Mar 18 2012

Compulsion in religion

By Davi Barker, M4L

July 19, 2009


First a warning. Caveat Emptor. Buyer beware. Providing an exegesis of a Quranic verse is an ambitious task for a layman such as me, and I am unqualified. Everything right and true is from Allah, not from Al Azhar, not from Al Jazeera, not from Al Qaida, but from Allah. If there is wisdom in my words, and those words ring true for you, it is by His Will. It is my opinion that Believers should form their own opinion. So, test what I say in the laboratory of your own nervous system. If you independently agree with me, alhamdullillah, but don’t be pointing at me on The Last Day. In that context … this is the perfect verse to be discussing.

Qur’an 2:256, “There shall be no compulsion in religion: Truth has become distinct from error, and whoever rejects false deities and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold, which never dbreaks. And Allah is Hearing, Knowing.”

The placement of this verse in the Quran remarkable. It immediately follows Ayatul Kursi, which is the most read, most widely memorized, and most prolifically displayed verse in the Quran. So, this statement regarding compulsion is imbedded within potent statements on creed. It may be the only verse of its kind, but clearly Allah intended it to be well known… and therefore well understood.The only published explanations of this verse that I can find are concerned entirely with prohibiting forced conversion. This is a reaction formation to attacks against Islam regarding how it spread historically. It is not an actionable interpretation by Muslims for Muslims. They do not discuss the implications of prohibiting coercion in other matters. So, I’ve done a little processing and I’d like to decompress the issue as I see it.

Allah is not careless with words. This sentence is only four words. La Ikrah fi deen. “No compulsion in religion.” Every scholar I’ve ever heard discuss the word deen says that “religion” is a poor translation, and that deen is a complete and comprehensive way of life. Why would Allah use a word that means a complete way of life to describe a truth that only applies to a very specific instance? Could He not have said, “No compulsion in dawah?”

The verse is a logical syllogism. Statements of evidense that support a premise. The Quran is often constructed in this format, and this appeal to reason is what makes it distinct from other scriptures. Over and over Allah tells us, “Will you not use reason?” and that He despises those who don’t. “The worst of creatures in the sight of Allah are the deaf and dumb who do not use their intellect to understand.” (8:22) So, let’s break down the syllogism.Given that Allah is omniscient, that tawhid is virtuous, and that Truth is distinct from error, therefore religion must be free from coercion.

Reason dictates that any instance where the evidence is true the conclusion must also be true, and the evidence presented is true in all instances, therefore the premise MUST be true in all instances. It cannot be true for conversion and false for other matters. How can the premise be abrogated when the supporting evidence remains? This is the principle of nonaggression. “Surely, Allah loves not the aggressors” (2:190) i.e. the initiators of coercion.

The principle of nonaggression is a deep and fundamental Truth in human interaction. Actions which are coerced have no moral value. You can openly profess disbelief, or even shirk without sin if it’s under coercion. And the aim of Islam is to place moral value in every action… so how can coercion be virtuous?

The simplicity and profundity of the nonaggression principle are, I believe, the keystone to solving the strife in Muslim countries, and indeed the world. So two fundamental questions exist concerning the meaning of this verse. What is compulsion, and what does it mean that Truth is clear from Error?As far as I can tell, the Arabic word Ikrah is accurately translated as “compulsion” with very little loss of meaning, except that the root word in Arabic is the same root as “hatred” which does expand the implication. Compulsion is the use, or the threat of coercive force to cause someone to act against their will. Generally, people consider this the use or threatened use of bodily harm, and some include in this definition threats made to a person’s wealth and property.

The Truth is not so clear that people cannot continue to deny and distort Islam, as they have since its first days, even in the light of this verse. But, it is so clear that the majority of people who study it and consider it with sincerity eventually come to believe it, even its most emboldened enemies. Here lies the fulcrum on which clarity and compulsion turn… sincerity. Sincerity reveals clarity, and compulsion obfuscates sincerity. Therefore sincerity and compulsion must be inversely correlated, and as one waxes the other must wane. So, the two are incompatible.

Let me put it this way… if an Arab flies from Arabia to America and the moment he leaves Saudi air space he has a glass of wine, he doesn’t get credit for not drinking in Arabia, because in his heart of hearts he was abstaining out of state coercion, not out of obedience to Allah. In other words, if you are praying because there is a gun to your head, you are not obeying Allah, you are obeying the gunman.

It is my contention that if we carry this verse to its logical conclusion it means much more than a religion without coercion. A deen without coercion means politics without coercion. It means personal relationships without coercion. It means a comprehensive way of life without coercion. So, just as Islamic theology should be characterized by open debate and a free market of ideas, an Islamic order should be characterized by political liberty, and the Islamic family should be characterized freedom of association.

The shahada is not the source of authority in an Islamic order. The bayah of the citizens is the source. Bayah is a voluntary interaction, not a coercive one. It is a contract by which the individual and the Amir have mutual rights and responsibilities based upon the shariah. The Amir does not have arbitrary authority to enforce their interpretation of virtuous behavior. The authority that your spouse has in a marriage is no different. The source of that authority is the nikah, also a voluntary interaction. It is a contract by which a man and a woman have mutual rights and responsibilities based upon the Shariah. Neither has arbitrary authority to enforce their interpretation of virtuous behavior on the other.

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