Free will and compulsion in Islam

No creature was granted ‘free Will’ by the Creator besides human beings and the jinn. Free will is a powerful tool, and to endow man with it clearly shows that there must be a special purpose attached to human life that is not the case with other creatures. Since no other creature besides humanity and the jinn has free will, this makes human beings far superior and controlling over other creatures. It is said that everything in the universe serves man one way or another, and man’s special purpose is to serve Allah (SWT). Of course, the entire worshiping process is to serve Allah (SWT), as discussed earlier.

According to many dictionaries, ‘will’ is defined simply as the power of making a choice or a decision or the mental faculty by which one deliberately chooses or decides on a course of action. Free will is defined as the freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention.

The fact that Allah (SWT) endowed man with free will is in itself sufficient proof that Allah (SWT) does not compel man to do anything. If humans were not granted free will, there would be neither any justification for testing them nor any need for Judgment Day to reward or to punish. By endowing them with free will and making choices available to the, Allah (SWT) is justified in testing them. It is on the basis of these test results that He apportions rewards.

One of the main purposes for Judgment Day is to assess how an individual utilized his power of free will. If there were even a minute interference to man’s free will or if he were compelled in any way to follow a pre-ordained direction, then a ‘just test’ and ‘just reward or punishment’ could not be possible. Thus, there is no coercion, compulsion, or interference with human will.

Allah (SWT) conveyed His Guidance to humanity through prophets and finally completed it in the form of Islam, through Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon them), His last prophet. Allah gives human beings the chance to choose between rights and wrong via their free will and without any compulsion. Whoever wisely chooses to believe the ultimate truth, acquire ultimate success, earn the pleasure of the Almighty, recognize His prophets, become Muslim, submit and surrender his will to the will of Allah (SWT), and wear the medal of servitude of the Almighty, benefits himself eternally.

The meaning of ‘Islam’ is to surrender and bow down, not to stones or trees, not to stars or the sun, not to animals or fire, but to the Almighty Allah (SWT), the Creator of everything. We cannot see Allah (SWT), witness His majesty, or directly observe His limitless power of any of His other qualities. Thus, it is difficult to surrender to Him unless we ‘will’ ourselves to do it through acts of beliefs and from the depths of our hearts. No compulsion or coercion can play and effective role in that process of surrendering

Now, by saying, “There is no God but Allah, Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah,” Muslims sign a contract with Allah (SWT) out of their own free will. Thus, by being under contract, they voluntarily surrender their free will and choices to conform to the pleasure of Allah (SWT). There is no more selfish ‘my way.’ They now have to abide by all the rules of Islam, and if they do not, they suffer punishment for breaching this contract that they signed of their own accord. The rest of humanity still has free will as to whether or not to choose Islam, but according to Islam the wise choice will not be wilfully to reject the call of prophets and ignore Allah’s (SWT) guidance, resulting to ultimate sufferings. I think this is fair enough, and who can be fairer to us than our own Lord?

The kind of obedience that Allah (SWT) deserves and that which brings ultimate success cannot be achieved without embracing Islam out of one’s own free will. If someone is force into Islam by the sword, coercively, or through any other kind of compulsion, then true submission as required by Islam can never be achieved, and if there is some sort of submission, it cannot be permanent.

Unlike animals, human society needs moral values to survive. The kind of society Islam intends to build and the kind of moral values it advocates cannot come about through compulsion. For example, love, brotherhood, unity, piety, generosity, forgiveness, kindness, simplicity, cooperation, self-sacrifice, charity, chastity, and tolerance are all values that cannot be obtained through coercion. The fact of the matter is that coercion defeats the entire purpose of Islam.

Through the abuse of power and coercion, one cannot rule for long time. It is only through love and compassion that the hearts of people can be conquered permanently. Any intelligent person will not imagine drawing any material benefit from anyone after his death, let alone centuries later. Thus, it was not for any personal reason that the Prophet (Peace be upon them) won the hearts of people through love. It was only so people could join him through their free will for the ‘greater purpose.’ Muhammad’s (Peace be upon them) main mission was to connect humanity to Allah (SWT). This could only be achieved through love. He did not use force or coercion, but he prevailed with the power of love and truth, and so did his true followers.

Islam does not intend simply to increase the number of its followers; it wants people to succeed here and in the Hereafter. The fact is that Islam does not need us, we need Islam. To bring everlasting change in the life of humans, acceptance from the heart and voluntary actions are required. Through coercion, one could only obtain verbal acceptance, but the major part of accepting and certifying by the heart, as required by Islam, cannot be achieved [Bukhari].

According to the Islamic teachings, Allah (SWT) disapproves of the actions of troublemakers and mischievous people. This clearly indicates that Allah (SWT) does not approve of coercion and commands, but He wants people to choose according to their will in reference to accepting Islam. Hundreds of verses in the holy Qur’an allow us clearly to deduce the message.

At the very beginning of the holy Qur’an, Muslims are directed to begin its recitation with:

“In the name of Allah, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful.”

In another verse, Allah (SWT) says:

      …We do not burden any soul more than it can bear…[6:152]

According to two ahadith of the Prophet (Peace be upon them):

       Allah does not shower His kindness on anyone who is not kind to other people. [Bukhari]

The sign of a momin (true believer) is that he behaves well with his neighbours (both Muslim and non-Muslim).

In another verse, Allah (SWT) commands:

…and show kindness to parents, and kindred, and orphans, and the needy, and the neighbour who is your relative, and the neighbour who is not your relative and the companion by your side and the wayfarer…[4:36]

At another point in the Qur’an, Allah (SWT) describes a momin:

  And the servants of the Lord, Most Compassionate, are those who walk on the earth humbly, and when the ignorant speak to them, they only say: “Peace be upon you.” [25:63]

These verses and ahadith are but a few examples indicating clearly that kindness is the best virtue; to be kind is very much desirable in Islam. If an individual is kind, how could he be coercive? If one preaches kindness, then compulsion is out of the question. Allah’s (SWT) guidance is full of kindness; therefore, Islam is free from compulsion.

The reality is that compulsion and coercion suppress free will. When Allah (SWT) endowed us with free will, why would He suppress it?

One of the greatest commandments Allah (SWT) reveals is:

Call towards the way of your Lord with solid strategy and good counsel and debate with them in the most desirable manner..[16:125]

Now, as Allah (SWT) directs believers to utilize such a manner of calling people to His path, He certainly cannot compel us to coerce or impose His guidance on others.

   In one very beautiful verse, Allah (SWT) says:

There is no compulsion in deen (way of life). Surely, true guidance now stands out clearly from error… [2:256]

There is no compulsion in Islam. This means that if a person lives in an Islamic society/country and does not embrace Islam, he or she should not be compelled to do so.

The issue of Irtidad in Islam

Irtidad is apostasy. A murtad is an apostate; anyone who returns to kufr (infidelity) after being a Muslim. Many have heard about a heavy punishment for irtidad, which is in fact true.

There is a heavy punishment from Allah (SWT) that He Himself brings on a murtad, both here and in the Hereafter. Of course, no one is compelled to enter into Islam, but once you are in, the story changes.

By accepting Islam, a person recognizes Allah (SWT), surrenders his will to the will of Allah (SWT) and literally signs a contract to abide by His rules. Any violation of Islamic principles from thereon is a breach of that contract and is punishable by Allah (SWT).

Now one can ask, since there is free will, how can anyone be punished for apostasy? There is no capital punishment for a murtad, because there is not compulsion in Islam. However, if a murtad denounces Islam publicly, purposely defames Islam, creates mischief, wages war against the Islamic state, and does not repent after repeated warnings, then is due for capital punishment. Anyone purposely undermining and giving rise to instability and committing treasonous activities by waging war against the Islamic state is punishable through due process of law.

Man has free will, and when he enters into the fold of Islam, it is for his own good, and he benefits from it. On the same accord, if he decides to leave Islam out of his own free will, he chooses to become the ultimate loser according to the divine decree. Since there is no coercion in Islam, no one can be forced to embrace it, forced to stay in it, or forced out of it. One cannot even be punished if one decides to leave Islam. An ex-Muslim is not pushed for irtidad but for treason if he goes so far as to commit treason.

There is no historical record showing that Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon them) ever having executed anyone for irtidad (apostasy). However, a hadith states that capital punishment applies to that murtad (apostate) who wages war against the Islamic state. [Bukhari] The issue/crime here is of treason against the state, not of becoming an apostate. Capital punishment for the crime of treason is not only a part of Islam, but is enforced all around the world, including the United States.

According to Islam, as people embrace it, they come to life, to home, and under the grace of the Almighty, but if and when they leave it, they become murtad, lifeless, and are withdrawn from the umbrella of peace and grace of Allah (SWT). Islam is no different when it comes to bringing traitors to justice. Certainly, the road to repentance is always open to everyone until their last breath of life, and as far as Islam is concerned repentance is possible, up until the Ange of Death become clearly visible, whereupon the door to repentance are closed shut.

What is the purpose of Free Will?

Some may ask, what is the purpose of free will if we have to choose between Islam and suffering in the Hereafter? Since there is no way out, where is the freedom of choice? How is Islam free of coercion?

The freedom to choose means that we are free to choose any one of two paths: one is Allah’s (SWT) path, which leads to Heaven; the other is not and leads to Hell. It is not possible to choose the path of kufr (Infidelity) in this world and end up in Heaven in the other world. You cannot take half from one and half from the other. You have to take the whole package, whichever one you like. Allah (SWT) does not present the concept of Hell to make you choose Islam in this world. He simply shows us both paths and their respective destinations.

The mercy and kindness of Allah (SWT) are that He informs us of the two destinations, so that we may choose wisely. Allah (SWT) does not place hurdles even in the path of those who choose the path leading to Hell. Since we clearly know the two paths and their destinations, Allah (SWT) is justified in trying us according to what we choose through our own free will.  Islam recognises our decision making ability and suggests that we make an informed decision.

Allah (SWT) has nothing to lose if all of us choose the right path and end up in Heaven or choose the wrong one and end up on Hell. It is we who win or lose.

Forgiveness and tolerance in Islam

Human history has yet to produce a parallel to the concept of forgiveness and tolerance as defined and practiced in Islam. A few examples in support of this proposition are presented in the following.

After announcing his prophet hood in Makkah and until his forced migration from there to Madinah, Muhammad (Peace be upon them) faced all kinds of suffering and physical pains at the hands of disbelievers, most of whom were members of his own tribe. He never fought back, never raised arms against them, and never permitted his followers to retaliate. In the face of adversity, he and his companions held to a policy of forgiveness and tolerance. Even under such harsh conditions he continued to deliver Allah’s (SWT) guidance to humanity through patience, steadfastness, and absolute faith and determination. 

Forgiveness and tolerance are among the great qualities professed and perfected by Islam and practiced by the Holy Prophet (Peace be upon them). He left indelible marks that attracted millions to Islam and, in a very short period, brought the East and the West under the umbrella of Islam. Among other things, the rapid growth of Islam was due to its basic teachings of tolerance and forgiveness.

Allah (SWT)) reveals:

…And (O men) If you should forgive, it is nearest to piety…[2:237]

Islam considers forgiveness and tolerance to be extremely desirable and laudable qualities. Allah (SWT) offers pardon to those who forgive and tolerate. The holy Qur’an commands:

….And let them forgive and overlook. Do you not love that Allah should forgive you? .. [24:22]

Despite continuous infliction of pain and hardship on the Prophet (Peace be upon them) and his followers, Allah (SWT) instructed them to:

Forgive and command what is good and stay aloof from the ignorant. [Qur’an 7:199]

At another place, the Qur’an states:

And never can good and evil be equal. Remove what is to be removed through utmost good…[41:34]

In the same manner, keeping grudges is strictly discouraged both in the holy Qur’an and the Sunnah. Once, a companion of the Prophet (Peace be upon them) requested him to bring a curse upon the Makkans. Upon hearing this, the Prophet (Peace be upon them), a man of tolerance, became filled with anger [Trimidhi and Bukhari]. On another occasion, while preaching in the city of Ta’if, people threw stones at the Prophet (Peace be upon them), whereupon an angle appeared and asked his permission to crush the city with the two bordering mountains. He replied, “I have come as the mercy to mankind and not as a wrath” [Tirmidhi and Bukhari].

He commanded his followers to create ease for people and not to put them in hardship, to make them happy and not hateful. He further stated:

“The one who is not kind, no kindness is brought upon him. [Bukhari]

The Prophet (Peace be upon them) also stated that

If you are kind to people on Earth, Allah will be kind to you in the Hereafter. [Tirmidhi]

Once, the Prophet (Peace be upon them) stood up (in respect) as people passed by carrying a coffin. His companions informed him that the funeral was a Jewish man. He replied, “Was he not a person?” meaning that he was a human, as we all are, and Allah (SWT) had created him just as he created us [Mishkar].

In reality, there are at least three types of commonality among all people. The first is that we are all salves of Allah (SWT). The second is that we are all descendants of Adam (A.S). The third is that we all, Muslims and non-Muslims, are part of the ummah (community) of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon them). Here, the ummah means the community to whom a prophet is sent, whether they brought faith in him or not.

The beloved Prophet (Peace be upon them) always respected these relationships. In fact, even during battles, he prayed for his enemies [Bukhari]. Has any general ever prayed in favour of the opposing army? This was nothing short of kindness from the merciful Prophet (Peace be upon them). He never harmed, let alone killed anyone. He never even used foul language or became mad at people at his service. Once, in a battlefield while lining up his companions, he accidentally poked the chest of a companion with his staff. Immediately, he presented himself to the companion to allow him to avenge for this mistake. The prophet (Peace be upon them, with such an elaborate display of equality, justice, tolerance, and mercy, amazed the world and enlightened hearts and minds, permanently changing people’s lives.

While migrating to Madinah from Makkah, his birthplace, the Prophet (Peace be upon them), along with his most beloved companion, Abu-Bakr Siddiq (R.A) was pursued by a non –believer named Suraqa bin Malik, who was promised a great reward for their capture. As he came close to them, his horse was miraculously buried knee-deep into the sand and could not move. He yelled out to the Prophet (Peace be upon them) for mercy and pardon. The Prophet of Mercy (Peace be upon them) forgave him. Moreover, he requested his forgiveness to writing to show to his people upon the return.  Can such a show of mercy to one’s staunchest enemy be duplicated?

Not only granting pardon, the Prophet (Peace be upon them) informed Suraqa that soon he would wear the gold bracelets worn that time by the king of Persia. This prophecy came true just two decades later, when the second Khalifa (caliph) of Islam defected the Persian Empire. The Khalifa took the gold bracelets from the king, put them on Suraqa’s hand, and said, “Is this not of what the Prophet hand informed you?”

When the prophet (Pace be upon them) reached Madinah, he drew up The Madinah Constitution, which included all the tribes, including those of the Jewish faith.  The following are some articles of that charter:

  1. All parties to this agreement will have freedom of religion.
  2. All may practice their religion without any hindrance.
  3. Everyone’s places of worship will be protected
  4. No one shall deceive, be unjust, or conspire against each other.

Every article of the charter expressed and clearly defined the basic philosophy of Islam and its principles of tolerance and mutual respect, as practices and preached by the Prophet (Peace be upon them) This newly formed setting was based on equality, justice, and freedom of religion and choice, with tolerance as its main element.

Even after his migration from Makkah to Madinah, the Makkan leaders/idolaters continued their efforts to undermine Islam and its followers. They conspired against Muslims and made secret alliances with tribes in Madinah and outside of it. Many battles took place between them and the Muslims in the first decade of the Prophet’s (Peace be upon them) migration. Within this period, some tribes breached the treaties made with Muslims, and back in Makkah Muslims’ houses and belongings were plundered.

Eventually, Muslims peacefully conquered Makkah and entered as Victors into the city they had been forced to leave just a decade earlier. The Makkans feared a devastating backlash for their barbaric behaviour towards innocent Muslim men, women and children, but instead the Prophet (Peace be upon them) granted general amnesty to all and pardoned everyone. The Prophet (Peace be upon them) said, “Today, all of you are free, and no charge is upon you” [Bukhari, Muslim, and Tirmidhi].

Among those freed was a woman named Hind, one of the staunchest enemies of the Prophet (Peace be upon them) To avenge her father and brother, who were killed in the Battle of Badr, she had cut open the chest of the Prophet’s beloved uncle, Amer Hamza, and chewed his heart at the Battle of Uhud. The Prophet (Peace be upon them) forgave even her consequently, they all turned from being enemies of Islam to protectors and loyal followers. No one before or since has duplicated this show of forgiveness and tolerance.

Commenting on the unparalleled tolerance and pure heart of Muhammad (Peace be upon them), Stanley Lane Poole, a British orientalist and archaeologist of the nineteenth century, wrote:

“But what is this? Is there no blood in the streets? Where are the bodies of thousands that have been butchered? Facts are hard things, and it is a fact that the day of Muhammad’s greatest triumph over his enemies was also the day of his grandest victory over himself. He freely forgave the Kureysh (Quraysh) all the years of sorrow and cruel scorn they had inflicted on him: he gave amnesty to the whole population of the Makkah. Four criminals whom justice condemned made up Muhammad’s proscription list; no house was robbed, no woman insulted. It was thus that Muhammad entered again his native city. Through all the annals of conquest, there is not triumphant entry like unto this one.”

When Jerusalem was conquered by the second caliph Umar, he made an agreement with the conquered citizens of that city, clauses of which have not yet produced the parallel in history, that’s what kind of heartfelt generosity and tolerance they displayed with opponents and enemies.

There are numerous opinions, commentaries, articles, and books by non-Muslim historians in recognition of such Islamic characteristics as forgiveness, generosity and tolerance. Unfortunately, however, some have dedicated their lifetime to creating misunderstandings about Islam and its teachings. One of the greatest, misunderstandings of our time is that, Islam was spread with the sword. Therefore, this issue must be addressed.

The rule of the sword in Islam

Putting it simply, to utilize a sword, you need two things. Firstly, you have to possess a sword; secondly, you must know how to use it. The greater the purpose to be achieved through the sword. The more expertise you have to have. If you have a sword but lack swordsmanship and only know how to wave it in the air, you cannot achieve much with it.

As a general principle, anyone interested in pursuing a career in science must take, from the very beginning, every necessary course in the subject of science to reach their goal. Similarly, every field requires relevant studies and training for one to become an expert. However, this is the general rule, and there can be exceptions to it.

According to some, Muhammad (Peace be upon them) was “just an intelligent man” with many good qualities, but was not a Prophet. For them, his Prophethood cannot be verified through empirical means. For argument’s sake, let us suppose that he was “just an intelligent man” and that through his intelligence and other qualities he invented Islam. Then, realistically, we will have to admit that he was not “just and intelligent man,” but must have been “extraordinarily intelligent” because the system he developed, if he developed it, was such a great and fine system that, just an intelligent man” could not have developed it. Moreover, that extraordinarily intelligent man must have devised, well in advance, all the plans necessary to invent such a comprehensive religion.

If people’s contention that Islam was spread by the sword is valid, then we have to suppose that Muhammad (Peace be upon them) must have known he would be utilizing a sword to spread that ideology.  Therefore, he would certainly have thought of mastering an unparalleled skill in using the sword. Moreover, he must have trained himself to be a great swordsman and gathered many other swordsmen in advance, in order to achieve this purpose later on.

The problem is that we do not find anything to support the contention that the Prophet (Peace be upon them) or any of the early converts to Islam possessed any expertise or special training in swordsmanship. We also do not find any group that was trained well in advance that would join him later. Even if we assume that he did have special training expertise in swordsmanship, then the question is, who or what prevented him for defending himself when, for example, Makkan threw filth, specifically camel intestines, on him while he was peacefully praying in front of the Ka’ba? Why did he not protect himself through this swordsmanship when children were led to throw stones at him in Ta’if? If he were a swordsman, why did he suffer all kinds of hardships at the hands of Makkans for thirteen continues years and never retaliate with his sword? Why, even that night when all the chiefs of Makkah, through their representatives, raided his house in an attempt to take his life, did he not defend himself with his sword?

To make the long story short, he was a prophet from the Lord and did not invent Islam; instead, he delivered the message and guidance of the Lord to us. He never acquired any special training and never planned to use the sword. He did not come to fight but to teach the knowledge and wisdom of Islam and to warn about the assured events of the Hereafter. For this purpose, he did not need a sword because he could not have achieved by the sword what he was sent to achieve.

As far as his personal security and protection was concerned, the Lord Who sent him promised his protection. If swords never played any role, even in those early days of Islam when their use would have seemed to be necessary and justified to increase the number of followers, how could they be necessary at the climax of its success?

However, even after emigrating from Makkah in order to practice Islam peacefully in MADINAH, Muslims were not freed from the persecutions of the Quraysh. Soon, the situation became warlike, and the need to defend Muslims against the imminent threats to their lives and property increased.

It was only then that the use of the sword was permitted. At this point, a role for the sword entered into Islam as means of defence. It is to be remembered that even then it was not to promote or impose, but merely to protect, Islam. In the matter of propagation, Islam inherently contains enough qualities and benefits to attract people towards it; swords are not necessary and cannot play any role in the true propagation of Islam.

The first person, a woman, the first wife of the Prophet (Peace be upon them) kadija (R.A) embraced Islam as soon as the Prophet (Peace be upon them) declared his prophethood. She accepted Islam without the sword. The second Muslim, the first adult man to accept it, a successful businessman/merchant, embraced Islam under no coercion. Many other early converts to Makkah embraced Islam out of their free will and without a sword extended above their heads. As a matter of fact, swords were hanging over their heads threatening them if they did not leave Islam, but the firmly-rooted faith did not shake, and these new converts did not budge and stood firm in their commitment to Islam.

For example, when the fortieth Muslim and the second khalifa of Islam, the famous Umar ibn al-Khattab (R.A), a strong and brave man who was feared by many, surrendered his will to the will of Allah (SWT) in front of Muhammad (Peace be upon them) and embraced Islam, the sword was in his hands and he was in fact a great swordsman.

The famous general, Khalid bin Waleed (R.A) fought many battles against Islam, inflicted heavy injuries on Muslims, and was a great warrior and swordsman. It is thus obvious that even if a sword was used against him, it could not convert him to Islam.  He embraced Islam through his own free will, laid his sword at the feet of the Prophet (Peace be upon them) and permanently surrendered himself to Islam. Through these two examples, we witness how swords were laid to rest before embracing Islam. During the lifetime of the Prophet (Peace be upon them), the fear of the sword never converted anyone into being a Muslim; it was always the other way around. Swords were never used to propagate Islam, but were later need to protect it.

Let us suppose that even if a sword were utilized, it could only acquire verbal submission, but could never obtain inner convictions, as it’s required in Islam. Swords may cause one to convert temporarily, but they cannot keep one in Islam permanently. If one does not convert from the heart, what is the sense of forcing him or her to accept Islam? Forceful acceptance brings no benefit to the individual or to anyone else. By the way, how many swords would you currently need, and how many people to hold them, to control and subjugate 1.6 billion Muslims throughout the world? Additionally, how many more swords would one need on a daily basis throughout the world for newcomers? Manufacturing swords would be a thriving business if this were the case.

A sword can slice a heart, but it cannot enlighten it. It can sever the head, but it cannot bend it voluntarily for daily prayers. It can separate one from this world, but it cannot bring any success in the other world. It can fill the heart with fear, but it cannot free it from the filth of this world. It can shut the eyes forever, but it cannot open them to see the truth. It can cause one to surrender everything else, but it cannot cause one to surrender his or her will.  It can rob a person, but it cannot make him generous. It can make a person proud and arrogant, but it cannot make anybody humble and modest. It can exclude one from society, but it cannot make anybody humble and modest. It can exclude one from society, but it cannot make one caring and sharing.

Islam intends to kill the kufr (infidelity), not the kafir (one who commits infidelity).It wants to eradicate shirk (polytheism) not the mushrik (polytheist). It wants to suppress the evil inside of people, not the people themselves. It seeks to build societies, not turn them into graveyards. It wants humans to achieve the higher status, not eradicate people from the face of this earth. The portrayal of a Muslim holding a Qur’an in one hand and sword in the other is not only a misrepresentation of Islam, but is  purposely drawn to deceive and conceal the truth from people. The sword and Islam are not synonymous.


This post is in a series of many to come on the topic of Islam from a Sufi Perspective. More articles are to follow. Please follow in the Category : Islam as a Sufi Perspective, or Alternatively subscribe to our blog!

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