– The Sin of “Takfir” in Islam.

(© Zubair Qamar 2013)

Takfir, or to declare someone a disbeliever, is a heinous sin in Islam, reminiscent of the Kharijites in early Islam who declared the Companions of Prophet Muhamamd to be disbelievers, and misinterpreted Qur’anic verses to justify their fanaticism.

Shaykh Faraz Khan, a contemporary Sunni scholar, says:

“One of the greatest tribulations (fitan) of our times is the prevalence of some Muslims deeming other Muslims as disbelievers (takfir). This is a catastrophe, whose harm is most clearly manifested in the senseless killing of innocent Muslims by extremists.”[1]

It is, in fact, easy to become a Muslim. If there is certainty that one believes in Islam, but doubt as to whether such a person renounced Islam or not, the former takes precedence over the latter since in Islam a state of certainty takes precedence over a state of uncertainty. For the same reason, when a Muslim, for example, purifies him- or herself and is unsure of whether he or she nullified the purification, then he or she is considered to be in a state of purity. To accuse someone of being out of Islam’s ambit requires concrete proof – not hunches and conjecture. As explained, that is why Muslim scholars in Sunni tradition were reluctant to excommunicate others.

Can any Muslim declare another Muslim of being outside the pale of Islam? No. This is the prerogative of a qualified Muslim Judge. Shaykh Nuh Keller explains:

“In Muslim society, such a judgment [of belief versus unbelief of someone] is the business of the qadi or Islamic judge alone, and only because he has to. In cases where he must distinguish between the kufr or iman of a nominally Muslim individual, he does so because of earthly rights and penalties entailed by such a judgement, such as that an apostate’s marriage to a Muslim woman is null and void, the meat he slaughters is not lawful to eat, and his property belongs to the Muslim common fund (bayt al-mal), and so forth.”

Shaykh Nuh Keller continues – and this is very important:

“Moreover, these are the responsibility of the Islamic government to implement, and in the absence of such a government, ordinary Muslims may neither judge nor carry out the worldly consequences of such legal rulings because they have no authority to do so, for Islam does not permit vigilante or mob “justice.” Ordinary Muslims other than the qadi are not required to judge the faith in the heart of anyone who has spoken the Shahada or Testification of Faith, with the possible exception of someone married to a spouse who may have left Islam.”

So, if a judge has the prerogative to excommunicate someone from Islam – and only when the evidence is conclusive – this stresses the abomination and unlawfulness of Muslim laypeople to play excommunicator.

How does an Islamic judge determine the belief or disbelief of a person in Islam? Imam Hamza Yusuf, a contemporary Sunni scholar, says:

“Six conditions have to be fulfilled in order for a judge to rule concerning a person’s faith: Intention; Absence of Coercion; Level of Knowledge; Absence of Esoteric Interpretation; Mental Ability to Reason; and, Proof of Faith.”

Sunni scholars say that if the apparently kufr statements of someone can be interpreted to be other than kufr, then this should be done. The famous Hanafi scholar, Ibn Abideen, as quoted by contemporary Sunni scholar Shaykh Gibril F Haddad, said:

“The Fatwa of Kufr is not given to a Muslim when his words have the possibility of being interpreted in better (Hasan) manner (not amounting to Kufr)”.[2]

Moreover, if someone utters actual kufr, instead of such a person being declared a disbeliever, he or she should be taught the correct understanding of Islam and be corrected politely.

Today what we commonly find instead is so-called Muslims not only not giving the benefit of the doubt in terms of an alternative interpretation to what sounds like kufr, but to declare such people apostates on the spot, with some even brutally killing them without considering any leeway and leniency that Islam provides.

Verbal “corrections” that happen to be provided by some so-called Muslims are harsh and domineering, without wisdom (`aql) or etiquette (adaab), in strict violation of the example of Prophet Muhammad. A lot of times, these “corrections” result in more harm than good, and have little to no effect on the person listening. Also, no Muslim knows whether a living person will go to Heaven or Hell because belief can undergo drastic change in one’s lifetime.

The upshot/point is that a person who has heard the call to Islam and rejected it does not necessarily mean that the person will necessarily go to Hell. Abu Sufyan, for example, opposed Prophet Muhammad and “fought” him “for almost twenty years, yet never did the Prophet despair of the possibility that Abu Sufyan would accept faith.”[3] How different is this from the understanding of extremists and other militants who have already judged the outcome of the salvation of living human beings when they do not even possess such knowledge. Imam Hamza Yusuf said:

“The majority of scholars have prohibited damning an individual, whether Muslim or not, because only God knows a person’s ultimate status.”[4]

King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein of Jordan issued the Amman Message on November 9th, 2004 for unity and tolerance among Muslims and was supported by 200 Muslim scholars from over 50 countries. This statement, perhaps the biggest demonstration of unity and tolerance among Muslims of diverse sects, stated that it was impermissible for Muslims to declare other Muslims “apostate”:

“Whosoever is an adherent to one of the four Sunni schools (Mathahib) of Islamic jurisprudence (Hanafi,Maliki, Shafi‘i and Hanbali), the two Shi‘i schools ofIslamic jurisprudence (Ja‘fari and Zaydi), the Ibadi school of Islamic jurisprudence and the Thahiri school of Islamic jurisprudence, is a Muslim. Declaring that person an apostate is impossible and impermissible. Verily his (or her) blood, honour, and property are inviolable. Moreover, in accordance with the Shaykh Al-Azhar’s fatwa, it is neither possible nor permissible to declare whosoever subscribes to the Ash‘ari creed or whoever practices real Tasawwuf (Sufism) an apostate. Likewise, it is neither possible nor permissible to declare whosoever subscribes to true Salafi thought an apostate.”

“Equally, it is neither possible nor permissible to declare as apostates any group of Muslims who believes in God and the pillars of faith, who acknowledges the five pillars of Islam, and does not deny any necessarily self-evident tenet of religion.”[5]


[2] Takfir – Anathematizing. Gabriel F. Haddad quotes Ibn Abideen “Radd al-Muhtar” (English translation?). Qibla for the Islamic Sciencies: http://qa.sunnipath.com/issue_view.asp?HD=1&ID=216&CATE=13

[3] Imam Hamza Yusuf article on Who are the Desbelievers?. Pg. 42. http://www.mujahideenryder.net/pdf/WhoAretheDisbelievers.pdf

[4] Imam Hamza Yusuf article on Who are the Desbelievers?. Pg. 42. http://www.mujahideenryder.net/pdf/WhoAretheDisbelievers.pdf

[5] TheAmman Message (cite properly). I have the book.

One comment

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful, well-researched and persuasive treatment of the sin of “takfir” in Islam. Your calm and scholarly approach to the question shows that you’ve put into practice the essential lesson in the article: it’s not our place to judge others except where the proof is incontrovertible and the reason compelling. Bravo!

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