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Takfeer (تكفير) is an Islamic term for excommunication. Even if a Muslim insists that he or she believes in Islam, he can be declared a non-Muslim by other Muslims according to the doctrine of takfeer. When he is declared a non-Muslim, he is considered an apostate. The punishment for apostasy according to traditional Islamic jurisprudence is the death penalty. Theoretically good Muslims shouldn't kill one another, however with takfeer, it's practically possible (although in the view of the killer they're killing non-Muslim apostates).

The word

The word is from the root كفر (k-f-r), just like the word kaafir (كافر). Arabic has 10 basic verb forms. The word kaafir is from the form I (known in Arab grammar as wazn fa'ala وزن فعل) and the word takfeer is from the form II (called wazn fa'ala in Arabic وزن فعّل). The form II is usually causative of form I. So takfeer means "cause to be a kafir" or "make him a kafir" id est "to declare someone a kafir."

In the Quran

The word takfeer itself doesn't appear in the Quran [1], but there are many verses which declare others to be kafirs that is to say infidels.

For example Christians are declared kafirs:

They have certainly disbelieved (كفر) who say that Allah is Christ, the son of Mary

Christians consider themselves believers, but the Quran declares them as kafirs.

A more general takfeer can be found at the end of this verse:

Indeed, We sent down the Torah, in which was guidance and light. The prophets who submitted [to Allah ] judged by it for the Jews, as did the rabbis and scholars by that with which they were entrusted of the Scripture of Allah, and they were witnesses thereto. So do not fear the people but fear Me, and do not exchange My verses for a small price. And whoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed - then it is those who are the disbelievers (الكافرون).

This seems to indicate that those who do not hew to the Qur'an, or whatever tradition the writer of this verse obeyed, is a disbeliever. Once again Allah declares some people to be unbelievers.

The death penalty

If someone goes from being a Muslim to a kafir by means of takfeer, this would mean that they have left the Islamic religion, and the prescribed penalty for this is death:

Narrated 'Ikrimah: That 'Ali burnt some people who apostasized from Islam. This news reached Ibn 'Abbas, so he said: "If it were me I would have killed them according to the statement of Messenger of Allah (ﷺ). The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: 'Whoever changes his religion then kill him.' And I would not have burned them because the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: 'Do not punish with the punishment of Allah.' So this reached 'Ali, and he said: "Ibn 'Abbas has told the truth."

  • Due to this hadith burning people alive, not killing them but just this specific method of execution, is usually regarded as wrong in both the Sunni and Shi'ite traditions since this is the punishment Allah reserves for the disbelievers in hell, however here it is the caliph Ali who burned them alive. This is interesting since he is considered one of the "rightly guided caliphs" by Sunni Muslims and the one true successor to Muhammad by Shi'ites.

Takfeer without reason

It's forbidden to declare someone a Kafir without a reason according to this hadith. If a Muslim does takfeer without a reason, then he himself becomes a kafir:

Narrated Abu Huraira:

Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) said, "If a man says to his brother, O Kafir (disbeliever)!' Then surely one of them is such (i.e., a Kafir). "

It's from the chapter "Whoever calls his brother a Kafir without any grounds". It is thus not a blanket condemnation of the very idea of takfeer.

Ten nullifiers of Islam

The concept of ten nullifiers of Islam was declared by Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhaab. The list is based on primary Islamic sources and is referred to by salafis and Wahabis, the most enthusiastic practitioners of takfeer:

The things that nullify Islam are ten; they were mentioned by Imam Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhaab, and there is scholarly consensus on all of them except one, namely sihr (magic, witchcraft), which is subject to further discussion, but with regard to some forms of it, the scholars are unanimously agreed that it nullifies Islam, as we shall see below.

The ten nullifiers are:

  • Shirk or associating others in worship with Allah
  • Ascribing intermediaries to Allah
  • Not regarding the mushrikeen as kufaar (disbelievers or infidels)
  • Believing that the guidance of someone other than the Prophet is more perfect than his guidance
  • Hating something that was brought by the Messenger
  • Ridiculing any aspect of the religion of the Messenger
  • Sihr (magic or witchcraft)
  • Supporting the mushrikeen and helping them against the Muslims
  • Believing that it is permissible for some people to go beyond the bounds of sharee‘ah
  • Turning away from the religion of Allah, and not learning it or acting in accordance with it