Freedom of conscience in Islam

Bashir Ahmad Rafiq The Review of Religions August/September 1992

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations on December 10, 1948, embodies the broadest consensus of contemporary civilization on the subject of human rights.
Life is dynamism, so is human society. One characteristic of dynamism is that it generates friction, and in terms of social values that means differences even disputes. Differences, or let us say, the right to differ lies at the root of all knowledge, inquiry, investigation, research progress. While, therefore, we must strive to safeguard the right to differ, to question, to dissent and even to protest, we must at the same time strive to secure that our differences in every sphere - religious, philosophical, scientific, social, economic, political and whatever, should act and react beneficently and not destructively. When they threaten to become acute they must be regulated or adjusted through the adoption of agreed peaceful procedures. This means, broadly, that we must all submit voluntarily or, if needed, reluctantly and even under restraint, to what had come to be described as the rule of law.
The Declaration of Human Rights does not, in the accepted juristic sense of the term, constitute a law. It stands, nevertheless, as a shining mile-stone along the long, and often difficult and weary path trodden by humanity down the corridors of history, through centuries of suffering and tribulation, towards the goal of freedom, justice and equality has been waged in all ages and in many fields and religions, with varying fortunes. Each of these battles, and the ground won in each, have, in turn, forwarded the cause of men and women and have contributed towards the formulation and adoption of the Declaration, which is entitled to rank with the great historical documents and charters directed towards the same objective.
Rights and obligations go hand in hand as they should in all spheres of life. While, therefore, it is not necessary but essential that we should intensify and multiply our efforts towards the safeguarding of human rights, we must all, individually and collectively, strive to deepen our consciousness of the duties we owe to each other at all levels. Islam, the holistic religion and philosophy, seeks to stimulate and deepen that consciousness. It emphasizes our duties and obligations, so that each of us by due discharge of them, should help to safeguard freedom, justice and equality for all and should promote and foster human welfare and prosperity in all walks of life - social, economic, moral and spiritual. It seeks to establish a pattern of which, in all the changing and developing circumstances of a dynamic world, would maintain its character of beneficence in all spheres of life individual, domestic, national and international. For this purpose Islam furnishes us with a framework of beliefs, duties, obligations, exhortations and sanctions.
In studying the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from the Islamic point of view, we must remember that while Islam lays down values and standards which clearly endorse the spirit and purpose of the Declaration, it does not pronounce verbatim on all the specific provisions of the document. Let us examine Islamic values with reference to Articles 18 and 19.
These two articles are concerned to secure the freedom of thought, conscience, religion, option and expression, including the freedom to change one's religion and to manifest it in teaching, practice, worship and observance and freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas regardless of frontiers.
In essence of every religion possesses elements of a missionary character. It starts with an individual and seeks to persuade and convince others of its truth and of the beneficent nature of the values it propounds. It must, therefore, stand for freedom of conscience, including the freedom to change one's religion and the other freedoms mentioned in these two articles, which are all consequent upon freedom of conscience otherwise it would create barriers in the path of its own objectives. The universal message of Islam brooks no territorial or racial limitations for participation in its communion and proclaims these freedoms unequivocally and emphatically. Claiming, like all religions, to be based on truth, it naturally warns, constantly and repeatedly, of the dire consequences, moral and spiritual, that would follow from the rejection or neglect of the values that it proclaims; but it leaves everyone free to make his choice. Belief is a matter of conscience and conscience cannot be compelled. A person might be forced to believe.
The Quran proclaims:

There is no compulsion in religion. Surely the right has become distinct from error; so whosoever refuses to be led by those who transgress and believes in ALLAH, has surely grasped a strong handle which knows no breaking. And ALLAH is All-Hearing. All-Knowing. (2:257).

Again it says:

And say, `It is the truth from your Lord; wherefore let him who will, believe, and let him, who will, disbelieve.... (18:30).
Thus it clearly leaves everyone to exercise his or her reason and judgment. Attention is, of course, repeatedly drawn to the difference between belief and disbelief and to the mortal and spiritual consequences of righteous action in contrast with evil conduct; but there is not the slightest reflection or implication that conscience may be forced or compelled. The Quran is explicit in making a distinction between a righteous act along with the consequences which would follow. It also lays directions with regard to the manner in which the message should be conveyed to mankind. It stands for complete sincerity in all relationships and insists on conformity of conduct to profession. Hypocrisy and insincerity are frequently condemned in Islam in strongest terms.
It follows that Islam requires a person to profess what he truly believes in, and not to profess belief in what he does not sincerely believe, nor continue to profess belief in that which he has ceased to believe in. Should any one cease to believe in Islam, he does not thereby incur any legal penalty. He only abandons the path of peace and security. In other words, apostasy, by itself, however condemnable is a spiritual offence and entails no temporal penalty. This is the essence of the freedom to change one's religion.
The Quran invites, indeed enjoins, reflection and the exercise of reason, understanding and judgment at every step. Failure to do so counts as a serious default for which an individual is accountable. It thus seeks to foster the development of these faculties and actively promotes freedom of thought, opinion and expression.
It follows that everyone must be free to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontier. This is essential so that knowledge may be fostered and ignorance dispelled. Shall those who know be equal to those who know not? Verily, only those endowed with understanding will take heed says the Quran. It is somewhat paradoxical, however, that while the Declaration sets forth various freedoms in matters of faith and conscience regardless of frontiers, it does not seek to promote the freedom to travel, without let or hindrance, across frontiers in search of knowledge, information and ideas.
The religion of Islam travels beyond the Declaration both in its objectives and in its methods. It is concerned with the totality of life, both here and hereafter. The Declaration certainly, like Islam, claims universality and seeks that the rights, freedoms, duties set out and expounded in it should be accepted and made effective everywhere in respect of everyone. Thus in spirit the Declaration, so far as it goes, and Islam are in accord. In respect of certain specific details, the Declaration employs language which is too general; Islam spells out the necessary safeguards. Even subject to some limitations, which mostly fall in the moral and spiritual aspect of life, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights constitutes an epoch-making formulation of human rights, based on the widest possible consensus so far achieved and recorded.