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Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) and the Question of Takfir (“Excommunication”)

Taqī al-Dīn Abūl ‘Abbās Ahmad ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), the famous Damascene theologian and Ḥanbalī jurist, is perhaps one of the most controversial intellectual figures in Islamic history.The following is a short excerpt from his fatwa that can be found in the compendium Majmu’ al-Fatawa (Majmu’ al-Fatawa, 3: 282-288) as well as other collections of his epistles. The actual section is far more comprehensive, but the sections I translated below provide an idea about his ruling with regard to the issue of takfir as reflected in his later teachings. Takfir refers to the declaration by one individual or group of Muslims that another individual or group of Muslims are no longer believers, but apostates from the faith. It differs from the concept of excommunication or anathematization in a medieval Christian context only in the sense that Islam (arguably) recognizes no official ecclesiastical hierarchy or body that can enforce such a declaration, although in some cases the political authorities took this role upon themselves.

Although there are numerous indications in Ibn Taymiyya’s earlier writings that he did engage in and promote a discourse of takfir, this particular epistle makes it abundantly clear that towards the end of his career he strongly sought to disassociate himself from such sentiments. It is not entirely clear why he did so. Perhaps he came to perceive such a discourse as a major threat to the social, religious and political fabric of the Islamic world. Alternatively, it could be that as he came under increasing repression by the Mamluk authorities–facing strong accusations of heresy–he recognized the immense and dangerous implications of takfir as a tool of state oppression. His change of heart can also be seen as the result of his own intellectual and theological evolution. While the underlying reasons for this discernible shift in his writings remain obscure, it is nonetheless clear that Ibn Taymīyya was committed to a strongly anti-takfir position during the last few years of his life. As his student, Shams al-Din al-Dhahabi (d. 1348) reported: “Towards the end of his life, our teacher Ibn Taymiyya would state : ‘I do not deem anyone from among the Muslims to be an unbeliever.’” (Siyar A’lam al-Nubala’)

قال الذهبي في كتابه سير أعلام النبلاء: وَكَذَا كَانَ شَيْخُنَا ابْنُ تَيْمِيَّةَ فِي أَوَاخِرِ أَيَّامِهِ يَقُولُ أَنَا لَا أُكَفِّرُ أَحَدًا مِنَ الْأُمَّةِ

Ibn Taymiyya’s adoption of this legal position was far from revolutionary, but in fact signaled his acceptance of the normative Sunni position on the issue of takfir. Since the early ninth century, the scholars belonging to the theological and legal trend that would eventually evolve into Ahl al-Sunnah wal Jama’ah, or Sunnism, largely opposed excommunication on the basis of sins and their refusal to engage in a takfir-centered discourse* was such a key part of their communal identity that the phrase “we do not excommunicate any Muslim for a sin or sins which they have committed” appears in the ‘Aqeedah al-Tahawiyyah, one of the earliest Sunni theological creeds. As will be seen below, much of Ibn Taymīyya’s argument and rationale in the fatwa below conforms with classical Sunni theology and jurisprudence (especially his discourse on the status of the various factions during the First and Second Civil Wars in the seventh century).

So why is this particular text worth translating or reading? It is my contention that in an age in which many commentators on modern terrorism have attempted to place much of the blame for the outlook and conduct of these groups on the figure of Ibn Taymīyya, and radical Salafist-Jihadist militant organizations themselves seek to legitimize their violent actions by pointing to certain writings by this Damascene theologian, it is necessary to demonstrate that the picture is far more complicated. Undoubtedly, there are many writings of Ibn Taymiyya that provide much of the inspiration for acts of violence perpetrated by jihadist organizations, but one must be conscious of the fact that (whatever one may think of him) Ibn Taymiyya was a dynamic and critical thinker that needs to be placed in his own particular context in order to be properly understood. It is this dynamism and complexity of his thought that has resulted in his legacy being interpreted so differently: he is a respected jurist and critically-minded theologian to some, and a murderous fanatic who laid the foundations of modern terrorism to others. The truth is that Ibn Taymiyya, like many medieval theologians (Muslim or non-Muslim), engaged and promoted both inclusionary and exclusionary discourses at different moments in his life, prompted by various social, political and personal circumstances as well as his own scholarly evolution. Both the militant jihadists who claim to be embodying his legacy, as well as those commentators who seek to convince us that a 14th-century jurist is responsible for the very modern phenomenon of Islamist militancy fail to understand this basic fact.

*[As has been pointed out to me by several eminent colleagues and commentators on this piece, the Sunni avoidance of takfir pertained largely to the issue of sins, i.e. a believer who committed sins was still deemed a legitimate member of the Muslim community. On the other hand, there is ample evidence that Sunni scholars throughout history engaged in takfir and promoted a discourse of exclusion against individuals or groups with “deviant” theological beliefs. This is especially evident in the stance of classical Sunni scholarship about Shi’is and Shi’ism]

Translation

“It is not permitted to excommunicate another Muslim as a result of a sin or sins they may have committed, or for legitimate differences of opinion on issues about which Muslims (ahl al-qibla) disagree.  Indeed, God Almighty says in His Book:  “The Messenger has believed in what has been sent down to him from his Lord, as did the Believers. They believe in God, His angels, His scripture, and His messengers: We make no distinction among any of His messengers. They [the believers] say, “We hear, and we obey. Forgive us, our Lord. To You is the ultimate destiny” [Q. 2:285]. And it has been established in “Sahih Muslim” that God responded to this supplication and forgave the believers their sins and mistakes.

With regard to the Kharijites, whom the Prophet (peace be upon him) ordered the Muslims to fight, they were fought by the Commander of the Faithful ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, one of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, and all the preeminent Companions and the Successors were in absolute agreement that they should be fought. Nevertheless, (despite having fought them) neither ‘Ali, nor Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas nor any of the Companions ever excommunicated the Kharijites or declared them to be disbelievers, but rather they affirmed that they remained Muslim. Indeed, ‘Ali did not fight them until they had transgressed by shedding the blood of the innocent and transgressed against the property/wealth of the Muslims. Therefore, he fought them to repulse their aggression and their unlawful rebellion, not because they were disbelievers.

So if these people (the Kharijites), whose misguidance has been established through clear textual evidence and consensus, were not excommunicated nor declared to be unbelievers, even though they were fought at the command of the Prophet (peace be upon him), so how then can the various differing groups in the Muslim community be anathematized for committing errors which those wiser than them have committed? Indeed, it is absolutely impermissible for any of these groups to anathematize or excommunicate the other, nor to make permissible the shedding of their blood or the transgression upon their wealth/property, even if such groups exhibit clear misguidance. Verily, could it not also be that the accusers themselves could also be misguided in some ways? Indeed, the latter’s misguidance may actually be worse (in the eyes of God), and it is usually the case that they are all ignorant of the fact that they do not differ on the basic truths.

It is a supreme principle that the lives of the Muslims and their wealth and their honor are prohibited from being transgressed upon by other Muslims.  The Prophet (peace be upon him) said during the Farewell Pilgrimage: “Verily your lives, your wealth, and your honor are sacred and prohibited to be transgressed upon (by each other), in the same manner as this day, this city, and this month is sacred to you” (Sahih Bukhari). The Prophet also said: “Every Muslim is forbidden to any other Muslim [from being harmed or attacked], with regard to his life, his wealth, and his honor.” (Sahih Muslim). Moreover, the Prophet (peace be upon him) asserted that “whomsoever prays our prayer, accepts our direction of prayer, and eats from our permissible food, is indeed a Muslim and has the protection of God and His Prophet.” (Sahih Bukhari). In another hadith, the Prophet said: “If the Muslims engage each other with their swords in battle, then both the killer and the killed shall be in Hellfire,” at which point he was asked “O Prophet of God, this makes sense with regard to the killer, but what was the fault of the killed?” To which the Prophet responded: “His intention was to kill his companion [i.e. fellow Muslim].” (Sahih Bukhari). He added: “Do not regress after I am gone to a state of disbelief where each of you strikes the neck of the other with your swords!” (Sahih Bukhari). He also said: “If a Muslim declares his brother to be a disbeliever, then verily the accusation is true of one of them.” All these narrations can be found within the canonical collections of hadith

Indeed, the pious forebears (al-salaf) battled against one another, killing each other at the Battle of the Camel, the Battle of Siffin and in other instances. Yet, despite this fact, they all remain Muslims and believers as the Almighty states: “If two groups of the believers fight against one another, then make peace between them. And if one party transgresses against the other, then fight against the transgressing party until they submit to God’s command. Once they submit, reconcile between the two groups on the basis of justice and equity. Indeed, God loves those who are just” [Q. 49: 7]. In this verse, the Almighty reveals that, despite their warring and transgressing against one another, they remain believing brothers in faith. And he commanded that it is incumbent to make peace between them justly and equitably. This is why the pious forebears, even with all their internecine conflicts, maintained the bond of faith among each one another, acknowledging their shared faith and did not declare their enmity between each other to be that of belief against disbelief. They continued to admit each others’ testimony, transmit knowledge from one another, marry and inherit from one another and, as a whole, treat each other as fellow Muslims, despite all the  bloodshed, mutual cursing and other enmities that had transpired between them…

The following are scans from the Arabic text:

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3 Comments

  1. irshad alam says:

    “we do not excommunicate any Muslim for a sin or sins which they have committed” appears in the ‘Aqeedah al-Tahawiyyah— of course it does, and not only that, it appears it about every Sunni book of aqida that Ive studied. This is a very fundamental position of the Sunni jam`a.

  2. irshad alam says:

    However, that TAKFIR is with respect to sinful deeds. If u have unacceptable AQIDA, creedal beklief, you are still TAKFIRed. eg if u believe there r two Gods, u r still TAKFIRED. Throughout the ages, Sunni ulama has TAKFIRed many groups based on their aqida.

  3. irshad alam says:

    In contrast, the mutazila believe that you are a KAFIR if u commit any major sin, until you repent. They TAKFIR on that basis of deeds. But Sunnis dont, but they do TAKFIR on the basis of aqida.

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