The Quran and Religious Tolerance. By Waris Mazhari


The Quran stresses religious tolerance, this being an important Islamic principle. Religious tolerance necessarily means that people should be not be coerced into following a particular religion. This is entirely in consonance with Islam. The Quran (2:256) insists ‘There shall be no compulsion in religion’. The occasion for the revelation of this verse further clarifies the Quranic understanding of religious tolerance. This verse was revealed in connection with a certain Muslim from among the ‘Helpers’ (Ansars) of Madinah named Abul Husain, who had two sons. It is said that they had become Christians when they were young and had been taken to Syria. Abul Husain mentioned this to the Prophet. He wanted that his children should be made to embrace Islam. This Quranic verse was revealed in this regard.
The Quran clearly states that human beings have the right to choose whatever religion or ideology they like. It is against God’s Cosmic Plan that everyone should follow one religion—Islam. Thus, the Quran says:
Had your Lord pleased, all the people on earth would have believed in Him, without exception. So will you compel people to become believers? (10:99)
[…]and had God so willed, He would have made you all a single community, but He did not so will, in order that He might try you by what He has given you (5:48)
It was He who created you; and some of you are those who deny this truth, and some who believe [in it] (64:2)
In this way, the Quran has accepted both faith and denial as eternal and natural realities. The Quran (22:69) clearly states that God will judge with regard to faith and denial on the Day of Judgment:
On the Day of Resurrection, God will judge between you regarding your differences.
Meanwhile, in this world, even deniers have freedom in matters of religion. As the Quran (109:6 ) says:
Say, ‘[…] You have your religion and I have mine.’
The deniers also have freedom of action in this world, as the Quran (42:15) says:
‘[…]we are responsible for what we do and you are responsible for what you do […]’
Further, the Quran (6:108) forbids the believers from abusing false deities worshipped by others:
Do not revile those [beings] whom they invoke instead of God, lest they, in their hostility, revile God out of ignorance.
The Quran (16:125) advises Muslims to adopt a beautiful approach in reasoning with others:
Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation and reason with them in a way that is best.
The believers are advised to always act justly:
Believers, be strict in upholding justice and bear witness for the sake of God, even though it be against yourselves, your parents, or your kindred (4:135)
The Quranic insistence on justice does not apply just among Muslims themselves. Rather, it relates to the whole of humankind, and Muslims are expected to act justly with everyone, irrespective of religion or community:
O you who believe! Stand out firmly for Allah and be just witnesses and let not the enmity and hatred of others make you avoid justice. Be just: that is nearer to piety, and fear Allah. Verily, Allah is Well-Acquainted with what you do (5:8)
The Quran provides for full religious freedom for members of other faiths, who also have the right to judge their affairs according to their scriptures. They even have the right to deal in things that Islam considers forbidden or haram, such as alcohol and pork.
The Quran talks about two types of disbelievers. The first are those who have unleashed aggression and war against Muslims, who refuse to give Muslims their religious and social rights and who have made the Prophet and his Companions a target of their oppression, forcing them out of their homes and lands. The Quran advises stern measures against them, granting permission for engaging in war in defence against their oppression. On the other hand are those disbelievers or deniers of the Truth who are not bent on waging war against Muslims and who have not compelled Muslims to leave their homes. The Quran (60:8) advises Muslims to deal with them with gentleness and goodness:
He does not forbid you to deal kindly and justly with anyone who has not fought you on account of your faith or driven you out of your homes: God loves the just.
It is important to consider here that the Quran considers even the fiercest enemy to be a potential friend. Thus, it says (41:34):
Good and evil deeds are not equal. Repel evil with what is better; then you will see that one who was once your enemy has become your dearest friend […]
This Quranic wisdom is related to the fact that every human being, even one’s staunchest foe, is born on the same natural state of man or fitrah, and fitrah has a tendency to like what is good. It is external factors that become a barrier to some people’s acceptance of goodness and truth. As the Prophet is said to have noted:
Every child is born in a state of fitrah, then his parents make him into a Jew or a Christian or a Magian.
The Quran basically addresses this fitrah, which requires love and gentleness, not hate and sternness.
Another expression of the Quranic spirit of tolerance is the fact that the Quran (31:15) commands Muslims who have non-Muslim parents to deal with them in a good manner:
Yet be kind to them in this world and follow the path of those who turn to Me.
The Prophet issued regular grants to some Jewish people, and this carried on even after his demise. When the Prophet died, his coat-of-mail had been pledged to a Jew in exchange for a loan. The Prophet could have taken a loan from a Muslim, but he did what he did in order to teach people this lesson in tolerance and virtue.
The Quran, as is readily evident from this discussion, reflects a universal notion of religious tolerance. If this is not reflected in Muslims’ behavior, the fault lies with Muslims themselves, and not with the Quran.
(Waris Mazhari is a graduate of the Dar ul-Uloom Deoband. He did his Ph.D from the Department of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and is presently teaching Islamic Studies at the Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad. Several of his writings can be accessed on his He can be contacted on

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