A Crash Course in Jihadi Theory (Part 3)

In the first part of this series on a book written by the Shari’a Council of the Jama’at al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad in Gaza, we saw that its authors were highly critical of the rulers of the Muslim world and employed their Islamist terminology to accuse these rulers of kufr (unbelief), the details of which are dealt with in the second part of this series. Knowing this, you might expect the Council’s treatment of excommunication (takfir) to deal entirely with the legitimacy of excommunicating Muslim rulers and why they may be called “infidels” and expelled from Islam. Well, this is actually not the case. Apparently, the authors believed they had made a strong enough case against Muslim rulers in the previous chapters because chapter 4 is virtually entirely dedicated to giving a theoretical description of what takfir is, what its conditions and obstacles are and when it may or may not be applied. Perhaps surprisingly for a group advocating takfir of Muslim presidents, kings and (prime) ministers, they come across as extremely careful in applying the practice of excommunication.

Conditions and obstacles

Although this book is by no means the most detailed study on takfir in existence, it is pretty meticulous for a “crash course”. The authors define takfir as “the judgement against a Muslim to expel him from the religion of Islam for his kufr belief, speech or action”. (These latter words show that the authors adhere to what one may refer to as the orthodox Islamic idea that faith (iman) is found in one’s beliefs, one’s speech and one’s actions. Muslim scholars have had some extremely interesting debates on this issue for centuries but most seem to have settled on this position.) Then, the authors start by mentioning the conditions that have to be met before one can apply takfir to another Muslim: the Muslim supposedly guilty of unbelief should be legally capable of being charged with this (i.e. he should be an adult in his right mind), it should be clear that he actually intended to act in the sinful way he did and he must have acted out of his own free will. Moreover, the act of alleged kufr is also subject to certain conditions. There should be a clear indication that it’s really about unbelief and there should be some proof of that.

After listing some more conditions, the authors mention that there are also certain obstacles to takfir that must be overcome in order to apply it. If a Muslim is forced to commit a sin that can be classified as unbelief, takfir may not simply be applied to him, nor can this be the case when the supposed sinner simply made a mistake. The culprit may also have made a wrong interpretation, leading to honest and well-intended but faulty conclusions. In none of these cases may takfir be applied. The same is the case, the authors claim, if the allegedly sinful deed is unclear, if the evidence against it is not full-proof or if the witnesses who claim a Muslim committed a sin are unreliable. Although the authors make clear that takfir is not a dirty word, that it has firm roots in Islam and that none of these conditions and obstacles should make the reader excuse Muslim rulers for their supposed unbelief, the overall impression one gets from reading all this is that the book’s authors are relatively careful not to apply takfir too broadly. Much of the chapter is dedicated to keeping people from applying the concept and the authors even list a number of “widespread mistakes” regarding takfir, which include declaring entire (Muslim) societies to be “infidel” or excommunicating people who do not belong to a certain group or organisation.


At this point, the reader might wonder: is it really reasonable to expect supposedly apostate Muslim rulers to know all of this? In other words, if President Husni Mubarak, King ‘Abdallah II, President Bashar al-Asad and their colleagues simply don’t know about the precise details of what constitutes kufr, might their ignorance (jahl) perhaps excuse them? This is the subject of chapter 6 of the book, which discusses what jahl is and when ignorance can be used by a Muslim to excuse his supposedly sinful behaviour. If he didn’t know certain acts or words were sinful, how can he be blamed for them?

The authors of the book define jahl in this case as “not knowing about Islamic legal rulings and their underlying precepts”. They claim there are two schools of thought regarding ignorance as an excuse for kufr: those who do not accept jahl as an excuse at all (associated with early-Islamic extremist groups such as the Khawarij) and those who accept ignorance as an excuse without looking at the context. The right way to think about this subject lies, of course, somewhere between these two extremes. Although the subject is too complicated to deal with in detail here, a highly important point about this issue is whether the person using ignorance as an excuse has been reached by a messenger bringing the message of Islam or not. If they have not, jahl may excuse their sinful deed. If they have been reached by such a messenger, however, they cannot claim ignorance since they were given the chance to learn about Islam.

The authors are careful to point out that – and this is where their true political colours come shining through again – jahl cannot be used as an excuse in cases where a Muslim claiming ignorance is actively shunning the search for Islamic knowledge, has been reached by a messenger bringing the message of Islam, has been in contact with missionary activities etcetera. Although it is not pointed out very specifically, it is clear that the political leaders these radicals are so adamantly against have all the Islamic literature they could possibly wish at their disposal, making them utterly unable to claim ignorance of Islam as an excuse for their “infidel” actions.

By dealing specifically with ignorance and its inapplicability in certain situations as an excuse for kufr, the authors implicitly return to their original premise that the rulers of the Muslim world are apostates and are indeed worthy of the judgement of takfir, in spite of their carefulness to express this. How this is connected to other themes will be dealt with in the next installment of this series.

To be continued…

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2 Responses

  1. Great post, and thanks again for taking the time to go into detail with this.

    When discussing the ideas of takfir and jahl — I know that you mentioned they thought outright takfir of society was inappropriate — but did they cite any specific examples where it has been used incorrectly from jihadist groups of the past 50 years or so? I’m think specifically of a group like Takfir wa’l-Hijra in Egypt or the GIA in Algeria.

  2. Aaron, you’re very welcome. As for your question, I don’t recall reading the names of actual groups from Egypt, Algeria or anywhere else but it’s quite clear the authors of the book have groups like the ones you mention in mind. They do mention a few dozen examples of what they believe to be mistaken forms of takfir on pp. 149-151. I mentioned a few in my post but they name many more.

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