Copyright 1996 by M. Rafiqul-Haqq and P. Newton. All rights reserved.

Tolerance in Islam

by M. Rafiqul-Haqq and P. Newton

"There is no compulsion in religion." (The Qur'an 2:256)

This Qur'anic verse is used by Muslims to defend themselves against the charge that Islam is an intolerant religion. The charge of intolerance has been haunting Muslims everywhere since the beginning of Islam. Is this charge well founded or is it a false one?

To answer this question we shall look at what the Muslim scholars have said about the issue and at this verse in particular. We will also look at some historical facts related to that issue.


Of the verse "There is no compulsion in religion", the scholar Nahas said:

"the scholars differed concerning Q. 2:256. Some said: 'It has been abrogated [cancelled] for the Prophet compelled the Arabs to embrace Islam and fought them and did not accept any alternative but their surrender to Islam. The abrogating verse is Q. 9:73 'O Prophet, struggle with the unbelievers and hypocrites, and be thou harsh with them.' Mohammad asked Allah the permission to fight them and it was granted. Other scholars said Q. 2:256 has not been abrogated, but it had a special application. It was revealed concerning the people of the Book [the Jews and the Christians]; they can not be compelled to embrace Islam if they pay the Jizia (that is head tax on free non-Muslims under Muslim rule). It is only the idol worshippers who are compelled to embrace Islam and upon them Q. 9:73 applies. This is the opinion of Ibn 'Abbas which is the best opinion due to the authenticity of its chain of authority."[1]

In exempting the Jews and the Christians from Q. 2:256, the Muslim scholars agree that the idol worshippers can be compelled by force to embrace Islam.

It is clear that, whether Q. 2:256 was abrogated or not, the scholars quite naturally admit to the historical fact that "the Prophet compelled the Arabs to embrace Islam and fought them and did not accept any alternative but their surrender to Islam."


The Muslim theologians had to justify this compulsion. Here is the reason given by a famous scholar:

"No compulsion" is a condemnation of compelling people to do evil generally, but compelling people in the truth is a religious duty. Does the infidel get killed for any thing except on the basis of his religion? The Prophet said: I have been ordered to fight against the people until they testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah. This Hadith is taken from the words of Allah 'Fight them on until there is no more tumult and religion becomes that of Allah (Q. 2:193).

If some one asks how can people be compelled in the truth when the mere fact of compelling indicates a the violation of the will of the one compelled? The first answer is that Allah sent Mohammad calling people to Him, showing the way to the truth, enduring much harm ... until the evidence of Allah's truth became manifest ... and His apostle became strong, He ordered him to call people by the sword ... hence there is no more an excuse after being warned. The second answer is that people first are taken and compelled, but when Islam becomes prevalent ... and they mix and make friends ... their faith strengthens and finally becomes sincere."[2]

According to the above :

1. Muslims believe that they have the right to compel people to accept Islam because it is the truth.

2. Muslims believe that Mohammad was given a divine command to fight against people, not in self defence or for economical or political reasons, but because people do not worship the one Mohammad worshipped.

3. The above scholar had no value for the human free will. To him, forcing Islam on people is justified if later on they will become Muslims. It is not an exaggeration then to say that the sword is Allah's final word.


Q. 2:256 is not the only verse that speaks of tolerance and which has been "abrogated". We find other verses that speak of tolerance in early Islam; Q2:62, for example:

"Surely they that believe, and those of Jewry, and the Christians, and those Sabaeans, whoso believes in God and the Last Day, and works righteousness their wage awaits them with their Lord, and no fear shall be on them, neither shall they sorrow." (Q. 2:62)

And another like it:

"Surely they that believe, and those of Jewry, and the Sabaeans, and those of the Christians, whosoever believes in God and the Last Day, and works righteousness no fear shall be on them, neither shall they sorrow." (Q. 5:69)

These verses were abrogated[3] by the following:

"Whoso desires another religion than Islam, it shall not be accepted of him; in the next world he shall be among the losers." (Q. 3:85)

Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi, the author of an-Nasikh wal-Mansukh, informs us that there are 114 verses that speak of tolerance in early Islam, but all were abrogated by one verse, "Slay the idolaters wherever you find them" (Q. 9:5), before the death of Mohammad.[4] We mention here some of the abrogated verses:

"Pardon thou, with a gracious pardoning..." (Q. 15:85)

"Speak good to men..." (2:83)

"If it had been thy Lord's Will, they would all have believed, all who are on earth! Wilt thou then compel mankind against their will to believe!" (Q. 10:99) Yusuf Ali's translation.

"To you your religion, and to me my religion." (Q. 109:6)

All the above verses have been abrogated by Q. 9:5.

Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi also wrote:

"Fight in the way of God with those who fight with you, but aggress not: God loves not the aggressors (2:190)" On the authority of Ga'far ar-Razi from Rabi' Ibn 'Ons, from 'Abil-'Aliyah who said: This is the first verse that was revealed in the Qur'an about fighting in the Madina. When it was revealed the prophet used to fight those who fight with him and avoid those who avoid him, until Sura 9 was revealed. And so is the opinion of 'Abd ar-Rahman Ibn Zayd Ibn 'Aslam who said this verse was cancelled by 9:5 "Slay the idolaters wherever you find them"[5]

Not all scholars however agree that these verses were abrogated. They recognise that to abrogate His own commands is unworthy of the character of God. For example Dr. Sobhy as-Saleh, a contemporary academic, does not see in Q. 2:256 and Q. 9:73 a case of abrogation but a case of delaying or postponing the command to fight the infidels. To support his view he quoted Imam Suyuti the author of Itqan Fi 'Ulum al- Qur'an who wrote:

The command to fight the infidels was delayed until the Muslims become strong, but when they were weak they were commanded to endure and be patient.[6]

Dr. Sobhy, in a footnote, commends the opinion of a scholar named Zarkashi who said :

Allah the most high and wise revealed to Mohammad in his weak condition what suited the situation, because of his mercy to him and his followers. For if He gave them the command to fight while they were weak it would have been embarrassing and most difficult, but when the most high made Islam victorious He commanded him with what suited the situation, that is asking the people of the Book to become Muslims or to pay the levied tax, and the infidels to become Muslims or face death. These two options, to fight or to have peace return according to the strength or the weakness of the Muslims."[7]

We can see that whether Q. 2:256 was abrogated or Q. 9:73 was delayed the result is the same: the infidels should embrace Islam or face death at the hands of its followers.

The authentic Hadith confirms the above. In the collection of Hadith known as Sahih al-Bukhari there is a chapter headed "'The statement of Allah, 'But if they repent and offer the prayers perfectly and give the obligatory charity then leave their way free'"(9:5) In this chapter al-Bukhari recorded the following Hadith:

"Narrated Ibn 'Umar: Allah's Apostle said: I have been ordered to fight against the people until they testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that Mohammad is Allah's apostle, and offer the prayers perfectly and give the obligatory charity, so if they perform all that, then they save their lives and property from me except from Islamic laws, and then their reckoning (accounts) will be done by Allah."[8]

In the chapter "Paradise is under the blades of the swords", al-Bukhari mentioned the following Hadith:

"Our prophet told us about the message of our Lord that '... whoever amongst us is killed will go to Paradise.' 'Umar asked the prophet, 'Is it not true that pure men who are killed will go to Paradise and their's (ie. those of the pagan's) will go to the (Hell) fire? The prophet said, 'Yes'"[9]

Also al-Bukhari mentioned that Mohammad said, "Know that paradise is under the shades of swords."[10]

We can see that al-Bukhari's authentic Hadith confirms and praises the concept of compelling the infidels to embrace Islam by force.


Dr. M. Khan the translator of Sahih al-Bukhari into English, had this to say in the introduction to his translation:

"Allah revealed in Sura Bara'at (Repentance, IX) the order to discard (all) obligations (covenants, etc), and commanded the Muslims to fight against all the Pagans as well as against the people of the Scriptures (Jews and Christians) if they do not embrace Islam, till they pay the Jizia (a tax levied on the Jews and Christians) with willing submission and feel themselves subdued (as it is revealed in 9:29). So the Muslims were not permitted to abandon "the fighting" against them (Pagans, Jews and Christians) and to reconcile with them and to suspend hostilities against them for an unlimited period while they are strong and have the ability to fight against them. So at first "the fighting" was forbidden, then it was permitted, and after that it was made obligatory."[11]

Dr. M. Khan, in a very straightforward manner, tells us that by the one verse Q. 9:5 Allah ordered Mohammad to cancel all covenants and to fight the pagans and Jews; even the Christians of whom the Qur'an had earlier spoken in the following terms:

"Thou wilt find the nearest of them in love to the believers [Muslims} are those who say 'We are Christians'" (Q. 5:82)

Here is a clear confession from the Qur'an about the love of the Christians for the Muslims in the time of Mohammad.

We would like to draw the attention of the readers to the fact that while Allah commanded Mohammad to fight even those who loved the Muslims, Christ commanded his followers to love their enemies.

"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you... If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?" (Matt. 6:43-44)

Contrary to the above commandment, so called Christians have committed many atrocities throughout history. Christ never taught his followers to fight but to love their enemies. Allah and Mohammad, however, commanded the Muslims to cancel all treaties and fight even their friends.

Dr. Khan continued:

The "Mujahideen who fight against the enemies of Allah in order that the worship should be all for Allah (alone and not for any other deity) and that the word is Allah's (ie. none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and His religion Islam) should be upper most."[12]

And sufficient is Allah's statement to show the importance of Jihad in this matter:

"O who believe! shall I direct you to a commerce that which will save you from a painful torment? That you believe in Allah and His Apostle (Mohammad), and that you strive hard and fight in the cause of Allah with your wealth and your lives. That will be better for you, if you but knew. If you do so He will forgive you your sins, and admit you into gardens of Eternity - that is the great success" (Q. 61:10-12)

In a contemporary Islamic periodical we read the following:

"Here we would draw the attention of westerners to the fact that Islam and all true religions cannot be imposed on people for two reasons. Firstly, after all the clear proofs, the logical reasoning and the manifest miracles there is no need for force at all. Only the person who lacks logic and proof would resort to force. But the divine religion has very sound logic and strong proof. Secondly, the influence of force and the sword can have their impact on bodies but not on ideas and beliefs."

To this point, the argument is sound and logical and no one can argue with that. But listen to the rest of the statement:

"In fact, Islam seeks recourse to military force in three situations:

1. For the purpose of eradicating polytheism and idolatry. Because Islam does not consider idolatry as a form of religion, but as a deviation, a disease and a myth. Islam perceives that a group of people should not be allowed to tread the path of deviation and myth but that they should be stopped. That is why Islam called the idol- worshippers to the unity of God and if they did not heed there would be recourse to force where the idols would be smashed and the temples destroyed. Islam attempted to prevent any appearance of the elements of idol worship in order to destroy the source of this spiritual and mental disease.

2. To counter those who plot in order to eradicate Islam. In these cases there are injunctions to engage in defensive Jihad and to take recourse to force.

3. In order to obtain freedom for calling to religion. For every religion should have the right to propagate its teachings in a logical manner and if anyone tries to prevent this then this right should be taken by force of arms."[13]

Could the explanation for the flight of thought in the above words be that it is the work of two authors, one of whom believes that 'Only the person who lacks logic and proof would resort to force'; the other author obviously lacking this logic, but passionately believing in the right of Muslims to use force?


Al-Ghazali (died AH 505, that is AD 1127) who earned the title "hoggat al-Islam, meaning rock of Islam", some five centuries after the time of Mohammad, is not apologetic in stressing the use of force in the preservation and progress of Islam:

"After the death of Mohammad, the man of the miracle [the Qur'an] and the apostle of truth and the companions, fearing the weakening of Islam, the decrease of the number of its followers, and the return of masses to their previous infidelity, saw that holy war and invading other countries for the sake of Allah, smashing the faces of the infidels with the sword and making people enter the religion of Allah as the most worthy of all tasks and better than all sciences."[14]

What al-Ghazali referred to in this quotation is known as the wars of apostasy (hurub ar- Riddah) which occurred in the time of Abu Bakr when the Arabic masses rejected Islam, and had to be brought back by the sword. These wars (not one war) lasted almost two years (632-634 AD). This is a fact of history. Some modern writers want us to believe that those wars were economical and political in nature, but historians tell us otherwise. The historian Ibn Ishaq quoted 'A'isha the wife of the Prophet who said:

'when the Prophet died the Arabs rejected Islam and drank Judaism and Christianity and the Star of Nifaq'".[15]

Besides, the word riddah that describes the wars means "apostasy", and thus the wars are recognisable as being religious in origin because of this use of religious terminology. If those Arabs accepted Islam willingly, why did they reject it when the Prophet of Islam died? A contemporary writer admitted that the Arabs were forced to embrace Islam. He wrote,

"It is important to note that the inhabitants of the Arabic peninsula initially did not accept Islam willingly and sincerely. This explains the force of the apostasy (riddah) after the death of the Prophet ... the Arabs on the perimeter of the peninsula who were recent converts to Islam refused to pay the tax, some rebelled against the Islamic rule while others rejected Islam. The people of Mecca were about to reject Islam, yea they wanted to, until 'Attab Ibn Osayd threatened them ... and if it was not for Sohayl Ibn 'Amr who coerced them they would have not turned back to Islam"[16]

It is a historical fact that except for these wars, those tribes that rejected Islam would have remained non-Muslims. Were these wars an act of religious tolerance? These wars stand in history as the supreme example of religious intolerance by Islam.

The use of the sword in the spread of Islam is attested to by the following statements from the lips of the renowned scholar al-Ghazali,

"Just as scholastic theology is used with thinking people concerning the truth, the sword is used with the infidels after informing them with the truth ... so just as it cannot be said that the sword was Mohammad's most eloquent argument, neither can it be said that scholastic theology is the ultimate science."[17]

We have seen earlier that the sword was Allah's final word, and according to the above statement (apart from scholastic theology) the sword was Mohammad's most eloquent argument.

The most telling assessment of the whole issue, confirming the centrality of the sword in Islam; comes from a modern scholar who wrote in al-Azhar, which is the most celebrated magazine in the Muslim world:

"Holy war (Jihad) is an Arabic virtue, and a divine obligation: the Muslim is always mindful that his religion is a Qur'an and a sword ... the Muslim then is forever a warrior."[18]

With this assertion, the Qur'an, the Hadith, the history of Islam, and scholars, ancient and modern, concur.

Other languages: We are looking for Christian organisations to publish / distribute the above article in German, French, Russian, Mandarin etc. If you are interested please contact P. Newton via email, giving full details of your organisation and the reasons for your interest.

Correspondence: Mr. Newton and Mr. Rafiqul-Haqq also invite you to write them with any requests, further questions, clarifications, disagreements ... by sending an email.

Further books by M. Rafiqul-Haqq and P. Newton

1. al-Nahas, An-Nasikh wal-Mansukh, p. 80. See also Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi, An-Nasikh wal-Mansukh, Dar al-Kotob al-'Elmeyah, Beirut, 1986, p. 42.
2. Abu Bakr Mohammad Ibn 'Abd Allah known as Ibn al-'Arabi, Ahkam al-Qur'an, vol. 1, pp. 232-234.
3. Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi, An-Nasikh wal-Mansukh, Dar al-Kotob al-'Elmeyah, Beirut, 1986, p. 19.
4. Ibid., pp. 12-18.
5. Ibid, p. 27.
6. Sobhy as-Saleh, Mabaheth Fi 'Ulum al-Qur'an, Dar al-'Ilm Lel-Malayeen, Beirut, 1983, p. 269.
7. Ibid, p. 270
8. Sahih al-Bukhari, English translation, Vol.1, Hadith No. 24
9. Ibid., Vol.4, p. 55
10. Ibid., Vol.4, p. 55
11. Dr. M. Mohsin Khan, in the introduction to his English translation of Sahih al-Bukhari, p. xxiv.
12. Ibid, p. xxv
13. Australian Muslim Times, "Behind Misconceptions" by Sayyed Hashem Nasserallah, 19/4/91, p. 9.
14. Ihy'a 'Uloum ed-Din by al-Ghazali, Dar al-Kotob al-'Elmeyah, Beirut, Vol. V, p. 35.
15. Ibn Hisham, As-Sirah, 4:316.
16. 'Omar Abun-Nasr, Al-Hadarah al-Amawiyah al-'Arabiyah, p. 132.
17. Ihy'a 'Uloum ed-Din by al-Ghazali, Dar al-Kotob al-'Elmeyah, Beirut, Vol. V, p. 35.
18. Al-Azhar magazine, Cairo, the opening article by Ahmad Hasan az-Zayat, August 1959.

Copyright 1996 by M. Rafiqul-Haqq and P. Newton. All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form, printed or electronic, without written permission, except for brief quotations in books, critical articles, and reviews.

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