Notwithstanding the relative clarity of the Qur'anic proclamations on the freedom of religion, the subject has become controversial. This is due partly to certain other passages in the Qur'an which have sometimes been interpreted in a manner which casts doubt on the subject. Indeed, some commentators have drawn the drastic conclusion that the Qur'anic passages which validate holy war (jihad) and fighting against disbelievers actually abrogate the Qur'an's proclamation on tolerance and respect for other religions.
The controversy has been exacerbated further by reliance on the provision in the Sunnah which authorizes the death penalty for apostasy without due consideration of other evidence in the Sunnah to the effect that punishment by death was meant only for apostasy accompanied by hostility and treason. However, a full enquiry into these issues would fall beyond the scope of this study. Some of these issues have already been treated and investigated at length in books and articles in the English language. I shall, therefore, confine my discussion to some of the conclusions that have been drawn, without paying undue attention to many of the details.
In response to the question of whether Islam permits war as a means of propagation, many scholars have reached the conclusion that war is permissible only to protect the freedom of belief and to prevent oppression. The Qur'an forbids sedition (fitnah) in religion, as well as the persecution of people for their religious beliefs. It is this fitnah, as Abu Zahrah observes, which the Qur'an declares to be a menace greater than murder, and thus it permits waging war in order to prevent tyranny and sedition, as the following text shows: 'And fight them until fitnah is no more and religion is for God alone. But if they stop then there is to be no hostility except against the oppressors.' (II: 193)