Adam chose to eat from the tree that God had forbidden. That means he had free will to choose between listening to God’s command and submitting to Satan’s seduction. However, this free will is not absolute. It operates only within a range that is determined by God, and it cannot expand to operate in other domains. There are many things beyond our sphere of choice or capacity to influence. That is why God challenges us in the following verse:
O company of jinn and mankind, if you are able to pass beyond the regions of the heavens and the earth, then pass. You will not pass except by authority [from God]. [Surah Al-Rahman, 55:33]
Does our belief in Predestination (divine decree and will) mean that humans do not have freedom of choice? No, because Predestination (divine decree and will) does not mean fatalism, something which Muslims do not believe. Predestination means prior knowledge, which is the ability to know for sure, in advance what will happen; it does not mean choosing it or causing it to occur. It is exactly like a person on the top of the mountain that can see two cars down below that will be in an accident, without that viewer being a reason or a cause of this accident. Or, it is like like an experienced teacher who can tell from the first day in school which student will pass the final exam and who will not.
And whatever strikes you of disaster – it is for what your hands have earned; but He pardons much. [Surah Al-Shura, 42:30]
Of course, the two cars can avoid the accident, IF they change their lanes. The slow student can pass the final test, IF he pays more attention and studies more.
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Indeed, God will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves. [Surah Al-Ra’d, 13:11]
Freedom of choice means you are free to choose right or wrong. But it does not mean there is no accountability for your choice. Accountability means that there is a reward for those who chose right, and a punishment for those who chose wrong. Life is like a super market. You are free to choose what you buy, but you will pay for everything you choose. Even in secular laws, you are free to break the traffic light laws or not. But if you would do it, you will be fined. So humans are free to choose, but they bear responsibility for their choices.
Religion and Religions
Freedom of religion is a big part of freedom of choice. But how can a religion guarantee the freedom of religion for those people who do not follow it? Does not every religion believe that other religions are wrong?!! The answer to the last question might be “yes” for all religions except Islam! Consider these two reasons:
First, Islam is not to be considered as a new religion. It is the same eternal message revealed throughout the ages to all of God’s prophets and messengers. Muslims believe that all of God’s prophets, which include Abraham, Noah, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, brought the same message of pure Monotheism. That is why Islam is the only religion which talks highly and respectfully about people who follow other religions.
Indeed, those who believed [in this new revelation, the Qur’an] and those who were Jews or Christians or Sabeans – those who believed in God and the Last Day and did righteousness – will have their reward with their Lord, and no fear will there be concerning them, nor will they grieve. [Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:62]
There are some interpreters who try to interpret these verses to apply only before the time of Prophet Muhammad, but these interpretations ignore the fact that the following verse is in the present tense.
And indeed, among the People of the Scripture [the Bible] are those who believe in God and what was revealed to you and what was revealed to them, [being] humbly submissive to God. They do not exchange the verses of God for a small price. Those will have their reward with their Lord. Indeed, God is swift in account. [Surah Âl-Imrân, 3:199]
Every religion tells its followers that they are the only people who are saved and are going to Paradise, but Islam tells Muslims something different.
Paradise is not [obtained] by your wishful thinking nor by that of the People of the Scripture [the Bible]. Whoever does a wrong will be recompensed for it, and he will not find besides God a protector or a helper. [Surah Al-Nisâ’, 4:123]
Also, Islam advises Muslims to focus on the commonalities, not the differences, with other religions.
And do not argue with the People of the Scripture [the Bible] except in a way that is best, except for those who commit injustice among them, and say, “We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you. And our God and your God is one; and we are submitted to Him.” [Surah Al-‘Ankabût, 29:46]
Second, being wrong is different than being free. So humans are free even to be wrong. Why? Because they learn from their mistakes. That is why God forgives those who right their wrongs. But what about those who did not right their wrongs?
And whoever invokes besides God another deity for which he has no proof – then his account is only with his Lord. Indeed, the disbelievers will not succeed. [Surah Al-Mu’minûn, 23:117]
It is God’s decision, not any Muslim’s decision, to forgive wrongdoers or to punish them.
And to God belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. He forgives whom He wills and punishes whom He wills. And Allah is Forgiving and Merciful. [Surah Âl-Imrân, 3:129]
Freedom of religion means that you are free to choose a religion or no religion at all. But it does not mean that I need to believe in all religions so as to allow others to make their choice. God Himself does not accept any religious orientation except submission to God, which is the meaning of the Arabic word, Islam, but he has allowed his creatures to practice all these different religions and beliefs on the earth.
And whoever desires other than Islam as religion – never will it be accepted from him, and he, in the Hereafter, will be among the losers. [Surah Âl-Imrân, 3:85]
Like God, I do not need to approve your faith in order for me to permit you to practice it; because not believing in a religion does not mean disallowing it or disrespecting it. God asked Muslims not to insult any religion.
And do not insult those they invoke other than God, lest they insult God in enmity without knowledge. Thus We have made pleasing to every community their deeds. Then to their Lord is their return, and He will inform them about what they used to do. [Surah Al-An’âm, 6:108]
It is one of the biggest stereotypes about Islam that Islam was spread by the sword, and that a Muslim group killed people just because they refused to be Muslims. The truth is that freedom of religion is guaranteed in Islam, more than a thousand years ago, before the United Nations was formed. Freedom of religion is guaranteed in the Quran, in Prophet Muhammad’s traditions, in the history of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, and in Islamic law (Shari`ah). And it is not logical to judge fifteen centuries of the Islamic history by the last decades. It is not fair to judge two billion Muslims by a few hundred of people claiming to act in the name of Islam.
The Qur’an demonstrates freedom of choice very clearly in the following verse.
There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong. So whoever disbelieves in Taghut and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold with no break in it. And Allah is Hearing and Knowing. [Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:256]
The Muslim scholar Al-Wahidi explained, through the following story, the historical context in which this Quranic verse was revealed.
“A man from the Helpers, from amongst the Banu Salim Banu ‘Awf, had two sons who had converted to Christianity before the advent of the Prophet (ﷺ). [After the migration of the Prophet ﷺthese two sons came to Medina along with a group of Christians to trade in food. Their father went to them and refused to leave them, saying: ‘By Allah! I will not leave you until you become Muslim.’ They refused to become Muslim and they all went to the Messenger of God (ﷺ), to settle their dispute. The father said: ‘O Messenger of God! How can I leave a part of me enter hell fire while I just sit and look on?’ God, glorious and majestic is He, then revealed There is no compulsion in religion… after which he let them go.” (Asbab Al-Nuzul by Al-Wahidi)
So, even our kids, we can raise them up with Islamic values and in an Islamic environment, but we cannot force them to be Muslims.
And say, “The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills – let him believe; and whoever wills – let him disbelieve.” [Surah Al-Kahf, 18:29]
Even for tProphet Muhammad (ﷺ), God determined his job to be simplya reminder, not aoverseer , so even he could not force any one to be Muslim.
So remind, [O Muhammad]; you are only a reminder. You are not over them a controller. [Surah Al-Ghâshiyah, 88:21-22]
When he was very sad that his uncle had died as a non-Muslim, God told him:
Indeed, [O Muhammad], you do not guide whom you like, but God guides whom He wills. And He is most knowing of the [rightly] guided. [Surah Al-Qaṣaṣ, 28:56]
The Prophet ﷺ
The Prophet ﷺ applied these Quranic teaching, so he never forced anyone to convert to Islam. When one of his Companions, Tufail bin `Amr Al-Dausi, asked him to send a military force with him to force his tribe to convert to Islam, the Prophet refused, and told his companion: “Go back to your people, treat them gently.” That is how the Islamic mission should be, and that is how Muslims should invite people to Islam, as the Prophet taught us.
Even when this Companion came back to the Prophet, to complain about his people, and asked the Prophet to supplicate to God against them, the Prophet supplicated to God to guide them,
Tufail bin `Amr Al-Dausi and his companions came to the Prophet ﷺand said, “O Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ)! The people of the tribe of Daus disobeyed and refused to follow you; so invoke God against them.” The people said, “The tribe of Daus is ruined.” The Prophet said, “O God! Guide the people of Daus.” (Sahih al-Bukhari 2937)
Also, Prophet Muhammad had treaties that gave non-Muslims the freedom to practice their religion: one with the Jews of Madinah and another one with the Christian of Najran. Not just that, but he also permitted the delegation of Najran (fourteen Christian Chiefs) to pray in his mosque, which they did facing towards the east.
The Rightly Guided Caliphs
The Rightly Guided Caliphs followed the Prophet’s traditions in their treatment of non-Muslims. [i] So, the second Caliph, Umar ibn al-Khattab, gave to the people of Jerusalem an assurance of safety and security of their persons, their families, and their possessions.
Umar was given a tour of the city, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. When the time for prayer came, the Patriarch invited Umar to pray inside the Church, but Umar declined. Not because the church is not a good place for Muslims to pray, but because he was worried that if he prayed there, later Muslims would use it as an excuse to convert it into a mosque – thereby depriving Christendom of one of its holiest sites. Instead, Umar prayed outside the Church, where a mosque ) would later be built: Masjid Umar – the Mosque of Umar.
After 3 years, The Muslims won the war against the Byzantines in Egypt. The Pope of Alexandria (the Coptic Orthodox Church) was exiled by the Roman governor. The leader of the Islamic military expedition sent out a proclamation of safe conduct for the pope and an invitation to return to Alexandria. When he arrived, after thirteen years in concealment, the leader of the Islamic military treated him with respect, and instructed him to resume control over the Coptic Church and to restore their monasteries that had been ruined by the the Byzantines –which still exist as functioning monasteries[ii] in the present day.
Muslim scholars consider that the first goal (objective, aim) of Islamic law (Shari`ah) is to preserve and protect religion. It is forbidden, in Islamic law, to afflict people in their faith or to force them to embrace another religion, even if this other religion is Islam. Furthermore, your Islam is not valid if you convert to Islam just to marry your Musliim spouse, or to gain a worldly benefit.
That is why we can say that the Islamic principle of preserving religion is the equivalent of “Freedom of Religion” in our modern language usage. If “preserving religion” means preserving only the religion of Islam, then why did Prophet Muhammad have treaties that gave non-Muslims the freedom to practice their religion!
More to the point, we can understand the Prophet’s life as a struggle for Freedom of Religion! He left Mecca because he did not have this freedom, and he fought for this right among the peoples conquered by his armies; he did not fight to convert them by force to the Guidance received by him.
[i] Will Durant (1950) The Story Of Civilization, Volume IV. The Age of Faith, Book II: Islamic Civilization, Chapter X: The Sword of Islam, Simon And Schuster, New York, Page 190