‘There is no compulsion in religion’

Surah 2 (Al-Baqarah/The Cow): 256

There shall be no compulsion in religion: true guidance has become distinct from error.

But whoever refuses to be led by Satan and believes in God has grasped the strong handhold that will never break.

God is all Hearing and all Knowing.

[Wahihuddin Khan, 1997 (Indian, onetime follower of Maududi]


After Muhammad’s settling in Medina, Ibn Ishaq describes a deteriorating situation between Muhammad and the Yathrib Jews and their Arab supporters.

About this time the Jewish rabbis showed hostility to the apostle in envy, hatred and malice, because God had chosen his apostle from the Arabs. They were joined by men from the al-Aus and al-Khazraj [the two largest clans in Medina] who had obstinately clung to their heathen religion. They were hypocrites, clinging to the polytheism of their fathers, denying the resurrection, yet when Islam appeared and their people flocked to it they were compelled to pretend to accept it to save their lives. But in secret they were hypocrites whose inclination was towards the Jews because they considered the apostle a liar and strive against Islam.

It was the Jewish rabbis who used to annoy the apostle with questions and introduce confusion so as to confound the truth with falsity. …

It was within this context that the Qur’an’s anti-Jewish polemics 〈88.〉 are traditionally believed to have been announced.

The Banu Qaynuqa

According to Islamic tradition, the first conflict between Muhammad and the Jews arose from an encounter between a Muslim woman and a goldsmith from the Jewish Banu Qaynuqa tribe during the year that separated the Battle of Badr from the Battle of Uhud. The incident that gave rise to this is not recorded via Ibn Ishaq but according to Ibn Hisham’s earliest surviving biography of Muhammad, the goldsmith had, by a trick, exposed a Muslim woman in public, leading to a confrontation in which the goldsmith was killed by a Muslim, and that Muslim was in turn killed by members of the goldsmith’s tribe. Ibn Ishaq does describe Muhammad gathering all the Banu Qaynuqa together and announcing two revelations from God. One of these, {3.12-13}, makes an ominous reference to the fate of the Meccans at his recent victory at Badr.

{3.12} Say to the disbelievers: You shall be vanquished and gathered unto Hell, an evil resting place.

{3.13} There was a sign for you in the two hosts that met, one host fighting in the way of God and the other disbelieving, whom they (the former) saw as twice themselves as the eye sees.

And God strengthens by His help whom He will.

Truly in that is a lesson for those who possess insight.


The other (within the context given by Ibn Ishaq)  warns others present not to take the Qaynuqa’s part.

{5.51} O you who believe, Take not Jews and Christians as protectors. They are protectors of one another. And whosoever takes them as protectors, surely he is of them.

Truly God guides not wrongdoing people.


After announcing these verses, Muhammad is then said to have declared that the Qaynuqa were in breach of their covenant with him, but was persuaded by Abd’allah ibn Ubayy to allow the tribe to leave Yathrib with their property.


The Banu Nadir

After the Battle of Uhud, with its defeat caused in part by the desertion of Muhammad by hypocrites, Muhammad besieged and expelled a second Jewish tribe, the Banu Nadir. This time the cause of the confrontation arose from Muhammad’s demand for compensation from the Banu Nadir for two men that had been killed (concerning which Ibn Ishaq gives no details). Whilst he was waiting outside their compound for their reply, Muhammad received a warning (either from a woman informant, or from the angel Gabriel) that the Nadir were plotting to kill him by dropping a big rock on him.


As with the Banu Qaynuqa a year previously, when Muhammad’s fighters besieged their compound, the Banu Nadir surrendered to Muhammad and were permitted to leave Medina, some destroying their homes to prevent Muhammad occupying them. The ousting is said to be recalled in Surah 59, in which reference is made to the believers destroying the Banu Nadir’s palm groves, {59.5}, and the Nadir destroying their own houses, {59.2}, rather than leave them for their enemies.

{59.2} He it is who expelled those who disbelieved among the people of the Book from their homes at the first gathering. You did not think they would go forth, and they thought their fortresses would protect them from God.

Then God came upon them whence they reckoned not, and cast terror into their hearts as they razed their houses with their own hands, and with the hands of the believers.

So take heed those of you who are possessed of sight.


In relation to {2.256}, the ‘no compulsion’ verse, produced above, one hadith records that:

The women of the Helpers whose boys always died in infancy used to vow to bring up their boys as Jews if they were to live. When the Banu Nadir were driven out, they had among them children of the Helpers.

The Helpers said: ‘We will not leave our children!’

Upon which Allah, exalted is He, revealed: ‘There is no compulsion in religion… ’


No compulsion in religion

{2.256} is often cited as the Qur’an’s pre-eminent statement of religious tolerance although the reported circumstances of its narration hardly fit this benign interpretation.


Within its textual context too, it follows the Qur’an’s account of Saul routing the Philistines and slaying Goliath for their disbelief, justified because ‘were it not for God’s repelling people some by means of other the earth would have been corrupted’, {2.249-252}, and of God’s ordaining that the ‘believing’ and ‘disbelieving’ followers of Jesus should fight one another, {2.253}, because ‘the disbelievers, they are the wrongdoers’, {2.254}. These two accounts lead to the ‘throne verse’, {2.255}, produced at 〈11.〉 above, asserting the majesty of God over all things. Within this context, the intended meaning of {2.256} is probably as an incentive, for the Qur’an’s audience to willingly perform their religious duty to fight unbelievers, coupled with a recognition that God had the power to compel its performance of this duty but chooses not to as a test for their zeal. A similar meaning might be understood for ‘Thine is not to compel them’, at {50.45}.


If, however, {2.256} is to be given the literal, decontextualized interpretation that believers are instructed not to compel the ‘religion’ (‘dīn‘) of others, the verse inevitably raises the question what it is that may not be coerced. ‘Dīn‘ is the same word as used the other verse most frequently cited as demonstrating Quranic interfaith tolerance, {109.6}: ‘Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion〈32.〉 The term, from the Hebrew ‘dīn‘, is defined in Lane’s Arabic-English Lexicon as ‘a system of usage and rites, a mode of conduct, or the regulation of affairs.’ That is to say, the observance of a religion through compliance with its rules and rituals, rather than the holding of a belief per se.


On a narrow reading a Muslim would only be prohibited by {2.256} from coercing a reluctant person to perform religious duties such as daily prayers, fasting during Ramadan and the making of the hajj etc. However, on some occasions in the Qur’an, ‘dīn‘ clearly extends beyond such observances, and anticipates a theocracy:

{2.193}: ‘Fght them until there is no strife and (dīn) is all for God〈36.〉 and

{3.83}: ‘Do they seek other than God’s religion (dīn Allāh), whilst whosoever is in the heavens and on the earth submits to him, willingly or unwillingly’.

There is certainly no indication in any of the later-announced sharia laws that prohibit certain activities as haram and organise society through marriage and inheritance laws and the regulation of retaliation (see Part V) that abiding by these is in any way a matter of personal choice nor that unbelievers may simply opt out of them. On the contrary, such an interpretation is self-evidently inconsistent with the fixing of punishments for those who contravene the rules, and the legitimisation of violence against those who obstruct the spread of God’s dīn.


An insight into the early understanding of {2.256} is provided in its first known production outside a Qur’an manuscript. This was in the dedication inscription of the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, which was erected in 705 by Caliph Walid I, the immediate heir of Abd al-Malik, over the site of the grandest Syrian church, the Basilica of St John the Baptist, which he had torn down for the purpose. Setting aside the unlikely possibility that Walid’s choice of verse was motivated by sarcasm, it was apparently intended to be understood as guaranteeing those who had been misled by Satan not to grasp the only strong handhold (Islam) their right to life, but little more.


Whether one deems {2.256}, as most classical Islamic scholars do, to have been abrogated by later more prescriptive verses, or as limited to ritual practices, the protection that it offers non-Muslims is at best limited. The wording certainly falls a long way short of an instruction that a believer is obliged to respect, or even tolerate the expression of, a rejection of God’s revealed word. Rather, its characterisation of those who do not believe tends to suggest precisely the opposite.