The Oxford Dictionary of Islam defines takfir as "pronouncement that someone is unbeliever (kafir) and no longer Muslim." It has become a key concept in the ideology of both terrorist groups and their enemies as well in the Muslim world. A takfiri is a Muslim who accuses another Muslim (or Christian or Jew) of apostasy. During the last few years, however, several non-Muslims, leading Western figures and even governments have been adopting that ideology. Muslims' excessive use of takfir creates a state of chaos; Westerns' use of it makes the situation more chaotic. The following is a part of the story of "takfirism" and its repercussions.
The Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda, and other terrorist groups always claim that Muslim leaders who do not rule by Islamic sharia law -- and those who obey them -- are not Muslims. The terrorists consider them "hypocrites" (the Saudis), "rejectionists," or "outsiders" (Iranians and Shias). Terrorists always use the concept of takfir to authorize and endorse violence against their enemies.
In reaction, several Muslim leaders and senior Islamic clerics have started to utilize takfir to denounce the terrorists as unbelievers. Such a development highlights the nature of Islam as a political ideology, notably in the Sunni vs. Shia and Sunni vs. Sunni hostilities. The charge of takfir is a weapon used by all parties involved.
In June 2014, for example, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's chief Shiite cleric, issued a fatwa (Islamic legal opinion) encouraging his followers to take up arms against ISIS. Two months later, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad ibn Ibrahim Al ash-Sheikh, issued a statement blasting ISIS and al-Qaeda as Islam's key enemies.
Last August in Chechnya, more than 200 Sunni clerics -- among them the Egyptian Grand Imam of al-Azhar -- referred to Wahhabism as "a dangerous deformation" of Sunni Islam.
The following month, the Saudi grand mufti said Iran's leaders are "not Muslims," a day after Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described Saudi rulers as "blasphemous" and "faithless."
"Are there any Muslims left?" said Robert Spencer, a non-Muslim expert in Islam. "Is anyone a Muslim at all?... any Muslim who behaves in a way some other Muslim dislikes is simply not a Muslim."
That radical Muslim ideologues engage in takfir to attack their enemies is considered "the usual" by now. More disconcerting is that leading figures in the West -- including Pope Francis and former U.S. President Barack Obama -- adopted the practice, asserting that ISIS, al-Qaeda and other jihadist organizations are "not Muslim." How would they know? Do Muslims go around telling Christians who is and is not a true Christian? The use of this rhetoric is part of an agenda to absolve Muslims of responsibility for terrorism.
At an all-hands meeting of the National Security Council on February 23, the new U.S. National Security Adviser, H.R. McMaster, argued against using the term "radical Islamic terrorism." Jihadists, he said, are not true adherents to the religion, but rather pervert its teachings. "The phrase is unhelpful because terrorist organizations like ISIS represent a perversion of Islam, and are thus un-Islamic, McMaster said, according to a source who attended the meeting."
What is misleading, confusing, and "unhelpful" is classifying Muslims into categories. Relying on Islamic authorities who are not objective and use or misuse Islam for political purposes is even more misleading and "unhelpful."
At least one senior Islamic cleric disturbed by this distinction is Sheikh Adil Al-Kalbani, former imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. A few months ago, he acknowledged with regret that, "they [ISIS] draw their ideas from what is written in our own books, from our own principles."
He is correct. Classifying Muslims into categories is not only misleading; it feeds into the hands of those who try to obfuscate the dangerous nature of Islam as a political ideology.
A. Z. Mohamed is a Muslim born and raised in the Middle East.