Revisiting Takfirism: Historical Nuances and the Position of Islam

T  akfir has existed as a practice of khawarij from the era of Khalifa Ali (RA). Takfirism connotes the practice of proclaiming a Muslim a kafir (non-believer) or murtad (apostate), which justifies extreme punishment against the accused. Originally, the declaration of kufr (unbelief) was treated with absolute caution and was only conducted by qualified and credible religious authorities under definite conditions. However, in recent years, this concept has been misused to validate violence against other Muslims in contravention with prohibition against it.

There is unanimity among Muslim scholars that there are two types of kufr. The first type, and a major kufr, involves acts such as repudiating fundamental teachings of Islam or disparaging any of the ‘articles of faith’. The second type involves committing vices such as fornication, murder, and theft. This is regarded as a minor kufr in which the offender will not cease to be a Muslim, while the former will render a person unbeliever. The Qur‘an says “Verily, We have shown him the way: [and it rests with him to prove himself] either grateful or ungrateful [kufr]” (Qur‘an, 76:3). Further, it says, “…“Be grateful to Allah.” And whoever is grateful is grateful for [the benefit of] himself. And whoever denies (kafara) [His favor] – then indeed, Allah is Free of need and Praiseworthy.” Quran 31:12. The word kufr in the above-mentioned verse refer to ‘ingratitude’. Being ungrateful to Allah is akin to committing a sinful act but it does not necessarily lead to excommunication. There are also several hadiths that explicate this concept.

Despite significant scriptural evidence on the application of Takfirism, it is unfortunate that this doctrine has been widely adopted by violent extremist groups as a tool to sanction and rationalize violence against political leaders, their opponents, and ordinary citizens. Violent extremist groups in the Middle East and Africa have, for instance, employed Takfir to call those Muslims who reject their ideology as apostates, and thus non-believers who should be punished by death. In actual fact, the subjective, simplistic, and heretical process employed by these violent extremist groups in the declaration of Takfir qualifies them apostates themselves. The Qur’an specifies that Muslims ought not to excommunicate other Muslims who consider themselves Muslim, even if some of their practices do not always conform to Islam: “O you who have believed, when you go forth (to fight) in the cause of Allah, investigate; and do not say to one who gives you (a greeting of) peace ‘You are not a believer’,” (4:94), or “whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption {done} in the land – it is as if he had slain mankind entirely” (5:32). But these groups brand other Muslims as kafir as a way to delegitimize them and promote their goals. Their declarations fundamentally disregard the different types and grades of kufr whose consequence is not always excommunication of a Muslim.

Of critical importance to all Muslims is that Takfir is a serious and sanctified process performed by acclaimed religious leaders under special circumstances. This follows that Takfir has grave consequences for both the indicter and the indicted. To be precise, for the latter, it has conceivable adversarial implications for all aspects of the accused life including death. For the former, Takfir compels the individual to present strong evidence, failure to which the person would have committed a sin as grave as committing apostasy. The Prophet (SAW) said: “When a person calls his brother (in Islam) a disbeliever, one of them will certainly deserve the title. If the addressee is so as he has asserted, the disbelief of the man is confirmed, but if it is untrue, then it will revert to him” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim). All Muslims are called upon to exercise great caution in their actions with regard to this concept preceded by a careful understanding of the Quranic verses that judge certain actions as kufr. Muslims are encouraged to have husnu al dhanni (think positively) about others even if their outward deeds seem not to be righteous.


Sh. Ramadhan Aula is Program Manager, BRAVE (Building Resilience Against Violent Extremism) and Director, Center for Sustainable Conflict Resolution (CSCR) 

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