By Maulana Waris Mazhari
(Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand)
Both the Quran and the Hadith expressly condemn extremism and aggression in the name of religion. They also exhort Muslims to be one, and to relate to each other with love and goodwill. Despite these Islamic teachings, intra-Muslim conflict, particularly on sectarian lines, remains rife and shows no sign of diminishing. In some places, such conflict has assumed the form of a major menace. It has now become common place for ulema of different sects to hurl fatwas against fellow Muslims of other sects, branding them as kafirs.
Condemning others as kafirs is known in the terminology of the shariah as takfir. Misuse of takfir is both an indication as well as a major cause for internal strife and intolerance within Muslim communities. In some places, it has led to much bloodshed, in which thousands of innocent people—all Muslims—have lost their precious lives.
The phenomenon of takfir is, really, a form of religious sadism. It has become a deadly weapon for supposedly religious people to wield against their alleged opponents, even simply to take revenge for real or alleged personal slights.
Takfir was unknown in the earliest Islamic period, the time of the companions of the Prophet, which Muslims consider the model era.
was despite the fact that the companions often differed from each other in their understanding of various religious issues. Sometimes, these differences would be extreme. Thus, for instance, Abuzar Ghiffari believed, in contrast to many other companions, that one must not save or hoard any money at all, and that whatever money one had in excess of what was needed for a single day should be given to the poor.
Likewise, Abdullah Ibn Masud differed from the other companions in that he did not regard the last two chapters found in the Quran as having actually been part of the Quranic text. Another companion, Qudama Ibn Mazlun, drank alcohol and argued, against the insistence of the other companions that this was not forbidden by the Quran. The Caliph Umar punished him for drinking but, yet, did not declare him a kafir. Nor were the other companions mentioned above declared as kafirs by their fellow Muslims. Likewise, Muwaiya and Imam Ali were at complete loggerheads on political matters, but yet this did not lead to them engaging in takfir against each other.
The Kharijites declared Ali, Usman, and the majority of the Prophet’s companions as kafirs and even as worthy of being slain. Yet, Imam Ali never responded by engaging in takfir against them.
Given the horrific misuse of the lethal weapon of takfir today, it is crucial to be clear about this concept and the terms and conditions of its legitimate practice. These have been discussed at length by the classical Islamic scholars.
Unfortunately, the generation that came soon after that of the Prophet’s companions was afflicted by enormous strife and conflict. This began during the later period of Usman’s Caliphate. A group of rebels engaged in takfir against Usman and then slew him. The Kharijites, who emerged at this time, considered all Muslims other than themselves as kafirs, who deserved to be killed. They branded a massive number of companions of the Prophet and their companions as infidels. They regarded it their duty to wage war against other Muslims, and considered their lives, properties and women as objects that could be seized in war as booty (mal-e ghanimah).
They were ready to provide refuge to polytheists so that they could hear the Quran from them, but had absolutely no tolerance for fellow Muslims, whom they considered apostates. Following the dialogue that Abdullah Ibn Abbas entered into them at the urging of Imam Ali, a few of them appeared to water down their radicalism somewhat. However, the vast majority of the Kharijites refused to give up their extremist approach to takfir and the killing of their fellow Muslim opponents whom they branded as kafirs.
After the Kharijites, the phenomenon of takfir witnessed a fresh impetus at the time of the emergence of various theological schools among Muslims. Groups that developed at this time, such as the Mutazilites, the Jahmites, the Qadrites and so on, developed novel interpretations of faith and kufr (infidelity), and, on the basis of these, engaged in takfir against rival schools. The Asharites developed in response to the Mutazilites, and the two groups indulged in takfir against each other.
In contrast to this, the Muslim jurists or fuqaha practiced considerable restraint on the issue of takfir. They considered sectarian hairsplitting to be a cause of grave strife. They sought to apply shariah rules on individuals according to their external conditions and acts, considering their internal or batini state as God’s domain to judge. Accordingly, they regarded as Muslims all those who believed in the basic principles of Islam and who considered themselves to be Muslims. This is why they did not engage in takfir against groups like the Mutazilites, Jahmites, and Qadrites, despite the fact that the deviation of these groups was apparent.
However, things began to change later, when the doctrine of taqlid or rigid adherence to one or the other school of jurisprudence was propounded and acquired general acceptance. This phase of Muslim history marked the beginning of a marked stagnation in Muslim thought. At this time, a section of the fuqaha became closely allied to the rulers, attracted by the worldly benefits of such an alliance. They were appointed to high posts with hefty salaries, a development that the noted Islamic scholar Imam Ghazali, among others, vociferously denounced. This development rapidly led to the emergence of groupism among the fuqaha and to fierce contestations and confusion between the different schools of fiqh. In this climate of conflict takfir began being wielded by rival groups to silence their opponents.
In the modern period, the phenomenon of takfir emerged in new forms. Fringe radical groups emerged in some countries, like the Jama‘at al -Takfir wa al-Hijrah in Egypt, that considered themselves alone as true Muslims and branded all other Muslims as apostates. In their fierce exclusivism and their free use of takfir they bore a striking resemblance to the Kharijites. Numerous other groups similar in their approach emerged in Pakistan.
They engaged in armed conflict with their Muslim opponents and with all those who were part of the Pakistani state machinery, considering them to be apostates fit to be killed. This has now developed into a very worrisome menace, causing the deaths of literally thousands of people. The bomb of takfir continues to take a massive toll in that country.
Numerous factors were responsible for the re-emergence of takfiri tendencies among certain self-styled Islamic groups in recent times. These include a rapid escalation of conflicts based on sectarian and party politics among the ulema, and a growing lack of confidence on the part of Muslim publics with regard to their governments, leading to widespread disaffection.
It is true that there have always been differences between various groups of ulema. This is but to be expected, and is not unusual. However, these differences took on a monstrous form in the twentieth century. This was a result of new social and political developments and ideologies and the rapid changes that these wrought in Muslim societies. Traditional Muslim communities, rooted in cultures characterized by decline and stagnation, simply did not possess the tolerance required to accept or creatively respond to these changes. This led to chaos and conflict in many such communities, which gave birth to new ideological tendencies championed by various new groups and movements.
In the late colonial period, the common struggle against Western colonial rulers managed to hold these groups together or at least to force them to tolerate each other. However, as the grip of Western colonialism on Muslim countries began to loosen, this illusory sense of unity began to weaken. With the end of formal colonial rule and the departure of their common enemy, these groups began fighting among themselves. In this internecine conflict, takfir was wielded as a deadly weapon by rival groups to silence their ideological and political opponents, declaring them as apostates who deserved to die.
The class of Muslims who, as rulers, administrators and intellectuals, stepped into the shoes of the Western imperialists who had departed from Muslim lands with the formal end of colonialism were, by and large, thoroughly Westernised in their thought and manners. They were more loyal to the West than to Islam and the Muslims. That is why they failed to generate the support of the general Muslim public. This led to an enormous and ever-widening gulf between the ruling class and the Muslim masses in almost all Muslim countries.
It was in this context that ideologues, activists and movements emerged, fired by romanticized images and emotionally-driven slogans calling for the revival of the lost ‘Golden Age’ of the Muslims. Several of these ideologues and movements wielded the sword of takfir against the rulers of Muslim countries. It is striking to note that most of the leaders and activists of these groups were not traditional ulema but, rather, people who had been educated in ‘modern’ institutions, and who had been heavily influenced by anti-colonial Islamic movements.
The rise of extremist, including takfiri, tendencies in many Muslim countries was also a response to the powerful hold of ultra-secularist elements who were not just irreligious, but who also strongly believed that mocking religion and aiming to destroy it was indispensable to prove their proclaimed credentials as ‘enlightened’ and ‘modern’. They might have considered themselves simply ‘cultural Muslims’ or Muslims by birth, but they simply refused to follow or respect any tenet of Islam. One extreme thus gave birth to another. Responding to popular resentment against such elements, the ulema and other Islamic forces began to speak out against them, and, gradually, some of them turned to takfir in order to ostracise them and render them ineffective.
Yet another factor for the rise of takfiri tendencies in recent years is the fact that experts in religious knowledge (rasikhin fi‘l ‘ilm) rapidly declined in most Muslim societies with the marginalization of religious madrasas, which were now replaced by ‘modern’ schools. This decline was, in fact, predicted in hadith reports attributed to the Prophet. Their place was soon occupied by public preachers (khutaba), many of who began to stoke the fires of conflict, and even to engage in takfir, in the misplaced belief that they were thereby serving the cause of Islam.
In this way, then, the gross misuse of takfir has emerged as a major menace in many Muslim societies today, leading to extremist thinking and taking a heavy toll of human lives. It is time level-headed Islamic scholars and activists put their heads together to combat this hydra-headed monster.
Maulana Waris Mazhari is the editor of the New Delhi-based monthly Tarjuman Dar ul-Uloom, the official organ of the Graduates’ Association of the Deoband madrasa. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org
Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.