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Don’t play with the word ‘Kaafir’: scholars

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The use of the word ‘kaafir’ has again sparked debate, after a recent altercation between Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) MP Nazier Paulsen and Democratic Alliance (DA) MP Yusuf Cassim in Parliament. Paulsen called Cassim a “Zionist sell-out kaafir”, accusing him of supporting the oppression and  killing of innocent Palestinians through his party’s support of Zionism and Israel. This emerged during the budget vote debate of the international relations department on Tuesday. The DA has now referred the matter to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and Parliament’s Ethics Committee.

Despite the serious nature of such an allegation within the Islamic faith, some Muslims have praised Paulsen for taking a bold stance in defense of Palestine.  However, Paulsen has also been chastised for recklessly using a label that many regard as abhorrent in Islam.

Professor Emeritus at the University of Kwazulu-Natal, Suleman Dangor, said the Qur’an describes a ‘Kaafir’ as someone who deliberately rejects the truth. One is, therefore, not permitted to label a Muslim with the title of ‘kaafir’ if one is not a scholar of Islam.  He said that the issuing of a takfiri judgement (declaring another Muslim as kaafir) is only to be issued within certain criteria. He further listed the criteria that do not permit the use of the label of kaafir.

Declaring a person a kaafir cannot be based: on probability, on disagreeing with an opinion of a faqih (jurists in fiqu), on a sincere attempt to interpret a text, on actions that are due to ignorance, on an action that was done under the threat of Islam, on an action that was an emotional outburst, on someone who commits a major sin. Lastly, an individual cannot be deemed a kaafir simply because someone is not from Ahlus Sunnah.

“Making takfeer without knowledge is a major sin. Takfir is to be made by a Qaadi (an Islamic Judge), and not a lay person.”

He said that many individuals tend to label others with the title of kaafir simply based on a difference of opinion, which is unacceptable.

“It is ridiculous to call someone a kaafir simply because he does not agree with you on a political issue,” Dangor stated.

Though the issue of Palestine is an emotive topic, the statements made in Parliament do not fall within the scope of takfeer criteria.

“Even if he says that he does not support the Palestinian cause… that is no grounds for calling an individual a kaafir.”

He said that the issuing of the ‘kaafir’ statement is not appropriate for Parliament, and should be considered in the most serious of terms.

Dangor also explained that in light of the debate surrounding the confusion over whether Paulsen used the ‘K-word’ and not ‘kaafir’, in the South African context, this would not be acceptable and would result in disciplinary measures.

“Whether he used the ‘K-word’ or ‘kaafir’, it is totally unacceptable and certainly damages the image of Islam.”

Muslims need to be mindful about labelling individuals as kaafir without knowledge as that accusation subsequently reverts to the person who issues the accusation.

“Imam Maalik (ra) said that if I find that a person only believes with one per cent, and 99 per cent of him does not believe, then I will accept that one per cent,” he said.

In a radio interview this week, Cassim also criticized Muslims who participated in a mass Palestine solidarity march in 2014, accusing them of neglecting their Salah. In defending his party’s position on Palestine and Israel, Cassim is also reported to have labelled marches in support of Palestine as haram (impermissible), stating that it facilitates the free-mixing of genders.

“For him to say this in Parliament is ridiculous as there is free-mixing in parliament, and it really makes a mockery [of Islam],” Dangor responded.

In response, Islamic scholar Shaykh Fakhruddin Owaisi said the term ‘kaafir’ is only to be labelled against a Muslim who denies the fundamental principles of Islam.

“One is not allowed to call another Muslim a kaafir based on political or religious differences. A Muslim can only become a kaafir if he denies the fundamentals of Islam.”

Shaykh Rafeek Hassen, the director of the Islamic Interfaith Research Institute (IIFRI), uses this example.

“If a Muslim who is a Believer drinks alcohol, you can’t just brand him Kaafir for that. The only time you can accuse his action of drinking to be an act of Kufr is if he tells you ‘I don’t care if it’s haraam, I’m going to defy Allah’s command’….then his action is Kufr.”

He adds: “But if he tells you ‘I know it’s wrong, I’m weak and I’m addicted’…he is not a Kaafir but a weak Muslim who needs help.”

Many scholars believe that to accuse someone of being out of the fold of Islam requires concrete proof. Contemporary Sunni scholar Shaykh Faraz Khan from SeekersHub says:

“One of the greatest tribulations of our times is the prevalence of some Muslims deeming other Muslims as disbelievers . This is a catastrophe, whose harm is most clearly manifested in the senseless killing of innocent Muslims by extremists.”

According to US scholar Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, the co-founder of the Zaytuna College, the majority of scholars have prohibited damning an individual, whether Muslim or not, “because only God knows a person’s ultimate status.”

Shaykh Owaisi further noted that some scholars do state that takfeer is extended to Muslims who support the oppression of the innocent.

“However, decisions such as that are left to the specialist Ulama, only they can issue a fatwa (ruling) of kufr on a Muslim,” Shaykh Owaisi concluded.


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