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Tolerance in Islam By Asiff Hussein

Islam is a missionary faith, a faith that holds its followers are obliged to carry its message to all humanity till what it believes to be true is accepted as such by all mankind.

This mission was enjoined on the believers from the very beginning of Islam. Since Islam was to be meant for all mankind its followers spared no pains to ensure that all humanity attained salvation through it. However, the truth is that Islamic missionary zeal stopped short of the sword, for as the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an clearly states:

Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from error

(Surah al Baqarah. Verse 256)

Muslims are supposed to invite non-believers to Islam in a manner that will convince them of the truth of the message rather than through vain arguments ridiculing their divinities or by means of brute force which could only be counter-productive.

As the Qur’an very beautifully puts it:

God is our Lord and your Lord. For us our deeds and to you yours. Between us and you let there be no strife. God will bring us together. And to Him shall we return

(Surah Al-Shura: Verse 15)

Every endeavour except force should be resorted to in order to attract persons to the fold of Islam, so much so that even worldly inducements may be used since the underlying intention is a noble one. In fact, one of the areas in which Zakat or the Alms tax collected from Muslims could be used is to attract the hearts of those who have been inclined (towards Islam) (Surah Al Tawbah. Verse 60).

Here we will employ four main sources to establish the truth that Islam is a religion of tolerance and that compelling people to believe against their will has no place in it. They are:

  1. The Qur’an,
  2. The Sunnah
  3. The practice of the rightly guided caliphs
  4. Historical evidence

1) The evidence from the Qur’an

There are no less than seven verses of the Holy Qur’an which command that Islam is not to be compelled on people and that they are to adopt it of their free will:

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

(Surah Al-Nahl: Verse 125)

And say to the People of the Book, and to those who are unlearned “Do ye submit yourselves ?”. If they do, they are in right guidance. But if they turn back, thy duty is to convey the Message. And God’s Sight is on His servants

(Surah Ali Imran. Verse 20)

Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from error. Whoever rejects evil and believes in God hath grasped the most trustworthy handhold that never breaks

(Surah Al Baqarah. Verse 256)

If one amongst the pagans ask thee for asylum, grant it to him so that he may hear the Word of God. And then escort him to where he can be secure

(Surah Al Tawbah. Verse 6)

If it had been the Lord’s Will, they would all have believed- All who are on earth! Wilt thou then compel mankind, against their will, to believe?

(Surah Yunus. Verse 99)

Tell those who believe to forgive those who do not look forward to the Days of God. It is for Him to recompense each people according to what they have earned

(Surah Al Jathiyah. Verse 14)

Obey God, and obey the Messenger. But if ye turn away, the duty placed on him is on him and the duty placed upon you on you. If ye obey him, ye shall have guidance. To preach clearly only is the Messenger’s duty

(Surah Al Nur. Verse 54)

2) Evidence from the Sunnah

The Prophet entered into a treaty with the Christians of Najran in Southern Arabia near Yemen. When the delegation arrived at Medina the Prophet permitted them to pray in his mosque and gave them the following accord:

The people of Najran and their dependents shall remain under the protection of God, and Muhammad the Prophet, the Messenger of God. Their persons, their religion, their lands, their possessions and their churches shall remain safe. This treaty holds good for all people of Najran, whether present or not. No bishop shall be removed from his bishopric, no monk from his monasticism and no devotee from his devotions  (Tabaqat Al Kubra of Ibn Sa’d)

3) Evidence from the Practice of the Rightly guided Caliphs

Caliph Umar entered into the following covenant with the Christians of Jerusalem following the capitulation of the city in 637 AC:

In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. This is the security which Umar, the servant of God, the commander of the faithful, grants to the people of Aelia (Jerusalem). He grants to all, whether sick or sound, security for their lives, their possessions, their churches and their crosses, and all that concerns their religion. Their churches shall not be changed into dwelling places, nor destroyed. Neither  shall they or their appurtenances be in any way diminished.

When Umar visited the Christian holy sites, the patriarch Sophronius accompanied him to the Church of the Resurrection and as it was the appointed time for prayer, he bade the Caliph offer his prayers there. Umar thoughtfully refused and disclosed his honourable motive: “Had I yielded to your request” said the Caliph “the Muslims of a future age would have infringed the treaty under the colour of imitating my example” (Tarikh of Tabari)

We find the same kind of tolerance being extended to those of other faiths by Umar’s successor, Caliph Uthman. A lady who accepted Islam, Umm Al-Muhājir says:  I was captured with some girls from Byzantium. Uthman offered us Islam, but only myself and one other girl accepted Islam. Uthman said: “Go and circumcise them and purify them” (Al-Adab Al-Mufrad of Bukhari).

4) Historical Evidence for Tolerance in Islam

History bears ample testimony to the tolerance extended to those of other faiths by the early Muslims. For instance, when the Muslim army reached the Jordan Valley in the conflict with the Byzantines, its Christian inhabitants are known to have preferred to submit to Islamic rule in preference to that of the older empire. They even wrote a letter to the Arabs that stated: “O Muslims, we prefer you to the Byzantines, though they are of our own faith, because you keep better faith with us and are more merciful to us and refrain from doing us injustice and your rule over us is better than theirs, for they have robbed us of our goods and our homes”. The people of Emessa went further, closing the gates of their city against Heraclius army and telling the Muslims that they preferred their rule and justice to the oppression and injustice of the Byzantines. So it was that many other cities in Syria and elsewhere entered into treaties with the Muslim army, agreeing to submit to their rule while at the same time preserving their religious freedoms.

In a letter sent by the Nestorian Patriarch Ishoyabh III to Simeon, the Metropolitan of Revardashir, Persia we find the following words testifying to the tolerance shown by the Muslims: “And the Arabs, to whom God at this time has given the empire of the world, behold they are among you as you well know…And yet they attack not the Christian faith, but on the contrary, they favour our religion, do honour to our priests and the saints of the Lord, and confer benefits on churches and monasteries. Why then have you people of Merv abandoned your faith for the sake of these Arabs ? And that too, when the Arabs, as the people of Merv themselves declare, have not compelled them to leave their own religion (Bibliotheca Orientalis. Joseph Assemani. 1719-28).

When Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453 after nearly a thousand years of withstanding Islamic forces, the Ottoman emperor Muhammad II saw to it that he secured the allegiance of the Christians. He proclaimed himself the protector of the Greek Church and strictly forbade the persecution of Christians. He even granted a decree to the newly elected patriarch Gennadios, securing to him and his successors and the bishops under him, the enjoyment of all the old privileges enjoyed under the former Byzantine rule. The patriarch received from the hands of the Sultan himself the pastoral staff, the symbol of his office, together with a purse of a thousand gold ducats and a horse with gorgeous trappings, on which he was privileged to ride with his train through the city (Annales. Georgios Phrantzes. Ed.B.G.Niebuhr.1838)

Extracted from the book Tolerance in Islam by Asiff Hussein published by the Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum (2012)

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