Kufr - Kaffir - Takfir - Takfiri

Root k-f-r
Kufr Unbelief (in Islam) - literally, ingratitude.
kafir An infidel (non-Muslim).
takfir Excommunication; declaring a person or group of people non-Muslim.
In mainstream Sunni Islam, it is considered wrong to engage in takfir. Sunni Islam has a general reluctance to spread fitna (sow dissension) or 'backbite'. Furthermore, to declare takfir is to pre-empt Allah's judgement. The Muslim who considers another's actions to be wrong may say so, but will stop far short of declaring that person an apostate from the faith. Similarly, there is a reluctance to resist a leader who prays and does not restrict the observance of the faith.
Even qualified mainstream religious scholars are reluctant to declare takfir except in particularly egregious cases.
Some radical groups have broken this taboo.
Takfiri Those who excommunicate, or 'declare kufr', mainstream Muslim individuals, societies and leaders.
Although nominally Sunni, takfiris reject major aspects of mainstream Sunni religion. They are also apt to reject components of society, culture and law in Muslim countries, which they consider to have slipped back into a pre-Islamic state of pagan ignorance (jahiliyya). Unsurprisingly, takfiris often support militancy against their regimes.
Examples The radical medieval Islamic scholar Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyyah established a precedent for the declaration of takfir against a leader. The Mongols were invading the Muslim lands, and the Mamluks were fighting a Jihad against them. This campaign faced a crisis of legitimacy when the Mongols converted to Islam but continued to attack. Ibn Taymiyyah said that the Mongols' enforcement of the Yasa law in place of Islamic Shariah reversed their conversion, rendering the Mongols apostate. Therefore it was not only permitted, but obligatory to wage war against them. The political leadership acted upon this fatwa, establishing a valuable precedent for Islamic radicals centuries later.
The 18th Century Islamic Revivalist Muhammad Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab referred back to Ibn Taymiyyah in constructing an interpretation of Islam that allowed him to fight his fellow Muslims. He condemned many mainstream Muslim traditions (such as Sufism) as bid'a (innovation of the religion) and his followers slew many Muslims for allegedly kufr practises.
However, as a classification, takfiri more usually refers to certain splinter groups that broke away from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.1 1 For more on the Muslim Brotherhood, see our biography of its founder, Hassan al-Banna
Following the writings of Maulana Maududi and Sayyid Qutb, groups of 'takfiri' Salafis have disengaged themselves from the surrounding society and planned insurrections. The first such group, Takfir wal-Hijra (TwH, Excommunication and Holy Flight/Emigration), was founded by Shukri Mustafa in 1971. The group's strategy was to isolate itself from the general society while building strength for a planned uprising. The plan was unsuccessful, but later Qutbist movements have been inspired by Mustafa's example. In particular, the most important intellectual figure in al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is believed to have been a member of TwH.
There are occasional news reports about takfiris, or about TwH. These are often confused, claiming for example that the group recently arose in Northern Africa. Although there are certainly takfiri radicals in countries such as Morocco and Algeria, TwH was founded in Egypt over thirty years ago.
One common theme emerges in contemporary reports on TwH, or the 'takfiri' ideology. That is that the takfiris privately adhere to austere Islamic beliefs, but are willing to engage in unislamic practises in order to infiltrate kufr society. This particular approach has certainly been adopted by al-Qaeda, and it is a legacy of Abdus-Salam Faraj's challenge to Mustafa's ideology. Qutb had preached that the nascent Islamic jama'ah needed to set itself apart from society, but he vaguely stated that some contact should be maintained. Mustafa taught a radical separation from the kuffar but his followers also travelled to oil-rich states such as Saudi Arabia as guest workers, to bring money back to the group. After TwH had been broken up, Faraj declared that the TwH's isolation during a 'period of weakness' was merely a cowardly attempt to avoid the obligation of jihad. His group, al-Jihad, delayed terrorist attacks only for long enough to infiltrate the apparatus of state. However, this model also failed because it did not for training and developing the strength of the organisation.
Al-Qaeda, and associated groups, have synthesised these competing models. The resultant ideology holds that in the absence of an Islamic state, the vulnerable Muslim community must find a geographical location for hijra (Emigration/Flight from kufr) - such as Afghan training camps. However, the new model avoids a prolonged period of inactivity by alternating periods of hijra with periods of coexistence and infiltration with the outside world. This is in fact a brilliant ideological synthesis that turned the intellectually clumsy cult of TwH and the bloodthirsty bravado of al-Jihad into a sophisticated and workable revolutionary system. 2 This paragraph is based on research for the author's thesis; Trevor Stanley, The Quest for Caliphate: Islamist Innovation from Qutb to al-Qaeda, La Trobe University, 2003.
Although the al-Jihad organisation was an ideological antithesis of TwH, it is known that many TwH members joined al-Jihad (possibly including Zawahiri). It is possible that the organisation continued in a shell form, adapting to these ideological changes in direction, or that it continued as a moribund organisation until al-Qaeda operatives took it over (as Rohan Gunaratna seems to suggest).3 3Rohan Gunaratna, Inside al-Qaeda: Global Network of Terror, 2002, p114.
While the history of the group Takfir wal Hijra is likely to remain murky, we can make some observations about takfiri radicalism, as practised by al-Qaeda and its fellow travellers. As the heirs to a bizaare 1960s and 1970s cult that condemned mainstream Muslim society to apostasy, they bear about as much relation to the Muslim world as the Charles Manson cult bore to the Western world. They are willing to break traditional Muslim prohibitions in order to infiltrate Muslim and Western societies alike. In short, they will be extremely difficult to combat, both for the West and the East.

Author Trevor Stanley
The author does not claim to be a qualified religious scholar.
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Trevor Stanley, Definition: Kufr - Kafir - Takfir - Takfiri, Perspectives on World History and Current Events, July-December 2005. URL: Downloaded:
See AlsoShirk, Tawhid, Islamism, Ibn Taymiyya, Shukri Mustafa, Sayyid Qutb, Maulana Maududi

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