Freedom of belief

Q229 :In a recent discussion concerning Prophet Suleman and the Queen of Sheba, you referred to a threat of Prophet Suleman to expel her and her people from their own land. The justification for this threat of the use of force seems to be simply the difference of religion between Prophet Suleman and the queen. You have pointed out that there are many lessons to learn from a study of this episode. However, some of these lessons do not appear to be positive. I do not believe that any of the great religions of the world condones the use of force as a means of religious conversion. It is hard to look kindly on those who resort to this. Could you please comment on whether the use of such conversion tactics today might be deemed acceptable.

A229 : The short answer to your question is decidedly no. It is not acceptable to use force in order to compel people to hold any belief or religion, no matter what justification may be given for such use of force. This applies today, in our modern world which we like to consider civilized, and it applies to all ages. Islam declares clearly in the Qur'an: "Compulsion is inadmissible in matters of faith." (2;256). With this clear order given in the Qur'an, we know the reason why Islamic history has been distinguished for tolerance, freedom of belief and absence of compulsion. Not only so, but we claim that the same message of freedom of belief was preached by all prophets and messengers, beginning with Adam and ending with Muhammad (peace be upon them all). We, Muslims, believe that Suleman was a prophet sent by God to the Children of Israel. Even though the Jews refer to him as King Solomon, he and his noble father are mentioned in several clear references in the Qur'an among the prophets that preached the message of the Oneness of God. Hence, King Solomon could not have been guilty of using force, or even the threat of force, to compel people to convert to his faith. Far be it from a prophet sent by Allah, Merciful Allah, to employ such tactics. When we consider the story of Suleman with the Queen of Sheba as mentioned in the Qur'an, we find that the threat by Suleman to use force was in no way related to the queen's faith or his desire that she should convert to his religion. To comment on the story as related in the Qur'an and give a full explanation of its events will take much more space than can be allowed to a single question. I will, therefore, refer only the relevant passages. The reader may wish to refer to the story as related in Surah 27, entitled, "The Ants", or, "An-Naml". The first we learn in the story about the Queen of Sheba and the fact that she and her people worshipped the sun is when the bird known as the hoopoe explains his long absence to the Prophet Suleman, who is described in the Qur'an as being able to communicate in the language of the birds. The hoopoe states that he went to Sheba and saw the queen there and her people worshipping the sun in place of God. Suleman states first that he is not going to take action on the basis of the hoopoe's statement until he has verified it. He said: "We shall see whether you have been truthful or are a liar." (27;27). Suleman then sent the hoopoe back to Sheba with a letter, giving him instructions to bring a reply. Suleman's letter is indicative of his likely course of action. For its contents, we have the Queen's statement when she calls in her advisers to consider the letter and their reply. She says: "Councilmen, a gracious letter has been delivered to me. It is from Suleman and it reads: In the name of God, the Merciful, the Beneficent. Do not exalt yourselves above me but come to me in submission." (Verse 31) There are three points to be emphasized about this letter. Firstly, its description as "gracious" by the queen herself. She did not feel threatened by the letter, but she realized that its delivery by a hoopoe which dropped it to her personally, was of a serious nature. Secondly, the letter emphasizes the qualities of beneficence, compassion and mercy as attributes of God. Thirdly, it requires that the queen and her advisers should go to Suleman committing themselves not to go to war against him. So, the letter highlighted differences of faith and required the queen to pay a visit to Suleman for a peaceful dialogue. The queen understood it as a political gesture, and she was well aware of Suleman's power. Therefore, she wanted to test Suleman's attitude with a political ploy. She declared to her advisers: "I am sending them a gift and shall be watching for what reply my emissaries bring back." (Verse 35). It was at this point that Suleman took a very strong attitude and threatened to use force. When he received the queen's reply he declared that "what God has bestowed on me is far better than what He has given you. Yet, it is you who seem happy with your gift." He then commands the hoopoe to carry back his new message warning them that he will march to them "with armies they can never resist. We shall expel them from it, humiliate it and condemn it." (Verse 37). Commentators also mention that when Suleman received the Queen of Sheba's emissaries, he put on a great show to give them a very clear impression of his great wealth and far superior power. Let us now consider the threat he made. From the angle of religious beliefs, there is no hint whatsoever in the whole account given in the Qur'an of the dealings between Suleman and the Queen of Sheba and their subsequent encounter that she or anyone else was forced to accept Suleman's faith. The threat to drive them from their land is largely a political stance. His initial condition was that the queen and her chiefs should come to him in submission. When they used delaying tactics and tried to win his approval with a gift, he issued a threat. In his threatening words, as reported accurately in the Qur'an, there is nothing to suggest that they could avoid expulsion only by adopting his religion. It is important to explain the serious attitude the divine faith adapts with regard to political power. This attitude is made clearest in Islam, and it is clear from this account of the events that took place between Suleman and the Queen of Sheba that it also applied then. It is well known that the faithfuls and the prophets are certainly the ones whose example should be followed by believers, and they are required to convey the message of the Oneness of God to all the people. They should call on them to believe that there is no deity save God. However, it is often the case that political power makes of itself a barrier between its subjects and learning about the divine faith. In the case of the Queen of Sheba, her people worshipped the sun because she did so. That was accepted as the true religion because the queen and her chiefs and nobles worshipped the sun. There was no way Suleman could address her people and inform them about the divine faith, and at the same time they would feel free to follow it unless agreement to freedom of speech and belief was achieved between Suleman and the Queen. That was the thing he required when he wanted them to come to him "in submission". It is worthy to note that Dr. Irving, who produced the first American translation of the Qur'an, translates Suleman's first letter as follows: "In the name of God, the Mercy-giving, the Merciful. Do not act haughtily toward me, and come to me committed to (live at) peace." So, when the queen's reply was to send him a gift, he realized that she was employing political tactics in the hope that he would let her continue in the same way as before. She would still rule, having gained his friendship, and she would continue to lead her people in their pagan faith. That meant that Suleman would abandon his role as a prophet required to convey God's message to people. That was not to be., Hence, he threatened to remove her and her chiefs, and drive them out of their land humiliated so that he could address the people directly and call on them to believe in God. Whether they would do so or not is a matter of personal choice. There would be no compulsion to make an individual feel forced to adopt the monotheistic faith. The expulsion of the queen from her land would have been a fitting punishment for her depriving the people of the chance to listen to God's message and the freedom to adopt it if they wanted to do so. Thus, the deprivation of power would be a fitting punishment for using that power to turn people away from the divine faith. What I am saying is confirmed by every statement in the rest of the story, and by the tactics employed by Suleman when the queen finally arrives in his capital. She was his guest, staying in his palace and she continued in her worship of the sun. He did not impose on her an obligation not to continue with her practices, but he declared that he himself had submitted himself to God. We are told that Suleman had her throne fetched from Sheba to his palace and ordered his assistants to make changes in that throne to disguise it in order to test whether she would know it. That was a big test for the queen, because she could not figure out how the throne was carried to Suleman's palace when it was safely lying in her own palace back in Yemen. Her final conversion to Suleman's faith came as a result of his explanation of the monotheistic faith and his demonstration of how God provides guidance and gives His servants the means to utilize all resources in order to improve the quality of their lives and achieve happiness in this world and in the life to come. He had ordered a structure to be built of glass with water running underneath. He then asked her to go in, and she did not for a moment doubt that he asked her to go through the water. She pulled her dress up in order to walk along in the water, but he told her that it was all made of glass. She recognized the truthfulness of every word Suleman had said to her, and declared that she submitted herself to God. This is a translation of the last three verses in the story, after her arrival in Suleman's palace and just when she was shown her disguised throne: "When she came, she was asked: 'Is your throne like this?' She replied, 'It looks as though it were the same.' (Suleman) said: 'Before her we were endowed with knowledge, and before her we surrendered to the Lord'. What she had been worshipping instead of God distracted her, she belonged to disbelieving folk. She was bidden to enter the palace, and when she saw it she thought it was a pool of water, and (tucked up her skirt and) bared her legs. He said: 'It is a palace paved with glass.' She said: 'My Lord, how I have wronged myself. Now I submit with Suleman to God, the Lord of the Universe." (Verses 42-44) The question of faith and its acceptance by any human being is very much related to a personal experience leading to a moment when an individual, indeed every individual, realizes with all clarity that all the basic principles of the divine faith are true and that he or she must adopt that faith in order to be at peace with himself or herself, and with the universe at large. To the Queen of Sheba, a powerful queen in her own land, that moment came when she saw some aspects of far superior power that could not have been achieved by human beings at that time without God's help in revealing some of the secrets of the universe. Recognizing that Suleman did not use his extra power to tyrannize or to subjugate other people, but ruled in all fairness and declared his own position as an obedient servant of God who submitted himself totally to the Lord of the universe, she felt that his was the right faith, and the way of life that goes with it is certain to bring happiness to her as a queen and to her people as well. Hence, she took the right step and accepted the divine faith. No force was used to bring her round, and no use of force was even threatened to compel her to make that choice.

Our Dialogue ( Source : Arab News - Jeddah )