Censuring the confused in their erroneous reading of verse (2:256) in the Holy Qurʾān

Wan Ahmad Fayhsal bin Wan Ahmad Kamal

It is important to note that the true scholars of Islām (ʿulamāʾ, sing. ʿalīm) who are experts 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 are already in the state of submission (hence the very meaning of the name Muslim is total and willing submission based on the correct way as decreed by Him through His Last Messenger – Prophet Muhammad) in the religion of Islām. Instead the verse is informing the Muslims not to coerce people from other religions to be submitted into Islām and becoming Muslim unwillingly.

To make it clearer, this particular verse is intended to uphold the sanctity of Islamic missionary (daʿwah: literally means “making an invitation) and has proven to be imbued in the central tenets of Muslim ethics in conducting their missionary works for ages till present times – unlike, in contrast to the notorious Spanish Inquisition of the medieval time. The myth of Islam spread by the sword has long been dispelled even by the respected Orientalist – Sir Thomas Arnold (1864-1930) in his work “The Preaching of Islam: A History of the Propagation of the Muslim faith” (1896). Any attempt to invoke the notion of “intolerant” has no relevance whatsoever with regard to the verse above.

From the authoritative exegesis attributed to Prophet Muhammad’s Companion – Abdullāh b. Ibn ʿAbbās, who is considered to be the most knowledgeable of the Companions in tafsīr, as narrated by al-Fīrūzabādī (1329–1414) in Tanwīr al-Miqbās min Tafsīr Ibn ʿAbbās in which the phrase “there is no compulsion in religion” (Q2: 256) is understood to be referring upon the 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 addressed to the Muslims with regard to their treatment upon the non-Muslims in matters of conversion to Islām. These views are resonated in many authoritative tafāsīr (plural of tafsīr – exegeses of Qurʾān). And it has never ever being rendered in the opposite direction as pandered by certain quarters of confused Muslims – the likes of Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) and Sisters in Islam (SIS) – that merely bantering upon uncouth slogans of enlightenment and reason in providing so-called alternative reading and understanding of the verse mentioned.

Furthermore many confused Muslims have distorted the established understanding of this verse as explained by authoritative exegetes of Qurʾān (mufassirūn, sing. mufassir) 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 comprises both ideals and realities in which both are harmoniously linked in projecting the true image of the religion of Islam as perfectly exemplified in the living tradition of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him!) and the heirs of Prophetic knowledge and duties – the true scholars of Islam. This worthy heir of Prophets (peace be upon them all) has been guaranteed by himself in his saying: al-ʿulamāʾ warith al-ānbiyāʾ – “Scholars (of Islām) are heir of Prophets”. Such endeavor of interpreting and rendering the best meaning of religious injunctions was first completed by the Prophet Muhmmad himself and followed through now by his apparent heir – the competent scholars of Islamic sciences who always ensure their efforts, to the best of their abilities, are complying to the basics of epistemology in Islām. It is not and can never be based upon mere personal speculations and conjectures that sprung out from the whims and fancy of its learned adherents i.e. Muslim scholars, what more from the laity Muslims like the confused lot of IRF and SIS.

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 or coming up short in fulfilling their religious obligations as what have been delineated by the Muslim scholars which have been deduced from and 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 (deriving the injunctions from established sources of knowledge in Islam) – or issuing legal opinions (fatwā), as outlined in the pristine tradition of religious sciences in Islām.

Qurʾān is not a book of quotations that simply can be cherry-picked by 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 (in truth it is 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 specialized 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-Muslims and they have total freedom in relation to the general precepts of the established Muslim scholarship with regard to the verse discussed here but it is a different case altogether for Muslims, as they must have recourse upon proper authorities in knowledge pertaining to it. One of the authorities that have 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 Muslims throughout the ages of using the notion of “there is no compulsion in religion” in making the religion of Islām conform 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 explains 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 practices falls under the rubric of maintaining 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 is 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, please refer to Muhtar Holland’s “Public Duties in Islam” (Leicester: Islamic Foundation, 1982) 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 interpretations made on the discussed verse “there is no compulsion in religion” by certain quarters of the confused Muslim is not as simple as they think, especially when it comes to really grasping the understanding of a particular verse in relation 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 book ever existed in the history of man – be it religious or secular.

If we want to understand Qur’ān correctly, one must resort to various other analytical tools not just limiting it to plain-dry modern notions of “analysis” that dicing things out beforehand in order to examine and arrive at the crux of the matter. Some of the analytical tools that are firmly established since day immemorial of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him!) resided in the science of interpretation (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.

Those devices (some became science of itself, e.g. ʿilm al-rijāl – knowledge on evaluating the credibility of narrators of the hadīth) have been laboriously refined by Muslim scholars via countless numbers 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 scholar of Islām, Professor Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas keeps emphasizing that the science of tafsīr is based on established knowledge not conjecture and it is not the same as hermeneutics; which means only the competent – not just among the lay Muslims but moreover among the Learned Muslim (ʿulamāʾ) whom themselves have mastered various branches of Islamic sciences – have the rights to deliver their interpretation upon such verses, especially on the subject of this discussion that falls under one of the most basic tenets of faith (imān) and deemed to be unclear to many especially in these modern times.

It is best for all Muslims especially the confused lot to pay heed to Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him!) saying (ḥadīth) – which is the second most important source of knowledge in Islamic sciences after Qur’ān – 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).

If the confused Muslims keep railing about this despite umpteenth times being censured by authoritative Muslim scholars on their reckless and half-truths (which is more dangerous than plain error!) interpretations, then they are no better than the extremists who took the verse: “kill the idolaters wherever you find them” (Q9:5) by decontextualizing and accepting it based on mere face value in order to justify their anger and the continuance of their act of manslaughter in the name of religion (God forbid!).

Indeed, if they continue to affirm and latch upon errors without having any thought to relinquish them and seeking the truth of the matter through proper ways and means – as explained above – they will go astray from the consensus (ijmāʿ) of the Muslim scholars in matters of creed (ʿaqīdah) where there has never been disagreement and indulgence whatsoever in matters of distinguishing and affirming the truth from the error. Verily Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him!) has stated, as narrated by Ibn Majāh: “My Community shall never agree upon misguidance, therefore, if you see divergences, you must follow the overwhelming majority of Believers (al-sawwād al-āʿẓam)

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).