The 122nd edition of Al-Naba, the Islamic State’s weekly newsletter, was released on 9 March 2018 and contained an article, on page 3, suggesting that the use of takfir (excommunication) should be circumscribed. A rough translation is reproduced below.
The issue of takfir—labelling Muslims as apostates, which carries the death penalty—has been at the centre of the controversies surrounding the Islamic State (IS), both internally and externally. Defining who is a believer stood behind the episodes of hyper-savagery that gained global attention, such as IS enslaving the Yazidis, and in the competition within the jihadi-salafist world, as IS sought to outstrip its former parent branch, al-Qaeda, the appropriate use of takfir took centre stage. For IS, a problem arose when its own doctrine was turned against it: a revolutionary movement against clerical and governmental authority, once IS was such authorities, in the areas of Syria and Iraq it claimed as its “caliphate”, IS was faced with a current in its own ranks that wanted a permanent revolution.
The ultra-extremist wing of IS is referred to as al-Hazimiyya (the Hazimis), named after Ahmad ibn Umar al-Hazimi, a Saudi cleric involved in the Sahwa (Awakening) movement that mixed political-revolutionary Islamist ideas with traditional Salafi/Wahhabi religious precepts to challenge the government from the late 1970s until the early 1990s. (Stéphane Lacroix’s book, Awakening Islam, gives a comprehensive overview of the development and defeat of the Sahwa.) Al-Hazimi is currently imprisoned by the government in Arabia. The central insight the Hazimis draw from al-Hazimi is, as Hassan Hassan has explained, actually based on a misinterpretation of a fatwa by al-Hazimi, which has since been revoked.
The Hazimis believe that al-Hazimi ruled that not only has anyone failing to meet a foundational religious obligation become an apostate, even if they committed this error in ignorance—this is usual enough—but accepts the excuse of ignorance (al-udhr bil-jahl) and thereby abstains from pronouncing takfir on an individual must be excommunicated, and therefore killed, as well. This doctrine is referred to as takfir al-adhir (excommunication of the excusers). The circular firing-squad element to this is what has made most jihadists reluctant to embrace the Hazimi interpretation of things; the phrase used in criticism is that it leads to al-takfir bil-tasalsul (excommunication in an infinite regression).
IS appeared to have suppressed the Hazimi challenge shortly after the caliphate was declared in 2014. In mid-August 2014, IS arrested religious emir Abu Jafar al-Hattab; the former emir of Deir Ezzor, Abu Musab al-Tunisi; Abu Asid al-Maghrebi; Abu al-Hawra al-Jazaeri; Abu Khaled al-Sharqi; and a former security emir in Aleppo, Abu Abdullah al-Maghrebi, on charges of excess use of takfir. The next month, another IS shar’i, Husain Rida Lare (Abu Umar al-Kuwaiti), was executed after he declared the caliph, Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), to be an infidel. This was, as Tore Hamming, one of the earliest to study the Hazimis, documented, the end of the matter—publicly—for about eighteen months.
But the issue flared up again in May 2016, Hamming notes. On one side of the dispute was a faction led by Turki al-Binali, a Bahraini who was, despite his youth, a senior IS cleric, which accused the Hazimis of deviance, labelling them Khawarij or ghulat (excessives). The Hazimis responded by labelling al-Binali and his supporters murji’a (postponers), referring to an extinct theological tendency that refused to use takfir in virtually all circumstances on the grounds that only God could know. This contest simmered for a year.
In May 2017, the Hazimis seemed to gain the upper-hand when IS’s Delegated Committee issued a fatwa, signed by Abu Zayd al-Iraqi, vastly expanding the definition of heresy. Al-Binali protested publicly. Two weeks later al-Binali was killed by an American drone strike. Some of al-Binali’s supporters found this timing just a little too convenient and muttered about an “inside job”. When al-Binali’s close ally, Abu Bakr al-Qahtani, was killed in murky circumstances in August 2017, the muttering became louder still. Nonetheless, the balance soon seemed to tilt back the other way.
In September 2017, the Delegated Committee’s fatwa was repealed. The course of events leading to this is most unclear, but Cole Bunzel, tracking the output of officials in and around IS, presented evidence that the caliph had “returned to the scene after an extended absence” and “come down hard on the Hazimis, detaining many of them, including two of their leaders, Abu Hafs al-Jazrawi and Abu Maram al-Jaza’iri.” The image painted was one of turmoil over the summer of 2017 as IS’s caliphate gave way and the organisation prepared to transform back into an insurgency.
It seems, writes Bunzel, that after Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani) and Wael al-Fayad (Abu Muhammad al-Furqan or Dr. Wael al-Rawi) had been killed in late 2016, and the caliph had gone to ground, the Delegated Committee had gradually accrued power and come under the leadership of an Iraqi named Abd al-Nasir, a Hazimi zealot. Al-Nasir was ousted in early September, and probably replaced by Abu Abdurrahman al-Shami, a judge within the IS movement since 2005. As Bunzel points out, in Al-Naba 98 on 22 September 2017, the first issue after the Delegated Committee repealed the takfiri fatwa, an article (on page 14) recycled a line from the notice as its headline: “The Virtue of Returning to the Truth”.
Despite what appears to have been a ruthless purge of the Hazimis, there were reports in December 2017 that the Hazimis had once again taken control of the Delegated Committee. The article in Al-Naba yesterday suggests either that those reports three months ago were incorrect or that the “Binalis” have once again managed to wrestle back control of IS’s religious apparatus.
It is notable that the use of takfir licensed by the Naba article—only for those who renounce the faith or commit shirk (set up idols for worship on a level with God), and certainly not for committing sins, even significant ones—does fit more closely with the doctrine laid out by the first leader of “the State” after it was announced in 2006. Al-Badri’s predecessor, Hamid al-Zawi (Abu Umar al-Baghdadi), spoke in March 2007, and rejected the suggestion his movement overused takfir. Even committing major sins like adultery, drinking wine, or stealing did not bring excommunication, said al-Zawi, unless the perpetrator wars with the faith by claiming that this behaviour is halal (permissible). “Our doctrine is the middle way between the extremism of the Khawarij and the neglect of the Murji’a”, said al-Zawi. “He who recites the shahada and practices Islam without denying anything of Islam, will be treated as we treat Muslims, and his soul will be left to Allah.” Al-Zawi added: “Making takfir against someone … is based on proving the kafir [unbeliever] conditions”.
* * *
Disobedience to God diminishes the faith, but does not remove the label [of Muslim] from the person so described, nor does it prevent [the application of] the rights that are obligatory for each believer. Such disobedience is a sin, but only with setting up a partner to God or kufr [disbelief, infidelity] is the faith broken and the owner [of such sins] forbidden from [receiving] the rights of the believers, and must be treated as al-mushrikeen [an idolater or polytheist].
This is one of the most important aspects at the origin of ahl al-sunna wal-jama’a [the people of orthodoxy and community, i.e. Sunnis], which differentiates between them and the people of bid’a [innovation], from the Kharijites, and other ahl al-ahwa [lit. “people of passions”, following their whims and desires], who disbelieve in the absolute sin, and take people out of the ranks of the believers, and treat them as infidels …
It is not secret to a Muslim that the retreat from jihad and escape from the pilgrimage are major sins that anger the Lord Almighty … but despite the great sin, there is also included forgiveness from God—the Almighty—for his actions, if he wishes, repentance for him if he repents, and reward for other good deeds. In this sin, there is a choice for people who are companions of the Messenger of God, peace and blessings be upon him, as happened at the Battle of Uhud, where … God— subhana [glory be to Him]—admonished them by saying: “Those of you who turned back on the day the two armies met [at Uhud], it was Shaytan [the Devil] who caused them to backslide because of some [sins or evil] they had done. But God has forgiven them, for God is oft-forgiving and most forbearing” [Ali Imran (3): 155]. Those who failed in this great endeavour of the Companions enabled Shaytan by the sins they had acquired, distancing them from steadfastness alongside the Messenger of God, and they were defeated before the polytheists, but God—the Almighty—indulged them. He did not rush to punish them for their flight. Instead, He waited and then pardoned them and forgave them. Thus is God—the Almighty—the protector of believers, and forgiving, al-haleem [one of the names for God, denoting gentleness, deliberation, and patience].
In this year, the Muslim should treat his brother as a Muslim, even if Shaytan has taken him to a great extent, and he has fallen into a large number of sins, such as taking up yawm al-zahf [the day of the march]. This sin does not remove the apparent faith that is the basis of the treatment between believers.
If some Muslims have been shaken by Shaytan these days, leaving their jihad, or revoking their hijra [emigration (to the caliphate)], or violating their promises and sales—all of these are major sins and doubtless they will have to repent to God for them. But, nevertheless, if they preserve haq [truth] then our duty to them remains as long as they are characterized by Iman [Faith], and did not break from the foundations of their religion, by challenging the provisions of the shari’a, or providing help to our enemies among the infidels, or demonstrating kufr …
Every Muslim must look at those who have been to any of the disobedient, and strive to remind them of God Almighty, and call on them to repent and turn to God Almighty. Most of them—thanks be to God—have hearts long steeped in the memory of God, … and reviving this remembrance of God Almighty, and the fear of Him, will bring back the love for this religion and its people, and the longing for jihad for the sake of God, and the request for martyrdom and the upper levels of Paradise. It will not be difficult to remove the blindness that Shaytan has cast on their eyes, so that they will not be able to see the good that they were in, and the fitna [strife] they are being led to. If they commit a sin, remember al-huda [the right path] they have seen, and hold fast to it.
The Almighty said: “Those who are al-Muttaqun [pious, god-fearing], when an evil thought comes to them from Shaytan [the Devil], they remember [Allah’s guidance], and then they see [aright]” [Al-Araf (7): 201].