The Fine Line Between Belief (Emaan) and Disbelief (Kufr) in Islam

Many progressive Muslims argue that there is no such thing as ‘normative Islam’ and that it is all open to re-interpretation according to changing times even when it comes to fundamental issues of creed. In order to defend this position, their line of argument goes something like this:

What exactly is normative Islam? There is no such thing! Just because a few people in the past came to the conclusion due to their contextual circumstances that Islam means ABC, it does not mean we are bound by it! If there is such a thing as normative Islam, then why do we have so many traditional Muslims doing takfeer against each other?! The Wahhabis do takfeer of Braelvis, who do takfeer of Deobandis, and all of them do takfeer of Shias! No one agrees what is or isn’t normative Islam!

As appealing as this may seem, this is not entirely accurate. It is true that many Muslim groups from various factions do takfeer of each other, however, this is mainly done by the ignorant among the fiery preachers and the untrained laymen. The learned scholars from these factions usually sit with each other on Fiqh Councils and Shari’ah Boards and work together even though they may disagree on many issues. If they consider each other as disbelievers, then why are they working together under the umbrella of Islam?! Even Salafi universities in Saudi Arabia hire ‘Ashari teachers to teach fiqh in their Islamic universities.

To be fair, it is true that throughout our history there are some issues that different Muslim scholars saw as fundamental and accused those who opposed such views of kufr while the scholars of the other opinion did not. The aim of both sides was not to oppose or challenge Islamic law, rather, they mainly worked within the accepted paradigm to develop their opinions. This is why they did not always agree whether a particular act constituted actual kufr or not. However, they never disagreed on the prohibition of numerous issues which many progressive Muslims today try to propagate as compatible with Islam. They always maintained those who hold such views to be permissible as outside the fold of Islam. These include things, such as, homosexual relations, alcohol, illicit sexual intercourse, perennialism, etc.  In other words, the type of beliefs that progressive Muslims want mainstream Muslims to accept were never accepted by anyone before since the time of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).

There have been numerous texts written by scholars, past and present, on the types of beliefs that all Sunni Muslims agree on and perhaps the most popular is Imam Tahawi’s Aqeedah al-Tahawiyyah. I am currently reading Qadhi ‘Iyaadh’s (d. 1149 CE) masterpiece al-Shifaa’, which discusses the various types of rights that belong to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) from the believer. His main objective is to emotionally connect the reader to the Prophet (pbuh).  He was a contemporary of Imam al-Ghazali and this book of his has been highly regarded by scholars and laymen throughout history. In one of the sections of the book towards the end, he discusses in detail things on which there is no difference of opinion among any of the scholars and that if someone were to hold such beliefs, it would take him/her out of the fold of Islam. It is discussed under the chapter heading, “Clarification of which statements amount to disbelief, what one hesitates about or is disputed and what does not amount to disbelief”.

I am providing most of that section below so that it can bring benefit to those who wish to know what ‘normative Islam’ is all about. It should be noted that he does not mention everything but it gives you a good idea of what type of things normative Islam has in mind. The translation was done by Aisha Bewley.

Qaadhi ‘Iyaadh says:

Know that substantiation of this section and the removal of doubt must be referred to the Shari‘a. The intellect does not have a free hand in it. The clear judgement regarding this is that disbelief consists of every statement which explicitly denies Allah’s lordship or oneness, or constitutes the worship of other than Allah or associates something else with Allah. Among those who do this are the Dahriyya,1 all factions of the people of dualism, the Daisaniyya,2 the Manichaeans and those like them among the Sabians,3 Christians and Magians,4 and those who associate others with Allah by worshipping idols, angels, devils, the sun, the stars, fire or anything other than Allah among the idol-worshippers of the Arabs and the people of India, China, Sudan and elsewhere who do not consult a divine book.

The judgement of disbelief is the same in respect of the Qarmatians,5 the people who believe in incarnation, those who believe in transmigration of souls among the Batiniyya,6 the Tayyara 7 among the Rafidites, the Bayaniyya,8 and the Ghurbaniyya .9

It is the same with those who admit the divinity of Allah and His oneness, but believe that He is neither Living nor Timeless, but that He is temporal or has a form or claim that He has a son, a consort or a parent or that He was begotten from something or came into existence from it or that eternal things other-than-Him were with Him before time or that there was someone who fashioned the earth other than Him or there is something other-than-Him that manages it. All of these conjectures constitute disbelief according to the consensus of the Muslims. This also applies to the statements of various philosophers, astrologers and naturalists.

It is the same with someone who claims to sit with Allah, ascend to Him and speak directly to Him or that He is incarnate in any individual as is stated by some of the false Sufis, esotericists, Christians, and Qarmatians. Similarly, we are certain of the disbelief of anyone who says that the world is eternal and that it will go on forever, or entertains doubts which are based on the positions of some of the philosophers and Dahriyya, or says that there is transmigration of souls and that they move forever through different individuals and are punished and receive bliss in them according to their purity or their corruption.

It is the same with anyone who admits Allah’s divinity and oneness, but denies prophethood in general or the prophethood of our Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, in particular, or that of any of the Prophets about whom Allah has given information, after that person has knowledge of it – he is an unbeliever without a doubt. This applies to the Hindus, most of the Jews and the Arians among the Christians, the Ghurbaniyya from the Rafidites who claim that Jibril was sent to ‘Ali, the atheists, the Qarmatians, the Isma‘ilis and the ‘Anbariyya among the Rafidites, while some of these groups also have aspects of disbelief in common with the earlier groups.

The same applies to those who believe in Allah’s oneness, the truth of prophethood and the prophethood of our Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, but say that the Prophets can lie regarding what they brought. Whether or not he claims there is benefit in that, he is still an unbeliever according to the consensus. This is the case with the false philosophers, some of the esotericists, the Rafidites, the extreme Sufis and the people of Ibaha.10

These people claim that the outward parts of the Shari’a and most of the reports the Messengers have brought about what was and what will be among the matters of the Next World, the Gathering and the Rising, and the Garden and the Fire are not as they are stated and how they are normally understood from the words. According to them these reports are used to address creatures with their best interests in view since it is not possible to explain the reality of these things to them because of the limitations of human understanding. Thus the words of these people invalidate the Shari‘a, make the commands and prohibitions void, deny the Messengers and create doubts about what they brought. It is the same with someone who attributes deliberate lies to our Prophet regarding what he conveyed and reported about, or doubts his truthfulness, or curses him, or says that he did not convey the message or scorns him or any of the Prophets or shows contempt for them and harms them. He is an unbeliever by consensus.

Similarly, we consider to be unbelievers those who have the belief of some of the ancients that every type of animal had a warner and a Prophet – the monkeys, the pigs, riding beasts, worms, etc. They take as a proof the words of Allah, “Every community has a warner which has passed away in it.” (35:25) That would lead to describing the Prophets of these species together with their blameworthy qualities. Such a statement contains contempt for the lofty rank of prophethood. There is consensus among the Muslims that this is not the case and that the one who says it should be denied.

Similarly we consider to be unbelievers those who acknowledge the sound basis of what has preceded and the prophethood of our Prophet, but say that he was black, or died before he grew a beard, or was not in Makka and the Hijaz, or was not a Qurayshi. This is because they describe him with other than his known attributes and that amounts to denying and rejecting him. Considered as unbelievers also are people who claim that anyone else was a Prophet along with our Prophet or after him, such as the ‘Isawiyya 11 among the Jews who say that Muhammad’s message was specifically for the Arabs, and the Khurramiyya who say that there is a continuing succession of Messengers, and like most of the Rafidites who say that ‘Ali shared in the message with the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, and every Imam among such people who is put on the same par as Muhammad in respect of the proof and prophethood, like the Bazi‘iyya and the Bayaniyya 12 who say that Bazi‘, Bayan ibn Isma‘il al-Hindi and their likes were Prophets, or who claims prophethood for himself or allows the status of prophethood to be acquired and its rank reached by purity of heart – like the philosophers and the extreme Sufis.

This also applies to those of them who claim that they have received revelation even if they do not lay claim to prophethood, or claim that they ascend to heaven, enter the Garden, eat from its fruits, and embrace its Houris. All of these people are unbelievers who deny the Prophet because the Prophet said that he was the Seal of the Prophets and there would be no Prophet after him. He reported from Allah that he was the Seal of the Prophets and that he was sent to all men. The community are united in agreement that this statement is taken literally and that what is to be understood from it is what is meant literally and not an interpretation or abstraction. There is no doubt that all those sects who make false claims are unbelievers absolutely, by consensus and report.

Similarly there is a consensus about the disbelief of anyone who contradicts the text of the Book or a single hadith whose transmission is agreed upon and certain, and it is agreed that this is to be taken literally. For instance, the Khawarij are considered to be unbelievers because they invalidate maternal kinship. That is why also we consider to be unbelievers those who do not think that those who have adopted a religion other than Islam are unbelievers, or who hesitate about them or are unsure or consider their position valid. Even if he displays his Islam while doing so, believes in Islam and believes that every position except Islam is invalid, he is still an unbeliever since he has manifested the opposite of that.

Similarly, we absolutely declare the disbelief of everyone who makes a statement that results in the misguidance of the community, and all who declare the Companions to be unbelievers – for instance, what the Kumayliyya13 among the Rafidites say about all of the community after the Prophet being unbelievers since they did not advance ‘Ali, and they further declare that ‘Ali was an unbeliever since he did not advance himself and seek the advancement he was due. These people have disbelieved in various ways because they have completely invalidated the Shari‘a since they destroy the transmission of it and the Qur’an by claiming that they have been transmitted by unbelievers. This – and Allah knows best – is what Malik indicated by one of his two statements about killing anyone who declared that the Companions were unbelievers. Then they have disbelieved in another way because they have cursed the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, by what they say and by their claim that he gave a contract to ‘Ali, knowing that he would disbelieve after him. The curse of Allah be upon them! May Allah bless His Messenger and His family!

Similarly, we consider people to be unbelievers by their doing any action which the Muslims agree can only issue from an unbeliever, even if the one who does it clearly states that he is a Muslim in spite of doing that action – such as prostrating before idols, the sun, the moon, the cross or fire, and frequenting churches and synagogues with their people, wearing their clothes by putting on the zunnar belt,14 or having a monk’s tonsure.

Similarly the Muslims agree about the disbelief of anyone who makes it lawful to murder, drink wine or fornicate, which Allah has made haram, after he knows that Allah has made it haram – like the people of Ibaha among the Qarmatians and some of the extreme Sufis.

We also declare absolutely the disbelief of whoever denies and rejects one of the pillars of the Shari‘a and what is definitely known by multiple transmission to be one of the actions of the Messenger on which there is a complete consensus – like someone who rejects the obligatory nature of the five prayers and the number of their rak‘ats and prostrations. Such a man might say, “Allah made the prayer a general obligation on us. As for its being five or with these particular attributes and conditions, I do not know that for certain since no clear text has come in the Qur’an. The report about it from the Messenger, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, is only a single report.”

Similarly, people agree about the disbelief of those among the Khawarij who say that the prayer only takes place at the beginning and end of the day.

The Batiniyya are unbelievers by what they say about the obligatory prayers being the names of men whose government has been commanded and the foul things and haram things being names of men they have been commanded to reject.

One of the false Sufis said that when the soul has been purified by worship and long striving a point is reached where the self has been eliminated and everything is permitted to it and the contract of the Shari‘a is removed from it.

Similarly, anyone who rejects Makka, the House, the Masjid al-Haram as being the site for the hajj or the description of the hajj, or says, “The hajj is obligatory in the Qur’an as is taking a qibla, but as for it being this customary form and its taking place in Makka, the House and the Masjid al-Haram, I do not know whether this is the case or not. Perhaps those who transmitted that the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, explained it as such made a mistake and misconstrued it,” are unbelievers. There is no doubt that such a person and those like him are unbelievers if they are people thought to possess knowledge of the matter and have mixed with the Muslims and kept their company for a long time.

If he is a new Muslim, then he is told, “Your proper course is to ask the Muslims about these things which you do not yet know. You will not find any dispute among any of them without exception, right back to the contemporaries of the Messenger of Allah that these matters are as you have been told and that the place of pilgrimage is Makka and that the house which is found there is the Ka‘ba and that it is the qibla to which the Messenger of Allah and the Muslims have prayed and to which they go on hajj. This is what the Prophet did and the Muslims have done. The description of the prayers mentioned are those which the Prophet did. He explained what Allah meant by the prayers and made their limits clear. So you have knowledge as they had knowledge. Do not doubt this from now on.”

Anyone who doubts these things and denies them after he has looked into them and kept the company of Muslims is an unbeliever by agreement. He has no excuse by claiming that he does not know and he is not considered to be telling the truth. His outward conceals his unbelief since it is not possible that he does not know this. Furthermore when he allows the community from first to last to have been in illusion and error regarding what they have transmitted about these things and what they agree to be the statement of the Messenger and his action and the commentary of what Allah means by them, he thereby casts doubt on the entire Shari‘a, since they are the ones who have transmitted both it and the Qur’an. Such a statement would completely unravel the rope of the deen. Whoever says such a thing is an unbeliever.

It is the same with anyone who denies the Qur’an, or a single letter of it, or alters any of it, or adds to it – as was done by the Batiniyya and the Isma‘ilis – or claims that it is not a proof of prophethood for the Prophet or that it does not contain either proof or miracle. That is like the statement of Hisham alFuwati15 and Ma‘mar as-Saymari16 that the Qur’an does not give evidence of Allah and that there is no proof of prophethood in it for His Messenger, and it does not indicate either reward or punishment or judgement. They must be considered unbelievers because of that statement.

Similarly, we declare both these men to be unbelievers because they deny every single miracle of the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, standing as a proof for him, or the creation of the heavens and the earth being a proof of Allah. That is because that is contrary to the consensus and multiple transmissions from the Prophet which use these things as a proof, as well as contradicting the clear statements of the Qur’an to that effect.

Similarly, anyone who denies anything which is in the Qur’an after he knows that it is part of the Qur’an in the copies of the Qur’an that the Muslims possess, and is not ignorant of it nor a new Muslim, is an unbeliever. For proof of his denial, such a man uses either the fact that he does not consider its transmission to be sound and he has no knowledge of it, or he maintains its transmitter to be someone doubtful. We declare him to be an unbeliever by the two previously mentioned criteria, because he denies the Qur’an and he denies the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace although he does so by veiled allusion. It is the same with anyone who denies the Garden, the Fire, the Rising, the Reckoning or Resurrection. He is an unbeliever by consensus because of the clear reference to these things in the Qur’an and by the consensus of the community about the soundness of their transmission by many paths. Similarly unbelief applies to anyone who acknowledges their existence, but says that what is meant by the Garden, the Fire, the Gathering, the Rising and the Reward and Punishment are meanings which are not to be taken literally, saying that they are spiritual pleasures and inner meanings, as is said by the Christians, philosophers, esotericists and some of the false Sufis. They claim that the Rising means death or simply passing away, the collapse of the form of the spheres of the heavens, and the dissolution of the world, as has been stated by some of the philosophers. Similarly, we absolutely declare the disbelief of the extreme Rafidites when they claim that the Imams are better than the Prophets.

As for someone who rejects what is known by multiple transmission concerning historical accounts, biographies, and geographical descriptions but whose rejection does not lead to the invalidation of the Shari‘a nor lead to the denial of a pillar of the deen, such as denying the raid of Tabuk or Mu‘ta, or the existence of Abu Bakr and ‘Umar, the murder of ‘Uthman or the caliphate of ‘Ali, which are known by necessary transmission, then when this denial does not contain denial of the Shari‘a, there is no way to call such a person an unbeliever by his rejection of any of these things or his denial of having any knowledge of them, since in this there is nothing more than stupidity. An example of this is when Hisham al-Fuwati and ‘Abbad as-Saymari denied that the Battle of the Camel and the war of ‘Ali against those who opposed him took place.

As for someone who declares these and other such things open to doubt in order to create suspicion about the transmitters and to make the Muslims doubt them, we declare without reservation that he is an unbeliever by that since it would lead to invalidation of the Shari‘a.

As for the one who rejects the consensus17 itself when that consensus has not come by way of transmission by multiple paths from the Prophet who gave us the Shari‘a, most of the mutakallimun, some of the fuqaha’ and speculators in this area say that whoever disagrees with a sound consensus, which satisfies the preconditions of consensus generally agreed upon, is an unbeliever. Their proof lies in the words of Allah, “Whoever makes a breach with the Prophet after guidance has been made clear to him and follows a path other than that of the believers, him We shall turn over to what he has turned to and We shall roast him in Hell, an evil home-coming,” (4:115) and the Prophet’s words, “Whoever disagrees with the community by the length of a hand has cast off the rope of Islam from his neck.”18 They quote the consensus that anyone who disagrees with the consensus is an unbeliever.

Others hold that one stops short of absolutely declaring the disbelief of those who disagree with a consensus which is based on the transmission of the ‘ulama’.

Others believed that there should be hesitation about considering someone who disagrees with the consensus to be an unbeliever when it is a matter of opinion – like considering an-Nazzam19 to be an unbeliever for disputing the consensus because what he said was contrary to the consensus of the Salaf in the manner of their argumentation.


1. Atheists who attribute events to time like the evolutionists.

2. A sect of Zoroastrians who believe in a creator of good and a creator of evil, and living light and the dead darkness.

3. Meaning those who worship the angels or the stars.

4. Fire-worshippers.

5. Carmathians, a group of dualist Isma‘ilis.

6. Esotericists who say that the Qur’an is not to be taken literally.

7. An extreme Shi‘ite group.

8. Who say that the spirit of Allah was incarnate in ‘Ali.

9. An extreme Shi‘ite group who say that the message was meant for ‘Ali.

10. Those who permit the haram

11. From ‘Isa ibn Ishaq al-Yahudi who claimed to be a Prophet and lived in the time of the Khalif, Marwan al-Himar. He had a large Jewish following.

12. Extreme Rafidite sects.

13. Extreme Rafidites who believed in transmigration, incarnation and that prophethood was a light which passed from one man to another and that it was the right of ‘Ali. They say that the Companions all became unbelievers when they offered allegiance to Abu Bakr, ‘Ali along with them.

14. Worn to show that the wearer is not a Muslim.

15. A Qadari.

16. Leader of a sect.

17. Ijma‘: it really means resolution (‘azm) as when it says in the Qur’an, “When they agreed on their matter.” (12:102) Then it came to mean the agreement of the mujtahids of this community after the time of the Prophet. Al-Baghawi says that there are two types of consensus: general, which is like the consensus of the community about the prayer and the number of rak‘ats, and particular, like saying that a person who rejects other such things is an unbeliever unless it is through ignorance.

18. Abu Dawud in the Sunan.

19. A poet and Mu‘tazili mutakallim who died in 231.

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