Just over a year ago, in mid-September 2017, the Islamic State issued a statement retracting its highly controversial memo on the issue of takfir (excommunication) and announcing its "return to the truth." The seven-page memo, from May 2017, had been the subject of numerous refutations by the self-styled scholars (ulama) of the Islamic State, foremost among them being Turki al-Bin'ali, the head of the Office of Research and Studies (Maktab al-Buhuth wa'l-Dirasat), who was killed in an airstrike in May 2017 while being detained by senior leaders of the caliphate. (1)
The statement bearing the retraction, signed by the Islamic State's Delegated Committee (al-Lajna al-Mufawwada), foretold of an audio series that would treat the theological issues under dispute. Titled "Silsila 'ilmiyya fi bayan masa'il manhajiyya" ("Knowledge Series Clarifying Matters of Methodology"), it appeared in six installments in the second half of September 2017. (2)
The purpose of the "Silsila 'ilmiyya," as the first episode explained, was "to unify the [Islamic] State and unite the hearts of its soldiers around the truth." Thus far, however, it has done nothing of the sort. Far from bringing harmony, it has rather stoked further discord in the ranks of the Islamic State and its online support network. Meanwhile, al-Bin'ali's successor as head of the Office of Research and Studies, described by his supporters as the Islamic State's "mufti," is currently being detained. The charges against him may well lead to his execution, doing further damage to the group's ideological coherence. While the Islamic State remains stronger today than is commonly thought, the internal schism over ideology is doing lasting damage in a way that has yet to be appreciated.
"The Third Nullifier"
The main reason the May 2017 memo on takfir was so controversial was that it elevated takfir to the status of a foundational religious principle. This came in the assertion that "takfir of polytheists (takfir al-mushrikin) is one of the manifest principles of the religion (min usul al-din al-zahira)"--in other words, that takfir is a duty incumbent on every true believer, and that there is no excuse for failing to fulfill it. In jihadi discourse, the notion of takfir as a requirement derives from what is commonly known as "the third nullifier" (al-naqid al-thalith), a statement by Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism, in his list of 10 things that nullify one's Islam (i.e., expel one from the faith). The third nullifier in the list reads: "Whoever does not excommunicate the polytheists, or is doubtful about their unbelief, or affirms the validity of their doctrine--he is an unbeliever by consensus." (3) This is to say, those who fail to excommunicate supposed polytheists, or hesitate to do so, are themselves to be excommunicated. Referring to this line, the memo attacked the "postponers" (murji'a) within the Islamic State who have sought to dilute "the third nullifier" by imposing such restrictions on it as to render it null and void. One implication of the memo was thus that those who object to this hard line have put themselves beyond the pale. (a)
In the eyes of the Islamic State, the "polytheists" in question are the professed Muslims living in Iraq, Syria, and other Islamic countries who have allegedly committed some act of "polytheism" (shirk). This can mean voting in a democratic system or supporting rulers who fail to rule by Islamic law, among other things. When it comes to the polytheistic nature of such practices, the Islamic State is largely agreed. Where it has had difficulty formulating a consensus is in determining which people exactly are to be deemed polytheists, and so subject to takfir, and which people, if any, may be excused their theological shortcomings on account of either ignorance (jahl) or possession of an alternative religious interpretation (ta'wil).
The view of the Islamic State's scholars in the Office of Research and Studies has been that the third nullifier ought to be read restrictively, lest it lead to too expansive an approach to takfir. Al-Bin'ali, for instance, in a February 2016 letter to the Delegated Committee, complained about blanket statements demanding takfir of the supporters of "idolatrous" Arab rulers, noting that some of those concerned might be exempted for one reason or another. Such statements, he warned, inevitably lead to "takfir of entire societies and peoples." (4) Similarly, in his refutation of the May 2017 memo, al-Bin'ali argued that classifying takfir as "one of the manifest principles of the religion" opens the door to mass takfir--or, more precisely, takfir in infinite regress (al-takfir bi'l-tasalsul). (5)
Several years earlier, he spelled out his thinking on the subject at greater length in a lecture delivered in Raqqa. (6) "Many of the milliners of Islam," he declared, "are subject to rules and restrictions," upon which he proceeded to elaborate. One of the upshots of these rules and restrictions, he said, is that most of the world's professed Muslims are to be presumed Muslim unless proven otherwise. In particular, the inhabitants of the so-called 'lapsed abode of unbelief" (dar al-kufr al-tari')--that is, the abode of Islam (dar al-lslam) that has reverted to being the abode of unbelief (dar al-kufr) on account of the fact that Islamic law is no longer applied there--are to be given the...