In Islam a sinner continues to be a Muslim and cannot be excommunicated. Faith does not fail even if works fail

Last update: 2022-04-22 08:59:01

The Ulama (the scholars of Islam), tend to contain and limit the practice of Takfir, the accusation of unbelief leading to punishment by death when directed towards another Muslim. If it is used in an indiscriminate way, it threatens the unity of the community and produces chaos. This was the case in early Islam, during the times of the “great fitna” (the great sedition), when the succession of Mohammed provoked deep divides between Muslims. In that context, the Khawarij separated themselves from the other faithful accusing them of unbelief. It is this group which extremists and jihadists are assimilated with. The shedding of the blood of a Muslim and making their money licit after having declared them a non-believer on account of their sins - stemming from the belief that faith is based both on words and works and faith does not exist without works - represents the main doctrine of the majority of the Khawarij and of their intellectual descendants of every era. The Khawarij had accused ‘Ali, Uthman and the companions of the camel, the two arbitrators (Abu Musa al-Ash‘ari and ‘Amr bin al-‘As), and all those who had approved of arbitration, of the two arbitrators and at least one of them of unbelief1. They thought moreover that the Caliph of the Muslims had to be elected by all Muslims, that the fact of belonging to the Qurayshi tribe was not a binding condition2, and that it was actually better if the Caliph was not a Qurayshi so that he could be displaced or killed if he deviated from the sharia. On the basis of this principle they elected ‘Abd Allah bin Wahhab, who did not belong to the Qurayshi tribe and named him Commander of the Faithful [Caliph, Ed.]. Anathema against sinners and the application to them of the Qur’an verses relating to non-believers is a doctrine of the Khawarij, except the Najdat group3. The latter group in fact believed that unbelief of the rebel lay in a Muslim’s ingratitude towards God (kufr ni‘ma) and not in the betrayal of religion (kufr din) or of the religious community (kufr milla). The opinion of the Khawarij regarding unbelief of sinners is based on the idea that works are a pillar of faith. The Salaf [the first generations of Muslims, considered an ideal example to be imitated, Ed.] “among whom Malik [ibn Anas], al-Shafi‘i, Ahmad [ibn Hanbal] e Ishaq bin Rahawayh4, maintained that faith comprises of belief (i‘tiqad), confession (iqrar) and works (‘amal). They believed however that believing is at the basis of faith, that confession is an expression and sign thereof (in the presence of which society can apply norms of faith to those who profess it), and that works are a condition for having a perfect faith. If works are not carried out, one’s faith is imperfect, but its foundation is still intact”. Ibn Hajar said: “The Salaf have stated: [to have faith means] to believe with the heart, profess with one’s tongue and act according to the Pillars [of Islam, in other words, prayer, fasting, etc.]”. With this they intended that works are the condition for the perfection of faith. The opinion of the Khawarij is contradicted also by what al-Bukhari reports regarding the story of a wine drinker: “Numerous times a drinker was brought to the Prophet – may peace and prayer be on Him – and some of his own said ‘God damn him.’ But the Prophet – may prayer and peace be on him – replied: ‘Don’t be of help to Satan against your brother.’” And in his Sunan Abu Dawd5 adds: “Rather say: ‘Oh God, forgive him! Oh God, have mercy on him!’” Hence, the golden rule: nothing can make you leave Islam except the refusal of what first made you enter it. Al-Bukhari reports, relying on Abu Dharr, God be pleased by him, that the Prophet – may prayer and peace be on Him – said: “If a man accuses another man of iniquity and unbelief, these accusations will be redirected towards himself if the man he accuses is not guilty.” To this end Ibn Taymiyya6 said something very important: “Nobody can accuse a Muslim of unbelief, no matter how much he has sinned or erred, until proof has been shown against him. If someone declares oneself a Muslim, a doubt is not enough, real proof is needed in order to declare him guilty. God does not deny the faith of Muslims that fight each other, as His words show: “If two parties of the believers fight, put things right between them; then, if one of them is insolent against the other, fight the insolent one till it reverts to God's commandment. If it reverts, set things right between them equitably, and be just. Surely God loves the just” (49:9)7. This is the fundamental idea of the Khawarij, from which others have been derived, such as the idea that all faults are grave sins (kaba’ir) and whoever commits them is a non-believer destined to dwell within the Fire for eternity. ** Extract from the speech by Ibrahim al-Hudhud, President of al-Azhar University, at the seminar of the Joint Committee for Dialogue between the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue and al-Azhar, 22nd-23rd February 2017. The speech was delivered in Arabic. 1 The Khawarij are an Islamic sect formed within the context of the crisis surrounding Mohammed's succession. When the third caliph ‘Uthman was assassinated in 656, he was succeeded by ‘Ali, Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law. But the Qurayshi clan, of which ‘Uthman was a part, reclaimed justice for the assassinated Caliph and contested ‘Ali's succession. Two Qurayshi, Talha e Zubayr waged war against ‘Ali close to Basra, but lost their lives in what became known as the Battle of the Camel. In 657, at Siffin, a new conflict arose between ‘Ali partisans (in arabic shi‘at ‘Ali, from which the name ‘shiite’ is derived) and the Qurayshi, led by Mu‘awiya the governor of Syria. But both sides decided to interrupt hostilities and resort to an arbitration to resolve the caliphate succession. A part of ‘Ali’s followers, the Khawarij, refused the principle of arbitration adducing that the “judgement is God's only”, accusing of apostasy both Mu’awiya – for having rebelled against the legitimate Caliph – and ‘Ali – for having accepted the arbitration. Ed. 2 According to the doctrine of the majority (which would eventually become “Sunni”) the Caliph had to be chosen by a council of scholars and notables within the Quaryshi tribe, Ed. 3 A subgroup of the Khawarij, followers of Najda ibn ‘Amir, no longer in existence. 4 Malik ibn Anas (died in 796), Abu ʿAbdullah Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi‘i (died in 820) e Ahmad ibn Hanbal (died in 855) are the founders of three out of the four legal school recognised by the Sunnis. Ishaq bin Rahawayh (died in 853) was a jurist and expert of hadith (prophetic traditions), Ed. 5 al-Bukhari e Abu Dawd are editors of two of the collections of hadith, which are considered as canonical by Sunnis, Ed. 6 Hanbali theologian and jurist (died in 1328), he is a key figure for the Salafi and Jihadi currents. It is therefore significant that he be cited here to contest their positions, Ed. 7 The fundamental point of this quotation of the Qu’ran is that both Muslim rival parties are called “believers”, Ed.