by Wan Ahmad Fayhsal bin Wan Ahmad Kamal
It is important to note that the true scholars of Islām who are expert in the exegesis (tafsīr) of Qurʿān are ever consistent in their interpretation and understanding on the meaning “there is no compulsion in religion” (Q2: 256). One must be aware that such command by God in His Own Words in the Qurʾān does not apply with regard to the Muslims who were already in the state of submission (hence the very meaning of the name Muslīm is total and willing submission based on correct way as decreed by Him through his Last Messenger – Prophet Muhammad) in the religion of Islām. Instead the verse is informing the Muslīms not to coerce people from other religion to be submitted to Islām and becoming a Muslīm.
To make it clearer, this particular verse has protected the Muslim from committing transgressions and atrocities from committing tyrannical religious conversion that happen in history of mankind - the likes of Spanish Inquisition of the medieval time.
From the authoritative exegesis of Prophet Muhammad’s Companion - Ibn ʿAbbās, as collected by al-Fīrūzabādī (1329–1414) the phrase “there is no compulsion in religion” (Q2: 256) is understood to be referring upon people of the Book (Christians and Jews) and the Magians after the Arabs submitted themselves into Islām. The scholars of tafsīr clearly indicated that it is meant for non-Muslims but not Muslims! These views are resonated in many authoritative tafāsīr (plural of tafsīr – exegesis of Qurʾān). And it has never ever being rendered in the opposite direction as pandered by certain quarters of confused Muslim – the likes of Islamic Renaissance Front and Sisters in Islam – that merely bantering upon uncouth slogans of enlightenment and reason.
Furthermore many confused Muslims have distorted the established understanding of this verse as explained by authoritative exegetes (mufassirūn, sing. mufassir) of Qurʾān by reading it in piecemeal basis without having a recourse of reading the verse in its totality and organic whole via linking the verse with its precedents verses and the following verses which carrying the same theme of “truth and falsehood is clearly manifested.”
They tend to essentialise the command of God as rendered in Qurʾān – meaning to divorce the Qurʾānic injunctions and exhortations from its existential realities. This is wrong, as Islām is a religion that comprise of both and inseparable ideals and realities. It is not and can never be based upon mere personal speculation and conjectures sprung out from the whims and fancy of its adherents, which are the Muslims.
True Muslims – that is true to its namesake of ‘being a Muslim’ – are conscious enough, furthermore willingly submit themselves under the established religious injunctions and will know his or her limits in negotiating the boundaries without ever transgressing the extremities that have been delineated by the Muslim scholars (plural: ʿulamāʾ, sing. ʿalīm) which have been deduced from, originally based on the established knowledge and perfect practices of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him!)
Such religious rulings and injunctions (aḥkām, sing. ḥukm) could only be derived by the able and eligible scholars that have fulfilled the fundamental and necessary requirements to perform what technically is termed as ijtihād – or issuing legal opinions as outlined in the pristine tradition of religious education in Islām.
Qurʾān is not a book of quotations that simply can be cherry pick my any Muslims to form their own personal interpretation on religious rulings and injunctions. Laymen that have not possessed the right knowledge, mental and spiritual aptitude are not adept to put forth their views (or rather its just their personal conjecture) without having recourse to the previous scholarships on the exegeses of Qurʿān.
To the inept – especially current politicians and poser-Muslim scholars who have not endured rigorous and specialize training of issuing Islamic legal opinions and interpretations – the depth and systematic intricacies of Quran will never be manifested upon them as God the Almighty have said in the the Qurʾān: “But none knows its true interpretation, save only God and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge (rāsikhūn fī’l-ʿilm)." (Q3:7)
Of course such exhortations above are not binding upon non-Muslim and they have total freedom in relative to the general precept of established Muslim scholarship with regard to the verse discussed here but to Muslim one must have recourse upon proper authority. One of those authorities that has untangled this confusion was Shāykh Amīn Aḥsan Iṣlāḥī (1904-1997), the celebrated author of Tadabbur-e-Qurʾān (“Pondering over the Qurʾān”) which made use of his late teacher Mawlānā Ḥamīduddīn Farāhī’s (1863-1930) scholarship on the idea of thematic and structural coherence in Qurʾān.
Referring to the verse 256 in chapter 2 of the Qurʾān, Iṣlāḥī is fully aware of the tendency for confused Muslim throughout the ages of using the notion of “there is no compulsion in religion” in making the religion of Islām conforms to their fancy whims and desires:
“Some people unfortunately take this verse away from this sense and try to use it for rejecting all legal constraints. They argue that since there is no compulsion in Islām, any attempts to invoke punishments for certain acts are invalid in Islām and are, moreover, mere fabrications on the part of ‘mullahs’ (note: Muslim scholar title that is widely used in India and Pakistan). If this line of argument is accepted as valid, it would mean that the Islamic Sharīʿah (i.e. Law) is without any prescribed punishments and penalties and that it allows people to behave and act as they please without imposing any restrains on them.” (pg. 601-602. Iṣlāḥī, Amīn Aḥsan, Tadabbur-e-Qurʾān, “Pondering over the Qurʾān”, trans. Mohammad Saleem Kayani, Kuala Lumpur: IBT, 2007)
Iṣlāḥī further explain such understanding is totally unfounded in Islamic tradition:
“This is a fallacious argument, because we all know that Islām has a whole system and a penal code of its own, the implementation of which is a most important and basic Islamic obligation. An Islamic government can punish a Muslim if he fails to observe Prayer (note: especially the obligatory communal Friday prayer for men) or fasting. And this does not at all contravene the principle that “there is no compulsion in religion”. Undoubtedly, Islām does not sanction the use of any compulsion to convert others. At the same time, however, it does not allow anyone entering its fold to behave in any manner they fancy without being questioned or held accountable for their conduct.” (pg. 602. Iṣlāḥī, Amīn Aḥsan, Tadabbur-e-Qurʾān, “Pondering over the Qurʾān”, trans. Mohammad Saleem Kayani, Kuala Lumpur: IBT, 2007)
This observation by Iṣlāḥī is not a mere theoretical exegesis but can be further corroborated with ample historical evidences on the real practices of the Muslim throughout the ages – especially in the past where Islamic government was firmly established. This legal injunction of delivering and maintaining religious injunctions fall under the rubric of public duties in Islām or technically called “Ḥisba”.
Such acts that falls under the rubric of ḥisba has strong Qurʿānic bases (Q3:104, Q3:110, Q3:114, Q7:157, Q9:71, Q9:112, Q22:41, Q31:17) and considered to be one of the most important tenets after the Five Pillars of Islām (arkān al-Islām) and Six Pillars of Faith (arkān al-Imān) in Islām which is called “enjoining good and forbidding evil” (al-amr bi’l-maʿrūf wa’l-nahy ʿan al-munkar).
It is safer for us not to digress from our real discussion above on the issue of there is no compulsion in religion. For thorough reading on ḥisba refer to Muhtar Holland’s “Public Duties in Islam” a translation of a legal treatise entitled al-Ḥisba fī al-Islām by the famed Muslim jurist of 13th century - Taqī al-Dīn Ibn Taymīyah.
Alas suffice here for us to be really aware that interpretation made on the discussed verse by certain quarters of the confused Muslim is not as simple as they think of it, especially when it comes to really grasping the understanding of a particular verse relations to other preceding and posterior verses, what more reading that particular verse in the light of the gestalt of Qurʾān where the dictum “the whole is larger than the sum of its part” rings louder than any kind of books – religious or secular.
If we were to understand Qur’ān correctly, one must resort to various other analytical tools not just limiting it to plain-dry modern notion of “analysis” that dicing things out beforehand in order to examine and arrive at truth of the matter. Some of the analytical tools that are firmly established since day immemorial of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him!) reside in the science of tafsīr of Qurʾān. Such analytical and exegetical devices, the likes of the reasons of revelation (asbāb al-nuzūl) and abrogations (nasikh wa al-mansūkh) are strictly unique in the religion of Islām.
Such exegetical devices have been laboriously refined by Muslim scholars via countless number of commentaries (shurūh, sing. sharḥ), super-commentaries and glosses (ḥawāshī, sing. ḥāshīah) and the findings have been infused into many other Islamic sciences notably jurisprudence (fiqh). That is why the learned among us, Professor Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas keep emphasizing that the science of tafsīr is based on established knowledge not conjecture and it is not the same as hermeneutic; which means only the competent – not just among the Muslim but also among the Learned Muslim (ʿulamāʾ) whom they themselves have mastered various branches of Islamic sciences, have the rights to deliver their interpretation upon such verses, especially the subject of this discussion that falls under one of the most basic tenets of faith (imān) and deems to be unclear to many especially in this modern times.
It is best for all Muslims especially the confused lot to pay heed on Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him!) saying (ḥadīth) as narrated by al-Bayhaqī: “This knowledge (the religious) will be held in every generation by those who are just (meaning – the Learned [ʿulamāʾ]) and they shall protect it against the falsification of the extremists (taḥrīf al-ghālīn), the fabrication of the deceivers (intiḥāl al-mubṭilīn) and the misinterpretation of the ignorant (taʾwīl al-jāhilīn).
The writer is a research fellow at Himpunan Keilmuan Muslim (HAKIM). He currently reads Islamic Thought and Civilization at Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science and Civilization (CASIS-UTM) as well a lecturer at Kolej Universiti Islam Selangor (KUIS).
This article was published in Malaysia Today and can be accessed from here. Also refer to a succinct article on the same subject matter written by research fellows of HAKIM entitled Tyranny of the Commonplace Mind.