Takfir: Its Dangers & Rules
Takfir – accusing a fellow Muslim of apostasy; of having left the fold of Islam and being a disbeliever (kafir) – is indeed a grave affair in Islam. It is a fitnah, or “sedition,” whose flames were historically put out by the defeat of the Kharijites (khawarij), only to be set alight again in our times, on a global scale, by a highly-politicised reading of Islam. It is one of the worst fitnahs of our age, continuing to ensnare into its ghastly traps many a well-intended Muslim. But, as one piece of ancient wisdom goes, wa kam min muridin li’l-khayr lan yusibahu – ‘How many people intend good, but never reach it.’1
What follows is an elaboration of the basic rules and guidelines concerning the matter of takfir – of declaring another Muslim a kafir. For the purpose of clarity, the discussion has been divided into ten points or rules:
RULE ONE: Imam al-Shawkani (d.1250H/1834CE) sets the tone about the huge danger of rushing into making takfir, saying: ‘Know that judging a Muslim to have left the fold of Islam and entered into disbelief is something no Muslim who believes in Allah and the Last Day would proceed to do, except with a proof more evident than even the day time sun. It is confirmed in the authentic hadiths, related by a group of Companions, that: “Whoever says to his brother, ‘O disbeliever,’ it returns to one of them.”2 Its like occurs in the Sahih. And in another wording in the Two Sahihs and others: “Whoever accuses someone of disbelief, or of being an enemy of Allah, while he is not like that, it will return back to him.”3 In one of the Sahihs, the wording is: “It returns to one of the two.” So there are in these hadiths, and their like, the severest reprimand and greatest warning against hastening to make takfir.’4
RULE TWO: In terms of “stepping outside” the fold of Islam, the rule in this respect is: la yakhruju’l-‘abd min al-iman illa bi juhudi ma adkhalahu fihi – ‘A person does not step outside of belief, except by rejecting what brought him into it.’5 Classical law manuals will usually contain a chapter on apostasy and what necessitates it. Thus, for instance, Ibn Qudamah’s (d.641H/1267CE) authoratative fiqh manual, al-Kafi, states:
‘Apostasy (riddah) occurs by retracting the two shahadahs, or any one of them; vilifying Allah, Exalted and Holy is He, or His Prophet, upon whom be peace; falsely impugning the honour of the Prophet’s mother; rejecting any part of the Book of Allah; [rejecting] one of His prophets, or one of His books; rejecting a clear-cut agreed upon obligation, like the five [pillars of] worship; making lawful a well-known agreed upon prohibition, like wine, pork, carrion, blood, illicit intercourse or the like.
‘If this happens due to the person’s ignorance, or him being a recent convert to Islam, or his awakening from insanity and the like – he does not become a disbeliever, but is apprised of the law [on these issues] and of its proof. But if he persists, he does become a disbeliever, because the proofs of these clear-cut matters are evident in the Book of Allah and in the Sunnah of His Prophet. The rejection [of these matters] does not stem save from a person who gives the lie to Allah’s Book and to the Sunnah of His Prophet, peace be upon him.’6
RULE THREE: It is vital to understand at this point that denial (juhud), and “giving the lie to” (takdhib), are radically different from the act of just committing a sin (ma‘siyah). To clarify the point: A Muslim who drinks alcohol or eats pork, believing it to be sinful or forbidden – not intending to mock, deny or reject the shari‘ah – is still a Muslim (though a sinful one); who is required to repent and refrain from such sin. If, however, he believes it lawful to consume alcohol or pork, rejecting or shrugging-off the Qur’an’s prohibition, he denies a clear-cut Islamic edict and rejects an explicit divinely-revealed ruling; thus nullifying his faith and leaving the fold of Islam. That is to say, he becomes an apostate (murtadd) – God forbid!
The same goes for one who considers lawful stealing, murder, illicit intercourse – be it hetrosexual or homosexual – or any other prohibition which is clear and agreed upon. The same rule holds in the case of one who rejects or denies an established obligation such as the five daily prayers, the fast of Ramadan, zakat, or ensuring lawful income.
RULE FOUR: A common problem is that some people today, when they read in a book of Islamic law, or theology, phrases like: ‘Whoever does such and such has disbelieved,’ or: ‘Whoever believes such and such is a disbeliever,’ they jump to the conclusion that Muslims they know or have heard of, who hold such views, are kafirs. In their zealotry, or folly, these people have failed to uphold the distinction between a general charge of disbelief (takfir ‘amm), and between the charge of disbelief upon a particular individual (takfir mu‘ayyan). Ibn Taymiyyah (d.728H/1328CE) stated: ‘They have not given proper consideration that making takfir has certain conditions (shurut) and impediments (mawani‘) that must be actualised if it is to be applied to a specific individual. Because a general declaration of takfir doesn’t imply takfir upon a specific individual – unless if the conditions are fulfilled and the impediments lifted.’7
Ibn Taymiyyah reitterates the same principle that: laysa kullu man waqa‘a fi’l-kufr sara kafir – ‘Not everyone who falls into disbelief, becomes a disbeliever [because of it].’ He writes elsewhere: ‘It does not necessary follow that if a statement is disbelief, all those who said it – perhaps out of ignorance or misinterpretation – are disbelievers. Since affirming that a specific Muslim has become a disbeliever is like affirming the textual threat will be applied to him in the Hereafter. And this, as we explained elsewhere, has conditions that need fulfilling and impediments that need removing.’8
Again, from a slightly different angle, he says: ‘The textual threats which occur in the Book and the Sunnah, or words where the Imams make takfir or declare a person to be a reprobate (tafsiq), or the like, doesn’t necessitate it applies to a specific individual: except if the conditions are present and the impediments absent.’9
RULE FIVE: Just what are these conditions and impediments which need actualising, before a particular charge of takfir can be levied against a specific individual?
Essentially, there are three condition and impediments: (i) ‘Ilm: the person must have knowledge of the prohibition and not be ignorant (jahl) of it – to be discussed in more detail below. (ii) Qasd: it must be deliberate, intentional; not ghayr qasid, unintended. (iii) Ikhtiyar: the person must have freely chosen to do it, not being under compulsion (jabr): Whoever disbelieves in Allah after he has believed – except he who was forced, while his heart remained secure in faith – but those who open their breast to disbelief, upon them will be anger from Allah, and there awaits them a formidable torment. [16:106] 10
RULE SIX: As for knowledge (‘ilm), then careful juristic consideration shows it to be of three categories: Firstly, matters of Islam which everyone knows – whether scholar or layman, young or old. Such matters are technically referred to as al-ma‘lum min al-din bi’l-darurah – “Necessarily known to be part of the religion”. Secondly, issues which not everybody knows. Thirdly, matters differed upon by the scholars.11
RULE SEVEN: Denying anything of the first category of knowledge amounts to clear and manifest disbelief, for there is no excuse not to know these things in the lands of Islam except for someone who is a recent convert, or was raised in the wilderness or in a place where ignorance of the religion was rife and widespread. In this case, such people are treated like those from the second category.
Al-Nawawi (d.676H/1277CE) wrote: ‘Whoever denies something necessarily known to be of the religion of Islam is declared an apostate and disbeliever; unless he is a recent convert, or grew up in the wilderness, or for some similar reason was unable to learn his religion properly. He must be apprised of the truth. But if he continues as before, he is judged to be a non-Muslim. This is the same as with any Muslim who believes it lawful to commit adultery, drink wine, kill, or commit other acts that are necessarily known to be unlawful.’12
Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah said: ‘Many people are born and raised in places and times where much of the prophetic teaching has been extinguished, to the extent that nothing remains of what Allah sent His Prophet with of the Book and the Wisdom. Such people cannot be charged with disbelief. This is why the Imams are agreed that someone who is born and raised in the desert regions, far from the people of learning and faith, or is a recent convert to Islam, and he denies any of the manifest clear-cut rulings, must not be judged a disbeliever until he learns about what the Prophet came with.’13
RULE EIGHT: Denying something of the second category – issues of the faith that not everyone knows – is only disbelief if one persists in denying it after he is made to understand that it is part of what Allah sent His Prophet, peace be upon him, with as religion. Before this he is excused for not knowing, because of it being inaccessible to him, or it is beyond what he is reasonably expected to know. The Qur’an states: We burden not any soul beyond its scope. [6:152] And: Nor do We punish until We have sent a Messenger. [17:15]
Also, Jabir relates: A donkey that had been branded on the face passed by the Prophet, upon whom be peace, and he said: ‘Is there anyone among you who has not heard that I have cursed those who brand or strike an animal’s face?’14 That is, whosoever has not heard it – i.e. does not know it – is not culpable of it, even if he did it.
RULE NINE: As for the third category – matters which scholars differ about – then such issues cannot be used as a yardstick to cast aspersions on someone’s orthodoxy; let alone charge them with disbelief!
This is the case provided it is a legitimate scholarly position – one which stems from a scholar qualified to make ijtihad or “juristic inference”; that the view not contradict a text which is qat‘i al-thubut and qat‘i al-dalalah – that is, “unquestionably established in its authenticity” and “incontestable in its meaning”; that it not oppose an ijma‘ or “juristic consensus”; and that it not be shadhdh; “irregular” or “anomalous” according to the canons of Islamic law.15
RULE TEN: Given the depth and subtleties involved in charging a particular Muslim with disbelief or apostasy; given also the immense enormity of doing so without due precaution or the prerequisite knowledge, such takfir must be left to the qualified and seasoned God-fearing scholars; and none else.
Indeed, no one should be desirous for a fellow Muslim to be expelled from the fold of the religion. The Prophet’s example – after all, it is he who is our exemplar – teaches us the utmost concern a Muslim must have for the guidance and welfare of others. One hadith states: ‘My example and yours may be likened to a man who kindled a fire, and when it had lit up its surroundings, flies and moths started falling into it. And although he tried to prevent them, they got the better of him and flew into it. In a like manner, I am holding you around your waists, pulling you away from the Fire, but you are trying to get free and rush head long into it.’16
Thus, a highly cautious and restrained Ibn Taymiyyah remarks that: ‘I am always – as those who sit with me know from me – from the strictest of people in forbidding that a specific person be accused of disbelief, iniquity (fisq) or sinfulness till the proof has been established to him, such that the one contravening it is, at times, a disbeliever; at times, a reprobate; and at other times, a sinner. And I affirm that Allah excuses this ummah its mistakes, whether it be in matters of beliefs or actions.’17
And Allah knows best.
1. These are the words of the famous Companion ‘Abd Allah b. Mas‘ud, as recorded by al-Darimi, Sunan (Karachi: Qadami Kutub Khanah, n.d.), 1:78-9, no.204.
2. Muslim, Sahih, no.60.
3. ibid., no.61.
4. Al-Sayl al-Jarrar (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1985), 4:578.
5. Cf. The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi (USA: Zaytuna Institute, 2007), §.79
6. Al-Kafi (Riyadh: Dar Hajr, 1997), 5:319-20.
7. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 12:487-8.
8. Minhaj al-Sunnah (Riyadh: Jami‘ah Muhammad b. Sa‘ud, 1986), 5:240.
9. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 10:372. Also cf. 35:165-6.
10. Consult: al-Bassam, Nayl al-Ma’arib fi Tahdhib Sharh ‘Umdat al-Talib (Riyadh: Dar al-Mayman, 2005), 4:357-60; al-Jibrin, Dawabit Takfir al-Mu‘ayyan (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Rushd, 2005); 10-25. I thank Shaykh Salim al-Amri for gifting me this last treatise.
11. Consult: al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, al-Faqih wa’l-Mutafaqqih (Dammam: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1996), 1:434.
12. Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 1:134.
13. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 11:407.
14. Abu Dawud, Sunan, no.2564.
15. See: al-Zarkashi, al-Manthur fi’l-Qawa’id (Kuwait: Wizarat al-Awqaf wa’l-Shu‘un al-Islamiyyah, 1985), 2:140; al-Shinqiti, Nathr al-Wurud ‘ala Maraqi al-Su‘ud (Jeddah: Dar al-Manarah, 1999), 636-8.
16. Al-Bukhari, Sahih, no.6483; Muslim, Sahih, no.2284.
17. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 3:229.