December 21, 2014 Special Dispatch No. 5910

Al-Azhar: The Islamic State (ISIS) Is A Terrorist Organization, But It Must Not Be Accused Of Heresy

December 21, 2014
Egypt, Africa | Special Dispatch No. 5910

In recent days, Al-Azhar, considered the most important educational institute and religious authority in the Sunni Islamic world, has been forced to deal with the question of whether members of the Islamic State (ISIS) are heretics. On December 3, 2014, at Al-Azhar's International Counterterrorism Conference in Cairo, Nigeria Mufti Sheikh Ibrahim Saleh Al-Husseini said in a speech that, by their actions, extremist organizations such as Boko Haram and their ilk bring a judgment of heresy upon themselves. Al-Husseini did not say explicitly that ISIS was heretic, but he did say that that "the statements and declarations [of these organizations] are what has brought them to heresy," and that "those who accuse others of heresy are [themselves] viewed as heretics by the shari'a." In other words, he accused the organization of heresy indirectly. Hence, his statements were interpreted by some media in the Muslim world as a fatwa by him that ISIS is a heretical organization. [1]

Al-Azhar, apparently alarmed by the reports that a fatwa accusing ISIS of heresy had been issued at a conference it hosted, hastened to deny the reports. Al-Azhar's reluctance to proclaim ISIS heretical reflects the caution of Sunni Islam in the matter of takfir (i.e., the practice of accusing other Muslims of heresy). Beyond the religious position that advocates avoiding takfir as far as possible, directing this accusation at ISIS can have far-reaching political implications. First, it places Al-Azhar in direct confrontation with ISIS. Second, since the Egyptian regime has been drawing a parallel between ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), an accusation of heresy against the former could be interpreted as applying to the latter as well. This could exacerbate the internal conflict in Egypt between the regime on the one hand and the MB and various terror organizations on the other, perhaps even leading to civil war in the country.

Hence, Al-Azhar, and the Nigerian mufti himself, swiftly denied the statements that had been attributed to him by some figures and media reports. In a December 5, 2014 interview with the Egyptian CBC TV, Al-Husseini said that, while ISIS' actions were indeed against Islam and a grave sin that must be condemned, these actions must not be called heretical. Al-Azhar issued an official statement denying the accusation of heresy that had been attributed to the Nigerian mufti, and several of its members presented various explanations for their refusal to consider ISIS heretical. They claimed that Islam prohibits one person from accusing another of heresy, and that the way to deal with those who engage in takfir is to direct the same accusation against them. Al-Azhar scholars also claimed that ISIS cannot be considered heretical as long as it adheres to the shahada - the Muslim declaration that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is His Messenger - even if its actions contradict Islam. Additionally, they said that it was not Al-Azhar's place to judge whether anyone is a heretic, or to examine the tenets of their faith, since only God can know what is in someone's heart. Condemning someone as a heretic, they said, may be done only by a shari'a judge, after it is found by comprehensive and careful examination that the person deliberately chose heresy and has no intention to repent. For this reason, Al-Azhar said, it never intended to rule on whether ISIS was heretical.

Al-Azhar members stressed that their refusal to accuse ISIS of heresy must not be seen as either implicit support for the organization or opposition to the fight against it. They explained that ISIS is a terrorist organization whose actions deviate from the correct Islam, but at the same time they clarified again and again that judging whether or not it is heretical is beyond their authority. It should be mentioned that Al-Azhar and the Egyptian religious establishment have recently been campaigning against ISIS and other groups, such as the MB, depicting them as terror organizations that have strayed from Islam and harm both Islam and Muslims.

The following is a review of the statements by the Nigerian mufti and of Al-Azhar's position on accusing ISIS of heresy.

Nigerian Mufti On ISIS: With Their Actions, They Have Brought The Accusation Of Heresy Upon Themselves

At the December 3, 2014 International Counterterrorism Conference in Cairo, hosted by Al-Azhar and attended by hundreds of Muslim and Christian clergy from 120 countries, Nigerian Mufti Sheikh Ibrahim Saleh Al-Husseini delivered a speech attacking ISIS, Boko Haram, and their ilk. He said that their bid'ah (innovation forbidden in Islam) was worse than that of the Kharijites (a pejorative term for a group that withdrew from Islam in its early days). He added that while the accusation of heresy against the Kharijites had been controversial in the era of early Islam, these jihadi organizations of our time had, by their declarations and by their actions, brought the accusation of heresy upon themselves.

Nigerian mufti speaks at Al-Azhar conference (Source:, December 3, 2014)

Al-Husseini called ISIS members deviants from the correct tradition who carry out all kinds of extremist and corrupt activity, sowing destruction, raping, murdering, and beheading. These people "accuse the entire [Muslim] ummah of heresy, and give no shari'a explanation or justification for this," he said. He went on to say that  they are "evil, since they claim that they have the exclusive right to [establish] the Islamic caliphate" and are committing the sin of hiraba - highway robbery - which is subject to Koranic punishment. He added that "their statements and declarations are what has brought them to heresy, because all [clerics] agree that those who permit what is forbidden [by the shari'a] must be excommunicated... and those who accuse others of heresy are [themselves] viewed as heretics by the shari'a." He also said that fighting Muslims constituted heresy.[2]

Several media outlets interpreted the Nigerian mufti's statements as a fatwa labeling ISIS heretical (when in fact they were a rebuke and a condemnation of ISIS, but did not constitute a fatwa proclaiming it heretical in the binding legal sense of the term).

Turkish Anadolu news agency: "Nigeria mufti calls for branding ISIL 'infidels'" (, December 12, 2014)

Nigerian Mufti, Al-Azhar Hasten To Clarify: Mufti's Statements Must Not Be Considered An Accusation Of Heresy Against ISIS

The media reports that the Nigerian mufti had issued a fatwa accusing ISIS of heresy at an Al-Azhar conference clearly alarmed both Al-Azhar and the mufti, who hastened to issue a denial. They clarified that they had not brought such a charge against ISIS, for Islam forbids accusing others of heresy.

In an interview he gave on December 5, 2014, two days after the conference, to the Egyptian CBC TV, Al-Husseini took a softer tone compared with his speech at the conference. He said that ISIS' actions indeed contravened Islam and were a grave sin that must be condemned, but despite this, ISIS members are not heretics, for a Muslim must not accuse a fellow Muslim of heresy. [3] In addition, the Nigerian Islamic Council, which Al-Husseini heads, flatly denied that he had accused ISIS of heresy, and clarified that 30 years earlier, Al-Husseini had written a book stating that no man who adheres to the shahada may be accused of heresy, but that there are words and deeds that bring a judgment of heresy upon those who say or do them. According to the council's statement, Al-Husseini wrote in the book that "accusations of heresy are the worst bid'ah [innovation forbidden in Islam] threatening the Muslims as well as threatening unity in Nigeria."[4]

Al-Azhar: A Believer Must Not Be Accused Of Heresy, Whatever His Sins

For its part, Al-Azhar released an official statement rejecting reports that the Nigerian mufti had implicitly or explicitly ruled ISIS heretical. It said that no believer can be accused of heresy regardless of their sins because it is a tenet of Islam that no man can exclude another from the fold of Islam and that no man may be removed from the camp of the believers unless he now denies what originally brought him into that camp. The Al-Azhar statement added that that the original aim of the counterterrorism conference was to combat the concept of accusing others of heresy and expelling them from the community. It stated that if a person accuses another of heresy, then the accuser takes on the sin of which he is accusing the other, and the end result is civil war because of this takfir, and Al-Azhar, in its wasatiyya (middle path), rejects takfir. Al-Azhar also noted in the statement that the Nigerian mufti had said that ISIS members' deeds are not typical of Muslims but rather of non-Muslims, but that this cannot be considered an accusation of heresy against them.[5]

Similarly, former Egyptian mufti Dr. 'Ali Gum'a explained that ISIS must not be accused of heresy since anyone who accuses others of heresy cannot be dealt with by accusing him of heresy. He said that while the Kharijites accused the Caliph 'Ali bin 'Abi Taleb of heresy, he did not level the same accusation against them.[6] 

Al-Azhar Official: It Is Not Al-Azhar's Job To Accuse Anyone Of Heresy; The Conference's Aim Was To Define Certain Groups As Terrorist Organizations, Including The MB

Al-Azhar's refusal to accuse ISIS of heresy came as a surprise to various circles in Egypt. This was reflected in statements by Al-Azhar Under-Secretary Dr. 'Abbas Shouman, who said that the public was focusing on whether Al-Azhar had accused ISIS of heresy, and that some thought that, since it had not done so, it supported ISIS. Others, he said, went even further by claiming Al-Azhar had accused a number of writers and intellectuals of heresy, and therefore wondered why it had not done so in this case.[7] According to him, Al-Azhar's position on this issue had prompted many to contact the office of the Al-Azhar sheikh requesting clarification on the institution's position on accusing ISIS of heresy.

Shouman explained: "To the best of my knowledge, throughout its history as an official institution, Al-Azhar has never accused any person or movement of heresy. This is not Al-Azhar's mission." He added that accusations of heresy have to do with one's faith and that as such they come under the jurisdiction of a qadi [a shari'a judge] following exhaustive inquiry and investigation into the person's intention or of the actions attributed to him. "We must refrain from accusing people of this, as the Prophet said [according to a hadith]: 'If a man accuses his [Muslim] brother of heresy, then one of the two is committing the sin of heresy: He is either correct [to accuse the other], or he is himself a heretic [for falsely accusing another of heresy].'"

Shouman stated further that engaging in this issue is unproductive, and that it is therefore not the business of the Al-Azhar conference or of the conferees to judge the religious doctrine of terrorist organizations, but rather to discuss ways of dealing with their crimes and keeping their evil away from the public. He explained that Al-Azhar was not authorized to judge the Islam of ISIS and their ilk, or to accuse them of heresy, and that this was not what the conference was about - the conference was aimed at defining any armed element that threatens people and attacks them and their property as a terrorist organization, whether it is ISIS, Ansar Bait Al-Maqdis, the MB, or any other group whose actions have nothing to do with the correct Islam.

He concluded: "Everyone must support the countries' role in stopping the [elements of] evil by appropriate means - even by fighting them to the death. Therefore, we need not focus on heresy or their Islam, since this has to do with their [fate on] the Day of Judgment. We judge what is seen; Allah is in charge of what cannot be seen." He added that, whether or not ISIS was heretic, the use of force to deter it and save society from its evil was permitted.[8]

In a December 17, 2014 interview with the Egyptian daily Al-Watan, Shouman said: "I affirm that ISIS's actions are terroristic and are not in line with the correct Islam. We must combat the evil of this organization, even by use of force to eliminate it. However, its members must never be accused of heresy."[9]

Dr. 'Abbas Shouman (Source: Al-Yawm Al-Sabi', Egypt)

Al-Azhar Scholars: No One Must Be Excluded From The Fold Of Islam As Long As They Adhere To The Shahada

Similarly, Al-Azhar Islamic Research Academy director Dr. Muhi Al-Din 'Afifi, said that the institution was not authorized to accuse ISIS of heresy, and added that ISIS members must not be considered heretical as long as they declare the shahada ("There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah").

Like the Nigerian mufti, 'Afifi said that those who permit Muslim blood, such as ISIS, bring a judgment of heresy upon themselves. He said that by refusing to accuse ISIS of heresy, Al-Azhar was acting for the good of Islam, because those who accuse others of heresy must not be answered in kind. He also explained that Al-Azhar's objection to accusing ISIS of heresy does not mean that it supports the group's actions, which he said harm Islam.[10]

Dr. Muhi Al-Din 'Aififi (Source: Al-Wafd, Egypt)

Dr. Amina Nasir, professor of faith and philosophy at Al-Azhar University, also backed the position taken by Al-Azhar. She said, "There is only a hairsbreadth" between ISIS and heresy, and added that a person's declaration that "there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah" removes him from the circle of heresy and keeps him within the circle of Islam as long as he adheres to it - even if he carries out actions that deviate from Islam and contradict this declaration. She also expressed her objection to takfir, the practice of Muslims accusing other Muslims of heresy and excluding them from the fold of Islam, calling it problematical to engage in this practice so easily.[11]

Dr. Amina Nasir (Source: Al-Fagr, Egypt)

An unusual commentary was that of Dr. Ahmad Karima, an Islamic law professor at Al-Azhar University, who argued that ISIS should indeed be considered heretical. Karima, who in November 2014 was investigated by the university's ethics committee after he visited Iran, said on the Al-Usbu' program on Egypt's Al-Tahrir TV that ISIS, Boko Haram, and all those who bear arms against the Islamic ummah are heretical; he based his claims on the hadith that states: "In the end times, there will emerge a group of foolhardy young people who speak loftily and read the Koran - [but their reading of the Koran] will not get past their throats, because they have left the religion, just as, by the [sheer force] of its flight, the arrow strikes the target and comes out the other side. If you meet them, kill them, because their killing grants rewards from Allah on the day of resurrection."[12]

Al-Azhar: ISIS Deviates From Islam, But Is Not Heretical

It should be mentioned that, while Al-Azhar does not consider ISIS heretical, it definitely describes it as a terror organization that deviates from Islam. In recent months, in light of the forming of the anti-ISIS coalition and the increase of terror in Egypt and especially in Sinai, Al-Azhar and the Egyptian religious establishment have been waging an information campaign in an effort to fight radical religious discourse and to undermine the legitimacy of ISIS and organizations of its ilk, such as Ansar Bait Al-Maqdis, which recently joined ISIS,[13] and the MB, which the Egyptian regime considers a terror organization. As part of this campaign Al-Azhar  condemns extremist fatwas and issues counter-fatwas, dictates the content of mosque sermons, circulates pamphlets in various languages to improve the image of Islam in the foreign media, holds international conferences against terror and extremism, etc.

In this framework, in recent months Al-Azhar Sheikh Dr. Ahmad Al-Tayeb has come out strongly against extremist organizations such as ISIS, condemning their actions and describing them as un-Islamic. At the same time, it seems that he has avoided entering into an ideological confrontation with ISIS and judging its creed and ideology; moreover, he has endorsed the conspiracy theory that ISIS is a new imperialist product in the service of global Zionism.

For example, at a September 9, 2014 Al-Azhar ceremony for awarding an honorary doctorate degree to the Saudi King, Al-Tayeb said: "The lords of terror are not ashamed to use killing, slaughter and beheadings, and to sow fear and exterminate others with a barbarity unprecedented in history. It is unfortunate that these inhuman crimes are carried out under the pretext of [establishing] a caliphate and restoring the Islamic state, and in the name of Islam, the religion of compassion and peace among all of mankind." Al-Tayeb expressed his regret that "these criminals [i.e., ISIS] have managed to market to the world a distorted and horrifying picture of Islam and the Muslims. We have even read that the airing of these terrifying sights - these [deeds] perpetrated in the name of Islam and these barbaric immoral actions that are accompanied by cries of 'Allah Akbar' and 'there is no God but Allah' - is one of the factors causing the spread of atheism today and fanning the new Western Zionist hatred against Islam and the Muslims." He added: "Had all the enemies of the Muslims come together and devoted all their energies to hatching plots against Islam, they would not have achieved a tenth of what these terror organizations have achieved in concocting schemes against Islam and the Muslims and in distorting their image in the eyes of modern Western perception."

He said further: "All these [fundamentalist terrorist groups] are the new products of imperialism, in the service of global Zionism in its new version and its plot to destroy the [Middle] East and tear the Arab region apart. Our evidence for this is the Western American hesitancy and foot-dragging in confronting these terrorist organizations, as compared with the Western onslaught on the Iraqi state in 2003, for example, and the disbanding of the Iraqi army in record time and under fabricated reasons and false pretexts..."[14]

In addition, in a conference held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on September 13, 2014, at which several Arab countries committed to joining the anti-ISIS coalition, Al-Tayeb welcomed the decision to launch an all-out war against "all the implications of this malignant disease [ISIS]," and added: "The struggle must not be confined to the security level alone. There is no choice but [to launch] an ideological confrontation, accompanied by an organized program to inculcate a [moderate] perception, with the participation of all the relevant forces in all the region's countries."[15]

In his opening speech at Al-Azhar's December 3, 2014 International Counterterrorism Conference in Cairo, Al-Tayeb condemned ISIS' "barbaric and heinous crimes," adding that the armed organizations and factions that perpetrate such acts "cover themselves in the mantle of Islam and call themselves 'the Islamic State' in an attempt to export their phony new Islam." These "new extremists," he continued, "have distorted the correct meaning of the term 'heresy.'" He explained that the authority to declare jihad belongs only to the rulers, not to individuals or movements, no matter what the circumstances. Finally, he said that there is no ignoring the extremist ideas that have entered the heads of some young people and driven them to adopt the thinking that accuses others of heresy and the radical and violent interpretations of Al-Qaeda and [other] armed movements that have emerged from it - [organizations] that work night and day to attack the homeland and undermine stability.[16]








Dr. Ahmad Al-Tayeb (Al-Fajr, Egypt)








































[1] See for example, December 3, 2014.

[2], December 3, 2014.

[3], December 5, 2014.

[4], December 4, 2014.

[5], December 10, 2014.

[6], December 13, 2014.

[7] Some intellectuals claimed that Al-Azhar did not specifically accuse writers and intellectuals of heresy, but rather accused them of harming the religion, which led extremists to accuse them of heresy and permit their killing, such as happened with the well-known writers Taha Hussein and Naguib Mahfouz., December 13, 2014.

[8] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 14, 2014.

[9] Al-Watan (Egypt), December 17, 2014.

[10] Al-Wafd (Egypt), December 12, 15, 2014.

[11] Al-Watan (Egypt), December 14, 2014.

[12] Al-Tahrir TV (Egypt), December 17, 2014.

[14] Al-Hayat (London), September 9, 2014. See also MEMRI TV clip No. 4488, "Sheik of Al-Azhar: Global Zionism Behind Islamist Terror Organizations," September 8, 2014.

[15] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 15, 2014.

[16] Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 4, 2014.




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