GodTube Questions for Islam #10: Does Islam Have Any Positive Definition of Human Freedom?

John C. Rankin (May 23, 2011)

In Surah 2:56, the Qur’an states: “There is no compulsion in religion. The difference between guidance and error has been made clear.”

This is the major verse cited in Islam to commend religious liberty, but it is also framed as a double negative. No compulsion is good. But is there a prior positive upon which it is based?

No. In fact, there is no word in Arabic for the concept of liberty, as noted by Bernard Lewis, professor emeritus at Princeton and world leading scholar on Islam. This applies equally to questions of religious, political and economic liberty.

Also, these words came in the early Meccan or Medinan period of Muhammad’s public life, when Islam was not yet a political hegemon. In the later Medinan period when Islam was moving toward dominance, this concept of “no compulsion” is no longer found.

It is ultimately a question of the proactive versus the reactive. We are all wired for freedom, and we honor the idea of “no compulsion.” But how has it worked out across Islamic history, both within Islam and toward outsiders? It is thus reactive, as are all other definitions of freedom in history apart from the biblical order of creation – the subject of my next video in this series.