Allah, the Most High, stated:
“There is no compulsion in religion. Verily, guidance has become distinct from falsehood. Whoever disbelieves in the false deities and believes in Allāh, then he has grasped the most trustworthy handhold that will never break. And Allāh is All-Hearer, All-Knower.” [Sūrah Al-Baqarah: 256]
Why was this verse revealed to the Prophet (ﷺ):
The Companion Abdullāh Ibn ‘Abbās (رضي الله عنه) said: “Before the advent of Islam, when a woman of the city of Madinah had a baby that would not survive, she would promise to herself that if her next child survived, she would have him raised as a Jew. So [years later] when the tribe of Banu Nadeer was banished, they had amongst them Jewish children of the Ansār of Madinah. [Since the parents were now Muslim] they said: “We shall not leave our children.” So Allah (ﷻ) revealed the verse: “There is no compulsion in religion. Verily, guidance has become distinct from falsehood.””¹
In another report Abdullāh Ibn ‘Abbās (رضي الله عنهما) mentioned the situation in Madinah before Islam reached them saying: “If an Ansāri woman of Madīnah could not bear children she would promise herself that if she had a child she would convert it to Judaism. So when the Ansār entered into Islam, they said: “What are we to do with our [grown-up] children now?” So due to that, this verse was revealed.”²
The majority of the famous Scholars who explained the Qur’an stated that this hadīth is the reason for the revelation of the verse that stated that there is no compulsion in Religion: this includes scholars such as At-Tabari in Jāmi’ Al-Bayān (3/14), Al-Baghawi in Ma’ālim at-Tanzīl (1/240), Ibn Al-‘Arabi in Ahkām al-Qur’ān (1/233), Ibn ‘Atiyyah in Muharrar al-Wajīz (2/281), Al-Qurtubi in Al-Jāmi’ Ahkām al-Qur’ān (3/280), Ibn Kathīr in Tafsīr al-Qur’ān Al-‘Adhīm (1/310) and Ibn Āshoor in At-Tahrīr At-Tanwīr (2703).
Imām At-Tabari stated in his commentary: “The scholars who interpret the Qur’an have differed regarding the meaning of this verse. So some of them said: ‘This verse was revealed concerning a group from the Ansār, or a man from them who would have children, and they would convert them into Jews and Christians. So when Allāh brought to them Islam, they wanted to compel their [grown-up] children to become Muslims. So Allah forbade them from coercion so that their children should be left to choose whether to enter into Islām.”
Al-Hāfidh Ibn Kathīr stated in his commentary: “Allah stated: ‘There is no compulsion in religion.’ Meaning: Do not force anyone to enter into the Religion of Islam because of the fact that Islam is clear and apparent and distinct in its evidences and proofs, and therefore is not in need that anyone be compelled to enter into it. Rather the one whom Allah guides to Islam, and expands his heart, and illuminates his sight, he enters into the Religion upon clarity. And whoever’s heart Allah blinds, and He puts a seal on his hearing and sight, then such a person does not benefit at all by being compelled and coerced into Islam. So the scholars have said that the reason for the revelation of this verse was concerning a group from the Ansār, even though its ruling is general upon everyone.”
This is not the case with children who are born to Muslim parents. These children are cultivated upon the Islamic faith and are taught to worship Allah alone and to follow the example of the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) and his Companions.
¹ This hadīth was reported by Abu Dawūd in the Book of Jihād: Chapter: Regarding compelling a captive to convert to Islam, 3/132, no. 2682. Declared authentic (sahīh) by Al-Albāni.
² Reported by An-Nasā’ī in Al-Kubrā, Book of Tafsīr, 6/304, no. 11049, 11048. And its chain of narration is authentic (sahīh).