Freedom to choose, believe in or leave a religion
Freedom to believe in any religion can also extend to freedom to change one’s religion. For example, when Christianity arose as a major religion, millions of followers of Egyptian, Roman and other Middle Eastern religions accepted Christianity, which had already split and developed into divergent sects.
Likewise, when Islam arose in the seventh-century Arabia and Islamic political power replaced the Byzantine and Persian empires of their possessions in Egypt, Syria and other countries, it gained millions of new followers. The Arabs vanquished the great Persian empire by force of arms and its ancient religion Zoroastrianism was replaced by Islam.
One fact we need to keep in mind is that no large sections of the populations of a nation willingly leave their religion and their customary ways. It was also the case during the early Arab conquests and the expansion of the Islamic empire.
Now, imagine a situation where Islamic victories led only to an expansion only in the political power and domination, but Islamic rulers found no converts to the new faith. That would mean Egypt, Syria and Palestine at this time would still be predominately Christian; Iran would be mostly Zoroastrian. But we know things changed drastically.
Millions of vanquished people converted to Islam. However, it would also be a mistake to assert that all such conversions to Islam took place because of imperial force and coercion. In fact, many conquered people and nations were also deeply influenced by the egalitarian spirit of the new faith. That made their transition to Islam easy. Therein lies a cardinal factor that explains large scale conversions to Islam in its early history.
The same thing happened in the Indian subcontinent. The conversions happened due to the missionary activities of Muslim saints, preachers and traders whose behavior and practical modes of living had an immense effect upon the people. If the Hindu rulers and communities had followed the example of the fanatics of present-day Muslim countries and punished anyone leaving the ancestral Hindu faith by beheading and torturing people, then there wouldn’t have been any Muslims in the part of the world I come from – India, Pakistan and Kashmir!
But why should any state or any society reject individuals’ freedom to follow any religion or stop them from converting to some religion as a matter of choice and convictions strikes at the roots of the notion of freedom to believe and follow one’s conscience.
The Qur’anic teaching on this matter is quite clear when it says: “There is no compulsion in religion (Arabic: La iqra fidd-deen). But what the present-day Muslim rulers, oligarchs and clerics say and do surprises the non-Muslim world.