Often when I discuss issues related to dhimmitude in public forums or on radio, Muslims bring up verse 2:256 of the Qur’an, “There is no compulsion in religion” — as if the existence of this verse proves that there could be no legal superstructure mandating the oppression of non-Muslims such as I have outlined. But 2:256 itself has a quite interesting interpretative history in Islamic tradition. In Onward Muslim Soldiers I detail how the influential radical Muslim theorist Sayyid Qutb insists that 2:256 means that dhimmis must not be forced to accept Islam — but he does insist that they should be stripped of all political power and placed in a subordinate position in society. (He has no problem reconciling 2:256 with such measures.) Qutb was echoing traditional Islamic views. Now, in FrontPage this morning, Daniel Pipes has more about the curious interpretations of this verse, many of which militate against the meaning that Muslim apologists in America often abscribe to it:
What do Muslims believe regarding freedom of religious choice?
A Koranic verse (2:256) 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 no-compulsion verse.
In a similar spirit, a former chief justice of Pakistan, S.A. Rahman, argues that 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 that the verse signifies the Koran “counsels religious tolerance.”
Were it only so simple.
In fact, 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:
Â· Abrogated: 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”).
Â· Purely symbolic: The phrase is a description, not an imperative. Islam’s truth is 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.”
Â· Spiritual, not practical: Governments may indeed compel external obedience, though they of course cannot compel how Muslims think.
Â· Limited in time and place: It applied uniquely to Jews in Medina in the seventh century.
Â· Limited to non-Muslims who live under and accept Muslim rule: Some jurists say it applies only to “Peoples of the Book” (Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians); others say it applies to all infidels.
Â· 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).
Â· Limited to all non-Muslims: Muslims must abide by the tenets of Islam and may not apostatize.
Â· Limited to Muslims: Muslims may shift from one interpretation of their faith to another (such as from Sunni to Shi”˜i), but may not leave Islam.
Â· Applied to all persons: Reaching the true faith must be achieved through trial and testing, and compulsion undercuts this process.