Takfir and Peace


With Mehol K. Sadain

Let us take a break from our discussion on Islamic finance-related matters and take up another issue. In the forum on Breaking Biases: Debunking Misconceptions on Islam, focusing on Shari’ah sponsored by the Ateneo de Zamboanga University, a question was raised on how takfir (excommunication due to apostasy) can affect the pursuit of peace, or peace negotiations in particular.

The direct answer is there is no effect because in a peace negotiation or any other activity in pursuit of peace, the parties must continuously compromise, move from extreme positions to moderate ones, and meet each other on mutually understandable parameters. Takfir is not one such parameter. Owing to its rigidity, and exclusivity as a classical Islamic punitive act, it cannot be a means for the mutual understanding of two opposing parties in a negotiation.

But I was intrigued by the question; hence, I thought I should discuss it further outside of the topical limits of the forum to present its implications on peaceful co-existence, this time, among different Muslim groups who may harbor varying interpretations of the concept. Rather than breaking biases, this discourse will be on reconciling understandings.

Apostasy in Islam is more properly termed as riddah with murtad as the apostate and irtidad as the condition like the mukaffir act, which in turn gives rise to the imposition or categorization of takfir. There are countries like Afghanistan, Brunei, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, among others, that consider riddah as a capital offense, and would sometimes impose death as a penalty. Lately however the judicial machineries and legal provisions of these states have made it increasingly difficult to find the accused guilty of the crime or to impose the death penalty. The infliction of the penalty seems to have been limited to people whose apostasy present a threat to the political stability of the State. If it does not, the act can be mitigated by the Qur’anic verse which says that “there is no compulsion in religion”. [Surah Al-Baqarah: Ayat 256]

But while States are veering away from the harsh consequences of riddah, some groups have embraced the more perilous aspect of the concept of takfir by categorizing a person or a people as unbelievers and therefore deserving to be excommunicated, or worst, killed. This is similar with the “takfirist” advocacy of Sayyid Qutb for states or communities he labels as “Jahiliyyah” for not strictly applying Islamic law. In a recent study (May 18, 2020) authored by Jamileh Kadivar on Exploring Takfir, Its Origins and Contemporary Use: The Case of Takfiri Approach in Daesh’s Media, she says that the attack by Al-Qaeda on Muslim populations is justified by their categorization of Muslims who do not share their view as kuffar (unbelievers) and therefore, deserving of takfir punishment which does not stop at excommunication, but can be as extreme as death. Takfir has become a license for inflicting violence by extremist groups on the Muslims themselves, which is definitely not countenanced by either the Qur’ān, and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad. In sum, the institution of takfir has become an instrument of extremism which is against the teachings of Islam.  

Takfir may not directly affect the search for peace across negotiation tables, but a reconciliation of its meanings and application can contribute to promoting harmony in the Muslim community. MKS

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