Freedom of Religion in the Holy Qur’an

An invitation for Malaysians to think about what the Qur’an really says.

Freedom of religion as God’s will

The Qur’an teaches us that this world was created as dar al-ibtila’, a place of trial and a testing ground for the hereafter:

He it is Who created the heavens and the earth in six Days – and His Throne was over the waters – that He might try you, which of you is best in conduct.” (11:7)

Allah’s object also is to purge those that are true in Faith and to deprive of blessing those that resist Faith. Did ye think that ye would enter Heaven without Allah testing those of you who fought hard (in His Cause) and remained steadfast?” (3:142)

And it is God’s will, in order that we may be tested, that Man should be free to disbelieve:

Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race to [all that is] good.” (5:48)

Because God has given Man the freedom to believe and to disbelieve, no man can force another to believe:

If it had been thy Lord’s will, they would all have believed – all who are on earth! Wilt thou then compel mankind, against their will, to believe! No soul can believe, except by the will of Allah, and He will place doubt (or obscurity) on those who will not understand.” (10:99-100)


  • Has God given freedom of religion to all mankind or only to non-Muslims?
  • If God had intended Islam to be hereditary, why did he not force the children of Muslims to believe automatically? If God did not force them, should humans try to force them?

Messengers and devils

To every People, God has sent messengers, to warn and to bring good tidings:

For We assuredly sent amongst every People a messenger, (with the Command), ‘Serve Allah, and eschew Evil’: of the People were some whom Allah guided, and some on whom error became inevitably (established).” (16:36)

And never would your Lord have destroyed the cities until He had sent to their mother a messenger reciting to them Our verses. And We would not destroy the cities except while their people were wrongdoers.” (28:59)

But God has also created evil ones to lead men astray:

Likewise did We make for every Messenger an enemy, evil ones among men and jinns, inspiring each other with flowery discourses by way of deception. If thy Lord had so planned, they would not have done it: so leave them and their inventions alone. To such (deceit) let the hearts of those incline, who have no faith in the hereafter: let them delight in it, and let them earn from it what they may.” (6:112-3)

The Qur’an forbids compulsion, but instead commands the Prophet to spread Islam through wise words, beautiful preaching and gracious debate:

Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things.” (2:256)

Invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for thy Lord knoweth best, who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance.” (16:125)

Say [to the Jews and Christians]: “Produce your proof if ye are truthful.” (2:111)


  • If God himself has created evil ones among jinns and men in order to lead men astray, is it right for State syariah authorities to intervene to prevent them?
  • The Qur’an enjoins the Prophet to preach and to debate graciously with non-Muslims using proofs. Imagine such a debate held by a Muslim religious scholar (`alim) in Malaysia today:
    • If the debate is held in public, is there a risk that Muslims will be confused?
    • Should the police prevent the debate on the grounds that religion is a sensitive issue?
    • If a Christian agrees to participate in the debate, will he be charged with propagating his religion to Muslims?

Punishment of non-believers and hypocrites

For God’s messengers, their duty is only to warn and to remind, but not to control. Those who disbelieve will be punished not on earth, but by God in the hereafter:

He who obeys the Messenger has obeyed Allah; but those who turn away – We have not sent you over them as a guardian.” (4:80)

So remind, [O Muhammad]; you are only a reminder. You are not over them a controller. However, he who turns away and disbelieves – Then Allah will punish him with the greatest punishment. Indeed, to Us is their return.” (88:21-25)

And whoever opposes the Messenger after guidance has become clear to him and follows other than the way of the believers – We will give him what he has taken and drive him into Hell, and evil it is as a destination.” (4:115)

And God will not accept hypocrites (munafiqun) who do not truly believe but only pretend to believe:

“Give tidings to the hypocrites that there is for them a painful punishment” (4:138)

Indeed, the hypocrites will be in the lowest depths of the Fire – and never will you find for them a helper” (4:145)


  • Which is worse in the eyes of Islam, an unbeliever (kafir) or a hypocrite (munafiq)?
  • If a Muslim is not allowed to leave Islam, he will be forced to conceal his disbelief and therefore be a munafiq. What are the consequences of having many munafiqun within the ummat Islam?

Consequences of apostasy (irtidad)

If a man believes, it is to his own benefit, and if he disbelieves, it is to his own loss. No man is responsible for another man’s soul:

Whoever is guided is only guided for [the benefit of] his soul. And whoever errs only errs against it. And no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another.” (17:15)

There has come to you enlightenment from your Lord. So whoever will see does so for [the benefit of] his soul, and whoever is blind [does harm] against it. And [say], ‘I am not a guardian over you.’ ” (6:104)

And if they deny you, [O Muhammad], then say, ‘For me are my deeds, and for you are your deeds. You are disassociated from what I do, and I am disassociated from what you do.’ ” (10:41)

Those who turn back to unbelief will be losers, but they will not harm God; God will not forgive those who oscillate between belief and disbelief, but He will reward those who are faithful:

O you who have believed, if you obey those who disbelieve, they will turn you back on your heels, and you will [then] become losers. But Allah is your protector, and He is the best of helpers.” (3:149-150)

Muhammad is but a messenger. [Other] messengers have passed on before him. So if he was to die or be killed, would you turn back on your heels [to unbelief]? And he who turns back on his heels will never harm Allah at all; but Allah will reward the grateful.” (3:144)

Indeed, those who have believed then disbelieved, then believed, then disbelieved, and then increased in disbelief – never will Allah forgive them, nor will He guide them to a way.” (4:137)

The Qur’an does not specify any earthly punishment for disbelief, except for those who “wage war against Allah and His Messenger”. This circumstances of the revelation (asbab al-nuzul) of this verse was the murder and armed robbery committed by apostates from the Bani `Ukl/`Uraina against the Prophet’s servants.

The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter.” (5:33)


  • If a person quietly changes his religion because of his personal belief, does she harm anyone else?
  • If a person quietly changes his religion because of his personal belief, can she be said to “wage war against Allah and His Messenger”?
  • What role should the State and syariah authorities play in controlling someone’s personal belief?

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Andrew (@drewyong) is an afficionado of the poetry of Dr Seuss and the music of the Muppet Show. In his spare time he seeks to take over the world.

Posted on 7 November 2012. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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