What do Muslims believe regarding freedom of religious choice? A Koranic verse (2:256) answers: "There is no compulsion in religion" (Arabic: la ikrah fi'd-din). That sounds clear-cut and the Islamic Center of Southern California insists it is, arguing that it shows how Islam anticipated the principles in the U.S. Constitution. The center sees the First Amendment ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof") as based on concepts in the Koran's no-compulsion verse.
In a similar spirit, a former chief justice of Pakistan, S.A. Rahman, argues that the Koranic phrase contains "a charter of freedom of conscience unparalleled in the religious annals of mankind." To a Western sensibility, this interpretation makes intuitive sense. Thus does Alan Reynolds, an economist at the CATO Institute, write in the Washington Times that the verse signifies that the Koran "counsels religious tolerance."
Were it only so simple.
In fact, this deceptively simple phrase historically has had a myriad of meanings. Here are some of them, mostly premodern, deriving from two outstanding recent books, Patricia Crone's God's Rule: Government and Islam (Columbia University Press) and Yohanan Friedmann's Tolerance and Coercion in Islam (Cambridge University Press), augmented by my own research. Proceeding from least liberal to most liberal, the no-compulsion phrase is considered by Muslim authorities variously to have been:
Abrogated: The passage was overridden by subsequent Koranic verses (such as 9:73: "O Prophet! Struggle against the unbelievers and hypocrites and be harsh with them").
Purely symbolic: The phrase is a description, not an imperative. Islam's truth is so obvious that to coerce someone to become a Muslim does not amount to "compulsion"; or else being made to embrace Islam after defeat in war is not viewed as "compulsion."
Spiritual, not practical: Governments may indeed compel external obedience, though they, of course, cannot compel how Muslims think.
Limited in time and place: It applied uniquely to Jews in Medina in the seventh century.
Limited to non-Muslims who live under and accept Muslim rule: Some jurists say it applies only to "Peoples of the Book" (Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians); others say it applies to all infidels.
Excludes some non-Muslims: Apostates, women, children, prisoners of war, and others can indeed be compelled. (This is the standard interpretation that has applied in most times and places.)
Limited to all non-Muslims: Muslims must abide by the tenets of Islam and may not apostatize.
Limited to Muslims: Muslims may shift from one interpretation of their faith to another (such as from Sunni to Shia), but may not leave Islam.
Applied to all persons: Reaching the true faith must be achieved through trial and testing, and compulsion undercuts this process.
Massive disagreement over a short phrase is typical, for believers argue over the contents of all sacred books, not just the Koran. The debate over the no-compulsion verse has several important implications.
First, it shows that Islam - like all religions - is whatever believers make of it. The choices for Muslims range from Taliban-style repression to Balkan-style liberality. There are few limits; and there is no "right" or "wrong" interpretation. Muslims have a nearly clean slate to resolve what "no compulsion" means in the 21st century.
Conversely, nonspecialists should be very cautious about asserting the meaning of the Koran, which is fluid and subjective. When Alan Reynolds wrote that the no-compulsion verse means the Koran "counsels religious tolerance," he intended well but in fact misled his readers.
Further, many other areas of Islam have parallels to this debate. Muslims can decide afresh what jihad signifies, what rights women have, what role government should play, what forms of interest on money should be banned, plus much else. How they resolve these great issues affects the whole world.
Finally, although Muslims alone will make these decisions, Westerners can influence their direction. Repressive elements (such as the Saudi regime) can be set back by a reduced dependence on oil. More liberal Muslims (such as the Atatürkists) can be marginalized by letting an Islamist-led Turkey enter the European Union.
What non-Muslims do also has potentially a great impact on whether "no compulsion in religion" translates into religious tolerance or permits (as in the case of Salman Rushdie) a license to kill.
Koran 2.256 in Arabic.
Sep. 28, 2004 update: This article fleshes out an argument I made in January 2004, in "Study the Koran?" One of my reasons for saying this scripture is too complex for amateurs to interpret is its complex and elusive nature: "Contradictions in the text have been studied and reconciled over the centuries through extensive scholarly study. Some verses have been abrogated and replaced by others with contrary meanings."