The Danger of Takfiri: What and Why?

by Ustaz Ridhwan Mohd Basor 2023-07-05 • 17 min read
Ustaz Ridhwan is a member of the Asatizah Youth Network. Trained in social sciences & Islamic thought, he spent 13 years of education in local madrasahs, before pursuing his Political Science degree at the National University of Singapore. He then completed his postgraduate studies on Islamic Political Thought at the International Islamic University Malaysia.
2023-07-05 • 17 min read

What is Takfiri?

Have you come across a social media post that declares another Muslim a kafir? How about reading a book that instigates violence against a Muslim politician by calling him or her a kafir and practising taghut[1]? What about speeches that call for Muslims not to support an individual because that person is no longer a Muslim? 

If your answer is “no” to all the questions, that is a good sign. You have indeed been spared from being exposed to destructive propaganda of hate and violence. For those of you who have come across any of the above scenarios, this writing attempts to unpack and discuss the concept of “takfiri” and why it is dangerous not only specifically to our faith community but also to the global community at large. 

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The Takfiri Doctrine

In its simplest form, takfiri is a practice of declaring or designating another Muslim as kafir, loosely translated to mean an “infidel”. Takfiri is a controversial theological and political doctrine used by some Muslims to excommunicate other Muslims whom they believe no longer manifest the prerequisites to be a Muslim. 

Historically, this doctrine has been applied by some Muslims to declare other Muslims as "kafir" (infidel/disbeliever), and was used to justify bloodshed against them. In mediaeval Islam, this doctrine was invoked to justify indiscriminate attacks against the Caliph and the Caliphate by rebellion groups who sought to overthrow the ruling establishment. 

History of Takfiri

In 7th-century Islam, Caliph Ali r.a. faced a rebellion from a group of people who had initially supported him, but became renegades or traitors. This group strongly opposed Sayyidina Ali’s r.a. agreement for arbitration (tahkim) with Muawiyah r.a. They had declared Caliph Ali r.a. unfit to rule and had even questioned his faith as a righteous Muslim. 

They practised takfiri as their doctrine by rejecting and excommunicating those who differed from their views of the Islamic faith. They rejected Sayyidina Ali’s r.a. agreement to arbitrate as a violation of God’s will and therefore, those who agreed with this arrangement were considered apostates, and therefore, they could be killed. 

This group later evolved as the Khawarij, who eventually became a separate sect in Islam. The Khawarij mantra is “inil hukmu illa lillah” (legislation is for none but Allah). While this slogan may be perceived as innocent, Sayyidina Ali r.a. responded that it is “a true slogan, but with a false purpose".[2] Essentially, these renegades adopted an extremist outlook which advocated violence in the name of Islam. Sayyidina Ali r.a, the cousin of our beloved Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. and one of the Righteous Caliph, was eventually brutally assassinated by this extremist group. 

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The takfiri doctrine also gained popularity in the 13th-century Mongol invasion of Syria. It was used to justify attacks against the Mongols who were not recognised as being the legitimate Muslim authorities despite them embracing Islam.

Takfiri in The Modern World

In the modern era, there are several ideologically-motivated political movements that continue to popularise this doctrine to promote hate and enmity. In a book by Usama Ibrahim Hafiz, entitled Mubadarat Waqf al-'Unf, the author recorded that an Egyptian extremist movement known as Tanzim al-Jihad had planned the assassination of Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat. 

According to the book, his assassination was “orchestrated by an amalgamation of militant Islamic groups” under the leadership of Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj. Faraj had written a document entitled Al-Farida al-Gha'-iba (The Neglected Duty) where he “invoked religious law and tradition to condemn the Egyptian state as an apostate regime, based on its failure-cum unwillingness to rule according to the shariah”.

Read: Addressing Misconceptions: Governance in Islam

Prior to Tanzim al-Jihad, another extremist group known in the Egyptian media as Takfir wal Hijrah founded by Shukri Mustafa had emerged in 1960s Egypt. The group was an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which developed a more extreme version of takfiri

jihad, takfir, takfiri, kafir, apostate, infidel, assasination, Muslim brotherhood, egypt

CAIRO, EGYPT - JAN 2009: The parade stand where former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981

The group believed that Egyptian society as a whole was considered kafir. In Salafi-Jihadism: The History of An Idea, Shiraz Maher described this group as a “neo-kharijite movement” that “challenged everyone other than those who subscribed to the narrow strictures of its own worldviews”. The group was responsible for the kidnapping and killing of an Al-Azhar scholar who was the Minister for Religious Endowments, Muhammad Husayn al-Dhahabi in 1977.

With regards to Muslim Brotherhood, Shiraz Maher wrote in Salafi-Jihadism: The History of An Idea, that the Muslim Brotherhood had helped to develop the takfiri doctrine into  "a problematic and potent tool of social dissent".  

This doctrine has been essentially used to discredit Muslim political leaders and to rally people against the legitimacy of these Muslim regimes, mainly in the Middle East. The consequence of a Muslim leader being designated as a kafir ranges from them being unfit to rule to legitimising violence against them.

In the same book, he listed that modern usage of takfiri is targeted to:

- Tyrannical or apostate Muslim rulers

- Criminal transgressors or oppressors, such as the intelligence or police services, and others who more generally enforce or support oppressive rulers

- “Heretics”, such as the Shia

Takfiri and Violent Extremist Groups

Many violent extremist groups, such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS have invoked the takfiri doctrine to legitimise their acts of violence. The modus operandi adopted by ISIS mirrored that of the Khawarij.

In his book, Refuting ISIS, Shaykh Muhammad Al-Yaqoubi argued that “there are solid and poignant reasons to consider ISIS followers of Khawarij”. One of the reasons he gave, is the fact that ISIS deemed “as permissible the spread of injustice and corruption across the land by means of killing, wanton destruction, and plunder”.

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ISIS is one of the most notorious groups that have used the takfiri doctrine to legitimise the killing of fellow Muslims whom they unilaterally declared as kafir. According to a journal article, The Danger of Takfir (Excommunication): Exposing IS’ Takfiri Ideology, written by Ustaz Dr Haniff Hassan, ISIS often apply the label of kafir to Muslims who do not share their worldview as justification for harming or killing them.

Based on his research, he found that ISIS considers its rival Sunni Muslim groups, all the Shia Muslims and its ideological opponents, as kafir

In his journal article, he shared that ISIS, in particular, has attracted wide condemnation from mainstream Muslim scholars for its misrepresentations and misinterpretations of Islamic doctrines. Muslim scholars globally had issued an open letter to the then-leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi to renounce and reject ISIS' approach. The letter states that,[3]

“It is forbidden in Islam to declare people non-Muslim unless he (or she) openly declares disbelief”

ISIS is also known for producing a hit list where they issued violent threats against Muslim scholars and preachers. In one of their videos, they even declared that “killing scholars is more lovable to us than killing police detectives and intelligence staff.”

This doctrine has also been used to promote violence against minority sects, such as the Shia community.

jihad, takfir, takfiri, kafir, apostate, infidel, isis attack, pakistan

PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN - MAR 22: Mourning for the loss of their relatives. ISIS targets Shia Muslims in Peshawar, Pakistan. Image source

Most recently, in March 2022, a Shia mosque in Peshawar, Pakistan, was attacked which led to the death of 61 people. Previously, they had also bombed Shia mosques in Saudi Arabia.

Takfiri and Hate

The takfiri doctrine is not limited to just violent extremist groups. It has also been used by groups that seek to promote hate and enmity among Muslims and between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Read: Unpacking Hate Speech

There have been cases of groups or individuals being labelled as ‘kafir’ due to their political differences. In some countries, politicians invoked the term ‘kafir’ to rally the people to vote against their political opponents. The term has been loosely used to denigrate those who shared different political inclinations. This has led to a polarisation of society, with consequences that Muslims began hating each other, to some extent not being able to pray together due to political differences.

The term ‘kafir’ has also been invoked to denigrate non-Muslims. For instance, in some multi-faith societies, politicians and/or preachers have used the term kafir negatively to promote hate between Muslims and non-Muslims. It was also used to call out Muslim voters against choosing non-Muslim political representatives.

Takfiri & Radicalisation

In December 2022, a 15-year-old male, self-radicalised Singaporean youth was issued with an Order of Detention (OD) under the Internal Security Act (ISA). The Secondary Three student had become strongly influenced by extremist ideologies, firmly believing in the permissibility of using armed violence against individuals he considered "disbelievers." 

According to his perspective, this included Shia and Sufi Muslims, as well as non-Muslims. Additionally, he regarded those who "oppressed" Muslims, enforced secular laws, or impeded the establishment of an Islamic caliphate as "disbelievers" who deserved to be killed.

Read: Can Muslims Befriend Non-Muslims?

Having embraced the notion of killing "disbelievers," the youth contemplated carrying out knife attacks with the intention of beheading non-Muslims in popular tourist areas of Singapore towards the end of 2022. Furthermore, he entertained the idea of becoming a suicide bomber and had fantasies about detonating himself. 

Read: Addressing Misconceptions: Jihad and Martyrdom

He attributed these thoughts to his frequent consumption of online videos depicting beheadings and suicide bombings by ISIS.     

Read: How Does Social Media Influence Online Radicalisation?

jihad, takfir, takfiri, kafir, apostate, infidel, online radicalisation

Why Do We Need to Challenge the Takfiri Doctrine?

Takfiri doctrine can lead to the following problematic manifestation of religion:

Exclusivism: Takfiris view their interpretation of Islam as the only true and valid one. They believe that anyone who disagrees with or differs from their understanding of Islamic teachings is an apostate or non-believer, deserving of punishment, including violence. The act of denouncing others from faith should not be taken lightly. Furthermore, the Prophet s.a.w. said in a hadith:

لا يَرْمِي رَجُلٌ رَجُلًا بالفُسُوقِ، ولا يَرْمِيهِ بالكُفْرِ؛ إلَّا ارْتَدَّتْ عليه إنْ لَمْ يَكُنْ صاحِبُهُ كَذلكَ

“Do not accuse another person with fisq (great sin) or with kufr (disbelief), for it will come back on the accuser if the accused is not as what was said.”

(Sahih Al-Bukhari)

Rejection of Diversity: Takfiris reject religious diversity and advocate for a homogenous society based on their extremist interpretation of Islam. They view other religious groups and even Muslims with different beliefs as enemies, fostering an environment of intolerance and hostility.

Justification of Violence: Takfiris legitimise the use of violence to achieve their objectives. They believe that violence is a legitimate means to establish their version of an Islamic state, often engaging in acts of terrorism, including suicide bombings, targeted killings, and indiscriminate attacks on civilians.

The application of takfiri doctrine has serious repercussions on society at large. Takfiri ideology poses a grave danger to peace, stability, and religious harmony globally. Its extremist beliefs and practices have led to widespread violence, radicalisation, and societal divisions. As Muslims, we need to counter and reject teachings that promote violence and destruction. 

jihad, takfir, takfiri, kafir, apostate, infidel

There is a need to safeguard our minds and hearts from narratives that seek to destabilise our society and promote extremism in our religious manifestations. As stated in ‘Refuting ISIS’, Shaykh Muhammad Al-Yaqoubi said that Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. had warned us against the Khawarij. In a hadith, Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. said,

يَمْرُقُونَ مِنَ الدِّينِ كَمَا يَمْرُقُ السَّهْمُ مِنَ الرَّمِيَّةِ

“...they shall pass out of the religion, just as an arrow passes out of the prey”

(Sahih Al-Bukhari)

May Allah s.w.t keep us guarded in the true essence of our faith, according to the teachings of the Quran and the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. May we emulate his teachings of peace, love and harmony, and bring benefits and radiate mercy to all, Amin.


References and notes:

[1] A Quranic term referring to idols or pagans. See Surah Al-Baqarah, (2:256)

[2] Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Tarikh Baghdad, Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-'Ilmiyyah 

[3] Open Letter to Dr. Ibrahim Awwad Al-Badri, alias “Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi”, to the fighters and followers of the self-declared “Islamic State 


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