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Al-Mizan Tafseer

In The Name of Allah, the Beneficent and the Most Merciful


Volume 4: Surah Baqarah, Verses 256-257

There is no compulsion in the religion; truly the right way has become clearly distinct from error; therefore, whoever disbelieves the rebels (false deities) and believes in Allah, he indeed has laid hold on the strongest handle, for which there is no break off; and Allah is Hearing, Knowing (256). Allah is the Guardian of those who believe; He brings them out of the darkness into the light; and (as to) those who disbelieve their guardians are the rebels, they take them out of the light into the darkness. They are the inmates of the Fire, in it they shall abide (257).


QUR'AN: There is no compulsion in the religion; truly the right way has become clearly distinct from error:

"al-Ikrah" means to compel someone to a work without his willingness. “ar-Rushd" is to get at the reality of an affair; to reach the right path. “al-Ghayy”  is its opposite. These two words are more general than “al-huda” (to find the path which leads to the destination) and “ad-dalal” (not to find such path) respectively. Obviously, when the word ar-rushd is used for reaching the right path it is done in the way of applying a general word for a particular example: a walker reaches reality when he travels on the right path. Thus the words ar-rushd and al-huda are made for two different meanings, but one is used for the other because of a special associations. Allah says:. . . then if you find in them maturity of intellect: “rushdan” (4:6); And certainly We gave to Ibrahim his rectitude: “rushdahu” before (21:51).

The same applies to al-ghayy and ad-dalal. That is why we have mentioned before that ad-dalal is to deviate from the right path but with knowing and remembering the goal and destination; while al-ghayy is to deviate from the right path without even remembering the goal and destination - without knowing what one wants and where one wants to go.

“There is no compulsion in the religion” negates and disapproves compulsion and coercion in religion. Religion is a set of truths which are believed in, and some of them are then acted upon. In short, religion is belief and faith, it is a matter of conscience, and such a thing cannot, be created by coercion and compulsion. One may force someone to do a certain physical action against his will but he cannot be forced to believe against his will. Belief follows reason and understanding; and nothing but reason and understanding can create it.

“There is no compulsion in religion” may be treated as a bit of information or a piece of legislation. If it is information of a creative decree, it will give rise to a legislative order that compulsion should not be used in matters of belief and faith. And if it is an order in the form of information then the meaning is clear. Apparently, this alternative is more correct, because the next sentence (“truly the right way has become clearly distinct from error”) gives the reason for this legislation. And this prohibition of compulsion for religion is based on a factor of creation: the fact that compulsion can influence physical action but not matters connected with the heart and conscience.

“Truly the right way has become clearly distinct from error”: As mentioned above, it gives the reason for the prohibition of compulsion. A wise person resorts to compulsion only when the truth of the order cannot be explained, either because the person so coerced has no capacity to understand it or for some other reasons. But there is no need for compulsion in an important matter whose advantages and disadvantages are clearly defined and the reward and punishment of accepting and rejecting well-explained. A man, in such a clear matter, should be free to choose his course of action himself - whether he takes it or rejects it, whether he wants the rewards of obedience or is prepared to take the punishment. The realities of religion have been explained, and its path well-laid; the divine revelation and prophetic explanation have illuminated this highway to the utmost degree. It has now been made clear that the religion is truth, that the only right thing is to accept it and follow it; and that if one deviates from this road he will fall in perdition. Why should anyone, after all these clarifications, compel others to follow the religion?

It is one of the verses that show that Islam is not based on the sword and killing, and that it does not allow Muslims to compel or coerce others to accept Islam. It is contrary to the view held by many Muslims and non-Muslims alike that Islam is the religion of the sword. They bring as their evidence the legislation of jihad which is one of the pillars of Islam.

We have already clarified, while writing the commentary on the verses of fighting, that the fighting ordained by Islam is not for the purpose of material advancement nor for spreading the religion by force. It was ordained only for reviving the truth and defending the most precious treasure of nature - the faith of monotheism. Where monotheism is accepted by the people - even if they remain Jew or Christian - Islam does not fight with them. Therefore, the objection arises from clouded thinking.

The verse: “There is no compulsion in the religion”, is not abrogated by the verse of the sword, although some writers think so. The order is followed by its reason: "truly the right way has become clearly distinct from error". Such an order cannot be cancelled unless and until its reason is also abrogated. So long as the reason is valid the rule must remain valid. There is no need to emphasize that the verse of the sword cannot negate the clear distinction of the right way from error. For example, the verses: . . . and kill them wherever you find them. . . (4:89) and: And fight in the way of Allah . . . (2:190), have no effect whatsoever on the clear distinction of truth from falsehood; and therefore they cannot abrogate an order based on that distinction.

In other words, this order is based on the fact that the right way is made clearly distinct from error. And this distinction is as valid after the revelation of the verses of fighting as it was before that. And as the cause is not changed, the effect, that is, the said order, cannot be changed or cancelled.

QUR'AN: Therefore, whoever disbelieves in the rebels (false deities) and believes in Allah, he indeed has laid hold on the strongest handle, for which there is no break off:

"at-Taghut" means rebellion and transgression. This paradigm conveys an intensification of the meaning of the root like al-malakut (great kingdom) and al-jabarut (great power). at-Taghut is used for the agents and causes of rebellion and transgression like false deities and idols, satans, jinn and wrong leaders among the human beings; and, in short, everyone who is followed without the permission of Allah. This word is common for masculine and feminine genders, as well as for singular, dual and plural numbers.

In this sentence, disbelief in the rebels has been mentioned before belief in Allah. This sequence keeps in view the next sentence (he indeed has laid hold on the strongest handle). When one wants to lay one's hold on a thing, one has to discard all other things before that. In other words, one has first to leave unwanted things, then comes the stage of holding fast to the desired thing. Therefore, the verse mentioned first the rejection (of the rebels) and then the belief (in Allah). "al-Istimsak" means to hold fast: "al-'urwah" notes that part of thing which is made to hold it by, like the handle of a bucket, or of a pot. Also, this word is used for ever­green plants and trees. Its root meaning is attachment; it is said ‘arahu and i‘tarahu both of which mean “was attached to him”.

The sentence, “he indeed has laid hold on the strongest handle”, is based on allegory. It conveys the idea that belief in Allah has the same relation with eternal bliss that a pot’s handle has with that pot and its contents. You cannot be sure of your hold unless you keep the handle in your grip; likewise, one can­not be hopeful about eternal and real bliss unless one believes in Allah rejecting all false deities.

QUR’AN: For which there is no break off and Allah is Hearing, Knowing:

"al-Infisam” is to be cut off, to be broken. The phrase, “for which there is no break off” describes the condition or state of the handle, and emphasize the phrase, “the strongest handle”. The next sentence, “and Allah is Hearing, Knowing”, points to the fact that belief and disbelief are matters connected with the heart and the tongue.

QUR’AN: Allah is the Guardian of those who believe . . . in it they shall abide: Some explanation has been given, in a previous verse, of “bringing out of the darkness into the light”. It has been described there that this bringing out and other such phrases express real things, and that they are not used in any allegorical sense. There are two other interpretations given by other commentators of the Qur’an, which we shall quote here before commenting upon them:

First Interpretation: This bringing out of the darkness into the light and other such phrases are allegorical expressions. They are used for man’s actions and physical stillness and movements, and for the good or evil results of such actions. Accordingly, “light” is used for correct belief which removes the darkness of ignorance, the confusion of doubt and the perplexity of the heart. Also it is a metaphor for good deeds because its connection with the right path is clear and its effect on bliss self evident. And the “light” has all these attributes and qualities. On the other hand, “darkness” is metaphorically used for wrong belief, confusion and doubt as well as for evil deeds. According to this interpretation, the bringing out from darkness into the light (attributed to Allah) and taking out of light into the darkness (attributed to the rebels and false deities) refer to only true and wrong beliefs and good and evil deeds respectively - there is nothing other than those beliefs and deeds. Allah or the false deities do not do any action (like bringing out) in this respect, nor is there any effect of such action (like light and darkness).

Second Interpretation: Surely Allah does the actions like bringing the people out of the darkness into the light, giving life, bestowing abundance and mercy and similar things. And surely there appear effects of such actions, like light and darkness; the soul and mercy; and the coming down of the angels. But our intellect cannot comprehend it and our senses cannot perceive it. Even then, we believe, as we have been told by Allah - and Allah speaks the truth - that these things do exist and that they are the actions of Allah, although we do not understand them.

This interpretation, like the first one, treats words like light, darkness, taking out, etc. as metaphors. The only difference between the two is that the first one says that the light and the darkness are our correct and wrong deeds and beliefs; and this one says that the light and the darkness are things other than our beliefs and deeds, but we have no way of knowing them or comprehending and understanding them.

Both the interpretations are far from the truth. One has failed to reach the target, the other has overshot it. The fact is that these things, which Allah has said He creates and does when we obey Him or disobey Him, are real things; there is no allegory in such expressions, but these divine actions are related to our beliefs and deeds - are inseparable from them. And we have already explained this. Of course, it is admitted that the sen­tences, “He brings them out of the darkness into the light”, and “(they) take them out of the light into the darkness”, are metaphors and mean “He guides them” and “they misguide them” respectively.

In other words, there are two separate matters to decide: 1) Whether the light, darkness and other such expressions refer to some real things in this life or are merely metaphors? 2) If they refer to some real things then, is the use, for example, of the word “light” for guidance real or metaphorical? According to what we have already explained, such expressions refer to real things in this life. And using the “light”, for example, for guidance is metaphorical.

And in any case, the two sentences mentioned above, are metaphors to denote guidance and misguidance. If we were to interpret them in their literal sense, it would mean that the believer and the disbeliever both have light and darkness together. “Allah brings the believers out of the darkness into the light”, if literally interpreted, would mean that the believer was first in the darkness! Conversely, the second sentence would mean that the disbeliever was first in the light! How can this meaning be correct about the overwhelming majorities of believers and disbelievers who are born in believing or disbelieving families and remain in light or in darkness (as the case may be) from their birth? Such literal interpretation would mean that a child remained in light and darkness at one and the same time; and when, on attaining majority, he accepts the true faith by his own choice, he is removed out of the darkness into the light, and if he disbelieved, he was taken out of the light into the darkness. The absurdity of such an interpretation is quite obvious.

(Of course, it may be said that man in his creation, has the light of natural faith. But it is a general light, which needs details and particularization. In this way, he has the natural light; but, at the same time, is in darkness, so far as detailed knowledge and good deeds are concerned. And, looking from these different angles, it is possible for the light and the darkness to be present in one place at one time. When the believer acquires correct faith, he goes out from that darkness into the light of knowledge and good deed. And the disbeliever, by his disbelief goes out from the natural light into the darkness of disbelief and evil deeds.)

Allah in both sentences has used “the light” (in the singular) and “the darkness” (in the plural). It is to indicate that truth is one - there is no difference in it ; and that falsehood is multifaced, diverse and variable - there is no unity in it. Allah says in another place: And (know) that this is My path, the straight one, therefore follow it; and follow not (other) ways, for they will scatter you away from His path (6:153).


Abu Dawud. an-Nasa'i, Ibnu ‘ l-Mundhir, Ibn Abi Hatim, an-Nahhas (in his an-Nasikh wa ‘l-mansukh), Ibn Mandih (in his al-Ghara’ib), Ibn Hibban, Ibn Marduwayh, al-Bayhaqi (in his as-Sunan), ad-Diya’ (in his al-Mukhtarah) have narrated from Ibn ‘Abbas that he said: “(It was customary for) a woman of the Ansar that if her child died in infancy, she would make a vow that if her child lived she would turn him into a Jew. Thus, when the tribe of Nadir was banished (from Medina), there were many children of the Ansar among them. They said that they would not leave their sons (to migrate). Then Allah sent down the verse: There is no compulsion in the religion." (ad-Durru ‘l-manthur)

The author says: The same thing has been narrated, by other chains, from Sa’Id ibn Jubayr and ash-Sha’bi.

‘Abd ibn Hamid, Ibn Jarir and Ibnu ‘l-Mundhir have narrated from Mujahid that he said: “(The tribe of) Nadir had suckled some people from the tribe of Aws. When the Prophet ordered their banishment, their foster sons from the Aws said: ‘We shall go with them and enter into their religion.’ But their families prevented them and compelled them to (accept) Islam. Then came down the verse about them: There is no compulsion in the religion. (ad-Durru ‘l-manthur)

The author says: This thing too has been narrated from other sources. It is not in conflict with the preceding tradition (about the vow of the women of the Ansar), as both may be correct.

Ibn Ishaq and Ibn Jarir have narrated from Ibn ‘Abbas that he said about the words of Allah: There is no compulsion in the religion: “It was revealed about a man from the Ansar (from the clan of Banu Salim ibn ‘Awf), named al-Husayn, who had two Christian sons, and he himself was a Muslim. So he said to the Prophet : 'Should I not compel them, because they have refused, but (remain) the Christianity.' Thereupon, Allah sent down this (verse) about hint." (ad-Durru 'l-manthur)

as-Sadiq (a.s.) said: "The light is the progeny of Muhammad and the darkness are their enemies." (al-Kafi)

The author says: This tradition gives examples of the light and the darkness, or explains its inner meaning or interpretation.

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