Part 1: Interpreting Quran 2:256

While discussing the issue of apostasy in Islam, probably no verse is more frequently cited to decide the issue, especially by Muslims in the West who advocate freedom of religion, than Qur'an 2:256: "There is no compulsion in religion."

S. A. Rahman makes the distinct claim:

This verse is one of the most important verses in the Qur'an, containing a charter of freedom of conscience unparalleled in the religious annals of mankind.... [1]

While discussing the nature of jihad, Dr. Abdelwahib Boase, formerly professor at University of Fez and then a research associate at Westfield College, University of London, writes:

... it must be emphasized that jihad in the military sense does not have as its object the propagation of religion. The fallacy that Islam imposes on the non-Muslim the choice between "conversion or the sword" is disproved by the Quranic injunction: "There is no coercion in matters of faith."[2]

In a personal letter, dated January 2O, 1986, Hasan Moola writes from Saskatchewan, Canada:

Muslims have never compelled non-Muslims to become Muslims, and this myth has been propagated by Western Christian writers, like yourself. In fact it is quite clearly written in the Qur'an Surah 2 verse 256, "There is no compulsion in religion."[3]

A portion of a letter to the editor of a Toronto newspaper reads:

... it was Islam that proclaimed, "there is no compulsion in religion" when the echo of the time was "onward Christian soldiers".... After all, Muslims have been presented with the perfect belief system and they would like to share it peacefully with all those people with whom they share the Earth.[4]

An important commentary of the Ahmadiyya Community comments on this verse:

... The verse enjoins Muslims in the clearest and strongest of words not to resort to force for converling non-Muslims to Islam. In the face of this teaching ... it is the height of injustice to accuse Islam of countenancing the use of force for the propagation of its teaching.[5]

For S. A. Rahman discussion on the apostate and freedom of religion does not simply begin and end with the citation of Qur'an 2:256. True to his assertion that the verse "deserves detailed discussion", he proceeds to discuss the matter, sadly noting also a variety of concerns and opinions on the matter which "whittle down" the verse's "broad humanistic meaning".[6] They are in summary form:

Some Quranic exegetes state that Qur'an 2:256 has been abrogated by the following verses:

O Prophet! Strive against the disbelievers and the hypocrites! Be harsh with them.... (9:73)

O ye who believe! Fight those of the disbelievers who are near to you, and let them find harshness in you.... (9:123)

Say unto those of the wondering Arabs who were left behind: Ye will be called against a folk of mighty prowess to fight them until they surrender.... (48:16)[7]

Rahman also notes the various opinions of the Qur'anic commentators regarding the circumstances surrounding the revelation (shan-i nuzul) of Qur'an 2:256: a. the revelation blocked an Ansar woman from forcing her Jewish boy to convert to Islam; b. the revelation blocked an Ansar father from forcing his two Christian sons to convert to Islam; c. the revelation permitted a member of the People of the Book to retain his religion; d. the revelation referred to the People of the Book who agreed to pay jizyah. He also notes, however, that the esteemed Indian Muslim scholar, Shah Wali Ullah, does not confine the application of such a verse to the particular incident only. "On the contrary, the verse should be held to convey the commandment contained therein, generally."[8]

Nevertheless Rahman notes a variety of interpretations which Muslim scholars have given to this verse, not of least significance - and much to Rahman's dismay! - that of the same Indian scholar Shah Wali Ullah who, after giving the normal meaning, adds:

That is to say, the reasoned guidance of Islam has become manifest. Therefore, so to speak, there is no compulsion, although, in sum, there may be coercion.[9]

Rahman concludes his remarks on Shah Wali Ullah's gloss:

Such an interpretation can perhaps be attributed to the unconscious pressure of orthodox tradition.[10]

Rahman then presents the position of Nawab Siddiq Hasan Khan in Fath al-Bayan:

... one should not say of a person convened to Islam under the shadow of the sword, that he was compelled to the Faith for "there is no compulsion in religion". Another construction ... confines the verse to the People of the Scriptures who submitted to the Muslims and agreed to pay jiizjah (poll-tax) but excludes the idolaters from its scope. In the case of the latter, only two alternatives are said to be open - Islam or the sword - on the authority of al-Shabi, al-Hasan, Qatadah and al-Dahhaq.[11

Then Rahman cites Ibn al-Arabi's work Ahkam al-Qur'an, adding thereafter his own objections to this interpretation:

He (Ibn al-Arabi) declares dogmatically that to compel to the truth is part of the Faith, on the authority of a hadith: "I have been commanded to fight people till they recite the declaration of faith ...", which he considers to have been derived from the Qur'anic verse: "And fight them until persecution is no more and religion is for Allah alone." (8:39; 2:193)[12]

Recently a Pakistani Muslim friend, a doctoral candidate in South Asian Islamic studies at the University of Toronto, kindly shared his interpretation of Qur'an 2:256: Qur'an 2:256 obviously forbids compulsion in religion. The Hadith obviously state that the apostate from Islam should be executed. Since the Qur'an also states that Muslims are to obey the Prophet as well as the Book, Qur'an 2:256 can have application only for non-Muslims. Muslims must be compelled to remain Muslim.

Part 2: Surah 2:256: la ikraha fi d-dini
Tolerance or Resignation?

by Rudi Paret (Tübingen)[13]

The Qur'anic passage la ikraha fi d-dini ("there is no compulsion in religion") is generally understood to mean that no one should use compulsion against another in matters of faith. There is much to commend this interpretation. As it is understood here, the statement represents a principle which has gained a recognition of international dimensions: the principle of religious tolerance. Historically also the alleged meaning of la ikraha fi d-dini appears to be warranted. "The People of the Book", i.e., the members of the older revealed religions, particularly the Jews and the Christians, were in principle never compelled to accept Islam. They were obliged, while residing in territory under Islamic domination (dar al-Islam), only to recognize the supremacy of Muslims and, at the same time, as an external indication of this recognition, to pay a separate tax. In all other matters they could maintain their inherited beliefs and perform their practices as usual. They even were allowed to establish their own internal administration.

To be sure, however, the situation was different for members of the pre-Islamic pagan Arab society. After the community which the Prophet had established had extended its power over the whole of Arabia, the pagan Arabs were forcefully compelled to accept Islam; stated more accurately, they had to choose either to accept Islam or death in battle against the superior power of the Muslims (cf. surahs 8:12; 47:4). This regulation was later sanctioned in Islamic law. All this stands in open contradiction to the alleged meaning of the Quranic statement, noted above: la ikraha fi d-dini. The idolaters (mushrikun) were clearly compelled to accept Islam - unless they preferred to let themselves be killed.

In view of these circumstances it makes sense to consider another meaning. Perhaps originally the statement la ikraha fi d-dini did not mean that in matters of religion one ought not to use compulsion against another but that one could not use compulsion against another (through the simple proclamation of religious truth). This seems even more likely in the light of surah 10:100, 101:

And if thy Lord willed, all who are in the earth would believe together. (Or "if thy Lord had willed, all who were on earth would have believed together".) Wouldst thou (Muhammad) compel men until they are believers (a-fa-anta tukrihu n-nasa hatta yakunu mu'minina)?

It is not for any soul to believe save by the permission of Allah. He has set uncleanness upon those who have no sense (and therefore remain hardened).

Compare Surah 12:103:

And though thou try much. most men will not believe.[14]

Both of these passages demonstrate that the Prophet's zeal to convert was doomed for the most part to be without success as a result of human recalcitrance. In agreement with this it is possible to understand la ikraha fi d-dini to mean that no one can be compelled to (right) belief. The statement of the Qur'an, then, would be not a proclamation of tolerance, but much more an expression of resignation. For a transition from la ikraha fi d-dini to the following portion of this verse (qad tabaiyana r-rushdu mina l-ghayi), something to this effect would have to be supplied if the meaning proposed here should agree: "(Since the individual cannot be compelled to truly believe by external influences, he must himself find a way to faith and that should not be difficult for him.) The correct way (of faith) has (through the proclamation of Islam) become clear (so that he can clearly be freed) from the error (of pagan unbelief)."

Whoever holds the interpretation of 2:256 as it has been presented above need not therefore simply cast overboard the meaning of the statement la ikraha fi d-dini as it usually has been understood for a long time. In the contemporary world of Islam the acknowledgement of religious tolerance is well established. And how can it be formulated more precisely than by the pregnant Arabic statement: la ikraha fi d-dini! Still the fact must always be kept in mind that in many ways the circumstances governing early Islam differed from those of today and that the presuppositions for a general and complete religious tolerance were not given at that time.


1. S. A. Rahman, Punishment of Apostasy in Islam, Institute of Islamic Culture, Lahore, 1972, p.16.
2. Arabia, The Islamic World Review, July, 1986, p.79.
3. Letter of Hasan Moolla from Saskatchewan, dated January 20, 1986 to FFM.
4. Syed Nouman Ashraf, Public Relations Committee, Muslim Student Association, University of Toronto in The Globe and Mail, July 15, 1992.
5. The Holy Qur'an with English Translation and Commentary, Sadr Anjuman Ahmadiyya, Qadian, 1947, vol. 1, in loco. 6. Rahman, op. cit., p. 16. His full discussion covers pp. 16- 25. Its openness and breadth differs from that of the Qur'an "expositor" whose mere citation of 2:256 precludes for him (and for all?) the need for further discussion. 7. A more recent publication states that Ibn Hazm accepted the abrogation of 2:256 in order to avoid a contradiction between this passage and the death penalty for apostasy. On the other hand, the author claims that 2:256 has not been abrogated (Mohamed S.El-Awa, Punishment in Islamic Law: A Comparative Study, American Trust Publications, Indianapolis, 1982, p. 51). For two general discussions on abrogation in Islam and some of its complexities, including differing opinions within the traditional Schools of Law about whether or not the Hadith can abrogate the Qur'an, compare Islamic Jurisprudence: Shafi'i's Risala, translated with an Introduction, Notes and Appendices by Majid Khadduri, The Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1961, esp. pp. 123-145 with M. H. Kamali, Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence, Pelanduk Publications, Malaysia, esp. pp. 189-210. The doctrine of abrogation is especially rooted in Qur'an 2:106, 16:101, 87:6,7.
8. Rahman, op. cit., p. 18.
9. ibid., pp. 18, 19.
10. ibid., p. 19.
11. ibid., p. 19.
12. ibid., p.20. For further opinions see pp. 21-24, including a brief rebuttal of Mawdudi's interpretation.
13. A translation of "Sure 2, 256: la ikraha fi d-dini: Toleranz oder Resignation?" in Der Islam, Walter De Gruyter, Berlin, Vol. 45, 1967, pp. 299-300. Compare the same thesis as discussed by Adolf L. Wismar A Study in Tolerance, AMS Press Inc., New York, 1966, pp. 4-13. Apparently this work was originally published by Columbia University Press in 1927.
14. Compare also 16:37 in Rudi Paret, Kommentar und Konkordanz, Zweite Auflage, Kohlhammer, Stuttgart, 1977, p.54: "Though thou art ever so eager to guide them, God guides not those whom He leads astray." (English translation, A. J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted, Oxford University Press, London, 1969, p. 262)

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