The Individual Freedom of Choice and Tolerance in the Quran

Author: Azhar Aslam

This article is published in the “Islamic Foundations of a Free Society”, Institute of Economic Affairs, 2016.

You can download the whole book from here: Islamic foundations for a Free Society (pdf)

Consensus opinion suggests that the philosophies of individualism and liberalism that opened the path to modernity in the West are Western in origin, and that Islamic civilization opposes and rejects this. Islamic societies are seen as collectivist. This is seen as one of the main reasons why Muslims have failed to assimilate modernity.

This thinking implies that the basis for such a collectivist ideology is in the Quran and this leads to lack of individual initiative in social, economic and political spheres in Islamic societies. Evidence for this is found in those Muslim societies in which there is a lack of freedom in matters of faith and how to live one’s life. Orthodox Islamic thought is presented as evidence, with Sharia law (the Muslim legal framework) about apostasy (leaving the Islamic faith) being the prime example.

In this chapter we explore these questions about the individual, freedom of choice (especially in matters of faith) and tolerance within Muslim countries. Our focus here will be on two aspects. Firstly, does the Quran sanction (or even condone) a position where the individual does not have freedom of choice? Secondly, if it is not the scriptural position, why and how have Muslim societies reached the position where there is such lack of tolerance?

The individual in the Quran

The Quran is the primary and the most foundational source of Muslim civilization. Even a cursory reading of the Quran establishes that God’s primary addressee is each individual human person. The Quran places the individual at the very heart of its discourse. The Quran is God’s direct conversation with each human person in their individual capacity. In the Quran, God assigns all individuals responsibility of action, and freedom to choose their own actions.

The sentence structure of the Quran may be classified as follows: informative and descriptive statements; declarative statements; imperative statements such as direct commands and exhortations; and questions (addressed to humankind) leading to conclusions. In addition, there are metaphors and similes. Hundreds of examples of morphology and syntax of the Quran leave little doubt that the addressee of God is every human person. The Quran talks to each and every one of us directly; it talks to every woman and every man, every Muslim and every non-Muslim. So if the individual is the addressee of God, how come Islam’s dominant outward symbols are unambiguously social, and why is there a perceived imbalance between communal and individual self-interest? There are two obvious reasons for this. Firstly, while addressing individual believers, a good deal of the Quran is devoted to legislation and guidance of the affairs of, as the Quran terms all the believers, ‘the middle community’, and its collective existence.

The second element that contributed to the gradual erosion of the individual’s status in Muslim societies is that the earliest period of Muslim history -the first forty years that are regarded by most Muslims as the ideal they strive for- had social institutions and statecraft as its primary constituents. Subsequently, as Muslim civilization entered a stage of stagnation and then a stage of decay, the perceived threats to the Umma (the Muslim community) relegated the self-interest of the individual to a secondary position. Human beings are at once individual and social. Each individual lives in the socio-politico-economic framework of his time. Hence, while his actions are his own, they are influenced by and, in turn, influence society. Therefore, although the Quran speaks to each individual human being, the social, political and economic conclusions it draws, and recommendations it makes, are communal in nature.

However, the Quran makes it absolutely clear that actions taken in this world will be judged, and on judgement day the con-sequences of these actions, reward or punishment, are specific to the individual. No one is responsible for anyone else’s actions. The Quran says ‘Today [on the day of judgement] you have come to us as individuals [furada] just as We created you in the first place’ (Surah or Chapter 6, verse 95, denoted as 6:95). Further in 19:80 the Quran states ‘He [man] shall come to Us alone [as an individual]’.

Individual responsibility and accountability is unequivocally expressed in the injunction: ‘Every soul earns for itself, and no soul shall bear the burden of another, and even thus shall you return to your Lord’ (4:165). This is repeated in the Quran 12:15, 25:18, 39:7 and 63:38. In Rehman (1966) the following points are made: ‘The ultimate repository of the divine trust is the individual person … service to God means the sum total of the output of man under the moral law … The most recurring term in Quran is Taqwa, which attunes man to discharge these responsibilities, is an attribute of the individual and not of society … while the individual may rely on the collective wisdom of the mankind, he or she is the individual bearer of this responsibility’. The clearest example of this ‘individual act leads to communal action’ principle is shown in fundamental acts of Muslim worship. A man creates his social being within the collective, but achieves this through his individual actions. A Muslim prays individually but within a collective forum; his individual fast is within the social context; his zakat (alms tax) is his individual effort to help fellow human beings; and finally his individual pilgrimage creates a social movement.

This principle of individual responsibility is the basis on which there is no priesthood between man and his creator, and hence a good individual is the spiritual ideal of Islam.

Iqbal, the greatest Muslim thinker of the twentieth century, states that the main purpose of the Quran is to awaken in man the higher consciousness of his manifold relations with God and the Universe (Iqbal 1934: 6).1 He further states ‘The Quran in its simple, forceful manner emphasizes the individuality and uniqueness of man … It is in consequence of this view of man as a unique individuality which makes it impossible for one individual to bear the burden of another, and entitles him only to what is due to his own personal effort’ (ibid.: 42).

The conclusion is obvious. While the Islamic community has its basis in the Quran, the word of God and the Sunna (the practice) of the Prophet (pbuh), Islamic polity is born through individual Muslims. Similarly, without individual Muslims there is no Islamic economics and there is no Islamic society. As Nehaluddin (2011) observes, no society can survive that does not give first priority to self-interest in individual action; and the whole of the Islamic social, political, religious and spiritual structure is based on a harmony which finds its echo in every Quranic mandate. The socioeconomic and political reality of Islamic fabric is built around the individual who discharges the trust that God has placed in him.

Individuals, however, can only discharge this trust if they have complete freedom of choice to make of life what they will, so that they fulfill the trust God has placed in them. Only by allowing freedom of choice and action can an individual Muslim and person be ready to face God on the day of judgement.

Freedom of individual action and choice in the Quran

The Quran is the primary basis of Islamic law, at least in theory. While the Quran is divine, Sharia is not. And, as we shall see later, political exigencies led scholars to ignore clear Quranic injunctions on some occasions. In the classical period they devised legal edicts based on attributed Hadiths (sayings) of the Prophet, ignoring clear Quranic injunctions. But, for the moment, let us focus on the Quran.

Establishing the Quran’s stance in this matter is crucial for two reasons. Firstly, it defines the relations between Muslims and non-Muslims and, secondly, it lays down divine guidance about the legitimacy and tolerance of other faiths.

Study of the Quran shows that there are four themes inter-woven within the subject of freedom of choice for an individual. The Quran dealt with this subject on at least 82 occasions. All verses dealing with this subject contain all four themes, explicitly or implicitly, but generally one theme dominates with several subtexts. The Quran, it seems, has not left anything to chance in this matter.

The subtexts include the oneness, and the division of, humankind, and the divine purpose behind this division. They also include the relationship and conduct of believers towards non-­believers with particular emphasis on the relationship with ‘people of the book’. There are several direct commands to believers regarding their general behavior in matters of faith.

A detailed study leaves little doubt that God has purposefully treated individual responsibility and freedom of choice as a major issue for the guidance of Muslim believers. The Quran decrees that every individual is free to choose his own course of life in social, economic and political spheres. Further, the Quran stops its followers from challenging another person’s freedom of choice.

The first major theme that unambiguously appears repeatedly is that God is the ultimate judge of all human action and everyone will be accountable to God alone. The three other themes are the limitations on the role of the Prophet (pbuh) in enforcing faith, individuals’ ownership of their actions, and humans’ freedom of choice in respect of their actions and beliefs. This is not the forum to discuss all Quranic verses so we shall limit ourselves to a few examples. Let me start with the final and last-to-be revealed verse of the Quran. This last direct message of God sums up all the main themes and puts a seal on the Quran: ‘And be conscious of the Day on which you shall be brought back unto God, whereupon every human being shall be repaid in full for what he has earned, and none shall be wronged’ (2:281).

Accountability on judgement day in front of God is the fundamental reason God has sent His word and His prophets. This is the foundational concept of Muslim life and law (Sharia). In fact the raison d’être of Sharia is to guide human beings since they are individually accountable to God: ‘O you who have attained faith! It is for your own selves that you are responsible: those who go astray can do you no harm if you are on the right path. Unto God you all must return: and then He will make you [truly] understand all that you were doing [in life]’ (5:105).

God has kept the right of final judgement to Himself alone. He has given human beings very limited scope to judge each other and only in certain worldly matters, thereby providing freedom to individuals about the course of their lives. The Quran says in 6:61–62: ‘And He alone holds sway over His servants … Oh, verily, His alone is all judgement…’

In the Quran 45:14–15 God says ‘Tell all who have attained to faith, that they should forgive those who do not believe in the coming of the Days of God, [since it is] for Him [alone] to requite people for whatever they may have earned. Whoever does what is just and right, does so for his own good; and whoever does evil, does so to his own hurt; and in the end unto your Sustainer you all will be brought back’.

God’s command is quite clear. Each person is free to choose and is responsible for his own conduct in life. There will be a judgement day, a responsibility which is God’s alone as the ultimate judge. Therefore, coercion is prohibited in this life, and no one has a right to force others to choose how they conduct their life.

Through these direct commandments a direct relationship between God and man is also unequivocally established. This foundational principle has been invoked by Muslims throughout history to stop any one person or establishment accruing too much religious authority, and it has allowed individual Muslims space to challenge authorities that do that. Zubair Khan (2011) says that Islam is an all-embracing idea, and justice is its core value. He elucidates the Quran’s message that each individual will stand on their own and the only defense one will have is the good one has done to others.

That God wants everyone to choose freely is made clear in the following injunction, in which God states His will: ‘Now had it been our will [that men should not be able to discern between right and wrong], We could surely have deprived them of their sight, so that they would stray forever from the [right] way: for how could they have had insight? And had it been our will [that they should not be free to choose between right and wrong], We could surely have given them a different nature [and created them as beings rooted] in their places, so that they would not be able to move forward, and could not turn back’ (36:66–67).

We now turn to the second theme, where God has placed limitations on the Prophet when spreading His message: ‘Say [O Prophet]: O mankind! The truth from your Sustainer has now come unto you. Whoever, therefore, chooses to follow the right path, follows it but for his own good; and whoever chooses to go astray, goes but astray to his own hurt. And I am not responsible for your conduct’ (10:108).

This verse is specifically addressed to the Prophet (pbuh) and God’s command to the Prophet (pbuh) is clear. It is a rule of Sharia that the conduct of the Prophet sets the standard for Muslims to be emulated by each individual believer. The Sunna of the Prophet is the second source of Muslim law and life, after the Quran. All Muslim schools of thought are in agreement that, when God addresses the Prophet, He is making His commandments obligatory to all Muslims.

Muslims are not allowed to exceed the limits set by Prophetic responsibility. In other words our terms and scope of engagement with others cannot be beyond the limits set by God on the Prophet (pbuh). The following verses are unambiguous in the limits set on all Muslims by God Himself when proclaiming the message of the Quran: ‘and as for those who turn away We have not sent thee to be their keeper’ (4:80); ‘hence, We have not made thee their keeper, and neither art thou responsible for their conduct’ (6:107).

This command to the Prophet is repeated further in 9:129, 16:82, 26:216, 27:92, 42:48 and 64:12. God is very clear in this matter. The Prophet is told ‘thy duty is no more than to deliver the message; and the reckoning is Ours’ (13:40).

We now turn to Quranic injunctions regarding individual responsibility. The Quran says ‘God does not burden any human being with more than he is well able to bear: in his favor shall be whatever good he does, and against him whatever evil he does’ (2:286).

In 6:164 and 39:7 God says ‘no bearer of burdens shall be made to bear another’s burden. And, in time, unto your Sustainer you all must return: and then He will make you [truly] understand…’ This injunction is repeated in 2:134, 2:141 and 41:46.

Finally, we discuss the freedom of choice for an individual. The Quran is most emphatic about each person’s freedom to choose their own course of life. In fact this choice has been described as God’s will. The following verse shows clearly how God’s will acts. It acts through human action and the choices human persons make. According to the Quran it is God’s will for humans to hold divergent views (2:253):

And if God had so willed, they who succeeded those [apostles] would not have contended with one another after all evidence of the truth had come to them; but [as it was,] they did take to divergent views, and some of them attained to faith, while some of them came to deny the truth. Yet if God had so willed, they would not have contended with one another: but God does whatever He wills.

This is repeated in 16:93 ‘for, had God so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community; … and you will surely be called to account for all that you ever did!’ And again in 32:13: ‘Yet had We so willed, We could indeed have imposed Our guidance upon every human being: but [We have not willed it thus– and so]’.

Such freedom of choice is also explicitly given in the following verses: 5:54, 6:104,10:40, 10:41, 17:105–108, 26:4, 28:56 and 39:41. Finally, in 18:29, God says ‘And say: The truth [has now come] from your Sustainer: let then him who will, believe in it, and let him who wills, reject it.’

The clear Quranic injunctions regarding apostasy fall within this discussion, but will be discussed below.

No compulsion

We now turn to the most famous, and most often quoted Quranic verse regarding freedom of choice. In 2:256 God says: ‘There is no compulsion in deen [matters of faith]. Guidance is clear from error’. The verse prohibits the use of compulsion in religion or any other matter of life. The individual has free will and free choice. Islam elevates freedom to such a level that it emphasises free thought as the proper way of recognising God’s existence.

Tafsir ibn Kathir,2 the most famous Sunni exegete of the Quran, explains this verse: ‘Do not force anyone to become 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.’ Other exegetes agree on this point.

However, there is another aspect of this verse, which is of crucial importance. And that aspect is the positional sequence and placement of the ‘no compulsion’ verse. This verse, number 2:256, follows verse 2:255, which is the Verse of Throne (Ayat al-Kursi). All Muslims know the significance of Ayat al-Kursi, but for the benefit of our non-Muslim readers, this verse is the most often repeated verse after seven verses of Surah Al Fateh, and according to many Hadiths it is the greatest verse of the Quran.

This enhances the importance of the ‘no compulsion’ verse even more. It is clear that freedom in matters of faith is so crucial to God that He placed the ‘no compulsion’ command immediately after the declaration of His absolute authority and sway He holds over everything. ‘No compulsion’ is not a simple ‘informational statement’ but rather a direct commandment to be absolutely obeyed, with the full force of God’s own sovereignty behind it. Therefore, for all Muslims it is absolutely fundamental that they obey God’s command of ‘no compulsion’.


We now turn to various subtexts that are discussed within all these themes. First and foremost, there is a purpose behind why human beings differ. According to the Quran this divine purpose is to test human persons in the performance of good works: ‘for, every community faces a direction of its own, of which He is the focal point. Vie, therefore, with one another in doing good works.

Wherever you may be, God will gather you all unto Himself: for, verily, God has the power to will anything’ (2:147–48).

In 5:48 the Quran tells us: ‘Unto every one of you have We appointed a [different] law and way of life. And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but [He willed it otherwise] in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto, you. Vie, then, with one another in doing good works! Unto God you all must return; and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ.’

This theme is emphasized again in various verses, for example, in 11:117–18, where the Quran says: ‘And had thy Sustainer so willed, He could surely have made all mankind one single community: but [He willed it otherwise, and so] they continue to hold divergent views.’

Here we start seeing the glimpses of the legitimacy the Quran provides to non-Muslims and their way of life. But it does not stop there. In one of the earliest revelations to the Prophet (known as a Meccan Surah) God commanded the Prophet to say to the pagans of Mecca: ‘Unto you, your moral law, and unto me, mine!’ (109:6). The Quran further elaborates on how to respond to non-believers, especially those who mock and make fun. It says: ‘And, indeed, He has enjoined upon you in this divine writ that whenever you hear people deny the truth of God’s messages and mock at them, you shall avoid their company until they begin to talk of other things’ (4:140).

The Quran exhorts believers that God will make the final judgement. These messages are repeated in 10:15, 10:16, 10:17, 10:18 and 15:2.

In 15:3 the Quran says about non-believers: ‘Leave them alone … for in time they will come to know [the truth].’ This commandment to leave the non-believers alone is repeated several times in 25:63, 43:83, 43:84, 52:45 and 70:42, where the Quran says: ‘Hence, leave them to indulge in idle talk and play [with words] until they face that [Judgement] Day of theirs which they have been promised.’

Quranic instructions regarding the ‘people of the book’ are even more clear. In 2:62 the Quran tells us: ‘Verily, those who have attained to faith [in this divine writ], as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabians – all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds – shall have their reward with their Sustainer; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve.’

These exhortations are repeated and the Quran is clear how good people of ‘the book’ will be rewarded. In 3:199 the Quran says: ‘And, behold, among the followers of earlier revelation there are indeed such as [truly] believe in God … Standing in awe of God, they do not barter away God’s messages for a trifling gain. They shall have their reward with their Sustainer – for, behold, God is swift in reckoning!’

The Prophet’s Sunna

Having seen how the Quran treats the matter of faith and individual freedom, the question arises, if the Quran is so explicit, why the apparent intolerance in Muslim law? The answer to this conundrum lies in Muslim history. But before we explore this question further, it is important to also see the Prophet’s Sunna regarding other faiths, because, after the Quran, that is the second source of Islamic civilisation and law.

The first community in Medina was an all-inclusive community. The Prophet (pbuh) explicitly wrote down the first constitution which regulated the affairs of people living in Medina, including Muslims and Jews. Zuabiar Khan refers to the constitution of Medina which stated in article 25: ‘The Jews of Banu ‘Avf are a community (umma) along with the believers. To the Jews their religion and way of life (deen) and to the Muslims their deen’. Dr Abdullah quotes Watt and says that the treaty not only gave this right but also regarded the Jews as partners with Muslims (Watt 1956: 221–28).

Similarly, the Prophet’s Sunna on how he treated Christians is exemplified in his conduct towards the delegation of Christians from Najran (southern Arabia). He received them in his house, entertained them in his mosque and concluded a treaty with them. Similar peace treaties were concluded by his immediate political successors, particularly the second caliph, Umar. He set a great example in the conquest of Jerusalem by refusing to pray in a church, saying, ‘I do not want Muslims to start converting churches into mosques after me’. The Christian Patriarch of Mery said: ‘The Arabs who have been given by God the Kingdom [of the earth] do not attack the Christian faith; on the contrary they help us in our religion; they respect our God and our Saints and bestow gifts on our churches and monasteries’ (Syed Ameer Ali 1997, quoted by Nehal ud Din). Christians enjoyed respect, liberty and a new dignity they had not enjoyed under either Christian Rome or Byzantium. Even later on we see that Christians lived in peace and prospered under Islam for centuries.

According to Thomas Arnold, had it been a part of Islamic sentiment to do away with the Christian presence, it could have been done without a ripple in world history. John Morrow, talking about the conquest of Spain, quotes Ahmad Thomson: ‘The oppressed majority of this corrupt and decaying society regarded the Muslims not so much as conquerors but as saviours. The Muslims ended their slavery and gave them freedom to practice their religion’ (Morrow 2013: 189).

Islam and the state

Now we turn to our question of why the present Sharia law treats freedom of faith differently from how the Quran commands and the Sunna demonstrates.

Firstly, Sharia is not divine. It is a human construct. It is very important to understand this. The Muslim people tend to treat

Sharia as divine due to a lack of knowledge and understanding. But, when Western intellectuals and the media discuss these matters, particularly in the context of Muslim populations living in the West, they have a responsibility to explain that Sharia law is a law based on divine revelation, but not divine in itself.

It would also not go amiss if the Western media were to at least accept openly, if not emphasise, the Islamic origin of much Western thought. As the respected medieval scholar George Makdisi asserts: ‘our religious monotheism is Judeo-Christian, and our intellectual culture is Greco-Roman, what I believe we have yet to realise is that an essential part of our intellectual culture, namely, our university and scholarly culture, is Arabo-­Islamic’. Such awareness is crucial to the promotion of tolerance and peace within the West.

Fiqh for Sharia developed within the particular context of an embryonic Muslim empire, and was devised as a simple set of rules to allow Muslims to live according to Islam. Later on, however, it was elevated to the level of the divine, not to be questioned or altered. Those with vested interests, financial and political, continue to perpetuate and support this idea of divine Sharia. The dichotomy that facilitates this is the fact that Islam does not envisage a specific territorial state, and definitely not a nation state, but rather creates a community across borders.

The Quran and the Prophet did not provide any clear instructions or guidelines about statecraft. In fact, the books of Hadith and Fiqh do not have any specific chapters covering these matters. Muhammad Khalid Masud has pointed out that, had the Prophet regarded the state as the ultimate goal, he would have accepted the offer of the Meccan elite to assume chieftainship. In his opinion, ‘books and treatises [which] were written later on statecraft … were either informed by the precedents from Islamic history or derived from the Sassanian model’.

Islamic civil society was based on the rule of law. Although Muslim societies accepted empires and states, the rulers were always seen with suspicion. Royal courts were avoided by scholars and the Prophet’s saying, ‘speaking truth in front of a tyrant is the greatest jihad’, gained currency. The pious declined appoint-ments in governments. Muslims led by scholars, merchants and professionals had decided that their interests were served better with a society independent of the state. The state was viewed as an essential evil, and accepted as the least worst alternative to anarchy and chaos (fitnaa and fassad).

Slowly and gradually the exigencies of politics, led by dynastic emperorship and expanding Muslim empires, bordered by non-Muslim empires, led scholars to develop the theory of ‘Dar al-Islam’ (the house of Islam). This major shift resulted in changing Islam from a way of life based on justice, equity, the rule of law and individual freedom into an exclusive territorial and religious empire. The law of apostasy created in this milieu was a political construct, as we will discuss later.

Morrow (2013: 188) observes: ‘it is equally evident that the suppression of material that was favourable towards Christians took place at a time when ties between the followers of Christ and followers of Muhammad had degenerated. It appears that a hardening of the positions [occurred] … with the Muslim scholars becoming increasingly intransigent in their interpretations of Islam rendering the Muslim religion increasingly intolerant, puritanical and exclusivist … regardless Muslims are duty bound to abide by the example of the Prophet … The teachings and actions of messenger of Allah speak for themselves’.

Tolerance and the present-day state of Muslim societies

Tolerance in present-day Muslim societies is at its lowest. While outsiders continue to see it as a freedom-of-faith and apostasy issue, the problem of intolerance is more widespread and complex, and goes beyond issues of faith.

Three factors largely explain attitudes in Muslim societies. Firstly, there has been an intellectual vacuum and a failure of Muslim modernists to explain the case for a free society. Iqbal identified three things humanity needs: a spiritual interpretation of the universe; spiritual emancipation of the individual; and basic principles directing the evolution of human society on a spiritual basis. After World War II, it was envisaged that the independence of Muslim countries would bring about the intellectual revival of Islam, which would lead humanity into new vistas and adventures.

This did not happen and there was domination by decadent theocratic forces. The failure of Muslim intellectuals is perhaps the most important explanation for where Muslims stand today. Muslim reformists have never enjoyed political support and, despite a broad social acceptance of their views, have been mostly marginalized. However, reformists themselves have to share the blame for not being bold enough in standing up for their ideas.

Sardar (2011: 1) notes:

Far from being a liberating force, a kinetic social, cultural and intellectual dynamics for equality, justice and humane values, Islam seems to have acquired a pathological strain. Indeed, it seems to me that we have internalised all those historic and contemporary western representations of Islam and Muslims that have been demonising us for centuries.

He continues that the problem exists because of the elevation of the Sharia to the level of the divine, with the consequent removal of agency from the believers, and the equation of Islam with the state.

A further reason why tolerant voices have not had great influence is because of politics. Factors ranging from the after-effects of colonialism, post-colonial despotism, present-day Western hegemony, attacks on Muslim lands during the past quarter of a century, and Muslims living in an interconnected global society, with burgeoning populations have all resulted in the resurgence of reactionary theories of Islamic statehood, based on a false premise. But, because they promise a land of milk and honey to the have-nots, they attract followers. Morrow (2013: 63) points out that ‘the periods of greatest intolerance (in Muslim societies) have coincided with Western imperialist occupation, both past and present.’

This state of affairs is further encouraged by rulers of Muslim countries who suffer from a lack of vision. With rampant corruption and crony capitalism, democracy is mere electioneering with elites exploiting resources for personal gain. Such rulers, often supported by short-sighted Western governments, show no interest in improving the social, political and intellectual lot of Muslim people. There is an unholy alliance of orthodox Mullah and the monopolistic elite. This alliance continues to perpetuate the inbreeding of poverty, lack of education and extremist interpretations of Islam.

Ayoub (1994) states: ‘the post-colonial state in Muslim societies has done little to encourage debate in the area of Islamic law. The increased interest in adopting legal codes based in Islamic values leaves the majority of Muslims with outdated legal codes’. He expands further that ‘with the marginalization of Islamic juristic learning and the restriction of public debate on Islamic law by the state … the most rigid and literalist interpretation of Islamic sources prevails, while enlightened and reformist views are suppressed and marginalized.’

Finally, and encouraging the above trends, are socio-economic factors including abject poverty, lack of education, opportunity and justice, and human misery, aggravated by natural and man-made disasters. Hungry stomachs are easily fed with extremist ideas which present Sharia as a panacea for all ills. The elevation of the Sharia to the divine level ensures that people themselves have no opinion or contribution to make, except to follow.


This discussion of liberal thought in Islamic societies is not complete without a discussion of apostasy. It is significant that the Quran refers to apostasy several times (2:217, 3:86–90, 4:137, 9:66, 9:74, 16:106–9, 4:88–91 and 47:25–27) and yet does not prescribe any punishment for it. The former Chief Justice of Pakistan, S. A. Rahman, has written that there is no reference to the death penalty in any of the 20 instances where apostasy is mentioned in the Quran.

The Quran says in 4:115: ‘But as for him who, after guidance has been vouchsafed to him, cuts himself off from the Apostle and follows a path other than that of the believers – him shall We leave unto that which he himself has chosen, and shall cause him to endure hell: and how evil a journey’s end!’ This is clearly a reference to those who left the fold of Islam in the Prophet’s lifetime; and it is clearly a reference to God being the judge in the life hereafter. The following verse goes even further and talks about those who apostatized more than once. It also clearly implies that such people lived among Muslims and re-entered the fold of Islam before apostatizing once again: ‘Behold, as for those who come to believe, and then deny the truth, and again come to believe, and again deny the truth, and thereafter grow stubborn in their denial of the truth – God will not forgive them, nor will He guide them in any way’ (4:137–38).

God’s punishment for such people is very clear, that, as a result of their repeated apostasy, He will not forgive them. God has not allowed anyone to take matters into their own hands. In 16:106–7 the Quran again talks about those who apostatize and makes it clear that such people will face punishment in the afterlife.

Shafaat (2006) argues that, had the Quran not mentioned apostasy at all, we could have perhaps argued that there was no occasion for the Quranic revelation to deal with this subject and it was therefore left for the Holy Prophet to deal with. He observes that almost all the verses that refer to apostasy are found in the Madinan period, when the Islamic state had been established and penalties for crimes could be prescribed and applied. He concludes that the absence of any legal penalty for apostasy in the Quran means that God never intended any such penalty to become part of Islamic Sharia.

When we look at the Prophet’s life we see no concrete evidence of the Prophet prescribing the death penalty for those who left Islam. The Prophet, for example, drew up the Treaty of Huday­biyya with his Meccan opponents. One of the terms of that treaty was that if a Muslim repudiated Islam and wanted to be with the Meccans, he was permitted to do so.

Ayoub (1994) discusses, in some detail, the traditions from the life of the Prophet that are used by the proponents of the death penalty to justify the death penalty for apostasy. He concludes: ‘we have in reality not six, but four traditions, only two of which contain Prophetic injunctions. But even these cannot, as we have seen, serve as material sources for the harsh law.’

So what happened? Apostasy is a political construct. In present-day Muslim societies it is seen as divine only because Sharia is (wrongly) seen as divine. Sharia is now a system of closed corpus which only a few individuals have the right to interpret, and to create rules and regulations. Apostasy and blasphemy have become political weapons in the hands of political groups to be used as a means to eliminate rivals and opponents.

According to Roald (2011): ‘The Muslims were in majority and had to keep up this majority in relation to Christians and Jews.’ Several arguments can be advanced in support of this thesis. Firstly there is a wide range of opinions about the issue of apostasy, with even the earliest jurists differing widely. Ibrahim Syed argues that this lack of unanimity is the reason ‘why some scholars distinguished between individual apostasy and apostasy which is accompanied by high treason.’

Syed further argues3 that ‘a number of Islamic scholars from past centuries including Ibrahim al-Naka’I, Sufyan al-Thawri… have all held that apostasy is a serious sin, but not one that requires the death penalty. In modern times, Mahmud Shaltut, Sheikh of al-Azhar, and Dr Tantawi have concurred’. Ayoub (1994) concludes his analysis by pointing out: ‘a careful study of the early sources of Islamic tradition reveals an increasingly hardening attitude towards apostasy… because contradictory views have been attributed to early traditionists, including the founders of the legal schools, later jurists have been free to interpret the classical tradition to fit their own temperament and the time and political climate in which they lived’.

Saeed (2004: 98), in an important book on apostasy, quotes Rached Ghannouchi as saying that apostasy is a political crime and that Quranic evidence asserts principles of freedom of belief and forbids compulsion.

The relief provided to women and minors is also evidence that those designing apostasy laws had political expediency in mind. Sulayman (2011), in his book Tolerance and Coercion in Islam, concludes that it was the fighting men who were held accountable for their acceptance or non-acceptance of Islam. Friedman (2003) sums up the views and arguments of Abu Hanifa, the first and the greatest of the four Sunni imams. He states: ‘Thus, in Abu Hanifa’s analysis, apostasy has two aspects. It is a religious transgression to be punished by God in the hereafter; it is also a political crime, likely to be followed by rebellion’ (Friedman 2003: 137). In Friedman’s analysis, Abu Hanifa’s perception is that apostasy of male Muslims is primarily a political crime, entailing a danger of rebellion. The severe punishment it carries is a matter of public policy, designed to protect the well-being of the Muslim state.

According to Ayoub (1994), apostasy remained a theoretical issue for Muslims until very recently and came to the fore as a political question with the rise of Western colonialism. He suggests that the issue is rooted in, and influenced by, the forced secularization of Muslim society, and the absence of a free debate under the authoritarian regimes that dominate much of the Muslim world.


Islam has established a direct relationship between human persons and God. The Quran and Sunna are absolutely clear about freedom in matters of faith. If we accept the modern view of democracy as not so much participation of the individual in political power, but as a system of protection of the individual from the violence and coercion of the state, Islam’s view point is closest to modernity. Islam not only wants freedom of the individual from theocracy, but also from control by the state. Islam emphasizes the role and responsibility of the individual and freedom of faith is a fundamental principle.

While, without doubt, Islam makes a distinction between believers and non-believers, the Quran addresses all human persons and envisages a better world and a better humanity by placing the responsibility for action squarely on each individual human being.

Subsequent developments in Sharia law were driven by political interests, as was its promotion to divine status. Muslim lands lie under the stranglehold of corrupt political and theocratic elites and suffer from complex and multifarious troubles. However, none of these problems is insurmountable and the key to revival and reform lies in education of the Muslim peoples along with concerted efforts by intellectuals.

One question, which can only be touched on very briefly, is whether the secularization of Muslim societies is a solution.

Secularization, tried both forcefully and by stealth, has failed to a large degree. Firstly, secularism has as its basis the division between the Lord and Caesar held as absolute by some Christians. This division is anathema to Islam. Secondly, Christian societies did not have a glorious past to which they could look back as Muslims do. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Islam provides a great anchoring point of identity to the self, when faced with the dislocating trauma of modernity and globalization.

A revival must start at the intellectual level with a fresh examination of Sharia in the light of Quranic evidence. To change Muslim societies, and to align them with the original ethos of the Quran and the Sunna, one has to adopt a multi-pronged strategy with intellectual efforts going hand-in-hand with social, political and, most importantly, economic improvements. Change, though, has to be internalized and to come from within. Any outside interference has proved to, and will continue to, aggravate the situation.

Education is the key to this social, political and economic change. Literacy and education will allow Muslims to learn for themselves what the Quran and the Sunna say, rather than depending upon interpretations of others. Intellectuals have to lead this movement and accept the risks such leadership will involve. The easiest task is providing the theoretical basis: that is readily available in the Quran and Sunna, which speak loudly and clearly.


  1. Page numbers to this text are for the web edition (see list of references).
  2. The English translation is available online with the original Arabic:
  3. _is.htm


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