The Qur’an states that there must be “no compulsion in religion.” [Surah 2:256] Yet Muslims are not pluralistic in their worldview – they consider their religion to be the true religion and invite people of all races, nationalities and religions to be part of it.
The Muslims were allowed to fight indeed, but what was the objective? Not to compel the unbelievers to accept Islam, for it was against all the broad principles in which they had been brought up. It was to establish religious freedom, to stop all religious persecution, to protect the houses of worship of all religions, mosques among them. Here are a few quotations:
“And if Allah did not repel some people by others, cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques in which Allah’s name is much remembered, would have been pulled down” (22:40).
“And fight them until there is no persecution, and religion is only for Allah” (2:193).
“And fight them until there is no more persecution, and all religions for Allah” (8:39).
Under what conditions was the permission to fight given to the Muslims? Every student of Islamic history knows that the Holy Prophet and his companions were subjected to the severest persecution, as Islam began to gain ground at Makkah; over a hundred of them fled to Abyssinia, but persecution grew still more relentless. Ultimately, the Muslims had to take refuge in Madinah, but they were not left alone even there, and the sword was taken up by the enemy to annihilate Islam and the Muslims. The Quran bears express testimony to this:
“Permission (to fight) is given to those on whom war is made, because they are oppressed. And Allah is able to assist them — those who are driven from their homes without a just cause except that they say: Our Lord is Allah” (22:39, 40).
Later, the express condition was laid down:
“And fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but be not aggressive. Surely Allah loves not the aggressors” (2:190).
The Quran, therefore, allowed fighting only to save a persecuted community from powerful oppressors, and hence the condition was laid down that fighting was to be stopped as soon as persecution ceased:
“But if they desist, then surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. And fight them until there is no persecution” (2:192, 193).
If the enemy offered peace, peace was to be accepted, though the enemy’s intention might be only to deceive the Muslims:
“And if they incline to peace, incline thou also to it, and trust in Allah. Surely He is the Hearer, the Know-er. And if they intend to deceive thee, then surely Allah is sufficient for thee” (8:61, 62).
Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, believes in prophets and messengers of God. One interesting way of understanding the Islamic view on freedom of religion is to look at the role of the prophets and messengers.
Had they been sent to forcefully bring the people into their teachings? Were Moses, Jesus and Muhammad ordered by the Almighty to impose their teachings upon the people by sword? Absolutely not! Look at the Qur’an, the holy scripture of Islam; the revealed words of God where He clearly outlines the duty of his messengers by saying:
“(And as for My messenger,) there is no (obligation) on him except to deliver (the. message). God knows what yon expose and what conceal”. (5:99).
Once the people of Mecca said to Prophet Muhammad that if god did not want them to worship idols then why He does not forcefully prevent them from doing so. Then God sent the following message:
“(O Muhammad) This is not a new excuse; those who went before, them made, the same excuses. Is there anything upon the messengers except the dear conveying of the message”. (16: 35).
So we see that from the Qur’anic point of view, the mission of the prophets and messengers of God was not to forcefully impose their teachings on the people but to guide them and ask them to accept God with their own will. In one revelation, God says to Prophet Muhammad:
“But if the people turn away (then do not be sad because) We did not send you to be a guardian over them. It is for you only to deliver the message.” (42:43).
The Qur’an clearly says that religion cannot be forced on anyone. It says,
“There is no compulsion in (accepting) the religion (of Islam)…”