Freedom to Change Ones’ Religion — The Quranic Approach. Dr. Irfan Ahmad Khan.

Freedom of Religion is Meaningless
Without Freedom to Change One’s Religion

‘Freedom of Religion’ is an individual’s fundamental right and it includes ‘Freedom to Change One’s Religion’. However, there are people who stand for freedom to change one’s religion only when someone is entering into their own faith community. These people would not allow the members of their own faith community to convert to any other religion – even if they would do so out of their own free will. From the perspective of ‘freedom to change religion’, their policy involves a double standard. A self-contradictory principle is inherent in this policy; therefore, it cannot work in a plural society – a society in which various faith communities live peacefully, in spite of radical differences in their beliefs and religious practices.

Quite often, faith communities have a desire that more people should join the family of their believers and that none of their members should leave the family. Given this perspective, the above policy is not, necessarily, based upon an ill will. In all good intention, some people, who belong to a particular faith community, may love for other humans what they love for themselves. Maybe, because they see their religion as leading to the path of salvation and success, they want everyone to join their faith and benefit from its guidance. However, something is essentially wrong here. These people fail to see the fundamental principle that concerning basic issues related with one’s own life and death, an individual should be free to make his/her own judgment. While sincere help from outside should always be welcome, the decision to believe in a religion, or to change one’s religion must be based upon an individual’s own well-thought out judgment. It is a matter of principle that in choosing one’s religion, every individual should be free of all external pressures and temptations. In fact, it is due to this freedom that one is responsible for what one believes.

You Can Not Take Away
God’s Given Freedom

The people with the above-mentioned self-contradictory policy of action even do not see that they are trying to defeat God’s purpose. Divine Wisdom demanded that human beings should be free to disbelieve. God Who can change the hearts of the people and Who loves that all humans should be guided and that no one should go the wrong way, did not, on purpose, create such a world situation that would necessarily lead to all humans becoming one family of God’s servants. God, rather, created a world in which God’s faithful servants would follow the path of virtue even in un-favorable circumstances while some other persons would misusing their freedom to go the wrong way. God gives humans ability to think and freedom to make their own choice and then holds them accountable for the path they follow. Divine Wisdom demanded that God would send prophets and messengers who would help the people in making a right judgment and who would deliver to them the Divine Guidance revealed to these teachers of humanity. However, the spiritual and the moral progress in the human world that God has in view also required that God’s servants should possess such a freedom to make their own judgment in believing or not believing in God’s prophets and messengers.

Therefore, no one has any right to use pressure of any kind to make a person change or stop from changing his/her religion. An individual out of his/her own free will should himself or herself do entering into a religion or coming out of a religion.

Islam Stands for Individual’s Freedom
To Choose One’s Religion

The Qur’an, the most basic source of guidance for Muslims, stands for freedom of religion and freedom to change one’s religion. It discusses the above issue in many different contexts. As a matter of principle, the Qur’an clearly and firmly asserts: “There is no compulsion in Religion” (2:256). After fully explaining its view concerning human destiny and salvation and bringing all kinds of arguments in its favor, the Qur’an leaves the final judgment to the individual who may or may not choose to believe in Islam – the religion, the Qur’an stands for. Of course, in helping the people in making the right judgment, the Qur’an which is deeply concerned with human welfare in this world as well as in the Hereafter, presents with great emphasis, what it sees as, good and evil consequences of believing and disbelieving. But all this is done by way of reasoning and showing the path of guidance – without putting any pressure of any kind on the individual who remains free to believe or disbelieve.

It was in conformity with the above Divine Policy that is fully explained in the Qur’an, that the Prophet initiated dialogue with his addressees; however, when a deadlock was reached with some of them, he declared “For you, your religion and for me, my religion” (109:6). That is, ‘you follow your religion and I shall follow my religion’. Each group should have freedom to believe and practice its own faith. Co-existence is possible in spite of radical differences in religious outlooks, and therefore, there is no need to dispute.

According to the Qur’an, the case with earlier prophets and messengers of God was not different. All of them stood for freedom of religion and freedom to change one’s religion. When great pressure was put upon the believers of some of these messengers from their opponents, to change their religion against their own will and tocome back to their original state of misguidance, the messengers argued “Are we compelling you to follow our religious path?” (“If not, then why are you putting so much pressure upon us? All we are doing is presenting some of our insights, received through revelation from God. You may or may not share these with us”) (11:28). Thus according to the Qur’an, for all the prophets and messengers of God, believing in a religion or changing one’s religion was a matter of understanding and free judgment

All Islamic scholars agree that iman or believing must be based upon understanding. In fact, it is in this sense that believing or having iman is something that one’s heart does. Some persons who had, apparently, embraced Islam and claimed to be believers were criticized by the Qur’an: “Iman has not yet entered into your heart!” “Truly speaking, you do not believe” “ Better, you say, ‘we have submitted”. Thus if an individual’s entering into the Muslim Community is forced by some external pressures, and is devoid of any understanding and any commitment to the tawhidic principle, then it is not a true belief (iman). Such an iman (believing) will not be rewarded in the Hereafter, and is, therefore, quite futile and meaningless. In fact, the same is true of a person’s disbelieving after believing. If a person is forced to leave Islam against his or her own will, while his or her heart is fully satisfied with the truth of the tawhidic principle, in the Hereafter he or she is not supposed to face the consequences that a person who disbelieves out of his own choice, is supposed face (16:106).

Religious Commitment Curtails
One’s Freedom

Believing involves one’s making a commitment and this necessarily curtails one’s freedom. Mainly being sincere in our religious beliefs would involve our being consistent – believing in consistency with our beliefs and living in conformity with them. While an individual is free to believe or not to believe in a religion and thereby associate oneself with a faith community or dissociate from it. Thus one’s believing and thereby being part of a faith community does involve some commitment and even discipline which one is expected to follow. This may look like losing some of our freedom. But those who embrace a faith out of their own free choice willingly commit themselves to this bondage.

EXAMPLE: One cannot be a Muslim and at the same time believe that some of the Qur’an is mistaken or it is not from God or say ‘I’m a Muslim, but I do not think that I have to pray five times a day’ or say ‘I think I should pray when I feel like praying’. One can be a Muslim if one believes that he or she should pray, but in practice fails to do so.

No Muslim is perfect. Every Muslim fails to do his or her duty in a perfect manner.

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