Does God want us to believe in Him by force? What does it mean in Islam when God says in the Quran, “Allah converts whoever He wills”? There are many different places in the Quran where we find clearly that God is the one who is the source of faith and He decides who believes and even who doesn’t. St. Paul, in Christianity, is clear about this specific point when he says “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Ephesians 2.8-9
Most religions have looked into the issue of conversion and thought about what to do when people leave their faith to join other faiths. Christianity faced this dilemma some centuries ago, when people were sentenced to death for changing their denomination. The penalty of death for apostates was introduced in Christianity only after the Roman Empire became Christian and the spiritual and political powers were joined. Before that, the discussion in the early church was whether the apostates will receive forgiveness from the church or if the issue of forgiveness belonged to God alone. In the Middle Ages, apostates faced death because they were put in the same category as heretics, especially during the Spanish Inquisition.
Is this truly ‘Christianity’? As we look back on the Middle Ages, all Churches today should agree that such practices did not truly reflect the message and teachings of Jesus Christ; they are not compatible with the Good News of the New Testament. Based on our reading and understanding of the New Testament, we cannot justify such actions of Christians in the past.
Today, Islam is facing the same dilemma as the church faced over five centuries ago. What should we expect from Muslim religious leaders concerning this matter? Should we expect them to learn from the history of Christianity? Should we expect them to apply secular human rights to their Sharia (Islamic Law)? I doubt very much that any Muslim cleric would choose to adopt the Charter of Human Rights and include it in the Islamic understanding of civil society simply because the divine Sharia, as Islam believes, is above and beyond any secular laws or rules. What is the way forward for Islam? Occasions like the one happening now in Sudan are critical, tragic and embarrassing to a lot of Muslim leaders. The sentencing to death of a young Sudanese woman, Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, because she was found guilty of apostasy, raises a huge concern about how Islam understands freedom of religion. Interfaith dialogue should bear fruit in raising the issue of apostasy with our Muslim brothers and sisters. They need our support and help in dealing with thorny matters, especially those which influence our relationships with each other and could eventually damage them. I do believe that we can, in love and respect, highlight our concerns and expect some serious responses from Muslim scholars who would be able to speak out and explain to us what they think.
If we look at the Quran, we can spot many places that correspond to St. Paul’s words to the Ephesians (mentioned above). Let us look and see the verses that may help us in discussing Apostasy as we study the relevant verses in the Quran:
Chapter 6: Verse 126
So, whomsoever Allah wishes to guide, He expands his bosom for the acceptance of Islam; and as to him whom He wishes to let go astray, He makes his bosom narrow and close, as though he were mounting up into the skies. Thus does Allah inflict punishment on those who do not believe.
Chapter 6: Verse 40
Those who have rejected Our Signs are deaf and dumb, in utter darkness. Whom Allah wills He allows to perish and whom He wills He places on the right path.
Chapter 6: Verse 118
Surely, thy Lord knows best those who go astray from His way; and He knows best those who are rightly guided.
Chapter 10: Verse 109
Say, ‘O ye men, now has the truth come to you from your Lord. So whosoever follows the guidance, follows it only for the good of his own soul, and whosoever errs, errs only against it. And I am not a keeper over you.’
Chapter 13: Verse 28
And those who disbelieve say, ‘Why is not a Sign sent down to him from his Lord?’ Say, ‘Allah lets go astray those whom He wills and guides to Himself those who turn to Him:
Chapter 14: Verse 5
And We have not sent any Messenger except with the language of his people in order that he might make things clear to them. Then Allah lets go astray whom He wills, and guides whom He wills. And He is the Mighty, the Wise.
Chapter 14: Verse 28
Allah strengthens the believers with the word that is firmly established, both in the present life and in the Hereafter; and Allah lets the wrongdoers go astray. And Allah does what He wills.
Chapter 16: Verse 94
And if Allah had enforced His will, He would surely have made you all one people; but He lets go astray him who wishes it, and guides him who wishes it; and you shall surely be questioned concerning that which you have been doing.
Chapter 17: Verse 16
He who follows the right way follows it only for the good of his own soul: and he who goes astray, goes astray only to his own loss. And no bearer of burden shall bear the burden of another. We never punish until We have sent a Messenger.
Chapter 35: Verse 9
Is he , then, to whom the evil of his deed is made to appear pleasing, so that he looks upon it as good, like him who believes and does good deeds? Surely, Allah adjudges astray whom He will and guides whom He will. So let not thy soul waste away in sighing for them. Surely Allah knows what they do.
Chapter 39 : Verse 42
Verily, We have revealed to thee the Book with truth for the good of mankind. So whoever follows guidance, follows it for the benefit of his own soul; and whoever goes astray, goes astray only to its detriment. And thou art not a guardian over them.
Chapter 74 : Verse 32
And none but angels have We made wardens of the Fire. And We have not fixed their number except as a trial for those who disbelieve, so that those who have been given the Book may attain to certainty, and those who believe may increase in faith, and those who have been given the Book as well as the believers may not doubt, and that those in whose hearts is disease and the disbelievers may say, ‘What does Allah mean by such an illustration?’ Thus does Allah adjudge astray whom He pleases and guide whom He pleases. And none knows the hosts of thy Lord but He. And this is nothing but a Reminder for man.
These verses of the Quran show us very strongly that the matter of faith in Islam is strictly in the hands of God, and God is the ultimate source of faith and the final decision-maker concerning any individual’s relationship with Him. How can we have any right to accuse anyone of believing or renouncing any faith without trespassing on God’s own work? This issue of apostasy is not only an issue for Islam. Every faith loses adherents. We cannot keep our faithful by force or by jeopardising their lives or making them social pariahs. People should come to faith, or remain in faith, only because they do desire so with all their hearts and minds. We need to give God the opportunity to be God without claiming that we know better than Him who should be ‘in’ and who should be ‘out’! God definitely does not need us to defend Him; He needs us to love Him and love each other in His name. We must open the door for discussion and further exploration of this very important matter that will emerge time after time in different cultures and societies around the world unless we join together and help each other to bring a peaceful resolution to critical issues like this.