Recently, there has been much talk about so-called Takfiris – extremist Islamists who declare their opponents as apostates. But most of the discourse on Takfiris offers an incomplete picture of the practice of Takfir in Islam – the practice of one Muslim declaring another Muslim a non-believer – and uses the term only in a political context. While this doesn’t negate the existence of Takfiri groups, the term is being used haphazardly against certain groups, often without justification. In a saying attributed to the Prophet, “every Muslim is haram [sacrosanct] upon other Muslims: in his blood, his honor and his wealth.” The intent of the Prophet was to tighten bonds among Muslims and keep their differences in check in a way that doesn’t lead to mutual violations against one another. He even said: “If two Muslims meet each other with their swords, then both the killer and the killed shall be in the fire of hell.” However, declaring a Muslim to be an apostate makes all these prohibitions permissible, although the Prophet reportedly said that “the extremists are doomed,” meaning those who are zealous in their interpretation of religion, straying away from moderation.
Who is a Takfiri?
Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi defines a Takfiri as someone who “goes too far in declaring others apostates.” In his view, “a Muslim may not declare another an apostate. The basic principle is that a Muslim is he who declares that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah. With this testimony, this person joins Islam and this declaration shields him from apostasy.”
In the body of hadith, the term kufr – blasphemy – is sometimes mentioned, but in the sense of sin rather than an act that renders its perpetrator an apostate in Islam. For example we read that “he who swears by other than Allah, commits kufr or shirk [an act of unbelief or polytheism]”; “an adulterer doesn’t commit adultery if he is a believer”; “do not return to being kuffar [infidels] after I’m gone by some of you striking the necks of others [infighting].” These types of acts of “minor” kufr don’t make their perpetrators apostates, since not every sin renders one’s faith invalid.
Some Muslim sects consider it sufficient for a person to utter the Shahada – the declaration of faith – to be deemed a Muslim. Most Sunni Muslims believe that this declaration is necessary but not sufficient. In their view, it establishes the faith of the Muslim, but there are other things necessary to maintain their capacity as such. The articles of the Islamic faith are five: Belief in Allah, the angels, the scriptures, the prophets, and Judgment Day. Those who are found by a Muslim judge to have renounced these articles are deemed apostates in Islam. Otherwise, they are Muslims that no one has the right to declare otherwise.
Based on this, it has been known that imams of the four Sunni schools of fiqh – jurisprudence – accept differences on issues that don’t fall under the category of the fundamentals of Islam. For instance, Imam al-Shafi'i praised Imam Malik by saying, “Malik is Allah’s convincing proof for His creation”; “there is nothing under the sky that is more correct than Malik’s book"; and “were it not for Malik and [Sufian] ibn 'Uyaynah knowledge would have disappeared from Hejaz.”
Similarly, Ahmad ibn Hanbal said about al-Shafi'i: “By God I never slept a night in thirty years without first praying for al-Shafi'i", and “Al-Shafi'i was like the sun for the world and wholesomeness for people.” In turn, al-Shafi'i said about ibn Hanbal: “I departed Baghdad and left no one behind who is more pious, more knowledgeable, and more devout than Ahmad ibn Hanbal.”
Takfir wal Hijra
The most prominent example of Takfiri groups in the modern era is the movement known as al-Takfir wal Hijra (Excommunication and Emigration). In Egyptian prisons, under the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser, a group of Islamists imprisoned by the Egyptian regime declared the latter and its supporters infidels.
These ideas were first developed by Sheikh Ali Ismail. But Ismail would later disavow them. The movement was soon taken over by Shukri Ahmed Mustafa, the emir of Jamaat al-Muslimin whose opponents dubbed it al-Takfir wal Hijra for its call to declare the entire community as infidels and immigrate away to remote areas. In 1977, the Egyptian authorities arrested hundreds of the supporters of this group, and executed five of its leaders, including Mustafa.
Members of this group declared the rulers apostates for failing to implement God’s law, and declared the people infidels because they accepted to be ruled by such rulers. They even declared those scholars who didn’t deem the rulers and the population apostates to be infidels as well.
The group believed that it was their duty to guide people and verify their allegiance to Islam. Accordingly, they considered that those who joined their group were effectively joining Islam per se, and issued a death fatwa against all those who join them and later retract their oath of allegiance to the group’s leader.
They called themselves Jamaat al-Muslimin (Community of Muslims) believing themselves to be the sect of true believers at the End of Days. They believed that it would be at their hands that Islam would triumph over all other religions and communities.
The group considered that “the Messenger of Allah used to say we are an illiterate nation that doesn’t write nor count. Therefore, we must be like them, illiterates directing all our effort and time to learn the Book and Wisdom, as anything else is clear misguidance.” The most eminent of those who wrote about this group was Abdul-Rahman Abu al-Khair, who was a member, before breaking away from the group.
In Islamic history, the rise of Takfir as a prominent practice cannot be considered in isolation from the political circumstances that prevailed at the time of its emergence. We may even consider it one of the tools of political conflict at certain times.
The tenure of Imam Ali bin Abi Talib, for instance, saw the emergence of the Kharijite phenomenon (“those who went out,” or rebels). The Kharijites declared Ali an apostate and initiated an armed rebellion against him.
The term Kharijite subsequently became a general term that wasn’t limited to that historic period. As Al-Shahristani says: “Anyone who walks out against (or seeks to overthrow) the true appointed Imam upon whose leadership the majority is in agreement, is called a Kharijite. This is the case, whether the rebellion [against the Imam] occurred in the days of the Rightly-Guided caliphs or others from the Tabiʿin (second generation of Muslims) and imams at any time.”
Historically, some Muslims deemed the Kharijites, or some sects affiliated with them such as al-Bida’iyah, al-Maymuniyah, and al-Yazidiyah, to be apostates. But going back, we would read that Caliph Marwan ibn al-Hakam asked Ayman bin Khuzeim: “Why do you not fight?” To which Khuzeim responded: “My father and my uncle witnessed [the Battle of] Badr with the Messenger of Allah. They told me not to fight anyone who professes: There is no God but Allah. If you can prove you can save me from Hell, then I shall fight with you.” Ibn al-Hakam replied: “Go forth, we have no need for you.”
When Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal became known in the Abbasid era, there was an intense politico-religious struggle for the caliphate. In appearance, the struggle took the form of an ideological conflict between supporters of Ibn Hanbal and the Mu'tazila theological movement. In truth, Ibn Hanbal went too far in declaring his opponents as apostates at times. In his book Kitab al-Radd `ala al-Zanadiqa wa'l-Jahmiyya (Refutations of the Heretics and the Jahmites), he wrote: “Whosoever claims that the Quran was created is an infidel Jahmite (a heretical Muslim sect). Whosoever claims that the Quran is the word of Allah but stopped short of saying that it wasn’t created, is more insidious than the first. Whosoever claims that our utterance and recital of the Quran are created but that the Quran itself is the [eternal] word of Allah is a Jahmite, and he who doesn’t declare such people to be apostates is one of them.”
This comes despite the fact that the issue of whether the “Quran is created” or not is a purely philosophical question that isn’t intended to say that the Quran wasn’t revealed by God, but to say that “it had not always existed” and that “it came into existence” at a point in time.
The same applies to the historical period in which Imam Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyyah lived. Ibn Taymiyyah developed his ideas in an era that witnessed the Mongol invasion of Muslim lands. The Mongols claimed to have converted to Islam, and some Muslims collaborated with them.
In truth, many of Ibn Taymiyyah’s fatwas have been taken out of context. For example, some quote many of his fatwas but forget that he himself had also said, that “no one may declare a Muslim to be a non-believer, even if he sinned and erred, until proof is brought against him and explained to him. He whose faith in Islam is established with certainty, then his faith in Islam cannot be deemed invalid by mere doubt, but only after proof is established and suspicion is eliminated." In other words, a person may not be deemed a non-believer except after a fair “trial” before a judge who is knowledgeable in the affairs of religion. Ibn Taymiyyah even criticized Shaykh al-Islam Abu Ismail al-Ansari al-Harawi, author of the book Manazel al-Sa’irin (Stations of the Seekers), for excessively excommunicating members of the Jahmite sect.
Meanwhile, Shiites differ from Sunnis with their belief in the imamate (belief in the imam as a pine leader). The Shiites believe that recognizing the imamate is a condition for one’s acts of worship to be accepted, and denying the imamate is equivalent if not worse than denying the prophet.
Nonetheless, the Shiites don’t go as far as excommunicating deniers of the imamate. To combine the two positions, they resort to a convoluted philosophy that begins by making a distinction between Islam and faith. For example, Shiites consider that those who fought against Imam Ali bin Abi Talib committed an act of apostasy by doing so. However, they argue that this act of apostasy was collective, rather than individual as it would apply to one who renounced Islam – albeit they believe that the act effectively invalidates the faith those who commit it.
This is how Shiites interpret hundreds of sayings that maintain that “renouncing the imamate is tantamount to apostasy.” In some historical periods, such as during the founding of the Safavid empire and its quest to convert the Persian people to Shiite Islam in order to counter the Sunni Ottoman Empire, there were several Shiite voices that held extremist views on this issue.
On the other hand, Shiites declare the Nawasib (plural of Nasib, literally, the hostiles) as non-believers. In Shiite literature, there is a saying attributed to Imam Jafar Sadeq in which he purportedly said: “Take the money of al-Nasib wherever you may find one and pay the khums (one-fifth, to charity).”
By definition, a Nasib is someone who is opposed to Imam Ali and his household (specifically his descendants by way of his daughter, Fatima al-Zahraa). In the view of the majority of Shiite scholars, no one may be deemed a Nasib without indisputable evidence. But some Shiite extremists believe that whosoever favors anyone over Ali bin Abi Talib is indeed a Nasib.
After Sheikh Nasser al-Din al-Albani decreed that a woman may reveal her face and her hands, one of the supporters of the niqab (the full face veil), Sheikh Hammoud bin Abdullah al-Tuwaijri, was infuriated. He wrote a book titled Al-Sarim Al-Mashour ‘ala Ahl al-Tabarruj wal Fujr (The Drawn Sword Against The Supporters of Shamelessness and Immorality) in which he decreed that women may not reveal their faces before men who are not their fathers, uncles, siblings, sons, or in-laws. In the ninth chapter of his book, Tuwaijri stated that some scholars deemed apostates those women who reveal their looks, whether innate or acquired, and believe that this is permissible and lawful.
Some Islamic satellite channels are now rife with talk shows hosting Islamic preachers declaring apostates left, right, and center. Meanwhile, some accuse all Salafist groups of being Takfiri.
A group that goes by the name Salafiyya Ilmiyya – Scientific or Scholarly Salafism – makes the distinction between declaring a group as apostate and declaring individuals who are part of said group as such. Their position on Shiites for instance is that they deem them to be non-believers as a group, but “as a whole rather than as individuals”. According to Sheikh Nasser al-Din al-Albani “it is not lawful to engage in Takfir except against individual persons”.
In his view, “it is not permitted in Allah Almighty’s Sharia to excommunicate a sect or community of Muslims jointly and separately, because a community may include as many people who don’t deserve to be declared apostates for one reason or the other as there are people who deserve to be. Therefore, it is not permissible in any way to say that all Shiites, for example, are non-believers, the same for the Zaidis, the Kharijites, the Ibadis, and other sects.”
The reason for this, in Albani’s view, is that “with many ordinary Muslims – regardless of whether they are Sunni, Shiite, or otherwise – we find that many of them are still on their original sense of piety, and haven’t been influenced by what scholars call Kalam (Islamic teleology) like many who are engaged in it. For this reason, these ordinary people maintain their integrity and original constitution, while their privileged would have deviated from the straight path.”
As for these privileged who publicize their ideas, Albani deems them to be non-believers as he had done in a famous fatwa that declared Imam Ruhollah Khomeini as an apostate, based on citations from the latter’s books.
The phenomenon of Takfir has its rules in Islamic law. It is rare to find an Islamic sect that doesn’t talk about declaring some Muslims to be non-believers, but this practice has many provisions and conditions governing it. Nonetheless, we find today that there are some groups that casually engage in Takfir, even though it is a very sensitive issue. As the Prophet said: “The extremists are doomed”.