What does Islam really teach about forced conversion?
Muslims are told to fight unbelievers until they are either dead, converted to Islam, or in a permanent state of subjugation under Muslim domination. Allowing people of other faiths to live and worship independently of Islamic rule is not an option.
Quran (8:38-39) – “Say to those who have disbelieved, if they cease (from disbelief) their past will be forgiven… And fight them until there is no more Fitnah (disbelief and polytheism: i.e. worshipping others besides Allah) and the religion (worship) will all be for Allah Alone [in the whole of the world ]. But if they cease (worshipping others besides Allah), then certainly, Allah is All-Seer of what they do.” Translation from the Noble Quran
Quran (9:29) – “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” Suras 9 and 5 are the last “revelations” that Muhammad narrated – hence abrogating what came before, including the oft-quoted verse 2:256 -“There is no compulsion in religion…”.
Quran (9:5) “But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them…” Prayer and charity are among the Five Pillars of Islam, as salat and zakat. (See below). The Quran thus sanctions violence as a means of coercing religion.
Quran (9:11) – (Continued from above) “But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then are they your brethren in religion”In conjunction with the preceding passage, this confirms that Muhammad is speaking of conversion to Islam. Quran (9:56-57) – “And they swear by Allah that they are most surely of you, and they are not of you, but they are a people who are afraid (of you). If they could find a refuge or cave or a place to enter into, they would certainly have turned thereto, running away in all haste.” This refers to people living with the Muslim tribe who may not be true believers, but must pretend to be in order to survive. They have no safe refuge to escape the Muslims. If Islam were a religion of peace, then why the fear?
Quran (2:193) – “And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion be only for Allah. But if they desist, then let there be no hostility except against wrong-doers.” The key phrase here is to fight until “religion be only for Allah.”
Qur’an (3:83) – “Are they seeking a religion other than Allah’s, when every soul in the heavens and the earth has submitted to Him, willingly orby compulsion?” But didn’t the earlier verse (2:256) state that there is “no compulsion in religion”? This contradiction is resolved by abrogation – where the later verse supersedes the earlier one.
Hadith and Sira
Sahih Muslim (1:33) The Messenger of Allah said: “I have been commanded to fight against people till they testify that there is no god but Allah, that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah, and they establish prayer and pay zakat.” The first part of this condition is the Shahada, or profession of faith in Islam. Violence is thus sanctioned until the victims embrace Muhammad’s religion.
Sahih Muslim (19:4294) – “When you meet your enemies who are polytheists (which includes Christians), invite them to three courses of action. If they respond to any one of these, you also accept it and withhold yourself from doing them any harm. Invite them to (accept) Islam; if they respond to you, accept it from them and desist from fighting against them … If they refuse to accept Islam, demand from them the Jizya. If they agree to pay, accept it from them and hold off your hands. If they refuse to pay the tax, seek Allah’s help and fight them” Osama bin Laden echoes this order from his prophet: “Does Islam, or does it not, force people by the power of the sword to submit to its authority corporeally if not spiritually? Yes. There are only three choices in Islam … . Either submit, or live under the suzerainty of Islam, or die.” (source: The al-Qaeda Reader p. 19-20)
Bukhari (8:387) – “Allah’s Apostle said, ‘I have been ordered to fight the people till they say: ‘None has the right to be worshipped but Allah.’ And if they say so, pray like our prayers, face our Qibla and slaughter as we slaughter, then their blood and property will be sacred to us and we will not interfere with them except legally and their reckoning will be with Allah.'”
Bukhari (53:392) – “While we were in the Mosque, the Prophet came out and said, “Let us go to the Jews” We went out till we reached Bait-ul-Midras. He said to them, “If you embrace Islam, you will be safe. You should know that the earth belongs to Allah and His Apostle, and I want to expel you from this land. So, if anyone amongst you owns some property, he is permitted to sell it, otherwise you should know that the Earth belongs to Allah and His Apostle.”
Bukhari (2:24) – “Allah’s Apostle said: “I have been ordered (by Allah) to fight against the people until they testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that Muhammad is Allah’s Apostle, and offer the prayers perfectly and give the obligatory charity, so if they perform a that, then they save their lives and property from me except for Islamic laws and then their reckoning (accounts) will be done by Allah.”
Bukhari (60:80) – “The Verse:–‘You (true Muslims) are the best of peoples ever raised up for mankind.’ means, the best of peoples for the people, as you bring them with chains on their necks till they embrace Islam.”
Bukhari (60:40) – “…:And fight them till there is no more affliction (i.e. no more worshiping of others along with Allah).” ‘Affliction’ of Muslims is defined here as a condition in which others worship a different god other than Allah. Muslims are commanded to use violence to ‘rectify’ the situation.
Bukhari (59:643) – “Testify that none has the right to be worshipped except Allah, or else I will chop off your neck!” Words of a military leader who Muhammad sent on an expedition with the mission of destroying a local religion in Yemen.
Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 959 – Then the apostle sent Khalid bin Walid… to the Banu al-Harith and ordered him to invite them to Islam three days before he attacked them. If they accepted then he was to accept it from them, and if they declined he was to fight them. So Khalid set out and came to them, and sent out riders in all directions inviting the people to Islam, saying, “If you accept Islam you will be safe.” So the men accepted Islam as they were invited. The text goes on to say that Khalid taught the al-Harith about Islam after their “conversion,” proving that it was based on fear of slaughter rather than a free and intelligent decision.
Ibn Kathir (Commenting on Quran 2:256, which says “let there be no compulsion in religion”) – “Therefore all people of the world should be called to Islam. If anyone of them refuses to do so, or refuses to pay the jizya, they should be fought till they are killed.”
Muhammad’s efforts to recruit peacefully at Mecca netted less than 100 followers in 13 years – mostly friends and family. His tactics changed drastically during his last ten years. Once he obtained the power to do so, he began forcing others to accept his claims about himself at the point of a sword. In many places in the Hadith, he tells his followers that he has been ordered by Allah to fight unbelievers until they profess their faith in Islam (the Shahada).
During these later years, Muhammad did not seem at all bothered by conversions that were made under obvious duress. These include that of his sworn enemy of Abu Sufyan and his wife Hind. According to Muslim historians, when Abu Sufyan went to seek peace with Muhammad, he was instead forced to embrace Islam. The exact words spoken to him in Muhammad’s presence were, “Submit and testify that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is the apostle of Allah before you lose your head” – (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 814). He did.
The entire city of Mecca followed suit, even though the residents and leaders detested Muhammad and resisted his preaching from the beginning. Most of them “converted” to Islam the day that he abruptly marched into their city with an army. Only the most credulous of believers would think that this was a genuine religious epiphany – just happening to coincide with the sword at their necks.
Meccans who would not change their religion were forcibly expelled from the city following that last Haj (Quran 9:5). The Christians and Jews living in Arabia at the time suffered the same fate, courtesy of a deathbed directive from Muhammad. They were given the choice of either accepting Islam or being forced off their land (Sahih Muslim 19:4366).
The Jews at Khaybar were not at war with Muhammad when he ordered his Jihadis to attack them. Even his faithful son-in-law, Ali, whom he chose to head the mission, was somewhat perplexed as to the pretext on which they were to assault this peaceful farming community so far away from Medina:
Muhammad said: ‘Proceed on and do not look about until Allah grants you victory’, and Ali went a bit and then halted and did not look about and then said in a loud voice: ‘Allah’s Messenger, on what issue should I fight with the people?’ Thereupon he (the Prophet) said: ‘Fight with them until they bear testimony to the fact that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his Messenger’ (Sahih Muslim 31:5917)
The Jews were caught entirely be surprise, of course. Their wealth was stolen and their women and children taken and distributed as slaves by the prophet of Islam to his men. Muhammad even took a woman for himself – after have her husband put to death.
Before he died, Muhammad sent his warriors against pagan Arab tribes, such as the al-Harith, demanding that they either convert to Islam or be wiped out (naturally, they opted for the Religion of Peace). He cursed Christians and Jews to the very end (Bukhari 8:427).
According to al-Shafi in “The Ordinances of the Quran”, Muhammad “defeated the people until they entered Islam by hook or by crook.” Muslims are taught to follow in the way of their prophet. A devotee under the reign of Umar put it this way “Our Prophet, the Messenger of our Lord, has ordered us to fight you till you worship Allah Alone or give Jizya (i.e. tribute)” (Bukhari 53:386).
Likewise, Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s closest companion and immediate successor, pressed Jihad aggressively into foreign territory against people who did not want war and were of no threat. In a letter sent to the Persians, the caliph bluntly stated, “You should convert to Islam, and then you will be safe, for if you don’t, you should know that I have come to you with an army of men that love death, as you love life.”
Through the centuries, Muslims have forced Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, pagans and others to accept Islam, either by bluntly offering them death as an alternative, or by making their lives so miserable (ie. taxes, denial of rights…) that the conquered eventually convert to Islam under the strain.
Forced conversions persist among extremists. Recently in Egypt, a Christian girl was kidnapped and told that she would be raped if she did not convert. In 2010, an 11-year-old Christian boy in Pakistan was kept enslaved in chains (1, 2) by his Muslim landlord, who proudly told the world that he would liberate the lad if he embraced Islam.
Neither of these examples of attempted forced conversion was condemned by Islamic organizations, even in the West. From the Muslim perspective, the victim in each case technically retains the “choice” to convert, even if the only alternative is death. In fact, some even lauded the Pakistani slave-owner for being magnanimous in offering freedom and debt relief to his subject for embracing Islam.
Since Muslims believe so sincerely that their religion is truth, they often can’t help but feel, on some level, that forced conversion is more of a favor done to the subject – a case of the end justifying the means. As Muhammad said, “Allah marvels at those who are brought to paradise in chains” (Bukhari 52:254).
After the high-profile kidnapping and forced conversion of hundreds of Christian girls by Boko Haram in 2014, a Muslim woman in the UK famously proclaimed that they had actually been “liberated” from the “shackles of slavery.”
It is also important to note the critical role that jizya plays in Islamic conversion. According to the Quran, paying a “tax” to Muslims is the only avenue of escape for those who don’t want to leave their religion. This source of income explains why Muhammad and his successor did not force everyone to convert to Islam following a military conquest.
As Muhammad realized with the Jews of Khaybar – who were allowed to keep their farming community provided they directed the profits of their labor to him – it was often more lucrative to leave local economies in place rather than killing every male who wouldn’t convert. This became the loose rule for the Muslim armies that swept across Christian, Jewish, Persian, Hindu and Buddhist lands in the decades that followed. Part of the money collected was used to finance further Islamic military expansion, producing more income and more “converts”.
As Muhammad put it: “My sustenance is under the shade of my spear, and he who disobeys my orders will be humiliated by paying Jizya” (another translation: “My provision has been placed under the shadow of my spear, and abasement and humility have been placed on the one who disobeys my command.”) This hadith has been quoted by al-Qaeda and is found in the original version of Bukhari and Ahmad (5114 or 4869, depending on the translation).
In fairness, Muslims have generally tended to follow verse 2:256 of the Quran, which states, “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” and have not felt it right to force others into embracing Islam. However, this does not change the religion itself. Verse 2:256 was clearly abrogated by later verses, particularly in Sura 9 – otherwise the practice of killing apostates if they do not recant their chose faith would not have become an acceptable part of Islamic law.
Another point to keep in mind is that in Islam, practice is more important than belief. Muslims are commanded to fight unbelievers until they say they believe in Allah (or pay the Jizya), but there seems to be a tacit understanding that belief itself can’t be forced (what is may be what is really meant by “there is no compulsion in religion”). Nevertheless, once a subjugated individual outwardly converts to Islam under the strain of taxes and discrimination, they are not allowed to recant upon penalty of death. Their children must also be raised Muslim. And, if they aren’t, it is a sign of apostasy – subject to death. This is how Islam managed to spread so successfully within conquered populations to ratios in the high 90th percentiles over the native religion.
It is ironic that the Muslim community is most sensitive to a non-Muslim presence in “Muslim lands” when those lands were not originally Muslim until they were conquered by force. The blatant double standard is rhetorically dismissed by declaring that Islam was the original religion practiced by Jews (such as Moses) and Christians (such as Jesus and his followers). Thus the conquered populations are said to be “reverts.” This trick is less clever and persuasive than many Muslims seem to realise.
One last point of interest is that Muhammad’s practice of ordering people to profess their belief in him proved disastrous both for his own family and the legacy of his religion. By the time of his death, his empire included a great many people and tribes who had accepted his rule merely to avoid war and slavery. Many of them wanted out after he died, and several wars were immediately fought, resulting in thousands of deaths and cementing Islam’s legacy of violent intolerance.
Even Muhammad’s sworn enemy of Abu Sufyan may have gotten the last laugh. So ambitious was the prophet of Islam, that he accepted his former foe’s outward profession of allegiance (at the point of a sword) in order to expand his empire. Yet, it was Abu Sufyan’s own children who ultimately benefited – at the expense of Muhammad’s family.
Abu Sufyan’s son, Muawiyah, inherited the empire after defeating Muhammad’s adopted son, Ali. He also poisoned Hasan, one of the prophet’s two favorite grandsons. Abu Sufyan’s grandson, Yazid, became the next caliph and promptly had the head of Muhammad’s other favorite grandson, Hussein, brought to him on a platter.
Such are the perils of forcing others to say that you are a prophet when they do not believe it to be true.
See also: MYTH: Muhammad Rejected Conversions Made Under Duress