“There is no compulsion in religion” The Holy Qur’an, Chapter al-Baqarah, verse 256).
Freedom of belief and conscience is an essential condition for humanity, and for humankind’s responsibility and role as vicegerent on earth
1. The Meaning of the Freedom of Conscience
Freedom of conscience means the individual responsibility of each human being, who is endowed with reason by his or her Creator and accountable before Him directly, without the mediation of any individual, group or authority.
God calls people to believe in Him and rewards or punishes them for their deeds. He does not impose any choice on them but creates them free, with the right to choose their beliefs, while He does not grant such freedom of choice to angels, who all worship God without exception.
2. Freedom and the Status of Human Beings
Freedom of belief and conscience is part of a broader conception of the status of humans in creation, as established by the Creator. This status is based on the following factors:
• Individuals are Honored as Human Beings, i.e. they are all the children of Adam, which means that they all have innate dignity regardless of their differences – whether religious, cultural, ethnic or sexual.
• Human beings are Honored as Vicegerents of God on Earth. This is an existential status shared by all human beings and requires them to work hard and exert themselves in this life.
• Human beings are Fully Responsible for their Own Deeds, based on the fact that they enjoy free will and freedom of choice.
Thus, freedom of belief and conscience is an essential condition of humanity, and for humankind’s responsibility and role as vicegerent on earth.
There is no humanity without freedom. Freedom is the element that distinguishes human beings as vicegerents on earth, who choose how to apply their physical and mental capacities, and bear the consequences of their choices. God equipped human beings with two essential properties that prepare them to carry the burden of free will - instinct and reason - and sent divine revelation as a means to guide them.
3. Freedom of Conscience and the Status of Human Beings
Divine revelation explicitly states that "there is no compulsion in religion", which means that there should be no coercion of any form over humans regarding their beliefs. Faith should be based on reasoning, deliberation and choice.
In his interpretation of this verse in his book “Mafaatih al-Ghayb”, al-Razi states, "Allah did not base the command to believe on coercion or force but on capacity and choice. When He made clear the signs and evidence of the existence of One Creator, He said, after this clear evidence, a disbeliever has no excuse for not believing. However, he cannot be forced to believe and to be forced to do so. This is not permissible in this world, because it is a test. To apply coercion or force with regards to religion would render that test meaningless. Thus, Allah says in the Qur’an, ‘So whoever wills - let him believe; and whoever wills - let him disbelieve’"(Chapter al-Kahf, verse 29).
The Almighty says in another chapter of the Qur’an, "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?" (Chapter Yunus, verse 99).
This meaning underlines another characteristic of the human condition, namely, two fundamental principles of human society:
• First: difference of opinion and diversity not as an exception but rather as part of divine will and one of the laws of nature.
• Second: People do not improve and excel because they hold a particular belief but because that belief leads them to treat others well. There is no value to holding a particular belief if it does not encourage an individual to do good deeds and warn him or her against doing bad deeds.
This is made clear in the Qur’an, “Your Lord would not have destroyed those people [of the towns] for their injustice if they had tried to reform themselves; And if your Lord had so willed, He could surely have made mankind one Ummah [nation or community (following one religion only i.e. Islam)], but they will not cease to disagree; Except him on whom your Lord has bestowed His Mercy [the follower of truth - Islamic Monotheism] and for that did He create them” (Chapter Hud, verses 117-119).
Al-Razi states that Allah "does not send punishment on a society merely because they are idolaters if they are good in their treatment of one another. Such punishment is not based on whether people believe but because they mistreat one another and insist on causing others harm and injustice”.
Hence, the famous Arab saying, "A ruler can maintain his hold on power even if he does not believe in God but not if he is unjust".
This is why religious scholars state that our obligations to Allah are enforced on the basis of His forgiveness and mercy while human beings’ obligations to each other are often enforced due to the human tendency towards selfishness.
4. Freedom as the Central Pillar of Islam
Therefore, freedom of belief and conscience do not pose a threat to Islam or to its acceptance in people's hearts, consciences, minds and daily behavior.
Islam gains no benefit from believers who are forced to believe and who pretend to believe out of fear of harm. On the contrary, Islam flourishes in a climate of freedom and in the absence of oppression and coercion.