Islam and Freedom of Belief

Let there be no compulsion in religion

Let there be no compulsion in religion

We hear a lot of intolerance and Islam. When there’s a complaint in Europe or north America about Islamaphobia or suggested restrictions on the wearing of the full-face veil, you can be guaranteed that someone will remind us that when it comes to intolerance, Islamic states can be hard to beat. “Try walking through Mecca in a mini-skirt,” they’ll say. “Or proselytizing for Christianity. You’ll soon know what real intolerance is like.

But that’s not the full picture – as you’ll know if you follow the Unity blog of Usama Hasan. (A good guy you may remember from a previous bust-up.)

He’s written an interesting paper called No Compulsion in Religion: Islam and the Freedom of Belief. I reproduce some of it here. I’ve cut a lot for brevity and scrapped the footnotes. So I recommend you read the original. But in the meantime, please read this. It enlightened me.

Following the international furore in 2012 over the amateurish, inflammatory and offensive film, Innocence of Muslims, there were calls around the world to introduce or strengthen rules that would become akin to global blasphemy laws.  Dozens of people were killed during violent protests in Muslim-majority countries, including US Ambassador Stevens in Libya by a terrorist attack under cover of anti-film protests, and a Pakistani minister placed a $100,000 bounty on the head of the film-director.

For many of us, this felt like a case of “Here we go again.”  From books and films to cartoons, teddy bears and desecration of copies of the Qur’an by a handful of American fundamentalists and soldiers, the story is the same: instead of ignoring material insulting and offensive to Islam, or forgiving their authors as the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) would have done, some immature Muslims resort to violence that ends up killing people who had done more than most to actually help Muslims or Muslim-majority countries.  Furthermore, the poor-quality “offending” material receives far more publicity than it deserved, and the image of Islam is dragged through the mud yet again, to the exasperation of the vast majority of ordinary, decent Muslims.

In the 1980’s, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, an expletive-laden, largely-unreadable book was catapulted, along with its author, into international fame by an Islamist campaign of “raising awareness” by publicising its satirical insults towards holy figures of Islam, culminating in Ayatollah Khomeini’s notorious fatwa ordering Rushdie’s murder.  The same story was repeated, two decades later, with the Danish cartoons satirising the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him): these were largely unknown when first published, until a Denmark-based Egyptian cleric began a campaign publicising them.  Surely, to love the Prophet and his disciples means not to publicise gross insults directed at him.  If people insult our loved ones, such as parents, children or siblings, would we broadcast those offensive comments or depictions to the whole world?

In all these cases, dozens of ordinary people died in riots and protests around the world: this is extremely ironic, when the Prophet himself is said to have taught that the destruction of the Ka’bah, the holiest site of Islam, is lighter in the sight of God than the taking of a single life.  The following represent particularly horrific incidents during 2011:

a)      a number of UN staff who had endured much hardship to help Afghanistan, an overwhelmingly-Muslim nation, were beheaded after a violent mob protest against the burning of the Qur’an by a negligible handful of US evangelicals.

b)      Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab province in Pakistan, was murdered by one of his own bodyguards who later accused Taseer of “insulting the Prophet” by intervening to secure a presidential pardon in the case of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman sentenced to death under blasphemy laws in a situation suspected of involving neighbourly feuds with Muslims.

The Case for Freedom of Belief and the Relaxation of Blasphemy Laws

It is important to condemn attempts to provoke religious or anti-religious hatred and bigotry, violence in response to provocation and mindless violence and rioting upon the pretext of taking offence.   However, this paper outlines an Islamic case for Freedom of Belief, opposes the idea of strengthening blasphemy laws and supports the reconsideration of such laws around the world, based on the following arguments:

  1. Blasphemy is difficult to define in a global context: one person’s blasphemy may be another’s freedom of belief
  2. Blasphemy laws are notoriously open to abuse, and are used by repressive governments to enforce discrimination against religious minorities
  3. From an Islamic perspective, the prohibition of compulsion in religious matters is a fundamental Qur’anic principle: true faith is based on free will and free choice
  4. Religious faith and practice under coercion is clearly not genuine, and therefore counter-productive
  5. There is no explicit sanction in the Qur’an and Sunnah (teachings of the Prophet Muhammad) for the criminalisation and punishment of blasphemy: in fact, the opposite is the case; the few scriptural texts that are misquoted in this regard all refer to wartime situations, and the harsh, mediaeval Islamic jurisprudence on blasphemy was developed centuries after the Prophet himself
  6. The Islamic scriptures promote faith and respect for sacred symbols; any penalties for violations of these are spiritual and other-worldly, and not the business of worldly legislation and punishment
  7. The Qur’anic spirit is to freely discuss and debate matters of faith and religion to enable people as free, moral agents to make informed choices about such matters
  8. Debate and discussion should ideally be polite, respectful and civilised: when it is not, the Muhammadan character is to respond to insults, uncivilised behaviour and violence with patience, forbearance, forgiveness and compassion


No compulsion in religion

No compulsion in religion

Ironically, Muslims are often the worst offenders when it comes to blaspheming against other religions, yet the most vociferous in taking offence when their sacred symbols are insulted.  For example, offensive tirades against Jews are commonplace in Egyptian society and media, whilst incitement of hatred against Christians has directly led to violent, mob attacks in Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia.Another example of this is the Qur’anic story about an Israelite community tested with regard to Sabbath law: the tolerant Islamic tradition has always read this introspectively, drawing lessons for Jews, Christians and Muslims.  However, Muslim fundamentalist hate-preachers regularly misquote this story to justify referring to Jews (and occasionally, Christians) as “apes and pigs.”It should be noted that inconsistent behaviour like this is condemned in the Qur’an:

Woe to those that deal with double standards: those who, when they are owed by others, exact full measure but when they have to reciprocate, give less than due.  Do they not think that they will be called to account? On a Mighty Day, a Day when all humanity will stand before the Lord of the Worlds! (83:1-6)


From an Islamic perspective, the prohibition of compulsion in religious matters is a fundamental Qur’anic principle: true faith is based on free will and free choice. The Qur’anic verse, “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256) is proverbial and regarded as expressing a fundamental Islamic value, especially as it occurs immediately after the “Verse of the Throne” (2:255) that is devoted to the majesty of God and was described by the Prophet Muhammad as “the greatest verse in the Qur’an.”Significantly, Ibn ‘Abbas, a cousin and disciple (Companion) of the Prophet Muhammad and one of the foremost authorities in Qur’anic commentary, explained that this verse (2:256) was revealed regarding examples where the Companions had children who had converted to Judaism and Christianity; the Companions were forbidden, on the basis of this verse, from forcing their children to convert to Islam. Thus, this verse not only prohibited converting people to Islam by coercion, it also allowed people to leave the faith of Islam voluntarily.


The Qur’an affirms freedom of faith and religion, with some verses revealed specifically to safeguard this principle for Jews and Christians, even though some of the latter’s beliefs would constitute blasphemy (kufr or unbelief) from a Muslim viewpoint: e.g. rejection of the Prophethood of Muhammad, rejection of the Christhood of Jesus and deification of Christ.Some of the verses in this regard are as follows:

(i)                 Those who believe, and those who follow the Jewish scriptures, and the Christians and the Sabians,- any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. (2:62 & similarly 5:69)

This verse has a clear universal message that favours inclusivist interpretations, where salvation is open through a variety of sincere religious endeavours, over exclusivist ones, where the criteria for salvation are understood to be fulfilled only by faithful Muslims.


In Islamic history, some of the caliphs actively encouraged high-level, interfaith, theological debates about core issues of belief.  Some of these debates were held in the courts of the caliph himself with leading Rabbis, Bishops and Islamic theologians.  Furthermore, leading Muslim thinkers, philosophers and poets openly expressed “heretical” views without facing prosecution.  For example, the greatest Muslim scientists and philosophers such as Al-Kindi, Al-Razi, Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) were denounced as heretics and accused of blasphemy by “orthodox” Sunni Muslim theologians such as Ghazzali and Ibn Taymiyyah.  In fact, the leading “orthodox” figures were often denounced as heretics and accused of blasphemy in their own lifetimes by others, and even subjected to imprisonment, flogging and mob violence: this is true, for example, of some of Sunni Islam’s greatest figures… (JUMPING AHEAD)
The state-sponsored rationalist (Mu’tazilite) mihna or inquisition (827-847) instituted by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mamun against traditionalist beliefs and teachings such as those of Ahmad bin Hanbal was eventually abandoned by later caliphs after two decades.  Mainstream Islam generally learnt from this experience about the folly of attempting to enforce religious beliefs upon others, given the wide diversity of traditional, jurisprudential, legal, rational, intellectual, philosophical and theological interpretations of Islamic scripture that had blossomed within two centuries of the Prophet Muhammad.  According to one contemporary Christian academic, this explosion of thought within such a short time-span was unparalleled in human history.

Other examples of free thought, including satirising contemporary religious practice, are provided by Muslim poets.  For example, a leading poet during Abbasid times was Abul Atahiya (748-828), who famously commented, less than two centuries after the Prophet, that:

There are only two types of people amongst mankind:

Those of mindless faith, and those of faithless mind.

 Atahiya was accused of heresy but never prosecuted for this: he was only imprisoned for upsetting a caliph by writing love poems about one of the caliph’s concubines.


Today’s angry fanatics who scream “blue murder” at every insult to Islam, real or imagined, would do well to learn from the Prophet’s example of restraint, especially when there is now a significant difference: the calls for revenge often break the laws of the societies where these are made.Islam historically had a strong tradition of tolerance and freedom of thought and debate, even regarding fundamental aspects of faith.  Discussions of faith, and even religious belief itself, necessarily entail statements that may be offensive to others and interpreted as blasphemy.  The Islamic response to provocation is based on spirituality, dignity and forgiveness.  This tradition of openness and generosity desperately needs to be revived in Muslim-majority countries and societies today, especially given the appalling amount of violence generated by religious intolerance and bigotry.

But hold on, I hear you say, what about all those other angry verses? It can’t all be sweetness and light like Usama Hasan says, can it? Hey – read his full article. He addresses them without fear. But I can’t fit it all in here.  As always, your comments are welcomed. In the meantime…

IMPORTANT PROCRASTINATION: I mentioned last time the image under my horse’s head in the top right hand corner. The big F. I’m not quite ready to tell you all about it yet. But until I am, feel free to click on it and follow the link. Some very generous people have already done so. Many thanks to them. Your secret identities are safe with me.



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15 responses to “Islam and Freedom of Belief

  1. There are at least 100 verses in the Koran that say it is OK to cheat and lie to unbelievers, OK to murder them, rewarded for such in heaven and some demand such as a condition of faith.

    • blackwatertown

      You may well be right. I don’t have the knowledge to to confirm or deny the numbers. However, I understand that at least some of those are much less general that portrayed. In other words force may be used only once certain conditions are fulfulled – for instance self-defence, law-breaking, etc. Much the same as other cultures and states. But not as a knee-jerk reaction to other religions or even what might be termed as blasphemy.
      This place may explain it better
      For sure the authorities within many Islamic states have an approach that may seem to be at variance from the Qu’ran – at least the way it’s portrayed here. But I’m trying to give a little space to the other quieter calmer more reasonable side of Islam – the one a lot of us, including Muslims, may hear less of.
      Thanks for raising the point Carl. Perhaps someone more knowledgeable than me will respond.

  2. This misses the point. Many Muslims are in fact intolerant, whatever their religion says, and some imams encourage this, so take a different, educated view on Islam. We should not be intolerant just because a few of them are, and as I am counter-suggestible, restrictions on the practice of my faith would incite me to practice more openly.

    And a “Don’t mess with us”, “Touch ane touch a'” attitude can limit blasphemy.

    I am grateful for the link. There is wisdom and liberalism in Islam. I knew that already: I love Hafiz.

    • blackwatertown

      Thanks for dropping by.
      When you say you love Hafiz – do you mean the people who have memorized the book?

      • No, the poet.

        Every child has known God.
        Not the God of rules,
        not the God of don’ts,
        not the God who ever does anything weird,
        but the God who only knows four words
        and keeps repeating them, saying,
        “Come, dance with me.”
        Come. Dance.

        The parents of a women I knew wanted to call her Hafiza, but this so confused the registrar that on her birth certificate it says “Hafizan”- so that is her name.

  3. I think it is in man’s nature to look for similar-thinking, similar-behaving people as a kind of security against uncertainty. Religion fulfils this basic need by telling a group that they are alike. Symbols have been used as means of identification much like today’s corporate brands. With technology and increasing travel and migration, different worlds will collide more and more. How do we ensure that there is observance of some basic human law when that happens? Whatever purpose religion serves, it has to be subservient to some universal law of humanity.

  4. Fanatics will always cause problems…
    blessings ~ maxi

  5. 29

    Very enlightening. ‘Looking ahead’, I hope that your blog is widely read in northern Nigeria and other places where Christian churches are bombed and scores killed.

  6. BWT, I live in a country with a minority population of Muslims which is the second largest in the world. We have interested neighbours who keep inciting hatred and bigotry against the other religions in this land and we have regular communal riots where lives are lost and property damaged of both communities.

    What I see and I am sure that you will see in the rest of the world is this. You and your fellow religionists, like I and my fellow Hindus will take objection to and even take action against lunatics from within our communities. Please show me where Muslims do this to the lunatics of their own fellow religonists.

    This kind of writing by Muslims is neither new nor of interest to a vast majority of Muslims who do not read these any way.

    • blackwatertown

      It might not be new – but it still needs writing/saying – and more importantly receiving attention. I know that you have appalling outbreaks of sectarian violence in your country – sometimes at least seemingly incited from high political levels.

      However, I think it’s wrong to suggest that Muslims never stand in solidarity with embattled non-Muslim neighbours. I can think of examples in Egypt where Muslims ringed Coptic church to protect them from attack – or the example mentioned above (there’s a link) to similar action in Lahore in Pakistan.

      As for taking things a step further and actively rooting out the lunatics you speak of – the dead and wounded within the security forces of various Muslim countries are evidence of some action at least. But perhaps you’re talking about a wider community action to expel such extremists from the sheltering cover of the general population, rather than police action. Perhaps someone else can cite examples. Two spring to mind – the self-defence forces which turned on Al Qaeda in Iraq during the American-led occupation and the village defence forces resisting the Taliban in Afghanistan. In Iraq at least it was a reaction against extremists throwing their weight around. Though I accept neither example may quite fit the bill of what you’re talking about.

      Thanks for the comment.
      Anyone else fancy chipping in on this one?

  7. Seems like every religious book is open to individual interpretation at the end of the day. But for the true believer listening to the opinions of other mere mortals just doesn’t cut it. True faith involves listening to whatever deity you choose to believe in and having the faith to believe what you personally are told is for real regardless of what the mere mortals might have to say to the contrary. Trouble is we are all prone to corruption of mind and spirit and inevitably will sooner or later fall to the persuasions of our own personal views. In consequence making ourselves no better than the other mere mortals we choose to disagree with. No wonder we need a God of forgiveness and love for us despite our blatent and arrogant failings.

    • blackwatertown

      So it’s worthwhile for everyone to consider things anew every now and then – as a check on drifting to absurd extremes.

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