Warning Against Wanton Takfir


Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

In light of the modern tendency of some to engage in wanton takfir, it would be irresponsible to not point out some complexities that may relate to takfir in the west. There are two extremes with regards to takfir: one that denies its existence, and the other that engages in it excessively in contravention of the established legal rules – the latter extreme amongst contemporary Muslims has been well illustrated by Yusuf Qaradawi in Islamic Awakening: Between Rejection & Extremism and Abdul Rahman al-Luwaihiq’s Religious Extremism in the Lives of Contemporary Muslims. The fact remains that takfir is a method of Islamic law, and is necessary because the Sacred Law does have numerous provisions that differ dependent on whether one is a Muslim or a non-Muslim, in which each of the two is treated differently in a single situation. The most common areas where distinctions in faith are vitally important are the ritual prayer, burials, leadership, testimony, marriage and divorce and inheritance.

Firstly, al-Luwaihiq has spoken of “the judgment that someone else is a disbeliever is a very dangerous judgment with grave consequences [which Qaradawi spells out as examples]. No Muslim may take this step unless he has a clear proof and unquestionable evidence.” Thus Muhammad Salih al-Munajjid has issued the following excellent advice:

“Because the matter of takfir is so serious, and mistakes therein are so grave, the seeker of knowledge, especially if he is a beginner, should refrain from indulging in that, and he should focus on acquiring beneficial knowledge that will set his own affairs straight in this world and the Hereafter.”

Secondly, Nawawi, in his commentary of Sahih Muslim, says that anyone who “denies” (jahada) a

“necessarily known matter of the religion of Islam (ma ya’lam min din al-islam daruratan ) is judged with apostasy and disbelief, unless he is new to converting to Islam or raised in a remote place, or for a similar reason was unknown to him. The latter is to be informed of these matters. Yet if he persists in his previous beliefs, then he is adjudged to be a disbeliever.”

In this regard, I endorse the opinion that I heard from Haitham al-Haddad, who is a scholar who operates as a mufti in England and performs the function through the Islamic Sharia Council of the UK: whereby he said that people facing a legal situation that possibly entails the apostasy or disbelief of a relative or spouse should not make an independent ruling; rather, they should seek an official adjudication before a Council or mufti in case one has not truly understood the position of the one accused of apostasy or disbelief; thus an accused has the legal right to have their side heard fully. This is the safer approach and one that dispels any ambiguity and satisfies Sacred Law considerations, in case one seeks a divorce and wants to remarry or to exclude someone from a will that is consistent with both the Sacred Law and the law of the land in the west. Of course, not every instance of takfir requires recourse to a mufti, but it is best if ambiguity or legal requirements dictate such caution.

Thirdly, Luwaihiq states that “one of the accepted principles among the ahl al-sunnah wa al-jamaah [the people of orthodox Islam] is the principle of differentiating between a general declaration of [an action being] kufr and an individual himself becoming a disbeliever.” This helps further clarify the nuance in the second point above from Nawawi concerning those who deny a necessarily known matter of the religion. Luwaihiq then elaborates on this point by using an explanation from Ibn Taymiyya, whereby innocently ignorant people are initially excused from being considered disbelievers when committing what is considered kufr, especially if from an incorrect interpretation from the sects of the Muslims.

Fourthly, one only has a need of getting into specific takfir if they have a direct legal situation that requires them to determine the status of someone’s Islam, and some practical examples of Islamic law were referred to earlier. Therefore one has no need to form a specific opinion about some author who has no connection with one’s life, although one can identify an argument as kufr without having to definitively say the author is a non-Muslim. Furthermore, one has even more reason to not speculate on the condition of dead Muslims, who can never be raised back to this world in order to be fully challenged on their beliefs in the hope of them clarifying what they actually meant by their words that have caused controversy. If one follows the saying of ‘Ali (may God be well pleased with him) that we stated in the introduction, then one can simply take the good from living  or dead authors and speakers, and simply leave what does not attest to the truth, without feeling the need to establish someone’s particular case in such abstract instances.

The Modern Societal Implications of Belief in Islam’s Finality

The postmodern western philosophical history and outlook has been described by Richard Tarnas in The Passion of the Western Mind, as being “tolerant of ambiguity and pluralism” and a “more sympathetic attitude toward repressed or unorthodox perspectives and a more self-critical view of currently established ones.” Moreover, Tarnas writes that there is an “insistence on the pluralism of truth.” If these features are taken as true – and I do take them to be true – then one understands the reality underlying the following words of Akbar Ahmed, in his Postmodernism and Islam: Predicament and Promise: “While Muslims appreciate the spirit of tolerance, optimism and the drive for self-knowledge in postmodernism, they also recognize the threat it poses them with its cynicism and irony.” The threat, of course, is that Islam’s orthodoxy will fall victim to the intellectual milieu, and the only “Islam” that will be allowed a meaningful space in the postmodern west will be one cast in the dye of postmodernism, as opposed to one dictated to by the sources of Islam. In other words, the fear for Muslims is that only a postmodern reformation of Islam, along postmodernist principles and conclusions, will be considered acceptable on any level.

In this light, one understands the social reasons behind why a heresy like perennial philosophy can get such a welcome from people, Muslim and non-Muslim, in the modern world, in particular the modern west. For those Muslims who develop a leaning towards perennial philosophy, one is able to hazard a guess as to the social factors that might explain such a conditioning; much in the same way that sociologists and anthropologists might explain the orthodoxy of those living in the traditional Muslim heartlands (and Ernest Gellner’s Postmodernism, Reason and Religion is indicative of such controversial attempts at explaining the phenomenon). Only the test of time will prove where the Muslims of the west will sway. Despite being anti-modern, perennial philosophy is decidedly postmodern in its theology, despite their claims to religions’ “orthodoxy” (for example, see their passionate disavowal of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960’s).

The modern liberal drive for the universal validity of all religions and interpretations, with a wider purview than even perennial philosophy, is a means of attempting to make the world a safer place, free from wars and conflicts based on religion, which is a noble goal, although it simply bespeaks of a critical loss of faith or a belief in the God who reveals His messages to mankind through Prophets. In relation to Christian treatment of Muslims, one can see a liberal basis for wanting to draw these religions together because seemingly Christian-inspired massacres of Muslims have occurred through history, from the Crusades and the Christian Re-conquest of Spain to the tragedy of the Bosnian Muslims in the twentieth century. Nevertheless, Islam’s history has been far less intolerant and bloody: starting with acceptance and protection of Christian and Jewish rights under the Prophet Muhammad (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him) and his Companions (may God be well pleased with them all), including ‘Umar upon conquering Jerusalem, and the benevolence and compassion shown by Salah al-Din Ayyubi upon recapturing Jerusalem from the Crusaders. Montgomery Watt sums up the historical and moral high-ground shown by the Muslims, in his Islamic Political Thought: “On the whole there was more genuine toleration of non-Muslims under Islam than there was of non-Christians in Medieval Christian states.”

Thus Muslims have not needed modern liberalism to teach them how to deal justly with non-Muslims, nor to teach them to not force their faith upon others. Yet this is unsurprising for students of Islam. To begin with, God informs us in the Qur’an: There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion (2:256). For Muslims, this verse has not been an abstract ideal, buried away far from their political conscience, but rather it has been their civilizational modus operandi as argued by Thomas Arnold in his Preaching of Islam, whereby he illustrates the peaceful and voluntary spread of the faith’s acceptance in the heart of people: no Inquisitions or conversions by the sword. A Muslim regaining of their faith, its history and the disavowal of an inferiority complex would allow Muslims, collectively, to show that the orthodox belief in Islam’s finality does not mean an intolerant and belligerent attitude. History bears testimony to this, not imaginative fancy. Tim Winter, in “The Last Trump Card”, further elaborates on the issue of Muslim tolerance despite believing in orthodox finality:

“Hick, Knitter and their Muslim travelling-companions are, we may conclude, mistaken in suggesting that foundational claims for the present centrality of one’s own community in salvation history ineluctably lead believers towards hubris, discord and confrontation. While this appears to have been the case with the very absolute claims for uniqueness made by many forms of western Christianity, it is less unambiguously valid in the case of other faith communities such as Islam, where a scriptural doctrine of non-categoric supersession has in practice often underpinned a level of religious coexistence which has been sustained for many centuries, and can today easily support a theology of an authentic esteem for the Other. The demands of living in an intertwined world are urgent, but need not force the religions to renounce core aspects of their self-understanding, as long as that self-understanding does not entail the demonisation of the Other and the adoption of a Manichean view of history and the world.”

[For someone so heavily identified as a spokesman for “traditionalism” in Islam, it is of interest to note Winter’s endorsement in the conclusion of this essay for a reform of Islamic law’s traditional rules for non-Muslims living under Islam, whereby he agrees with Abdul-Hamid AbuSulayman with regards to such “medieval constructs.” This, in itself, opens the scope of inter-Muslim dialogue, aside from the past narrow group polemics of salafis/Wahhabis, traditionalists/Sufis and modernists/activists.]

On the practical level, following on from his sentiments above, Tim Winter (writing under his Arabic penname Abdal-Hakim Murad), in an essay entitled “Can Liberalism Tolerate Islam?”,  has spoken of how Muslim, Jewish and Christian “conservatives”, as opposed to those he calls “liberal religionists” who have dominated – to little success, he argues – the “interfaith industry”, can work together for the achievement of their many common goals and objectives. This is an interesting challenge, and history will narrate if it emerges. [It is hoped that Winter’s inter-religious agenda can be turned to the inter-Muslim divide amongst the most orthodox Muslims (the Shariah-orientated Sufis, salafis and activists). Hitherto, the drive for comprehensive orthodox co-operation on the multitude of matters that they agree upon has not received the same sort of open call to unity as Winter has displayed in “The Last Trump Card” for inter-faith co-operation; and the absence in this regard is not just Winter’s, but is a consistent inadequacy across the board from the various orthodox-striving groups, with very few exceptions of note.]

Mohammed Fadel, in “No Salvation Outside Islam”, makes the following conclusion, which is of great interest for those liberals who greatly fear the consequences of Muslim’s believing that Islam is the sole valid religion today: “20th century Muslim Modernist theology provides an important historical example in support of Rawls’ contention that not only can democracies tolerate theologies that teach “No salvation outside the Church,” but also that, far from subverting the stability of a democracy, liberal democracy, if anything, is more likely to subvert theological exclusivity.” Many will find his analysis of Yusuf Qaradawi particularly interesting, due to the latter being “vilified” in the west for his views on Israeli-Palestinian affairs and other matters of Islamic law. Fadel points out Qaradawi’s theological and legal discussions – which talk of an expanded existence of an “excuse” for certain non-Muslims in relation to ultimate salvation – and how “The Islamic solution to the political problem of religious and doctrinal pluralism, therefore, is not doctrinal syncretism…but rather the recognition that Islamic substantive law treats just, peaceful non-Muslims differently from those who are unjust and hostile to Islam.” Hence Qaradawi propounds “The Islamic grounds he identifies for political cooperation with non-Muslims…as follows:

  • The Muslim’s belief that each individual has dignity without regard to his religion, race or color;
  • The Muslim’s belief that religious difference is part of the divine plan that granted human beings freedom and choice;
  • Muslims are not obligated to judge non-believers on account of their non-belief, or punish them on account of their error; instead, accountability is for God on the Day of Judgment and their reward (or punishment) is left to God; and,
  • A Muslim’s belief that God commands justice and loves fairness, and that He hates injustice and punishes the unjust, even if the perpetrator is a Muslim and the victim a polytheist.”

Now Qaradawi’s views are only one view, but what they highlight is how even those perceived as the most politically extreme of orthodox Muslim clerics are going to great lengths to try and build a future society that greatly accommodates and incorporates those still deemed, theologically, to be unbelievers. This indicates how socially expansive and inclusive the theologically-exclusive position is for vast numbers of Muslims.

In conclusion, the Muslim obligation to treat all people well, and to alleviate harm from them, dictates a natural Islamic compassion that transcends whether the recipient of a Muslim’s good will and actions is a Muslim or not. With the media onslaught against Islam, it is not surprising that many are fearful of what it means to adhere to Islam or to believe that it is God’s final religion to all men. Yet the positive contribution that orthodox Muslims exhibit on a daily basis in the west is enough of a proof to disprove the claim that such a religious outlook is a threat to cordial and brotherly relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. Indeed, a greater orthodox, religious adherence is, arguably, a better means of safeguarding us all from the lawlessness of irreligious Muslims – see the scale of crimes committed by irreligious Muslims in England – and  the threats of violent terror from Muslim extremists (as we have too often sadly seen in the west of late). It is of note that one of the most suspiciously viewed orthodox groups, the salafis, have made rigorous strides to combat terrorism and extremism in the west whilst still proclaiming the right to hold traditional and orthodox opinions on a multitude of issues – for this salafi trend, see the activities of the Brixton Mosque, London, as recounted in the PhD entitled “Countering Terrorism in the UK: A Convert Community Perspective” (Exeter University, 2009) by the mosque’s ex-Chairman Anthony (Abdul Haqq) Baker; and a speech by the Director-General of Mercy Mission and Alkauthar Institute Tawfique Chowdhury entitled “Muslim Scholars—West’s Natural Allies in Fighting Scourge of Terrorism”. Other orthodox groups, like Islamic movement activists and Shariah-orientated Sufis, already have a long history of promoting and achieving cohesive communal relations in England amongst people of different faiths and no faith, so there is no reason to doubt that it can continue to do so in the future, if God so wills. Thus, in the end, it is facts, and not tabloid and gutter journalism, that establishes the positive and beneficial role of Muslims in the west, even when holding the conviction in their exclusivist theology. How sad it would be if this immense contribution was to be ungratefully dismissed and ignored. To God we make our pleas for success and seeing matters for what they really are.

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3 Comments

  1. Fuhad says:

    Good exposition of Islamic orthodoxy.
    I appreciate the statement quote ” in the end, it is facts, and not tabloid and gutter journalism, that establishes the positive and beneficial role of Muslims in the west”
    Sure we should not let PostModernism (which is now a defunct philosophical view)interpret Islamic theology and philosophy within its framework. Rather use the historical tools and knowledge of the tradtion as stated by Andrew but for that I think we need well groomed muslim scholars in west.

    Kind Regards
    Fuhad

  2. Ahmed Zaafran says:

    This is an outstanding article. Thank you for addressing such pressing issues.

  3. Reed says:

    “To begin with, God informs us in the Qur’an: There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion (2:256).”

    Can this verse be interpreted as “There shall be no compulsion in the religion,” meaning not conversion but simply in the practices/beliefs of the religion itself? If not, why not?

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