In the age of social media, takfirism has exploded, sometimes with devastating impact, and always with dangerous potential, writes EBRAHIM RASOOL. He adds that the mainstream ulama must stand up against this scourge or slide into irrelevance.
A CULTURE of takfirism is descending on South Africa. A small and disparate, yet vocal, motley of ulama have taken it upon themselves to decide who is Muslim and who must be excommunicated from the fold of Islam. The language of incivility has permeated our longstanding tradition of adab (decency and decorum) and akhlaaq (virtue and ethics).
Those with whom this small group differ are labeled and pilloried with choice theological expletives: no longer shaikhs and moulanas but reverends and misters; described as zanadiqa (heretics); referred to as ulama-e-soo’ (wicked and evil); declaring it haraam to pray behind the ‘team of Shaytaan’; and they use the words of the Quran and the Prophet (SAW) to condemn their ‘enemies’ and ‘fellow ulama’ with whom they differ. Their bigotry and hatred are conveyed in the language of the divine.
This culture of takfirism is not new. In the time or the anti-apartheid struggle, this incivility, indecency and excommunication was largely aimed at Muslims in the anti-apartheid struggle – the ulama I soo’ and largely from the tabloid called The Majlis. It has since moved to radio stations and TV programmes. But, in the age of social media, takfirism has exploded, sometimes with devastating impact, and always with dangerous potential, on impressionable young minds who want to move beyond words.
The latest and most globally high-profile victim of takfirism is Mufti Ismail Menk. He is condemned as a ‘scholar for dollars’ and, despite the disclaimer in a 111 page diatribe that it’s not the intention to assassinate his character or to spite his person, the remaining 110 pages proceed to do just that. He is said, in the words of the Prophet (SAW), to have the ‘disease of excessive amusement’ of being disloyal to Allah because he supports a soccer team, and because he joked about Mohammed Salah, he is warned that Jahannam will be his sentence for committing kufr and making a mockery of Allah’s verses because the word ‘salaah’ is mentioned 67 times in the Quran. It gets worse because Mufti Menk speaks to mixed audiences, poses with, and is interviewed by, women, attends weddings and promotes halaal cruises.
I hold no brief for Mufti Menk. His musings on Christmas greetings, for example, have caused some harm to our co-existence in Cape Town. There’s a place for a feel-good theology of platitudes for personal salvation but not at the expense of social justice and global peace. But these are differences, not divisions; contestations, not conflict; debate, not denunciation. Indeed, difference of opinion is a blessing and a mercy for the ummah.
So, as the takfiri brigade gather their ranks, make a foray into Cape Town to judge and condemn the way Islam is understood and practised here for the last 350 years, we must stop the march of intolerance and incivility. Takfir is so serious that even the scholars of the Azhar University in 2015 refused to declare Daesh/ISIS excommunicated, while historically the mainstream ulama did not pronounce this on the Kharijites, and left the characteristics of takfir vague enough to leave such decisions to Allah and the Prophet (SAW).
Imam Ghazali, in his Incoherence of the Philosophers, urges utmost caution in applying takfirism and thus the generality of scholars withhold such pronouncements and hold that Islam does not sanction takfir/excommunication for those who profess their faith or observe the rituals of Islam. This is the reason why, despite much vitriol and tension, Sunni scholars are incredibly reluctant to pronounce takfir on Shia Muslims, and rather engage in populist campaigns against them. That’s why, tempted as we may have been, we did not judge the faith of those who collaborated with apartheid economically, politically or through their silence.
In fact, the general caution is because, according to interpretations, the excommunication of a Muslim may lead to grave penalties, including a death sentence, which makes this practice in South Africa not only deplorable but dangerous. But it is also dangerous for the accuser. The Prophet (SAW) is reported to have said: ‘When a person calls his brother (in Islam) a disbeliever, one of them will certainly deserve the title. If the accused is indeed so, the disbelief is confirmed. But if it is untrue, it will revert to him (the accuser).’ It is strange, that from a wide range of accusations – from being in error to being a transgressor or sinner – there are those who go straight to the ultimate and most extreme.
In the South African context, we must ask two questions: how did we get here, and what do we do about it? The slide was inevitable when even mainstream ulama indulged in such suggestions, swept up vitriol against the Shia, and succumbed to pressure to oppose the Cape Accord’s campaign against incivility, intolerance and takfirism. Thus, a licence was given to the extremes – either the extremely angry, the extremely ignorant or the extremely sectarian. Now that the mainstream ulama are the victims, can we hope for a moment of cIarity, contrition, and courage to reclaim the middle ground of the ummah?Unless we do something, we will relive South Africa, in the words of Tuan Guru, as Darul La’na (The Accused Abode), not because of the bigotry and hatred against us but because of the sectarianism and hatred amongst us.
But because, as Muslims, we have proven incapable of stopping the rot, sometimes enabling it, we who have fought for, and articulated at the National Muslim Conference, various rights and freedoms in the South African Bill of Rights and Constitution, cannot be afraid to use the instruments that are meant to stop defamation, hate speech, incitement to violence, character assassination, and intolerance of difference.
The purveyors of takfir cannot stand for freedom of expression but use it to undermine other rights and the rights of others. We who fought for these freedoms and rights – while some of them stood with apartheid and pronounced takfir against us – must now stand up and be counted. One such veteran of struggle, the transition and governance, Ismail Vadi, has stood up to be counted. He addresses not the perpetrators of takfirism (because they remain incorrigible) but the mainstream ulama, challenging them to stand for the truth of Islam or slide into irrelevance. This is a time for leadership, he says. Leadership is earned, it is not mahala or free.
- Former ambassador Ebrahim Rasool is the founder of The World For All Foundation.