Shirk, Takfir & The Fuqaha

بسم الله الرحمان الرحيم

As Muslims we need to ensure that our understanding of Islam is grounded in knowledge and scholarship. It is not about what we ‘feel’ to be right or are outraged about. There is no better way to attain this understanding than looking to our scholars and scholarly tradition and seeing how they understood issues.

I have been procrastinating on writing something about this subject for years, but since unfortunately this issue was raised again recently, I felt compelled to write this very short piece. Its unfortunate that despite people returning to the study of the madhhabs in general, this issue is still not understood among many.

The question we wish to answer in this article are the following: When does a Muslim cross the line from tawhid (belief in the oneness of Allah) into shirk (associating partners in divinity with Allah), and when do we pass the ruling that this person has left Islam as a result of this action? As with many questions, it turns out that this issue was addressed by our scholars in detail. As I am a student of the Shafii school, I will primarily be using texts and references from this school. I do not want to speak on the behalf of other schools.

I will be dividing up my article into core concepts that need to be understood when contemplating the answer to this question.

  • Intentions and beliefs matter when deciding whether something is kufr or not.
  • Texts discussing kufr and shirk are not always interpreted literally

I want to simultaneously discuss two concepts here. To start I am going to quote a passage from Imam Jalal-ul-Din al-Mahalli’s explanation of Imam al-Nawawi’s Minhaj. If you know your Shafii texts, you know that this is one of the most authoritative texts in the current iteration of the madhhab. Note: I have adjusted and removed a few words for clarity and conciseness so its not a direct quotation.

[What a Muslim should say is] We have been given rain from the bounties of Allah and His mercy. It is disliked (makruh) to say: We have been given rain due to the [alignment of] constellations. I.e. because of X star in accordance with the custom of the Arabs who would attribute the rains to the constellations.

If the person believes (اعتقد) that the constellations are the actual doers of the action, then they have committed an act of disbelief (كفر). If the person intended that Allah makes it rain at the time that X constellation appears in the night sky, then this is what is disliked (محل الكراهة), because it may resemble the first [i.e. an act of disbelief, even though it isn’t].

Bukhari and Muslim narrated that the Prophet ﷺ prayed the Subh (Fajr) prayer with us after a night of rain. When he left, he came to the people and said, “Do you know what your Lord said?” They replied, “Allah and His Messenger know best.” He said, “He said that there arose from My slaves those who believe in Me and those who and disbelievers (مؤمن بي وكافر). As for the one who said that we were given rain due to the bounties and mercy of Allah, then that is a believer in Me and a disbeliever in the constellations. And the one who said that we were given rain due to X, Y, Z constellation, then that is a disbeliever in Me and a believer in the stars.

In this case we see a clear understanding of the scholars in the Shafii school (both Imam al-Nawawi and Imam al-Mahalli – senior authorities in the school), that whether or not shirk and disbelief actually occurred in such cases was a factor of the beliefs and intentions of the person. If the person intended to assign divine attributes and lordship to other than Allah, then they committed an act of disbelief. If they did not, then shirk and kufr did not occur, although the action was still disliked because of its resemblance to it.

Note also how they understood the hadith on this issue. Just because the hadith says that it is disbelief (literally the word كفر) does not mean they understood it literally and applied it simplistically without understanding the overarching concepts of shirk, kufr and takfir first. Our Imams did not study for decades to become simpletons in their understanding of the Qur’an and Sunnah.

A similar but relatively benign example of textual interpretation is the famous hadith, “None of you shall believe until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” A literal interpretation of this hadith would be that if we do not love for our brothers what we love for ourselves then we do not believe, i.e. we have committed an act of disbelief (كفر). But no one understood the hadith this way. Why? Because everyone understood implicitly that it is impossible for us as human beings to not slip up occasionally and become a little selfish. If we used the literal interpretation instead of the apparent one, then none of us would be believers.

Another example is that of swearing oaths. In a hadith the Prophet ﷺ said, “Whosoever swears (i.e. takes an oath) by other than Allah has disbelieved (كفر) or associated partners with Him (أشرك).” In this case scholars divided the issue into 3 distinct categories: swearing by Allah or his attributes, swearing by something revered by religions outside of Islam, and swearing by something other than those two. In the first all agreed it was permissible, in the second all agreed in its impermissibility and in some cases that it was an act of disbelief.

As for other than these two, then scholars differed.1 The official position of the Shafii school is that doing so is disliked. In Tuhfatul-Muhtaj, one of currently relied-upon texts for the official Shafii positions, Imam ibn Hajr al-Haytami of the Shafii school explains the disliked position of the Shafii school:

The hadith [i.e. that swearing by other than Allah is an act of disbelief] was understood by the scholars [i.e. the Shafiis] in the case of the person who swears by other than Allah in veneration of it in the same way he would venerate Allah. If that is not the case, then it is sinful [i.e. impermissible] as is the case with most of the Shafiis, in spirit of Imam al-Shafii’s explicit wording on the issue. This is what the commentator (i.e. Imam al-Mahalli), said. [But] what is in the commentary on Sahih Muslim (of Imam al-Nawawi) on behalf of most of the Shafiis is that it is disliked and this is the official position of the Shafii school despite that it is not the apparent wording of the hadith.

So far, we see how the scholars of fiqh understood the concept of disbelief in actions and the hadiths on this issue. They considered the beliefs and intentions of the person committing the act, and they did not interpret the hadith on this issue literally, contrary to what some Muslims do today.

  • In some cases, a Muslim is not taken to account due to their ignorance

The best example of this is the case of the ‘apostasy wars’ that occurred in the time of Abu Bakr. Two groups of people organized militarily to fight the Muslims in Madinah: one group denied the obligation of Zakat and refused to pay it anymore. The other group organized around a few false prophets.

In this case, the group that refused to pay Zakat were not fought as disbelievers, rather as Muslim political rebels (بغاة), as they were newly converted Bedouin Arabs who didn’t know the rulings of the religion well enough to continue paying Zakat. Their lives and wealth were still considered sacrosanct. Those who were fought as ‘apostates’ (مرتدون) were the false prophets and their followers. This understanding is often lost when the term ‘apostasy wars’ is generalized for the entire event and the fact that this distinction is well established in Islamic scholarship is glossed over. Scholars who mentioned this include Imam al-Shafii himself as narrated by Imam al-Bayhaqi, Imam Al-Khattabi, Imam al-Umrani.

This is a great example of how the ruling of disbelief and the act of takfir is withheld in cases where the perpetrator of the act is ignorant of the ruling of what they are doing, even in the case of denying what is known by necessity in the religion, which many scholars consider to be grounds for takfir as by disbelieving in a core tenet of Islam you disbelieve in Islam itself. In this case, it is the obligation of Zakat in Islam.

One can apply this ruling not just to new converts – which is the most obvious analogy, but we can combine this with our previous section and deduce that where Muslims have faith and conviction but poor exposure to Islamic knowledge are not doing acts of disbelief out of intention or belief in them, but out of ignorance of the ruling of the act and that it is one of disbelief.

In such cases a good Islamic education and general awareness of problematic customs in society is important, so that Muslims do not risk falling into acts of disbelief, as someone who becomes accustomed to what is disliked will eventually fall into what is impermissible.

  • How are these rulings applied in fatwa?
  • One enters Islam with certainty, and only leaves it with certainty.
  • Fatwa is given on what is apparent. Theological interrogation is not a prerogative in the Shariah.

First, if we are aware that the intentions of a person were not oriented towards shirk or disbelief then we do not say they have done kufr, whether as a ruling or as an official fatwa. If there is a difference of opinion on an issue (i.e. whether it is disliked, impermissible or an act of disbelief) then this should also not be grounds for doing takfir. This is because one of the general principles in fiqh (القواعد الفقهية) is that ‘the one who does an action that is differed over in its impermissibility is not to be reproached’. Such as a person may be advised to avoid the action, as that is recommended for them in matters of ikhtilaf, but they cannot be compelled to do so. If a simple reproach is not possible in matters of ikhtilaf where impermissibility is concerned, then what about takfir in such cases?

But what about cases in which the intention and beliefs of the person are ambiguous or unknown? Here we must resort to what is apparent to us, as the faqih cannot investigate the hearts of people, only Allah can. Additionally, we must be certain that this person has left Islam, as takfir is a serious matter. The Prophet ﷺ said, “If a Muslim says to his brother in faith: O disbeliever, then it is true for one of them.” Scholars understood this hadith as a warning, in that when one makes takfir of a Muslim, then they risk calling what is faith disbelief, and thus risk falling into disbelief themselves. As related by Qadi Iyad, Imam Malik used this hadith to make takfir of the Khawarij for their takfir of others, although the Shafiis did not understand the hadith to mean this, rather they understood is as a warning. Another hadith like this one is “Whoever curses a believer then it is like murdering him, and whoever slanders a believer with the accusation of kufr then it is like murdering him.” Both narrations are in Sahih al-Bukhari.

Takfir is not a minor issue. It is a fatwa and should only be issued by a scholar or a mufti. And due to the hadith above they avoid it for a reason. Nowadays unfortunately it has become a form of gossip and slander. For some it has become a political tool. Many Muslims are quick to pass judgement on the viability of faith in their fellow Muslims despite having little knowledge. May Allah rectify our affairs. Yes, there are cases in which matters of belief and disbelief are clear-cut and every Muslim can identify, such as if someone believes in a prophet after Muhammad ﷺ. But these are core fundamentals and often not extensive in number.

Most importantly, the fatwa of takfir is only issuable in the case of what is apparent, and when it is certain that the person in question has left Islam. Imam al-Ghazzali says in his al-Iqtisad:

The seeker should avoid takfir as much as he is able to. It is a mistake to invalidate the rights of blood and property of those pray towards the qiblah and openly declare La Ilaha Illa Allah. The mistake of allowing a thousand disbelievers to live is lesser than violating the blood rights of one Muslim…

…And it is affirmed that the protection assured by the statement La Illaha Illa Allah is certain, and it cannot be removed except by what is certain.

I want to mention 3 examples here: two straight from the Sirah, and one a fiqh problem that Shafii Imams discussed.

The first example is that of Usamah bin Zayd رضي الله عنه in the battle of Juhaynah. He cornered a combatant disbeliever behind a tree. The man said ‘La illaha Illa Allah’ and Usamah, presuming that he was doing so to save his skin, killed him with his sword. When he later told the Prophet ﷺ he was furious (and note the Usamah’s father was his adopted son and thus very beloved to the Prophet ﷺ) and he said to him “Did you kill someone who said La Illaha Illa Allah?!” Usamah tried to exonerate himself by mentioning his suspicions about his victim’s sincerity. But the Prophet ﷺ persisted saying, “Did you open his heart and investigate whether he was lying or not?!” Usamah remarked that the Prophet ﷺ continued to scold him until he wished that he had not become Muslim until after that occurrence.

The second example is obvious, which is the issue of the hypocrites, or Munafiqun. In the time of the Sirah, the Qur’an described them as people who outwardly believe but inwardly are disbelievers. The Prophet ﷺ knew who they were and even though they plotted to assassinate him at one point did not harm them. And the Companions after the Prophet ﷺ followed suit in not harming them, although they would not pray at their funerals. Because evidence of their Islam was certain, and evidence of them having left Islam was not, not takfir was done, and no action taken. Scholars of fiqh followed suit after the Companions. Those who said the shahadah were not interrogated on their beliefs or accused of acts of disbelief unless their disbelief was apparent and established with certainty.

The third is an interesting one. It is what made the greatest impact on my understanding of this issue thus far. Imam ibn Hajr al-Haytami has an excellent book entitled Al-I’lam bi Qawati’ al-Islam, in which he quotes the following fiqh problem:

Al-Izz ibn Abdis Salam (another great Shafii scholar) problematized the differentiation (presumably by earlier scholars) between someone who prostrates to an idol and someone who prostrates to their parents or scholars out of veneration of them in that the latter is not made takfir of. Prostrating to parents with the intention of attaining closeness to Allah also occurs in the case of idols as in the Qur’an ‘We do not worship them except to come close to Allah’. And it is not possible to say: Allah made that permissible for parents and scholars but not idols.

Al-Qarafi said in his Qawa’id that the Imam would often raise this issue and discuss it often. Imam al-Zarkashi mentioned the same problem but did not comment on it.

It is possible to understand it by noting that the parent is venerated in the Shariah itself, in fact in the Shariah of others it was legislated as mentioned in the Qur’an in the verse Prophet Yusuf’s family prostrating to him. This is if what is meant by prostration in the verse is the placing the head on the ground, which is the interpretation of some.

He goes on to say:

[In the case of this prostration] there is a doubt that prevents us from saying that those who did it committed an act of disbelief, whereas in the case of prostrating to an idol or the sun etc then then no Shariah of any Prophet venerated these entities. So, there is no doubt in this case that this prostration is an act of disbelief. And no credence is given as to whether a prostration of this type is done to attain closeness to Allah as the Shariah has not venerated these entities. This is the clear answer to the problem as is evident.

This quote by Imam ibn Hajr al-Haytami is a clear demonstration of how one should approach the issue of takfir. In some cases, we are compelled to acknowledge that an act of disbelief has occurred. From what is apparent we have certain evidence. But in other cases, we do not have certain evidence, there is a doubt of some sort that prevents us from being certain that the person has lost their conviction and left Islam. In these cases, we do not do takfir.

Final comment on the ignorance propagated by some on this topic

I was originally not going to comment on this, but I think its important to bring it up as it is what motivated me to write this quickly in the span of 4 hours. Recently some Muslim activists and Imams were accused of committing acts of disbelief during a protest. Despite issuing admissions of ignorance about what they were doing or affirming that they did not believe in what they were being accused of, many have been either explicitly or implicitly insinuating that these people committed acts of kufr.

I do believe that these individuals should probably do tawbah to be on the safe side (and they already have) but I noticed that the hyperbole and polemic on this issue resulted in a degeneration of what were already fragile and recovering understandings of shirk and takfir among many. Certain ideological and religious movements and sects in the Muslim world have greatly perverted the understanding of shirk and takfir among Muslims in the past few decades. Just as I felt things were getting better, this online drama reared its ugly head and seemed to resurrect many faulty understandings. Many of those slandering these Imams and activists also need to be doing tawbah for either speaking without knowledge or doing takfir when it is unwarranted.

As someone who used to be an advocate and adherent of those faulty understandings myself and figured it out slowly while I was studying fiqh, clearing misconceptions on this issue is a priority for me. It causes a lot of unnecessary and avoidable sectarianism and drama along with sinful speech and slander. The ummah is a lot more inviting and pleasant without an itchy takfir-finger.

  1. The official position of the Hanafis and Hanbalis is that it is impermissible, although the latter excepted swearing by the Prophet ﷺ. Some Shafiis and Malikis said this too. The official Shafii position is that it is disliked. Some Hanafis, Malikis and Hanbalis said it was disliked too and claimed that to be the official position of their madhhabs. In one of the narrations of the Hanbali school it was claimed to be merely permissible, and a few Hanafis and Malikis said this as well. Those who said it was permissible used evidences from the Qur’an and Sunnah such as the instances in the Qur’an where Allah swears by some of His creation, and in some hadith where the Prophet ﷺ himself appears to swear by his father, and some companions who swore by their life. See Mawahib al-Karim al-Fattah pg 113 – 140 for a thorough examination of this issue.

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