I’m often shocked by how often we throw the baby out with the bathwater. Someone disagrees with us on a religious matter and we are willing to play Russian roulette with our own salvation by labeling them an unbeliever (kafir). This behavior tends to be perpetrated by people who are ignorant and/or fanatical in their commitment to particular dogmatic views. In reality, what constitutes calling someone an unbeliever has a very narrow scope, not nearly as wide as some would like it to be.
The word kafir is a legal description that must come from an explicit scriptural source (nass). This means that in order to call someone an unbeliever, either Allah or the Messenger of Allah ﷺ must have said that a person who says or does “xyz” is a kafir. The scholars of Islam have long had a very difficult time in defining what that entails.
In tackling this issue Imam al-Ghazali states that there are two types of belief, “One connected to the fundamental principles of creed, the other with secondary issues. The fundamental principles are acknowledging the existence of God, the prophethood of His Prophet, and the reality of the Last Day. Everything else is secondary.”1 So long as a Muslim does not deny these fundamental principles, they are still to be considered a Muslim.
Imam Abu Ja’far al-Tahawi similarly states, “We call the people of our qiblah Muslims and believers as long as they acknowledge what the Prophet ﷺ brought, and accept as true everything that he said and told us about.”2 The bulk of Sunni-centric theological debate has not come in the affirmation or denial of what the Messenger ﷺ has brought, but rather in the understanding of it. This difference in “secondary” creedal understanding can be dated back to the companions of the Messenger, in particular dealing with the Prophet’s vision of God during the Night Journey. This particular dispute is centered around Ibn Abbas and Aisha – Ibn Abbas held the view that the Messenger of Allah “saw” God, while Aisha vehemently disagreed when asked about the subject by Masruq, as related by Imam Bukhari:
I said to Aisha, "O Mother! Did Prophet Muhammad see his Lord?" Aisha said, "What you have said makes my hair stand on end! Know that if somebody tells you one of the following three things, he is a liar: Whoever tells you that Muhammad saw his Lord, is a liar." Then Aisha recited the verse: ‘Vision comprehends Him not, but He comprehends all vision. He is the Subtle, the Aware' (6:103), ‘And it is not given to any human being that Allah should speak to him unless it be by revelation or from behind a veil...' (42:51)."
What is key to note here is that Aisha did not claim anyone was an unbeliever for saying the Messenger saw God. Sure, she used very strong words in calling the claimer a liar, but that is very different from stripping an individual of their faith, as unbelief means the individual will abide in hell forever. Al-Ghazali again shares pertinent advice on the risks of calling another Muslim an unbeliever: “As for the Advice, it is that you restrain your tongue, to the best of your ability, from indicting the people who face Mecca (on charges of Unbelief) as long as they say, ‘There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God’...Indeed branding people unbelievers is a serious matter. Remaining silent, on the other hand, entails no liability at all.”3
Advice From The Messenger
Here are some straightforward warnings from the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ on branding a fellow Muslim an unbeliever:
"Whoever calls his [Muslim] brother 'kafir', it becomes definitely true of one of the two.” (Narrated by al-Bukhari and Muslim)
Ibn `Umar related that the Holy Prophet said: "If a Muslim calls another kafir, then if he is a kafir let it be so; otherwise, he [the caller] is himself a kafir." (Abu Dawud, Book of Sunna)
Abu Dharr reported that the Holy Prophet said: "No man accuses another man of being a sinner, or of being a kafir, but it reflects back on him if the other is not as he called him." (Narrated by al-Bukhari)
"Withhold [your tongues] from those who say, "There is no god but Allah" – do not call them kafir. Whoever calls a reciter of "There is no god but Allah" a kafir is nearer to being a kafir himself." (Tabarani, reported on the authority of Ibn Umar)
1. Sherman A. Jackson, trans., On the Boundaries of Theological Tolerance in Islam: Abū Ḥāmid Al-Ghāzalīʼs Fayṣal Al-Tafriqa Bayna Al-Islam Wa Al-Zandaqa (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2002), 112.
2. Tahawiya Point Fifty-four, http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/misc/tahawi.htm
3. Jackson, On the Boundaries of Theological Tolerance, 112.
By Moutasem Atiya , 10 Apr 2014