Nowadays, the freedom of religion is often raised as a key topic. Islam is usually criticized allegedly for curtailing the freedom of religion without consideration of the true attitude of Islam as well as the previous heavenly messages (Judaism and Christianity) towards this freedom according to the Qur’an and the Bible, including the Old Testament and the New Testament.
So, let’s find out the true position of Judaism, Christianity and Islam on the freedom of religion.
Freedom of Following & Practicing Religion
It is widely believed that Islam has been spread by the sword and people have been coerced into accepting Islam without investigation of this claim or the stance of the previous divine messages on professing them according to the Bible.
First: the Bible
In the Old Testament, the Bible tells us that the message of Prophet Moses and the other prophets from the Children of Israel was exclusive to the Children of Israel only.
The Children of Israel did not call on the other peoples and nations to believe in the message of Prophet Moses. Rather, they fought against those peoples and nations to enslave them. Should they refuse to serve the Children of Israel, the Bible tells us that the Children of Israel would kill males and plunder women, children and animals according to God’s command to the Children of Israel.
In the Old Testament, we read: “When you advance to a city to fight against it, you shall [first] offer it terms of peace. If that city accepts your terms of peace and opens its gates to you, then all the people who are found in it shall become your forced labor and shall serve you. However, if it does not make peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall lay siege to it. When the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall strike down all the men in it with the edge of the sword. Only the women and the children and the animals and everything that is in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as plunder for yourself; and you shall use the spoil of your enemies which the Lord your God has given you. That is what you shall do to all the cities that are very far away from you, which are not among the cities of these nations nearby [which you are to dispossess]. Only in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Canaanite, the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, just as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that they will not teach you to act in accordance with all the detestable practices which they have done [in worship and service] for their gods, and in this way cause you to sin against the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 20:10-18)
The Old Testament abounds in numerous verses which relate to us how many people from non-Jewish peoples and nations were tortured and killed at the hands of the Children of Israel.
For example, we read: Joshua said to them, “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Be strong and courageous. This is what the Lord will do to all the enemies you are going to fight.” Then Joshua put the kings to death and exposed their bodies on five poles, and they were left hanging on the poles until evening. (Joshua 10:25-26)
There are uncountable pieces of evidence for the killing, slaying and annihilating non-Jewish peoples and nations by the Children of Israel, without inviting any such peoples or nations to believe in the message of Prophet Moses, simply because the Children of Israel believe that they are “the chosen people”, that the message of Prophet Moses and other prophets was exclusively intended for them, and that it is the same whether or not the other peoples and nations believe in Moses and other prophets from the Children of Israel.
As for the New Testament, we observe that coercion into conversion was not absent from Christianity either. For example, the New Testament quotes Jesus as saying: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword [of division between belief and unbelief]. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his [own] household [when one believes and another does not]. (Matthew 10:34-36)
We also notice that Jesus intimidated those unwilling to believe in him. He ordered his followers to kill any such people according to the New Testament. We read: “But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.” (Matthew 19:27)
Second: the Qur’an & the Sunnah
The freedom of following and practicing religion is guaranteed by the Qur’an. So, no Muslim can coerce anyone into embracing Islam according to many Qur’anic verses like the following verses:
There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong. (Al-Baqarah 2:256)
And had your Lord willed, those on earth would have believed – all of them entirely. Then, [O Muhammad], would you compel the people in order that they become believers? (Yunus 10:99)
As for the Qur’anic verses which are misunderstood as promoting fighting or killing in the cause of God and the like, they do not really command fighting or killing non-Muslim individuals to compel them to embrace Islam. They rather have other meanings not related to coercion into Islam.
For example, some Qur’anic verses permit repelling aggression and fighting and even killing the aggressors. In the Qur’an, we read:
Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you but do not transgress. Indeed. Allah does not like transgressors. And kill them wherever you overtake them and expel them from wherever they have expelled you, and fitnah is worse than killing. And do not fight them at al-Masjid al- Haram until they fight you there. But if they fight you, then kill them. Such is the recompense of the disbelievers. And if they cease, then indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful. Fight them until there is no [more] fitnah and [until] worship is [acknowledged to be] for Allah. But if they cease, then there is to be no aggression except against the oppressors. [Fighting in] the sacred month is for [aggression committed in] the sacred month, and for [all] violations is legal retribution. So whoever has assaulted you, then assault him in the same way that he has assaulted you. And fear Allah and know that Allah is with those who fear Him. (Al-Baqarah 2:190-194)
The Qur’anic verses also permit fighting those who break oaths. In the Qur’an, we read:
And if they break their oaths after their treaty and defame your religion, then fight the leaders of disbelief, for indeed, there are no oaths [sacred] to them; [fight them that] they might cease. Would you not fight a people who broke their oaths and determined to expel the Messenger, and they had begun [the attack upon] you the first time? Do you fear them? But Allah has more right that you should fear Him, if you are [truly] believers. Fight them; Allah will punish them by your hands and will disgrace them and give you victory over them and satisfy the breasts of a believing people (At-Tawbah 9:12-14)
Besides, other Qur’anic verses permit fighting the hypocrites who betray the believers and side with the disbelievers against the believers in case they do not repent and stop harming the believers. In the Qur’an, we read:
What is [the matter] with you [that you are] two groups concerning the hypocrites, while Allah has made them fall back [into error and disbelief] for what they earned. Do you wish to guide those whom Allah has sent astray? And he whom Allah sends astray – never will you find for him a way [of guidance]. They wish you would disbelieve as they disbelieved so you would be alike. So do not take from among them allies until they emigrate for the cause of Allah . But if they turn away, then seize them and kill them wherever you find them and take not from among them any ally or helper. (An-Nisaa’ 4:88-89)
We also read:
You will find others who wish to obtain security from you and [to] obtain security from their people. Every time they are returned to [the influence of] disbelief, they fall back into it. So if they do not withdraw from you or offer you peace or restrain their hands, then seize them and kill them wherever you overtake them. And those – We have made for you against them a clear authorization. (An-Nisaa’ 4:91)
We further read:
If the hypocrites and those in whose hearts is disease and those who spread rumors in al-Madinah do not cease, We will surely incite you against them; then they will not remain your neighbors therein except for a little. (Al-Ahzab 33:60-61)
As for the other verses generally commanding fighting, any such command is incidental to the call to Islam which was peaceful and involved no fighting. It is worth noting that this call was peaceful in the very beginning as the believers were commanded to keep patient with the harm caused by the disbelievers and polytheists. However, such patience increased nothing but tyranny, disbelief and harm on the part of the disbelievers.
Therefore, fighting was permitted at a later point of time in the history of the call to Islam in order to put an end to the injustice done to the believers, as represented by physical harm to the believers and driving them out of their homes and property, and to empower the peaceful call to Islam with wisdom and good exhortation. In the Qur’an, we read:
Permission [to fight] has been given to those who are being fought, because they were wronged. And indeed, Allah is competent to give them victory. [They are] those who have been evicted from their homes without right – only because they say, “Our Lord is Allah.” And were it not that Allah checks the people, some by means of others, there would have been demolished monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of Allah is much mentioned. And Allah will surely support those who support Him. Indeed, Allah is Powerful and Exalted in Might. [And they are] those who, if We give them authority in the land, establish prayer and give zakah and enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong. And to Allah belongs the outcome of [all] matters. (Al-Hajj 22:39-41)
However, the command to fight in defense of the believers and in empowerment of the call to God does not mean forcing people to profess Islam. It rather means confronting a disbelieving force with a believing one in order to protect the believers and pave the way for the call to faith. Once the victory is clinched by the believers, the freedom of religion is maintained under such a faithful authority which guarantees such freedom.
Within the context of the above Qur’anic verses which are the first verses to allow Jihad, God makes clear that were it not for fighting in the cause of God “were it not that Allah checks the people, some by means of others”, the places of worship of the followers of the three divine messages, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam, would have been demolished because Islam, unlike any other faith, commands the preservation, protection and maintenance of the places of worship. Thus, Muslims’ victory involves the protection of the places of worship and their defeat means the demolition of the same.
Prophet Muhammad prohibited attacking the places of worship, specifically hermitages, or the worshippers therein. Ibn Abbas reported that if Prophet Muhammad dispatched an army, he would instruct: “Go out in the name of God to fight in the cause of God against those who disbelieve in God, but do not act treacherously or dishonestly, do not commit mutilation, do not kill children or hermits.” (Recorded by Imam Ahmad)
The directives to protect and not to attack the places of worship and worshippers therein lasted even after the demise of Prophet Muhammad, especially during the caliphate of the four rightly-guided caliphs.
Upon dispatching Usamah ibn Zayd in command of an army to the Levant, Abu Bakr As-Siddiq, the first Muslim caliph, instructed: “… do not kill a young child, an old man or a woman. Do not chop down or burn palm trees. Do not cut down a fruitful tree. Do not slaughter an ewe, cow or a camel except for eating. You will pass by peoples retiring at hermitages. So leave them to what they are retired for.” (Ibn `Asakir 50/2)
Thus, after a Muslim conquest, non-Muslims had full freedom to adhere to their religions or revert to Islam if they willed. Their abstention from accepting Islam does not mean that there would not have been affection between them and Muslims any longer. On the contrary, affection will continue to exist between Muslims and non-Muslims so long as the latter do not fight Muslims because of religion or drive them out of their homes or assist with that. In the Qur’an, we read:
Perhaps Allah will put, between you and those to whom you have been enemies among them, affection. And Allah is competent, and Allah is Forgiving and Merciful. Allah does not forbid you from those who do not fight you because of religion and do not expel you from your homes – from being righteous toward them and acting justly toward them. Indeed, Allah loves those who act justly. Allah only forbids you from those who fight you because of religion and expel you from your homes and aid in your expulsion – [forbids] that you make allies of them. And whoever makes allies of them, then it is those who are the wrongdoers. (Al-Mumtahanah 60:7-9)
The Qur’an urges Muslims to continue to show affection to non-Muslims to the extent that it commands Muslims to protect non-Muslims in case they turn to Muslims for protection. In the Qur’an, we read:
And if any one of the polytheists seeks your protection, then grant him protection so that he may hear the words of Allah . Then deliver him to his place of safety. That is because they are a people who do not know. (At-Tawbah 9:6)
No wonder, the command to fight non-Muslims is justified by their injustice and aggression. Whenever they give up such injustice and aggression, Muslims will refrain from fighting them. Therefore, affection towards those non-Muslims who do not wrong or assault Muslims is something quite intuitive. In the Qur’an, we read:
And if they cease, then indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful. Fight them until there is no [more] fitnah and [until] worship is [acknowledged to be] for Allah. But if they cease, then there is to be no aggression except against the oppressors. (Al-Baqarah 2:192-193)
However, if non-Muslims choose to revert to Islam after a Muslim conquest, they, by so doing, become fellow Muslim brothers without discrimination. In the Qur’an, we read:
But if they repent, establish prayer, and give zakah, then they are your brothers in religion; and We detail the verses for a people who know.(At-Tawbah 9:11)
At last, to sum up, in the Old Testament, the Bible tells us that Jews did not fight other peoples and nations to invite them to convert to Judaism, but they rather fought them to enslave them or otherwise kill their males and capture their women and children, and it is the same whether or not they have the same beliefs as the Jews. In the New Testament, the Bible quotes Jesus as commanding his followers to slay those who refuse to believe in him.
As for Islam, there is no compulsion to accept it. Fighting is only intended for warranting the freedom of religion. So, after a Muslim conquest, everybody can freely choose to embrace or not embrace Islam. Thus, he who reverts to Islam becomes a fellow Muslim brother without discrimination. He who refuses to do will continue to be shown affection, fairness and justice by Muslims provided that they are safe from his evil.
1- The Glorious Qur’an (Sahih International Translation)
2- Musnad Al-Imam Ahmad
3- Tafsir Al-Quran Al-Azim, by Ibn Kathir
4- The Holy Bible (Visit biblegateway.com)