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Takfīr

By:
Ibrahim A. Karawan
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Takfīr

Literally “pronouncement of unbelief against someone,” or, loosely, “excommunication,” takfīr is a controversial concept in Islamist discourse. For militant Islamist groups, current leaders in the Muslim world are in a state of apostasy. They are seen to have become tools of cultural contamination on exposure to the ideas of the crusaders, communists, or Zionists. Having defected from Islam, they are believed to use the state machinery to de-Islamize society, turning true Muslims into a tiny minority. By rejecting the ḥakīmīyah (sovereignty) of God they seem to be guilty of riddah (apostasy). Their modern secular jāhilīyah (ignorance of Islam) is deemed more resourceful and hence more dangerous than the pre-Islamic jāhilīyah, which was primitive. These rulers are considered worse than the nonbelievers, because they have had an opportunity to abide by Islamic principles but have turned their backs on Islam. They have corrupted the moral fiber of society, secularized religious institutions, manipulated the people with nationalist symbols, and used subservient ʿulamāʿ (religious scholars) to legitimize their blasphemous actions. Militant Islamists hold that the Islamic response to the deviation of rulers from the path of Allāh is not to appease them or to believe their promises to implement sharīʿah (the divine law) gradually. Rather, their takfīr is necessary to make any allegiance to them un-Islamic, and to identify the “infidels within” as the first targets of a jihād (war against nonbelievers) that eliminates ṭāghūt (earthly tyrannical power). Accordingly, the priorities of Islamist movements must be reordered. The fight against the enemy at home to capture the state should take precedence over the fight against more distant enemies.

This concept of takfīr is used for sanctioning violence against state leaders on the premise that bayān (quietist discourse) is not the Islamic prescription for dealing with Muslims who renounce their faith. Sayyid Quṭb (1906–1966), perhaps the most forceful advocate of takfīr, contributed significantly to the formulation of this position. He was influenced by the ideas of Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī (1903–1979) of Pakistan on ḥakīmīyah as the only legitimate system. For Quṭb, jāhilīyah is a condition that is repeated whenever a society veers from the Islamic principle, “lā ḥukm wa lā siyādah ilā lillāh” (rule and sovereignty belong only to God). The yoke of contemporary jāhilīyah has to be broken and sharīʿah has to be implemented in its totality and without delay. The society that does not do that is jāhilī even if its members perform religious rituals. Nominal confession of faith and mere performance of the five pillars of Islam do not invalidate assignment of present societies to the jāhilīyah.

Takfīr has become a central concept in the ideology of militant groups, such as those in Egypt known as the Jihād, the Soldiers of God, the Fighting Vanguard, and the Islamic Liberation Party, who reflect the ideas of Quṭb, Mawdūdī, Ibn Taymīyah. Their belief in takfīr has also been influenced by their ordeals in prisons. These ordeals made it possible for them to conclude that those who inflicted torture on them could not be Muslims. Although some have concealed their belief in takfīr because of their political weakness, others have made it public. The scope of takfīr has varied. The Jihād, for example, applies it only to the “infidel rulers,” as advocated in Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Salām Faraj's monograph The Neglected Duty (1981). The Jihād considers the assassination of such rulers and the seizure of political power a basic religious obligation. Other groups, such as Jamāʿat al-Takfīr wa-al-Hijrah, apply takfīr to the society at large, and they practice withdrawal and separation from the jāhilī society through migration to prepare for an eventual jihād. They believe that Muslims who receive the group's call and do not join it are infidels. A third set of groups, including al-Jamāʿāt al-Islāmīyah, apply takfīr to state and societal systems but not to individual Muslims.

The concept of takfīr is opposed by some Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. For them, it represents a “doctrinal deviation” that leads to “deviation in action.” Many of their leaders, such as Ḥasan al-Huḍaybī (d. 1977), Yūsuf al-ʿAẓm, and Yūsuf al-Qaraḍāwī, reject takfīr of Muslims as a notion inherently marked by ghulūw (exaggeration), bigotry, and zealotry. Others, such as Sālim al-Bahnasāwī, argue that militant Islamists have misread Quṭb's approach and failed to take note of the strong appeal of Islamic norms in existing Muslim societies. In this view, the militants’ sense of urgency regarding threats to Islam from within has been exaggerated, and their resort to violence has been found to be futile. For the Muslim Brothers, the excommunication of Muslims threatens fitnah (strife) that can tear the ummah (Islamic community) apart, benefiting only Islam's enemies. The Muslim Brotherhood believes that state and society are morally deficient and should be reformed to rejuvenate Islam, but they do not merit takfīr.

The religious establishment has also opposed takfīr as a concept and as a rationale for violence. Its leaders believe that the concept is heretical and destabilizes Muslim societies. They also believe that theorists of the “twentieth-century jāhilīyah” are in essence “twentieth-century Khawārij,” (i.e., contemporary versions of seventh-century sectarian extremists). Islam does not sanction the excommunication of Muslims who profess their Islamic faith and perform the ritual pillars of religion, in the view of the official clergy. They also stress the severity of the consequences of takfīr, which entail killing the person, confiscating his or her property, and denying him or her a Muslim burial. In light of this, the ʿulamāʿ raise three main objections to takfīr in the form of rhetorical questions. Who can claim the right to brand a person professing faith in Islam as an infidel? On what religious criteria should the takfīr be based? What level of specialized knowledge in fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) is necessary to qualify one for determining whether another Muslim has crossed the line between religious belief and disbelief? Nevertheless, the controversy over takfīr is far from over.

See also JāHILīYAH; JAMāʿAT AL-ISLāMīYAH, AL-; JIHāD ORGANIZATIONS; MAWDūDī, SAYYID ABū AL-AʿLā; MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD; QUṭB, SAYYID; and TAKFīR WA-AL-HIJRAH, JAMāʿAT AL-.

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