Can we call the Shīʿah Kāfir


Ml Mohammad Taha Karaan

29 April 2003


Can we call the Shīʿah “Kāfir”?


The question as to whether a person or a group may be called kāfir or not depends upon the beliefs that person or group holds. Two aspects need to be investigated. It needs to be established firstly that the person or group does subscribe to all the essential tenets of faith; and secondly that he or they do not believe in anything that amounts to a rejection of a categorical aspect of Islam (ma’lum min ad-din bid-darurah).

The reason why I have differentiated in the previous paragraph between individual persons and groups are that while it is fairly easy to determine the beliefs of an individual person (eg. through his own declaration or writings), the same cannot be said for all the adherents of a particular sect. With sects we have a situation where the official dogma of the sect is formulated in the declarations and writings of the leaders and scholars, with the general membership simply following. The followers are of course aware of the essential doctrines of their sect, but it is not uncommon to find them unaware of the full extent of the teachings of their sect.

Let us now apply this theoretical background to the Shīʿah. Before preceding any further it should be stated that the word “Shīʿah” includes many diverse sects, but that the unqualified usage of the word usually indicates the Ithna ʿAshari sect, also known as the Imami or Jaʿfari sect.

This group believes in all the essential tenets of faith: the oneness of Allah, prophethood, angels, divine books and the last day. But as previously indicated, affirmation of these aspects of religion is not sufficient to be classified a Muslim. In addition the person should not hold any belief that amounts to the rejection of what is categorically part of of Deen. In the classical literature of Ithna ʿAshari Shīʿism one encounters more than one such issue.

An overwhelming number of scholars of this sect have for example expressed the belief that the Qur’an as we have it today has suffered interpolation at the hands of the Sahabah. Many have stated the view that the vast majority of the Sahabah, excluding only a very few  individuals, turned apostate after the demise of Rasulullah sallallahu `alayhi wasallam. It is also a generally held belief amongst them that the position of their Imams is higher than that of the Ambiya. Each one of these issues impinges upon a categorical aspect of Deen.

We are thus entitled to say that Ithna ʿAshari Shīʿism contains elements that amount to kufr. But are we in a position to label each and every Ithna ʿAshari Shīʿī as a kāfir? This is a matter in which caution must be employed. Those of their scholars who have explicitly stated issues of this nature in their writings have gone out of the fold of Islam by virtue of the beliefs they profess. Since they have made themselves guilty of kufr, we have no hesitation in identifying them as kāfir.

However, the case is not the same with the followers and the latter-day scholars. Here we encounter two problems: ignorance and subterfuge. The followers, and more especially recent converts, tend to be completely misinformed about the more objectionable elements within the Ithna ʿAshari Shīʿī belief structure. To such persons we extend the benefit of the doubt > by not declaring them kāfir for as long as we do not know for a fact that they profess the same objectionable beliefs of their ancestors in faith. 

With many of the latter-day scholars one encounters a disavowal of some of those very same elements in which their ancestors professed faith. This presents a unique dilemma. Does one put all this down to subterfuge and still regard them as kāfir on account of the beliefs pressed by their earlier scholars? Or does one again extend the benefit of doubt? This is where opinions differ.

Some of our ‘ulama, being well aware of the role that subterfuge plays within Shīʿism, refuse to be “deceived” when latter-day Shīʿī scholars express “acceptable” beliefs on issues where their ancestors held patently objectionable views. Others tread the more cautious path of extending the benefit of doubt even to them.

However, this second view does not mean that they will be given a free rein to utilise the institutions of our society to their own advantage. While they will not be restricted from using our masajid and being buried in our maqabir, they will not be afforded the opportunity to use our mahareeb and manabir for the purposes of propagating their faith. Wherever the benefit of doubt is extended, it goes together with a question mark as to the true nature of their faith, since no one who is aware of the strategic importance of subterfuge in preserving and propagating Shīʿism can afford to relax his vigilance. This extension of the benefit of doubt is not founded upon gullibility, but rather upon a sense of fair judgement and the exercise of caution.

In summary, those of the scholars of the Ithna ʿAshari Shīʿah who have openly professed beliefs that amount to the rejection of categorical aspects of Deen are kāfir, not because we declare them to be so, but because they have made themselves guilty thereof. To the general Shīʿī masses, and more especially the recently converted, we extend the benefit of doubt: until we do not know them to hold such beliefs we regard them as Muslims. On their more recent scholars who deny the objectionable beliefs of their ancestors opinions have differed. The bolder amongst our ‘ulama, refusing to be duped by subterfuge, have applied the same label to them as to their ancestors; while the more cautious have extended the benefit of doubt to them by not condemning them as kāfir, but at the same time taking the necessary precautions against possible subterfuge.

And Allah knows best.