Accusations of Unbelief in Islam: A Diachronic Perspective on Takfir

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 Accusations Of Unbelief In Islam
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Camilla AdangHassan Ansari
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The issue of takfīr is a dangerous one; many people have undertaken it and have fallen, whereas the outstanding scholars have refrained from it and remained blameless. abū l-ʿabbās aḥmad b. ʿumar al-qurṭubī (d. 656/1259), al-Mufhim li-mā ash-kala min talkhīṣ kitāb Muslim1

What is Takfir?

Takfīr is accusing someone, especially a fellow Muslim, of kufr: holding or expressing deviant views or committing actions indicative of unbelief that may be tantamount to apostasy (ridda, irtidād) and can result in his excommunica-tion from the fold of Islam or even execution.2

 Takfīr has affected all regions of the Muslim world, though in some areas it seems to have been practiced more frequently than in others. That it is by no means solely a medieval or pre-modern practice is shown only too clearly by recent events in the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Accusations of unbelief have a long history in Islam, starting with the very Qurʾān, which contains many warnings against various kinds of kufr,3 along-side two verses that have been interpreted as a condemnation of takfīr, namely Q 4:94 ([. . .] do not say to someone who offers you a greeting of peace, ‘You are not a believer,’) and Q 40:28, which includes the following rhetorical question: ‘How can you kill a man just for saying, “My Lord is God”?ʼ4

Apart from monotheistic communities like the Jews and the Christians, who are regarded as stubborn unbelievers who should know better, having received sacred scriptures,5 the Qurʾān is chiefly concerned with Arabian polytheists who had not yet embraced Islam and who were Muḥammad’s main target audience.6 The Qurʾān does not yet explicitly address the problem of Muslims who turned their backs on their faith, in other words: who apostatized, or who challenged one or more of the core tenets or practices of Islam.

The so-called hypocrites (munāfiqūn), who had converted and outwardly professed belief in the one God and His messenger Muḥammad but whose commitment to Islam was lukewarm at best, are still considered part of the Muslim community although a painful punishment awaits them in the afterlife.7

The second sacred source of Islam, the Sunna (literally: custom), a vast corpus of reports (ḥadīth) that document the actions and sayings attributed to the Prophet Muḥammad, abounds in dicta in which a warning is sounded against kufr besides others in which unwarranted takfīr is strictly condemned and according to which the accuser himself, if he proves to be wrong, is denounced as an unbeliever.

The following sample from the latter category may illustrate this.

“The Messenger of God said: If a man says to his brother, ‘O infidel,’ it redounds upon one of them”8

“The Messenger of God said: Cursing a believer is like killing him, and whoever accuses a believer of kufr, it is as if he killed him”9

“The Prophet said: no man accuses another man of sinfulness or unbe-lief except it redounds upon him if his companion is not like that”10

In the most authoritative Sunnī ḥadīth collections, the Ṣaḥīḥs of al-Bukhārī (d. 256/870) and Muslim (d. 261/875), these traditions appear in the section on belief (īmān), but the last ones can also be found in al-Bukhārī’s section on etiquette (adab). This shows that takfīr was regarded as something that was “not done” among Muslims.11

It would seem that these ḥadīths and similar ones reflect the proliferation of accusations of unbelief in the century after the Prophet’s death in the year 10/632, when the nascent community was split over the question who was to succeed him as political leader, it being agreed that no one could quite take his place as its spiritual head.12


Whereas the majority of Muslims seems to have accepted the principle that only someone from the Prophet’s tribe of Quraysh could lead the community, the followers of Muḥammad’s cousin and son-in-law, ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib, who became known as the Shīʿa, restricted this to ʿAlī and his descendants. Yet another group, the Khārijīs (secessionists), held that family ties played no role whatsoever in the choice of the leader, and that piety alone was the criterion.

Although it was initially mainly a political issue that was at stake, then, the Khārijīs and proto-Shīʿīs soon developed into fully-fledged religious movements, with their own theological tenets, legal rulings and definitions of what constituted true belief (īmān) and what did not; who was a believer (muʾmin) and who was not; what was the status of the miscreant ( fāsiq) in this world and the afterlife and how best to protect the community of believers against the pernicious influence of the unbelievers (kuffār), a term that included not only non-Muslims but also and especially people who professed Islam.

The Khārijīs developed a minimal-ist view of the community of believers, limiting its membership to those who accepted their political doctrine and who combined a sincere belief with the outward profession and practice of their faith, excommunicating those who did not meet these criteria and were therefore branded unbelievers, for example because they neglected their prayers or ritual ablutions or failed to pay the poor due.

 In their zeal to establish a pure and righteous society, they withdrew to isolated areas where they believed true faith could thrive, this in imitation of the Prophet’s own exodus (hijra) from his native Mecca to Medina in 1/622.

 From their isolated strongholds the Khārijīs regularly attacked Muslims who did not fit their definition of a true believer and therefore did not belong to their community. Whoever did not meet their strict criteria was considered beyond the pale and anathematized.

 Especially singled out for attack were rep-resentatives of the government. It is here that the history of takfīr, in the sense of excommunicating fellow-Muslims, truly starts. The Khārijīs, who soon split up into different factions, came to be regarded as the arch-takfīrīs who put the question of belonging to the Muslim community (umma) firmly on the politi-cal, theological and legal agenda by drawing up criteria for those who rightfully belong to it and those who do not.13 The influence of the takfīrī ideology of the early Khārijīs can be felt to this very day.14

However, before long Khārijism itself passed into a quietist phase, abandoning its political activism while still exco-riating those who failed to meet its strict standards of observance and piety.15 Like the Khārijīs, the early Shīʿīs saw themselves as a chosen elite of believers (muʾminūn) that distinguished itself from the majority of Muslims, who in due course came to constitute mainstream, Sunnī Islam.

 Unlike the Khārijīs, the majority of Shīʿīs did not detach themselves from society but chose to coexist with the majority community, often even pretending to be part of it in order to blend in and avoid harassment (a measure known as taqiyya). Two minority branches of Shīʿism, the Zaydīs and the Ismāʿīlīs, were mostly activist.16

In the formative period of Islamic theology we find, besides the two factions already mentioned, two further influential groups, namely the quietist Murjiʾīs and the rationalist theologians of the Muʿtazila, who had adopted some of the ideas of the so-called Qadariyya, on free will versus predestination.17

According to the Murjiʾīs, and against the Khārijī view, belief consisted of consent and confession alone, not necessarily expressed in works.18 This meant that no one could be declared an unbeliever on the basis of his outward behaviour alone and that God, not men, would judge the sincerity of his faith. The Muʿtazilīs, on the other hand, upheld the view that belief consisted of works, combined with consent and confession. However, they disagreed with both the Khārijīs and the Murjiʾīs in maintaining that a Muslim who commits more sins than acts of obedience is neither to be classified as a believer nor as an unbeliever, but rather as a fāsiq holding an intermediary position between the two. This meant that takfīr of such a person is not allowed and that he is not to be excluded from the community, although in the afterlife he will be punished for his immoral behaviour.

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On the issue of belonging to the Muslim community, the Murjiʾī position was the most inclusive one, as the chief concern of its adherents appears to have been the preservation of the unity of the umma.

 Although criticized for allegedly encouraging or condoning moral laxity by downplaying the importance of works and pandering to rulers, it helped shape the main-stream Sunnī view of membership of the community according to which any-one who pronounces the double profession of faith in God and His Messenger is to be regarded and treated as a Muslim and as part of the People of the Qibla so long as no definitive proof to the contrary has been established.

This view is still prevalent today, even if it is challenged by violent takfīrī movements which define themselves—and sometimes each other—as strictly Sunnī.

As can be inferred from the above, there is not one objective definition of what constitutes true belief (īmān), nor is there an objective definition of what constitutes its opposite: unbelief (kufr) or related concepts such as apostasy (ridda, irtidād), masked infidelity (zandaqa), vilification or blasphemy (sabb), religious deviance or atheism (ilḥād), or reprehensible innovation (bidʿa), for all depend on the viewpoint of the beholder.

Moreover, the prevailing social and political circumstances can affect the perception of what are acceptable convictions and practices and what are not. Prayer is often regarded as the key identity marker of a Muslim.19

Other than that, what is commonly accepted as characteristic of the faithful is belief in one God, in Muḥammad and the prophets and messengers who preceded him, His scriptures, and the Last Day.20 Apart from this, what is a true and indubitable tenet for one person may be abhorred as darkest heresy by another, and the usefulness of terms such as orthodox and heterodox has therefore been debated, as Islam, unlike some of the Christian Churches, has no authoritative institutional body to formulate and canonize doctrines.21 Criticism of the beliefs of others was never limited to one particular group or current in Islam.

All theological schools engaged in refut-ing their rivals and opponents, and all of them produced more or less detailed heresiographical works whose purpose was to demonstrate the correctness of their own positions by disputing the tenets of the others.22 However, these tenets, however objectionable, were not always described in terms of kufr, nor were their representatives always branded unbelievers whose lives—mortal and/or eternal—are forfeit.

Even within some of the theological schools there was much internal strife, at times leading up to mutual accusations of unbelief among their most eminent scholars.23

 Thus among the Muʿtazilīs, the practice of defending doctrinal positions by condemning as unbelief conflicting theo-logical notions and/or their underlying assumptions was widespread, although care was taken as a rule to refrain from accusing individuals of unbelief.24

Descriptions of what is considered true belief as opposed to the misbelief or erroneous opinions of others are also found in theological summae which often contain detailed sections on belief and unbelief and on the indications that would allow for accusing others of unbelief or grave sins (adillat al-takfīr wa-l-tafsīq), as well as in doxographies and brief creedal statements (ʿaqāʾid).25 The latter genre often contains formulae that reflect a critical attitude towards takfīr.

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Thus Abū Jaʿfar Aḥmad b. Muḥammad al-Ṭaḥāwī (d. 321/933), a promi-nent Ḥanafī scholar, includes the following clauses in his Creed: “We do not brand any of the people of the Qibla an unbeliever because of a sin, so long as he does not consider [this sin] lawful;” “We do not assign any of [the People of the Qibla] to Paradise or to Hell, and we do not accuse any of them of unbelief, ascribing partners to God or hypocrisy as long as they have not openly mani-fested any of this.

We leave their secrets to God,” and “A person does not depart from belief except by rejecting what brought him into it,” or, in other words, what makes him belong to it in the first place.26 The famous legal scholar, theo-logian and mystic Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 505/1111) is often credited with hav-ing persuaded theologians, in his Fayṣal al-tafriqa, that takfīr is not a fruitful path and that utmost caution is to be taken in applying it.27

However, another work of his, Kitāb al-iqtiṣād fī l-iʿtiqād, includes a brief list of those whom it is a duty to regard as unbelievers. His tolerance is not, for example, extended to philosophers and Ismāʿīlī esotericists.28 Two other rather well known authors who warn against unbridled takfīr while condemning specific categories of opponents as unbelievers who are doomed are Ibn Ḥazm (d. 456/1064) and Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328).29 Interestingly, but not unusually, each of these three thinkers combined theological concerns with an expertise in law.

Generally speaking, it was the more practically-minded legal tracts rather than the other-world-oriented theological ones that occupied themselves with the question what makes one belong to the community of believers, and what causes one’s expulsion from it.30 After all, takfīr could have immediate legal as well as social repercussions, whereas how a person accused of unbelief fares in the afterlife is essentially up to God and beyond our sphere of influence.

 Many of the legal tracts and fatwās produced by representatives of the schools of law (madhāhib) that started to crystallize in the 8th and 9th centuries CE, Sunnī as well as Shīʿī, contain discussions of acts or expressions that cause one to be regarded as an unbeliever.

They are concerned with defining unbelief, as well as related con-cepts such as apostasy, heresy, blasphemy or innovation, the differences (often very slight) and overlaps (often considerable) between them and the punish-ments they incur.31

These definitions varied considerably between the schools, and even within them there was not always agreement. Another problem is that the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. It is important to mention here that the madhāhib, at least within Sunnism, not only tolerated each other and refrained from mutual takfīr, but even came to acknowledge each other’s teachings as legitimate expressions of the sharīʿa.32

A question much debated among the legists was whether the apostate, once found guilty, should be given the opportunity to repent (istitāba), an issue already referred to in the Qurʾān and the ḥadīth. This was often granted, but not for vilification of God, His reli-gion, His books, His messengers in general and Muḥammad and his family in particular, which resulted in the death penalty.33

In addition to the numerous legal works devoted to the rulings that apply to the one who is accused of unbelief (aḥkām al-kufr), a special kind of legal trea-tise dealt with alfāẓ al-kufr. This literally means verbal expressions of unbelief, but the works often included references to objectionable acts as well. The fol-lowing examples may suffice:

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