“Let there be no compulsion in religion”: Its sense and signification

SHAFAQNA - By His Eminence, the late Religious Authority, Sayyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlullah (ra)

“Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever disbelieves in the Taghut (Satan, idols, arrogant rulers and any evildoer… etc.) and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold that shall never break off, and Allah is Hearing, Knowing [all things].” (02:256).

“Let there be no compulsion in religion,” what does this expression mean? Does negating compulsion mean that one should absolutely not be forced into religion by giving him full freedom to choose whether to believe or not, considering that it is a personal matter of choice the result of which has no repercussions, as in the cases where man chooses to eat or not, or chooses to do something or abstain from doing it? Or does it mean that one is given the opportunity to choose after presenting all the evidences and arguments which reveal that belief signifies the right while disbelief signifies falsehood, knowing that choosing the opposite; i.e. not to believe, leads to a painful chastisement in the Hereafter? The reason is that it is made clear that belief entails all the right while disbelief entails all falsehood, with no suspicion or doubt whatsoever, knowing that any suspicions or doubts raised are almost valueless when weighed by the mind and conscience, for the opposing arguments are weak and the consolidating evidences are indisputable, as manifested at the end of the Ayah.

In this regard, the following question cannot but be asked: does the rejection of compulsion come in an informative form or as a legislation?

Some agree with the first suggestion, considering that the issue of religion relates to the people’s inner intellectual conviction, which cannot be imposed by compulsion, as they regard this part of the Ayah: “Truth stands out clear from Error” as an evidence that proves this suggestion right, for they consider that this means that there are much arguments in favor of belief to the detriment of disbelief which makes compulsion useless in any way, for the call to embrace religion conforms with the inner nature of the relation between the intellect and religious conviction.

Others regard this Ayah as a religious ruling that calls on the Prophet (p.) absolutely not to force the people to embrace religion, and to base his call on argument, evidences, wisdom and goodly preaching, by displaying the clear truth before them in comparison to the clear Error; thus, letting them shoulder the responsibility of their own fates in this world and the Hereafter, by choosing to believe or not.

The proponents of this opinion say that the rejection was mentioned in several legislative positions as in Allah’s saying: “Let there be no obscenity, nor wickedness, nor wrangling in the Hajj,” (02:197), and in the Prophetic tradition: “Let there be no harm or reciprocating harm” and others. They consider that the rejection is used affirmatively to ensure “not” doing the mentioned rejected things and that the Ayah “Truth stands out clear from Error” is the basis of this thought, considering that relying on the call to something as clear as religion is what serves religion the best, even more than what compulsion does. Since Allah provided man with the ability to choose what to take and what to leave, for He wants the human life to move along the line of choice provided that one shoulders the responsibility of what he chooses, He does not want His Messages to be imposed by His messengers on the people in the form of legislation. Thus, the Ayah comes to define the method of the call on the one hand, and to identify the Prophet’s calling mission on the other hand… In the first line, the method is based on clarity, which is the trait that distinguishes the truthful religion, and in the other line, the calling prophet takes action by propagating the call and trying to convince the people in an atmosphere of freedom of thought… In this line, the connotations of this Ayah intersect with Allah’s saying: “And say: The truth is from your Lord, so let him who please believe, and let him who please disbelieve,” (18:29), and: “Will you then compel mankind, against their will, to believe!” (10:99).

Perhaps, this way of interpreting the Ayah is closer to these Quranic ambiences than the former way, and we might even be able to confirm that on the basis that it is meaningless to consider the Ayah as informative, for the inability to coerce religion being a thought is self-evident as it does not need any clarification and further attention.

In the light of this, the following question might arise: How do we explain the fighting in Islam, was it not a form of struggle for the sake of the call? How do we explain making the atheists choose between embracing Islam and the sword, is not that a form of compulsion in religion? If not, then what does compulsion mean?

Our answer is that the fighting in Islam, as we hinted at, did not aim at forcing people into the religion; but rather, it was subjected to the causes and realistic justifications imposed by the nature of the prevalent situation through the defensive or preventive goals… As for Jihad (struggle) for the sake of the Call, it did not aim to compel all people to embrace Islam; rather, to make the Call reach every person, based on the formula “Religion is Allah’s…”, so it had to be delivered to all people so that they would worship Allah the way He pleases, and on the basis of the fact that Allah revealed a universal Message through His Messenger, so it had to be known by all people… If someone or something stood in the way of Islam and prevented it from delivering the Message freely, Islam had all the right to face those people or those obstacles, by all means possible, whether peacefully or not… Once the Message is delivered to the people fully and satisfactorily through the callers who present all the necessary evidences and proofs [in a way that the unbelieving people will be held accountable for not believing following the deliverance of the Message]; then we will be faced by two groups of people; the group of the People of the Book to whom Islam proposes living together in a state of coexistence within the terms of Dhimma that guarantees their freedom of belief and rites of worship, as well as their private affairs yet within their closed social circles, in exchange of being protected by Muslims the way the Muslims protect and defend their own blood, money and honor, without being charged with engaging in any war or fighting especially if it was against people who belong to the same religion as theirs… If they do not comply to these terms or to Islam, then it is regarded as a declaration of war and rebellion, which justifies for Islam defending itself against anyone fighting it and rebelling against its authority.

As for the second group, it includes the polytheists and atheists with whom the Muslims can sign a treaty if so dictated by the supreme Islamic interest, according to a certain jurisprudential opinion. However, if there was no interest in such a treaty, then they cannot but be held accountable for not believing in Islam and treated as such, for Islam does not consider polytheism and atheism to be respectable faiths; but rather, they are, in every sense, against the interest of man and life. Actually, Islam was revealed for the sake of effacing any traces of atheism and polytheism through its Call of Unification (of Allah); thus, it is meaningless for Islam to coexist with them on the basis of mutual respect, for it would actually be granting freedom to its opposite [in all senses], although that is considered – according to some thinkers – an emphasis on the authority of Islam over them, and not an act of compulsion exercised against them in religion, for this would be what prevents them from actually practicing disbelief practically. This is what made the Quran make a distinction between “Islam” in the sense of submission to the authority of Islamic state practically without necessarily being a believer and “Islam” in the sense of belief and total devotion to Allah from all one’s heart, as well as in his speech and deeds… That is why the hypocrites were still regarded as Muslims, although the Quran clearly mentions that Allah testifies that they are but liars.

It is worth noting that this issue in question is dynamic and subjected to the political, social and cultural changes that might impose some secondary considerations on the basis of which the ruling regarding the issue in question changes, for the Islamic state or the Islamic society can allow the atheist or polytheist to remain on his beliefs as set by the laws and general orders and to have some a certain space of freedom in some of his cultural affairs to engage in various dialogues with the Islamic cultural centers regarding his atheism, deviated creed or polytheism, in order to reach a clear understanding with him on the intellectual issue in this respect or the other. Actually, it is unlikely to meet someone who believes in atheism in the sense not believing that Allah exists, for such negation needs a proof that the atheist does not have, just as proving the Allah exists needs a proof; instead there would be someone who is skeptic about Allah, the Message and the Last Day, as well as some Islamic concepts established as a necessity in religion, and in this case, the skeptic is not regarded as a disbeliever, as long as that skepticism does not turn into absolute denial for which he does not have any proof. In this sense, he is not regarded as the disbeliever to whom Islam does not grant any freedom, in principle, in the natural circumstances.

Some might even pose a problematic issue when it comes to enjoining good and forbidding evil, which calls for imposing change even if by force; thus, considering it a form of compulsion. Others tried to attack this Islamic method of practically enjoining good and forbidding evil, so they posed the idea of “let there be no compulsion in religion”, which contradicts with all the methods of violence and pressure in all man’s acts and sayings. In our opinion, we say that enjoining good and forbidding evil is considered as part of applying the law, or the so-called law enforcement, on the individual and on the society; thus, how can any law give the people the freedom to rebel against it or render it ineffective. We believe that those who raised this form of objection believe that the individual enjoys a special kind of freedom, for they regard man as free in what he eats, drinks, plays and satiates his desires as long as they do not offend the others… They also consider that man is free to choose whether to worship Allah or not… However, Islam does not believe in such kind of freedom to the individual; rather, it sets legislations that govern the individual’s private life and legislations that govern his general life, and interferes in his private affairs, even the most private ones… Therefore, the law expands to include all that, and it expands accordingly to ensure its implementation so as to take control of all that. In the light of this, the freedom of choice is not granted in this circle, rather, it is granted when one wants to choose what to believe in and want not to believe it as we mentioned earlier.

“Truth stands out clear from Error.” Islam is the religion of innate nature in deciding on believing in Allah and in following His rules of forbiddances and allowances; thus, man, in his belief in Allah and in Islam, only needs to open up to his innate nature to be attached to the right thought… as expressed by some Ayahs: “Is there a doubt about Allah, The Creator of the heavens and the earth?” (14:10). This Ayah comes in the exclamatory negative form which suggests that there is no room whatsoever for doubt. As for those who disbelieve and live in the atmospheres of doubt, they have actually closed their eyes so as not to see [the truth], closed their ears so as not to hear [the truth] and blocked their minds so as not to think about the truth: “They have hearts with which they do not understand, and they have eyes with which they do not see, and they have ears with which they do not hear; they are as cattle, nay, they are in worse errors; these are the heedless ones.” (07:179).

The issue of man’s belief or disbelief relates respectively to either using the proper cognitive tools that opens up his heart to the truth and his eyes to life, or not using them. Actually, it is not a matter of a complicated intellect that needs analysis and interpretation, just as is the state of the sun when one closes his eyes; it is present and there is no doubt about that, yet he tends to deny that it exists. Actually, this does not mean that the sun might actually not be existent; all it means is that there is a problem in the way that person faces the truth through the cognitive tools he uses to disclose that truth.

As for disbelieving in the Taghut and its relation with belief, Allah says: “Therefore, whoever disbelieves in the Taghut and believes in Allah he indeed has laid hold on the firmest handle, which shall not break off, and Allah is Hearing, Knowing.” (02:256).

The rope of belief in Allah is strong, tight and cohesive and the roots of faith run as deep in the earth as life runs deep in the universe; thus, whoever believes in Allah has actually laid hold on the strength in which there is no room for any weakness or disintegration, and whoever disbelieves in the Taghut has actually detached himself from all the elements of weakness, corruption and failure, for the Taghut represents tyranny with all the connotations of deviation and collapse that are detached from all the strength, depth and extension humanity represents.


It is an inspiring call for disbelieving in the Taghut in all the aspects of people’s lives, whether in the domains of the intellect, doctrine, rule, politics and sociology. The forces that represent false intellect, tyrannical rule, evil politics or the aggressive hostile force are but tyrannical forces in the Islamic conception, as they contradict with the right thought, just rule, upright politics and the just forces that are open on every movement of humanity in life; thus, the former are actually against belief in Allah…

Perhaps, focusing on the tyrannical ruler is one of the vital issues for rejecting this Taghut, for his danger lies in dominating over the wealths of the entire reality, be they cultural, political, social, economic… etc. Actually, this enables him to become in control of the entire arena from all aspects, for this is what consecrates his rule in the path he paved for his tyrannical position and rule, by confirming the social, economic and political concepts that implant the various elements of corruption, be they internal or external, in the people’s mindsets, which makes them act according to the insinuations, givens and results of these elements.

As a matter of fact, a tyrannical ruler whose rule is founded on a general ideological cultural base is more powerful than the ruler who seeks dominating the people using force only.

Therefore, the Muslim has two choices and two choices only; either to believe in the Taghut which signifies attachment to the lines of disbelief and falsehood, and consequently leads to disbelieving in Allah, or to believe in Allah which signifies setting out to the positions of the right in life, just as it represents in its profound signification disbelieving in anything other than Allah and in all the lines and forces of falsehood. Not in a million years can belief in Allah and belief in the Taghut meet in the heart of a believer, nor can the steps of the right and the steps of falsehood meet in one’s course of life, for man’s capabilities cannot handle them both, if that man is actually acting seriously and responsibly in life, in all and every sense of responsibility.

Perhaps some might wonder why Allah talks about disbelieving in the Taghut before believing in Allah in the aforementioned Ayah, as in this Ayah as well: “And (as for) those who keep off from the worship of the idols and turn to Allah, they shall have good news, therefore give good news to My servants.” (39:17).

The answer is that belief stems from the openness of the heart or the mind on Allah in a way that there would be no room for any other. Belief would then be pure and universal, leaving no way for any misconceptions or negative feelings that would distort the image and the feelings leading to the mixing of the right with falsehood. Man would then live the duality of the remains of the Taghut is his mind and the movement of belief in his self, which would shake him as he makes any step.

Thus, the Divine plan intended to deepen and purify belief dictated that man should expel the Taghut from his belief as a means of throwing him out of his life. The heart, thus, would become void of any negative beats, and the belief which enters the heart would dominate over man as a whole. Perhaps, this is the meaning of the unification in the statement that declares that “there is no God but Allah”, which, in the negation form, negates the existence of any other God but Allah, whether in the people’s mentality or in their actual reality, and in the affirmative sense, entails professing the Oneness of Allah, since unification is actually the oneness of God Who has no partners…

Therefore, we should adopt an educational methodology that rests on emptying the mind of the person, whom we call to worship Allah, embrace Islam and adopt piety as a behavior, of bad ideas and harmful feelings. We should isolate him and keep him away from any deviant or tyrannical person so that he would not be influenced by him. If we can purify his soul in this manner, we would be able to plant in it the seeds of belief, good and piety, and God knows best.


0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *