An Islamic View of Peaceful Coexistence

Dr. Jaafar Sheikh Idris

June 2007

No Compulsion

Existing peacefully with non-Islamic beliefs is an essential Islamic principle that is clearly stated in many Qur’anic verses, and that has been practiced by Muslims throughout their history.

It is not something that Muslims impose on their religion or something that they have to resort to because of exceptional external circumstances.

Its requirement is demanded by the nature of this religion and is based on the following facts and doctrines:


a.                   Islam is God’s final message to his servants and is conveyed to them by His final Prophet, a man who is thus described by Him as being a mercy to the entire world. It is inconceivable for a religion of this nature to order those who accept it to wage war on the rest of the world with the purpose of compelling them to accept it, or wipe them out.

b.                  God himself tells His Prophet that the majority of people _ at least at his time_ will not accept Islam. How can He tell him at the same time to force them to accept it? (12:113 ).

c.                   The Prophet tells us that all Muslims will die just before the end of the world; only non-Muslims shall witness the final day.

d.                  God tells us that no one except Him has control over people’s hearts and minds. Prophets are told that they cannot guide people in the sense of instilling truth in their hearts; only God can guide in this sense. The role of Prophets and other preachers is only to guide in the sense of showing the right path.


Remind them, for you are only one who reminds, You art not at all a warder over them.[88:21-2]

Is it you (Prophet) who can force people to be believers? [10;99]

You (the Prophet) cannot guide whom you love to guide; it is God who guides whom He will.[28:56]


e.                    And if Prophets do not have the power to instill good in people’s hearts, the devil does not have the power to instill evil in them either. He can only tempt and deceive. But God ensures us that even this will not be effective unless people choose to listen to him; God comes to the help of those who seek his help and protection and guides to the truth every one who genuinely seeks it.


As to my servants, you (the Devil) have no power over them, except the deviant who choose to follow you. [15:42]

And Satan says … … I had no power over you except that I called to you and you obeyed me. So blame me not, but blame yourselves. [14:22]


f.                     It is because faith is thus primarily a matter of the heart, it is necessarily a willful act; it is something that one has to choose to acknowledge, and to voluntarily act on. No one can be forced to be a muslim in this basic sense


Say: (It is) the truth from the Lord of you (all). Then whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve [18:29]


g.                   The famous Qur’anic verse

There is no compulsion in religion.

is in consonance with these facts and doctrines. It is not, as some might mistakenly think, an isolated verse, nor is it the only verse that states this truth. There is no compulsion in religion because it is a futile attempt to try to force a person to accept a faith.

It is not because it is in the interest of every individual to have the faith or belief of their choice, as some liberals might think. This cannot be so because some beliefs are based on falsehoods and cannot therefore be of any good to the individuals who adhere to them or to the society in which they spread.

Islam does not tolerate non-Islamic beliefs because it condones them; it definitely does not. It does so because it discriminates between beliefs and believers. Thus while it tolerates the latter and calls for treating them nicely, it does not waver in condemning the former and criticizing them severely.

Look for example at what it says about the Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus, and the way it treats Christians. It tells Christians that if God is the creator of every thing then Jesus must be one of His creations. But a creator of someone cannot be his father; a father begets his child; he does not create it. It also says, how can God be a father seeing that He has no wife, that Jesus never claimed to be God’s son, and so on.

As to the Christians it calls them, alongside Jews, people of the book, and thus accords them a special place among non-Islamic believers. Muslims are allowed to marry their women, to eat the animals they slaughter, to allow them to worship the way they choose, to allow them to serve the country they live in as citizens, and so on.




The purpose of tolerating non-Muslims and of living peacefully with them, and of treating them nicely, is to present the truth to them in the best of ways so that it becomes easy for them to see and accept it.

It is because of this that the emphasis in Islam is always on inviting people to the truth, on the importance of this, on the best ways of making it, on the fact that it is the primary duty of Prophets and those who follow in their footsteps, and so on:

Thus the Prophet is told that his primary task is only to convey the message, that he is only a reminder, that he cannot guide whom he loves, that he cannot force people to accept the faith and that he must invite people to the way of God with wisdom and good admonition. Muslims are told not to argue with people of the book except in the best of ways, excepting those who commit acts of aggression.


But if they are averse, We have not sent you as a warder over them; Yours is only to convey (the Message) [42:48]


Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation, and reason with them in the better way. Lo! your Lord is Best Aware of him who strays from His way, and He is Best Aware of those who go right. [16:125]


Islam: a History of Tolerance


The Islamic teachings of which we have just given a brief account did not remain only at the idealistic level, but were translated by Muslims into empirical realities that many non-Muslims acknowledged and were very much impressed by. Here are some examples of some of their recent and modern testimonies.

When the present Pope made that famous speech at a German university in which he quoted approvingly Emperor Manuel II claim that Muhammad ordered Muslims to spread Islam by the sword, some of the best replies to him came from non-Muslims.

 Uri Avnery who describes himself as being a Jewsh atheist said[1]

Jesus said: “You will recognize them by their fruits.” The treatment of other religions by Islam must be judged by a simple test: How did the Muslim rulers behave for more than a thousand years, when they had the power to “spread the faith by the sword”?

Well, they just did not.

He goes on to tell the Pope that Muslims ruled Greece for many centuries, but never forced any Greek to convert to Islam. In the same way were the Bulgarians, Serbs, Romanians, Hungarians and other European nations treated.  He also tells him that whenin

1099, the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem and massacred its Muslim and Jewish inhabitants indiscriminately, 400 years into the occupation of Palestine by the Muslims, Christians were still the majority in the country. Throughout this long period, no effort was made to impose Islam on them. There is no evidence whatsoever of any attempt to impose Islam on the Jews. As is well known, under Muslim rule the Jews of Spain enjoyed a bloom the like of which the Jews did not enjoy anywhere else until almost our time. Every honest Jew who knows the history of his people cannot but feel a deep sense of gratitude to Islam, which has protected the Jews for fifty generations, while the Christian world persecuted the Jews and tried many times “by the sword” to get them to abandon their faith.

The story about “spreading the faith by the sword” is an evil legend, one of the myths that grew up in Europe during the great wars against the Muslims

Caren Armstrong concurs

With disturbing regularity, this medieval conviction surfaces every time there is trouble in the Middle East. Yet until the 20th century, Islam was a far more tolerant and peaceful faith than Christianity. The Qur’an strictly forbids any coercion in religion and regards all rightly guided religion as coming from God; and despite the western belief to the contrary, Muslims did not impose their faith by the sword

But the old myth of Islam as a chronically violent faith persists, and surfaces at the most inappropriate moments. As one of the received ideas of the west, it seems well-nigh impossible to eradicate. “[2]

The fact that Islam spread in a peaceful way was recognized and emphatically emphasized a long time age by the Christian Sir Thomas in his famous book, The Preaching of Islam:


…of any organized attempt to force the acceptance of Islam on the non-Muslim population, or of any systematic persecution intended to stamp out the Christian religion, we hear nothing. Had the caliphs chosen to adopt either course of action, they might have swept away Christianity as easily as Ferdinand and Isabella drove Islam out of Spain, or Louis XIV made Protestantism penal in France, or the Jews were kept out of England for 350 years. The Eastern Churches in Asia were entirely cut off from communion with the rest of Christendom throughout which no one would have been found to lift a finger on their behalf, as heretical communions. So that the very survival of these Churches to the present day is a strong proof of the generally tolerant attitude of Mohammedan [sic] governments towards them”[3]8




Tolerance of Religions Under Islamic Rule


When Islam becomes the religion of a state it does not compel non-Muslims to accept it. Some Western writers tell us that it was attempts at such compulsion that caused the famous European Wars of Religion that led finally to secularism and the relegating of religion to the private sphere.

Because Islam did not make such an attempt it could tolerate non-Islamic religions, especially Christianity and Judaism and give them more than the rights that are now given them by secular states. That is not to say that they were given the same political rights and opportunities as those given to Muslims. They were not. Such political equality was not possible in a religious state, neither is it possible in secular states. A secular state gives believers in religions like Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity or Islam the opportunity to occupy a political position on condition that they abide by the secular constitution that separates church and state. Some American religious writers complain that the freedom given to religious people is a freedom given them according to the secular definition of religion. But this has to be so. They cannot be given freedom to practice their religion in ways that make them encroach upon the sphere of the secular state. There is thus no difference in this respect between a secular state that gives religions this kind of limited freedom, and a religious


Reasons for Resorting to War


Can there be a place in a religion like Islam for war? Yes, but for reasons other than conversion. We live in an imperfect world in which some people have to be fought for others to live in peace. These are people who resort to acts of injustice and aggression. This resort to injustice is made in Islam the sole justification for war. Unjust and oppressive acts that justify the waging of war against their perpetrators can take many forms like:


i.                     Persecution by those in authority of those of their people who accept Islam

ii.                    Banishing such people from their land.

iii.                  Waging war against people of other lands who hold such beliefs.

iv.                 Waging wars against other people (Muslims or non-Muslims) with the intention of occupying their land or looting their wealth, or forcing them into slavery.

Peaceful Coexistence


We are living at a time in which, unlike previous times, people of different beliefs, nations, colors and ethnic origins found themselves obliged to live side by side in a global village wherein their interests are interdependent. But it is also a world in which piles of so called conventional weapons can inflict great damage to human life and every thing on which that life depends, and in which stockpiles of weapons of mass-destruction in the U.S. alone can rid the globe of all of its living inhabitants. It is obvious that there is no choice for humans to willfully avoid that catastrophic result except by deciding to live peacefully with each other whatever their differences might be. It is not however enough for people of the world to desire that peaceful life. They must take the necessary measure that make this possible:


  1. World institutions that safeguard peace and abide by moral principles without which those institutions cannot serve their purpose. They must be based on justice
  2. Great powers must understand this justice to be ultimately in the human interest of their people, an interest that must be acknowledged to be more important for them than narrowly perceived temporary national interests. A great power might use the economic and military power that it yields to subdue or even subjugate weaker nations and justify this injustice by claiming it to be in defense of its national interest. The fact however, is that there is no moral difference between this kind of logic and that of an individual who robs another of some of his or her possessions with the pretext that he needs it to improve his living standard.
  3. World institutions like the United Nations fail to achieve their purpose as means of safeguarding world peace if they become tools in the hands of great powers. But this unfortunately is now the case. It is not so as perceived by weaker nations, but as great powers admit it to be so. They even brag about their making it so.

The dominant elite view with regard to the UN was well expressed in 1992 by Francis Fukuyama, who had served in Reagan-Bush State Department: the UN “is perfectly serviceable as an instrument of American unilateralism and indeed may be the primary mechanism through which that unilateralism will be exercised in the future”. [4]

This means that when the US threatens to punish or actually punishes countries for not complying with UN decisions, it is in fact threatening or punishing them for not carrying out its orders.

  1. Compliance with moral principles, especially that of justice, is the only ultimate safeguard against the proliferation of WMD. Weaker countries will not see the need for such weapons if they feel that lacking them is not endangering their survival or the sovereignty of their states; they will deem it wise to spend the little they have on more important things. But if they are made to feel humiliated because they lack those weapons then they are sure to be keen on possessing any kind or amount of them at whatever cost, and irrespective of any treaties they might be signatories to.
  2. Those who are driven by the impulse to dominate must remember that there is a stronger motive force: dignity. There are many in the world who would readily sacrifice their lives to protect and preserve the dignity of their people.
  3. And it is not moral values alone that should induce those who have great military force not to use it unjustly; it is prudent to do so. Thanks to the development in the industry of weapons, it might soon be possible for individuals and small groups to possess some of them that are small in size but massive in their destruction, and not very difficult to have access to.
  4. The imposition on people of beliefs and values that they consider to be inimical to their own can be seen by some people to be more humiliating than unjustly depriving them of some of their material rights. The UN and other international institutions must not therefore be platforms for great powers to impose their values, especially secularist ones, on others who are averse to them. Members of the U.N. belong not only to different countries, but also different cultures, and thus different beliefs, values, traditions and histories. For these people to come together under one umbrella to cooperate in combating the problems that they all face as inhabitants of one globe,  it is absolutely necessary for them to acknowledge and tolerate these fundamental differences and to resort to none more than peaceful means in trying to resolve them. Cultural changes, whether to the better or to the worse, come only gradually and peacefully. Using a useful and much needed organization like the UN to force such changes on people will only foster disrespect for it and encourage nations to pay little or no heed to its resolutions. But this sadly is how many people in the West now think: they want other people to have the same political system as theirs, to understand religion in the same way as they do, to have the same kind of relationship between the sexes as they have, and to avoid behaving in any way that a country like the US deems not to be serviceable to its interest.

[1] Uri Avnery, Muhammad’s Sword,, September 27. 06

[2]. Karen Armstrong, We cannot afford to maintain these ancient prejudices against Islam, The Guardian, Sept 18. 2006.

[3] Arnold, Sir Thomas W., The Preaching of Islam, a History of the Propagation of the Muslim Faith, Westminister A. Constable & Co., London, 1896, p. 80. quoted in Jihad Explained,  The Institute of Islamic Information & Education, P.O. Box 41129, Chicago, IL 60641-0129, 

[4] Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2003, p. 29.


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