I read an article today in the Huffington Post by Qasim Rashid entitled Richard Dawkins Follows Prophet Muhammad’s Teaching on Freedom. Rashid claims that Dawkins has borrowed the idea of the right to choose one’s own religion directly from the Qur’an:
Dawkins, likely inadvertently, has endorsed (without crediting) a principle Prophet Muhammad championed 1400 years prior. The Qur’an categorically condemned any form of religious compulsion by declaring in no uncertain terms, “There shall be no compulsion in religion” (2:257). This remarkable verse extends beyond just religion as the word translated into “religion” is deen. Deen encompasses any form of thinking, ideology, or intellectual perspective–not just religion. Islam forbids compulsion regarding any of them.
Likewise, the Qur’an, in 22:39-41, commands Muslims to protect all houses of worship — temples, churches, synagogues, and mosques — so that freedom of conscience remains free. That is, the Qur’an provides muscle to ban compulsion of conscience. It is the only ancient scripture — religious or secular — to both specifically champion, and also provide muscle, to protect universal freedom of conscience.
I’ll give Rashid the benefit of the doubt here and assume the translation is correct and the interpretation conveyed above is accurate. I am able to extend this courtesy simply because the argument falls apart entirely regardless. Rashid assumes that an ideal can only be conceived of once, and any other person that promotes this ideal must have derived it from the earliest known source. This, of course, is just plain silly. The idea of allowing people to choose their own religion is patently obvious. This concept does not need divine revelation; all that is required is simple logic, reason and, more importantly, consideration for your fellow man.
Rashid also fails to realise that Muhammad was not the first person to suggest people had a right to choose their religion. Cyrus the Great established religious freedom in the Achaemenid Empire in the 6th century BC, and similar freedoms were instituted in the 3rd century BC in India. So either Muhammad, likely inadvertently, has endorsed (without crediting) a principle two separate civilisations championed 600-900 years prior, or Rashid has to admit that any thinking person can reach the conclusion that people should be allowed to choose their religion.
I think I would not have found these statements so abhorrent if Muslims worldwide actually adhered to these verses. However, apostasy deserves the death penalty and blasphemy laws impinge on citizens’ right of conscience in many Islamic states. Nowhere is the concept of religious freedom and the right to choose one’s own religion more at threat than in the Islamic world.