The concept of takfir – declaring a Muslim a disbeliever – is a very modern propaganda weapon of al-Qaeda and Daesh. But its origins are to be found in distant times. Indeed, in order to better understand this concept, it is essential to travel all the way back to the 7th Century roots – the Khawarij and Murji’a groups.
The Khawarij emerged from the battle of Siffin in 657 AD, where the fourth caliph ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib and his successor Mu’awiya bin Abi Sufyan clashed. During the battle, Mu’awiya’s troops, outnumbered and facing almost certain defeat, called on ‘Ali and his troops to accept arbitration between the two parties. ‘Ali took up the offer, but some of his own troops rejected it. They thought that ‘Ali had been swayed by Mu’awiya rather than divine guidance and that such an action should actually be seen as an affront to God’s order. These troops then seceded from ‘Ali’s camp and became the Khawarij group, the name they also applied to themselves.
The group’s first distinctive tenet concerned the possibility of revolt against Muslim rulers who had been deemed insufficiently pious. When ‘Ali agreed to arbitration with Mu’awiya, the separatists, the people later known as Khawarij, reportedly shouted “la hukm illa li-llah”, “judgement is God’s alone”. Only God has the authority to arbitrate, they held, not human beings. Not even the caliph ‘Ali, in fact.
Later on, the slogan came to represent their broad view that all judgements and rulings should be left to God. Applying Qur’anic rulings very strictly, they fought Muslims who were deemed guilty of major sins and expelled them from their community.
The consequences could not be more serious. Since they believed sinful Muslims to be kuffar (disbelievers), they immediately applied Qur’anic lines concerning jihad against non-Muslims. This meant that, according to the Khawarij, the application of jihad was not just limited to ordinary people. If necessary, it could even include the caliph. Indeed, they assassinated ‘Ali in 661 AD.
The second tenet of Khawarij ideology addressed their conception of iman (faith) and disbelief. In particular, what is faith? And when does a Muslim become a kafir, a disbeliever? One of the greatest questions was whether a’mal, or deeds, acts or works, were an integral part of the faith or not. Some theologians of Islam’s early years, including Abu Hanifa, believed they were not a part of it. As a result, he equated iman with the belief residing in the heart and its profession by tongue.
Conversely, other scholars, including Mu’tazilites and Hanabalites, believed that deeds, acts or works were indeed an integral part of iman and that this iman would not be complete without them.
Among other outcomes, this dispute led to what may be called the orthodox Sunni view, as well as almost all Salafi views, according to which iman consists of assent to the iman in the heart, its verbal confirmation by the tongue, and corresponding acts with the limbs. Respectively, tasdiq bi-l-qalb, iqrar bi-l-lisan and a’mal bi-l-jawarih.
As for the Khawarij themselves, even though they too believed that iman consisted of these three elements and others, they placed more emphasis on a’mal than mainstream Sunnism does.
The question of what actually constitutes iman is very important when defining enemies as unbelievers. On the one hand, if a’mal is not an integral part of iman, sinful acts cannot undermine that iman by themselves. On the other, if a’mal is an integral part of the iman, sinful acts can definitely compromise faith.
Moreover, while Sunni scholars have separated major sins, kaba’ir, from less severe ones, the Khawarij have included a’mal among major sins, such as killing one’s child, adultery and especially polytheism and idolatry, or shirk.
Scholars later separated shirk from other kaba’ir, establishing that only an act of shirk would immediately turn a Muslim into an unbeliever, or kafir, and therefore justify his or her excommunication from Islam, takfir. Additionally, any further proof of a person’s unbelief through verbal confirmation was not necessary. Other major sins were certainly still considered serious and deserving of punishment, but they were not enough to turn a believer into a disbeliever – further proof was needed.
The Khawarij disagreed with this last point since, according to their beliefs, a Muslim culpable of any kaba’ir should be avowed a kafir, with or without further proof. This creed thus heightened ordinary major sins to the level of kufr, making its adherents swifter to apply takfir than those endorsing the movement later known as Sunnism.
The last relevant point about the concepts of iman and kufr concerns the effects of sinful acts on a person’s iman. Not considering sins as equal to shirk, many scholars believed faith to be diminished by sinful acts and increased by good ones. This led to an understanding of iman as flexible. The Khawarij, by contrast, believed that iman could not fluctuate. It was either present or lost as a whole through major sins. This made the Khawarij radically different from other groups, and this was reflected in their use of jihad against other Muslims holding what the Khawarij saw as aberrant ideas of iman, which made them legitimate targets, up to and including the rulers and the caliph.
Another important group criticized the beliefs of Khawarij – the Murji’a. According to most scholars, the genesis of the Murji’a can traced back to the conflicts between the third caliph, ‘Uthman bin ‘Affan, and his successor ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib. At that time, the Murji’a refused to take sides and opted for postponement of judgement, irja’, in such matters. In their view, only God could decide on these subjects. Before taking the name of Murji’a, this group were called ahl-al-‘adl wa-l-sunna, or “the people of justice and sunna”.
The irja’ “postponers” concept was later dated back to the Qur’an itself by the Murji’a, in particular by referring to sura 9:106. This verse provided them with a conceptual basis for avoiding taking sides in the conflict. In time, the irja’ term became the most important tenet of the Murji’a.
In that regard, there are two important relevant points. The first is the development of the term irja’. While it was initially applied to political conflicts such as the battle between ‘Uthman and ‘Ali, between the 18th and 19th Centuries it acquired a theological meaning. In particular, irja’ was applied to people’s iman; in other words, judgments on anyone’s faith was postponed and left to God. For that reason, unlike the Khawarij, adherents were generally loyal to rulers and only rarely supported riots against them.
The second point regards their conception of what constitutes faith and disbelief. Once again, unlike the Khawarij, they felt that iman only consisted of the belief residing in the heart and its confirmation by the tongue, not concrete acts. Consequently, acts alone do not establish whether an individual is a believer or a disbeliever. When was the takfir of such an individual justified, then, they could ask.
In fact, from the Murji’a perspective, the kaba’ir intrinsically could not throw someone out from Islam, except in the case of a sinner verbally confirming his disbelief, including shirk. Additionally, unlike the Khawarij and orthodox Sunni, they didn’t believe that faith could be altered by sinful acts and therefore excluded a’mal from iman.
All of this contested history of the takfir concept flows down to our own times. Al-Qaeda and Daesh both use the ancient concept to justify their goals and their jihadi attacks on Muslims they see as disbelievers, including rulers. In their view, these people are enemies who are destroying the true Islam and the whole ummah (community of believers), so jihad is warranted, indeed mandated. They defend this position by manipulating many passages of the Qu’ran and Hadith.
It is very important to underline this, because an increasingly high number of people now take the manipulations as truth, radicalizing themselves, embracing jihad, and becoming fascinated and indoctrinated by terrorist propaganda that promises salvation of the soul and access to paradise to those who embrace the “true way” or the “true Islam”.
This makes it crucial to understand what takfir is and how the concepts of takfir and jihad are used by the terrorist groups, not only to better comprehend how they justify their existence and their bloodshed, but also, above all, in fact, to improve strategies of disengagement and deradicalization.