Daniel Pipes- Contributor
Pipes is director of the Middle
East Forum, a member of the
presidentially-appointed board of the U.S.
Institute of Peace,
and a prize-winning columnist for the New York Sun and The
Jerusalem Post. His most recent book, Miniatures:
Views of Islamic and Middle Eastern Politics (Transaction
Publishers) appeared in late 2003. His website, DanielPipes.org,
the single most accessed source of information specifically
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is What Its Followers Make of It
[Daniel Pipes] 9/29/04
do Muslims believe regarding freedom of religious choice? A Koranic
answers: "There is no compulsion
in religion"(in Arabic: la ikrah fi'd-din). That sounds
clear-cut and the Islamic Center of Southern California insists
it is, arguing that it shows how Islam anticipated the principles
in the U.S. Constitution. The center sees the First Amendment
("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment
of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof")
as based on concepts in the Koran's nocompulsion verse.
In a similar
spirit, a former chief justice of Pakistan, S.A. Rahman, argues
the Koranic phrase contains "a charter
of freedom of conscience unparalleled in the religious annals
of mankind." To a Western sensibility, this interpretation
makes intuitive sense. Thus does Alan Reynolds, an economist
at the CATO Institute, write in the Washington Times that the
verse signifies the Koran "counsels religious tolerance."
Were it only so simple.
this deceptively simple phrase historically has had a myriad
of meanings. Here
are some of them, mostly premodern,
deriving from two outstanding recent books, Patricia Crone's
God's Rule: Government and Islam (Columbia University Press)
and Yohanan Friedman's "Tolerance and Coercion in Islam" (Cambridge
University Press), augmented by my own research. Proceeding from
least liberal to most liberal, the no-compulsion phrase is considered
variously to have been:
The passage was overridden by subsequent Koranic verses (such
as 9:73 "O Prophet! Struggle against the unbelievers
and hypocrites and be harsh with them").
symbolic: The phrase is a description, not an imperative. Islam's
so obvious that to coerce someone to become
a Muslim does not amount to "compulsion"; or else being
made to embrace Islam after defeat in war is not viewed as "compulsion."
- Spiritual, not practical: Governments may indeed compel external
obedience, though they of course cannot compel how Muslims think.
- Limited in time and place: It applied uniquely to Jews in Medina
in the seventh century.
to non-Muslims who live under and accept Muslim rule: Some
applies only to "Peoples of the Book" (Christians,
Jews and Zoroastrians); others say it applies to all infidels.
- Excludes some non-Muslims: Apostates, women, children, prisoners
of war, and others can indeed be compelled. (This is the standard
interpretation that has applied in most times and places).
- Limited to all non-Muslims: Muslims must abide by the tenets
of Islam and may not apostatize.
- Limited to Muslims: Muslims may shift from one interpretation
of their faith to another (such as from Sunni to Shia), but may
not leave Islam.
- Applied to all persons: Reaching the true faith must be achieved
through trial and testing, and compulsion undercuts this process.
Massive disagreement over a short phrase is typical, for believers
argue over the contents of all sacred books, not just the Koran.
The debate over the no-compulsion verse has several important
shows that Islam - like all religions - is whatever believers
it. The choices for Muslims range from Taliban-style
repression to Balkan-style liberality. There are few limits;
and there is no "right" or "wrong" interpretation.
Muslims have a nearly clean slate to resolve what "no compulsion" means
in the 21st century.
nonspecialists should be very cautious about asserting the
meaning of the
Koran, which is fluid and subjective. When
Alan Reynolds wrote that the no-compulsion verse means the Koran "counsels
religious tolerance," he intended well but in fact misled
Further, many other areas of Islam have parallels to this debate.
Muslims can decide afresh what jihad signifies, what rights women
have, what role government should play, what forms of interest
on money should be banned, plus much else. How they resolve these
great issues affects the whole world. Finally, although Muslims
alone will make these decisions, Westerners can influence their
direction. Repressive elements (such as the Saudi regime) can
be set back by a reduced dependence on oil. More liberal Muslims
(such as the Ataturkists) can be marginalized by letting an Islamist-led
Turkey enter the European Union.
do also has potentially a great impact on whether "no
compulsion in religion" translates into religious tolerance
or permits (as in the case of Salman Rushdie) a license to kill. CRO
This piece first appeared at the NewYork Sun
2004 Daniel Pipes