Iman, Kufr, and Takfir

Question:

Is someone who has an idea that is kufr or “unbelief” thereby an “unbeliever”?

Response:

The short answer, somewhat surprisingly, is “not necessarily.” In some cases such a person is, and in some not. Many people today read an expression labelled in books of Islamic law as kufr, and when they realize that some Muslim they know or have heard of has an idea like it, they jump to the conclusion that he is a kafir. Charging fellow Muslims with unbelief (takfir) is an enormity in the eyes of Allah. It is the fitna or “strife” that destroyed previous faiths, and whose fire in Islamic times was put out with the defeat of the Kharijites, only to be revived on a wholesale scale almost a thousand years later by Wahhabi sect of Arabia in the eighteenth century, from whence its acceptability has spread today to a great many otherwise orthodox Muslims, becoming the bid‘a of our times, and one of the most confusing Islamic issues. A careful answer to the question must look at what kufr means, both in respect to oneself and others, before drawing general conclusions on what legally establishes or acquits a person of the charge of unbelief.

I. Oneself

Life is a gamble, whose stakes are paradise or hell. Allah has explained to us that whoever dies in a state of unbelief without excuse shall be punished in hell forever, just as whoever avoids unbelief shall attain to felicity, even if he should be punished first. Allah Most High says in Sura al-Ra‘d:

“The likeness of paradise, which the godfearing have been promised—rivers flow beneath it, and its fruits are forever, and its shade: that is the requital of the godfearing, while the requital of unbelievers is hell” (Qur’an 13:35).

And He says,

“It is He who created death and life for you that He may try you, as to which of you is best in works. And He is the All-powerful, the Oft-forgiving” (Qur’an 67:2).

This is our test, and the judge is a King, who is not up for reelection. If our ignorance of how He shall judge us in the next world is far greater than our knowledge, we do have enough to go on, and the immense value in His eyes of our lives and actions is certainly plain from the magnitude of the stakes. Those who knew more than anyone about it were more afraid than anyone; namely, the prophets. And the only ones not afraid are those who do not understand.

The hellfire, in its turn, is really a mercy to believers, a fire that Allah has built it in front of the wrong road so that we will not go in the direction leading away from endless happiness. Allah moreover has made the key to paradise a simple matter, to acknowledge that there is no god but God, and that Muhammad is His slave and messenger, which entails accepting everything conveyed to us by Allah as He intended it, and everything conveyed to us by the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) as he intended it. From the very simplicity of entering Islam, many Muslims assume that the criterion for leaving it, for kufr, must be equally simple.

It is not. Rather, the things we must believe, “everything conveyed to us by Allah as He intended it, and everything conveyed to us by the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) as he intended it” resolve themselves, upon reflection, into three categories:

(1) matters about Islam that everyone knows, which even a child raised among Muslims would know, technically termed ma‘lum min al-din bi d-darura or “necessarily known as being of the religion”;

(2) matters that not everyone knows;

(3) and matters that are disagreed upon even by “those who know,” the ulema or scholars.

Affirmation or denial of tenets of faith within each category vary in their eternal consequences because of their relative accessibility, and the individual’s opportunities to find them out.

Things That Everyone Knows

To deny anything of the first category above constitutes plain and open unbelief. It includes such things as denying the oneness of Allah, the attributes of prophethood, that prophetic messengerhood has ended with Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace); the resurrection of the dead; the Final Judgement; the recompense; the everlastingness of paradise and hell; the obligatoriness of the prayer, zakat, fasting Ramadan, or the pilgrimage; the unlawfulness of wine or adultery; or anything else that is unanimously concurred upon and necessarily known by Muslims, since there is no excuse not to know these things in the lands of Islam; though for someone new to the religion, or raised in a wilderness, outside of the lands of Islam, or some other place where ignorance of the religion is rife and unavoidable, their ruling becomes that of the second category. As Imam Nawawi explains:

Any Muslim who denies something that is necessarily known to be of the religion of Islam is adjudged a renegade and an unbeliever (kafir) unless he is a recent convert or was born and raised in the wilderness or for some similar reason has been unable to learn his religion properly. Muslims in such a condition should be informed about the truth, and if they then continue as before, they are adjudged non-Muslims, as is also the case with any Muslim who believes it permissible to commit adultery, drink wine, kill without right, or do other acts that are necessarily known to be unlawful (Sharh Sahih Muslim, 1.150).

Things Not Everyone Knows

To deny something of the second category above, tenets of faith that not everyone knows, and that an ordinary Muslim might not know unless it were pointed out to him, is only unbelief (kufr) if he persists in denying it after he understands that it has come to us from Allah or His messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace), since before this, it is not within his power to believe or follow it. This is but divine justice, and plain from the implications of the words of Allah

“We do not charge any soul except in its capacity” (Qur’an 6:152),

and attested to by many hadiths, such that related by Abu Dawud with a well-authenticated (hasan) chain of transmission from Jabir (Allah be well pleased with him), who said,

A donkey that had been branded on the face passed before the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), and he said, “Is there anyone among you who has not heard that I have cursed whoever brands or strikes an animal’s face?” (Abu Dawud, 4.26–27: 2564. H).

Although branding or striking an animal’s face is a crime and an enormity (kabira) in Islam, the words “Is there anyone among you who has not heard . . .” indicate that whoever does not know it is wrong is not culpable of it, even if he commits it, until he learns it is wrong. And Allah says in another verse,

“Allah only charges a soul according to what has come to it” (Qur’an 65:7).

In matters of belief, the line traditionally drawn between this type of knowledge and the preceding is their accessibility. A Muslim is responsible to believe everything from Allah or His messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace) that should be obvious to all Muslims, and that every Muslim may reasonably be expected to know. As for what is beyond that, he is only responsible to believe what he has learned of.

Things Disagreed Upon by Ulema

No position upon which one scholar may disagree with another because of evidence from the Qur’an, hadith, or human reason (as opposed to emotive preference) may be a criterion for faith or unfaith (kufr), provided it is a scholarly position, minimally meaning that:

(a) it is not based on a fanciful interpretation of the Qur’an or sunna that violates the grammar or diction of the Arabic Language.

(b) it does not contradict some other evidentiary text that is both

qat‘i al-wurud or “unquestionably established in its transmission” from Allah or His messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace), whether a verse of the Qur’an, or hadith that is mutawatir or “established by so many channels of transmission (generally held to be at least four) that it is impossible that all could have conspired to fabricate it”;

—and qat‘i al-dalala or “uncontestable as evidence,” meaning a plain text which does not admit of more than one meaning, a plain text which does not admit of more than one meaning, and which no mujtahid can interpret in other than its one meaning or construe in other than its apparent sense;

(c) it does not violate ijma‘ or “scholarly consensus” meaning the agreement of all Islamic mujtahids of a particular era upon a ruling or a point of evidence that bears on a ruling, such as the interpretation of a particular Qur’anic word or phrase;

(d) and it does not violate an a fortiori analogy from either (b) or (c).

Within these minimal parameters of validity, questions that have been disagreed upon by traditional Islamic scholars—those who best know the texts of the Qur’an and sunna—cannot be the criterion of a Muslim’s faith or unfaith. The proof of this is that Allah has ordered us as Muslims to ask scholars by saying,

“Ask those who know well, if you know not” (Qur’an 16:43).

Now, the point of asking scholars is to accept their answer, and few things are more incompatible with divine justice than that the consequence of doing so should be perpetual damnation, as it would if one side of an issue were unbelief. Unfortunately, there are some Muslims today who seem to believe this, the reply to whom we shall see in our discussion of sects below.

To summarize, our Creator is well aware that a great many of the things we know are learned from other people, and has made allowance for this in even the most imperative of commands, that of iman. The Testification of Faith by which we become Muslim means accepting everything conveyed to us by Allah and His messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace). But because the details are only known through others, our responsibility for believing in them varies among the three categories we have mentioned: (1) things every Muslim usually knows, (2) things not every Muslim usually knows, and (3) things disagreed upon even by Muslims who know, the ulema or scholars. The first we must know and believe in, the second we must believe in as soon as we know, and the third, even if one position is stronger than others, cannot be a criterion for kufr or iman. If these distinctions are indispensable for judging one’s own faith, there are even more indispensable for judging that of other people, and so directly enter into the question of takfir or “declaring others unbelievers,” which forms the second part of our investigation, to which we now turn.

II. Others

The first thing to know about declaring someone an unbeliever is that the ‘aqida or “Islamic belief” of anyone who has spoken the Testification of Faith “There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah,” is legally valid until incontrovertibly proven otherwise. This principle is attested to by the hadith of Usama ibn Zayd (Allah be well pleased with him):

The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) sent us on an foray, and we made a surprise attack at dawn on al-Huruqat in the lands of Juwayna. I caught up with a man, and he said, “There is no god but Allah,” and I ran him through. I later had afterthoughts, and mentioned it to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), who said, “He said ‘There is no god but Allah,’ and you killed him?” and I replied, “O Messenger of Allah, he only said it out of fear of the weapon.” He said, “Why didn’t you split him open to see if his heart really said it or not?”—and he kept repeating this till I wished I had not become a Muslim before that day (Muslim, 1.96–97: 96. S).

Despite the overwhelming circumstantial evidence that the man only said this Testification to save his life—indeed it was almost absurd to believe otherwise—the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) sternly condemned Usama for not taking the outward sign of Islam at face value, establishing for all time that the primary and ongoing presumption (asl) for another Muslim’s Islamic belief (‘aqida) is that it is sound and acceptable, until there is incontestable proof that it is otherwise.

The Enormity of Charging a Muslim with Unbelief

Judging anyone who regards himself a Muslim to be an unbeliever is a matter not taken lightly by anyone who understands its consequences. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) has said:

“Whoever charges a believer with unbelief is as though he had killed him” (Bukhari, 8.32: 6105. S).

and,

“Any man who says, ‘O kafir” to his brother, one of them deserves the name”[1] (Bukhari, 8.32: 6104. S).

It is difficult to think of a direr warning, and its purpose is clearly to dissuade Muslims of religion and good sense from judging anyone who professes Islam to be an unbeliever unless there is irrefutable proof.

Then why would anyone do so?

In Muslim society, such a judgement is the business of the qadi or Islamic judge alone, and only because he has to. In cases where he must distinguish between the kufr or iman of a nominally Muslim individual, he does so because of earthly rights and penalties entailed by such a judgement, such as that an apostate’s marriage to a Muslim woman is null and void,[2] the meat he slaughters is not lawful to eat, and his property belongs to the Muslim common fund (bayt al-mal), and so forth. Moreover, these are the responsibility of the Islamic government to implement, and in the absence of such a government, ordinary Muslims may neither judge nor carry out the worldly consequences of such legal rulings because they have no authority to do so, for Islam does not permit vigilante or mob “justice.” Ordinary Muslims other than the qadi are not required to judge the faith in the heart of anyone who has spoken the Shahada or Testification of Faith, with the possible exception of someone married to a spouse who may have left Islam.

The motives today behind careless accusations of unbelief made by Muslims are many, of which few have anything to do with religion. Some of the more obvious are:

—a desire to warn or educate Muslims;

—the need to put oneself up by putting someone else down;

—thirst for fame as a “scholar”;

—the feeling of power through frightening those one informs;

—the thrill of their need to resort to one’s knowledge to get all the details;

—the need to prove one’s group is superior to anyone else;

—malice, envy, or arrogance.

Besides the first, of course, there is nothing for Allah in any of these. All the rest are simply bad, whether found individually, or when confused with the first.

The True Measure of Unbelief

It is axiomatic in Sacred Law that a state whose existence one is certain about does not cease through a state whose existence one is uncertain about. A Muslim’s having validly entered Islam by publicly pronouncing the Testification of Faith is a certitude, while the occurrence of a state of unbelief in his heart can only become a certainty if there is proof. So in matters of faith, a Muslim is always presumed to be a Muslim until there is publicly observable and decisive proof that he has ceased to be one.

We say that such a proof must be “publicly observable” because the above-mentioned hadith of Usama ibn Zayd, according to Nawawi, “attests to the well known principle of fiqh and legal methodology that rulings are based upon outward evidence, while Allah is responsible for the inward” (Sharh Sahih Muslim, 2.107). Ghazali adduces the same hadith to show that

regarding [entering] Islam, the jurist (faqih) but speaks of what makes it legally valid or invalid, not even considering anything besides the tongue. As for the heart, it is not within his jurisdiction, since the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) has put it beyond the reach of those of swords and authority, by saying to the killer of the man who had said the Testification of Islam: “Why didn’t you split him open to see if the heart really said it,” when he offered as an excuse that the man had only said it for fear of the sword (Ihya ‘ulum al-din, 1.17).

And we say that such a proof must be “decisive” because words can mean many things, the speaker might have an excuse, and the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) has said:

Turn aside prescribed penalties from Muslims as much as you can. It there is any excuse, let the defendant off, for it is better for the ruler to make a mistake in an amnesty than to make a mistake in a punishment (Tirmidhi, 4.33: 1422. D).[3]

And Nawawi observes in the introduction to Sharh al-Muhadhdhab, his largest legal work:

It is obligatory for a student to give a positive interpretation to every utterance of his brothers that seems to be wrong until he has exhausted seventy excuses. No one is incapable of this except a failure (Majmu‘, 1.24).

Such excuses, applicable to even the external legal sphere within which a qadi judges, are all the more applicable to someone trying to judge the internal sphere between an individual believer and his fate in the afterlife, especially in view of the basic facts of takfir or “declaring someone an unbeliever” we have outlined above, which, to summarize everything we have said so far are:

(a) that every Muslim’s faith (‘aqida) is valid until proven otherwise;

(b) it is not the legal obligation of the ordinary Muslim to judge another’s faith, but rather that of the qadi, in public cases where this-worldly interests dictate that it must be legally decided;

(c) it is an enormity and a crime to charge a Muslim with unbelief;

(d) the most common motives discernable in our times for declaring others unbelievers are morally repugnant, and themselves sins;

(e) to their own personal sin, factions who declare others unbelievers add the onus of sinning against the Umma through sectarianism, the sunna of the Christians whom the Qur’an says Allah afflicted with enmity and hatred for each other as punishment for forgetting their religion;

(f) the mark of “sects” throughout Islamic history has been their adversarial attitude towards other Muslims;

(g) the true measure of a Muslim’s becoming a non-Muslim is legal proof that is both publicly observable and decisive;

(h) it is incompatible with Allah’s justice and the Qur’an that any scholarly position about which major authorities among the Islamic ulema differ could be the decisive criterion of any Muslim’s faith;

(i) it is obligatory in Islamic law to avert prescribed penalties (hudud), including the penalty for apostasy, by adducing extenuating circumstances (shubuhat) that exculpate the accused.

Given these conclusions, and the obligatory character of averting harm from Muslims, the final part of our answer shall focus upon two broad categories among the least known today of extenuating circumstances that acquit Muslims of kufr, the first relating to the criteria for such judgements, and the second relating to the accused himself.

III. The Legal Criteria for Unbelief

Words That Entail Leaving Islam

The Usama ibn Zayd hadith shows that a Muslim’s legally entering Islam by having said the Profession of Faith (Shahada) is an absolute certainty. No one can thereafter be considered a kafir without an equal certainty, since the Prophet condemned Usama for doing so. The Imams of fiqh have specified just how much certainty is needed in texts like the following, which, though taken from the Hanafi school, is typical of the caution observed by the ulema of all schools, and shows how far the loose accusations of kufr echoing back and forth on the Islamic scene today are from the standards of Islamic law. Imam ‘Ala' al-Din ‘Abidin writes:

The most grievous of offences and heinous of enormities is associating others with Allah Most High (shirk), or disbelief in Him, or in that which has been conveyed by our liegelord Muhammad the Messenger of Allah (Allah Most High bless him and give him peace), or sarcasm about anything thereof, may Allah be our refuge from that. “Disbelief” includes:

(1) reviling the religion of Islam, or Allah Most High, or the Prophet (Allah Most High bless him and give him peace);

(2) denying any matter necessarily known to be of the religion of Islam, that is established by a text from either the Holy Qur’an or mutawatir[4] hadith, provided the text is incontestable as evidence[5] and there is no pretext (shubha) for disagreement about it;[6]

(3) denying any matter established by unanimous consensus of all the prophetic Companions (Sahaba), provided it its unanimity is unquestionably established, and it was explicitly stated by all, not merely tacitly agreed to;

(4) denying the existence of Allah Most High;

(5) believing that things cause effects through themselves or by their nature, without the will of Allah Most High;

(6) denying a matter of unquestionable scholarly consensus (ijma‘ qat‘i);

(7) denying the existence of the angels, the jinn, or the heavens;

(8) believing something intrinsically unlawful whose its unlawfulness is unquestionably established, such as drinking wine, to be lawful (halal)—as opposed to [something not intrinsically unlawful, such as] the property of another [which is not unlawful in itself], for it is unlawful for an extrinsic reason [namely, the other’s ownership of it];

(9) sarcasm about any ruling of Sacred Law,[7] or quoting a statement of unbelief—even jokingly, without believing it—when one’s intention is sarcasm [about religious matters];

(10) demeaning any prophet, or saying that prophethood is acquired [by spiritual works];

(11) calumny against ‘A'isha the wife of the Prophet (Allah Most High bless him and give him peace);

(12) or denying that the Prophet’s message (Allah Most High bless him and give him peace) was intended for the entire world

—in any of which cases a man is an apostate, and must be asked to re-enter Islam, which he can either do or else be killed, though a woman is merely incarcerated (al-Hadiyya al-‘Ala’iyya, 424–25).

These legal criteria, with the foregoing parts of this essay, reveal a number of fallacies in the reckless charges of unbelief bandied about in our times, providing even stronger reason for Muslims to avoid them and the groups enamored with them. Let us now look more closely at three examples of fallacies of takfir all too common in the present day: (1) the fallacy of hearsay evidence, (2) the fallacy of imputed intentionality, and (3) the fallacy of guilt by association.

The Fallacy of Hearsay Evidence

Accepting hearsay evidence against people is forbidden by Allah Most High, who says,

“O you who believe: when a corrupt person brings you news, verify it, lest you harm people out of ignorance and come to regret what you have done” (Qur’an 49:6).

The Qur’anic scholar Sulayman al-Jamal notes that this does not merely apply to those who are corrupt, but rather Allah calls such a person corrupt in the above verse “to repel and shock people from jumping to conclusions without checking” (al-Futuhat al-ilahiyya, 4.178).

The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “It is lying enough for a man to repeat everything he hears” (Muslim, 1.10: 5. S), because as Imam Nawawi observes, “one generally hears both truth and falsehood, and to repeat everything one hears without checking will necessarily mean telling lies” (Sharh Sahih Muslim, 1.75).

Those familiar with testimony in court know how frequently even well-intentioned eyewitnesses contradict each other and, upon cross-examination, themselves. In the world in which we live, not everyone is well-intentioned, especially towards those who are envied for their accomplishments or possessions. “Spin,” the new polite phrase for lying innuendo, is a fact of media politics. Reporters sometimes get things wrong, eliminate nuances that indicate the context, or misunderstand the person they interview to improve the story line or reader interest, or to make things “fit” with received ideas. Love and hate still sell news. Daily printing deadlines by their very nature often prevent a thorough checking of facts. If we think about it, much of our everyday knowledge is acquired with considerably less than the verification demanded by Islam. When we hear something, or read it from a single source, we tend to accept such knowledge because it usually works.

It does not work for judging a Muslim. Sacred Law stipulates that to establish that someone has left Islam, there must be at least two male witnesses who testify that they have heard him make a statement of unbelief (Radd al-muhtar, 4.371). Though the ruling cited is from the Hanafi school, the other schools of jurisprudence similarly stipulate testimony from witnesses. Moreover, if the individual then denies that he has made such a statement, he is legally considered as having repented of it (Mukhtasar al-Tahawi, 259).

As for judging the belief or unbelief of a particular historical individual of the past who ostensibly died as a Muslim, it is no one’s responsibility, since the dead no longer stand in our dock. As previously noted, such judgements are only given by the qadi in view of this-worldly rulings and consequences, which are immaterial to those now remanded by death to a higher court.

However, when a physical individual is gone, his “historical person” remains in the form of his written works, and it is this that ulema sometimes warn Muslims about when they mention “the kufr of So-and-so,” intending not his person, but the historical personality that his written legacy has effectively become.

This is legally quite a different thing from judging the author himself. Why? Because whoever surveys something of the vast corpus of Islamic manuscripts extant realizes how many works, even some of more important, are without rigorous authentication from their authors. Though a few manuscripts are autographed, or have been related by multiple channels from the author by students, or have ijazas that attest to a checked and contiguous transmission, perhaps as many as 75 percent do not, according to our teacher in hadith Sheikh Shu‘ayb al-Arna’ut, who has made his living for the last more than forty years readying such manuscripts for print. Even manuscripts optimistically labelled by indexers as “in the author’s own handwriting” or “transcribed under the supervision of the author” sometimes turn out to be otherwise. Oftener, a judgement in print that a particular work has reached us through several copyists’ hands in the form its author originally intended it represents the probabilistic expectation of the editor after collating the oldest and best manuscripts available to him. The point is that if ulema throughout Islamic history have agreed that this should not prevent Muslims from reading and benefiting from such books, they also tell us that written works that have reached us through copyists are leagues apart from the kind of forensic evidence demanded by Islamic law for judgements about a particular Muslim’s belief or unbelief.

Aside from honest mistakes, there are intentional forgeries. Faction welcomes perfidy, and at the personal level, envy is fact of life: the many prohibitions in the Qur’an and sunna against it attest to its presence in human nature, and that if not overcome by religious motives at its onset, it can burgeon into an obsession that will stop at nothing to destroy the person envied. Thus historically we find that the greater numbers of followers of Sufi sheikhs in comparison to other ulema sometimes engendered the most egregious means of redress in the latter’s camp. In an Islamic milieu where orthodoxy was highly valued, interpolations of heretical beliefs or immoral statements into hand-copied books easily lent themselves to the ends of malice.

For example, after mentioning a warning by the Supreme Ottoman Sultanate against reading Ibn al-‘Arabi’s Fusus al-hikam [The gem-settings of the wisdoms] which said spurious interpolations had been added into it by enemies of Islam, Hanafi Imam Ibn ‘Abidin says that this also

happened to the Knower of Allah [‘Abd al-Wahhab] al-Sha‘rani, against whom envious people forged calumnies of kufr that they inserted into some of his works, which they published as his. Whereupon the ulema of the day met, and he produced his own copy of the book which had been signed by scholars[8] and proved to be free of the lies forged against him (Radd al-muhtar, 3.294).

Thus also, when the litterateur and historian Burhan al-Din al-Biqa‘i stirred up controversy among the ulema of ninth/fifteenth–century Cairo over some verses ostensibly written by the mystical poet Ibn al-Farid, the hadith master (hafidh)[9] Sakhkhawi rejoined by saying:

The poetry ascribed to him has not reached me through any rigorously authenticated chain of transmission, and we do not declare the unbelief of anyone on the basis of something merely possible, especially when there is no benefit in judging him an unbeliever, for the sole benefit lies in making people shun the words themselves (Maqalat al-Kawthari, 340).

“Making people shun the words themselves” was also the reason for Imam Dhahabi’s warning readers in Zaghal al-‘ilm [The counterfeiting of Sacred Knowledge], in his chapter on usul al-din or “the bases of religion,” of the example of his former sheikh Ibn Taymiya, cautioning students against losing their way in the mazes of philosophical and cosmological arguments of the ancients,[10] as he felt Ibn Taymiya had at the end of his life. He tells anyone who imagines that studying such arguments and refuting them is a necessary part of an Islamic education:

I do not think you have reached the rank of Ibn Taymiya therein, or by Allah, even approach it, yet you saw what happened to him: the attacks on him, people leaving him, and his being called misguided, a kafir, and a liar—rightly and wrongly—while, before he got into this field, he was illumined and enlightened, and bore the mark of the early Muslims on his face; whereafter most people felt that he grew dark and eclipsed, and a shadow fell upon him; becoming in the eyes of his enemies a liar, impostor, and unbeliever; in the eyes of the intelligent and fair-minded an inaugurator of blameworthy innovations (mubtadi‘) in religion, though personally virtuous, painstaking, and skilled; and in the eyes of the majority of his low-bred followers the ‘standard-bearer of Islam’ and ‘defender of the faith.’ I can tell this as a fact” (Zaghal al-‘ilm, 42–43).

Imam Dhahabi’s aim in saying this was to caution upcoming ulema against delving in the kind of philosophical speculation through which Ibn Taymiya became “an inaugurator of blameworthy innovations” and “called misguided, a kafir, and a liar—rightly and wrongly.” Dhahabi did not to thereby intend to make a judgement against him, for he acknowledges his good traits, but rather to warn others to take admonition from the example of a good scholar who went wrong through studying and writing about something Dhahabi deemed worse than useless.

In this, Imam Dhahabi was like other ulema who mention the “misguidance” or “unbelief” of past Islamic figures. They are judging words and positions, not the people who may (or may not) have said or held them. For no scholar would presume to transgress the limits of the Qur’an and sunna that prohibit any accusation, let alone that of kufr, on mere hearsay. Those in our day who make takfir of Muslims of previous times commit the “fallacy of hearsay evidence” by ignoring both the forensic standards of Islam and the whole legal purpose of a formal judgement of apostasy, which as we have seen is temporal and this-worldly.

We have not mentioned the comparatively recent phenomenon of printed books whose contents are established by copyrights as the work of a particular author in archives such as the Library of Congress or the British Library. For such works, the thoroughness of documentation suggests that authors bear full legal responsibility for what is in them. But it should be noted that if there is any statement in an author’s printed work that seems to be kufr, it must be plainly expressed, not merely implied, for otherwise the accuser has committed another fallacy, to which we now turn.

The Fallacy of Imputed Intentionality

Words are judged by what the speaker intends, not necessarily what the hearer apprehends. If an utterance is unambiguous and its context plain, there is normally only one possible intention. But according to the Hanafi school, if a statement may conceivably be intended in either of two ways, one valid, the other unbelief (kufr), it cannot be the basis for a fatwa of the kufr of the person who said it. In the words of Imam Haskafi in his al-Durr al-mukhtar,

A fatwa may not be given of the unbelief of a Muslim whose words are interpretable as having a valid meaning, or about the unbelief of which there is a difference of scholarly opinion, even if weak (Radd al-muhtar, 3.289).

Only when the intention entails kufr do such words take the speaker out of Islam. Context is of the utmost importance in determining this intention, and taking someone’s words out of context is universally considered dishonest, doing violence to their intended meaning. The Qur’an itself, for example, is filled with verses quoting kafirs denying Allah and His messengers (upon whom be peace), yet reciting such verses is certainly not kufr, unless it is accompanied with the intention of unbelief.

The need to contextualize words to establish their intent is even more imperative in possible utterances of kufr that insult Allah Most High or the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace). Something might be said that while outwardly offensive to Allah or His messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace), was nevertheless intended by the speaker to make a valid point, not as an insult.

Intentional and Unintentional Insult

To deliberately insult Allah or His messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace) is unquestionably kufr, as borne out by Qur’anic verses such as the word of Allah in Sura al-Ahzab

Those who offend Allah and His messenger are cursed by Allah in this world and the next, and He has prepared for them a humiliating chastisement (Qur’an 33:57);

in which the word adha or “offend” means to hurt, vex, or bother someone in a way generally short of causing them outright harm; while the certainty of a humiliating chastisement in this world and the next pertains only to unbelievers, as mentioned in Sura al-Tawba:

A painful torment awaits those who offend the Messenger of Allah. They swear to you by Allah, to please you, though Allah and His messenger are fitter for them to please, if they are believers. Do they not know that the fire of hell awaits whoever opposes Allah and His messenger, dwelling therein forever? That is the great humiliation (Qur’an 9:61–63).

The latter verse shows that offending the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) amounts to opposing Allah and His messenger, which is without question unbelief

“Offending” however—as the mujtahid Imam and hadith master (hafidh)[11] Taqi al-Din al-Subki says in his al-Sayf al-maslul, a more than five-hundred-page work on the legal consequences of insulting the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace)—may be either intentional or unintentional, while only if a person intends giving offense to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) has he thereby committed kufr:

One must be aware of this rule, giving due consideration to the intention behind the offense (adha). For a person might do or say something which offends another that he did not have the slightest intention to offend him by, but rather intended something else, not thinking that it might give offense to the other, or understanding it would necessarily do so. Such cases do not entail the legal consequences of “giving offense”. . . .

This is proven by the word of Allah Most High about those who sat [too long] at the marriage feast of Zaynab [and the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace)]

“O you who believe, do not enter the dwellings of the Prophet unless you are given leave to partake of the food, not waiting for it to be prepared, but rather enter when given permission, and leave when finished eating; not [lingering because of] enjoying conversation; truly, you offended (adha) the Prophet thereby” (Qur’an 33:53).

These were the greatest of the Companions, who did not mean to give offense (adha) by doing this, so it did not entail its legal consequences (al-Sayf al-maslul (c00), 135).

The “fallacy of imputed intentionality” in such cases means to assume without decisive proof that an offensive deed or utterance was deliberately intended to offend Allah or His messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace) and hence legally kufr. Imam Subki’s restriction of unbelief to cases of deliberate offense is attested to not only by the Qur’an, but by many rigorously authenticated (sahih) hadiths. Anas ibn Malik (Allah be well pleased with him) said:

I was walking along with the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), who was wearing a cape from Najran with a thick edge, when a desert Arab caught up with him and pulled him so hard that I looked at the side of his neck and saw the mark on it from the violence of pulling the cape’s edge. The man said, “Order that I be given some of the wealth of Allah which you have!” The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) looked at him and laughed, then ordered he be given to” (Bukhari, 4.115: 3149).

Though the bedouin inflicted palpable physical pain on the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), it was without legal consequence because he apparently only meant to stop the Prophet to talk with him. Anas also relates:

When Allah gave His messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace) the spoils from Hawazin, and he began giving a hundred camels each to certain [noble] men of the Quraysh [so that others like them might desire to enter Islam]. Certain people of the Medinan Helpers (Ansar) then said of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace), “May Allah forgive the Messenger of Allah. He gives to Quraysh and neglects us, while our swords still drip with their blood.”

The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) was told what they said, and he sent for the Helpers and gathered them together in a leather tent, with no one else there. When they had assembled, the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) came and asked, “What is this that I hear you have said?” The wisest replied: “Those of us whose opinion matters, O Messenger of Allah, have said nothing. As for some men of us whose teeth are new [the young], they have said: “Allah forgive the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace). He gives to Quraysh and neglects the Helpers, while our swords still drip with their blood.”

The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) said: “Verily, I am giving gifts to men who are but newly come from unbelief. Are you not satisfied that others should get property, while you return to your saddles with the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace)? By Allah, what you are getting is better than what they are.” They answered, “We are well satisfied, O Messenger of Allah.” He told them, “Truly, when I am gone, you shall see rank favoritism; but have patience until you meet Allah and His messenger at the Watering Place.” Anas commented: “However we did not” (Bukhari, 4.114: 3147).

In this hadith, some of the Medinan Helpers spoke words as offensive to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) as any could be, entailing that he needed to be forgiven by Allah for wronging those who had fought in jihad by unjustly favoring his own people. Yet, because they did not intend to thereby insult or demean him—for their words rather proceeded from natural human distress at being left out while others took the spoils—the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) did not charge them with unbelief or even with sin, as would have been obligatory if it had been. He merely told them why he did what he did, and of the eternal reward they would receive. The insult and offense offered thereby to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) was plain, but without legal consequences because it was unintentional.

Another example of the same ruling is found in the hadith of ‘A'isha (Allah be well pleased with her), who said:

I became jealous of the women who offered themselves to the Messenger of Allah and said, “Does a woman offer herself?” And when Allah Most High revealed:

Postpone [the daily turn of] whomever you will of them [your wives], and draw near to you whomever you will; Whoever you wish [to return to their original turn], of anyone you have set aside, it is no reproach against you[12] (Qur’an 33:51),

I said, “I don’t see but that your Lord rushes to fulfill your own whims” (Bukhari, 6:147: 4788).

This last, admittedly jealous, remark was a reproach against her husband, the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace), but here too, because it was a mere emotional protest that lacked the explicit intention to demean or offend him, it entailed no legal consequences. There are many similar examples of unintended offense in the sunna. One of the most telling of them is in the hadith of Muslim

Truly, Allah rejoices more at the repentance of a servant when he repents to Him than one of you would if riding his camel through a wasteland, and it wandered off, carrying away his food and water, and he despaired of ever getting it back; so he came to a tree and lay down in its shade, without hope of ever seeing his camel again; then, while lying there, suddenly finds it beside him and seizes its reins, so overjoyed that he cries, “O Allah, You are my slave, and I am Your lord”—making a mistake out of sheer happiness (Muslim, 4.2104–5: 2747).

It is difficult to think of an utterance more blasphemous or offensive to Allah than the latter, had it been intentional. But since it was not, the principle of Imam Subki necessarily applies that the person who says such an expression without intending to revile Allah or His messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace) cannot be judged an unbeliever.

The Barelwi-Deobandi Conflict on the Indian Subcontinent

Knowledge of the above principle could have probably prevented much of the “fatwa wars” that took place around the turn of the last century in India between Hanafi Muslims of the Barelwi and Deobandi schools. They culminated in a number of fatwas published by Ahmad Reza Khan Barelwi (d. 1340/1921) of the takfir of major Deobandi ulema of his times such as Muhammad Qasim Nanotwi (d.1297/1879), Rashid Ahmad Gangohi[13] (d. 1323/1905), Khalil Ahmad Saharanpuri[14] (d. 1346/1927), Ashraf Ali Thanwi (d. 1362/1943), and indeed, of anyone who did not consider them kafirs—fatwas which have cast their long shadows down to our own times. In comparison, no Deobandi scholar of note, to the author’s knowledge, has yet made takfir of Barelwis.

Now, any issue that has been debated back and forth between two parties of Islamic scholars, both of whom know the Qur’an and hadith, Hanafi jurisprudence, and the ‘aqida of Islam, is by that very fact not a central religious principle that is “necessarily known to be of the religion of Islam,” but rather can only be something peripheral that is “disagreed upon by ulema.” As such, it cannot be the criterion for anyone’s kufr or iman. Among the evidence for this, as previously noted, is that Allah has commanded us to “ask those who know well, if you know not” (Qur’an 16:43), and the position of Muslim orthodoxy is that no Muslim will go to hell for following what the ulema, “those who know well,” tell him to do in such a case, even in a matter upon which scholars differ. Despite the acrimonious charges and countercharges, an unbiased look at the polemical literature of the Barelwis and Deobandis bears out its essentially peripheral nature in three ways:

First, the fiqh differences between them, mostly about the acceptability or unacceptability of certain practices of folk Islam in the Indian subcontinent, do not concern matters of belief to begin with. I hope to clarify the mistake of thinking that such differences do so in an essay I intend to write in the future, Allah willing, on “the fallacy of considering ijtihad as ‘aqida.

Second, none of the six main ‘aqida issues fought over by Barelwis and Deobandis are central enough to be “necessarily known of the religion,” as shall appear from the short description of them that follows.

Third, the only substantive pretext for takfir between them is an issue that illustrates the “fallacy of imputed intentionality” we are expounding here, namely the charge of Ahmad Reza Khan Barelwi in his Husam al-Haramayn and al-Fatawa al-Rizawiyya that the Deobandi writers Khalil Ahmad Saharanpuri and Ashraf Ali Thanwi committed kufr by insulting the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace). After a brief glance at the six main ‘aqida issues in the following section, which may be skipped for brevity, we shall return in the section after it, “The Imputed Insult,” to the remarks of these two scholars in context, and show how Imam Subki’s distinction between intentional and unintentional offense offers a compelling Islamic legal solution to a debate that has become a social problem.

The Six Disputed ‘Aqida Issues

Issues that one cannot consider a Muslim to be a kafir for affirming or denying include all the main ‘aqida-related questions disagreed upon by Barelwis and Deobandis, the most debated of which are the following:

(1) How much knowledge of the unseen (‘ilm al-ghayb) did Allah bestow upon the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) before his death? For example, Hudhayfa (Allah be well pleased with him) relates:

The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) delivered an address to us in which he did not omit a single thing until the Last Hour without mentioning it.[15] Whoever knew it [by remembering it afterwards] would know, and whoever did not would not. Truly, I would see something I had forgotten [that he had said] and then remember it, as someone recalls something he has not seen for a while, but then sees and remembers (Bukhari, 8.154: 6604).

Even though Allah directed the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) in the Qur’an to say:

“I am only a human being like any of you, who is divinely inspired that your God is but One God” (Qur’an 18:110),

no one ever again received the divine prophetic wahy or “inspiration” that he did. There is little comparison between any other man’s knowledge of the unseen and that of someone who could relate everything that was going to happen until the end of the world and “not omit a single thing,” even if he was “only a human being like any of you.” The Barelwis hold the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) was given incomparably vast knowledge of the unseen, while the Deobandis say he had only limitary knowledge of it.

(2) Does Allah show everything that happens in this world to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) in the barzakh or “interworld” between this life and the Judgement Day, such that he is as though hadir or “present” and nadhir or “watching” all we do? Ibn Mas‘ud (Allah be well pleased with him) relates that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said,

“My life is better for you, for you bring up new matters, and we speak to you [about them]; and my death is better for you, for your works shall be shown to me, the good ones of which I see I shall praise Allah for, while the bad ones I see I shall ask Allah Most High to forgive you for” (Musnad al-Bazzar (c00), 5.308–9: 1925).[16]

For any of us, being present and beholding something are merely conventional means (asbab ‘adiyya) by which Allah brings about their usual effect: awareness of what is happening. He could also bring about this effect in anyone, alive or dead, without such means, solely through His omnipotent power. The above hadith shows that He has chosen to do so for the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) after his death, “for your works shall be shown to me,” who is therefore effectually as though present (hadir) and watching (nadhir) our actions. Thus the Barelwis affirm, though Deobandis deny this formulation, which they say makes the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) as though omnipresent and omniscient.

(3) Allah made the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) the most influential human being who ever lived. To obey him was to obey Allah, Master of the entire universe, and to disobey him was to disobey Allah. By creating paradise and hell and revealing the religion of Islam, Allah made the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) the gateway for all time to the greatest part of human existence. Alongside this momentous effect upon every human being’s destiny, and with the inimitable miracles (mu‘jizat) vouchsafed to him in this life, the answering of his prayers, and his being the dearest of creation to God—it can be asked: What else did Allah place at his disposal in this world? Was he someone for whom Allah effected anything he chose (mukhtar al-kull)? The Barelwis believed so, adducing that the Prophet’s will (Allah bless him and give him peace) though created by Allah and without any causal effect in and of itself, was in conformity with Allah’s will in every particular; while Deobandis say that it is unbelief to affirm that Allah has granted complete control over creation to anyone besides Himself.

(4) It is rigorously authenticated in Bukhari and Muslim that on Judgement Day the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) shall be granted supreme intercession with Allah for all believing mankind; indeed, seeking this intercession in the afterlife is recommended by the sunna.[17] The question arises: Does the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) also intercede for matters prior to the Judgement Day? Barelwis say that his intercession (Allah bless him and give him peace) is for both this world and the next, so one should ask for both. Some Deobandis agree, while others aver that his intercession, now that he is dead, shall only occur in the next world; and still others say that it is blameworthy to ask for his intercession or help in this world.[18]

Two more ‘aqida-related questions remain to be mentioned, and to understand them, we have to return for a moment to a previously made distinction from the “Letter to ‘Abd al-Matin.”[19]

There we said, first, that Allah’s omnipotent power (qudra) only relates to what is “intrinsically possible” (ja’iz dhati), meaning possible in itself, not logically absurd or self-contradictory. It is sometimes termed the “hypothetically possible” (ja’iz ‘aqli) in view of the fact that it refers to anything that can in principle exist.

Second, Allah’s omnipotent power does not relate to what is “intrinsically impossible” (mustahil dhati), meaning something logically absurd or self-contradictory, such as “creating a square circle” or “a round triangle,” for these are mere jumbles of words that do not mean anything that can possibly exist.

Third, we saw that there is also another class of the impossible, namely things which, while not impossible in themselves (mustahil dhati), become impossible because of Allah’s eternal decision that they are not to be, such as the iman of Abu Lahab, which is negated by Sura al-Masad in the Qur’an. Though intrinsically possible in themselves, such things are termed “contingently impossible” (mustahil ‘aradi), since their impossibility is due to the contingency of Allah’s deciding that they shall never exist, and informing us so in revelation.

These distinctions are necessary because they directly enter into two of the most heated issues debated by Barelwis and Deobandis.

(5) The first is: Is it possible for Allah to lie? Here, both Barelwis and Deobandis, and indeed all Muslims, agree that Allah never lies, while the only disagreement is whether (a) this is intrinsically impossible (mustahil dhati), or whether (b) this is not intrinsically impossible, but only contingently impossible (mustahil ‘aradi), that is, because of His own decision and knowledge that He never lies, which He has informed us of by saying, “His word is the truth” (Qur’an 6:73), and many other Qur’anic verses.

Rashid Ahmad Gangohi of the Deobandis seems to have held the latter position, that while a lie told by God is hypothetically possible (ja’iz ‘aqli) in the very limited sense of not being intrinsically impossible (mustahil dhati),[20] it is nevertheless contingently impossible, since He has informed us of His truthfulness in the Qur’an.

Unfortunately for Muslim unity in India, Gangohi’s concept of the jawaz ‘aqli or “hypothetical possibility” of God’s lying was mistakenly translated into Arabic by Ahmad Reza Khan as imkan al-kadhib, which in Arabic means the “factual possibility of [God’s] lying” (Husam al-Haramayn (c00), 19)—a position that neither Rashid Ahmad Gangohi nor any other Muslim holds, for it is unbelief.[21]

Whether this mistranslation was due to Ahmad Reza Khan’s honest misapprehension of Gangohi’s position, or directly carrying into Arabic a similar Urdu phrase without understanding the resultant nuance in Arabic, or some other reason, is not clear. But it is plain that to Ahmad Reza, it seemed to amount to a denial of the basic Muslim belief that Allah never lies, something no Muslim denies, nor did Gangohi, if one but reflects for a moment upon what the above distinction entails.

This mistaken construing of Gangohi’s position in turn became the basis for Ahmad Reza’s declaring that Gangohi was a kafir, nicknaming those who subscribed with him to this view Wahhabiyya Kadhdhabiyya or “Liar Wahhabis,” and giving the tragic fatwa that all who did not consider Gangohi to be a kafir themselves became kafir.

Muslims can rest easy about this fatwa because it is simply mistaken. The fatwa’s deductions are wrong because its premises are based on inaccurate observation and inattention to needful logical distinctions that exculpate Gangohi from the charge of kufr—even if we do not accept the latter’s conclusions. So while Ahmad Reza should be regarded as sincere in his convictions, in his own eyes defending the religion of Islam, and morally blameless, he did get his facts wrong, and it is clearly inadmissible for Muslims to follow him in his mistake, even if made out of sincerity.

(6) The final issue, which can be analyzed according to similar considerations, is the question of whether Allah can create another like the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace). Though hypothetically possible (ja’iz ‘aqli), for example, if Allah were to create a second universe precisely like ours in every particular; it is contingently and effectively impossible (mustahil ‘aradi), because the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) is the Seal of the Prophets, whom Allah has determined that there shall be no prophet (nabi) after, or any prophetic messenger (rasul). Allah says:

“Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but the Messenger of Allah and the Seal of the Prophets” (Qur’an 33:40),

where the word khatim or “seal” in Arabic, when annexed (mudaf) to a series, as in the expression “Seal of the Prophets,” can only mean the final member of that series through which it is complete and after which nothing may be added. This is the only possible lexical sense of the word in the context. Were there any doubt about this, it is also unanimously agreed upon by scholarly consensus (ijma‘), and explicitly stated by the Prophet himself (Allah bless him and give him peace) in many rigorously authenticated (sahih) hadiths, such as that in the Musnad of Imam Ahmad

Prophetic messengerhood (risala) and prophethood (nubuwwa) have ceased: there shall be no messenger after me, nor any prophet (Ahmad (c00), 3.267: 13824).

The hadith master (hafidh) Ibn Kathir says that corroboratory versions of this hadith are, like the Qur’an itself, mutawatir or related through so many intersubstantiative and rigorously authenticated channels of transmission that they are incontestable (Tafsir al-Qur’an (c00), 6.2823).

Here, as in the preceding question, both Barelwis and Deobandis agree about the actual result—that no one like the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) shall ever be created again—and that to believe otherwise is infidelity (kufr). For even though the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) is merely a contingent and created human being, whom it is hypothetically possible (ja’iz ‘aqli) that Allah could create others exactly like, it is contingently impossible (mustahil ‘aradi) that Allah should do so, since He has informed us in the Qur’an and mutawatir sunna that no more prophets or messengers shall ever be created. And a duplicate of the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) who was like him in everything except prophethood would not in any meaningful sense be “like” him at all.

So those who say, as did some of the Deobandis, that Allah’s creating a “like” is hypothetically possible,[22] are correct, in the very limited sense that it is logically within Allah’s almighty power to do so—had He not already decided and declared that He never shall. And those who say, like the Barelwis, that this is effectively and contingently impossible, are also right, for Allah has decided that no one like the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) shall ever be again. Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) is the final prophet and messenger according to the Qur’an, scholarly consensus (ijma‘), and his own words “there shall be no messenger after me, nor any prophet.”

In any case, it is plain from the logical distinction just described that here too, the disagreement between Barelwis and Deobandis is about something that does not affect the kufr or iman of either, and that those who say otherwise are simply mistaken.

The point of mentioning these six questions is that not one of them is a genuine ‘aqida issue, in the sense of being a central tenet of faith that no one can disagree about and remain a believer. Rather, all of the main ‘aqida-related issues the Barelwis and Deobandis disagree about can be legitimately debated and differed upon by Muslims without either side having left Islam.

As previously noted, this applies with even greater force to fiqh issues differed upon by Barelwis and Deobandis, such as Milad celebrations of the birthday of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), the definition of bid‘a or “reprehensible innovation,” or the practice of setting aside particular days to send the reward of spiritual works to the souls of the departed. Imam Ghazali, Ibn al-Qayyim, Ibn Qudama al-Maqdisi, and other scholars have noted that things whose blameworthiness Imams of fiqh disagree about are not permissible to condemn, since it is a condition for something to be considered munkar or “condemnable” that this be concurred upon by all, not merely established through ijtihad of one scholar rather than another.

Because the foregoing questions in both ‘aqida and fiqh may be legitimately disagreed upon by Islamic scholars, only one issue remains that offers either side a pretext for takfir; namely, whether some words written by Deobandi scholars constitute insulting the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) or not.

The Imputed Insult

To understand what was said, and what was meant, one has to look at the context, which was various Deobandi scholars’ rebuttals of Ahmad Reza Khan’s belief in the Prophet’s (Allah bless him and give him peace) incomparably vast knowledge of the unseen. This seemed to the Deobandis to blur the distinction between Allah’s knowledge and human knowledge; or more specifically, between the knowledge of the absolute unseen and the relative unseen.

The absolute unseen (al-ghayb al-mutlaq) is that which no one knows but Allah, such as when the Final Hour will come, or the knowledge of every particular of being, unobscured by limitations of past or future, this world or the next, time or space, or the other cognitive categories that limit and structure human perception of reality.

The relative unseen (al-ghayb al-nisbi) is a fact of everyday life, and is merely that each individual knows things others are unaware of, hence “unseen” in relation to them.

Certain Deobandi ulema felt that Ahmad Reza Khan wanted to say that the Prophet’s knowledge (Allah bless him and give him peace) went beyond the relative unseen, that the Prophet knew the particulars (juz’iyyat) of all being, as only Allah does. They regarded this as tantamount to associating others with Allah (shirk) and a grave innovation (bid‘a). Their response was strident and hyperbolic, comparing the knowledge of Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) to that of various lower creatures in a way that probably no Muslim had ever compared him before, and giving the offense whose kufr or iman we are discussing in this section.

Before presenting what they said in detail, let us cast a glance at Ahmad Reza Khan’s prophetology. What were their utterances an answer to? Did Ahmad Reza actually ascribe Allah’s knowledge to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), inaugurating a bid‘a that nothing but such retorts could extinguish?

Ahmad Reza and the Prophet’s Knowledge of the Unseen

There is no doubt that Allah vouchsafed His messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace) a great deal of knowledge of what was unseen in relation to the rest of mankind. We have mentioned the above hadith of Bukhari that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) told the Companions everything of consequence that would happen until the end of time. Despite which, there are many Qur’anic verses that show that no one but Allah knows certain things, not even the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), such as:

“No one knows the hosts of your Lord but He” (Qur’an 74:31),

and

“No soul knows what it shall earn tomorrow, and no soul knows in what land it shall die” (Qur’an 31:34),

and

“They ask you about the Final Hour, when it shall take place. Say: Only my Lord has knowledge of it: no one shall reveal it in its time but He. It weighs heavily on the heavens and earth; it shall not come upon you, but of a sudden. They ask you as if you knew all about it. Say: Its knowledge is only with Allah, but most people know not. Say: I am not able to either benefit or harm myself, except as Allah wills. If I had had knowledge of the unseen, I would have had great good from it, and no harm touched me. I am naught but a warner and a bearer of good tidings to people who believe” (Qur’an 7:187–88).

There are many similar Qur’anic verses, all of which Ahmad Reza Khan interpreted as referring to the earlier life of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), before Allah bestowed on him greater knowledge, until, in the final years of his life, Allah disclosed to him everything that was and everything that will be until Judgement Day. By this interpretation Ahmad Reza was able to reach an accord between verses like those above, and the hadiths which mention the Prophet’s vast knowledge of the unseen (Allah bless him and give him peace). There is, for example, a rigorously authenticated hadith related by Tirmidhi that Mu‘adh ibn Jabal (Allah be well pleased with him) said:

One morning the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) was kept back from us, and he delayed the dawn prayer until we could almost see the sun, when he came out in a hurry and commenced the prayer. The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) performed it quickly, and when he had closed with Salams, called out, “Stay as you are, in your rows.” He then turned to us and said, “I shall now tell you what kept me from you this morning. I rose last night, made ablution, prayed what had been destined for me to pray, but then became so drowsy in my prayer that lassitude overcame me. And lo, I was with my Lord, Blessed and Exalted, in a surpassingly beautiful form,[23] and He said, ‘O Muhammad,’ and I said, ‘Ever at Your service.’ He said, ‘What are the Supreme Assembly [of archangels] debating about?’ and I said, ‘I do not know.’ He asked this thrice. Then I saw Him place His hand between my shoulders until I felt the coolness of His fingertips between my breasts, and lo, everything was revealed to me, and I knew. He said, ‘O Muhammad, what are the Supreme Assembly debating about?’ I said, ‘About expiations.’ He said, ‘What are they?’ and I said, ‘The walking of one’s feet to good deeds, sitting in mosques after prayers, and making a thorough ablution when most unpleasant.’ He said, ‘And then?’ I said, ‘Feeding others, speaking affably, and praying the night when people sleep.’ He said, ‘Ask, saying: O Allah, I ask You that I may do good works, shun bad, and love the unfortunate; I ask that You may forgive me and show me mercy. And when You try a people, take my soul unafflicted. I ask Your love, the love of whoever loves You, and the love of works that bring one closer to Your love.’”

The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) said. “It was the truth. Study and learn it” (Tirmidhi (c00), 5.368–69: 3235).[24]

The words of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) at this tremendous event, “and lo, everything was revealed to me, and I knew,” were understood by Ahmad Reza Khan to mean just that: that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) had been endowed with such vast knowledge of the unseen that he knew even what the Supreme Assembly of archangels were speaking about. This alone enabled him (Allah bless him and give him peace) to give the address, as we have previously related from Hudhayfa (Allah be well pleased with him), that was also described by ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (Allah be well pleased with him) in the words,

The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) stood before us and told us of [everything from] the very beginning of creation until the inhabitants of paradise have taken their places and the denizens of hell theirs—whoever memorized it memorized it; and whoever forgot it forgot it” (Bukhari (c00), 4.129: 3192).

The Deobandis’ impression however seems to be wrong that Ahmad Reza Khan wanted to go beyond this and say that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) knew the particulars (juz’iyyat) of all being, as Allah alone does.[25] It is certainly not borne out by Reza’s major work on the question al-Dawla al-Makkiyya li al-madda al-ghaybiyya [The Meccan realm: on the matter of the unseen], in which he plainly says:

We do not hold that anyone can equal the knowledge of Allah Most High, or possess it independently, nor do we assert that Allah’s giving [of knowledge to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace)] is anything but a part.[26] But what a patent and tremendous difference between one part [the Prophet’s] and another [anyone else’s]: like the difference between the sky and the earth, or rather even greater and more immense (al-Dawla al-Makkiyya (c00), 291).

Despite such unambiguous words, certain Deobandi ulema made rebuttals of what they viewed as the grave innovation of confusing the extent of the Prophet’s knowledge (Allah bless him and give him peace) with Allah’s. In the heat of argument, some of them met what they deemed exaggerated statements about the Prophet’s knowledge (Allah bless him and give him peace) with equally exaggerated statements about of his lack of knowledge; reaching a degree that, by any ordinary measure, can be only be described as far below the standards of normal Islamic scholarly discourse.

What Khalil Ahmad Said

Thus the Deobandi scholar Khalil Ahmad Saharanpuri wrote in his al-Barahin al-qati‘a [The uncontestable proofs][27] that there is no clear, unequivocal text in the Qur’an to support the belief that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) has vast knowledge, though there is such evidence in regard to Satan and the Angel of Death. The most salient points of his discussion are the following:

(1) That Ahmad Reza’s proof of the vastness of the Prophet’s knowledge (Allah bless him and give him peace) is based on a false analogy between the Prophet’s merit (fadl) and his knowledge; namely, that because the Prophet’s merit was greater than that of the Angel of Death or Iblis, both of whom have exceptionally vast knowledge according to the Qur’an itself,[28] it follows a fortiori that the Prophet’s knowledge (Allah bless him and give him peace) must be greater than theirs (al-Barahin (c00), 54–55).

(2) The invalidity of such an analogy is shown by the story of Khidr and Moses in the Qur’an (18:60–83), for even though Khidr had greater knowledge than Moses, Moses had far greater merit, and he was both a prophet (nabi) and a prophetic messenger (rasul), while Khidr was only a friend of Allah (wali) (al-Barahin (c00), 54). The analogy’s invalidity is also shown by three other matters that Khalil Ahmad mentions in the following quotation, whose paragraphs, though contiguous in the original, we have separated and numbered here to facilitate reference in our subsequent discussion:

(3) “First, tenets of faith [like this one] are not analogical (qiyasi), that they may be established by analogy. Rather, they are decisive (qat‘i), or established by decisive scriptural texts, to such an degree that even a single hadith (khabar wahid) is of no use as a proof in this context. In consequence, the affirmation [of the vastness of the Prophet’s knowledge of the unseen (Allah bless him and give him peace)] is only worthy of attention once the author establishes it through decisive proofs. If he contradicts the entire Muslim Umma [who presumably do not believe this] and seeks to establish people’s belief as being incorrect through an invalid analogy, how can this be worthy of attention?

(4) “Secondly, the Qur’an and hadith establish the contrary, so how can his disagreement be admissible? Rather, all [such] of the author’s statements are inadmissible. The Pride of the World (upon whom be peace) himself says, “By Allah, I do not know what will be done with me or with you”—the hadith. Sheikh ‘Abd al-Haqq relates [the hadith]: “I do not even know what is behind this wall.” The issue of the marriage session has also been written in al-Bahr al-ra’iq and other works.[29]

(5) “Thirdly, if greater merit really entails this [greater knowledge], then all Muslims, even if corrupt, and the author himself, are better than Satan [who is a kafir], in view of which greater merit, the author, by his own premises, must affirm that all ordinary Muslims have an equal if not greater knowledge of the unseen than Satan. And if the author has, as he claims, a high level of perfection in faith, then being superior to Satan, he must definitely be more knowledgeable than Satan—Allah be our refuge [from affirming this]! I am shocked and grieved by this example of the author’s ignorance. How far such stupid words are from knowledge and intelligence.

(6) “The upshot is that we should carefully note that if, after seeing the state of Satan and the Angel of Death, we affirm that the Pride of the World (upon whom be blessings and peace) has all-encompassing vast knowledge of the earthly sphere, contravening without proof decisive scriptural texts and proceeding solely from false analogy, then if this is not outright shirk, how should it be a part of faith? Such vastness [of knowledge] is established for Satan and the Angel of Death through scriptural texts. Through what decisive scriptural text has the Pride of the World’s vastness of knowledge been established, that one should affirm an act of shirk by rejecting all scriptural texts?” (al-Barahin (c00), 55).

This final rhetorical question, denying any evidence of the Prophet’s (Allah bless him and give him peace) vast knowledge after affirming it of the Devil and the Angel of Death, was what made Ahmad Reza Khan Barelwi say that Khalil Ahmad Saharanpuri had thereby demeaned and insulted the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and left Islam.

A Discussion of Khalil Ahmad’s Evidence

Because takfir is divisive and dangerous, it is worth reflecting for a moment on the five points that led to Khalil Ahmad’s judgement (in (6) above) that believing the Prophet’s knowledge (Allah bless him and give him peace) to encompass the terrestrial realm, and to be incomparably vaster than the Devil’s or the Angel of Death’s, constitutes “an act of shirk,” and “rejecting all the scriptural texts.”

First of all, Khalil Ahmad is correct in pointing out in (1), (2), and (5) above that there is no necessary analogy between the two individuals’ respective merit, meaning their closeness to Allah, and their respective knowledge. His comparison of Khidr with Moses, as well as the knowledge possessed by Satan and the Angel of Death, conclusively proves that there is no strict analogy between the two things.

To imply however that Ahmad Reza’s whole argument hinges on this erroneous analogy is attacking a straw man. Even if the analogy was adduced by Reza, his belief in the Prophet’s vast knowledge (Allah bless him and give him peace) did not depend on “proceeding solely from false analogy” from the Prophet’s merit (upon him be blessings and peace), but rather on the sahih hadiths of eyewitnesses who heard the Messenger of Allah relate such wonders as the events of the world from beginning to end. This was reported by Hudhayfa: “The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) addressed us in a speech that omitted nothing until the Final Hour except that he mentioned it” (Bukhari (c00), 8.154: 6604); by ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab: “[He] told us of [everything from] the very beginning of creation until the inhabitants of paradise have taken their places and the denizens of hell theirs” (Bukhari (c00), 4.129: 3192); by Abu Zayd ‘Amr ibn Akhtab: “He informed us of all that was and all that would be, the most knowledgeable of us being whoever remembered best” (Muslim (c00), 4.2217: 2892); and by Abu Sa‘id al-Khudri: “He stood up and spoke, leaving out nothing until the coming of the Final Hour save that he mentioned it” (Tirmidhi (c00), 4.483–84)—all of which are rigorously authenticated (sahih).

Apart from these hadiths, the previously related dream-vision of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) in which Allah imparted to him all-encompassing knowledge has also been attested to by a number of his Companions. As noted above, Tirmidhi reports with a rigorously authenticated (sahih) chain of transmission from Mu‘adh ibn Jabal that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said of this experience, “And lo, everything was revealed to me, and I knew” (Tirmidhi (c00), 5.368–69: 3235); and said in a well-authenticated (hasan) version from Ibn ‘Abbas, “I knew everything between the East and West” (Tirmidhi (c00), 5.367–68: 3234).

Second, while Khalil Ahmad is correct in asserting in (3) above that analogy (qiyas) cannot establish a tenet of faith, his saying that all tenets of faith must be established by “decisive scriptural texts”—meaning those unequivocally evidentiary (qat‘i al-dalala) and incontrovertibly authentic (qat‘i al-wurud)—and that “even a single hadith (khabar wahid) is of no use as a proof in this context” is inadmissible and misleading. It is misleading because the hadiths about the Prophet’s vast knowledge (Allah bless him and give him peace) are not one but many, and rigorously authenticated. It is inadmissible because the rule he mentions pertains to fundamentals of faith (usul al-‘aqa’id), not its details (furu‘ al-‘aqa’id) such as issues of prophetology like this one, which are established by single hadiths, as Imam Ghazali notes:

Everything [of the religion] heard [from an authoritative prophetic text] is examined, and if rationally possible, is obligatory to believe: [being either] undeniably obligatory, if the evidence for it is incontestable in its text and transmission, and it can bear no other interpretation; or provisionally obligatory if its evidence is merely probabilistic.[30] For the obligation to espouse belief in something with tongue and heart is a spiritual work like other works, and so too is established by evidence that is probabilistic (al-Iqtisad (c00), 132–33).

Thus the difference between a tenet of faith established by a single hadith and a tenet of faith established by a “decisive scriptural text” (an unequivocal Qur’anic verse or mutawatir hadith) is not that the former is not a tenet of faith—but merely that someone who denies it is a fasiq or “sinful Muslim” for not fulfilling the obligation of believing in it, while someone who denies a tenet of faith established by an undeniably decisive scriptural text that is impossible to misunderstand or be ignorant of is a kafir, for rejecting something necessarily known to be of the religion (Reliance of the Traveller (c00), 626–27).

Third, Khalil Ahmad’s claim that belief in the vastness of the Prophet’s knowledge (Allah bless him and give him peace) is baseless because “the Qur’an and hadith establish the contrary” is also incorrect. All of the texts Khalil Ahmad has cited about the limitariness of the Prophet’s knowledge (Allah bless him and give him peace) can be interpreted, as Ahmad Reza did, to refer to before Allah disclosed to him the vast knowledge that he affirmed of himself and patently demonstrated (blessings and peace be upon him) in the above sahih hadiths. Khalil Ahmad’s evidentiary texts are thus subject to the rule from the science of Islamic legal proof (‘ilm al-dalala) that “when a received evidence may bear two or more different interpretations, it cannot be used to prove just one of them,” since, in Imam Shafi‘i's words,

When the circumstances governing an evidence cannot be made certain of, they reduce it to a generalization requiring other details to be properly understood, rendering it unfit [alone by itself] to prove something in particular[31] (al-Qawa‘id (c00), 193).

The texts from the Qur’an and hadith about the Prophet’s not knowing things (Allah bless him and give him peace) do indeed bear the possible interpretation that they refer to an earlier part of his life before Allah revealed to him the vast knowledge attested to by other rigorously authenticated texts, so they are invalid as evidence for the limitariness of the prophetic knowledge that Khalil Ahmad is trying to prove.

Finally, Khalil Ahmad’s conclusion that

if, after seeing the state of Satan and the Angel of Death, we affirm that the Pride of the World (upon whom be blessings and peace) has all-encompassing vast knowledge of the earthly sphere, contravening without proof decisive scriptural texts and proceeding solely from false analogy, then if this is not outright shirk, how should it be a part of faith? Such vastness [of knowledge] is established for Satan and the Angel of Death through scriptural texts. Through what decisive scriptural text has the Pride of the World’s vastness of knowledge been established, that one should affirm an act of shirk by rejecting all scriptural texts?” (al-Barahin (c00), 55).

As we have seen, Ahmad Reza’s position is neither “against decisive scriptural texts,” for such texts are not “decisive” but rather interpretable as being prior in time to others that abrogate them; nor “without proof,” since his position is borne out by numerous intersubstantiative rigorously authenticated (sahih) hadiths; nor “proceeding solely from false analogy,” for it rather proceeds from the Prophet’s very words (Allah bless him and give him peace) in these hadiths. Moreover, it is difficult to see how the attribute of knowledge that Khalil Ahmad ascribes to Satan and the Angel of Death should become “shirk” when affirmed of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace): either it is a divine attribute that is shirk to ascribe to any creature, or it is not.

But even if we overlook these mistaken innuendos, Khalil Ahmad’s point as a whole, denying that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) had vast knowledge, after affirming it of the Devil and the Angel of Death, is erroneous, for at least three reasons.

First, the Qur’an in its entirety is “vast knowledge” which Allah taught the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), containing everything important for mankind to know in this life and the next, as well as things about the unseen world, past nations, and their prophets that no one but a prophet could possibly know. This is explicit in the Qur’an.

Second, many unequivocal verses command us to follow the sunna of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), which is equally vast, answering all questions about the ethical implications of every possible human action until the end of time.

Third, it is disingenuous for an Islamic scholar to mention the lack of explicit textual evidence in the Qur’an without mentioning that there is such evidence in hadith. The above-mentioned rigorously authenticated hadiths of Tirmidhi, Bukhari, and Muslim about the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) knowing everything from the beginning of creation to the end of time, to even the debates within the Supreme Assembly of the archangels, conclusively decide the question.

In sum, Khalil Ahmad Saharanpuri’s disadvantageously comparing the Prophet’s knowledge (Allah bless him and give him peace) to Satan’s, the vilest creature in existence—regardless of the point he was making—is something few Muslims can accept. Whether Khalil Ahmad regarded it as a feat of ingenuity to show that because the Prophet’s knowledge was less than the Devil’s, it was a fortiori less than Allah’s, or whatever his impulse may have been, he badly stumbled in this passage. In any previous Islamic community, whether in Hyderabad, Kabul, Baghdad, Cairo, Fez, or Damascus—in short, practically anywhere besides the British India of his day—Muslims would have found his words repugnant and unacceptable.

The Words of Ashraf Ali Thanwi

The same is true of the Deobandi teacher Ashraf Ali Thanwi, who in a written objection to Ahmad Reza Khan’s calling the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) “Knower of the Unseen” (‘Alim al-Ghayb), asked whether this “unseen” refers to merely some of the unseen or part of it:

If it refers to but some of the unseen, then how is the Revered One [the Prophet] (Allah bless him and give him peace) uniquely special, when such unseen knowledge is possessed by Zayd and ‘Amr [i.e. just anyone], indeed, by every child and madman, and even by all animals and beasts? For every individual knows something that is hidden from another individual, so everyone should be called “knower of the unseen.” . . . [And] if it refers to all of the unseen, such that not one instance of it remains unknown, then this is incorrect because of scriptural and rational proofs (Hifdh al-iman (c00), 15).

Thanwi apparently meant that the Prophet’s (Allah bless him and give him peace) knowledge of the unseen was the same in kind as that any of the others mentioned, that is, the knowledge of the relative unseen, which, as explained above, merely means that each of Allah’s creatures knows something that is “unseen” to others, while Allah alone has absolute knowledge of all of the unseen.

Aside from Thanwi’s artless comparison of the highest of creation with the lowest, the very point of saying it in refutation of Reza is not plain, in view of the latter’s explicit acknowledgement that no one can equal Allah’s knowledge or possess it independently or be given anything but a part of it, even if, as Reza says, “what a patent and tremendous difference between one part [the Prophet’s] and another [anyone else’s]: like the difference between the sky and the earth, or rather even greater and more immense” (al-Dawla al-Makkiyya (c00), 291).

This “patent and tremendous difference” is clear, as we have seen, from the great knowledge of the unseen given to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) in the hadiths of Bukhari, Muslim, and Tirmidhi, which, taken with the vastness of the revelation of the Qur’an and sunna as a whole, make it easy to see why Reza and others called him “Knower of the Unseen”—meaning in comparison to the rest of mankind, not to Allah—and that by any measure, he possessed knowledge plainly not of the same order as that possessed “by every child and madman, and even by all animals and beasts,” to use Thanwi’s phrase.

At the latter words, the fiery pen of Ahmad Reza Khan wrote his Husam al-Haramayn [Sword of the Meccan and Medinan Sanctuaries], in which he condemned Thanwi, Saharanpuri, and other Deobandis—without referring to the context of their remarks, or what they had been written in reply to—and said: “All these groups [i.e. they and their followers] are kafirs, apostates, and renegades from Islam, by unanimous consensus of all Muslims” (Husam al-Haramayn (c00), 31), and that “whoever has doubts about [such a person’s] unbelief, or his being [eternally] punished, has himself committed kufr” (ibid.). Now, the temperament of Ahmad Reza Khan, with his acknowledged brilliance, doubtless played a role in this judgement, as did his love of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), which entailed withering scorn of those who did not share his somewhat exotic prophetology, and finally outright anathema (takfir) of those who had emphasized the Prophet’s humanity (Allah bless him and give him peace) with what appeared to be at the expense of his dignity.

His fatwa of kufr against the Deobandis, however, was a mistake. It was not legally valid in the Hanafi school for the two reasons named by Imam Haskafi at the beginning of this essay, namely,

A fatwa may not be given of the unbelief of a Muslim whose words are interpretable as having a valid meaning, or about the unbelief of which there is a difference of scholarly opinion, even if weak (Radd al-muhtar, 3.289).

First, the Deobandis’ words are interpretable as “having a valid meaning,” for they can be construed as making a distinction, however crudely, between Allah’s knowledge of the “absolute unseen” and man’s knowledge of the “relative unseen.” Saharanpuri and Thanwi both later explicitly mentioned this in their defense of themselves and other Deobandi figures.

Secondly, there is a valid “difference of scholarly opinion” about the unbelief of such words, for “even if weak” in the above Hanafi text means, according to commentator Ibn ‘Abidin, “even if the difference of opinion is found only in another school (madhhab) of jurisprudence” (Radd al-muhtar, 3.289). As we have seen, a difference of opinion does exist in another school, namely the position of the Shafi‘i Imam Subki that one must give “due consideration to the intention behind that which gives offense” (al-Sayf al-maslul (c00), 135)—that is, even when offense has been given. In this instance, “due consideration” means that if it is possible that Deobandi scholars intended something besides insult to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace)—for example, a heated rebuttal of supposed innovation (bid‘a)—this legally prevents the judgement of kufr against them.

The sahih hadiths we have cited above show how strong this position of Subki’s is, for the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) was in one instance reproved by an upset wife with the words “I don’t see but that your Lord rushes to fulfill your own whims” (Bukhari, 6:147: 4788); in another, accused of favoritism by those who said, “May Allah forgive the Messenger of Allah: he gives to Quraysh and neglects us” (Bukhari, 4.114: 3147); and in another, actually seized and choked by a bedouin demanding charity (Bukhari, 4.115: 3149)—none of which did he consider a deliberate offense or kufr, because each was interpretable as an unintentional insult.

It is also noteworthy that in each of these instances, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) with instinctive compassion and wisdom gave due consideration to the emotional states that pushed people beyond the ordinary bounds of adab or manners with him. The vehemence of Deobandi writers “defending Islam against shirk,” however misplaced, plainly affected the way they spoke about the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace). The above hadiths suggest that due consideration should be given to the emotions aroused by the “fatwa wars” of their times, just as the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) gave consideration to people’s emotions.

This does not mean that the words chosen by these writers were acceptable, even if “retorting against bid‘a,” or “fighting shirk.” As we have seen, there was no shirk in the position of Ahmad Reza Khan, who held that the Prophet’s knowledge (Allah bless him and give him peace) differed from Allah’s divine knowledge not only in its extent, as quoted above, but in its very nature, for he was careful to emphasize that, “Allah’s knowledge is intrinsic, creatures’ knowledge is given to them; Allah’s knowledge is a necessary attribute of His being, creatures’ knowledge is merely possible; Allah’s knowledge is beginningless, endless, eternal, and true, creature’s knowledge originates in time; . . . Allah’s knowledge is uncreate, creatures’ knowledge is created” (al-Dawla al-Makkiyya (c00), 277).

Looking back, one cannot help wondering why Khalil Ahmad’s and Ashraf ‘Ali Thanwi’s own students and teachers and friends did not ask them, before their opponents asked them: When did any Islamic scholar ever compare the knowledge of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) to the depraved, to the mad, or to animals—even to make a point? Few Muslims would suffer such a comparison to be made with their own father, let alone the Emissary of God (Allah bless him and give him peace). But while such words were indefensible breaches of proper respect, they were not kufr, because the intention behind them was not to insult the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), but to defend Islam from what the writers viewed as a serious threat.

Conclusions

Imputed intentionality is a fallacy because the rigorously authenticated proofs we have seen are too clear to misunderstand that sometimes offense may be given to Allah or His messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace) that was not originally intended as an offense—and is therefore without the legal consequences it would have had if it had been intentional. The fatwas of Ahmad Reza Barelwi about the Deobandis are mistaken because they ignore this crucial legal distinction. Khalil Ahmad’s and Ashraf ‘Ali Thanwi’s comparisons of the Prophet’s knowledge (Allah bless him and give him peace) were offensive in their wording, and certainly not of the “ordinary scholarly discourse” acceptable among Muslims. But because they were intended as scholarly discourse, to emphasize the human limitations of the Prophet’s knowledge (Allah bless him and give him peace) which these men regarded as an important and insufficiently understood religious truth—not as an insult against the Prophet—their words did not entail the judgement of kufr that Ahmad Reza Khan issued against them.

The other ‘aqida-related issues outlined above upon which Qasim Nanotwi and Rashid Ahmad Gangohi differed with Ahmad Reza are things that Muslim theologians can disagree about and still remain Muslim. They are not fundamentals of Islam, but rather inferences drawn through ijtihad from Qur’anic verses and hadiths about issues that have been historically disagreed upon by scholars greater than these. To consider such details a basic criterion of kufr and iman is to commit “the fallacy of ijtihad as ‘aqida,” which we hope to discuss in a forthcoming treatment of the Wahhabi sect.

As for Ahmad Reza’s contention on the last page of Husam al-Haramayn that whoever does not declare the kufr of an unbeliever—here meaning the Deobandis—himself becomes an unbeliever, this is the Islamic legal ruling only in certain cases of uncontestably certain kufr, such as followers of other faiths, who explicitly deny the messengerhood of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), not in all cases. Imam Ghazali gives the details in his al-Iqtisad fi al-i‘tiqad, in a passage we shall translate in the future in an essay on “the fallacy that not declaring another’s unbelief is unbelief.”

To conclude, the Barelwi response to the Deobandis was probably far worse than the initial provocation, raising for the first time in Indian history the banner of takfir of one major group of Hanafi Muslims by another. The sad irony in this was that the greatest Wahhabi bid‘a of all, takfir of fellow Muslims, was unleashed in India by denunciations of “Wahhabism.” Ahmad Reza’s fatwas depicted his opponents as “Wahhabi sects,” which his latter-day followers came to declare all Deobandis to belong to through a sort of “guilt by association.” This is a separate fallacy, which we shall examine next.

The Fallacy of Takfir by Association

Unlike Christianity, in Islam no one else can atone for one, for the same reason that no one can sin for one; namely the divine decree

“No bearer of burdens shall bear the burden of another” (Qur’an 6:164),

which is also why a Muslim’s membership in a particular group or sect is not legal evidence that he is a kafir even when the tenets of the group include ideas that are kufr. One enters one’s grave alone, and is only responsible for one’s own beliefs, not those of others, although one is obliged to inform them of the truth when they are wrong on a religious matter. Subki, the mujtahid Imam we have cited in the previous section, whose duties as the head of the Islamic judiciary (qadi al-qudah) in Damascus in his time included deciding cases of kufr, was asked about judging members of certain Islamic sects as unbelievers and he answered:

We consider it a very serious matter to declare someone [outwardly a Muslim] to be a kafir, because it requires two things seldom found:

[a] The first is determining exactly what he believes. This is difficult in respect to seeing what is in the heart, distinguishing it from what merely resembles it, and accurately reporting it. Indeed, it is almost difficult to assess one’s own convictions, let alone someone else’s.

[b] The second is judging that it is actually kufr, which is very difficult because of the difficulty of scholastic theology (‘ilm al-kalam) and the evidence it derives from, and discerning the correct in it from what is otherwise. This is only attainable by a man who combines in himself sound intellect, rigorous self-discipline, a balanced temperament, training in logical analysis, mastery of the religious sciences, and lack of prejudice or personal interest.

Only when both of these exist is it possible to decide whether kufr has been committed or not.

Moreover, such a judgement may either apply to a particular person—which requires further that he confess it (and how unlikely that is); for any other proof of it would be difficult to accept, since evaluating it would require the above-mentioned conditions, though if proof were given or a confession made, its legal consequences would be entailed—or such a judgement may apply to a sect. In the latter case, the judgement may only be given as a general statement [that the tenets of the sect constitute kufr]. As for giving such a judgement against particular individuals, this is not legally possible unless there is a confession or evidence [about the specific person].

It is insufficient to say, “This person belongs to that sect,” because in addition to the difficulty of the above, there is another consideration; namely, that most sects are composed of common people who know little about tenets of faith. They but love a particular group and consider themselves to belong to it, without comprehending what it really is. Were we to declare them unbelievers, it would cause tremendous and unjustifiable harm.

This is the proper response to Nawawi’s saying, “If the kind of kufr that takes one out of Islam were meant, such people [members of deviant sects] would be fought and killed,” the answer to which is that the latter has never been done because it was not obligatory [as it would have been if the kufr of a sect’s beliefs were legally sufficient to establish that all its individual members were kafirs], even though we do make the generalization that “whoever holds that belief is a kafir.”[32] The point is to identify it—while declaring a particular individual a kafir is exceedingly difficult, even if undeniable when its [above-mentioned] conditions exist (al-Fatawa al-Halabiyya (c00), 524–25).[33]

“Guilt by association” is a fallacy because, in Subki’s words, “it is insufficient to say, ‘This person belongs to that sect.’” While the fallacy of guilt by association is by no means rare in our times, one the most extreme examples is provided by the following fatwa, published in the contemporary monthly magazine Kanz al-Iman in Delhi, India,[34] from a work by the Barelvi mufti Jalal al-Din Ahmad Amjadi:

(Question:) Zaid is a Sunni [Barelvi] of sound beliefs. He wants to marry the daughter of a Deobandi. The woman is willing to become a Sunni. Would such a marriage be allowed?

(Answer:) Mawlawis [Religious scholars] Ashraf Thanvi, Qasim Nanotvi, Rasheed Ahmad Gangohi, and Khalil Ahmad Saharanpuri were declared to be apostate unbelievers (kafir murtadd), by numerous noble scholars and venerable muftis of venerable Mecca, Medina Munawwara, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Burma,[35] because of their decisive statements of disbelief (kufriyyat qat‘iyya), as in Hifz al-Iman (p. 8), Tahzir al-Nas (p. 2, 14, 28), and Barahin Qat‘iyya (p. 15). The details regarding this may be found in [Ahmad Reza Khan Barelvi’s] Fatawa: Husam al-Haramayn and al-Sawarim al-Hindiyya.

All the Deobandis consider them their exemplars and [to be] Muslims, and defend them. As a result, they too take the ruling of being apostates. It is not valid for anyone to marry an apostate, as mentioned in Fatawa Alamgiriyya [al-Fatawa al-Hindiyya] from al-Khaniyya (1.282). It says:

“It is not permitted for apostates to marry other apostates, nor [to marry] a Muslim or originally believing woman. Likewise, it is not permitted for a female apostate to marry anyone, as mentioned in al-Mabsut.

In the case being asked about, the marriage of Zaid, a man of sound Sunni beliefs, to the daughter of a Deobandi is absolutely impermissible (hargiz nahin ho sakta). If she wants to become a Sunni, then if she and her entire household do so and it is then seen in two or three years that they are firm on the way of Ahl al-Sunna, then it would be permitted for Zaid to marry her. Otherwise, it would not be permitted.

It is absolutely not possible to permit marriage based on the deceptive words of someone who is legally an apostate. Otherwise, their very faith may be lifted [taken away from them]. If they go ahead, this would not affect Islam and the Sunna in any way. Rather, the person would be ruining his own life, and becoming of the people of hell (jahannami ho jayen ge).

If in the above-mentioned case the marriage is going to take place, then no qadi can perform their marriage. After this, all Muslims would be obliged to sternly boycott them, for Allah Most High says,

“And if the Devil makes you forget, then do not sit after the remembrance with wrongdoing people” (Qur’an 6:68).

(Kanz al-Iman (c00), 00).

It suffices as to its worth to reflect that according to this, a Hanafi Muslim man may marry a Jewish or Christian woman, but not a Hanafi Muslim woman from a Deobandi family, even if she rejects the Deobandi positions upon which the Barelvi’s mistaken takfir of them is based. The woman is supposed to be ineligible for marriage because of her mere association with Deobandis, and moreover remains guilty until proven innocent. This is not a fatwa, but a social problem. Such sentiments should be politely but firmly rejected by anyone who believes in Islam and the Prophet of Islam (Allah bless him and give him peace), who said,

The disease of [previous] nations has crept up upon you: envy and hatred. Truly, hatred is a shaver: it shaves away not hair, but religion. By Him in whose hand is my soul, you shall not enter paradise until you believe. And you shall not believe until you love one another (Musnad al-Bazzar (c00), 6.192: 2232).[36]

The above fatwa is but an example. Otherwise, it is all too common to hear, for instance, that “So-and-so is a kafir because he is a Wahhabi,” or “a Shiite,” or “a Deobandi, or “a Salafi,” or “a Sufi,” or something else. In all such cases, even when the speaker’s impression of a group is not mere prejudice or hearsay, it is legally invalid to judge particular individuals according to the tenets of the group or to the words or deeds of other members.

Because Allah has decreed that “no bearer of burdens shall bear the burden of another” (Qur’an 6:164), no Salafi, for example, has to acquit himself of the massacres of Muslims historically committed by Wahhabis in the past; or any Shiite for the practices of other Shiites; or any Sufi for utterances of other Sufis; and so on. The individual Muslim is only answerable for what he personally believes and does.

Members of other faiths, it should be noted, do not come under this rule because their very religions deny the veracity of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), which, as we shall see from Imam Ghazali below, is the very essence of kufr, and so they are obligatory to consider unbelievers. Subki notes:

The criterion is that as long as someone acknowledges the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and inwardly submits to following him (ittiba‘), then that person’s doing otherwise (ibtida‘) is because of something he mistakenly considers as evidence. As for someone who wholly dismisses this noble Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), his kufr is an absolute certainty, and he faces the sword unless he pays the non-Muslim poll tax (jizya) under its conditions (al-Fatawa al-Halabiyya (c00), 525–26).

To summarize, various classes of geometrical figures such as circles, squares, or triangles each have definitions that precisely entail the properties of every possible member, such as a circle, for instance, which is always and everywhere “a figure on a plane whose circumference is equidistant to its center.” The ‘aqida of a particular Muslim, however, is not a precisely defined by his membership in a group, but rather comes about through his own personal initiative and choice. To presume otherwise is to commit the fallacy of guilt by association.


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MMVII © N. Keller

[1] Though the great danger of declaring a Muslim an unbeliever is plain from the hadiths, the ostensive sense the latter hadith, according to Imam Nawawi, is not intended, for the position of Muslim orthodoxy is that no Muslim becomes a non-Muslim through sin, even that of calling a Muslim a kafir. Rather, of the probable meanings of the hadith is that “his demeaning his brother, and the sin of declaring him an unbeliever return against himself” (Sharh Sahih Muslim, 1.49–50)

[2] In the Shafi‘i school, when a husband or wife leaves Islam, a waiting period (normally after three intervals between the wife’s menstruations have occurred, or when a pregnant woman has given birth) must intervene before the marriage is annulled. If both husband and wife are or become Muslim again before the waiting period finishes, their marriage simply continues as before. If not, the marriage is considered to have been over since the time when either or both left the religion (Reliance of the Traveller, 532).

[3] Islamic jurists have received this hadith with acceptance and concurred upon applying it, and although its chain of transmission as a prophetic hadith is weak (da‘if), Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani notes that it has been conveyed from more than one of the Sahaba, and that Ibn Hazm has reported it in his Kitab al-Isal with a rigorously authenticated (sahih) chain of transmission from ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (Talkhis al-habir, 4.63), the most central figure in Islamic jurisprudence after the Prophet himself (Allah bless him and give him peace), and personally taught by his precept and example.

[4] As mentioned above, a mutawatir hadith is that which is “established by so many channels of transmission, generally held to be at least four, that it is impossible that all could have conspired to fabricate it.”

[5] Ar. qat‘i al-dalala, meaning, as also above, “a plain text which does not admit of more than one meaning, and which no mujtahid can interpret in other than its one meaning or construe in other than its apparent sense.”

[6] “Pretext” meaning such as the existence of an apparently contradictory scriptural evidence that to the person disagreeing seems to give grounds to do so.

[7] When one knows it to be the ruling of Allah, as opposed to when one believes it the mistaken judgement (ijtihad) of a jurist, which, though bad manners (adab), does not reach outright unbelief; and “sarcasm” (istikhfaf) meaning that scorn and derision enter into one’s motive.

[8] From Sha‘rani’s own account, it appears that the production of two copies, each signed by ulema who had inspected them, one to be retained by the author and the other by al-Azhar, was a means of documentation in his day (al-Yawaqit wa al-jawahir, 1.4).

[9] The Shafi‘i Mufti of Mecca of his day Ibn ‘Allan al-Bakri (d. 1057/1647), defines a “hadith master” (hafidh) as “someone whose knowledge encompasses [at least] 100,000 hadiths in both their texts and chains of transmission” (al-Futuhat al-rabbaniyya (c00), 1.25).

[10] Examples may be found in Ibn Taymiya’s Radd Asas al-taqdis [Rebuttal of “The basis of exalting Allah above the traits of created things”], his Minhaj al-sunna [Methodology of the sunna], and other works, which furnish some of the points covered in a fatwa about Ibn Taymiya by Shafi‘i Imam Ibn Hajar al-Haytami in his al-Fatawa al-hadithiyya (116–17).

[11] For the meaning of “hadith master,” see note 0 on page 00 above.

[12] Jalal al-Din al-Mahalli notes, “He [alone among all believers] was given free choice, after it had previously been obligatory to allot to each wife a day in turn [as other men must do]” (Tafsir al-Jalalayn, 558).

[13] Nanotwi and Gangohi were the founders of the Deoband School.

[14] Saharanpuri was also widely known as Khalil Ahmad Ambhetwi.

[15] ‘Amr ibn al-Akhtab (Allah be well pleased with him), who was also present, described it as lasting from the dawn prayer (subh) until noon (dhuhr), when the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) came down from the pulpit (minbar) and prayed, after which he continued until midafternoon, then came down and prayed, then continued until sunset (Muslim, 4.2217: 2892).

[16] The hadith master (hafidh) Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti judged this hadith to be rigorously authenticated (sahih) in his al-Khasa’is al-kubra (2.281), and hadith master Zayn al-Din al-‘Iraqi said, “Bazzar related this hadith in his Musnad with a well authenticated (jayyid) chain of transmission” (Tarh al-tathrib, 3.297).

[17] The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) for example said: “When you hear the muezzin, repeat after him, then say the Blessings upon me, for whoever blesses me once, Allah blesses ten times. Then ask Allah to grant me Nearness (al-Wasila) to Him, for it is a rank in paradise that befits none but one of Allah’s slaves, and I hope to be him. Whoever asks Nearness for me shall deserve my intercession” (Muslim, 1.288–89: 384).

[18] We shall examine in detail the question of seeking his intercession in this life (Allah bless him and give him peace) in “Wahhabism and Tawassul,” in chapter 00 below.

[19] See page 00 above.

[20] “In which he followed,” according to Ahmad Reza, “the sheikh of his sect, Isma‘il al-Dahlawi [d. 1246/1830]” (Husam al-Haramayn (c00), 19), but which in reality other major Muslim scholastic theologians (mutakallimun) had espoused before them, such as Imam Muhammad ibn Yusuf al-Sanusi (d. 895/1490) of the Ash‘ari school of ‘aqida on pages 455, 456, and 465 of his ‘Umda ahl al-tawfiq wa al-tasdid (c00), one of the most important reference works of the school.

[21] Gangohi explicitly states in a fatwa that “whoever believes or states that Allah Most High lies is without a doubt an accursed unbeliever who contradicts the Qur’an, the sunna, and the consensus of the Umma” (al-Muhannad ‘ala al-mufannad (c00) 72).

[22] Ismail al-Dahlawi, for example, said of Allah, “His greatness is [such] that He can bring into being crores [tens of millions] of prophets, friends [awliya’], jinn, and angels equal to Jibril and Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), and to disorder the entire world from earth to sky and create a new world in its place just by saying, Kun [‘Be’]” (Taqwiat-ul-Iman (c00), 37–38).

[23] The substance of human dream-visions is khayyal or “imagination,” so that things often appear in them in an “imaginal” mode of their own reality, such as one’s religion being shown to one as a garment (Bukhari (c00), 9.45: 7006), or religious knowledge as milk (Bukhari (c00), 9.45: 7008), to give two examples from hadith. So while Allah in reality has no “form”—which would negate His having said, “There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him” (Qur’an 42:11), since to be otherwise would make inumerable things like Him in the point of having forms—in a dream-vision it is quite possible for Allah to appear in an imaginal “form,” even, as here, one with a “hand” and “fingertips”; not because that is the nature of God, but because that is the nature of dreams.

[24] Tirmidhi said, “I asked Muhammad ibn Isma‘il [al-Bukhari, his sheikh in hadith] about this hadith, and he said, “This is a well and rigorously authenticated (hasan-sahih) hadith” (Tirmidhi (c00), 5.369), a designation is used by many hadith Imams to indicated a hadith that is between well authenticated and rigorously authenticated, though Nawawi says that for Tirmidhi it means a hadith related through both a well and a rigorously authenticated channel of transmission (Tadrib al-rawi (c00), 1.161).

[25] Rashid Ahmad Gangohi, for example, prohibited his followers from accepting as an imam anyone who denied that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) did not share the knowledge of the unseen that rightfully belonged to Allah Most High alone (Fatawa Rashidiyyah (c00), 62).

[26] Indeed, for Allah to give more than a part of His knowledge to anyone would be pointless, for although knowledge in general ennobles its possessor, knowing many things confers little distinction upon anyone besides their Maker. Whether a rock has fallen down on the other side of the moon, for example, concerns no one except Allah, and it is well authenticated that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “The excellence of a man’s Islam includes leaving what does not concern him” (Tirmidhi, 4.558: 2317). It is a religious shortcoming for a Muslim to even care about such things—which upon reflection, include most particulars of created being, as opposed to knowing its universal laws and principles, which does confer some distinction—and there would be no point or honor in Allah’s bestowing more than a part of His absolute knowledge of particulars upon another.

[27] The author would like to thank Hamza Karamali for his English translation of the pages quoted in this section from the Urdu of Khalil Ahmad Saharanpuri’s al-Barahin al-qati‘a and Ashraf ‘Ali Thanwi’s Hifz al-iman.

[28] There is no explicit Qur’anic text about the vastness of their knowlege, though verses such as “Truly, he [Satan] and his minions see you from whence you see them not” (Qur’an 7:27), and “Say: the Angel of Death who has been assigned to you shall take your lives” (Qur’an 32:11), show that both Satan and the Angel of Death must be aware of every human being at some time or another, which is “vast knowledge” of a sort, even if only of particulars, that is unknown to others.

[29] The first hadith is found in Bukhari with the wording “By Allah, I do not know, and I am the Messenger of Allah, what shall be done with me” (Bukhari (c00), 9.33: 7003). The author was unable to identify the other two references cited here, though similar examples abound in the Qur’an and sunna.

[30] “Merely probabilistic” including single hadiths that are well (hasan) or rigorously authenticated (sahih) and do not conflict with other incontrovertible primary texts.

[31] In Arabic, “Hikaya al-hal, idha tatarraqa ilayha al-ihtimal, kasaha thawb al-ijmal, wa saqata minha al-istidlal.”

[32] Nawawi seems to have thought that the caliphs’ not fighting and killing deviant sects of their times such as the anthropomorphists, Mu‘tazilites, extreme Shiites, and others shows that the Islamic state and its ulema did not consider them outright unbelievers. That is, even though the ulema called such sects “kafir,” they did not mean thereby the “real kufr” which takes one out of Islam, but rather the “lesser kufr” (kufr duna kufr) of doing something as despicable as unbelievers do—a figurative usage of the word kufr that appears in such hadiths as “Reviling a Muslim is corruption, and fighting him is kufr” (Bukhari (c00), 9.63: 7076), in which the word kufr does not mean leaving Islam, but committing the wickedness of kafirs, who also fight against Muslims. Subki’s answer is that Nawawi was mistaken about this. The real reason the caliphs did not war against sects was not because some of their beliefs were not kufr, for some undoubtedly were, but rather that the “takfir” of such a sect cannot exceed a general statement that “whoever holds such and such a belief is a kafir.” The caliphs’ not following up such pronouncements by fighting and killing sectarians for apostasy shows that the ulema of their times agreed with Subki’s position that takfir of a group is legally insufficient to establish the kufr of its individual members, for otherwise, killing them would have been obligatory.

[33] The author has corrected a number of mistakes in the Arabic text of the work cited by comparing it to an excellent manuscript of the work ((c00), fols. 101–102) from the library of al-Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem. One of the most accurate extant, it was collated with Subki’s own copy during his lifetime.

[34] The author’s thanks to Faraz Rabbani, who translated the fatwa’s text from Urdu to English.

[35] That is, scholars and muftis whose understanding of the matter derived from Ahmad Reza Khan’s sending them his own Husam al-Haramayn to ask for endorsements, which a number of them gave, then subsequently withdrew when Deobandis presented their side, some of the most salient points of which have been coveyed in the previous section.

[36] The hadith’s chain of transmission is well authenticated (jayyid) according to hadith master (hafidh) Mundhiri (al-Targhib wa al-tarhib (c00), 3.425) and hadith master Nur al-Din al-Haythami (Majma‘ al-zawa’id (c00), 8.30).

 
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