Theology of Takfir and the Politics of Takhrib


Scores of religious edicts and decrees are issued by Muslim theologians, muftis and Ulema almost regularly denouncing fellow Muslims who do not accept their version of Islam and hundreds of debates take place on these edicts in Muslim gatherings at various levels on issues pertaining to these edicts. There are those who call others kafir, fajir, fasiq or murtad and there are those who advocate violence against such people. These decrees are not issued by common people. They are bystanders who only learn about these edicts from those who describe themselves as learned people and scholars. Many commoners, then, engage in conflicts and infighting against each other to live the ideals of Islam with full sincerity as taught to them by their scholars or religious leaders regardless of their level of scholarship and influence. Many are baffled with this situation. Can differences of understanding of a divine message that describes itself a simple message lead to a level where people are unwilling to accommodate each other? Many ask. In their eyes, Islam has been turned into a conflicting faith where no one knows who speaks the truth because everyone is suspect in the eye of the other and everyone is claiming that his group is the only righteous group. This is confusing. No one has the time to read all the conflicting opinions among existing Muslim sects and factions and then decide which one to follow. People do not have to choose between a theology of takfir and a politics of takhrib.  They want to live Islam so that in the words of the Quran: “And there are men who say: “Our Lord! Give us good in this world and good in the Hereafter, and defend us from the torment of the Fire!” 2:20

This article is the reflection of one such person who wants to find good in this life and in the life of hereafter.


Theology of Takfir

I found out that there were people who had declared Tablighi Jamat a mushrik (polytheist) outfit, there were people who had labelled scholars from Deoband ( a religious seminary in India) as the deviants practicing false religion, there were people who had issued religious decrees declaring the Jamat Islami a fasiq (rebellious) organization, there were people who had called Shias non-Muslims and there were people who had declared all non-Shias kafir. There were those who had denounced Ahle Hadith as deviants and there were those who had labeled the followers of Ahmed Raza Khan as mushrik.

Those who made these statements were not ordinary people, they were learned people who called themselves scholars and ulema and who enjoyed respect among their followers. They quoted the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet to support their claims. Many of them called themselves righteous and the other deviant, fasiq, and kafir. It was a shocking reality that I confronted. More shocking was the realization that even many of the icons of Islamic history were also involved in this movement of declaring others kafir or disbeliever. The prophet’s saying that the one who declares a fellow Muslim a kafir is himself a kafir appeared to be meaningless to such great teachers and scholars and ulema of Islam.

Where is the ummah? I asked this question, several times, to me. Because some Muslim scholars declared the other kafir, all appeared to be kafir. Where are Muslims?

No ordinary Muslim would dare declare other non-Muslims. He or she does not have enough knowledge to even define his own Islam, how can he define others. If he does so, it is not that he reached to this conclusion on his own, but someone else taught him to say so.


The Imapct of Takfir

If one looks at the takfir of ulama in other parts of the world, one can write volumes on the subject. Why is this takfir? If everyone is saying that they believe in one God and they accept Prophet Muhammad as the final and last messenger and the Prophet and they believe in the reality of the life after death, then why would one declare the other as kafir or murtad or fasiq and fajir? Who can stop them? Or who has given them the right to declare the other as deviant or kafir? Is there any basis of their action?

One of the great scholars of the previous century, Shaikh Abul Hasan Ali Nadvi summarized the whole theology of takfir in the following words in a book called “the status and responsibilities of ulama” “If the scholars of deen do not discipline them spiritually, intellectually, morally and personally, then the entire deen and millat would be in a state of decline.

He further wrote; If our country’s religious circles do not produce people like Ashraf Ali thanvi, Syed Hussain Ahmed Madani, Syed Salman Nadwai, Syed Manazar Ahsan Gilani, Shaikh Ahmed Usmani, Shaikhul Hadith Muhammad Zakariya, Mufti Kifayatullah, Shaikh Sajjad, Abdul Kalam Azad, Shaikh Ilyas, Shaikh yusuf Kandelvi, then the identity and dignity of the ulema and Islam in India would be lost.”

Obviously, Shaikh Abul Hasan Nadawi was speaking from his background. Among the scholars that Indian Muslim justifiably claim to be great were Shah Waliullah, Shah Ahmed Sirhindi, Shaikh Nizamuddin, Shaikh Makhdoom Mohiyuddin, Shaikh Hajaveri, Syed Ahmed Khan, Chiragh Ali, Shaikh Muhibbul Haq, Aslam Jairajpuri and Shaikh Hifzur Rehman,  All of them drew their inspiration from the Quran and sunnah.


Fabricated Ahadith extolling the Virtues of Scholars

They made a distinction between the personal opinions of individuals and the essence of the faith. They rarely questioned the other’s sincerity and integrity. They also identified false, fabricated and false ahadith. For instance, hey knew that the following ahadith that glorify ulema were fabricated and false or weak.

“Ulama of my ummat are like the Prophets of the Bani Israel.”

“After me the most generous is the one who acquired knowledge and propagated that.”

“One who saw an alim saw me and the one who shook hand with an alim shook hand with me.”

“An alim or a shaikh is like a prophet among his people.”

“The ink of an alim is better than the blood of a martyr.”

“Looking at the face of an alim is an act of Ibadah.”

“The difference of my ummah is mercy.”

“Follow scholars as they are the light of this world and the lantern of the world hereafter.”


The Spirit of Islam Betrayed

Genuine scholars described all these fabrication an act of fitna or dissension among Muslims and challenged those who had indulged in this theology of takfir.

The Quran and the Prophet are specific and very clear on the dissension among Muslims with particular reference to groups, sects, scholars, or factions. The Quran reminds all of us that the guidance comes from Allah only and that guidance has to be lived in one’s life. The one who introduced the world to the ideas of one God taught his followers that if they did not find anything good to talk about fellow Muslims, they should at least stay quiet rather than hurting him by name.

It was clear from the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet that those who were declaring others deviant, false, fasiq, fajir or kafir or unbelievers were violating the fundamental principles of Islam. They were causing dissensions in the community and instigating the innocent, uneducated and simple minded masses against the other. It was clear that they had become the first violator of the faith and they wanted others to follow or adhere them. Anyone who stayed outside their pale was not considered worthy of having a faith.

In reality, they betrayed Islam. They tried to rob Islam of its inherent universalism and the beauty for all. Rather than inspiring Muslims to live the Quran in their everyday life and explore the world as commanded in the divine book to serve the humanity, they indulged and involved their followers in petty theological debates and issued religious edicts on them. They fought on every minute detail dividing the community into sects, sub-sects and sub-sub sects. The dominated the debate in Muslim circles and families. Rather than discussing the message of the Quran and the character and life of the prophet and the responsibilities of Muslims in the changing world, the debate focused on petty differences without any end in sight.

The situation is more confusing to non-Muslims. Whom should they accept as the genuine voice of Islam. Even if they identify with the teachings of Islam they would find it hard to identify with any Muslim groups because each is a deviant in the eyes of the other. In this age of information, when nothing is hidden from the eyes of readers, people would soon discover such writings no matter when they were written and in what language they were written.

Why it is that such learned people were indulging in this sort of practice? Why were they declaring each other kafir or fajir? Rather than engaging with others in a dialogue to seek further clarity and accept the differences as an expression of one’s comprehension and understanding, why were they obsessed with the idea of total annihilation or subjugation of the other?

Some of these groups crossed all line. They took it upon themselves to annihilate their opponents. They first declared others as kafir, murtad, fajir and fasiq and then incited their followers to decimate the opposition, kill them or silence them forever.


The Fitna

The common Muslim is bewildered. They do not have skills to define each other in the terms many scholars have defined. They are baffled as they are given a choice, a choice that none of average Muslims would ever want to be. They are being forced to make a choice between the theology of takfir (declaring others as kafir) and the politics of takhrib (destruction). This is not what the Quran calls. In fact, the Quran describes such a practice a fitna.

The Quran, the book that is the fundamental source of Muslim’s identity uses a word fitna in its different variation. The Trilateral root fatanun occurs 60 times in six different forms, 34 as a noun and 25 in various verbal forms.  “The Arabic word fitnah includes meanings of testing and trial. The root is taken from the phrase fatantu al-fiddah wa’l-dhahab , meaning I melted the metals to separate the bad from the good. (Al-Azhari) Allah says in the Qur’an (interpretation of the meaning): ‘(It will be) a Day when they will be tried [yuftanoona] (punished) over the Fire!’ [al-Dhaariyaat 51:13], meaning, burning them with fire.” (Tahdheeb al-Lughah, 14/196). “Fitnah means testing, trial, wealth, children, kufr, differences of opinion among people, as well as burning with fire.” (Lisaan al-‘Arab by Ibn Manzoor). The Quran uses difference among People and lack of agreement as a meaning of the word fitna in one of the verses. “and they would have hurried about in your midst (spreading corruption) and sowing sedition among you [yabghoonakum al-fitnah]” [al-Tawbah 9:47] i.e., they would have stirred up differences amongst you, as it says in al-Kashshaaf, (2/277).


It appeared that what was done by many of these learned people was nothing but an exercise in fitna. They were sowing sedition and stirring up difference among the believers. They were inciting their followers against the other. However shocking it may be but it is to be acknowledged and accepted. Obviously, they were not the ulema described in the Quran or defined by the Prophet as scholars. Obviously, they were not the ones who showed any humility towards the other. In the words of the Quran“Those who split up their Religion, and become (mere) Sects,- each party rejoicing in that which is with itself!” (30:32)


The Scholars and the Scholarship

As explained by the Quran, a person does not become a scholar by reading books only.  “(But only the people who comprehend what they read and then act upon it can benefit from Allah’s Book.  The Book would be of no use if it is carried around wrapped in beautiful covers.  This is what the Bani-Israel did to Allah’s book; and you can see their condition.)  The Torah was given to them and they were told that it was their duty to act upon it.  However, they (carried the book with extreme reverence but) did not undertake the responsibilities it imposed on them.  An apt parable would be that of a donkey laden with books.  (It is obvious that the books cannot benefit the donkey in the least).  This is an example of people who admit to the truthfulness of Divine Laws, but belie it by their deeds.  How wretched their plight would be.  The people who treat the Divine Book in this way obviously cannot find the right path.  (Can a donkey ever go on the right path just because the books containing guidance, namely the distinction between right and wrong, are laden on its back?) (62:5)

“(Such was the conduct of Bani-Israel.  They merely carried the Divine Book around instead of obtaining guidance from it, and at the same time they remained under the false impression that they alone were the favourites of Allah.)  Tell them,  “If you really are the only ones who are Allah’s closest friends and favourites, then aspire to die in His cause.  This would substantiate your claim.” (62:6) and (2:94)

A true scholar is a teacher who instills hope in the ability of individual to relate to Allah and His messenger. A true scholar is a teacher who helps an individual broaden his intellectual horizons. A true scholar is a teacher who helps an individual develop a comprehensive Islamic personality to the welfare and well being of all. A true scholar is a person who rises above sectarian, factional and party lines and directly goes to the Quran and sunnah to develop his/ her rationale in assuming any position. A true scholar is a person who goes outside the box to understand the divine wisdom in the guidance given to human beings. A true scholar is a person who ignores the individual weaknesses to ensure that the doors of divine mercy are never closed.

A true scholar does not create intimidation and fear. A true scholar is not the one who controls the mind of his students. A true scholar is never afraid of any question his followers ask him even if it questions the validity of the fundamentals of religion. In the words of the Quran a true scholar is the one who shows humility even after attaining the highest laurels of knowledge.


“(Obedient and rational people wonder why such benevolent, clear and eye-opening knowledge was opposed?  And even now it continues to be opposed.  However this is not all that strange.  People’s mind-set and attitudes are different from each other, and you will see this everywhere.  This can be eliminated by following Divine Guidance.)Don’t you see how water comes down from the clouds, following which different fruits of varied colours are produced.  (It does not happen that all fruits and crops are the same.)  And look at the mountains.  Although you observe streaks of white and various shades of red as well as others which are jet black, these mountains are basically the same. The same applies to men, animals and cattle of various kinds.  Such creations of nature are living proof of the working of Divine Laws.  However only those who reflect over them with intellect and reason bow in submission to Him.   Only they deserve to be called ‘the scholars’; and only they can comprehend how over-powering and supreme Allah’s Law is.  Whoever lives accordingly is provided with sufficient means of protection. (35:27-28)

From the Quran and prophet’s teaching it is obvious that the theology of takfir (declaring a believer a non-Muslim) is a reprehensible act with very serious implications for those who indulge in it. Unfortunately, this takfir has become a dominating factor in evaluating the integrity and sincerity of the other. It is this theology that leads to takhrib (destruction) This is disastrous for Islam, Muslims as well as the world.


Quran and Hadith against Takfir

People would always have differences of opinions on issues. The differences are human and the Quran and the Prophet recognize them.  According to the Quran, if a person says assalamu alaikum to Muslims to indicate that he is a Muslim, one cannot say to him “you are not a believer.” (4:94) When such occurrences took place during the Holy Prophet’s life-time, sometimes some Muslims suspected that such a person was not sincere. But the Holy Prophet advised them: “Did you open his heart to see what was in it?” In our hadith literature we read that Ibn Umar related that the Holy Prophet said: “If a Muslim calls another kafir, then if he is a kafir let it be so; otherwise, he [the caller] is himself a kafir.”(Abu Dawud, Book of Sunna, vol. iii, p. 484)

“Abu Zarr reported that the Prophet said: No man accuses another man of being a sinner, or of being a kafir, but it reflects back on him if the other is not as he called him.” (Sahih Bukhari, Book of Ethics; Book 78, ch. 44) The teaching contained in these hadith is meant to stop Muslims from dubbing each other as kafir and Fajir or Fasiq..”Withhold [your tongues] from those who say `There is no god but Allah’ — do not call them kafir. Whoever calls a reciter of `There is no god but Allah’ as a kafir, is nearer to being a kafir himself.” (Tabarani, reported from Ibn Umar) “Call not the people of your Qibla [i.e. those who face the Ka`ba in Makka for prayer] as kafir.” (Al-Nihaya of Ibn Athir, vol. iv, p. 187) “Nothing expels a man from faith except the denial of that by which he entered into it [i.e. the Kalima].” (Majma` az-Zawa’id, vol. i, p. 43) “Three things are the basis of faith. [One is] to withhold from one who says `There is no god but Allah’ — do not call him kafir for any sin, nor expel him from Islam for any misconduct.” (Abu Dawud, Book of Jihad, 15:33) “Whoever attributes kufr [unbelief] to a believer, he is like his murderer.” (Tirmizi, ch. Iman (Faith); see Arabic-Urdu edition cited earlier, vol. ii, p. 213. See also Bukhari, Book of Ethics; Book 78, ch. 44)


Scholars against Takfir

Takfir of Muslims is also prohibited in the standard, classical works of Islamic law (fiqh)  “And among the doctrines of the Ahl as-Sunna is that none of the people of the Qibla can be called kafir.” (Sharh `Aqa’id Nasfi, p. 121)

Regarding Imam Abu Hanifa, who has more followers than any other system in Islam, it is written: “He did not call as kafir anyone from among the people of the Qibla.” (Sharh Mawaqif, fifth part) He further said: “Nothing expels a man from faith except the denial of that which made him enter it.” (Rad al-Mukhtar, vol. iii, p. 310) “It is extremely serious to expel a Muslim from the faith.”  (Sharh Shifa, vol. ii, p. 500) “A ruling of takfir against a Muslim should not be given if it is possible to interpret his words in a favourable manner.” (Rad al-Mukhtar, Book of Jihad, ch. on Apostasy) “As for statements of takfir found in books of rulings (fatwa), these are not proof if the authors are unknown and the arguments are missing, because in matters of faith, beliefs depend on conclusive proof, and the takfir of a Muslim is attended with troubles of all sorts.” (Sharh Fiqh Akbar, by Mulla Ali Qari)

Shaikh Sayyid Jalal-ud-Din wrote: “The takfir of people of the Qibla is itself an act of unbelief.’“(Dala’il al-Masa’il)

Ibn Abu Hamra, a saint, wrote: “It has already been stated that the rule of the Ahl Sunna is that they do not call kafir, or consider as going to hell eternally, anyone who is of the people of the Qibla.” “The Imams have made it clear that if there is any ground for not issuing takfir, a ruling of takfir should not be made, even if that ground is weak.” (Raf al-ishtiba `an `ibarat al-ishtiba, p. 4, published in Egypt)

“Some prejudiced persons from the Asharis call the Hanbalis as kafir, and some Hanbalis call the Asharis as kafir. But their calling each other kafir is not right because the belief of the trustworthy Imams of the Hanafis, Shafi`is, Hanbalis, and the Asharis, is that none of the people of the Qibla can be called a kafir.” (Miftah Dar as-Sa`ada wa Misbak as-Sayyida, vol i, p. 46)

“The generality of the theologians and the jurists are agreed that none of the people of the Qibla can be called a kafir.” (Al-Mawaqif, printed in Cairo, p. 600)

The famous saint of Delhi, Khawaja Mir Dard (d. 1785 C.E.), wrote: “We do not call kafir anyone of the people of the Qibla, even though he may be following falsehood or novel beliefs in most matters, because the acceptance of the oneness of God, and the affirmation of the prophethood of Muhammad, and the turning to the Qibla, do not expel them from faith as such. So he would be of those who follow later inventions and falsehood from among the Muslims. The Holy Prophet said: `Withhold in the matter of the people of the Qibla, that you do not call them kafir’.” (`Ilm al-Kitab, p. 75)

Mulla Ali Qari in Sharh Fiqh Akbar writes”“They say regarding the issue of kufr that if there are ninety-nine reasons for considering someone as kafir, and only one reason against it, the mufti and the judge is bound to act according to that one reason for negating the kufr.” (p. 146)

Sayyid Muhammad Abidin writes: “If there are many reasons in any matter for the application of kufr [considering someone as kafir], and one reason for its negation, the judge must incline towards the reason which negates takfir, giving the Muslim the benefit of the doubt.” (Sil al-Hisan al-Hindi, p. 45)

Husain Ahmad Madani, the well-known Deobandi theologian of this century has written in his autobiography Naqsh-i Hayat: “All great scholars are unanimous in holding that if, out of hundred ingredients of the belief of some Muslim, ninety-nine are those of unbelief, and merely one of true Islamic faith, it is not allowed to call him kafir, nor does his life or property become violable. In fact, Hazrat Gangohi [a founder of Deoband religious school] clearly states in his Anwar al-Qulub that the saying of the jurists about ninety-nine grounds does not set a limit, and that if 999 out of a thousand points in the belief of a Muslim are unbelief (kufr) and only one is true belief, even then he cannot be called kafir.” (Naqsh-i Hayat, Bait-ut-Tauhid, Karachi, 1953, vol. i. p. 126)

Sayyid Abul Ala Maudoodi (d.1979) wrote in his well-known journal Tarjuman al-Quran: “The aim of these injunctions is that there should be as much caution in calling a Muslim kafir as there is in pronouncing a death sentence against someone. In fact, this matter is even more serious because by killing a person there is no risk of one becoming a kafir, but this risk does exist if one calls a Muslim kafir if that man is not really a kafir. Should there even be an iota of Islamic belief in that man’s heart, the slander of kufr shall reflect back upon the accuser. Hence, he who has fear of God in his heart, and has some realisation of the great danger of being involved in kufr, shall never dare call a Muslim kafir until he has carried out a thorough enquiry and fully ascertained that such a person was a kafir. There is so much caution in this regard that if there is a man whose conduct clearly shows insincerity, and whose condition is openly showing that he is not a Muslim at heart, if even he recites the Kalima with his tongue, it is not allowed to call him kafir and treat him as a kafir.” (Tarjuman al-Quran, issue for month of Jumadi al-Awwal, 1355 A.H., circa 1936, vol. viii, p. 5)


What is to be done?

In order for Muslims to regain their dignity in their own eyes, this theology of takfir must come to end. This theology is created by those who call them ulema and they alone would be able to stop it. The simple way to do it is to stop it without any ifs and buts. Otherwise, the Muslim community would never be able to come out from the abyss in which it has found itself. What was said by Shaikh Abul Hasan Nadwi  is relevant today more than even before. He said that if ulema did not come reinvigorate with the true spirituality, morality, psychology and sociology of Islam, they would heap upon them nothing but indignity and would bring down the ummah with them.

We are living in different times and situations. Knowledge is every increasing and common people have access to it. Every can go to the books directly and every one can now learn who is saying what and about whom. People do not want to live in confusion and ambiguities. They want to have clarity. They want to relate to an Islam that is described in the Quran and lived by the Prophet as demonstrated in his teachings and statements compiled by people. They want to see Islam a dynamic source for progress for the future of humanity. They want to come out of the theology of takfir and politics of takhrib. They want to live as Muslims serving humanity with their beliefs in their faith driven value system.

If the religious scholars and ulema failed to change their theology of takfir to a theology of developing better understanding of others viewpoints and accept them as a genuine expression of one’s right to have an understanding, Muslim masses would no longer trust them. A new breed of scholars would emerge not from our traditional schools but from those places where knowledge is respected and differences are not used to denounce, humiliate and annihilate others. That time is not far. In the words of the Quran: Soon will We show them our Signs in the (furthest) regions (of the earth), and in their own souls, until it becomes manifest to them that this is the Truth. Is it not enough that thy Lord doth witness all things? 41:53

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