The Egyptian university, Al-Azhar, the world’s oldest and most prestigious seat of Sunni Muslim scholarship, refused to brand the militant ISIS as infidel, affirming that “we cannot infidelize a Muslim regardless of his sins.”

On Thursday, December 11, Muslim scholars participated in a two-day conference at al-Azhar University in Egypt on the topic of “Fighting Extremism and Terrorism.” During the conference, the Nigerian Mufti, Sheikh Ibrahim Saleh al-Hussaini, called on Muslim leaders to declare members of ISIS “infidels.” “A Muslim who fights another Muslim is an infidel,” al-Hussaini declared in his speech, according to some media reports.

Al-Hussaini’s call created a wide dispute among Muslims, forcing al-Azhar to issue a statement to clarify the matter. Instead of agreeing with al-Hussaini and denouncing ISIS as infidel, al-Azhar released a statement, affirming that that al-Hussaini never stated “explicitly or implicitly” that ISIS is an infidel organization. The statement went on to state plainly “we cannot infidelize a Muslim regardless of his sins” because, while ISIS’s deeds may not be acceptable in Islam, a Muslim man cannot be labeled as an infidel unless he rejects Allah’s strict monotheism and the apostleship of Muhammad (The Islamic Double Creed, Shahada). “If we judged them as infidels, we would be like them, and thus create sedition—a situation we cannot take because of our moderate approach.”

Of course, many Arab Christians, particularly in Egypt, were troubled to hear al-Azhar’s statement. They apparently thought that the most prestigious Sunni Muslim University should simply declare ISIS and its members infidel. While the reaction of these Christians is understandable, it is not justified. I believe they ought not be alarmed by Al-Azhar’s decision and may even seek some encouragement from it. There are three points to make regarding this situation and al-Azhar’s statement.

First, Christians cannot reasonably expect al-Azhar to brand ISIS as infidel. To do so would clearly go against Islam. Far from being surprising, al-Azhar’s decision is exactly what one would expect from a prominent leading institution of Sunni Islamic faith. It cannot label ISIS’s members “infidels,” because by the most clear and basic definition of Islam, ISIS members are Muslims because they have pronounced the Shahada and never rejected it. And even though ISIS has no problem declaring other Muslims who disagree with their interpretations and practices “infidels,” al-Azhar is faithfully executing Islamic faith and practice. And even if, according to some media reports, the Nigerian Mufti has called the Muslims to infidelize ISIS and its members, al-Azhar had to denounce such a bold statement.

No matter how much many Muslim organizations attempt to reject and denounce ISIS and its deeds, the fact remains—its members are Muslims and it is illegitimate, according to Islam, to label them infidels.

Second, Christians in the majority Muslim countries are very uncomfortable with the word “infidel” due, no doubt, to their experience of hearing the term used against them to justify all kinds of atrocities in the name of Islam. As a result of being labeled “infidel,” these Christians have been discriminated against, abused, and marginalized.

In Islam, a k?fir is usually translated “infidel” or “unbeliever.” Its plural form is k?fir?n or kuff?r. According to the interpretation of various militant Muslim groups, the term k?fir refers to the one who does not believe in Muhammad as a prophet sent by Allah with the message of truth (Q48:13). Muhammad, they believe, came as the Seal of the Prophets confirming the earlier heavenly divine revelations (Q2:89). Thus, this term places all those who do not believe or accept Muhammad’s message in one basket—infidels.

The legitimacy of identifying Christians as infidels in Islam is uncertain. While militant Muslim groups, such as al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and ISIS, kidnap, kill or expel Christians because they consider Christians infidels, the practice of labeling Christians as infidels is definitely not unanimous among Muslims. There is simply no consensus, which presents an opportunity.

If Islamic teaching supports the conclusion, Al-Azhar should publicly declare that Christians are not infidels. Today Christians are vulnerable to the radical edicts issued against them by radical Muslims in part because they are not being sufficiently defended by the mainstream Muslim community. In a sense, the emergence of groups like Boko Haram and ISIS is an unfortunate, yet natural, consequence of the failure of the Muslim community to address the theological foundation of radical Islam.

Third, Muslims in the West, in an attempt to present Islam in a contemporary multi-religious context, generally tend to clearly denounce both militant actions and those who do them. They declare that these deeds are not of Islam and those who do them are not Muslim. On the other hand, Muslims in the East, particularly in the Arab World, are still struggling to specify their position, regarding those who do the radical actions under the name of Islam. Al-Azhar’s position crystallizes the issue. It is ready to denounce the radical and militant actions, rejecting them and declaring that this is not Islam. But it is not yet willing or prepared to go further to declare that radical militants themselves are not Muslims.

While these two Muslim voices, one from the West and the other from the East, present a disjointed front, reflecting an obvious disharmony within the Muslim community, there is a third voice by various radical Muslims claiming that they are indeed representing and applying the correct Islamic teaching. All the while, Christian communities who have survived from centuries are being wiped out.

Are radical Muslims correct in labeling Christians as infidels? Does the label give Muslims a license to abuse non-Muslims? The world needs a strong position from well-respected and prestigious Muslim institutions, such as al-Azhar, in defending Christians, and non-Muslims in general, against radical Muslim edicts. The implications of the answer of these two questions are serious, and silence could be in itself a dangerous response.

Ayman S. Ibrahim is a post-doctoral fellow of Middle Eastern History, holding a PhD from Fuller Graduate Schools, California.

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