Contrary to the common misconception that Islam denies religious freedom to others, Islam enjoins religious freedom to others.
Religious freedom is the basic human right whose violation has caused conflicts, wars and bloodshed in both ancient and modern societies. The Quran, therefore, has declared for the first time in human history:
‘There shall be no coercion in matters of religion.’ (2:256).
The Quran also states clearly, “To you your religion and to me mine.” (109:6).
The principle that we obtain from the above verses of the Quran is generally referred to, in today’s context, as religious freedom.
In view of this prohibition of coercion (Ikrah), all Islamic jurists (Fuqaha) without any exception hold that forcible conversion is under all circumstances null and void. Any attempt to coerce a non-believer to accept Islam is a grievous sin, (Ahkam al-Quran, al-Jassas). According to this principle of ‘non-coercion’, it is not permissible to exploit or manipulate personal weaknesses or calamities (e.g. poverty, sickness, famine, etc.) for religious conversion. That is why old and downtrodden non-Muslims were exempted from taxes and given all monetary support by the Islamic state without ever being asked to embrace Islam just for the advantages it would give them.
Once a Jewish widow came to the Caliph Umar asking for some financial aid. Umar tried to persuade her to accept Islam. He promised to take care of all her needs if she embraced Islam. But the lady refused. Umar then gave her more than she had asked for. When she departed, Umar raised his hands towards heaven and said:
“O God, bear witness that I have not exercised any coercion on this lady.” (Tarikh Umar ibn Khattab, Ibn al-Jawzi)
The principle of non-coercion mentioned the Quran (2:256) has not been confined to religious freedom alone. Rather, it has been extensively elaborated upon and widely applied to all social, cultural, and political spheres of society. This has led to the development of a new culture in which individuals enjoy freedom of expression, dissent and criticism without any fear or restriction. Two examples may suffice to explain to what extent this essential human right was observed in earlier Muslim societies.
Once Caliph Umar came to a well of the Banu Harithah where he met an outspoken person named Muhammad ibn Maslama. “How do you find me?” he asked Muhammad, “By God, I find you just as I would like you to be and just as it would please any well-wisher to see you. You are good at accumulating money, I see, but you keep your hands clean of it yourself, distributing it equitably to others.” “But,” went on Muhammad ibn Maslama, “If you adopt a crooked course, we will straighten you, just as we straighten swords by placing them in a vice.” At these aggressively critical words, Umar, the second Muslim Caliph, exclaimed:
“Praise be to God, who has put me among a people who will straighten me when I become crooked.” (Kanz al-Ummal)
When Muslims at Madinah, with their increasing affluence, began to settle huge dowers (mahr) on their daughters, Umar, in his capacity as caliph, ordered that no one should demand or pay a dower that exceeded four hundred dirhams, and that anything in excess of this amount would be confiscated and deposited in the public treasury (Baitul-Mal).
After the proclamation of this ordinance, when he came down from the pulpit, an old woman stood up and confidently said:
‘The Quran has set no restrictions on this matter: Umar has no right to set an upper limit to the dowers.”
To back up her contention, she loudly recited this verse of the Quran:
“If you decide to take one wife in place of another, do not take back from her the dower you have given her, even if it be a talent of gold.’ (4:20).
Umar’s immediate reaction on hearing this was to say:
“A woman has quarreled with Umar and has bested him.”
According to another account, Umar said:
“May God, forgive me, everyone knows better than Umar, even this old lady.” (Tirmidhi/Ahmad)
With the advent of Islam in the seventh century, however, it was declared for the benefit of mankind that all greatness was the exclusive prerogative of God, and that in the eyes of God, all human beings were equal. The Prophet Muhammad declared not once, but on many occasions that all were alike, all were brothers.
“The Prophet not only stated the truth but also made it a reality by bringing about a total revolution based on the idea of human equality. On achieving political domination in Arabia, he was able to put this theory into practice in his capacity as ruler of a state. In this way, Islam put an end to discrimination between human beings on the basis of race, colour, status, etc. People were assigned a high or low status according to their moral worth.”
(Islam, the Creator of the Modern Age, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan)
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