The Call to Islam: Through Conviction, not Compulsion
By: Shaykh Na’eem Araqsoosi
Translated by: Faisal Shaikh
All praise be to God, and may peace and blessings be upon Prophet Muhammad, his family, and companions. Oh God, teach us what is beneficial, and benefit us with what you have taught us, and increase us in knowledge, oh Lord of the Worlds. Oh God, give us deep knowledge of the religion, and teach us the interpretation of things. And grant us the understanding like those who truly know You. There is no strength and no power save with God. And may peace and blessings be upon the Prophet.
Dear reader, the question I want to ask today is: Was Islam spread through compulsion, or through conviction? In other words, was force used to compel people to accept Islam?
The reply: Absolutely not. Force was never used to compel people to accept Islam. There are some who have made a career spreading this false accusation against Islam, saying: “Islam is a religion that was spread by the sword.” But this is a grave misconception, because the Prophet, rather Islam itself, does not allow the forcing of Islam on anyone or compulsion in religion. If one reads the Quran, and they will find this teaching absolutely clear.
Actually, a question: If someone was forced to accept Islam, and out of fear of being killed, he said, there is no god but Allah, would he be considered a Muslim?
No. Since one who was forced to accept Islam cannot be considered a Muslim. No one is considered a Muslim except one who believes in Islam based on true faith, conviction, belief in its foundations, and understanding; then he would be a Muslim.
The allegations against Islam continue until the present day, as we often hear stated in the media: “Islam encourages terrorism; it is religion of violence, and a religion of harshness and barbarity.” These are all false accusations used to turn people away from Islam. Islam is a religion of wisdom and gentle preaching, the Quran says, “Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and kind preaching, and argue with them with that which is better.” The Quran is replete with similar lessons.
Listen to these many verses of the Quran, and I can’t mention them all of course, but take notice that they make it absolutely clear that it is not permissible to force anyone to accept Islam:
God says, from the verses that were revealed in Makkah, “And remind, for you are only sent to remind, and you are not sent to control their affairs.”
God says, “We know what they say, and you are not to force them, so remind with the Quran those who pay heed.”
God says, “If God had wished, everyone on earth would have been believers. Will you then force the people to believe?” God did not force them to believe, nor deprive them the freedom of choice, and He gave them the ability to choose to believe or not. So can we then deprive them of that choice?
God says, “Whosoever wishes to believe, then let him believe, and whosoever wishes to disbelieve, then let him disbelieve.” However, for those who wish to disbelieve, God also says, “We have prepared for the unjust a Fire.” When will this be? Not in this world, rather on the Day of Judgment, in the afterlife.
Thus, we see God did not deprive humanity of the freedom of choice, and He did not force them to accept Islam. This is why He says, “Will you then force the people to believe?”
These verses were all revealed in Makkah, but even when Islam became established as a state, and the Prophet, peace be upon him, had power and authority, God revealed the verse: “Let there be no compulsion in religion.”
This verse, “Let there be no compulsion in religion,” conveys a number of meanings:
• The first, is that it is not permissible to force religion on others.
• Second, the religion itself cannot truly be understood and accepted except through conviction. If someone was forced, and said, “I am Muslim,” is he really a Muslim? No.
Religion does not take hold except through conviction and absolute belief and understanding. Let me mention a related example: Love.
If a person were to say to someone, while raising a sword above his or her head, ‘You have to love me, and if not I will strike you with my sword,’ and then he or she says, “Yes, I love you.” Is this true love? No, these things cannot be attained by compulsion or force; rather they are achieved through the true pathways of attaining another’s love and conviction.
This is why God says, “Let there be no compulsion in religion, truth has become clear from falsehood.” Things have become clear. “And whosoever rejects falsehood, and believes in God, has taken a strong handhold that never breaks, and God is Hearing, Knowing.” And whoever holds on to the truth which is clear, and follows it, he is the truly guided one.
Yes, yet someone might say: “We agree, the Quran forbids compulsion in religion, but then, why were there Muslim armies, and why were there battles in the name of religion?”
Firstly, the purpose of the Muslim army is to prevent oppression and transgression. If Muslims have strength, they have the right to expel those who occupy them and oppress them, and usurp their lands. Thus, the maintaining of the Muslim army, first and foremost, is to prevent transgression.
The Quran says, “And fight in the way of God those who fight you, and do not oppress, for God does not love those who oppress.”
This is the first important principle, so that we all know that the goal of having an army in Islam was not to force the religion on others, and Islam is not a religion of terrorism, as many often believe. Rather, historically, we see that terrorism was used against Muslims, not by them.
For this reason, the Quran says: “It (fighting) has been permitted for those who are being attacked, because they are being oppressed, and God can surely grant them victory.”
In the beginning, although Muslims were being oppressed, they were forbidden from defending themselves. When they arrived in Madina, this verse was revealed, saying ‘those who oppressed you, and expelled you from you homes and lands, and usurped your wealth, only because you believe in God, it is permissible for you to defend yourselves against them.’ This is the first goal of permitting war in Islam; it is defending against oppression and against the aggression of the enemy.
For preventing the aggression of the enemy, the Prophet, peace be upon him, sent an army to Mutah (Jordan), and he himself went out with the army to Tabuk, which is in Syria, which was then occupied by the Romans. This is because the Romans were planning to invade the Arabian Peninsula, and they attacked and plotted against the teachers of Islam. Thus the Prophet went out to Tabuk in the heat of the summer to check their advances. The purpose of Jihad was not to compel the people to accept Islam, but rather to repel the attacks of the enemy.
In the light of these circumstances, we can understand the verse of the Quran, “And prepare yourselves with what you can of strength and horses, causing fear to the enemies of God and your enemies, with them (i.e. your preparations, a standing army).” This is a means of prevention, so that they don’t attack you, and think about invading your homeland, since they will be afraid to do that if they see your strength.
This is the first goal of permitting Muslims to maintain an army. The second is to remove the obstacles to the invitation that stand in the way of the peaceful propagation of Islam. Islam is a religion for all people, and God commanded the Prophet, peace be upon him, and the callers and teachers afterwards to convey the message peacefully to the whole world. As for the tyrants and oppressive rulers who prevented the message of Islam from reaching their people, the goal of the use of force was only to stop them from this oppression and prevent them from this obstruction.
There is nothing in the concept of war in Islam that allows forcing the religion of Islam on others; this is and was never allowed. When the rulers of Persia and Rome tore up the letters of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and rejected dialogue with him and preferred to remain at a state of war, then when the Muslim armies entered Syria, and Iraq, and Iran, and other places what did they do? They only removed the tyrants from the way, and they left the people free and did not force anyone to accept Islam.
People willfully accepted the religion in large numbers, rather Islam exhibited such tolerance and mercy with the people of these lands that history has never seen its likes. This is why some Western writers have said, “History has never seen conquerors more merciful than the Arabs (i.e. the Muslims).” Never was there such mercy in war except with the coming of Islam.
We see that Islam invited people to the religion, from Christians, Jews, and others. If anyone rejected, they were free to do that. But the fact that they were within the Islamic empire, in order to be protected, and their wealth and honor guarded and held sacred, they would simply pay the Jizya (military exemption tax), that we sometimes hear being criticizing, and it is often said ‘the Muslims forced it on the People of the Book to humiliate them.’ Listen to what this Jizya really was, and let me mention an example that shows how Islam forbade forcing others to accept Islam:
During the rule of the Ottoman Empire, when it was at its peak in strength, the historians narrate: Sultan Selim Uthmani, the famous ruler, decided to force the Bulgarians and Armenians to accept Islam or expel them from the land, since he felt their numbers became bothersome. Who stood in his way and opposed him? The noble Shaykh of Islam, the Shaykh of the Ottoman Empire, Shaykh Zambili Ali Effendi, he stopped him and said, “You don’t have the right to force the Jews and Christians to accept Islam, and you have no right to expel them from their land. Your only right is to accept the Jizya from them.” After hearing this, the Sultan took back his decision, and accepted the Jizya from them. This is a beautiful example from the history of Islam that we should all know.
This Jizya, it was in exchange for the protection of the Christians and the Jews, and taking care of their affairs, and first and foremost, it was a minute amount of wealth. It was taken commensurate to the status of the man (there was no Jizya for women and children). If the man was poor, it was about 12 dirhams. That’s about $20 for the whole year in today’s terms. This was in exchange for a number of things which we will explain a bit later. If he was a man of average means, it was 24 dirhams, twice the first amount, about $40 a year. And if he was a wealthy businessman, he would pay 48 dirhams, about $80 dollars. This is all the Jizya was. And anyone who had a terminal illness, or was physically impaired, would be exempted from the Jizya.
I mention this example so that we can understand the tolerance of Islam and its greatness, and respond to those who say Islam is a religion of the sword. Rather, it is a religion that only permits force to repel aggression, for a believer should not be weak and humiliated while his land and wealth and honor is pillaged, that is not permissible.
Here is another beautiful example: Abu Yusuf, the student of the famous Imam Abu Hanifa, narrates in his book, “Kitab al Kharaaj” that speaks about the economic system of Islam: Umar bin al Khattab (may God be pleased with him) passed by an old man from the People of the Book (an endearing term used in the Quran to refer to the Christians and Jews) begging near the door of a mosque. The man said he needed money to for his needs and that he was old, and he had to pay the Jizya. Umar (who was the Caliph at the time) said, “We have not been fair to you! We took the Jizya from you when you were young, and then we abandoned you when you became older.” He ordered that the old man be given a monthly salary from the public funds and that he should not be required to make Jizya payment. Umar gave him a fixed source of income, and said it was unjust to take payment from him in youth and not take care of him in his old age.
Even the name, this beautiful and wonderful word ‘dhimmi’, it is actually a beautiful word that captures all the meanings of protection, security, upkeep, and the idea that Muslims are responsible, the non-Muslims are in their ‘dhimma’ i.e. ‘protection’. We cannot find another word greater than this word to describe protection, care, and trust. If someone travels and leaves his child with his closest family member, he says, “Please take care of my son, he is in your dhimma.” They might reply, “Yes, he is in my protection.”
The word dhimmi is in no way humiliating, or disdainful, rather it is an honorable, noble status, and a position of protection. There are many narrations of the Prophet, peace be upon him, that speak of taking care of the non-Muslims citizens of the Islamic state. They should be publicized them East and West, and we will mention them a bit later.
The Jizya was not obligatory on the women of the People of the Book, and not on the children until they reached maturity, nor on the insane, or monks or those devoted to their houses of worship.
One of the governors of the Caliph Umar bin Abdul Aziz wrote to him, saying, “Many of the People of the Book have entered Islam, and this has reduced our source of income. Shouldn’t we require them to pay the Jizya?”
Pay attention to his amazing reply. Umar bin Abdul Aziz wrote back to him saying, “What a terrible thought! God did not send Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, as a tax collector, rather he sent him as a guide to humanity! If this letter reaches you, stop taking the Jizya from them.”
This is the reality that we all need to know about the tolerance of Islam. For this reason, we see historically that the People of the Book had a fruitful and prosperous civilization under the aegis of Islam.
From the rights of the non-Muslim citizens of the Islamic State:
1. It is forbidden to harm them. The Prophet Muhammad said, “Whoever kills a person at treaty with us, he will never smell the fragrance of Paradise, even though its fragrance can be sensed from a distance of 40 years.” This is from their rights as citizens of the Islamic state.
2. Second, from their rights is to protect their wealth and honor. The Caliph Ali said, “They pay the Jizya so their wealth will be protected like our wealth, and their blood will be protected like our blood.” Jizya is in exchange for a service and for the security that the Islamic state provides for the non-Muslims.
3. Third, from their rights, and this is one of the greatest proofs of the tolerance of Islam, is to leave them free to worship in their religion and houses of worship, and have freedom in their personal affairs. And the greatest proof of this is the treaty the Caliph Umar made with the Christians of Jerusalem. This treaty (al ‘ahd al Umariyya) has been preserved to this day, and I hope non-Muslims have a chance to read it. Pay attention to its introduction, which enlightens one to the beauty of Islam, it makes it clear that Islam is a religion of mercy, a religion of dialogue, and conviction, and not of compulsion and terrorism, which others often malign Islam with since they fear its spread.
When Umar came to Jerusalem to receive the keys of the city, he made the following treaty which reads:
“This is what Umar the Leader of the Believers gave to the people of Ilyaa (Jerusalem) of Protection. He gives them protection over their lives, their wealth, their churches, and their crosses. They shall not be forced to abandon their religion, and none of them shall be harmed.”
Umar said this as a conqueror, and he gave these protections not while being weak and defeated, but rather from a position of utmost strength.
From this we see that from the rights of the Christians and the Jews in the Islamic state is to not be forced to abandon their religion, and to be free to practice their religion and keep their houses of worship.
4. Fourth, non-Muslims are given all the general rights afforded to Muslims, as equals before the law. Look at this letter written by the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, to the Christians of Najran:
“For Najran and its people, the protection of God, and the protection of Muhammad, over their wealth, and their lives, and their land, and their families, those present, and absent, their extended family, their children, and everything they own, small or great. We will not harm any of their priests, nor their monks, nor shall an army walk on their lands, and anyone who ask for a right from them, they should only take what is due, without being oppressed, or oppressing.”
And we find this letter that the Caliph Umar wrote to ‘Amr bin ‘Aas who was the ruler in Egypt, about the Coptic Christians:
“You have in your land people that are in our Dhimma and the Prophet, peace be upon him, said, ‘Be kind to the Coptic Christians, for they are in our protection and they are our relatives.’”
Why did he say that they are his relatives? Because of Maria who was sent to the Prophet by the Christian King Najashi, and thus the Prophet considered all of them his in-laws! When Christian delegations would come to see the Prophet, peace be upon him, he would say, “Welcome, welcome, my in-laws.”
5. The fifth set of rights that are afforded to non-Muslims: They are protected from any harm coming their way. Not only are Muslims not harm them, but Muslims are ordered to protect them from any external threat, and remove any oppression that comes to them, and defend them like they defend themselves.
Imagine the Caliph Umar bin al Khattab, in his dying moments, after he was stabbed and he realized that it was inevitable that he was going to die. He said as he bade farewell to the world, and one knows that in these last moments one only says the most essential of things: “I advise the Caliph after me to take good care of the Dhimma of the Prophet (the Christians and Jews) and be true to their covenant, and to fight those that harm them, and to not burden them beyond their ability.” This is the tolerance taught by the noble religion of Islam.
And Imam Abu Dawud narrates in his Sunan that the Prophet , peace be upon him, said, “Whoever oppresses a person who has taken a covenant with the Muslims, or kills him, or burdens him beyond his ability, or takes anything from him without his consent, then I will argue against (this oppressor) on the Day of Judgment.” Is there any statement that explains the honor and protection of the People of the Book like this one? For this reason just and fair non-Muslims that are objective in their analysis recognize this truth, although those that are biased would never admit to it.
A good example of this is Thomas Arnold, who is the author of a fascinating book called, “The Call to Islam,” in which he says regarding the expansion of the Islamic Empire: When Abu Ubaidah’s army reached Jordan, and they settled down in a place called Fahl, the Christians in Jordan wrote to Abu Ubaidah, after they saw the tolerance, mercy, and justice of Islam, saying: “Oh Muslims, you are more beloved to us than the Romans, even though the Romans share our religion.”
‘You are more beloved to us.’ Why did they say this?
“You are more true to your covenants, more accommodating to us, and you don’t oppress us, and you are just rulers, but Romans, they would oppress us and take away our homes.”
We also see the tolerance of Islam when Heraclius abandoned his capital in the city of Homs, Syria, and bade farewell to its people when Abu Ubaidah’s army arrived at the city. After Heraclius left, Abu Ubaidah decided to leave the city of Homs to its people since he felt he couldn’t protect them, and imagine what Abu Ubaidah did? He returned their wealth to them! He said, ‘We took this money in exchange for your protection, but we might not be able to protect you, so I am returning it to you.’
He returned their wealth to them, and the people of the city were astounded, it was unbelievable that he would return their wealth to them out of fear that he wouldn’t be able to protect them and ensure their security. When Heraclius heard that the Islamic army left the city of Homs, he made preparations to return to the city, yet who was it that closed the doors of the city of Homs in Haraclius’ face? The people of Homs themselves! Even though they had not accepted Islam.
Arnold continues, “The people of the city of Homs closed the doors of the city in the face of the army of Heraclius, and informed the Muslims that their justice and ruling was more beloved to them than the oppression of the Romans and the Caesar.”
Arnold then says, “The popular idea that Islam was spread by the sword is impossible to believe.” Reflect on who is saying this: a European non-Muslim scholar, who after studying history reached the conclusion that this claim is untrue. He then he goes on to say: “Indeed preaching and religious conviction were the primary distinguishing features of the invitation to Islam, not force, nor the use of violence.”
This fact about the tolerance of Islam is what historians bear witness to. These narrations are clear absolute evidence of the practical application by Muslims, of the verse of the Quran “Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching.”
But the ones who used violence and terror historically are actually those who would paint Islam as a religion of violence and barbarity. Take for example, the Crusades, when in a single day, after the Crusaders entered Jerusalem, they massacred 70,000 of its inhabitants, and their heads and bodies were heaped into piles.
There are many more examples. For example, the Muslims in Andalucía, in Spain, they only had one of two choices: either become Christian, or be executed. They didn’t have any other way out. As for Islam, we know that historically no one was ever forced to accept Islam against his wishes. In Andalucía on the other hand, the Muslims were brutally oppressed by the infamous Inquisition Courts. They would order the Muslims to become Christian by force, or be burnt alive.
If one were to go to Spain, and ask someone about their ancestry, they might find someone named: George the son of Michael all the way to… the son of Ahmad, the son of Muhammad, and so on. Their ancestry reaches back to Islamic roots. But those who came afterwards were forced to become Christian in spite of their beliefs. Cardinal Tolatilla, the head of the Inquisition Courts, ordered that the heads of all Muslims should be cut off--men, women, elderly, and children--except for those who converted to Christianity.
And when Ferdinand and Isabella made a compact for the surrender of the Muslims of Granada, they treacherously broke the treaty, and then placed the entire population of 3 million Muslims in chains, and systematically executed them. So we have to ask ourselves, in order to be fair: Who were the real perpetrators of violence and terrorism in world history?
As for Muslims, Islam says, “Let there be no compulsion in religion.”
I wanted to present this topic regarding the spread of Islam through conviction, and not compulsion, so that the people of the world know that the sword in Islam wasn’t used to oppress people, but rather to remove oppression from them, and it wasn’t used to force people to convert to Islam, but rather to push aside those who compel people to disbelieve in God and obstruct the peaceful teaching of Islam. For this reason, let us keep in mind these narrations, and convey them to others, so that just people everywhere realize that Islam is a religion founded on justice, wisdom, and gentle teaching.
Indeed, the legacy of Islam in world history stands true to the verse of the Quran, “Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching.”
Please do your part and post this article on your webpages and send it to all your non-Muslim colleagues. May Allah reward you.
Be merciful to those on earth, and the One in the Heavens will be merciful to you.