, it can be read that everybody is free to believe what he or she wants and that nobody is ALLOWED to force somebody to convert to a certain religion. Second, it can be read that there is no such POSSIBILITY as forcing somebody to convert to a certain religion because it is only God who opens the heart of the people. I very much like this "no compulsion in religion", but to me, it seems that it is only valid when speaking about non-Muslims. My problem is: How can you say that there is no compulsion in religion when at the same time it is said that a Muslim who wants to convert to a different religion (leaving Islam) should be killed? For me, killing that person contradicts the fact that there is no compulsion. Kind regards and as-salamu `alaykum!


Short Answer: Islam does not allow compulsion in religion, as God clearly said in the Quran in verse (2:256). Islam is a religion of peace. It is a religion of tolerance and respect. The very word “Islam” comes from a root word meaning both peace and submission (to God).


Salam (Peace)

Thank you for contacting About Islam with your question.

You have quite clearly given much thought to this topic. It is one that many of those who would wish to vilify Islam often throw as an accusation.

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Before answering, it must be said that Islam can answer any of the questions, objections, and misconceptions that are laid at its door.

You are right that there are two prongs to the question: compelling others to be Muslim and compelling Muslims to remain Muslim.

A Brief Look at History

In 1492 CE, the same year in which Christopher Columbus “discovered” the New World in the name of Catholic Spain, the last vestiges of Muslim rule in southern Spain came to an end.

The armies of Columbus’s patrons, Ferdinand and Isabella of Castille and Aragon, were finally able to capture Granada, and the great story of an Islamic civilization in Spain was over. Al-Andalus was no more.

What followed was a shameful chapter in Spain’s history. Muslims and Jews were either killed or forced to embrace Christianity. 

Mosques and synagogues were ransacked and destroyed. The “Golden Age” of Christianity in Spain had begun, opening the way for all the excesses of the Inquisition.

At its height, however, the Islamic civilization in Al-Andalus, established over 700 years earlier, had been a beacon of learning and enlightenment for the whole of Europe.

Jews and Christians had enjoyed equal rights before the law and were protected by their Muslim rulers.

Many of the Moorish rulers had Christian and Jewish advisors at court and both communities were a valued and vital part of the Muslim state.

Where, then, has this notion come from that Islam is uncompromising towards those of other religions and has forced them over history to convert?

Who is it that created the myth of conquering Muslim armies sweeping across North Africa with the sword and forcing all people in their way to convert to Islam?

For a myth it surely is. Whoever sought to portray Islam as converting by the sword has been very successful. We are having to defend Islam and address such a misconception even today.

Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

When Caliph `Umar ibn Al-Khattab conquered Jerusalem in 638, he entered the city on foot in a gesture of humility in such a hallowed place. 

There was no bloodshed. There were no massacres or slaughter.

Those who wanted to leave were allowed to do so with all their possessions. Those who wanted to stay were granted protection for their lives, their property, and their places of worship.

This is in marked contrast to the slaughter of 70,000 men, women, and children by the Crusader armies that captured Jerusalem in 1099. 

When the city was won back from the Crusaders by Salah Ad-Din in 1187, there was no slaughter, no forced conversions, no persecution. And the story goes on.

No Compulsion in Religion

Islam does not allow compulsion in religion. Muslims read in the Quran:

{Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from Error.} (Quran 2:256)

In Egypt, for example, the armies of `Amr ibn Al-`As arrived in 642, but it was another two hundred years before the population of Egypt embraced Islam, and there is still a sizeable Christian minority who have lived in peace with their Muslim brothers and sisters for nearly 1,400 years.

No one was forced to convert.

The Real Islam

Islam is a religion of peace. It is a religion of tolerance and respect.

The very word “Islam” comes from a root word meaning both peace and submission (to God).

The simple fact is that there are those who wish to falsify the message of Islam and to present it as something that it is not.

No matter how often Muslims try to present the facts clearly, some people will not listen and will keep believing and/or propagating their own agenda.

As for Muslims, being killed for wanting to give up their religion and to abandon Islam, the facts simply do not bear this out.

We need to understand, first of all, that for Muslims, Islam is everything. It is not just a religion, but it is a complete way of life. For the Muslim, every action can lead to Allah Almighty.

To be chosen by Almighty Allah to be Muslim is considered the greatest honor that the Creator can bestow on any of His creatures.

To abandon such a great gift, then, is for many Muslims difficult, not only for the harm and the damage that it can do to the rest of the Muslim community, but also to the person who would wish to abandon the plan of His Creator.

Muslim Law does, indeed, state that under certain circumstances — such as being guilty of high treason or terrorism for example — a person can be sentenced to death. 

There are recorded occasions during the life of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) when people were found guilty of abandoning Islam, but the Prophet (peace be upon him) never enforced such a death penalty for these apostates.

Those leveling the charge of Islam killing apostates would be hard pressed to give concrete examples where such a punishment was actually carried out, legitimately.

Watch Imam Suhaib Webb’s short Video about this very issue:

Muslims love their religion. Religion demands free will and choice. If any were forced to be Muslim, they could surely give up Islam as soon as the pressure was removed. 

If we look at the millions of people throughout the world who are Muslim, we see that at any moment they could have abandoned the faith if it had been forced upon them or upon their ancestors centuries ago.

In Southeast Asia, where Muslims are at their most numerous, no Muslim armies ever ventured there. Islam was taken to countries like Malaysia and Indonesia by Muslim merchants whose piety and religious fervor won the hearts of the people over to Islam.

Instead of looking for persecution and compulsion, those who would wish to vilify Islam should look, rather, at the love and the devotion that Muslims have for their beloved Prophet (peace be upon him) or for the hours spent in prayer and fasting for the sake of Almighty Allah.

If the real message of Islam were allowed to be heard, the world would indeed be amazed.

I hope this answer helps you. Please keep in touch.


(From Ask About Islam archives)

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