Sticks and Drones May Break Our Bones, but Fitna Really Hurts Us

What is apostasy, and how does it differ from simple error? When a Muslim suspects a fellow Muslim of apostasy, how should he or she act? Recently, certain Muslims have been attempting to “expose” me as a deviant Muslim by highlighting mistakes I have made in my talks that are on the Internet. Some of these attempts have been so ridiculous that I will not waste time refuting them. Nevertheless, they raise some important issues that I want to address: What is a proper response to error? And what should a Muslim do when accused of apostasy? In this essay, I will explain how I fell into one error, and I will apologize for it. I will also review the larger issues of kufr, takfir, and fitna, and their interrelations.

An Error and a Retraction

The error I wish to clear up concerns a statement I made some years ago while commenting on Imam al-Tahawi’s creed. In dealing with the section on the “seal” of prophecy in that text, I brought up the false interpretation of that concept used by the false prophet, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. In retrospect, perhaps I should have refrained from providing a detailed explanation. Instead, I ventured into a thorny area, based upon my understanding of the key figures of the Ahmadiyya movement, and in doing so, I made some statements that I am obliged to retract.

My error was in differentiating between the status of the two groups – the Lahoris and the Qadianis – of the Ahmadiyya movement, and stating that the Lahoris are not outside the fold of Islam. My understanding of this issue came from people I trust, not to mention Al-Azhar University’s approval of Muhammad Ali’s Religion of Islam as well as his insistence in the introduction to his Qur’an translation that he was a Muslim who accepted the finality of the Prophet Muhammad, God’s peace and blessings be upon him. Though I clearly stated that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was a false prophet and is considered outside the fold of Islam, as are his followers, and I warned people about reading Muhammad Ali’s books, I inappropriately commended his English translation of the Qur’an. I am certainly not the first Muslim to have done so, as some well-known scholars of the past have acknowledged the merit of Muhammad Ali’s translation, and some translators, including Yusuf Ali and Marmaduke Pickthall, not only relied heavily on it but also praised it. Regrettably, I was in error by doing so. Adherence to the sound principles of our Prophet, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, is our only salvation from error. According to a hadith, to praise deviants and innovators is to aid in the destruction of Islam. I seek refuge in God from that and ask forgiveness for anything done unwittingly to that disastrous end.

When the issue concerning the difference between the Lahoris and Qadianis was brought to my attention, I made several calls to scholars I know and trust, and received different opinions about the religious category under which the Lahoris fall. One prominent and well-known Pakistani scholar informed me that while there is a nuanced difference between the two groups, both, however, are equally anathematized in Pakistan. Another well-known American scholar of Islam informed me that he was under the same assumption as I based upon Al-Azhar’s certification of Muhammad Ali’s Religion of Islam. He stated that Al-Azhar would never certify an apostate’s work on Islam. Nevertheless, since that time, several fatwas and statements of various scholars I trust stating the contrary opinion have come to my attention and convinced me of my error.

Al-Azhar has ruled that both sects are outside of Islam, and I accept the ruling of the former rector and mufti, Shaykh Al-Azhar, Gad al-Haqq, may God have mercy on him. I am very cautious of takfir, but if a body as meticulous as Al-Azhar issues an official position about a group, we are obliged to concede to them. I have great respect for the balance and moderate tradition that Al-Azhar represents and know that they do not take takfir lightly. Hence, I defer such judgment to them, and retract my previous statement. As the saying goes, “The people of Mecca are more familiar with their mountain trails.”

For all these reasons, I request that my statements about the Lahoris be removed from the Internet, as I am not qualified to have an opinion about the matter and cannot make takfir of a group or individual on my own, as that is a judicial responsibility in Islam.

Why Does This Matter?

I hope that the few Muslims who have seized upon my mistakes will refrain from causing a fitna that can have frightful consequences. A hadith says, “Fitna is asleep; may God curse the one who awakens it.” The use of fitna as a method for social disruption is increasing in our communities. Muslims must be more vigilant about those within and without us who wittingly or unwittingly cause strife and conflict, which increasingly is leading to loss of life and limb. The Internet has become the number one source and weapon for this phenomenon, which may herald the introduction of what the Prophet, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, referred to as “the age of fitna.”

In refutation to those accusing me of disbelief or questioning my faith, I would like to clarify something that is obvious to most people who know me: I am an orthodox Muslim. I follow the Maliki school of law; I believe in and accept the creeds of Imam al-Tahawi, Imam al-Ash’ari, and Imam al-Maturidi as all being valid understandings of the Divine in our faith and sources for sound dogmatic theology; and I am also a believer in the agreed-upon path of Imam al-Junaid and of those who are rightly-guided among the Sufis, such as Abu Talib al-Makki, Imam al-Qushayri, Imam al-Ghazali, Sidi Ahmad Zarruq, and countless others. I am not a Perennialist and never have been. I believe Islam abrogated previous dispensations, as asserted in the major creeds of Islam, but I do agree with Imam al-Ghazali’s position of the possibility of salvation outside of the faith of Islam and am not exclusivist in that manner. When I said, “I don’t believe in exclusivist religion” I was referring to that position and was not attributing Divine sanction after the advent of God’s final dispensation, Islam, to any other faith tradition.

I sincerely thank those who defended my honor in the light of these attacks and made excuses for me, as that, according to the Prophet, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, is a hallmark of the believer, whereas seeking out mistakes is a quality attributed to hypocrisy. I was asked by several people to clarify this issue due to an apparent obsession that a few people seem to have with exposing my mistakes on the Internet, as opposed to writing to me privately and edifying me that I might correct them, especially at a time when Muslims are so disunited and fragmented. Their claims to have contacted me are bewildering, as I received nothing to that effect.

Our community is currently dealing with many grave matters: suicide bombings, sectarianism, civil wars, our great scholars of the past having their bodies dug up from their graves and desecrated, mentally challenged adolescent girls accused of blasphemy, embassies destroyed and ambassadors killed or under threat, … the list continues. As a result of the madness in our community, increasingly, for the first time since I became Muslim thirty-five years ago, I am hearing pleas such as, “Help my son – he has left Islam; help my daughter – she is having a crisis of faith.” I now receive letters and emails requesting that I talk to Muslim youth who no longer identify with our faith. Sadly, harsh-hearted haters among our community are driving people from the mosques and making the most beautiful teaching in the world appear ugly.

What Is Apostasy, and How Should We Respond to It?

A concerned brother from England, asking me to address the Lahori statement, pointed out that some brothers have declared me a kafir based upon the argument “one who does not make takfir of a kafir is also a kafir.” Their reasoning is this: Lahori Ahmadiyyas are kafirs; Hamza Yusuf did not call them kafirs; therefore, Hamza Yusuf is a kafir. To edify those seeking clarification on the issue of declaring Muslimskafirs, I have provided the explanation that follows.

The precept articulated is related to a precept known as “lazim al-madhhab madhhab,” which is not as simple as some would have it. Regarding apostasy, Sidi ‘Abd Allah Ould al-Hajj Ibrahim, the great usuli scholar, states: “Anyone who demeans the sanctity of God, His prophets, or His angels leaves Islam. The condition of intended apostasy when demeaning is a disregarded position.”

What he means is that anyone who diminishes the exalted station of God or any of His prophets, angels, or symbols (such as by spitting on the Ka’ba or throwing a copy of the Qur’an into the trash) is an apostate, whether that person intended to leave Islam or not. There is an opinion that the intention of apostasy must precede the act in order for it to be considered apostasy, but that is a weak opinion.

Sidi ‘Abd Allah then says, “The scholars are harsh on a mufti who says that one is not a kafir who is a kafir. Indeed, disbelief is feared for one doing so.”

“Disbelief is feared for one doing so” is the precept that the young man from England was referring to when he said, “one who does not make takfir of a kafir is also a kafir.” However, note how Sidi ‘Abd Allah articulates it. He refers to a “mufti” who does not deem as disbelief that which scholars have concluded is disbelief, whether in word or in deed. The scholars censure such a person severely, as a mufti’s implication that he accepts those proscribed words or deeds as permissible can lead to the disbelief of others.

Another aspect of this is contained in the related maxim, “What is implied or inheres in a statement is also a statement” (lazim al-qawl yu’addu qawlan). In other words, if a person does not declare to be kufr something that is considered kufr by a consensus of the scholars, then that disregard for the consensus of the scholars on that issue is, in effect, kufr. That is, if one does not deem kufr to be kufr, it follows that one accepts the kufr. However, implied in this principle is that one is pleased with the kufr or at least views it as acceptable for another person. In that case, the acceptance of the kufr is indeed kufr. In the case of grey areas, however, when possible, one should attempt to interpret the offending word or deed in such a way whereby implications of disbelief are overlooked.

To illustrate the nuances mentioned here, let us look at the problem of anthropomorphism. Someone who attributes to God qualities of His creation may not understand the inherent problems that such a position engenders. Some scholars declare such people outside of the faith, while others do not. Shaykh Abu al-Qasim al-Tawati says, quoting al-Takmil, “This is based upon the principle that ‘what is implied or inheres in a school is also a school’ (lazim al-madhhab madhhab). But this is a matter of difference among scholars.”

Shaykh al-Tawati continues, “Does the derived meaning of a statement function as the same statement or not? Many have been considered disbelievers based upon this, like the one who asserts rulings and attributes and yet denies them also – what innovation! This includes also the Anthropomorphists. It follows that what they worship is other than what Muslims worship.”

His argument is that to attribute to God literally those things that are attributes of His creation, is, in essence, idolatry. That is because those who do so, while not worshiping anything physical, have conceptualized in their object of worship qualities that imply physicality, such as limbs and direction. Hence, some scholars have deemed them idolaters given that their literalism declares a deity who exists in space, is physically located on something, etc., all of which delimits the limitless true God of Islam.

On the other hand, a more lenient scholarly opinion holds that while such an understanding of God is erroneous, it does not render such people idolaters because they are merely asserting what God states in the Qur’an but are mistaking it as literal, failing to understand that such an interpretation results in profound theological problems. In his commentary on Ibn ‘Ashir’s poem, Ibn Hamdun says about this strain of Hanbali Anthropomorophists (Mujassimah), “Their faith (iman) is accepted only if their intellects cannot grasp the subtle distinction .”

Hence, in a desire to avoid takfir, some scholars have rejected the principle, “What can be deduced from a statement is also a statement” (Lazim al-qawl yu’addu qawlan), given that it does not account for the person’s intention or heedlessness to the implications of their words or subsequent conceptualizations. This is a more merciful approach and one taken by the greatest scholars of Islam.

Sidi ‘Abd Allah then states, “ apostasy should be avoided if another interpretation can be found .” This approach invokes the virtue of mercy, of being generous and charitable, if there is doubt in how we may be interpreting someone’s words or deeds, or if there is doubt regarding that person’s intention.

Shaykh al-Tawati comments, “If a statement implies disbelief or something else, one should not deem it apostasy but rather use an alternate interpretation, if it bears that, in order to prevent bloodshed.”

Sidi ‘Abd Allah then quotes a statement attributed to Imam Abu Hanifah: “To deem a thousand disbelievers Muslim is safer with God than to deem one Muslim a disbeliever.” Quoting Waking up the Sleeper (Iqadh al-wasnan), Shaykh al-Tawati states,
It was said to Malik, “Are the heretics (ahlu al-ahwa) apostates?”

He replied, “On the contrary: their heresies were an attempt to flee from disbelief.”

For example, in the case of the Anthropomorphists, they took their position of literalness out of fear of denying the Book of God or God’s attributes. Hence, they were indeed attempting to flee from disbelief, not fall into it.

In the same book, Taqi al-Din al-Subki was once asked if one should declare extreme innovators disbelievers (takfir ghulat al-mubtadi’ah), to which he replied:
Absolutely not! Know this, questioner! Anyone who fears God, the Exalted, will deem it an enormity to accuse someone who says, “La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammad rasulullah” of being a disbeliever. Indeed, this is an affair most grave and dangerous, because the one who calls another a kafir is really saying, “I know he will be forever in the hellfire; his blood and wealth are permitted in this world ; he cannot be married to a Muslim woman ; and the rules of Islam do not apply to him, either in his life or after death.” Indeed, to mistake a thousand disbelievers is better than to make a mistake that causes blood to flow from a Muslim. And a hadith states, “That a ruler should mistakenly forgive a criminal is dearer to God than that he should punish an innocent man.” So takfir should be reserved for one who clearly falls into apostasy, states it openly, chooses it as his din, rejects the testimony of faith, and leaves the religion of Islam altogether.

Conclusion: Sectarianism and Fitna

Some modern Muslims have become so sectarian that they are “quick on the draw,” ready to gun down anyone who disagrees with them – at times not just figuratively. Due to this misuse of learning, many Muslims have lost faith in the scholastic community, dismayed by the pettiness with which some half-baked imams and mullahs too often use their “knowledge.” As the famous Urdu proverb so cogently and eloquently says, “Neem hakim khatra-e jaan; neem mullah khatra-e iman.” And, in the wise words of Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah, referring to these same “scholars”: “Ta’rifuna ma qala rabbukum, wa la ta’rifuna lima qala rabbukum.”

The seriousness that our earlier scholars applied to this issue is clear. Imam al-Ghazali begins his opus, Revival of the Religious Sciences (Ihya ‘ulum al-din), with a powerful indictment of the scholastic community whom he refers to as “formalists,” people who have become so trapped in the trappings of religion that they have forgotten its true essence. Echoing the Qur’an, Imam al-Ghazali pointed out that most people follow what they were born into and taught by their parents and elders. Moreover, it is the originators of false creeds and ideologies who are the real transgressors, not the unfortunate people who have unknowingly imbibed false teachings from early childhood, which makes discovery of truth much harder for them. These same people, after years of indoctrination, in turn indoctrinate their own children, unwittingly perpetuating the cycles of falsehood that the Qur’an came to end. God says, “Oppose the leaders of disbelief” (9:12), given that they are the ones who disseminate error and thus mislead the trusting masses. But as for their misguided followers, we should have compassion for them and help them see the truth. That is only achieved through mercy.

It is not in my nature to hate people. I actually desire good for all people, including Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Christians, Atheists, Agnostics, and certainly my brother and sister Muslims. I would hope to see humanity guided as opposed to misguided. The Prophet, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, said, “That a person should be guided at your hand is better than the world and what the sun sets upon.”

The Qur’an says to the Prophet Muhammad, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, “It is a mercy from your Lord that you are so gentle toward them. If you had been harsh and hard-hearted, people would have fled from your presence” (3:159). It is indeed the harshness and obstinacy of some overly zealous Muslims today, combined with the absence of mercy in their hearts, which is driving people out of Islam and deterring others from considering or even respecting it. They are conducting themselves based upon some misguided adherence to their understanding of Islam. They are uncertain in themselves, and so they feel threatened by anyone who might differ with them; through fanaticism, they attempt to protect themselves from doubt but result in only obscuring their view. Fanatics are blinded by the light of God as opposed to guided by it. The Prophet, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, warned of these people when he said, “Perish they who go to extremes.” We should try our utmost not to be one of them.

Ibn Qayyim said, “Forgiveness is more beloved to God than vengeance; mercy is more beloved to Him than punishment; acceptance is more beloved to Him than wrath; and grace is more beloved to Him than justice.”

I sincerely thank those many people who defended my honor as well as those who, with courtesy, brought this mistake to my attention that I might redress it. The Prophet, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, said, “All of you make mistakes, and the best of those who do so are those who repent from them.” Thank you for pointing out my mistakes that I might repent from and correct them. I am deeply sorry for any confusion they may have indirectly caused by allowing those who seized upon them to awaken a sleeping fitna.

When a woman chastised the caliph Omar for his claim that dowries should have limits, Omar, may God be pleased with him, said, “All of you are more learned than Omar” (Kullukum afqahu min ‘Umar).

Fitna (Arabic: fitnah): “Sedition, dissention, discord.” The word’s root is related to “enticement,” “allure,” “intrigue,” and “temptation.” Fattan means “fascinating,” “captivating,” “enchanting”; “tempter,” “seducer”; “denunciator,” “informer,” “slanderer” (Hans Wehr Arabic-English Dictionary). The close relationship of these words indicates that fitna can be seductive and enticing to some. When fitna broke out, the Salaf would often quote these lines of poetry: “War, when it first appears, is as a beautiful woman to every young ignoramus.” Under normal circumstances, such people do little or nothing but when exposed to a fitna suddenly become filled with zeal and actively engaged in “righteously” setting something right, often under the guise of duty and loyalty to the faith. This enticement is something from which we must guard our hearts.

For example, I gave a talk to a group of Christian theologians, ministers, and students about the ill effects of usury, in which I argued that Christians had abandoned their prohibition of usury that had lasted for almost two thousand years. I used Dante Alighieri’s Inferno as a frame for the discussion. During the talk, I pointed out that Dante viewed the Prophet, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, as a schismatic Christian as opposed to a false prophet, as I wanted them to reflect on Dante’s subtle acknowledgement of the doctrine of Islam, as argued by the Catholic priest and scholar, Miguel Asin Palacios. Hence I told them that I wanted to “defend Dante a little bit.” These Muslims seized upon my use of the word “defend,” by which I meant, “explain,” which is a synonym of “defend.” On this basis, they argued that I “defended” Dante for insulting the Prophet, God’s peace and blessings be upon him – a claim so patently false and unfair, not to mention absurd, that I won’t even entertain refuting it.

Muhammad Ali (1874–1951) was the most prolific student of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad and split with the Qadianis in 1914 over the issues of the succession and the claim to prophecy of Ghulam Ahmad, which Muhammad Ali argued was an addition by his son Bashiruddin and not part of the original teachings of Ghulam Ahmad. Muhammad Ali is considered the founder of the Lahori branch of the Ahmadiyyas.

For a more detailed explanation of Imam al-Ghazali’s view on what makes a person a disbeliever, see my article in Seasons Journal, “Who are the Disbelievers?” Also, my article “Generous Tolerance in Islam and Its Effects on the Life of a Muslim” explains the noble character Muslims should have. Both articles can be found here:

Punishment in this world for apostasy is not mentioned in the Qur’an; however, some sound hadiths indicate that it is a capital offense. These are not absolutely certain (mutawatir) traditions, and some scholars, such as al-Nakhi’ and others, argued against it. Imam Abu Hanifah’s school does not mandate capital punishment for a female apostate due to the mutawatir tradition prohibiting killing women or children, which he saw as limiting the singular hadiths enjoining capital punishment on apostates. Today, it could be strongly argued that the aim (maqsad) of considering apostasy a capital offense, which was to protect the faith, is lost in application, given that modern people suffer a crisis of faith due to such applications.

A half-baked doctor is a danger to the body; but a half-baked religious scholar is dangerous to the soul (lit. faith).

You know what your Lord says, but you do not know why He said it.

According to one narration, Omar, may God be pleased with him, says, “The woman is more learned than Omar,” but in another he states that everyone is more learned.