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Is No Compulsion In Religion Still God’s Will? – OpEd

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The best known verse in the Qur’an according to most Muslims is Ayatul Kursi; the longest verse of the Holy Quran, in which Allah relates his honor and supremacy. Ayatul Kursi is considered by many Muslims the principal verse of the Holy Quran.

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“Allah – there is no deity except Him, the Ever-Living, the Self-Sustaining. Neither drowsiness overtakes Him nor sleep. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. Who is it that can intercede with Him except by His permission? He knows what is [presently] before them and what will be after them, and they encompass not a thing of His knowledge except for what He wills. His Kursī (throne) extends over the heavens and the earth, and their preservation tires Him not. And He is the Most High, the Most Great.” (Qur’an 2:255)

The best known verse for non-Muslims is the verse that directly follows the Kursi verse; and offers religious protection for Christians, Jews, and others: “Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil, and believes in Allah, has grasped the most trustworthy, hand-hold that never breaks. And Allah hears and knows all things.” (Qur’an 2:256)

Ibn Kathir, the most popular traditional Qur’an commentator said: Allah said, (There is no compulsion in religion), meaning, “Do not force anyone to become a Muslim, for Islam is plain and clear, and its proofs and evidence are plain and clear. Therefore, there is no need to force anyone to embrace Islam. Rather, whoever Allah directs to Islam, opens his heart for it and enlightens his mind, will embrace Islam with certainty. Whoever Allah blinds his heart and seals his hearing and sight, then he will not benefit from being forced to embrace Islam.”

Al Qurtubi says: Scholars disagree and hold various positions regarding the legal status and meaning of this verse. Some say that it is abrogated because the Prophet forced the Arabs to adopt the din (religion) of Islam and fought them and was only pleased with Islam for them. Sulayman ibn Musa took this view, saying, “It is abrogated by ‘O Prophet! Do jihad against the unbelievers and the hypocrites.’ (9:73)” That is related from Ibn Mas’ud and many other commentators. (Others say) It is not abrogated and was sent down about the people of the Book in particular and means that they are not forced to adopt Islam when they pay jizya. Those who are to be forced are the idolaters. Only Islam is accepted from them, and they are the ones about whom ‘O Prophet! Do Jihad against the unbelievers and the hypocrites.’ (9:73) was revealed.

Muhammad Ayoub said: Mujahid said, “This was before the Apostle of God was commanded to fight against the People of the Book. God’s saying, ‘There is no compulsion in religion’ was abrogated and he was commanded to fight against the People of the Book in Surat Bara’ah” (Q. 9:29).

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According to other traditions, the verse was revealed in reference to the People of the Book, who should not be compelled to enter Islam so long as they pay jizyah (poll tax). The verse is, therefore, not abrogated.

Tabari relates on the authority of Qatadah, “(Pagan) Arab society was compelled to enter Islam because they were an unlettered community [ummah ummiyah], having no book which they knew. Thus nothing other than Islam was accepted from them. The people of the Book are not to be compelled to enter Islam if they submit to paying the jizyah or kharaj [land tax].” The same view is related on the authority of al-Dahhak, Mujahid, and Ibn ‘Abbas (Tabari, V. pp. 413-414).

Tabari agrees with this view and asserts that the verse applies to the people of the two Books (Torah and Gospel) and the Zoroastrians.

Thus the Qur’an proclaims: “Say, ‘People of the Book, let us arrive at a statement that is common to us all: we worship God alone, we ascribe no partner to Him, and none of us takes others beside God as lords.” (3:64)

“Allah enjoins justice, kindness and charity to one’s kindred, and forbids indecency, wickedness and oppression. He admonishes you so that you may take heed (Quran 16:90)

“[Believers], argue only in the best way with the People of the Book, except with those of them who act unjustly. Say, ‘We believe in what was revealed to us and in what was revealed to you; our God and your God is one [and the same]; we are devoted to Him.” (29:46)

“And He does not forbid you to deal kindly and justly with anyone who has not fought you for your faith or driven you out of your homes: God loves the just. (60:8)

‘People, We created you all from a single man and a single woman, and made you into races and tribes so that you should get to know one another. In God’s eyes, the most honored of you are the ones most mindful of Him: God is all knowing, all aware”. (49:13)

The non-Muslims mentioned in these verses clearly include all non-Muslims, not just People of the Book. The diversity among mankind mentioned in Qir’an 49:13 is mentioned with a comprehensive affirmation that its purpose is that different groups and individuals were enabled to learn to know each other. This point is underlined in several verses teaching that diversity in ethnicity, colour, faith and culture was intended by our Creator:

“If God had so willed, He would have made you one community, but He wanted to test you through that which He has given you. (5:48) “If your Lord had pleased, He would have made all people a single community, but they continue to have their differences. (11:118–19)

“Had your Lord willed, all the people on earth would have believed. So can you [Prophet Muhammad] compel people to believe? (10:99)

The above verses abrogate those temporary (pre-democracy) verses that seem to command an ever ongoing war with non-Muslims: “O you who believe stand firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even if against yourselves, or your parents, or your relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, God takes care of both. So do not follow your desires, lest you swerve. If you deviate, or turn away—then God is Aware of what you do.” (Quran 4:135)

It is very important to understand that ‘religious pluralism is the will of God’ is different from religious, moral or cultural relativism. Relativism teaches that all values and standards are subjective, and therefore there is no higher spiritual authority available for setting ethical standards or making moral judgments.

Thus, issues of justice, truth or human rights are, like beauty, just in the eye of the beholder. Most people, especially those who believe that One God created all of us, refuse to believe that ethics and human rights are simply a matter of taste. Religious pluralism as the will of God is the opposite of cultural or philosophical relativism.

The fundamental idea supporting religious pluralism is that religious people need to embrace humility in many areas of religion. All religions have always taught a traditional anti self – centered personal egoism type of humility.

Religious pluralism also opposes a religious, philosophical, and self righteous intellectual egoism that promotes a tendency to turn our legitimate love for our own prophet and Divine revelation into universal truths that we fully understand and know how to apply.

Religious pluralism teaches that finite humans, even the most intelligent and pious of them, can not fully understand everything the way the infinite One does. This is true, for every human being, even for God’s  messengers themselves. When Prophet Moses, “who God spoke with face to face, as a person speaks with a friend” (Exodus 33:11) asks to see God face to face, he is told, “You cannot see My face, for no one can see My face and live.” (33:20)

Similarly, in the Qur’an Prophet Jesus admits to God, “You know everything that is within myself, whereas I do not know what is within Yourself”. (7:116) And when Prophet Jesus was asked, in private, by his disciples, “What will be the sign for your coming (back) and the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3)

Prophet Jesus warns his disciples about upheavals and false Messiahs that will come. Then Prophet Jesus concluded by saying, “But about that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, not even the son: only the Father”. (24:36)

A similar statement was made by Prophet Muhammad when he was asked, “Tell me about the Hour”. He said: “The one questioned about it knows no better than the questioner.” 

God taught the general principle of epistemological humility through his Prophet who taught his followers “I am no novelty among the messengers. I do not know what will be done to me, or to you.” (Qur’an 46:9)

In truth, the only universal religious truth should be the humility to admit: “Only God knows”

“Whoever has more wisdom than (kind) deeds is like a many branched tree with few roots, the wind can tear it from the ground… Whoever has more (kind) deeds than wisdom is like a tree with more roots than branches, so no hurricane will uproot it from the spot.” (Talmud Pirke Avot 3:17)

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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