In recent decades fatwās of takfīr (declaring others to be ‘infidels’) have proliferated, going beyond any reasonable limits and threatening both individuals and groups. Official religious spokesmen attempt in vain to mitigate these cases of takfīr by narrowing the field of that which constitutes takfīr and exercising economy in its application. But it does not occur to them to discuss the principle itself.


IS IT PERMISSIBLE in the modern era for individuals, committees or institutions to be set up with a mission to declare people ‘infidel’? Such a question has simply not been asked them, nor have they posed it to themselves. Yet the interest taken by traditionalist clerics in the issue of takfīr, their frustration and confusion concerning it is something that deserves attention and analysis. For it is not without its important implications.

It is clear that they have lost control over the religious discourse and the fatwā market in this age of digital interactions. They have the right to be frustrated since others are now competing with them and challenging their historical roles and their religious influence is no longer their exclusive domain. If these opened up their seminars to specialists in religious sociology they would benefit from the deep analyses that Max Weber presented on this phenomenon: the phenomenon of the mushrooming of ultra-conservative religious institutions faced with the knotty complexity of social relations in the contemporary world and the spread of what Weber termed “small projects competing in the administration of the sacred”.

This new and unprecedented situation cannot be confronted with old methods such as the monopolization of fatwā-issuing or the consensus of the shaykhs. There is no alternative but to  set the issue of religion in our societies on a new foundation if we want to escape the vicious circle of takfīr and violence, and to prevent the security of our societies and the fate of future generations from being held hostage by the hands of ideologues of various stamps.

Traditional clerics live in a constant state of regret and confusion, as it is clear that the genie is out of the bottle

Traditional clerics live in a constant state of regret and confusion, as it is clear that the genie is out of the bottle and the magic is turning against the magician. Takfīr used to be a weapon that they wielded in order to preserve their social standing, and in the past they were in full control of the game they set the rules for. They were consequently frugal in the use of this weapon, realizing that if they used it excessively the common people would fragment, and if they enforced all of their controls over faith and disbelief, they would end up with fewer followers to pay them zakāt and tithes or entrust them with their most pressing matters.

For example, Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qāhir al-Baghdādī, one of the leading figures of the Ashʽarī school of thought, notes in his famous book The Difference Between the Sects and the Elucidation of the Saved Sect from among them[1] that the Ahl and Sunna wal-Jamāʽa [2]

“unanimously agreed that the earth stands still and that any movement in it is caused solely by earthquakes and the like – as opposed to those Dahriyya[3] who claim that the earth constantly rotates.”

Nevertheless most Muslims today dismiss this consensus and have departed from the doctrine of the ‘Saved Sect’ after it was scientifically confirmed that the earth was not static but rather rotates, and that the claim of the Dahriyya was correct. The traditional clerics kept silent about this rebellion and instead hastened to maintain that their ancestors preceded everyone in saying that the Earth rotated, before the rise of modern science.

Until recently, takfīr was not so much carried out but employed to intimidate people. Victims of takfīr were individuals, not groups, and they were for the large part defenseless intellectuals who expressed opinions – right or wrong – which exponents of the traditional religion were unable to understand or respond to. Just as al-Baghdādī in the past declared as apostates those who believed in the rotation of the earth, some modern jurists have declared Qasim Amin to be an apostate when he published in 1899 the book The Liberation of Woman and in 1900 The New Woman.  The same fate befell Ṭahir al-Ḥaddād when he published the work Our Woman in Sharīʻa and Society (1930) and Ḥabīb Bourguiba when he promulgated the legal code on Personal Status in Tunisia (1956).

As the century drew to its close takfīr witnessed a dangerous turn …from verbal condemnations to executive rulings

The position of the ḥadīth scholars regarding the infidelity of these people is no less strange than the position of al-Baghdādī, for all of them would prefer the earth to stop spinning, for history not to progress, and for society not to develop. The Council of Senior Scholars at the Al-Azhar Mosque ruled on August 12, 1925 to remove Shaykh ‘Alī ‘Abd al-Rāziq from the circle of scholars because of his authorship of the book Islam and the Foundations of Governance (1925). The ruling stripped him of his Azhari certificate and banned him from any religious functions. The Committee opined that he had insulted the Prophet when he stated that his wars were not religious wars. One of the reasons given for the ruling was that:

“Shaykh ‘Alī does not refrain from going against the clear verses of the Holy Book, let alone the clear and validated ḥadīths, nor does he refrain from denying what is understood, of necessity, from the faith.”

It was from perceptions that Al-Azhar pronounced the ruling concerning his apostasy.

Later Ṭaha Ḥusayn published his book On Pre-Islamic Poetry (1926) as a result of which he in turn was subjected to takfīr and his book withdrawn from the market.[4] It was subsequently published in a modified edition as On Pre-Islamic Literature. Muḥammad Aḥmad Khalafallāh was also subjected to takfīr when he submitted a dissertation on the topic The Narrative Art in the Qur’ān (1947). So too the Tunisian poet Abū al-Qāsim al-Shābbi was declared infidel for saying:

If one day the people chose life, then Fate must needs respond

while the poet Jamīl Ṣidqī al-Zahāwī[5] was declared an apostate for saying:

If you are unaware of how Nature works and you set yourself up as its interpreter,

You will set up a Lord from whom one is to seek solutions to problems – an even bigger problem in itself.

All those we have mentioned have suffered various kinds of harm, although none of them were put to death. In fact the takfīr of Ṭaha Ḥusayn did not stop him from assuming the position of  Minister of Education, nor did the takfīr of ‘Alī ‘Abd al-Rāziq[6] prevent him from acceding to the Ministry of Awqāf, just  as the takfīr of Khalafallāh did not prevent him from becoming a famous writer, and so on.

This was how things were at the beginning of the twentieth century. But as the century drew to its close takfīr witnessed a dangerous turn. As the presence of extremist religious groups increased, a kind of distribution of tasks took place between these and some official religious institutions; some issued fatwās of takfīr and others took on the task of implementing its consequences. It is as if the former represented the judicial authority in a takfīr community, and the latter represented the executive authority. As for the legislative authority, this is represented by dozens of dead jurisprudents whose presence and influence persists in their books, all of which are stuffed full of takfīr rulings.

All of this demonstrates a turning point in the transformation of takfīr from verbal condemnations to executive rulings, with consequences far more dangerous than those experienced at the beginning of the century. You have a university professor made to divorce his wife, herself a university professor, without his or her desire to do so, but as a result of a decision from the takfīr establishment (Naṣr Ḥāmid Abū Zayd), and you have a world-famous writer, whose advanced age and major literary awards availed him not, subjected to a treacherous assassination attempt (Naguib Mahfouz).

[1] الفرق بين الفرق وبيان الفرقة الناجية منهم

[2] ‘The People of the Sunna and the Consensus’ – a defining term for orthodoxy in the Sunni Islamic world (Ed.).

[3] The ‘atheists’ and ‘materialists.’ See Glossary.

[4] In his book Ṭaha Ḥusayn argued, for instance, that Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians and polytheists of Quraysh were all present in the Arabian Peninsula in the pre-Islamic period, yet there is no mention of them or their religious customs in pre-Islamic poetry. He argued therefore that ‘pre-Islamic’ poetry was a post-Islamic invention, designed as an attempt to validate the antiquity of the Arabic found in the Qur’ān. He also argued that the emergence Islam was a predictable, organic phenomenon, the result of the clash of the Jews and Christians in the Arabian Peninsula with the idolaters. The appearance of a religion that would solve this conflict was thus bound to occur, a religion that would be an extension of both Judaism and Christianity, and that this was the reason for the references to ‘Ibrahim’ and ‘Ismail’. See Almuslih article: Taha Husayn and the fundamentalism/secularism struggle. (Ed.)

[5] 1863-1936. a prominent Iraqi poet and philosopher. He is regarded as one of the greatest contemporary poets of the Arab world and was known for his defence of women’s rights. His satire ثورة في الجحيم  (“Rebellion in Hell”) incurred the wrath of the traditionalists (Ed.).

[6] On this, see Almuslih article: Turning back to Ali Abd al-Raziq. (Ed.).

Shaykh ‘Alī ‘Abd al-Rāziq: persecuted for his attempts to seek a ‘definitive treatise’ on the issue of Islam and politics

Taha Husayn: declared ‘apostate’ for his research into early Islam employing objective methods of modern scholarship