Compulsion in Islam

Okay, first up, small administrative question – is anyone having problems submitting comments?  I’ve had someone mention it, and want to make sure it’s not a widespread problem – if you are having problems, please could you email me to let me know? (askanislamicist at gmail dot com) Thanks!

Truth Seeker Joanna asked: This question has to do with compulsion within Islam. Probably one of the most quoted verses of the Qu’ran is that of Surah 2.256 which states: “Let there be no force (or compulsion) in religion.” Of course, especially to most Western thinkers, this sounds like a wonderful, if not politically correct, philosophy. It’s open minded and tolerant; two credentials I am reminded our society lacks more and more each year as we near the anniversary of September 11th. However, in reading other various Surahs and several Hadith (almost exclusively those of Bukhari and Muslim…for those who don’t know, these are the two most trusted sources of Hadith in Sunni Islam), I am hard pressed to believe that this was the mentality of Muhammad (pbuh) and his companions brought to ancient Arabia. Let me sight some examples to the contrary:

Volume 1, Book 2, Number 25:
Narrated Ibn ‘Umar:
Allah’s Apostle said: “I have been ordered (by Allah) to fight against the people until they testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that Muhammad is Allah’s Apostle, and offer the prayers perfectly and give the obligatory charity, so if they perform that, then they save their lives and property from me except for Islamic laws and then their reckoning (accounts) will be done by Allah.” (Bukhari)

And also Surah 9.29: “Fight those who believe not in God nor the Last Day nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by God and his apostle nor acknowledge the Religion of Truth (even if they are) of the people of the Book, until they pay the Jizya (religious tax) with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.”

To me, though, the most startling example of compulsion within Islam was made by the Prophet (pbuh) himself. On several occasions, when asked what was to be done with an apostate (someone who at one point was a Muslim, but later converted to Judaism, Christianity, Agnosticism, etc.), Muhammad said that they were to be killed. Just one such example was cited by Bukhari and Muslim as follows:

Abdullah bin Masud narrated that the messenger of Allah said:
“The blood of a Muslim may not be legally spilt other than in one of three [instances] : the married person who commits adultery; a life for a life; and one who forsakes his religion and abandons the community.”

Even to this day, there is a special tax imposed on Jews and Christians in some Islamic societies and in some cases, members of society are accused of blaspheming the Prophet, and subsequently sentenced to execution. How does this relate to the previously stated revelation in the Qu’ran? Your thoughts and opinions?


You are absolutely correct, and have pointed to one of the big debates in the study of Islamic history – how exactly do all of these concepts fit together?  There really is no complete answer, but there are several points that I think make things a bit clearer.

The first is the question of what, precisely, do we mean by conversion?  Partially due to the historical connection between the history of Western Europe and North America and the development of Christianity, we tend to harbor a very Christian-centric view of conversion, in which this is an act that implies the adoption of a series of new practices and doctrines, most clearly represented by the acts of baptism and the statement of the Nicene Creed (or other creedal formula) as acts of conversion – by converting, you’re entering into the practices of Christianity (through baptism) and the beliefs of Christianity (by swearing to a Creed).

The same idea can be applied to Islam, but especially for the first two centuries of Islam, it’s entirely unclear what ‘converts’ to Islam were expected to do.  There is a statement of faith in Islam that converts must testify that they believe, and this appears as a concept in Islam within the first few decades after the rise of Islam, but especially compared to the creedal formulas in Christianity, the shahada is fairly simplistic – there is no god but God and Muhammad is His Prophet and Messenger.  There is a theological claim being made there, but it’s no where near as precise or as exclusive as the Christian creeds.

As for practices, the earliest collections of hadith date from the second century or later, and the first books of Islamic law date from even later than that, so for the earliest centuries, there wouldn’t have been any physical list of requirements that could have been pointed to as requirements for new converts.  Instead, as in the passages you cite above, what you get from the narrative sources, like the histories of the Islamic expansion, are fairly vague references to religious practices, and, in particular, references that aren’t distinctly Islamic.  Praying, fasting, offering alms – these were traditions that were shared between the Abrahamic religions, and so if you presume that the non-Muslims being addressed in these passages were also praying to the God of Abraham and already offering alms and fasting (as would be true for Christians and Jews in the seventh and eighth centuries), what you’re left with is a request for an oath of allegiance to Muhammad (peace be upon him) himself.  This may also help to explain why there appears to be a difference in the Muslim treatment of the Arabian polytheists and the Abrahamic religions, as the former would not necessarily have been able to claim to have satisfied all of these requirements in their existing practices.

This is particular relevant for the question of the jizya, the head-tax levied on non-Muslims living in the Muslim world.  Firstly, it’s entirely unclear when the jizya actually started to be enforced – if you’re curious about Islamic tax law (and who doesn’t love tax law?!), I’d recommend Daniel Dennett’s Conversion and the Poll Tax – he makes a compelling argument that conversion probably wasn’t financially beneficial for non-Muslims until well into the eighth century, if not later.  But even putting aside issues of enforcement, it’s not that non-Muslims were freed from tax burden by converting, which obviously would incentivized conversion – they would be trading one tax for another.  They would be released from the jizya, but then would have to pay zakat, the Muslim poor-due[1].  This again suggests a system which is underpinned by an assumption of similarity in practices between the Muslims and their non-Muslim subjects.

The final issue you point to is that of apostasy – what happens to someone who rejects the religion, having converted (or being born into it).  Firstly, it’s probably worth stressing that death as the punishment for apostasy is not unique to Islam, but can also be found in Christianity – for both religions, they offer various other options as well (usually imprisonment or banishment), and offer lesser punishments for women who apostatize.  It is certainly the case that Islamic law gives execution as punishment – what’s less clear is if, at least during the Medieval period, this punishment was ever actually carried out.  And unfortunately for the most part, the answer is that we just don’t know.

What we do know is that religious law tends to present communities as far more segregated than they really were – so for Islamic law, apostasy is a capital offense in part because it means the person has left the community and joined another, thus potentially making themselves an enemy of Islam.  We know that the reality was that religious communities lived in close proximity in most of the caliphate, often even without physical segregation within the major cities (you get Christian quarters in Jerusalem and Damascus, but these appear to be the exception, not the rule), which suggests, but by no means proves, a great deal of fluidity in the interactions between these communities.  There’s also the argument put forward by Mahmoud Ayoub, that apostasy is really only punishable if someone is willing to accuse you of it – someone has to want to have you punished for it, which again suggests that this was a problem that could easily be kept quiet if the community wanted to keep quiet about it[2].

For myself, as is probably obvious from the stuff I’ve posted on this blog, I tend to lean towards seeing the Muslim world, at least in the early and Medieval periods, as relatively inclusive, mostly because this inclusiveness goes a long way to explaining why the caliphate was so strong for so long, and how it was able to maintain stability despite having large numbers of non-converted subjects.  To my mind, much of what changed in more recent centuries is that people started to presume that all of these sources could be taken at face-value, assuming a continuous history of enforcement that simply may never have existed.  But that’s a topic for another day!

[1] There are still issues to do with the administration of land taxes that mean that conversion was probably financially beneficial in most parts of the caliphate from the ninth century onward, but again, Dennett is the expert on this.

[2] If you have access to academic journals, Ayoub’s article is actually really fascinating for any number of reasons – M. Ayoub, “Religious Freedom and the Law of Apostasy,” Islamochristiana 20 (1994), pp. 75-91.


About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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4 Responses to Compulsion in Islam

  1. Money Jihad says:

    Since you’re having some issues with the commenting, I thought I’d add a comment as a test.

  2. Pingback: Newt Gingrich and Islamic Law: why anti-Sharia activism is a red herring | askanislamicist

  3. Pingback: GOP poised to embrace anti-Sharia platform | askanislamicist

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