Context of the Verse 2:256: Extremists spread a radical view on coercion in religion against the essential message of the Qur’an

By Maulana Ghulam Ghaus

The members and followers of ISIS, Taliban and their like-minded extremist groups spread a radical view and attitude of coercion in matters of religion. But this goes against the essential messages of the Qur’an.

Let us start with what is the most quoted verse on the religious freedom for non-Muslims, in which Allah Almighty says, “There is no compulsion at all in Din (Religion). Surely, the guidance has become evidently distinguished from error. So he who rejects false gods and believes in Allah has grasped such a firm handhold that will never loosen. And Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.” (2:256)

This is the basic Islamic principle upon which the idea of non-compulsion is built, guaranteeing religious freedom for all non-Muslims including Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and Jains etc.

Occasions of Revelation of the Verse 2:256

There are three mostly narrated occasions of Revelation of this verse. But Al-Nahhas said, “The position of Ibn Abbas regarding this verse 2:256 is the best position because its isnad (chain of narration) is sound.” According to this position of Ibn Abbas, as reported by Abu Dawud (may Allah be pleased with both of them), this verse was sent down about the Ansar. There was a woman, all of whose children had died. She made a vow that if she had a child who lived she would become a Jew. When the Jewish tribe ‘Banu Nadir’ were exiled from the city of Madina after they were found plotting against the beloved Prophet (peace be upon him), there were many of the children of the Ansar.  These Muslim parents from among the Ansar questioned whether they should force their children to join the Muslim community. Then Allah revealed, “There is no compulsion in Religion. Verily, the right path has become distinct from the wrong path.” (See Tafsir al-Qurtubi and Tafsir al-Quran al-Azeem etc).

Some scholars argue that this verse 2:256 was abrogated by those verses that command Muslims to fight (9:5 and 9:73 etc). However this interpretation is not chronologically coherent with either of the narrated occasions of revelation (Shane Nuzul) for this verse. More significantly, compulsion in Religion contradicts the idea of responsibility before Allah Almighty (taklif), in which one is taken to account for one’s actions in both this life and the Hereafter (Imam Razi “Tafsir-e-Kabir”).

According to the overwhelming majority of classical Muslim scholars (Ulema-e-Jumhoor), this verse (2:256) is non-abrogated and was revealed in the Madani period, when the Muslims had attained political ascendance and were in a position of strength and not weakness. Sir Thomas Walker Arnold (1913) and many modern scholars including the orientalists also support the same view (See “Preaching of Islam: A History of the Propagation of the Muslim Faith, p. 6.). There is a divine message in this verse that Muslims cannot force another’s heart to believe. The famous theologians belonging to different schools of thought, who consider this verse (2:256) to be non-abrogated are Imam Jalaluddin Suyuti (Al-Itqan Fi Ulum al-Quran vol. 2), Al-Nahhas (al-Nasikh wal Mansukh fi al-Quran al-Karim), Al-Jassas (Ahkam al-Quran), Ibn Ashur (al-Tahrir wat Tanwir), Al-Tabari (Jamiul Bayan An Tawil Al-Quran), Abi Ubayd (Kitab Al-Nasikh Wal Mansukh), Makki bin Abi Talib (al-Idah li nasikh al-Quran wa mansukh), Ibn Taymiyya (qaida mukhtasarah fi qitalil kuffar), Ibn Qayyim (Ahkam Al-Dhimma) and many others.

Notably a famous classical jurist belonging to Hambali school of thought, Ibn Qudamah al-Maqdisi writes, (translation from Arabic) “It is not permitted to force a non-Muslim to accept Islam. Such a person would not even be considered a Muslim until it is confirmed that he accepted the Islamic faith by his own free choice.” He also says, “The reason for the prohibition of any compulsion or coercion is the Qur’anic verse, “There is no compulsion in Religion” (see al-Mughni-)).

An influential scholar of the Shafi’i school, Ismail Ibn Kathir writes in his commentary on the verse 2:256,

يقول تعالى : ( لا إكراه في الدين ) أي : لا تكرهوا أحدا على الدخول في دين الإسلام فإنه بين واضح جلي دلائله وبراهينه لا يحتاج إلى أن يكره أحد على الدخول فيه ، بل من هداه الله للإسلام وشرح صدره ونور بصيرته دخل فيه على بينة ، ومن أعمى الله قلبه وختم على سمعه وبصره فإنه لا يفيده الدخول في الدين مكرها مقسورا . وقد ذكروا أن سبب نزول هذه الآية في قوم من الأنصار ، وإن كان حكمها عاما .

English Translation: “Do not force anyone to become Muslim, for Islam is plain and clear, and its proofs and evidence are plain and clear. Therefore, there is no need to force anyone to embrace Islam. Rather, whoever Allah directs to Islam, opens his heart for it and enlightens his mind, will embrace Islam with certainty. Whoever Allah blinds his heart and seals his hearing and sight, then he will not benefit from being forced to embrace Islam.” (Ismail Ibn Kathir “Tafsir Al-Quran Al-Azim” English and Arabic versions, 2:256).

It is reported that although the Ansar were the reason behind revealing this verse 2:256, the application of its message is general in meaning (Tafsir Ibn Kathir). Given the famous maxim “العبرة بعموم اللفظ لا بخصوص السبب”, meaning, “Consideration is granted to the Generality of the Language, not to the Specificity of the Reason for Revelation”, it is proclaimed that this verse (2:256) is general in meaning and applies to all non-Muslims. Hence it means that none of the non-Muslims living should be coerced to accept Islam. The rationale behind this generality is explained this way that since the revelation has distinguished the path of guidance from the path of misguidance, it is now up to the will of people to choose the one or the other path and therefore accepting Islam because of compulsion would not benefit the convert in any way.

More significantly it is also reported that when Hadhrat Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) invited an old Christian woman to accept Islam, she said in reply: “I am an old woman nearing death.” Hearing this, Hadhrat Umar did not force her to come into the fold of Islam. In fact, he recited this very verse 2:256 “There is no compulsion in Din (Religion)” (Al-Nahhas “al-Nasikh wal Mansukh”)

Undoubtedly the idea of compulsion to make one accept Islam is not possible at all. This is because Islamic faith is not related to outward physical response, but rather it relates to the heart. (See also Tafsir al-Qurtubi)

Similar statements regarding the non-compulsion can also be understood from the following Quranic verses. Allah the Most High says,

“And had Allah so willed, certainly all inhabitants on the earth would have believed. Will you coerce the people until they become believers?” (10:99-100)

A great Hanafi scholar Imam Nasafi says while interpreting the above mentioned verses, “لو خلق (الله تعالى) فيهم الإيمان جبرا لآمنوا لكن قد شاء أن يؤمنوا اختيارا”, and similarly many other Muslim theologians argue that (translation) “if Allah the Most High wanted to compel all people to believe, then He would have done so and all the people would have believed in Him. But He has willed instead that they come to believe in Him by their own free choice”. (Abd Allah ibn Ahmad al-Nasafi, “Madarik al-Tanzil wa Haqaiq Al-Tawil (the Arabic book of tafsir)

The same message of non-compulsion in Islam is also mentioned in these two verses (73:19 and 76:29) in which Allah Almighty says, “This is indeed an advice; so whoever wishes may take the path towards his Lord.”

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