Baroness Warsi and Anjem Choudhary: takfir on demand
Baroness (Syeeda) Warsi recently said in an interview with the Guardian that Muslim extremists such as Anjem Choudhary, who led the group which was threatening to outrage the public with a counter-demonstration on Remembrance Sunday until it was banned late last week, forfeited the right to call themselves Muslims. Her reasoning is pretty extraordinary: in a video interview with John Harris, she says:
From the Islam that I have been taught, and grown up with … and most people have been bought up with, it has to be rationed, reasoned, contextualised. Now if you detach reason from religion, then you are no longer a follower of that faith. If you are a follower of a religion that is so clear in its support of humanity [and you behave the way they do] then you are no longer part of that faith.
Asked specifically about Choudhary, she alleged that “nothing about the way they conduct themselves is in accordance with the teachings” and that “the minute they detach reason from religion, they’re not part of that faith any more”.
It is actually pretty dangerous for a Muslim to be issuing statements that clearly imply that someone who identifies as a Muslim in fact is not (known as takfir). There are pretty strict criteria for exclusion from Islam, such as expressing a belief which is contrary to what is well-known about Islam (whether in relation to law or doctrine) or showing clear contempt for Islam (such as by defiling a copy of the Qur’an or insulting any Prophet). There are certain sects which are held not to be Muslim despite their identifying as such and having a superficially Islamic culture or using Islamic language, because their beliefs are incompatible. The American-based group which calls itself the Nation of Islam is the best-known of these in the West.
Crucially, sins do not nullify one’s Islam, unless you deny that something well-known to be a sin is a sin. This does not include things on which there is any dispute about them being forbidden, even if only a small minority regards it as permitted. Making unusual or invalid excuses for a sin also does not constitute disbelief: one common example is justifying killing Israeli civilians on the grounds that all Israelis are soldiers, or justifying killing anyone associated with the army of any contemporary Muslim country on the grounds that they support a non-Islamic government. The early Muslims had to deal with a sect called the Kharijites, some of whom proclaimed anyone who disagreed with them on very minute matters to be an unbeliever and slaughtered them in their thousands. Yet, they did not call the Kharijites unbelievers.
When murder does not put someone outside of Islam, one can easily deduce that hurting people’s feelings by making a noise on Remembrance Sunday does not either. It is not even a sin as such, it is simply bad manners and politically naive, assuming that they were not actually intending to attract negative attention to the community as they did with their demonstration against the Royal Anglian regiment parade in Luton in 2009, which did immense damage by prompting the founding of the English Defence League. Some Muslims certainly suspect that they do their publicity stunts for ulterior motives and may in fact intend harm, but it is also possible that they intend to provoke a conflict in which Muslims will be forced to take sides and which they presume will lead to their victory and domination, or that of a group very much like them. A dishonourable intention, as most Muslims do not want to live under their rule, but not something which, on the face of it, stops them being Muslims.
Takfir is something that is by turn condemned and encouraged: a few years ago it was being presented as the root of the entire extremism problem in the Muslim world, and Muslims everywhere were encouraged to sign the “Amman message”, which declared that members of several named sects were, at least, Muslims and could not be called otherwise (some scholars refused to sign it, among them Mufti Taqi Uthmani). However, when the takfir is against the extremists themselves (and against those who cause embarrassment to the Muslim community), some people are only too keen to call them unbelievers. The fact remains that the criteria are extremely strict, and usually it is up to scholars, not ordinary Muslims, however famous or politically influential they are.
Image source: Wikipedia.
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