“Let there be no compulsion in religion; truth stands out clear from error” (Sura 2.256).
Apologists for Islam often quote this verse, and most Westerners, unfamiliar with the Koran and imagining that it must obey the same theological logic as the Christian Bible, assume that Islamic scripture mandates religious toleration toward non-Muslims. That assumption is inaccurate.
The Koran includes many abrogated verses, called mansukh, and abrogating verses, nasikh; the latter cancel the former, rendering them invalid, though they nevertheless remain in the Koran and are deceptively quoted, for Western consumption, as though they still represented genuine Islamic beliefs. Nasikh and mansukh are legion: Of the Koran’s 114 suras (chapters), only 43 are without abrogated or abrogating verses. That is naturally surprising, and so unexpected that few Westerners are aware that significant segments of the Koran have been theologically annulled. Mohammed’s non-Muslim contemporaries were just as surprised.
How does one know, when two verses are contradictory, which is abrogated and which is abrogating? It is a question of date: Later texts abrogate earlier texts whenever there are inconsistencies between them. The Koranic verses that teach tolerance and peace, in particular those that prohibit compulsion in religion, are among the earliest of Mohammed’s many revelations and are thus liable to abrogation, whenever Allah felt the inclination to revoke his immutable word. Although Islam, unlike Judaism and Christianity, received its revelation from a single person within a short period of time, roughly twenty years, Mohammed was nonetheless able to impose upon his followers the implausible belief that the inerrant Muslim God had routinely changed his mind.
The pacific, tolerant message of Sura 2.256 reflects the historical circumstances of its composition. Islam was still then decidedly a minority faith and Mohammed and his small band of followers, in Medina and surrounded by non-Muslim enemies, were threatened with destruction. The early Koran of necessity presented religious tolerance as a divine command because nascent Islam had not yet acquired the physical power to compel conversion: “The Apostle had not been given permission to fight or allowed to shed blood … he had simply been ordered to call men to God, endure insult, and forgive the ignorant” (Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasul Allah).
But when Islam became powerful, Allah’s eternal message changed. Islam could now “call people by the sword” — that is, compel conversion — and accordingly “verses of the sword” were conveniently revealed to the Prophet, verses that sanction and indeed command conversion of the Infidel by armed violence, which historically would be Islam’s preferred method. Sura 2.256 was thus abrogated by a later verse, composed after Mohammed had begun to prepare his new Muslim empire for Jihad against the non-Muslim world: “Slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush” (Sura 9.5). This “verse of the sword” not only abrogates 2.256, but also abrogates well over a hundred earlier verses that formerly taught peace and tolerance toward non-believers.
Only the later, abrogating verse now represents authentic Muslim teaching.
Islam: “Religion of Peace”
“Those that make war against Allah and His apostle and spread disorder in the land shall be slain or crucified or have their hands and feet cut off on alternate sides, or be banished from the land. They shall be held up to shame in this world and sternly punished in the hereafter.” (Sura 5.33)
“O believers, take not Jews and Christians as friends; they are friends of each other. Whoso of you makes them his friends is one of them. Allah guides not the people of the evildoers.” (Sura 5.51)
“Allah revealed His will to the angels, saying: ‘I shall be with you. Give courage to the believers. I shall cast terror into the hearts of the infidels. Strike off their heads, strike off the very tips of their fingers!’ That was because they defied Allah and His apostle. He that defies Allah and his apostle shall be sternly punished by Allah.” (Sura 8.12-13)
“In order that Allah may separate the pure from the impure, put all the impure ones [i.e. non-Muslims] one on top of another in a heap and cast them into hell. They will have been the ones to have lost.” (Sura 8.37)
“And fight them until there is no more fitnah (disbelief and polytheism, i.e. worshipping others besides Allah) and the religion (worship) will all be for Allah alone (in the whole world). But if they cease (worshipping others besides Allah) then certainly, Allah is All-Seer of what they do.” (Sura 8.39).
“Muster against them [i.e. non-Muslims] all the men and cavalry at your command, so that you may strike terror into the enemy of Allah and your enemy, and others besides them who are unknown to you but known to Allah.” (Sura 8.60)
“O Prophet, urge on the believers to fight. If there be twenty of you, patient men, they will overcome two hundred; if there be a hundred of you, they will overcome a thousand unbelievers, for they are a people who understand not.” (Sura 8.65)
“It is not for any Prophet to have prisoners until he make wide slaughter in the land.” (Sura 8.67).
“Fight those who believe not in Allah and the Last Day and do not forbid what Allah and His Messenger have forbidden — such men as practice not the religion of truth, being of those who have been given the Book [i.e. Jews and Christians] — until they pay the tribute out of hand and have been humbled.” (Sura 9.29)
“If you do not go to war, He will punish you sternly, and will replace you by other men.” (Sura 9.39)
“Prophet, make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites, and deal harshly with them. Hell shall be their home: an evil fate.” (Sura 9.73)
“They [i.e. faithful Muslims] will fight for the cause of Allah, they will slay and be slain.” (Sura 9.111)
“O believers, fight the unbelievers who are near to you, and let them find in you a harshness, and know that Allah is with the godfearing.” (Sura 9.123)
“When We resolve to raze a city, We first give warning to those of its people who live in comfort. If they persist in sin, judgement is irrevocably passed, and We destroy it utterly.” (Sura 17.16)
“We have destroyed many a sinful nation and replaced them by other men. And when they felt Our Might they took to their heels and fled. They were told: ‘Do not run away. Return to your comforts and to your dwellings. You shall be questioned all.’ ‘Woe betide us, we have done wrong’ was their reply. And this they kept repeating until We mowed them down and put out their light.” (Sura 21.11-15)
“When you meet the unbelievers in the battlefield strike off their heads and, when you have laid them low, bind your captives firmly. Then grant them their freedom or take a ransom from them, until war shall lay down her burdens.” (Sura 47.4)
“Mohammed is Allah’s apostle. Those who follow him are ruthless to the unbelievers but merciful to one another.” (Sura 48.29)
“May the hands of Abu Lahab [Mohammed’s uncle, who had refused to embrace Islam] perish! Nothing shall his wealth and gains avail him. He shall be burnt in a flaming fire, and his wife, laden with firewood, shall have a rope of fiber around her neck!” (Sura 111.1-5)