Freedom of choice is a unique privilege and blessing enjoyed by mankind. This choice is given not without purpose, however. It is central to the divine plan. As the Qur’an says: “He Who created death and life to test which of you is best in action – He is the Almighty, the Ever-Forgiving” (Qur’an 67: 2). Since human beings are endowed with the capacity for discernment and reason, and given that they are held accountable for their actions with consequence of ultimate reward or punishment, it follows in perfect congruity that each human being is accorded the right to choose a way of life for himself.
Signs are everywhere in the world around us and deep within our own selves, testifying to the existence of One God
People’s right to submit to their Creator, as well as their right to deny submission, is an inherent natural right, a proper claim which no person or society should hinder. There are cases in which a person identifies as an atheist but later on submits to God and finds peace of mind and heart. Each individual has his or her own spiritual journey and this must be respected. This is fundamental to the plan of God that there be no coercion in religion. Otherwise, submission to Him would not be a voluntary choice, thus losing its most profound meaningfulness.
How magnanimous God Almighty is that He doesn’t compel people to submit to Him. In Qur’an, while addressing this subject, Allah (swt) declares: “There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong. So whoever rejects taghut [false gods; transgression] and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold with no break in it. And Allah hears and knows all things” (Qur’an 2:256). And in another verse we are told, “And say: The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills – let him believe; and whoever wills – let him disbelieve” (Qur’an 18:29). Those who disbelieve, who refuse to submit to God, don’t realize that man’s high status – revolving around the freedom of choice – is fully realized by voluntary submission to the Creator.
To reaffirm this divine scheme, Allah (swt) further tells us: “And had your Lord willed, those on earth would have believed – all of them entirely. Then, [O Muhammad], would you compel the people in order that they become believers?” (Qur’an 10:99). And further, “But if Allah had willed, they would not have taken false gods. And We have not appointed you over them as a guardian, nor are you a manager over them” (Qur’an 6:107). Unfortunately, some individuals in the Muslim world seem to have failed to understand this unmistakable principle of religious freedom. Many times they take a very stringent approach when they deal with people of other faiths, and even with their own coreligionists. Their discourses don’t reflect Islam’s encompassment of diversity and it’s enjoining of tolerance, respect, and benevolence. Their tough manner reflects their cultural characteristics and/or their own personal inclinations, not Islamic values or practices. Naturally, and regrettably, such an overzealous and misguided approach adds to the factors creating confusion, conflict, and extremism in the Muslim world and beyond.
As a matter of fact, coercion runs counter to the core message of Islam. One must look at how the Qur’an addresses the human mind and intellect. “What, do they not ponder the Qur’an? Or is it that there are locks upon their hearts?” (Qur’an 47:24). Allah (swt) in the Qur’an asks us over and over again to open our eyes and minds and hearts and examine the wonders of the universe with its remarkable design. The signs are everywhere in the world around us and deep within our own selves, testifying to an intelligent cause behind this creation – that is God – and to the meaning and purpose He has made to pervade the entirety, from the world of quantum physics to the macrocosm, and everything in between. One writer eloquently depicts this omnipresent divine reality: “The truth is that, without belief in God, the universe remains as unexplainable as the entire mechanism of light and motion is without belief in electric waves. Thus the option one has to take is not between the universe without God and the universe with God. Rather, the option actually is between the universe with God, or no universe at all. Since we cannot, for obvious reasons, opt for the latter proposition, we are, in fact, left with no other option except the former, that is, the universe with God.”
Therefore, with rational minds and open hearts we find contentment in submission to the Creator, for there is nothing in the created world that stands on its own without His sustaining grace. And the believers’ approach to those who have not yet submitted must align with the way of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), according to instruction by God Almighty in the Qur’an: “Say: ‘O mankind, the truth has come to you from your Lord, so whoever is guided is only guided for the good of his own soul; and whoever goes astray, does so to their own loss. And I am not [set] over you to arrange your affairs” (Qur’an 10:108). May God Almighty enable us to understand this message and reach out with humility and compassion to those who have yet to comprehend and submit to the divine reality. Ameen.