What Is Belief and What Is Disbelief?

Answered by Ustadh Mohammed Tayssir Safi

Question: Assalamu ‘Alaykum, My question is regarding a person who seems to affirm the theory of evolution concerning humans and some beliefs that contradict the Islamic creed. What is ruling on a person who makes such statements? Is he still considered a Muslim or is he an apostate?

Answer: Wa Aleykum Salam

Questions revolving around the belief or disbelief of a specific individual are serious and should be handled with the utmost care. These types of questions should be handled by specialists of law and theology and should not be a topic for open conversation and contemplation. They should also not be engaged from a distance, rather, these types of discussions should be had face to face using the wisdom, gentleness, and mercy that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) always employed.

Furthermore, even an expert’s determination does not actually mean that a person is a believer or a disbeliever before God, rather, it is merely an educated attempt at applying general principles derived from revelation to a given circumstance. Only God truly knows who is a believer and who is a disbeliever, since only God can see the reality of our hearts and only He knows the detailed circumstances in which we live. I preface with all of that to say: We should not be inquiring about the belief status of other people. In fact, we should generally avoid it at all costs.

However, given that the question has been posted, we can use it as a teachable moment. We will address your question specifically, but we can also use this question to address the question of belief and disbelief more broadly. The hope is that the reader can get an idea about how these questions are generally understood in the tradition and the great care we should take to avoid declaring anyone a disbeliever.

But before we move on to addressing the larger issue, let’s first address your question directly. Given the scenario that you have laid out, the person would still be considered a Muslim. One does not leave Islam unless they reject or deny certain matters that are delineated below

What is belief and what is disbelief?

Belief is to submit your heart to what you know to be certainly a part of the religion of the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace). And disbelief is to not submit, or to reject, or to deny what is certainly a part of the religion. In fact, it is more specific than that: It is to deny that which God has commanded us to believe in that is certainly part of the religion. Thus in order for a person who is Muslim to disbelieve (Allah protect us all from such an end), they essentially must reject what we were commanded to believe in and is certainly part of the religion. [See Ghazali’s Iqtisad as well as his Faysal al-Tafriqa and Taftazani’s Sharh al-Aqa’id]

However, the matter is actually more complicated and nuanced because some matters are known to be certainly part of the religion by the average person and other matters are only known to be certainly part of the religion by experts. The non-expert is not held to the standard of an expert. Rather, he/she only disbelieve if they reject what the average person would certainly know is a part of the religion. An example of this would be the five prayers. If someone were to reject the five prayers, they are rejecting what everyone knows is a part of Islam and as such have disbelieved. But a person might reject one of the laws of inheritance that are certainly part of the religion and are often taken directly from the Qur’an but for a non-expert to reject that would not render them a disbeliever because that is not common knowledge.

In the scenario you asked about, the individual in question does not seem to be denying that which God has commanded us to believe in that is certainly part of the religion. In some of the cases you mentioned, it isn’t even clear whether he is even denying outright or not. In other cases, the matter in question is not certainly known by common knowledge. Perhaps the only exception to what I have just mentioned would be your characterization of him bluntly pronouncing disbelief. It would really matter what he said, specifically, and even then his repeating the testimony of faith thereafter would enter him back into the fold regardless. His not believing that statements might cause one to disbelieve is not one of those commonly known certain parts of the religion and so his rejecting that would not render him a disbeliever.

Given the complexity of what was described above, what is the best step forward?

How should we respond in such cases?

As mentioned at the beginning of this answer, it is best not to inquire about the belief status of another person. However, if one is doing it out of the general concern and wanting to impact the person positively then that is acceptable. In that case one should abide by the following:

Generally, such cases should be left to scholars of the religion to respond to. If you have individuals in your life that can help advise you and advise the person in question, then great! However, one should not debate, call out, or get into an argument with someone over such matters. These are delicate issues that require knowledge, wisdom, and experience. Therefore, non-experts are much better off involving experts unless they believe that it is highly likely that they can advise someone in a good way and that said person will take it in a good way. Otherwise, we risk pushing the person further out which is not the intended outcome.

In addition to what is mentioned above, the scholar should engage the person privately and not publicly. People will generally respond negatively to public criticism or any type of public challenge. It is much more beneficial for the scholar to engage the person and counsel them in private, presenting all proofs in a wise, intelligent, and kind way. The only exception might be someone who is publicly calling to corrupt beliefs, then it is incumbent on someone who is an expert to address it in a wise manner, publicly, so that others will not be impacted by those false beliefs.

In conclusion, disbelief is a ruling of the Sacred Law

Disbelief is not something that we can wield against people we disagree with. Rather, disbelief is the most weighty charge anyone can be accused of and it is only delineated by God and not anyone else. The implications of disbelief are enormous and as such should never be rushed to and in fact should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. [See Ghazali’s Iqtisad and his Faysal al-Tafriqa] Therefore, we must take the utmost care not to rush to such judgments or push people in that direction. This religion is not ours to decide who is in and who is out. Rather, it is up to scholars to extract from revelation what God asks of us and implement it with the wisdom, mercy, and gentleness that the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) employed.

I strongly advise you, all readers, and myself to be very cautious when it comes to such matters.

Allah knows best,
I leave you in Allah’s care,

[Ustadh] Mohammed Tayssir Safi

Checked and Approved by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani

Ustadh Mohammed Tayssir Safi was born in Dubai, and moved to the United States six months after he was born. He graduated from the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor in 2006 as a double major in Political Science and Middle Eastern and North African Studies. He spent the next 3 years of his life traveling the Middle East, completing the Arabic program, CASA, in Egypt, and pursuing private studies in Arabic linguistics and introductory Islamic sciences. His brief introduction to Islamic studies continued for another year at the Dar al-Mustafa Institute in Tarim, Yemen. Mohammed also teaches Arabic at the University of Michigan. Apart from classes at the University of Michigan, Mohammed studies at the hands of Muslim scholars privately in multiple sciences including linguistics, law, and theology.