We can find many verses in the Holy Quran that advise us to think, consider the implications and contemplate our actions. The message in these verses is that humans should be able to reason or think without any compulsion being put upon them and that they should be able to evaluate a hadith (sayings of the Prophet) to arrive at the truth through intellectual effort alone. However, if an idea or belief remains only in the mind, it signifies nothing. What we must do is express the idea, explain it, broadcast it, and transform it into an action, without any compulsion or restrictions. Islam not only ensures freedom of thought as a right, but it also holds believers responsible for expressing their ideas. Freedom of thought is also a necessary condition for the actualization of"amr bi'l-ma'ruf, nahy ani'l-munkar" (enjoining what is just and forbidding what is evil) (Al-Tawba, 9/71). If there is no freedom of thought in a society, this order cannot be fulfilled with justice by people and they will not be able to command what is good or to avoid evil.
Thought and the freedom of thought also provide freedom of religion and faith, as religion and faith are matters of conscience and no power or compulsion can affect them. The verse, “Let there be no compulsion in religion; Truth stands out clear from error” (Al-Baqarah, 2/256) indicates that compulsion and faith cannot coexist. Even Allah, who created mankind and gave us all manner of blessings, does not use force and has given us the freedom to believe in Him or not (Al-Insan, 76/3). Taking this into consideration, it is clear how ridiculous it is for people to see themselves as authorities in this matter.
When the message of Islam had been transmitted to mankind the duty of the Prophet was completed; Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was and is not responsible for the deeds of the people to whom he transmitted the message. After separating what has been commanded by Allah from superstition, his task was complete; forcing people to believe was not his responsibility. The Quran states this truth, referring to Prophet Muhammad as follows:
“Therefore, do thou give admonition, for thou art one to admonish. Thou art not one to manage (people’s) affairs.” (Al-Gashiya, 88/21-22).“If then they turn away, We have not sent thee as a guard over them. Thy duty is but to convey (The Message).” (Al-Shura, 42/48).
“Verily We have revealed the Book to thee in Truth, for (instructing) mankind. He, then, that receives guidance benefits his own soul: But he that strays injures his own soul. Nor art thou set over them to dispose of their affairs.” (Al-Zumar, 39/41).
“Say, “The truth is from your Lord:” Let him who will, believe, and let him who will, reject (it).” (Al-Kahf, 18/29).
“The Messenger’s duty is only to preach the clear (Message)” (Al-Nur, 24/54).
“Say: “O ye men! Now Truth hath reached you from your Lord! Those who receive guidance, do so for the good of their own souls; those who stray, do so to their own loss; And I am not (set) over you to arrange your affairs.” (Yunus, 10/108).
These verses clearly depict the concept of the freedom of belief in Islam. Nobody is under any compulsion to accept or reject Islam. If faith were compulsory, then the responsibility of people, the freedom of choice, divine justice, punishment and reward, and the idea of the world being a place to test the will of humans would all lose their meaning and one could not speak about the Judgment Day, afterlife, or heaven and hell.
The Prophet carried out the practices of religion and conscience according to the theoretical principles that we have briefly mentioned above. These principles are a form of religious instructions that not only the Prophet himself, but also later Muslim leaders, starting from the time of the four great Caliphs, were expected to obey. With the adoption of these principles, officials refrained from forcefully imposing Islam on people who did not choose the religion. They allowed non-Muslims to practice their own beliefs. It is for this reason that throughout history non-Muslim minorities could preserve their existence in various Islamic cultures.
The attitudes of Muslims towards members of other religions are based on the teachings of Quran and the practices of Prophet Muhammad. As mentioned above, there are significant reasons why the Quran supports freedom of faith. In the Quran we are repeatedly reminded that Allah created human beings and set them free to accept the faith or reject it; mankind has free-will to believe as they choose.
After conveying Islam Prophet Muhammad left people to their consciences; he accepted those who believed in what he preached as his brothers or sisters in religion, but he showed no hostility to those who did not accept Islam and who wanted to maintain their former beliefs; rather he respected their beliefs.
The freedom of religion and conscience given to mankind manifests itself in areas like freedom of religion, freedom of religious practice, freedom of worship and freedom of education. First of all, the religion of Islam gave non-Muslims the right to follow and practice their own beliefs. Article 25 of the Medina Charter, issued by Prophet Muhammad after the emigration from Mecca to Medina, was concerned with this issue and states:
“The Jews of Banu Avf are an ummah (community) along with the believers. The Jews have their own religion and so do the Muslims. This includes themselves and their freed slaves.”
Detailed information about the privileges that Prophet Muhammad granted to non-Muslims can be found in his treatment of the Christians of Najran. When the Prophet invited a delegation from Najran to become Muslim, they refused. Nonetheless, they signed a treaty in which they were to pay jizya (a form of tribute or taxation). The relevant part of the treaty is as follows:
“To the Christians of Najran and the neighboring territories, the security of Allah and the pledge of His Prophet are extended for their lives, their religion and their property - to those present as well as those absent and others besides; There shall be no interference with the practice of their faith or their observance; nor any change in their rights or privileges. No bishop shall be removed from his bishopric, nor any monk from his monastery, nor any priest from his priesthood…”
The head of the Najran delegation and the clergyman of the delegation returned to their homeland after concluding this treaty with the Prophet; after a short time had passed they returned and announced that they had chosen Islam. The Prophet’s tolerance and support of freedom of religion had played an important role in their decision.
The Prophet gave extensive religious freedoms to the people of Yemen, as he had done with the people of Najran. In the letter of instruction sent to the district governor, Muaz bin Jabal, the people of Yemen were addressed as follows:
“I have sent Muaz bin Jabal to invite you to the way of Allah with kind words. He will accept the things that Allah permits, and will reject the things that Allah forbids. Those of you who bear witness that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is His servant and Messenger and accept Islam with full obedience will have all the rights and responsibilities of Muslims. Those who wish to continue with their religion by paying jizya can follow their religion. In this respect, they are under the protection of Allah, His Messenger and His believers; they shall not be killed, enslaved, or given responsibility beyond their power, and no pressure shall be placed on them to abandon their religion.”
The freedom of practicing religious rituals and worship for non-Muslims also includes the protection of religious places like churches and synagogues. The Prophet allowed the Najran delegation that had come to Medina to talk with him to worship in the Medina masjid; they performed their Christian rituals in this holy place where Muslims worshipped. It is mentioned in the text above that according to the agreement with the Prophet the places of worships belonging to the Christians of Najran should not be harmed in any way. We can also assume that in this text non-Muslims were given the right to teach and learn the principles of their own religion. The freedom of religion and conscience, the freedom of worship, the freedom of practicing, conveying and teaching religion are all considered as a whole. The removal or restriction of one of these freedoms generally means limiting the freedom of faith. For that reason, it is inconceivable that the Prophet would not allow non-Muslims to convey or teach their beliefs or limit these freedoms; he had even guaranteed that no bishop was to be removed, or any monk to be dismissed, nor should any priest be taken away from his flock. As a natural result of freedom of religion and conscience, non-Muslims have had complete freedom in particular legal areas like marriage and family, incurring and paying debts, inheritance and other legal issues that involve individual rights. Non-Muslims were given the right to solve their legal problems in their own community courts according to their own laws, and this right was regarded as a precondition of the freedom of religion and conscience. Prophet Muhammad punished the Qurayza Jews who had betrayed the Muslims by allying with the Meccan polytheists in the Battle of the Trench not according to Islamic laws, but to Jewish laws. The legal and judicial autonomy given to non-Muslims was exercised in an orderly fashion throughout Islamic history after the time of the Prophet.