Against the backdrop of the Egyptian police's and military's recent extensive efforts to eliminate terrorism in the Sinai, Al-Azhar deputy Sheikh 'Abbas Shuman said, in an interview on Egyptian television, that the anti-terror military and police operations were legal and compatible with Islamic law. However, he refused to accuse the terror organizations of heresy, saying, "Al-Azhar cannot accuse anyone of heresy."
Shuman's statements were another expression of the Al-Azhar institution's years-long cautious position on the issue of accusing Islamic terror organization activists of heresy, particularly the Islamic State (ISIS) – even though the latter has carried out many attacks against both Muslims and non-Muslims, both in Egypt, in the rest of the Arab world and in the West. Al-Azhar officials have harshly criticized these organizations, calling ISIS a terror organization that deviates from Islam, and have launched informational campaigns to undermine the legitimacy of this organization. Nevertheless, these officials have refrained from declaring activists in terror organizations heretics, although they have been censured for not doing so, including by Egyptian President Abd Al-Fatah Al-Sisi.
Al-Azhar officials explain their position by saying that a Muslim remains a Muslim as long as he has not renounced the shahada – that is, the declaration that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His Prophet – and that terror organization activists' actions are criminal and that all-out war should be waged against them, but that they should not be declared heretics because only a shari'a judge can issue such a ruling. An additional explanation given is that accusing terror organizations of heresy could open up a Pandora's box and lead to civil wars in Islam. Yet another argument is that if Al-Azhar decrees that ISIS and other terror organizations are heretics, there will be no difference between Al-Azhar and these organizations, which do not hesitate to accuse other Muslims of heresy.
It may be that Al-Azhar's refraining from ruling in this matter stems also from fear of direct conflict with the terror organizations, and from fear that such a ruling would also be used against the Muslim Brotherhood.
It should be noted that in Egypt's religious establishment there are several sheikhs who have indeed ruled that ISIS and other Islamic terror organizations are heretical, but they form a tiny and exceptional minority.
This report will review statements by Al-Azhar officials on the subject, some of them previously translated and published by MEMRI.
Al-Azhar Institute (image: balkans.aljazeera.ne)
Al-Azhar Deputy: Al-Azhar Cannot Accuse The Terror Organizations Of Heresy
As noted, against the backdrop of the extensive military campaign in the Sinai against the terror organizations, first and foremost ISIS, Al-Azhar deputy Sheikh Abbas Shuman refused to accuse the organizations of heresy. In a February 19, 2018, interview with LTC TV, he said that "Al-Azhar cannot accuse anyone of heresy" and that "a more appropriate description for the terrorists is that they are fighting Allah and His Messenger, and are corrupting the land, and that their punishment according to Islam is death, crucifixion, and amputation of hands and feet." Shuman went on to say that the terror organizations are using Islamic law to cover their crimes."
Al-Azhar Has No Authority In Matters Of Accusations Of Heresy
Earlier, in a January 3, 2018, interview on Egyptian television, Shuman said on the subject: "The sheikhs cannot accuse anyone of heresy, or control the faith of any man." He continued: "Al-Azhar has no [authority] in matters of accusations of heresy; this [authority] is in the hands of the judicial system after investigation [of the terror organization activists]..." Further, he said, "the terror [activists] will not stop their crimes if Al-Azhar accuses them of heresy, because they accuse Al-Azhar itself of heresy, [so Al-Azhar's] accusation of heresy is... a gift for them." He also argued that accusing terrorists of heresy could complicate matters, because "a terrorist who is accused of heresy while he is being judged could lie [in the investigation in order to evade punishment] and say that he has renounced Islam... in this situation it is not possible to settle accounts with him, because renouncing Islam eradicates everything that went before." He added: "Al-Azhar Sheikh Dr. Ahmad Al-Tayeb has stressed that killing terrorists is a religious obligation, but that this is without accusing them of heresy, because they have no religion, and they are using the religion only in order to convince young people of their ideas."
Accusing Terrorists Of Heresy Will Allow Them To Repent And Evade Punishment And Open The Door To Arguments
In a January 17 article in the Egyptian government daily Al-Yawm Al-Saba', Shuman set out the reasons why Al-Azhar was not accusing the terrorists of heresy, and said that their terrorism wouldn't stop if it did. The Al-Azhar clerics, headed by the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, he said, had stressed in other circumstances that it is a very serious matter to accuse someone of heresy, and that there are scientific rules that prevent Al-Azhar from issuing such rulings on accusations of heresy against individuals or organizations without verifying that the conditions for doing so exist. He added: "Let's assume that they [i.e. the terror activists] are Muslims. Ruling that they are heretical means that they are murtaddoun [i.e. have abandoned Islam] and that therefore... their [dead] bodies may not be washed or wrapped in a shroud nor buried in Muslim graves, and there is no inheritance between them and their relatives – not to mention [that this is one of the] rulings to which some clerics agree and others do not. This opens the door to futile discussion regarding heresy and its definition, and will only add pointless problems for the [Muslim] nation...
"[Likewise], opening the door to the possibility of accusations of heresy will arouse those who love accusations of heresy, and will whet their appetite to level such accusations against [all] those who have a different faith or religious stream, or even [a different] political or ideological inclination. At this point, Al-Azhar will be transformed from an institute for the [religious] sciences that operates in an orderly and disciplined manner to an element that issues accusations of heresy on demand. In that very moment it will become much worse than the terror organizations that accuse all of society of heresy, including even Al-Azhar and its clerics.
"Do not give the terrorists the opportunity to evade punishment by accusing them of heresy; leave them within the circle of the corrupt on earth, who fight Allah and His Messenger without examining their own faith, so that their punishment will continue to be the gravest punishment of all in Islamic law and will be binding also even if they announce their repentance. This is because the repentance of the corrupt on the face of the earth is accepted when it takes place before they are apprehended. But after they fall into the hands of the security personnel, their repentance is worthless. Allah said: 'Indeed, the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth [to cause] corruption is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land. That is for them a disgrace in this world; and for them in the Hereafter is a great punishment. Except for those who return [repenting] before you apprehend them. And know that Allah is Forgiving and Merciful [Quran 5:33-34]'..."
As noted, Al-Azhar officials have previously discussed this subject. For example, in November 2017, following the attack on the Al-Rawdeh Sufi mosque in northern Sinai in which more than 300 people were killed, Shuman harshly criticized the terrorists, but emphasized that Al-Azhar cannot accuse them of heresy. In an interview with Egyptian radio, he said that the terrorists "revealed their disgrace with their own hands when they attacked the Al-Rawdeh mosque." He continued: "This is the best proof that they are not Muslims. It is not possible to mention their affiliation with any religion... They were hired to destroy Egypt." At the same time, he said: "Al-Azhar cannot accuse the perpetrators of the attack on the Al-Rawdeh mosque of heresy. Al-Azhar is not issuing any [legal] rulings because this would open doors that cannot be closed."
Al-Azhar Officials: Accusing Terrorists Of Heresy Will Lead To Different Sects In Islam Accusing Each Other Of Heresy
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Following the Al-Rawdeh mosque attack, Dr. Abd Al-Halim Mansour, dean of the Islamic Religious Law faculty at Al-Azhar University in Al-Mansoura, explained why Al-Azhar would not declare terrorist organization activists as heretical. He said: "The issue of accusations of heresy... concerns the faith, or the heresy, that is in people's hearts... Al-Azhar thinks that no one can know what is in someone's heart. But it is possible to rule on people's behavior. The killing and bloodshed carried out by ISIS and other terror organizations constitute oppression, deviation from the straight path, and sin, and as such [those who perpetrate them] should receive a deterrent punishment..."
Another explanation given by Mansour was that "opening the gates of accusations of heresy will lead to grave damage, because different sects in our ummah will accuse each other of heresy, and every sect will permit the blood of the other..." He added: "The Al-Azhar Sheikh has clarified several times... that Islam considers [the terror organizations] to be murderers, and not heretics, because we haven't fought them for being heretics – [so declaring them heretical means that] we must fight all the heretics, and that is unreasonable. Heresy is not a pretext for war, aggression is... If we say that ISIS has left the religion because of a great sin it committed, i.e. murder, then we would have to rule that anyone who commits a great sin is a heretic..."
Al-Azhar Sheikh: ISIS Activists Cannot Be Decreed Heretics – They Believe In Allah
In December 2015, Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayeb was asked by students at Cairo University why Al-Azhar had not yet issued an announcement declaring that ISIS activists are heretical. He answered: "It is a matter of belief in Allah the Supreme. That is, to believe in Allah, His Prophet [Muhammad], His angels, and Allah's decree. Leaving the religion is heresy against all of these." He added that heresy against Allah is what excludes someone from the religion, and Al-Azhar will not rule that anyone is heretical, even if he carried out all the loathsome deeds in this world. ISIS activists believe in Allah, he said, but nevertheless carried out loathsome deeds, and "we rule that they deviated from the straight path, and that they sinned, but not that they are heretics... Anyone who commits a grievous sin does not leave the religion but is a believer who is undisciplined. Even if someone who has committed a grievous sin dies determined to commit the sin, we cannot rule that his punishment is Hell, because that is in the hands of Allah... If I rule that they are heretics, I will be like them. ISIS believes that anyone who commits a grievous sin is a heretic, and that the peoples who do not rule according to the laws of Allah are heretics. If I rule that they [ISIS activists] are heretics, I will be like them."
Al-Azhar Announcement: No Believer Can Be Accused Of Heresy Regardless Of His Sins; If A Person Accuses Another Of Heresy, The Accuser Takes On The Sin Of Which He Is Accusing The Other
Also, in December 2014, Al-Azhar was forced to explain why ISIS activists are not heretics. At an international convention against extremism and violence hosted by the institution in Cairo, Nigeria Mufti Sheikh Ibrahim Salah Al-Husseini made statements that were later interpreted as a fatwa stating that ISIS was guilty of heresy. Al-Husseini said that ISIS activists "accuse the entire [Islamic] ummah of heresy, and give no shari'a explanation or justification for this," saying that "their statements and declarations are what have 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."
After his statements sparked an uproar, Al-Husseini clarified that he was not accusing ISIS of heresy, saying that while ISIS's actions indeed contravened Islam and were a grave sin that must be condemned, ISIS members are not heretics, for a Muslim must not accuse a fellow Muslim of heresy.
Al-Azhar officials also renounced this interpretation of Al-Husseini's statements. In an official announcement, it noted 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. It added that the original aim of the counterterrorism conference was to combat the concept of accusing others of heresy and expelling them from the community. If a person accuses another of heresy, it said, then the accuser takes on the sin of which he is accusing the other, and the end result is civil war because of this, and Al-Azhar, in its wasatiyya (middle path), rejects making such accusations. It also noted 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.
Al-Azhar deputy Shuman, who was at that time secretary-general of the Council of Senior Scholars of Al-Azhar said: "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 a person's faith and that as such they come under the jurisdiction of a qadi (shari'a judge) following exhaustive inquiry and investigation into the person's intent 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].'" 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.
A few days later, Shuman 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."
Egyptian Grand Mufti: We Have No Authority To Rule That ISIS Is Heretical
Opposition to accusations of heresy was heard not only from Al-Azhar officials but also from other elements in Egypt's religious establishment, headed by Egyptian Grand Mufti Shawki Allam. On August 17, 2017, he clarified on Sada Al-Balad TV that as long as an individual adheres to the shahada, he is a Muslim. He said: "This is not about ISIS, but a matter of a certain methodology. Anybody who says 'There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah,' and enters Islam by uttering these two shahadas, cannot leave the fold of Islam unless he renounces these words. No matter what he does with his life, as long as he does not renounce these words, this does not lead to his expulsion from the fold of Islam."
Allam added that Al-Azhar did not have the authority to rule that any Muslim is a heretic; only a qadi (shari'a judge) can do this: "That person is brought before the court, and the judge investigates him in a scientific manner, in order to rule out all doubts. If the judge concludes that the person's actions necessitate his expulsion from Islam, he can rule that this person is an apostate."
To view a MEMRI TV clip of his statements, click below:
Other Senior Clerics: ISIS Is Indeed Heretical
At the same time, over the years, there have been a few voices from the Egyptian religious establishment to come out against this position, and to declare ISIS and other terror organizations heretical. Following the November 2017 Al-Rawdeh mosque attack, Ahmad 'Ammar Hashem, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars of Al-Azhar and former president of Al-Azhar University, said that terror organizations such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda were heretical. He said that attacking mosques constituted war against Allah, and attacking worshippers was a disgraceful crime, and anyone who permitted what Allah prohibits has left the fold of Islam.
Another cleric who accused terrorist of being heretics was Muhammad Zaki, Secretary General of Al-Azhar's Supreme Da'wa Council. On April 14, 2017, in response to a journalist's question about the whether or not it was possible to make an accusation of heresy against two ISIS terrorists who blew themselves up at the churches in Tanta and Alexandria in April 2017, Zaki said that a suicide bomber belonging to an extremist organization is an infidel if he believes that Islamic law permits this murder. He stressed that Al-Azhar issues accusations of heresy only based on certain principles and conditions, and added: "If he [the terrorist] considered the murder to be permitted, then he has committed heresy, and if he considers this an operation permitted by Islamic law, then he has committed heresy. If he thought this way and sacrificed his life for this, then he has committed heresy against that which was brought down to the Prophet Muhammad [i.e. the Quran]..."
Likewise, in 2014, Dr. Ahmad Karima, an Islamic law professor at Al-Azhar University, argued that ISIS, the Nigerian Boko Haram, and anyone who carries arms against the Islamic ummah should indeed be considered heretical. He based his argument on the hadith that states: "In the end times, there will emerge a group of foolhardy young people who speak loftily and read the Quran – [but their reading of the Quran] 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."
 The military operation was launched February 9, 2018. See Al-Ahram (Egypt), February 10, 2018.
 See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1326, In Egypt, Clashes Between The Institution Of The Presidency And The Institution Of Al-Azhar, August 21, 2017; MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6585, 'Al-Ahram' Columnist: Despite Al-Sisi's Call For Revolution In Religious Discourse, Al-Azhar Scholars Continue On Their Extremist Path, August 24, 2016.
 Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), February 20, 2018.
 Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), January 4, 2018.
 Al-Yawm Al-Saba' (Egypt), January 17, 2018.
 Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt) November 25, 2017.
 Akhbarelyom.com, November 28, 2017.
 Al-Watan (Egypt), December 1, 2015.
 See MEMRI 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.
 Ebaladnews, November 26, 2017.
 Al-Watan (Egypt), November 26, 2017.
 Alarab.co.uk, April 17, 2017. It should be noted that three months earlier, Zaki said that Al-Azhar cannot accuse ISIS of heresy; albawabhnews.com, January 6, 2017.
See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1326, In Egypt, Clashes Between The Institution Of The Presidency And The Institution Of Al-Azhar, August 21, 2017.
 Al-Tahrir (Egypt), December 17, 2014; See MEMRI 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.