Freedom of Religion and Conscience 2




It is alleged that some verses of the Holy Quran deny freedom of religion and conscience which can form the basis for extremist ideology that looks to enforce conversion of non-Muslims to become Muslims. However, an academic review of the context of these verses and their understanding in light of the fundamental teaching of Islam that there can be no compulsion in religion (2:257) rebuts this allegation.

In fact, Prophet Muhammad has been recognized and lauded by academics and historians for his secular credentials and for upholding freedom of religion.


Allegation against verses 33:61-62 of Quran


(Quran 33:61-62) If the hypocrites, and those in whose heart is a disease, and those who cause agitation in the city, desist not, We shall surely give thee authority over them; then they will not dwell therein as thy neighbors, save for a little while. Then they will be accursed. Wherever they are found, they will be seized, and cut into pieces.


The allegations is that by stating opposing group as hypocrites, accursed and exiled are all traits of how society discriminates and persecutes people who don’t agree with the mainstream or those in authority, and thus denies freedom of religion and conscience as well as free speech.


Verses 33:61-62 refer to a certain historical event and its context. Chapter 33 of the Quran is named ‘The Confederates’. The subject matter of the chapter deals with the Battle of the Ditch in which allied tribes around Arabia besieged the city of Medina. This was the third battle between the Muslims and their opponents. After failing to defeat the Islamic movement in the first two battles, the opponents led by Meccans gathered allies from across Arabia in an all out effort to destroy the Islamic movement.


Before the war, Meccans had severely persecuted Muslims in Mecca for thirteen years denying them the freedom to propagate the religion of Islam which ultimately prompted migration. In fact, when the Quran gives Muslims the permission to take up arms in defense, upholding freedom of religion and protection of Churches and Synagogues is particularly mentioned.


(Quran 22:40-41) Permission to fight is given to those against whom war is made, because they have been wronged — and Allah indeed has power to help them. Those who have been driven out from their homes unjustly only because they said, ‘Our Lord is Allah’ — And if Allah did not repel some men by means of others, there would surely have been pulled down cloisters and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft commemorated. And Allah will surely help one who helps Him. Allah is indeed Powerful, Mighty.


After the Muslims migrated to Medina and Muhammad was appointed as Chief Arbitrator of the city (with a population of Jews and Polytheists), the inhabitants of Medina had formed a treaty agreeing to defend the city from any external threat. However, certain elements in the city of Medina were opposed to Muhammad and the Muslims and attempted to sabotage the treaty and the defense of Medina during this critical third battle.


Verse 33:61-62 explains the situation in Medina during the third battle. The Muslims were betrayed by their allies whose goal was to sabotage the establishment of the Islamic movement in Medina. These verses of the Quran are addressing those people who openly professed allegiance to the charter established by Muhammad and yet secretly plotted to destroy it.


Fundamental Teachings of Islam


Quran (2:257) Let there be no compulsion in religion


The Holy Quran and the life of Muhammad demonstrate that true Islam does not sanction death or any other worldly punishment for changing one’s faith (i.e., apostasy). For example, the Holy Quran declares:


Quran (6:108) And if Allah had enforced His will, they would not have set up gods with Him. And We have not made (Muhammad) a keeper over them nor art thou over them a guardian.


This verse clearly states that no person has any right to compel others in matters of faith. Forced faith is no faith at all. In response to those who insult or deride Islam, i.e. commit “blasphemy,” true Islam advocates complete restraint, just as the Holy Quran prescribes:


Quran (25:64) And the servants of the Gracious God are those who walk on the earth in a dignified manner, and when the ignorant address them, they say, ‘Peace!’.


The true teachings of Islam are also recognized by the actions and declarations of Muhammad who provided a document of protection to Christians at St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai. Below is an excerpt from this document which has been cited by several western academics as evidence that Islam does not preach enforcement of religion nor deny its freedom.


…whenever monks, devotees and pilgrims gather together, whether in a mountain or valley, or den, or frequented place, or plain, or church, or in houses of worship, verily we are (at the) back of them and shall protect them, and their properties and their morals, by Myself, by My Friends and by My Assistants, for they are of My Subjects and under My Protection. I shall exempt them from that which may disturb them; of the burdens which are paid by others as an oath of allegiance. They must not give anything of their income but that which pleases them—they must not be offended, or disturbed, or coerced or compelled. No one is allowed to plunder the pilgrims, or destroy or spoil any of their churches, or houses of worship, or take any of the things contained within these houses and bring it to the houses of Islam.


Quran (29:46) And he who takes away anything therefrom, will be one who has corrupted the oath of God, and, in truth, disobeyed His Messenger. Verily I shall keep their compact, wherever they may be, in the sea or on the land, in the East or West, in the North or South, for they are under My Protection and the testament of My Safety, against all things which they abhor… Do no dispute or argue with them, but deal according to the verse recorded in the Koran, to wit: ‘Do not dispute or argue with the People of the Book but in that which is best’.


Thus they will live favored and protected from everything which may offend them by the callers to religion (Islam), wherever they may be and in any place they may dwell. Should any Christian woman be married to a Muslim, such marriage must not take place except after her consent, and she must not be prevented from going to her church for prayer. Their churches must be honored and they must not be withheld from building churches or repairing convents. They must not be forced to carry arms or stones; but the Islams must protect them and defend them against others. It is positively incumbent upon every one of the Islam nation not to contradict or disobey this oath until the Day of Resurrection and the end of the world.” (Excerpts from “The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World” by Dr. John Andrew Morrow, Angelico Press / Sophia Perennis, 2013)


Relevance to Modern Times


Contrary to being counter-productive to the concept of freedom of conscience, several academics and historians have argued that Islam may have inspired the very ideal of freedom of conscience (2:256– Let there be no compulsion in religion) deeply espoused in western nations.


Legendary French leader Napoleon Bonaparte said:

I hope the time is not far off when I shall be able to unite all the wise and educated men of the world based on the principles of the Quran

Benjamin Franklin quoted:

If the mufti of Constantinople sent a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.

And John Adams called Muhammad,

a sober inquirer after truth.


So, why would the American Founding Fathers and legends of the modern liberal ideal lend such credence to the Islamic tradition?


Academics have reasoned that such admiration is owed to the principles of freedom, justice, diversity and equal rights enshrined in the constitution drafted by Muhammad as chief arbitrator of Medina. Muhammad’s subjects had included Muslims, Jews and polytheists seeking peace and accord as one community. The constitution of Medina established citizenry (and equality) before the state. It is the first such known constitution in history.


Restrictions on Free Speech in Modern Times


Western nations today, seen as beacons of freedom and liberty, have laws restricting free speech. A person can be apprehended by yelling words like ‘bomb’ in crowded areas, or by making threats which disturb peace. This does not mean we forbid free speech, but there have to be laws to protect a peaceful atmosphere.


Verses 33:61-62 highlight those people who desist not in agitation in the city. This goes to show that although freedom of speech and conscious are guaranteed rights, they must be regulated to have peace in a similar fashion to how you cannot shout “bomb” on a plane or in a cinema. Similarly, when speaking about other faith leaders, Islam also does not allow one to disown or disrespect other leaders for the reason that they are considered dear to others. The Holy Quran sets the framework for a safe and peaceful application of freedom of speech with the following verse…


Quran (6:109) And revile not those whom they call upon beside Allah, lest they, out of spite, revile Allah in their ignorance. Thus unto every people have We caused their doing to seem fair. Then unto their Lord is their return; and He will inform them of what they used to do.


Respect is fundamental to maintaining peace in society, otherwise the majority would just revile those in minority and label it freedom of speech. This level of respect in society is not independent of freedom of speech, instead it aids to maintain and promote freedom of speech.


Allegation against verses 8:39-40 of Quran


Quran (8:39-40) Say to those who disbelieve, if they desist, that which is past will be forgiven them; and if they return thereto, then verily, the example of the former peoples has already gone before them. And fight them until there is no persecution and religion is wholly for Allah. But if they desist, then surely Allah is Watchful of what they do.


The allegation against these verses is that Islam does not allow those who disbelieve to voice their difference and rejection of its message. It thus does not allow for the freedom of religion and free speech.


The background and context of these verses is the war between the Muslims of Medina and disbelievers of Mecca. The disbelievers are reminded in this verse of the defeat they suffered during the Battle of Badr. They are cautioned by their previous failures in destroying Islam and the failures of the opponents of earlier prophets of God.


This verse can also be understood better when read with 8:20 which says, if you resort to war again, we too will return to fight—meaning that armed conflict or enforcement are only valid in self-defense against aggression.


These verses are not advocating any sort of intolerance towards non-Muslims. In other verses the Quran clearly says that a Muslim’s task is simply to convey the message, and that people are free to believe or disbelieve as they wish (2:256) (18:30) (10:100). A similar commandment has been given in 2:194:


And fight them until there is no persecution, and religion is freely professed for Allah. But if they desist, then remember that no hostility is allowed except against the aggressors


The defensive principle of engaging warfare in Islam has been clearly highlighted in this verse:  hostility is allowed only against those who transgress, and not to anyone who opposes Islam. This is further supported by 2:191:


And fight in the cause of Allah against those who fight against you, but do not transgress. Surely, Allah loves not the transgressors.


The Holy Prophet (sa) signed many treaties with non-Muslim tribes. The meaning of the verse under discussion is to fight the transgressors until religious freedom is established. If it meant to fight until people are forced to accept Islam, Muhammad would not have signed treaties allowing religious freedom. The Muslims were persecuted to the point that they had to take up arms in self-defense. When Muhammad and the Muslims of his time conquered Mecca, no one was compelled to join Islam. Based on these facts, the allegation that these verses enjoin religious intolerance is baseless.


Allegation against verse 3:84 of the Quran


Quran (3:84) Do they seek a religion other than Allah’s, while to Him submits whosoever is in the heavens and the earth, willingly or unwillingly, and to Him shall they be returned.


It is alleged that this verse does not allow for the freedom of religion and conscience and that everyone must, willingly or unwillingly, submit to the religion of Islam. Thus, it also does not allow for freedom of speech.


The context in this part of the Quran deals with the People of the Book, namely, the Jews and Christians. The preceding verse 3:83 states that Allah took a covenant from all the prophets to accept and support a future prophet. Verse 7:158 of the Quran states that prophecies regarding the coming of Muhammad are found in the Torah and the Gospel—thus the People of these Books should pay heed and due regard to Muhammad’s claims.


The verse speaks to the People of the Book that their rejection of Muhammad will lead them into a religion that is not from Allah—obviously they have the conscientious choice to reject Muhammad. The statement about submitting to Allah, willingly or unwillingly, is then understood to be the physical and spiritual laws of the universe established by God to whom everyone in the universe is subject whether they agree with them or not. There is no indication of religious oppression mentioned in this verse. The Quran is very clear about all people being given the right to accept or reject its message (18:30).