The Religion of Peace [Back] [Contents] [Next]


chapter four

Compulsion in Religion

Enthusiasm often leads to persecution; and even noble ideals suffer by the intolerance of their advocates. The French Revolution was a noble fight for Liberty, Equality and Fraternity: but it ended in the most horrible terrorism on record in the history of the World. The nation which had risen to wipe out all persecution and tyranny committed the darkest deeds of cruelty and injustice. History has been repeating itself; and the Bolshevists and the Fascists have both established a close oligarchy to enforce their ideas of government and economics upon a more or less unwilling majority. Now the one has the equal distribution of wealth among the poor for its ideal and the other the preservation of national independence- both are praiseworthy ideals, but there will be very few indeed who can conscientiously agree with their methods.

Now what is wrong with their methods? They believe in forcing their views upon others. Their theory is that they are in the right, and the others are totally in the wrong; and because it is truth only which will, and which deserves to prevail, they try to bring about its victory by force. They fail to realize that truth conquers by itself; it requires no force to conquer. These enthusiasts close their eyes to the fact that the other side is almost always equally convinced of its being on the right, and if every one party takes it into its head to enforce the truth by persecution, then, not only will all peace and amity be gone from the world, but the truth itself will perish. For Truth must be grasped, and if the mind is not free and unchained, it will never be able to grasp the truth. We have the example of the Middle Ages in Europe before us. The Church posed as the monopolizer of all truth, and therefore it condemned all free thinking. It persecuted the seekers of truth from sources other than its own. It is obvious that the motives of the Holy See and its agents were laudable; they wanted to save the souls of the millions under their care from everlasting perdition. But the result of all this care and persecution was very deplorable indeed. The days of the glory of the Roman Catholic Church were unfortunately the darkest days in the history of Europe. The Middle Ages are proverbially the Dark Ages of Europe, and the Scarlet Woman- the savior of Christianity- is responsible for it. The Renaissance saw the unfettering of the human mind, and though laxity and corruption were the immediate results, yet, after some time, real progress came in its wake.

Nowhere are the consequences of compulsion so harmful as in religion. A man very often cares more for his convictions than for his life. The result is that people prefer to lose their heads rather than their religion. Thus the persecuting faith suffers, the antagonism which it creates by its persecution becomes too strong for it to overcome. The enthusiast who persecutes others for the sake of his religion defeats his own ends. But the evil does not stop here. There are created rancor and hatred in the hearts of the persecuted which outlast centuries, and the relations of man and man are unnecessarily embittered. Thus, religion, instead of bringing solace and peace to humanity, brings discord and bitterness.

Islam understands this, and the Quran lays down in the clearest words that there should be no compulsion in religion:-

“There is no compulsion in religion, truly the right way has become clearly distinct from error; therefore whoever disbelieves in the devil and believes in Allah, he indeed has laid hold on the firmest handle, which shall not break off, and Allah is Hearing, Knowing.” (II: 256)

Here was laid down, thirteen centuries back, the doctrine which was to be grasped but slowly by the world. It is the golden maxim of toleration that the Quran teaches. The truth has been revealed, it must conquer of its own accord. Where is, then, the necessity of compelling people to see the light? Is light not distinct from darkness? If there are people who are either constitutionally unable to see the light or who deliberately shut their eyes to it, no amount of coercion will lead them to the right path. As a matter of fact, guidance never comes from outside; it always comes from within. The best preacher can only create an awakening in the heart. He can only touch the innermost chords of the heart by his fervent appeals; the real conversion takes place after a struggle within the heart itself. This struggle it is not in his power to bring about. Sometimes a word of truth works the miracle, but, at times, years of preaching will do nothing. Arguments can be both successful and unsuccessful. It is not uncommon to see men of very developed faculties and deep learning floundering in the darkest and the most ridiculous situations. This problem of religious convictions surpasses all human understanding, and none can dispute the truth of what the Quran says in this respect in the following verse:-

“Now surely Allah makes err whom He pleases and guides aright whom He pleases, so let not your soul waste away in grief for them; surely Allah is cognizant of what they do.” (XXXV: 8)

“Allah makes err” does not mean that Allah deliberately misguides anyone; it only means that it is not in the power of mankind to instill truth into the mind of the unbeliever, and that guidance can come from Allah only. The Prophet (, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) was always filled with sorrow at the sight of people taking to evil ways and rejecting the truth. He not only preached his doctrines to them, but also earnestly prayed for them. His gentle nature could not bear the sight of men falling into the snares of Satan. But he was helpless. It was God and God alone who could work the necessary miracle. The miracle was wrought, as Islam was accepted by millions and millions of people within a very short time indeed; but it was made clear to the Prophet (, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) that he could only pray and preach; guidance would come from Allah only. This truth has been repeated several times; for instance, the following verses lay down the same principle in almost identical words:-

“Whom Allah pleases, He causes to err, and whom He pleases He puts on the right path.” (VI: 39)

“Therefore (for) whomsoever Allah intends that He should guide him aright, He expands his heart for Islam, and (for) whomsoever He intends that He should cause him to err, He makes his breast strait and narrow.” (VI: 126)

“Say: The conclusive argument is for Allah (alone); so if he pleases, He will certainly guide you all.” (VI: 150)

“Whomsoever Allah guides, he is the one who follows the right way; and whomsoever He causes to err, these are the losers.” (VII: 178)

“Whomsoever Allah causes to err, there is no guide for him, and He leaves them alone in their inordinateness blindly wandering on.” (VII: 186)

“But if they dispute with you, say: I have submitted myself entirely to Allah and every one who follows me; and say to those who have been given the Book and the unlearned people: Do you submit yourselves? So if they submit, then indeed they follow the right way; and if they turn back, then upon you is only the delivery of the message and Allah sees the servants.” (III: 19)

These verses will make it amply clear that guidance can come from Allah alone; and that no other power can make a soul see the light, therefore it would be sheer perversity and ignorance on the part of a believer in the Quran to compel people to accept Islam. He would know that compulsion cannot make anyone a believer. Belief can come only from within, from the heart, at the instigation of the Almighty. But a man may well ask, “But why does Allah cause a man to err?” This is a fair question, but the Quran answers it in other verses where it is clearly explained that Allah sends the prophets and makes the right path distinct from the wrong path. A man can see, but he does not like to see, he closes his eyes deliberately. These are men “on whose heart is a seal” which is not broken by the preaching of the prophets. Such men are those who doubt the truth of what they pretend to believe, yet they stick to it. And there are some who are, by nature, unable to see the truth. This is amply illustrated not only in religion, but in every day arguments as well, when it is absolutely impossible to induce a man to see the flaw in his opinions. This trait of character is natural, which in the terminology of the Quran, as well as other religious books, is the “act of God”. Similarly, guidance comes to a soul after some of those miraculous experiences which change the very life of a man. How could this idea be better expressed concisely and simply than by saying that it is Allah who “causes to err” and who “guides.”[1]

And, therefore, however earnestly one may desire the victory of truth there must be no compulsion:-

“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?

“And it is not for a soul to believe except by Allah’s permission and He casts uncleanness (of unbelief) on those who will not understand.” (X: 99, 100)

The Prophet (, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) suffered greatly for the unbelievers; for his pure soul it was grievous indeed that man should disbelieve the truth after it had become apparent.

The only answer he gets is:

“Then maybe you will kill yourself with grief, sorrowing after them, if they do not believe in this announcement.” (XVIII: 6)

No, it is not by sorrowing, nor by compulsion that truth can prosper, it is by patient work alone that the work can be done:-

“And follow what is revealed to you, and be patient till Allah shall give judgment, and He is the best of the Judges.” (X: 109)

(Judgment here means the judgment between truth and falsehood, and therefore the triumph of truth).

“And be patient and your patience is not but by the assistance of Allah, and grieve not for them, and do not distress yourself at what they plan;

“Surely Allah is with those who guard (against evil) and those who do good (to others).” (XVI: 127,128)

“And continue to remind” (LI: 55)

 “Rely on Allah, surely you are on the clear truth.”

The last verse shows that the very fact that one is on the right ensures one’s success. This has been repeated several times in the Quran, and shows that there is no need of compulsion in preaching a true religion; for truth is its own surety for success. The following verses also confirm the same view:-

“Therefore be patient; surely the promise of Allah (to make truth triumph) is true.” (XXX: 60)

“The truth has come, and the falsehood shall vanish and shall not come back.” (XXXIV: 49)

“The truth has come and the falsehood vanished; surely falsehood is a vanishing thing.” (XVII: 81)

A preacher can do nothing except preach the truth in order to bring about its victory, and this he should do unflinchingly:-

“Therefore do remind (the people); surely reminding does profit.” (LXXXVII: 9)

But this preaching is to be done in the right way:-

“Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and have disputations which them in the best manner; surely your Lord best knows those who go astray from His path, and He knows best those who follow the right way.” (XVI: 125)

The learned Moulvi Muhammad Ali in his commentary upon this verse says:-

“The principle laid down for preaching and religious controversy by the ‘unlearned Arabian’ has yet to be learnt by the most advanced people, whose controversies are carried on with no other object than that of fault-finding and whose preaching only aims at carping at others. It shows the breadth of mind of the Holy Prophet  , more especially when it is remembered that the injunction was given at a time when the Muslims were being most severely persecuted and there was the greatest reason for adopting a harsh attitude.”

If all arguments fail, then, instead of resorting to compulsion, the preacher should say,

“My work is for me and your work for you; you are clear of what I do and I am clear of what you do.”

This verse is so appropriate that I would quote it with its full context. The Prophet is addressed:-

“And if they call you a liar, say: My work is for me and your work for you; you are clear of what I do and I am clear of what you do.

“And there are those of them who hear you, but can you make the deaf to hear though they will not understand?

“And there are those of them who look at you, but can you show the way to the blind though they will not see?

“Surely Allah does not do any injustice to men, but men are unjust to themselves.” (X: 41-44)

These verses show that a preacher should do his duty and leave the rest to Divine Providence. They, also, incidentally make clear the meaning of the verses in which Allah is spoken of as “causing to err.”

In the same way a believer is asked to be tolerant in another chapter which reads:-

“Say: O unbelievers!
“I do not serve that which you serve,
“Nor do you serve Him whom I serve,
“Nor am I going to serve that which you serve,
“Nor are you going to serve Him whom I serve;
“For you is your religion, and for me mine.” (CIX: 1-6)

He is to say,

“And in whatever you disagree, the judgment thereof is (in) Allah’s (hand), that is Allah, my Lord; on Him do I rely and to Him do I turn time after time.” (XLII: 10)

“To this then go on inviting, and go on steadfastly on the right way as you are commanded and do not follow their low desires, and say:

“I believe in what Allah has revealed of the Book, and I am commanded to do justice between you; Allah is our Lord and your Lord, we shall have our deeds and you shall have your deeds; no plea need there be (now after full discussion) between us and you; Allah will gather us together, and to Him is the return.” (XLII: 15)

Unfortunately the space at my command does not allow me to quote any more verses, but the few quoted here will have, I hope, conclusively proved that compulsion in religion is totally foreign to Islam. This was amply illustrated by the life of the Prophet (, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) who never obliged a soul to accept Islam against his will. The charter he gave to the Christians of Najran laying down that “their authority and rights shall not be interfered with, nor anything that is customary amongst them, so long as they conducted themselves peaceably and uprightly” [Muir] shows what were his principles. There are very few examples indeed of a religious leader becoming supreme in a land and leaving the people free to make their choice as to what they would believe, and Muhammad’s (, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) is the most brilliant amongst them.

[1] This reminds one of the phrase in the Old Testament, “and God hardened their hearts.”