6 – Freedom in Islam vis-a-vis religious beliefs

Freedom in Islam vis-a-vis Religious Beliefs

In the name of Allah, the all-Beneficent, the all-Merciful,

Allah, the all-Wise has said in His book:

الّذین یتّبعون الرّسول النّبىّ الامّىّ الّذی یجدونه مکتوبا عندهم فی التّوراة و الانجیل یامرهم بالمعروف و ینهاهم عن المنکر و یحلّ لهم الطّیّبات و یحرّم علیهم الخبائث و یضع عنهم اصرهم والاغلال الّتی کانت علیهم

Those who follow the Apostle, the uninstructed prophet, whose mention they find written with them in the Torah and the Evangel, who bids them to do what is right and forbids them from what is wrong, makes lawful to them all the good things and forbids them from all vicious things, and relieves them of their burdens and the shackles that were upon them … (Surah al-A’raaf, 157)

We have previously discussed freedom of thought and belief in Islam to some extent. Three aspects were mentioned in regards to this type of freedom. First was Islam’s perspective on the freedom of thinking and intellection, which was already discussed. Second was the aspect of freedom of religious belief and third was the freedom of political beliefs and inclinations.

We will open up the topic of the second aspect – the freedom of religious beliefs, which is a relevant topic in the world today –  a little and explain the Islamic point of view. The issue of freedom of religious beliefs is an important and foundational issue in Islam, but the views of Islamic thinkers have not been well summarized nor presented in a detailed manner. Some thinkers, writers, and researchers have discussed it, but, in my opinion, this discussion needs further analysis and attention. Some, influenced by the surge of focus on freedom of beliefs in the West and because this freedom is commonly held to mean that all beliefs are respectable and no belief should be questioned, have pushed the Islamic point of view on freedom of beliefs towards this same Western interpretation. Others, on the other hand, by looking at a few verses of the Holy Quran and narrations have considered the issue in a very limited and confined manner, and believe that the freedom to have a religious belief other than belief in Islam is opposed to the Islamic point of view. Each of these two sets of writers and scholars, if they were to discuss the issue, might arrive at a different conclusion than what their words portray. In any case, the view I have arrived at by referring to verses, some narrations, and the views of scholars on this topic is what I want to discuss now. This is currently only to the extent of a belief, which still has a room for further discussion, study, and exchange of ideas. The topic is not closed and what I am presenting is what I hav so far derived from Islamic and religious sources.

Firstly, internal belief is not something that can come under pressure and force. That which can be put under pressure and force is human action and human nature, not internal belief itself. That is why you find that the harshness that existed in Europe during the Middle Ages with regards to religious, political, social, and scientific beliefs and led to the killing and throwing of thousands of people into fire, could not destroy those beliefs or make them obsolete. Like other beliefs that were subjected to pressure in the course of history, they remained within the society. Beliefs cannot be subjected to force. Beliefs can only be changed or created in someone by a tool specific to beliefs. We can say in one sentence that there is freedom of belief according to Islam. However, this freedom of belief needs to be explained and it’s proper meaning found. Freedom of belief does not mean that Islam allows and counts it permissible to stray away from the right belief and accept a wrong belief in one’s heart and mind. If it is said that, according to Islam, freedom of belief means that everyone is allowed to choose any type of belief, even an invalid one, this is definitely wrong. It is natural that, just as each part of the body has a responsibility and is required to perform some actions, the human heart and mind also have responsibilities that are also mentioned in narrations. These responsibilities are to know God by His oneness and His attributes and to accept valid beliefs regarding prophethood, resurrection, and other Islamic teachings. So that is not the proper meaning of freedom of belief. The meaning of freedom of belief in Islam is found in the answer to how Islam treats one who did not perform their Islamic and intellectual responsibility and chose the wrong belief as their internal belief. Does Islam resort to force, saying that you must turn back from your belief? Does it hold a sword to your neck to make you believe in the right belief? Deprive you of the right to live in society? Deprive you of civil rights within society? Oust you from among your people? No. Even though Islam does not accept wrong beliefs and considers them invalid and impermissible, Islam not only does not deprive one who possesses wrong and incorrect beliefs of the right to life, but such a person is not even deprived of the civil rights given by the laws and framework of that society.  This is something that we clearly witness in the verses of the Quran, as well as in the character of the Prophet (saw) and within the history of Islam. Thus, freedom of belief in Islam means that no one is subjected to pressure and force due to invalid and wrong beliefs held by them. Islam is not like Europe of the Middle Ages that threatened to kill someone because of thier beliefs. Islam does not the support the method of Umayyads and Abbasids during the early period of Islam who used to pressure those whose beliefs did not match their own and deprived them their life, persecuted them, punished them, or put financial penalties on them due to certain beliefs. None of these things exist in Islam; rather, Islam tolerates disbelievers in an Islamic society. Islam gives them rights, defends them – someone who steals from them is punished, grants them security, health and other social rights when they follow the laws of social life in this society. In one of the sermons about the invasions of the Umayyad army in the city of Ambar, Amir al-Mo’minin (as) says: It has reached me that men from among them used to enter the houses of Muslim women and other women of Ahl al-Kitaab.[1] These plunderers would take away their ornaments of gold from them, from their feet. At the end of this sermon, Amir al-Mo’minin says that it is understandable if a Muslim dies from grief hearing this, the grief of an enemy’s invasion and aggression towards the houses of Muslim or Jew or Christian women who are under the protection of Islam and are living in an Islamic society.

Besides this, a few other points need to be understood as well. Firstly, Islam is not very senseitive of belief itself, however, Islam is of course very particular on the effects that come about due to the actions of a person having such belief, if they are against the interests of the Islamic system. This means that if a person who does not accept the right belief, acts based on thier own beliefs in such a way that the prestige of Islamic society, the security of the society, the stability of the society, the unity of the society and other interests of this society is not disturbed, there is no issue. They can act on their own beliefs for themselves. For instance, they can gather in their temples, their churches and perform religious acts. However, if they act based on their beliefs in a manner that causes damage to the prestige of the society, moral stability of the society, unity of the society, independence of the society and other dimensions of the society which an Islamic government takes into consideration, here, the Islamic state would react and stop them from acting on their beliefs. If they insist on their actions, the state would punish them. Therefore, this freedom is only within the boundaries of beliefs and only extends to those actions that are not contradictory with the framework of Islamic society. But, the Islamic system does not tolerate and fights against a person who performs actions that are against the interests of Islamic society and its laws and frameworks, which are derived from the Islamic beliefs. This does not mean being opposed to the freedom of belief; rather, it means protecting the boundaries of society, boundaries of culture, boundaries of economy, and boundaries of politics. This is a responsibility of the Islamic state that it must fulfill. It is the same for other beliefs and inclinations as well. Take a look at our day-to-day general issues. For example, you may believe that moving with high speed is good for humans. While driving, you like to travel at a high speed that you believe to be beneficial. If this belief is for yourself and no one is bothered about it, then it is fine. But if you want to act on this belief and start driving on the city streets above the permitted speed, you will be stopped. On the other hand, if you hold a belief that high speed is not a desirable thing and one should move at slow speeds, then that is also your personal belief, and there is no problem in it. However, if you want to drive at a slow speed on a freeway that has a minimum speed limit, here also you will be stopped. This is the case in day-to-day and simple issues of life. For general issues and beliefs as well, Islam’s view is this: your beliefs are for yourself, but if an action needs to be performed based on that belief, it is permitted only if it does not contradict with the framework of the society.

Another point in regards to the freedom of beliefs is that Islam, despite having such high-mindedness and tolerance for opposing and invalid beliefs, suitch is not the case that Islam likes and is satisfied for people to remain the victims of false, invalid, and deviated beliefs. The belief of a person is the foundation of their life. The belief of a person decides the fate of their life’s journey. The love for humanity, which is an established principle in Islam, does not allow for people to be drowning in the pit of false beliefs and not hasten to help them. Of course, Islam helps, but this helping is not by force. Just as we have previously said, false beliefs have a few roots, and Islam destroys and dries up these roots. Sometimes the root of a false belief is found in the internal characteristics of a person. Some people are stubborn, some are intolerant, some are selfish. Some are hasty in choosing a belief and thought, they do not choose a belief with patience, forbearance, thinking comprehensively. These are the characteristics that afflict people with deviated beliefs. Islam confronts this. Islam, in its system of upbringing, encourages thinking; it prevents people from being stubborn in their beliefs and actions. It stops people from acting according to biases for what they have heard from their ancestors. It holds people back from accepting a belief in a hurry and without studying it comprehensively. It cuts off the roots of such ethical and behavioral deviations in humans. Other deviations are the result of sensuality, carnal desires, utilitarianism. Some do not accept the right belief due to selfishness. Islam, in its social system, prevents different types of abuses. It blocks the ways of exploitations and oppressions, be it financial or cultural, so that the roots of such deviated inclinations dry up too. Sometimes staying away from the words of truth and the propagation of truth, staying aloof, causes people to deviate from the right beliefs. Islam under its own social fabric does not allow people to stay away from knowing the truth and its propagation. Islam makes them aware of reality and does not like for people in any corner of the world to remain unaware of the truth. The responsibility of propagating religion, that is to deliver the message of religion, is on the shoulders of every Muslim so that no one remains in ambiguity or a state of deviation and so that the path for finding out the right beliefs remains open in front of all. Finally, Islam is strictly opposed to the conspiring and and forcing away of right beliefs. Here, the issue of apostasy becomes relevant, which I will deal with in some more detail later.

To summarize our discussion, Islam does not compel anyone to accept a particular belief or leave it, but it does prevent any false and invalid belief that becomes a source of corruption in the society. Islam opens paths for people to acquire right beliefs and blocks the paths to false beliefs. In the Islamic society, if this becomes the enforced policy, one can envision that in a short period of time the profound, noble, and clear beliefs that are the result of sound thinking will come to exist in every person of society; awareness and enlightenment will be created in the society.


[1] Nahj-al-Balāghah, Sermon 27: بلغنی انّ الرّجل منهم کان یدخل علی المراة المسلمة و الاخری المعاهد

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