Headline: Judge less, love more
BARELY a month back, an important meeting of the SCO Foreign Ministers Council took place in Goa. The meeting which took place on May 4 & 5 was chaired by Minister of External Affairs of the Republic of India Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.
It’s important to note here that just a little ahead of this meeting, India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval had visited Tehran. This was a crucial visit wherein he stressed the importance of Iran and India working together to promote stability in Afghanistan and end Takfiri terrorism in the country. The delegation-level talks had covered a broad range of topics, including economic, political, and security ties, as well as key regional and global developments. Doval had also met the Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian.
Let’s try and understand the import of the suggestion and the wisdom therein. We begin with decoding the Takfiri ideology.
- Decoding Takfiri
Takfir is an accusation of unbelief or a declaration of apostasy which leads to the ex-communication of another Muslim. It is the practice of one Muslim declaring another an infidel, which some extremist groups use to prescribe the death penalty for apostates. In the past, takfiri fatwahs have led to the assassination of the Egyptian President Anwar Saadat, Governor of Punjab Pakistan Salman Taseer, and death threats against authors Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen. A Tamil Nadu-based radical Muslim group declared India’s former President APJ Abdul Kalam as an apostate and fatwahs are regularly given in India to expel Muslims from the ‘Islamic community’ on charges of blasphemy and apostasy.
The book Issues in the Jurisprudence of Jihad (Mas’ail Fi Fiqh al-Jihad) by Abu ‘Abdullah al-Muhajir, one of the leading ideologues of ISIS, was one of the most important treatises in the recent times to deploy Takfir as a theological and legal argument for justifying violence against Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Muhajir notably was a jehadi-Salafi from Egypt who influenced the former leader of al Qaeda Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
The concept of takfir, which led to the treatment of apostasy and blasphemy as serious offenses, originated with the Khawarij sect in the 7th century CE. The Khawarij were the first to declare takfir against fellow Muslims, appropriating the right to do so and introducing extrajudicial killings of fellow Muslims. This marked the beginning of Islamic extremism. Over time, the notion of takfir was further developed by multiple scholars and theologians. In the 13th century, Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyya distinguished between man-made and divine law, calling on Muslims living under the former to migrate to lands governed by Shari’a. He classified unbelievers into different groups, including apostates and those who failed to perform their religious duties. Ibn Taymiyya expanded on the notion of takfir by arguing that any failure of religious obligation was an offense and that Muslims who failed in their religious obligations were worse than unbelievers or members of other religious groups.
In the 18th century, the concept of takfir was further developed by Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of the Wahhabi doctrine. He aimed to ‘purify’ the Islamic community by asking Muslims to return to the ways of the Prophet and his Companions, rejecting the decisions of the four Sunni schools and any consensus issued after the death of the Prophet’s Companions. He deemed Muslims who followed traditions that emerged after the first generation of Islam as polytheists.
The 20th century saw a further evolution of takfir as Muslim-majority states began to adopt Western models of law. Sayyid Qutb, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, used the notion of contemporary jahiliyya to denounce Muslim societies and governments that followed the Western model. Similarly, Abul A‘la Maududi, founder of the political organisation Jamaat-e-Islami, condemned Muslim majority states for borrowing constitutions, laws, and principles from nonbelievers.
Maududi’s ideas have been cited by militant leaders, such as the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who appointed himself a Caliph and referred to Maududi’s notion of a pan-Islamic state. ISIS has repeatedly drawn on Maududi’s claims that sovereignty is for God only and that full citizenship of an Islamic state is only available to Muslims. Terror groups like Ansar Ghazwatul Hind also espoused the same cause. This has led to the persecution of religious minorities and attempts to crush any Islamic theology deviating from the ISIS model. This extremist use of takfir is also exemplified in ISIS’s campaign against the Sunni Awakening in Iraq.
Driven by this ideology, Daesh has been targeting Muslims as its primary victims since 2014 in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Its definition of kufr (unbelief, infidelity) goes beyond non-Muslims to include Muslims, who are considered incidental disbelievers.
Daesh has a strong presence in Eastern and Northern Afghanistan, particularly in Nangarhar, which is regarded as its base in the war-torn country. Since the Taliban takeover of Kabul in 2021, there have been frequent clashes between the Emirate and the IS-Khorasan with ISKP launching multiple terror attacks against Taliban forces, journalists, civil society members, and the Shia Hazara community across Afghanistan. The Hazaras, a historically persecuted Shia sect, share a commonality of faith with Iran’s clerical establishment and many Hazaras have fled to Iran due to their persecution by the Taliban in the past. However, in their second coming, Taliban assured the Hazara community of their safety during Shia religious festivities.
- Voices of dissent
The fundamental question is – ‘Who is a true Muslim’? The takfiri deals with the question with extreme literal and rigid interpretation of Islam.
However, there have also been voices from across the Muslim world condemning the practice of takfir. In July 2005, King Abdullah II of Jordan led an international Islamic conference of the world’s top most Islamic scholars to deliberate on the issue. The outcome became known as Three Points of the Amman Message which included recognising the validity of all 8 mathhabs (legal schools) of Sunni, Shia, and Ibadhi Islam; of traditional Islamic Theology (Ash’arism); of Islamic Mysticism (Sufism), and true Salafi thought. It was also decided that ignorant and extreme fatwahs issued on such contentious subjects should be stopped.
While many Quranic verses mention unbelievers, the Quran itself does not define apostasy. The definition of apostasy in Islam is always provided by humans. According to several Quranic verses, only God holds the right to declare takfir, as only He can determine a believer’s status, and this judgment will occur in the hereafter. Consequently, takfir declarations by humans constitute a religious sin under Sharia law.
Indirect prohibition of takfir can be found in various Quranic verses, such as 6:108 and 4:94. These emphasise the importance of not insulting other religions, as it could lead to retaliation, and caution believers against hastily judging others’ faith. Thus, the use of takfir by extremist groups like the ISIS contradicts the teachings of the Prophet and the Quran.
There is a wide body of Islamic scholarship that suggests that Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) warned Muslims against declaring someone a disbeliever for committing a sin or expelling them from Islam due to their actions. These teachings, found in various hadiths, such as Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, and Sunan An-Nasaai, show that the Prophet not only prohibited takfir but also regarded such declarations as sinful. When a person calls his brother (in Islam) a disbeliever, one of them will certainly deserve the title. If the addressee is so as he has asserted, the disbelief of the man is confirmed, but if it is untrue, then it will revert to him (narrated by Al-Bukhari and Muslim).
Noted Islamic scholar Javed Ahmed Ghamdi views takfir against the spirit of the Quran and suggests no one has a right to call a Muslim an unbeliever unless that Muslim makes a willful public announcement about abandoning the faith. After the attack on Salman Rushdie in New York last year, Secretary-General of the Muslim World League Muhammad bin Abdul Karim al-Issa said that the violence was “a crime that Islam does not accept”.
- The India aspect
Brian Didier, in his chapter in the edited volume ‘Accusations of Unbelief in Islam: A Diachronic Perspective on Takfir’ explores the wedge between Wahabi groups and the Shamsiya sufis in Lakshadweep Island. Shamsiya sufis have been condemned as heretics and vilified. The majority of Indian Muslims belong to the Sunni sect which is further divided into Wahabi and Barelvi factions. In the past, there have been frequent instances of Wahabi preachers declaring Barelvis as apostates for grave worship and other intercessionary practices. Rashid Ahmad Gangohi, a Deobandi jurist had declared that the views held by Ahmad Raza Khan made him a kafir (disbeliever).
Likewise, Barelvis have branded Wahabis as kafirs for disrespecting Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). The founder of the Barelvi sect Ahmad Raza Khan is reported to have said in his famous words that the category of ‘Murtad Munafiq (apostate and hypocrite) includes Wahabis, Rafidis (Shias), Qadianis, and Naturi (Rationalists). Both Wahabis and Barelvis, in turn, declare Shias, Bhaii, and Ahmedia as apostates, refusing to offer prayers in their mosques and prohibiting marital relations with them. These statements are a common practice even today and the social media in India is rife with takfiri hate speeches given during Friday sermons by maulvis of one sect while claiming supremacy over another.
It is against this backdrop that Ajit Doval’s flagging the issue of takfiri terrorism becomes crucial. India and Iran share common security interests in Afghanistan. Both are concerned about the threat of terrorism emanating from Afghanistan, particularly from groups such as ISIS, which have targeted both countries in the past. India has the second largest population of Muslims in the world and around 13% of Indian Muslims identify with the Shia sect. In the past, there have been constant attempts to radicalise and recruit gullible Muslim youngsters into global terrorist organisations with many landing in the frontrunner takfiri group- ISIS. Pakistan has witnessed extremely high levels of violence including suicide bombings against minority Muslim sects that have been declared to be heretical, Shias being the main victims of such violence. This cannot be allowed to happen in India.
India’s leadership in fighting takfiri extremism in Afghanistan, in partnership with Iran, will thus not only ensure sectarian bonhomie within our borders but is also bound to generate a lot of goodwill across the Islamic world that’s seen so much devastation in the recent years, thanks to the takfiri jihad.
(This article, courtesy Awaz – The Voice, is written by Shah Faesal, an IAS officer from AGMUT Cadre, a Fulbright scholar, and an Edward S Mason Fellow from Harvard University. These views are strictly personal.)