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’) Continue reading