The issue of takfir (declaring a person an ‘infidel’) is occupying a steadily expanding place in the media and discourse, and in ways that go beyond the dualities of cause and effect into attempts to understand the foundations upon which this destructive culture has been able to infiltrate the political and security scene of many countries in the region.
THIS IS ESPECIALLY a problem due to the serious – even existential – threat that this culture presents to the very depths of this nation’s fabric, presaging a system of relations that completely contradicts the principle of coexistence between the various ingredients of society, a principle that is based on freedom of belief and freedom of expression of ideological and intellectual convictions. For it is these that constitute the basis for any attempt to push society towards building a comprehensive civil state based on social justice and the principles of human rights.
If we wish to approach the subject of takfīr, taking into account the slow pace and intellectual reticence of law in all its labyrinthine slipperiness, we find that the doctrine essentially means the charging of someone (and sometimes entire groups) with ‘disbelief’. It denotes their departure from certain supreme thawābit (‘unchangeable constants’) , which therefore stigmatises the individual as an ‘apostatising’ from what is the recognised faith.
Mistakenly leaving a thousand disbelievers alive is better than mistakenly shedding the blood of one Muslim
In an environment characterised by a closing off and by illiteracy, and wracked with emotional crises and prejudice, it is an explicit call to slaughter and spill the blood of the individuals or groups concerned. This is what led many scholars and distinguished thinkers to call for extreme caution in dealing with the doctrine of takfir, since it is a very dangerous matter, and as far as jurists can, they urge against any complacency when casting this charge at people. They argue that ‘mistakenly leaving a thousand disbelievers alive is better than mistakenly shedding the blood of one Muslim.’ According to Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī and many other major scholars, along with many of the nation’s scholars, such a ruling is to be limited to the legitimate authorities at the highest levels.
But there are some – maybe even the bulk – of these authorities with their anachronistic obsession with political decision centres who have contributed to transforming takfir into an effective weapon for settling disputes between political forces entrenched in sectarian and jurisprudential fault lines. Takfir has expanded to become a means which the powers that be can wield against individuals who show signs of what can be interpreted – albeit with difficulty – as undermining the authority of the government or seeking to reduce its sway over society. This is responsible for the long lists of victims we now have, victims such as Ghīlān al-Dimashqī, Ibn Rushd, al-Ḥallāj and Ibn Arabi or yore, and up to the present time with victims such as Taha Hussein, Muṣṭafā ‘Abde al-Rāziq, Ṣādiq al-‘Aẓm, Farag Fouda, Naṣr Ḥāmid Abū Zayd and many other advocates of truth and free critical thinking.
They have contributed to transforming takfir into an effective weapon for settling disputes
The takfir of others, and the accusation of their corrupting influence is no longer a matter of a legal ruling necessarily referred back to the words of Almighty God or the Sunna of His Prophet, but it is now a pure distortion that presages a state of uncontrolled rabies, excludindg and cancelling out the Other and confiscating his right to differ. It does not recognize the universal norms that support human freedom of expression, action and belief in accordance with the principles of freedom, pluralism and human rights. It tries instead to erect a shadowy past cultural support for itself, one that depends on a highly limited knowledge of jurisprudence, and does not take into account the differences between the our cultural, social and political contexts of today and the past centuries that produced these source of authority.
The Islamic community, through its intellectual and political forces, must resolutely confront this sweeping tide of takfiri annihilation. It must take real and effective measures to confront any attempt to muzzle voices in the name of ‘defending Islam’, and deal with the present state of impunity that exponents of this doctrine enjoy, by treating it as a punishable crime that is punishable in the framework of the law, on the grounds that they are causing harm to the essential pillars of freedom and human justice.
Efforts have to be made to purify the Islamic heritage of fatwās that contribute to stoking the flames of extremism and bigotry. For we cannot possibly predict what repercussions this doctrine will have with its over-simplification of interpretation and deduction of rulings, and its political exploitation of everything that can serve extremist goals.
The countries of this region, which are exclusively afflicted by this scourge, are called upon to activate the necessary legal initiatives to deal with this cultural and civilizational dilemma. It must protect the rights of the Other to freedom of expression and eliminate any practice aimed at inciting violence and murder under any pretext. Most importantly, it must progress towards democracy, towards civil society and the protection of all freedoms, foremost of which being the freedom of expression and belief within the framework of international laws and conventions, that are consistent with the universality of human rights.