On the Branding of Unbelief
by Imām Abū Ĥāmid al-Ghazālī, Fayşal al-Tafriqa (On the Boundaries of Theological Tolerance in
Know that a full explanation of the grounds on which a person may or may not be branded an Unbeliever would require a long and detailed discussion covering all of the various doctrines and schools of thought along with the proofs and pseudo-proofs adduced by each, as well as the manner in which they depart from the apparent meaning of scripture and the degree to which they rely on figurative interpretation. Several volumes would not be enough to cover all of this. Nor do I have time to explain it all. So, for the time being, content yourself with a piece of advice and a maxim.
As for the Advice, it is that you restrain your tongue, to the best of your ability, from indicting the people who face Mecca (on charges of Unbelief) as long as they say, 'There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God,' without categorically contradicting this. And for them to contradict this categorically is for them to affirm the possibility that the Prophet, with or without an excuse, delivered lies. Indeed, branding people Unbelievers is a serious matter. Remaining silent, on the other hand, entails no liability at all.
As for the Maxim, it is that you know that speculative matters (al-nażarīyāt) are of two types. One is connected with the fundamental principles of creed, the other with secondary issues. The fundamental principles are acknowledging the existence of God, the prophethood of his Prophet, and the reality of the Last Day. Everything else is secondary.
Know that there should be no branding any person an Unbeliever over any secondary issue whatsoever, as a matter of principle, with one exception: that such a person reject a religious tenet that was learned from the Prophet and passed down via diffusely congruent channels (tawātur). Even here, however, regarding some matters he may simply be subject to being deemed wrong, as is done with legal issues. Or he may be subject to condemnation for unsanctioned innovation (bid'a), such as with wrong ideas regarding the Caliphate and the status of the Companions.
Know, however, that error regarding the status of the Caliphate, whether or not establishing this office is a (communal) obligation, who qualifies for it, and related matters, cannot serve as grounds for condemning people as Unbelievers. Indeed, Ibn Kaysān denied that there was any religious obligation to have a Caliphate at all; but this does not mean that he must be branded an Unbeliever. Nor do we pay any attention to those who exaggerate the matter of the Imāmate and equate recognition of the Imām with faith in God and His Messenger. Nor do we pay any attention to those who oppose these people and brand them Unbelievers simply on the basis of their doctrine on the Imāmate. Both of these positions are extreme. For neither of the doctrines in question entails any claim that the Prophet perpetrated lies.
On the other hand, anyone who claims that the Prophet lied must be condemned as an Unbeliever, even if this claim of his involves a secondary issue. Thus, for example, were someone to say that the House at Mecca is not the Ka'ba to which God commanded people to make pilgrimage, this would constitute an act of Unbelief. For this claim is contradicted by that which has been established on the authority of the Prophet via diffusely congruent channels (tawātur). And were this person to deny (in order to avoid censure) that the Prophet ever gave any explicit testimony to the effect that this very House was the Ka'ba, this would not avail him. Rather, we would know, absolutely, that his denial was simply an act of stubbornness, unless he happened to be newly converted to Islam and this information had not yet reached him through diffusely congruent channels. Likewise, a person who accuses 'Ā'isha, may God be pleased with her, of committing indecency, while the Qur'an has clearly established her innocence, would be guilty of Unbelief. For such claims can only be maintained either by deeming the Prophet to have lied or by denying (the authority of) diffusely congruence (tawātur). And while a person may deny (the authority of) diffuse congruence with his tongue, he cannot ignore the knowledge it produces in his heart.
To be sure, were a person to deny the truth of an isolated report (khabar aĥādī), there would be no duty to brand him an Unbeliever. Were he to deny, on the other hand, that upon which there was unanimous consensus (ijmā'), his case would be unclear. For knowledge of whether or not consensus is itself a definitive proof is fraught with ambiguities the likes of which only those who have mastered the discipline of legal theory (uşūl al-fiqh) can bring into relief. Indeed, al-Nażżam denied the status of consensus as a valid proof is itself disputed (mukhtalaf fih). This, then, is the ruling regarding secondary issues.
As for the three fundamental principles (i.e., God, the Prophet, and the Last Day) and those texts that have been transmitted via diffuse congruence and are not in and of themselves open to figurative interpretation and for which one cannot conceive of any logical proofs that would contradict their content, to contradict these is to say that they constitute lies, pure and simple, as, for example, with the resurrection of bodies, Paradise, Hell, and God's knowledge of particulars, as we cited earlier.
Regarding those texts, however, that are open to figurative interpretation, albeit even remote allegorical interpretations, here we examine the logical proof (adduced to justify the figurative interpretation). If it is definitive it must be accepted. But if divulging this to the masses poses a threat, because of their inability to understand it, then to divulge this would constitute an unsanctioned innovation (bid'a). If, on the other hand, the logical proof is not definitive but gives rise to a preponderance of probability while not posing any known threat to religion, such as (that underlying) the Mu'tazilites' negation of the beatific vision, then this constitutes an unsanctioned innovation, not an act of Unbelief. As for those matters that appear to pose a threat to religion, determining their (legal) status is subject to scholarly discretion (ijtihād) and speculative inquiry. They may constitute a basis for branding a person an Unbeliever, and they may not.
Included among such matters would be the claims of some who style themselves Sufis to the effect that they have reached a state between themselves and God wherein they are no longer obligated to pray, and that drinking wine, devouring state funds, and other forms of disobedience are rendered licit to them. Such people, without doubt, must be executed, even if there remains some question as to whether they will abide in the Hellfire forever. Indeed, executing one of these people is better than killing a hundred (open) Unbelievers, because the harm they bring to religion is greater (than that caused by the latter), and because they open doors to libertinism that can never be closed. In fact, the harm these people cause is greater than that caused by those who advocate libertinism outright. For the latters' open Unbelief generally discourages people from listening to them. As for these people, they destroy the religious law through the religious law itself by claiming that they do nothing more than limit the scope of general injunctions by restricting general religious duties to those who have not reached the level of religiosity that they have reached. They may even claim that their involvement in all kinds of acts of disobedience is only apparent, while in reality they are innocent of this. As a result, however, all kinds of miscreants take to wrapping themselves in similar claims. And in this way the bonds of religion are undone.
One should not think, incidentally, that either branding a person an Unbeliever or its negation must be based on certainty in every case. On the contrary, 'Unbelief' is a legal designation (ĥukm shar'i) that refers to 1) a person's loss of property rights; 2) the licitness of shedding his blood; and 3) his dwelling in the Hellfire forever. As such, the basis upon which it is established is the same as that upon which the rest of the rules of the religious law are established: sometimes they are based on certainty; sometimes on a preponderance of probability; and sometimes on sources which one cannot fully commit either way. And whenever one finds oneself unable to commit (to his would-be source), he should refrain from brand a person an Unbeliever. Indeed, rushing to brand people Unbelievers is the habit of those whose natures have been overrun by ignorance.
Having said this much, we must draw your attention to another Maxim, namely, that those who contradict scripture may do so by contradicting texts that have been handed down via diffusely congruent channels while claiming that they are simply interpreting these figuratively. Meanwhile, their figurative interpretations have no basis in language, either as obvious or as remote figurative interpretations. This is Unbelief; and those who engage in this are saying that scripture contains lies, even if they claim that they are simply engaging in figurative interpretation.
An example of this would be what I have seen in the writings of one of the Bāţinites to the effect that God the Exalted is one in the sense that He gives oneness and creates it, that He is knowing in the sense that He gives knowledge to others and creates it, and that He exists in the sense that He brings others into existence. As for His being in one essence and existing and knowing in the sense of being characterized by these attributes, this he held to be false. Now, this is Unbelief, plain and simple. For interpreting 'The One' to mean 'bringing oneness into existence' has no basis whatever in figurative interpretation; nor does the Arabic language in any way accommodate this. Indeed, if the creator of oneness could be called 'creator' because he created oneness, he could be called 'three' or 'four' because he created these numbers as well. These doctrines and their likes constitute acts of deeming scripture to contain lies dressed up in the guise of figurative interpretation.