Photo by Zoriah, available at Flickr.

October 01, 2009


Takfirism may be viewed as the ultimate expression of unconstrained Islamism. Islamism is the ideological proposition that the legitimacy of the political order be derived from Islam. Salafism is an institutionalized form of Islamism professing the conviction that such legitimacy resides solely in the emulation of the precedents of early Islamic history. Jihadism is the belief that the use of force is permissible (and/or obligatory) and governed by Islamic jurisprudence, as reinterpreted by Islamism. These three Islamist concepts overlap, with Salafism and Jihadism as intersecting subsets of Islamism, yielding four applicable labels: non-Salafist, non-jihadist Islamists; Salafist, non-jihadist Islamists; non-Salafist, jihadist Islamists; and Salafist, jihadist Islamists. Adding to the complexity of the configuration is Takfirism. Contrary to the previously defined forms of Islamism, Takfirism is generally not a self-applied label; few groups or individuals have declared themselves Takfirists. Takfirism is nonetheless a distinct ideological approach with significant operational consequences for present-day Salafist-jihadism.

At the base of Takfirism (al-manha al-takfiri) is the Arabic word takfir—pronouncing an action or an individual un-Islamic—from the root k-f-r. The semantic origin of the root associates it with the deliberate denial of a solemn truth. The conventional meaning, over the course of Islamic history, has reserved kufr for the rejection of an agreed-upon precept of Islam. For example, a Muslim’s deliberate failure to perform the commanded ritual prayer or the daylong fast during the month of Ramadan is considered an act of kufr. A non-Muslim who rejects the call to Islam is a kafir (plural kuffar). 

Over the course of its history, the Islamic scholastic tradition both rationalized and formalized its treatment of the kuffar. While the constraints imposed by the Islamic laws governing the conduct of war provided some level of protection to certain categories of kuffar, Islamic jurisprudence also stipulated that the default attitude toward the kuffar in general should be one of hostility and belligerence. Thus, kuffar (but not Muslims) could be enslaved and their property looted. Furthermore, jurisprudence even discussed extreme instances in which the mitigating constraints were lifted, such as during a battle in which it was impossible to distinguish between combatant and noncombatant (biyat), and when the enemy deliberately used noncombatants (Muslims or otherwise) as human shields (tatarrus).

In contrast, the development of the notions of dhimmah (communal trust—applicable to non-Muslims living permanently in an Islamic state), aman (personal safety—applicable to non-Muslims, even from hostile states, legally visiting the Islamic state), and ‘ahd (state treaty or covenant—applicable to friendly non-Muslim states and their subjects) excluded large fractions of the kuffar from the permissible mistreatment. In general, however, scholastic pronouncements neither protected individuals from risks nor endowed them with the privileges associated with these categories, which remained largely theoretical; the actual practice was dictated by political power.

Islamic scholasticism, however, did engage in two other conversations that have proven to be of relevance in modern Islamism. The first concerned the question of infidel versus apostate (kafir asli versus kafir murtadd). Contrary to the Muslim apostate, the infidel, as an original non-Muslim, could be subject to the aforementioned protective categories; an apostate did not benefit from such possibilities and was furthermore subject to capital punishment. Two conditions were set for the exercise of such punishment: first, the act of apostasy must satisfy jurists’ criteria—with ample opportunities to rescind it—and second, the punishment should be meted out by the state. The jurisprudence of apostasy, another juristic field abandoned in the secularly-illusioned Islamic twentieth century, remains woefully inadequate in the new order, where shifting religious allegiance is no longer equivalent to treason in warfare.

The second conversation concerns the distinction between pronouncing a statement or an action un-Islamic (takfir al-qawl or takfir al-f‘il) versus pronouncing an individual a kafir. Traditionally, theological and juristic debates within the Islamic scholastic tradition have allowed a large margin of disagreement that ranged from mild differences (khilaf) to accusations of kufr. These intellectual positions, as eminent scholars often cautioned, were to be restricted to a pronouncement on statements and actions; only the aforementioned formal apostasy process could determine whether an individual was a kafir. Yet, whether as a result of the discontinuity inflicted on the Islamic scholastic tradition in the last century—and the emergence of militancy as a claimant to that tradition—or of pragmatic opportunism, modern Islamism has too often conflated these two discussions, thereby creating a mechanism by which to resuscitate accusations of apostasy against non-Islamist Muslim foes. 

Takfirism thus is the tendency, manifested among some Salafist-jihadist formations, to conflate the pronouncement of one’s statements and actions as un-Islamic with the accusation of apostasy. Takfirism has invalidated the lengthy and juristic apostasy process in favor of reassigning to Salafist-jihadists the prerogative of meting out capital punishment. In its most extreme forms, it rejects any protective category for non-Muslims, relegating large factions of the Muslim community, up to its totality, to the status of apostasy (kafir murtadd) and assigning to itself the right to administer capital punishment. Takfirism further lifts the constraints imposed on the conduct of war by Islamic jurisprudence on the bases of scholastic discussions allowing their conditional rescission in certain scenarios. Takfirism, pushed to its full potential, is thus an unrestrained license to kill.

From their pioneering application of this phenomenon in Algeria during the 1990s to their multiple terrorist actions worldwide, Takfirist groups have demonstrated their ability to prolifically use this license. As a result, some ideological backlash has occurred from the most atrocious Takfirist actions. While some Islamist ideologues have attempted to qualify the premises applied by Takfirists, unfortunately they have often done so only on the basis of the need for moderation, not as a rebuttal to the misuse of the scholastic corpus.