Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the country’s leading Sunni religious institute, has issued a statement formally rejecting the labeling of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters as apostates.
Takfirism, the practice of one Muslim declaring another to be an apostate, is controversial within Islam. While this is something that is actively practiced by Islamist groups like ISIS, it is generally rejected by adherents of mainstream interpretations of Islam.
“Al-Azhar rejects the takfirism of ISIS . . . Because takfirism cannot be applied to any believer, regardless of his sins,” Al-Azhar said in a statement in response to comments made by the Mufti of Nigeria during last week’s counter-terrorism conference in Cairo.
During the conference, Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb called for joint Islamic efforts to combat ISIS. “Division, strife and polarization are the main tactics extremists are using to divide the Islamic nation,” Tayeb said. He stressed that ISIS militants are acting “under the guise of this holy religion and have given themselves the name ‘Islamic State’ in an attempt to export their false Islam.”
The Mufti of Nigeria Sheikh Ibrahim Saleh Al-Hussaini later issued similar comments during the counter-terrorism conference, saying ISIS are promoting a “false” Islam.
Despite acknowledging that ISIS is following a false interpretation of Islam, Azhar stopped short of explicitly saying that the jihadist group is non-Islamic, particularly given the controversy that surrounds takfirism.
The Azhar statement said: “The Mufti of Nigeria did not practice takfirism against ISIS or any other group, but he clarified that the actions being taken by this group are not in line with Islam.”
“All the clerics and religious figures who attended the counter-terrorism conference are well aware that they cannot issue such judgments against any believer, regardless of his sins. It is one of the tenants of Islam that only when one denies the shahada [the creed declaring that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger] that somebody can be said to be an apostate.”
The modern-day practice of takfirism was developed by Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb. He argued that the modern world was in a state of jahiliyaah, pre-Islamic ignorance, that lacked Islamic authority and therefore some Islamic provisions could be circumvented, including those governing who is, and is not, Muslim. This is an interpretation that has been roundly rejected by the majority of mainstream Islamic bodies and scholars, including Al-Azhar.
Walid Abdul Rahman contributed reporting from Cairo