Available languages:
Carta di credito
Religion and Society

Faith and freedom. The conflict of interpretations

The second sura of the Koran, known as ‘The Cow’, contains the precept ‘no compulsion is there in Religion’ (lâ ikrâh fî al-dîn) [Koran 2,256] which was quoted by Benedict XVI in his Lectio magistralis given at Regensburg on 12 September 2006. This precept was taken up by the subsequent Open Letter to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI signed by authoritative Muslim theologians and jurists. ‘No compulsion is there in Religion’ figures for that matter in the Arabic version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Islam which was drawn up by the Islamic Council of Europe and signed in Paris on 19 September 1981. These divine words, like others for that matter, have by now for the most part been adopted in the Muslim world in an absolute way, beyond their cultural context. Completely the opposite happened with the eminent exegetes of the past: it was contextualised, understood as a circumscribed rule, and even seen as having been abrogated by passages in the Koran that were revealed later. (1)



In his famous commentary on the Koran, Tabarî (d. 310 of the hijra/923 AD) confirms the divergences of schools as regards the interpretation of this passage. He wrote that in the view of some people ‘no compulsion is there in Religion. Rectitude has become clear from error’, referred to the allies of Mohammed in Medina, the ‘Auxiliaries’, and in particular to one of them who had Christian children. Indeed, the author narrates that Syrian merchants came to Medina, invited the children of that man to embrace Christianity and then took them back to Syria. The father turned to the Prophet to bring them back to him but the Prophet replied: ‘No compulsion is there in religion. Rectitude has become clear from error…may God distance them! They are the first unbelievers!’ Subsequently it was revealed: ‘But no, by thy Lord! they will not believe till they make thee the judge regarding the disagreement between them, then they shall find in themselves no impediment touching thy verdict, but shall surrender in full submission’ [Koran 4,65]. Tabarî also accepts a slightly different version where the man turned to the Prophet and said to him ‘Must I compel them? They want nothing else than to be Christians’. This variant was taken up almost to the letter by many exegetes. For example by the hanbalite Ibn Kathîr (m. 774/1373), who wrote: ‘No compulsion is there in Religion’ means that one must not compel anyone to join the Faith of Islam…because he who God guides to Islam by opening his breast and illuminating his sight, he joins of his own accord; instead, he whose heart is blinded and whose hearing and sight are sealed by God, he draws no advantage from joining the Faith if he is forced and obliged to’. The extension proposed by Ibn Kathîr allows us capture the meaning of the accounts quoted by Tabari and others: freedom of choice in religious matters is binding by Law but it is only apparent freedom; ‘no compulsion’ does not mean that all compulsion to enter a given religion is disliked by God but only that it is completely useless. Even a mu‘tazilite like Zamakhsharî (d. 538/1144) wrote: ‘God does not allow belief to be imposed and compelled – He allows it to be granted and chosen’. But to support his thesis he brings into play another passage from the Book which emphasises the previous choice of God: ‘And if thy Lord had willed, whoever is in the earth would have believed, all of them, all together. Wouldst thou then constrain the people, until they are believers?’ [Koran 10,99]. It is not, therefore, specifically religious freedom, because God has already chosen and determined human pathways, He has separated Faith from impiety, Guidance from error and his separation should be observed. More than tolerance in religious matters, full submission to the Decree is ratified, and, lastly, in addition, adherence to Islam. The great Fakhr al-Dîn al-Râzî (d. 606/1209) wrote that in the words ‘no compulsion is there in Religion’, ‘Religion’ means ‘the Religion of God’. The Andalusian Qurtubî (d. 671/1272) follows him and contextualises the divine statement: ‘The first point’, he wrote, ‘is that Religion means doctrine and membership of the Community of believers; indeed, it is associated with “Rectitude has become clear from error”’.



In other accounts that Tabari juxtaposes with the previous ones, the man and his Christian children are replaced by a woman and Jews. The author refers in particular to a woman of the ‘Auxiliaries’, all of whose children died at birth. The woman promises to make every child of hers that survives either a Jew or a Christian. When Islam came, this author writes, some inhabitants of Medina were Jews and there was a wish to compel their conversion. It was then that ‘no compulsion is there in Religion’ descended. Those who chose Judaism separated themselves from those who chose Islam. A version directly reveals the distancing of the Jews from the city of the Prophet. Some ‘Auxiliaries’ who had chosen Islam did not want to separate from their Jewish brethren and children but God revealed ‘no compulsion is there in Religion. Rectitude has become clear from error’. Subsequently Mohammed said: ‘If they chose you they shall be yours, if they choose them they will be theirs and with them they will be distanced’. Another account refers to milk kinship which in Muslim law is assimilated to kinship through birth [cf. Koran 4,23]. Some Jews of Medina took refuge with an Arab tribe and when the Prophet ordered the Jews to be expelled, the members of that tribe said to him: ‘They are our sons, we will go with them and we will give ourselves over to their religion’. But this was impeded and they were forced to embrace Islam. Emphasis should be placed on the constant stress that these exegetes put on defining these principal protagonists as ‘Auxiliaries’. These specifications have the purpose of contextualising the episode, and thus the precept as well, in relation to people with a precise position in time and space. It means emphasising that ‘no compulsion is there in Religion’ should be understood solely with reference to the peoples of the Book in Medina and at an epoch rather near to the date of the Emigration. Conversely, a ‘theory of religious compulsion’ rests on other verses of the Book.



Taxation and Persecution



First of all there is compulsion in relation to idolaters. Tabari relates that ‘a Bedouin was forced into conversion; they were in fact a community of ignorant folk, that had never encountered a Book….whereas the members of the peoples of the Book were not compelled as long they paid the poll-tax and the land tax’. For that Bedouin compelled into the Religion there were no alternatives, he added, either Islam or death, whereas the members of the peoples of the Book had the possibility of paying the poll-tax and if they paid it neither Jews nor Christians nor Zoroastrians were compelled to convert. He went on: ‘the Messenger ordered that the idolaters of Arabia be fought…as for the others, he arranged that the poll-tax should be accepted from them’. In these traditions, the poll-tax is a necessary pre-condition for religious toleration. Knowledge of a revealed Faith, which distinguishes Jews and Christians, and possibly Zoroastrians, from other people at a theological level, is then translated at the juridical level into a tax. Instead, total ignorance about Scripture, and Arab Scripture in particular, is translated into persecution. This means that a certain exegesis and a certain jurisprudence applied an analogy between the ‘Auxiliaries’ of Medina and the peoples of the Book of a successive epoch. For these last as well there applied ‘no compulsion is there in Religion’, with the proviso of the classic institution of the poll-tax which in the end is a form of compulsion, although a bloodless one. Tabarî observes: ‘the verse descended because of a particular event; having said this, its decree is extended to everything that shares its objective’.


The scholar of Baghdad, Ibn al-‘Arabî (d. 543/1148), totally overturned the literal meaning of this rule. Indeed, he wrote ‘‘no compulsion is there in Religion’ is a general precept that is valid only for compulsion as regards the false; as regards compulsion in relation to the True, it is a part of religion’. This author takes persecution of the unbeliever for granted where unbeliever is a term with a wide meaning. He also wrote: ‘Is perhaps the unbeliever killed for other than the Faith? The Prophet said: ‘I was ordered to fight them until they professed that there is no god but God’; he said it following the words of God: ‘fight them until there in longer scandal and the religion is that of God’’ [Koran 2,193]. Of the same approach is Ibn Kathîr when he takes up the following tradition of the Prophet: ‘The messenger of God said to a man: “Convert to Islam”. He answered: ‘”I do it against my will”. He said “Do it even against your will”…But he did not accept this, indeed it was repugnant to him. The Prophet said: “Convert even if it is repugnant to you, but God will reward goodness of intention and purity of Faith”’.



Qurtubî, too, legitimises religious compulsion, and he does so as regards the peoples of the Book as well, albeit with some limits. This author wrote: ‘The passage was revealed in relation to prisoners: they were not compelled if they belonged to the peoples of the Book and they were adults; if, instead, they were Zoroastrians, both adults and children, or polytheists, they were compelled to embrace Islam. Indeed, those who captured them could not use them as long as they remained polytheists, the meat they butchered could not be eaten and their women could not be cleaved to. In conformity with the religion that they followed, they ate dead animals and various other unclean things…Because their master gained nothing from them, he was allowed to engage in compulsion’. And he went on: ‘They have to take the religion of those who capture them, and if they refuse they are compelled to embrace Islam; the children as well, who have no Faith, should be compelled to join the Muslim religion to avoid them acquiring a false religion. As for the members of other kinds of impiety, they should not be compelled to embrace Islam if they pay the poll-tax’. At times exegesis applied ‘no compulsion is there in Religion’ to new converts accused of opportunism. Ibn Kathîr relies upon a canonical tradition: ‘‘God is pleased with a people led to paradise in chains’, that is to say prisoners of war who arrive in the land of Islam in chains, in shackles and pillories, and then convert; their hearts and actions are good, and they will gain paradise’. The Shiite Tabarsî (d. 548/1154), for his part, proposesd the following paraphrase of the tradition that has just been quoted: ‘Do not say to he who has entered the Faith after a war that he entered ‘forced’ to do so; if after the war he is consenting and if his conversion is sincere, then he is not in the least forced, he should not be seen to have been compelled’. Whatever the case, this author, who as a Shiite followed the mu‘tazilite doctrine and stressed the relative freedom of man, went on to observe that in the Faith there is no compulsion on the part of God. It is, rather, the exterior profession that is the subject of compulsion. But this is not Faith, just as when is a person is forced to utter impious words: in this case one is not dealing with impiety, because True Faith is an act of the heart. Tabarsî made a distinction as regards the notion of Faith: in its manifest aspect, as a positive religion and above all as oral profession, religion is subject to compulsion. But it is not so in its intimate dimension, in the Faith which, or so the author makes clear, is translated into Good, that is to say into Islam, and the Faith that is pleasing to God. This is near to the idea of the spirituals. For example, the mystic Qashânî (d. 731/1330) wrote that Faith cannot be induced solely because it already exists and its being is inevitable: ‘True Faith is the Guide that comes from the light of the heart, and it is compelled because of original human nature, it is necessary for that faith which is absolute certainty. As the Most High said: ‘So set thy face to the religion, a man of pure faith – God’s original upon which He originated mankind. There is no changing God’s creation. That is the right religion’ [Koran 30,30]. Qashânî illumined a primigenial and necessary natural religion which is unchanging for ever.



Meaning and Context



The most notable argument in exegesis as regards ‘there is no compulsion in Religion’ is its possible abrogation. This was a possibility envisaged by the majority of authors. Amongst others, Râzî refers to the abrogation of the passage but declares that he is opposed to it as a general policy. This is because he is convinced that God has built up the faith on agreement and choice, on the weight of individual choices, with a view to reward or punishment in the world beyond. He wrote as follows: ‘Compulsion is something that is not allowed in the dwelling of here below, the dwelling of trials, because violence and compulsion to bring someone to the Faith would make vain the meaning of trial and temptation. The Most High said: ‘let whosoever will believe, and let whosoever will disbelieve’ [Koran 18,29]; He said elsewhere: ‘And if thy Lord had willed, whoever is in the earth would have believed, all of them, all together. Wouldst thou then constrain the people, until they are believers?’ [Koran 10,99]; and He also said: ‘Perchance thou consumest thyself that they are not believers. If We will, We shall send down on them out of heaven a sign, so their necks will stay humbled to it. But never fresh remembrance comes to them from the All-merciful, except they turn away from it’ [Koran 26,3-4]. This eminent theologian concluded: ‘The pathway of coercion, obligation and compulsion is not allowed because it contradicts legal obligation’. Qurtubî is nearer to the idea of abrogation. This author wrote: ‘It was said that the passage was abrogated because the Prophet forced the Arabs to embrace the Muslim religion, he fought them and he wanted nothing else from them but Islam’. As to the ‘abrogating’ text, this he identifies in the sura of Repentance or Immunity: ‘O Prophet, struggle with the unbelievers and hypocrites’ [Koran 9,73]. Ibn Kathîr, on the other hand, was totally in favour of abrogation: ‘Some have said that it was abrogated by the ‘verse on killing’. All the nations should be invited to enter the monotheistic Faith, which is the Faith of Islam; and if there is one who refuses to enter it, he should not be rebuked, he should not be asked for the poll-tax in exchange, instead he should be fought unto death…God said: ‘You shall be called against a people possessed of great might to fight them, unless they surrender’ [Koran 48,16] and He also said: ‘O Prophet, struggle with the unbelievers and hypocrites, and be thou harsh with them’ [Koran 9,73]; and He said: ‘O believers, fight the unbelievers who are near to you; and let them find in you a harshness; and know that God is with the godfearing’ [Koran 9,123]. Other commentators identify the abrogating text in the same sura of the Cow, namely in the ‘verse of killing’ or ‘verse of the sword’ which has already been quoted: ‘Fight them, till there is no persecution and the religion is God’s’ [Koran 2,193].



What has been observed in this article takes into account the difficulties that are encountered by those who seek to isolate a single meaning of the rule under consideration within the cultural context to which it belongs. Lâ ikrâh fî al-dîn can apply only to some people; it can apply only to compulsion as regards the false; it can apply only to interior faith but not positive religion; and it can even not apply at all because of an abrogation. Its decontextualisation, which is currently to be encountered in the Muslim world, thus takes on an importance on which we would do well to reflect.




(1) What follows is a shortened version of ‘Nessuna costrizione nella fede (Q. 2:256). Note di storia dell’esegesi’ in Festchrift for Biancamaria Scarcia Amoretti (University of Roma ‘La Sapienza’, Rome, in press).




Stay up to date: sign up for our newsletter

For insights and analysis subscribe to our biannual journal