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islam from inside ☰

The Hermeneutics of Takfir

Legalizing the Shedding of Blood

Added August 26, 2006 (First version - February 2002)

distorted text image on Qur'an page

Takfir:[1] “...the practice of declaring that an individual or a group previously considered Muslims are in fact kafir(s) (non-believers in essential tenets of Islam and have in essence committed apostasy)” and in some cases legalizing the shedding of their blood. Although the root derivatives of takfir (k-f-r, kufr, or kafir) occur repeatedly in the Qur'an, the declarative imperative takfir does not appear in the Qur'an and is a legal construct that emerged at a later period.

Living a religious life or shaping one's life within a religious framework requires and arises from an interpretation of religious texts and from applying those texts and those interpretations to one's life and one's approach to the wider world.

The variety of groupings and flavors of islam existing today arose out of different interpretations, different hermeneutics or methodologies of interpretation of the Qur'an and hadith and of the history that has unfolded since the advent of the book (the Qur'an). Each method of understanding the book gave rise to corresponding theological and societal structures as well as varying approaches to the surrounding social, political, and economic environments.

An individual's mental frame of reference, their religious sensibilities, and the manner in which they process and filter information is strongly impacted by what they absorb as their religious “hermeneutic” - their manner and mechanism for understanding their religion and the interpretations that arise from this understanding.

In general, hermeneutics refers to theories and methodologies of interpretation, especially of scriptures and sacred texts although the term can also be applied in a broad manner to all theories and methods of interpreting and viewing the world. In this wider sense, every society and every group has a hermeneutic - or sometimes multiple overlapping hermeneutics (religious and secular) - through which they interpret the world and interact with it. The hermeneutic could be a cohesive one or a scattered and confused one that draws the specifics of it's understanding from widely divergent and conflicting sources (in correspondence with the conflicting diversities that characterize the modern world). It may be consciously held or, more likely, has been absorbed from various sources by a process of mental osmosis and without conscious intention. This is true for believer and unbeliever and for all the gradations in between these two.

For Muslims, their interaction with the world, their mode of living, of expressing themselves in word and deed is influenced by their understanding of the requirements of their religion, and by the coherent meaning drawn from the Qur'an and other foundational sources of the religion. The focus and emphasis, the extent to which some verses and hadith overshadow others (or the extent to which some hadith overshadow the Qur'an itself), the depth (or lack of it) of interpretation varies from group to group. This religious hermeneutic is in turn impacted and modified by the dominant modes of thought of the wider world - currents of thought and historical, social, political, and interpretative theories often transform how believers view the various elements of their religion. So we have varieties of traditional muslims, traditionalist muslims, conservative muslims, reformist muslims, perennialist muslims, various traditional sectarian groupings of muslims (primarily Sunni and Shi'ite and their different madhabs and Sufi or Salafi expressions), as well as progressive muslims, modernist muslims, post-modernist muslims, liberal muslims, neo-liberal muslims, monarchist muslims, and secular or cultural muslims.

For the most part these overlapping and differing hermeneutics co-exist (even if uneasily) without undue overt strain although they constantly push and pull in different ways upon one another and are influenced (and exert influence) by relationships of power, wealth, politics, economics, media discourse, intellectual discourse, differing scholastic approaches and the like. A clash may occur when some critically conflicting aspect of the differing hermeneutics are brought into public view or into the political arena in a provocative manner. Then people generally fall back strongly into the most baseline aspects of their respective viewpoints, seeking support and justification within the frameworks of their individual interpretations and approaches. Vigorous debate and intellectual conflict may occur - but sometimes the intellectual debate gives way to ideological politics and reply by force rather than reason.

A compelling example of the important place of (nuanced and carefully considered) religious interpretation and understanding in guiding religious communities (in their internal dealings and in their dealings with other communities) is highlighted by issues such as that of takfir (declaring a Muslim to be a kafir (an unbeliever) because of an aspect of their belief or actions) and it's impact on sectarian conflicts (which have been amplified by extreme and turbulent political circumstances experienced across the Muslim world). It underlines how crucial and how damaging some expositions of Qur'anic hermeneutics around the issues of iman, tauhid, shirk, mushrik, kufr, etc. have been in the past and how these still continue to impact Muslims today.

One of the Qur'an's titles is Al-Fatiha which means The Opener and for the most part the early generations of Muslims took the potential implied in this title to heart. They treated it as a book whose study would open up new ways, new paths, and expand the capabilities of their fledgling societies. Muslims began in earnest to unfold the Qur'an's theological, philosophical, sociological, political, legal, and mystical potential. And despite internal conflicts and problems, despite the emergence of tribal dynasties, kingdoms and fiefdoms, and the resultant injustices and conflicts, despite high-level variations in interpretation, the overall result was a centuries long dramatic and rapid flowering of knowledge, a sudden mushrooming of the various arts and sciences that even today is capable of creating awe in students of history and its causal processes.

However, if the nascent Muslim community as a whole saw the Qur'an as an opener of hidden potentials and avenues, a small group known as the Khawarij (seceders) viewed it as a sealer of avenues. For them all human judgment and even attempts to link relationships of meanings between seemingly related verses was suspect. And their own understanding of the Qur'an was piecemeal and fractured because of their disconnected approach. This in turn led to a rigid and narrow hermeneutic centered around a fractured understanding of many concepts, the most critical of which pivoted around definitions of iman, shirk, mushrik, and kufr. The Khawarij schism marked the beginning of a process which rapidly led to wholesale declarations of takfir against diligently observant Muslims who violated even minor aspects of the Khawarij interpretation of what comprised a believer. The Khawarij represented largely a confused but extreme theological reaction to the political machinations and civil wars of their time. Intellectually unprepared to deal with the complex political games (the bids for gaining power and influence - for acquiring the caliphate as a political prize) which emerged forcefully in the time of Imam Ali (and which Ali, as Caliph, was forced to contend against), they initially fell prey to political manipulation. In reaction to the less-than-ideal situation, they sought refuge in an artificial purity through hermeneutics that revolved around an uncompromising doctrine of takfir, which would allow them to eliminate whatever they considered as heresy and deviation, whoever they considered insufficiently pure (according to their definitions).

Note: Fundamentally, the origin of their absolutist interpretation arose from a reaction to the political situation - causing them to withdraw into an extreme position where they seemingly sought only God's judgment (through the Qur'an) and rejected faulty human judgment, not recognizing (as Ali pointed out to them) that interpretation is unavoidable and when this interpretation occurs without reference to appropriate authority, method, and knowledge, error appears and rapidly compounds itself. So even as they sought to avoid human interpretation they fell into a disjointed, fanatically narrow hermeneutic - since human interpretation is unavoidable.

The politically aggrieved (also being religious people) often seek religious interpretations that allow or justify the actions they feel compelled to take. It becomes a matter where religion does not shape politics (politics does not unfold cohesively from the principles of the religion) but rather politics of desperation or outrage may shape and distort the interpretation of the religion - in this way religion and violent politics can, at times, become dangerously conflated (and dangerously intertwined with a misanthropic impulse to purge the society of impure elements). But the root is politics (and disillusionment), not religion. Unfortunately, the impact of seeking religious justification for extreme actions is that a (mistaken) theological precedent emerges. The more extreme the actions taken, the more unbending and absolutist the theological justification becomes.

The Khawarij method was to strive endlessly to determine who among those who call themselves believers were, in reality, heretics, and then to drive out from the community all such so-called believers till only true believers remained. Some of the sub-sects of the Khawarij accomplished this through wholesale slaughter of those Muslims believed to be engaged in any form of shirk (according to the Khawarij's own amorphous, shifting, and politically-bound ideas of what constituted shirk). They were characterized by their hasty and persistent tendency to declare Muslims who deviated even fractionally from the narrow Khawarij view of Islam as betrayers of the religion and deserving of death. Under the Khawarij, the designations of kafir and mushrik came to mean the wrong type of believer, rather than unbeliever. An unbeliever was often more palatable to them than the wrong type of believer who by his mistaken belief supposedly undermined the religion itself. This type of takfir was a praxis first widely initiated by the Khawarij. They made themselves judge, jury, and executioner in labeling, convicting, and punishing those who did not measure up to their standard (throwing aside due legal process). In the midst of the turbulent politics of that time their hermeneutic was not merely a theoretical position, and rather than engage in reflection, discussion, and exchange of ideas, the Khawarij spoke with their swords and they spoke often, and without mercy.

They “...used to go out with their swords to the marketplace. And when the innocent people gathered together without being aware of it, they suddenly cried out 'La Hukm illa lillah' (the decision is God's) and lifted up their swords against anybody they happened to overtake, and they went on killing until they themselves were killed. The people used to live in constant fear of them....” (Malati, Tanbih, p. 51 - quoted from "The Concept of Belief in Islamic Theology" - Isutzu)

Today, echoes of the error-laden precedents set by the Khawarij reverbrate through many parts of the Islamic world. The turbulent and extreme conditions generated in Muslim regions torn by decade after decade of outside interference and manipulation and internal infighting, has resulted in a situation where the hermeneutics of takfir have re-emerged with a modern face, enabling one to update the Khawarij depiction for our own times:

“They used to go out with concealed explosives to the marketplaces and the masjids. And when the innocent Muslims gathered together without being aware of it, they set off their charges killing anybody who happened to be near them. The people used to live in fear of them.”

Many thousands of innocent Muslims lost their lives until the Khawarij schism was finally subdued and disappeared as a distinct religious and political entity. The Khawarij were thought by some to have been manipulated and used by ambitious politicians (not cleanly as a proxy army, but as a tool of terror and as generators of political and religious confusion) in the regions where these politicians sought dominance. However, because of the volatile and fanatical nature of the Khawarij, those who at first manipulated and used them (against Imam Ali - Ali was assassinated by a Khawarij) were also ultimately violently set upon.

Imam Ali had warned that even if the majority of the Khawarij groups were subdued (as they largely were in his time), their mindset would not come to an end and would continue to resurface under different leaders, groupings, and banners in whichever periods Islamic intellectual thought and the practical ethics of a balanced and tolerant polity went into decline and political manipulation and violence was in ascendancy. The Khawarij and their descendants eventually transmuted into a harmless faction but, as predicted by the Imam, the hermeneutics of takfir resurfaced again and again in later history where political expediency overshadowed Qur'anic understanding and aql (the use of intellect in religious interpretation) weakened.

With the advent of the very first instances of the use of takfir among the Khawarij and among individuals and groups that subsequently followed a similar methodology, Imam Ali warned:

“Beware of blood and spilling it unlawfully, for nothing is more deserving of vengeance (from God), greater in its consequence or more likely to (bring about) a cessation of blessing and the cutting off of (one's appointed) term than shedding blood unjustly. God - glory be to Him - on the Day of Resurrection will begin judgment among His servants over the blood they have spilt. So never strengthen your power by shedding unlawful blood, for that is among the factors which weaken and enfeeble it, nay, which overthrow and transfer it. You have no excuse before God and before me for intentional killing, for in that there is bodily retaliation....”

So though the Khawarij themselves faded rapidly from historical relevancy, elements of their thought bubbled up in various periods, although generally the Muslim societies in which they emerged understood the danger and foolishness of such thought and were quick to restrain and contain them.

Note: Later groups, such as the Jahmites developed such rigid and narrow hermeneutical approaches that they entered into absurdities such as pronouncing takfir on some of the Prophets of the past based on some actions of those Prophets contradicting the unusual Jahmite interpretations of certain verses.

Ghazali was very clear on the need to subdue the overly free use of takfir that was rising in prevalence in his time.

“...he is a downright fool who, when asked to give his definition of kufr, answers: 'Kufr is anything that is opposed to the Ash'arite theory or the Mu'tazilite theory, or the Hanbalite theory or indeed any other theory as the case may be. Such a man is more blind than a blind man...” (Faysal al-Tafriqah bayna al-Islam wa-al-Zandaqah - from a translation by Izutsu)

There was an understanding, even among puritanical literalists such as Ibn Taymiyyah and among the more sensible salafis of the dangers of the extremist Khawarij approach to issues of iman, shirk, and kufr.

“...the dispute on what these words mean was the first internal discord to occur among the Muslims; because of this problem the Muslim community was divided into...factions who came to differ on the Sacred Book and the Sunnah and began to call one another 'infidels'....” (Kitab al-Iman, Ibn Taymiyyah)

However, Ibn Taymiyyah himself was not entirely able to resist the easy road to applying such labels to Muslim groups, a tendency which in more recent (Colonial) times was once again taken to Khawarij-like extremes by self-declared reformers who often sought the backing and modern weaponry of Colonial powers in their bid to “reform” (a euphemism for subduing and gaining ascendancy over competing tribes in the region) those Muslims who they believed were engaged in shirk and bidah and simultaneously gain the power-position of Colonial proxy. Politics, bids for power, or political and conspiratorial outrage are often close partners with extreme theological/political tools like takfir.

Our modern era has also been beset with numerous instances of groups who have fashioned their religious interpretations around a hermeneutic of takfir or who have tacked on such a hermeneutic to their existing schools of thought. On occasion, these groups have been supported, buttressed, or sheltered by foreign powers precisely because of their willingness to kill fellow Muslims - this making them, depending on the geopolitical circumstances, useful proxy agents or advantageous generators of confusion, fear, and chaos - all of which are effective precursors for clearing a path to externally imposed solutions that, unlike internal natively generated solutions, are in line with the wider interests of such powers. But, as it was for the Muslims of the past, such groups, whether they are driven solely by their own narrowly focused internal hermeneutic of takfir, or whether their extremism is used for the ambition of broader political movements - this hermeneutic is a hermeneutic of disaster for Muslims.

The myriad facets of intellectual expression historically inspired by the Qur'an and the profound and deep hermeneutics that flowered in various historical forms and in various schools of thought stands in stark contrast to the vicious tail-swallowing vision of an ideology of takfir. For most of Muslim history, the ideology of takfir was a troubling but well-contained side-issue. It was often used as a political tool to achieve certain ends and then subdued so it could not subsequently be turned against the political authority of the time. In recent times, in a strange historical aberration wrought by vast global political changes and the turbulence and violence they have engendered, it has come into a position (hopefully temporary) of destructive prominence. Takfir is still today, as it was in the past, very much a child of political currents and the sometimes cynical, sometimes desparate responses of those embroiled in these currents. As an attempt to manipulatively use a blunt theological instrument (takfir) to enforce some level of control against perceived religious or political adversaries, the resulting blowback, disruption of internal unity, and the fracture lines caused by its injudicious use has splintered Muslim communities globally. Whether Muslims will be unable to untangle this disastrous modern problem or whether they will continue to double down on declarations of takir against one another and justify the shedding of one another's blood is a theological challenge that requires considerable intellectual effort.

“And they will say: Had we but listened or used our intelligence, our intellets (aql), we would not now be companions of the chaotic and destructive fire.... (It is) a Book We have revealed to you abounding in good that they may ponder over its verses, and that those who cultivate understanding may be deeply mindful....Are those who know and those who do not know alike? Only the people of understanding are deeply mindful.... And none know its complete interpretation (hermeneutic) but God, And the ones firmly established in knowledge say, "We have believed in it; all is from the Providence of our Lord." But only the ones armed and endowed with intellects truly grasp it.” (Qur'an 67:10, Qur'an 38:29, Qur'an 39:9, Qur'an 3:7)



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  • 1 – In Times of Strife

    Imam Ali, commenting on the Khawarij claim that they turn all judgments over to God, through God's uninterpreted pronouncements in the Qur'an, said: “The Qur'an is a book, covered, between two flaps, and it does not speak. It should therefore necessarily have an interpreter. People alone can be such interpreters....” (Khutba 124, Nahjul Balagha) The imam then goes on to point out that the most knowledgeable and trustworthy concerning the Qur'an and the sunnah and their interpretation are the ahl-al-bait (the family of the Prophet).

    Imam Ali, commenting on how to deal with enemies in times of strife, said:

    “Never reject a peace to which your enemy calls you and in which is God's pleasure, for in peace there is ease for your soldiers, relaxation from your cares and security for your land. But be cautious, very cautious, with your enemy after (having made) peace with him, for the enemy may have drawn near in order to take advantage of (your) negligence. Therefore be prudent about trusting your enemy in this (matter).”

    “If you bind an agreement between yourself and your enemy or clothe him in a protective covenant, guard your agreement in good faith and tend to your covenant with fidelity. Make of yourself a shield before what you have granted, for men do not unite more firmly in any of the obligations (imposed upon them) by God than in attaching importance to fidelity in agreements, despite the division among their sects and the diversity of their opinions. Even al-mushrikun had already adhered to that (honoring agreements) among themselves before the Muslims, by reason of the evil consequences of treachery that they had seen. So never betray your protective covenant, do not break your agreement and never deceive your enemy, for none is audacious before God but a wretched fool. God has made His agreement and His protective covenant a security which He has spread among the servants by His mercy, and a sanctuary in whose impregnability they may rest and in whose proximity they may spread forth. Within it there is no corruption, treachery or deceit.”

    “Make not an agreement in which you allow deficiencies and rely not upon ambiguity of language after confirmation and finalization (of the agreement). Let not the straitness of an affair in which an agreement before God is binding upon you invite you to seek its abrogation unjustly. For your patience in the straitness of an affair, hoping for its solution and the blessing of its outcome, is better than an act of treachery. You would fear the act's consequence and (you would fear) that a liability before God will encompass you, a liability from which you will not be exempted in this world or the next.”

    “Beware of blood and spilling it unlawfully, for nothing is more deserving of vengeance (from God), greater in its consequence or more likely to (bring about) a cessation of blessing and the cutting off of (one's appointed) term than shedding blood unjustly. God - glory be to Him - on the Day of Resurrection will begin judgment among His servants over the blood they have spilt. So never strengthen your rule by shedding unlawful blood, for that is among the factors which weaken and enfeeble it, nay, which overthrow and transfer it. You have no excuse before God and before me for intentional killing, for in that there is bodily retaliation....” (Ali's letter to Malik al-Ashtar - from “A Shi'ite Anthology” - translated by William Chittick)

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