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Who is a Muslim?

You are free to decide either narrowly or broadly. However when the state decides who is a Muslim, religious oppression almost always follows.


Posted 18 August 2020

In history conflicts inside religions have been far bloodier than conflicts between religions.

While this page is about Islam, I begin by looking the three Abrahamic faiths together.

A short history of internal religious conflict


Apart from obscure exceptions such as the Himyarite kingdom in Yemen and the Khazars, Jews have not had political power for 2,000 years until the recent establishment of the State of Israel.

The fall of Jerusalem

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s book “Jerusalem: The Biography” is a wonderful history of a city which is the most memorable place I have ever visited.

In Chapter 13 “Jewish Wars: The Death of Jerusalem AD 66-70” Montefiore covers the situation after the Jews revolted, and the Romans were marching on Jerusalem with their legions. I have reproduced a brief extract below:

“As his [Florus, Roman general] reinforcements approached Jerusalem, the Jews were divided between those keen on reconciliation with the Romans and the radicals who were preparing for war, perhaps in the hope of winning a limited independence under Roman suzerainty....

The Zealots, a popular party based around the Temple, and the Sicarii, the dagger-wielding brigands, stormed the Upper City and drove out King Agrippa’s troops. They burned the palaces of the high priest and the Maccabees as well as the archives where debts were recorded. For a short moment, their leader, a ‘barbarous, cruel’ warlord ruled Jerusalem until the priests assassinated him and the Sicarii escaped to the Masada fortress near the Dead Sea and played no further part until Jerusalem had fallen.

The priests were back in nominal control but from now on, the factions in Jerusalem and their warlords, often provincial opportunists and local adventurers as well as religious fanatics, embarked on a savage and chaotic Jewish civil war. Even Josephus, our sole source, fails to clarify who formed these factions and what they believed. But he traces the strain of religious anti-Roman zealotry all the way back to the Galilean rebellions after Herod the Great’s death: ‘they have a passion for liberty, which is almost unconquerable since they are convinced God alone is their leader’. They ‘sowed the seed from which sprang life’. During the next few years, he says, Jew fought Jew ‘in perpetual slaughter’.”

Who does modern Israel recognise as a Jew?

Israel's Law of Return 1950 permits any Jew in the world to become an oleh, namely a person who is making aliyah [returning or "going up" to Israel.]

It needs a definition of who is a Jew, and that is in section 4B "For the purposes of this Law, "Jew" means a person who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion."

With regard to "converted to Judaism", the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel uses its political influence to ensure that the state does not recognise non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism performed outside Israel.

This clearly denigrates the Reform and Liberal denominations of Judaism. It illustrates the general principle that whenever a religious group has political power, it uses that power to oppress co-religionists that it disapproves of.


Christianity first achieved political power when the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity.

Ever since, Christian political power, where it existed, has been used to suppress heresies. There was a long history of this in the Roman Empire after Constantine, and subsequently in medieval and Renaissance Europe. The Wikipedia article "History of Christian thought on persecution and tolerance" gives extensive details.

Indeed, the history of Christian Europe was written in bloody religious wars, for example the Thirty Years' War.

It was religious oppression that made the Pilgrim Fathers seek a new life in what became the USA. However the USA has also seen Christian v Christian persecution, with the Mormons having to seek refuge ever westward until they found sanctuary in Utah.

More recently, from 1929-1945 Yugoslavia saw attacks by Roman Catholic Croats on Orthodox Serbs (as well as on Bosniak Muslims.)


Muslim v Muslim conflict has existed since the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

The first Caliph, Abu Bakr, suppressed by force the desire of certain tribes to secede and not pay zakat into the central treasury under his control, in what are known as the Apostasy Wars. The fourth Caliph, Ali, was assassinated by a member of a breakaway religious faction, the Kharijites.

If you read Patricia Crone’s book, “Medieval Islamic Political Thought” you will find many more examples of the use of force to compel adherence to religious doctrines.

In the modern era, far more Muslims have been killed by other Muslims than in any conflict with non-Muslims. While some of this might be described as “political”, there is almost always a significant religious divide.

The Iraq-Iran war 1980-1988 killed around 500,000 people according to Wikipedia, although higher estimates have also been seen. Iraq was controlled by a Sunni dictator while Iran was not just a majority Shia country but had a government run by Shia religious leaders.

In Iraq after the 2003 American led invasion, the overwhelming majority of the death toll in Iraq has been Muslims killed by other Muslims across sectarian divides.

The death toll in the Syrian civil war now stands at around 500,000. Again there are major religious divides between the various groups fighting in Syria either against the primarily Alawite government or against each other.

Similarly, most of the people killed by the terrorist organisations Al Qaeda and ISIS have been other Muslims. The country of my birth, Pakistan, sees regular religiously motivated terrorism directed against its Shia minority.

At the heart of all this conflict is the refusal to accept that the other person is legitimately a Christian, a Jew, or a Muslim as the case may be.

Who might want to decide whether I am a Muslim?


The essence of Islam is obedience to God. On the Day of Judgement, He will decide whether or not I lived my life as a Muslim, and how well or badly I obeyed Him.

God does not need assistance in this from you, or from any other person.

The State

The state has no legitimate interest in my religious beliefs. When states involve themselves in religious matters, it always leads to oppression. The history of Christian Europe provides the clearest illustration, but we can see it around the globe today.

The rationale for excluding the state from religious matters is explained further on my page “The proper boundary of political Islam.”

The state should see all of its people as equal citizens, and has no right to make rules regarding their religion. Having fled religious oppression in Europe, the Founding Fathers of the United States of America understood this better than anyone.

Paragraph three of Article VI of the US Constitution reproduced below requires office holders to take an oath or affirmation ("affirmation" caters for those who do not believe in God or otherwise have a religious objection to swearing oaths) to support the Constitution before taking office. It states clearly that any American can hold office irrespective of their religious beliefs:

“The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

The first 10 Amendments to the constitution are known as the Bill of Rights. The very first right mentioned, at the beginning of the First Amendment reproduced below, is religious freedom.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

What about the UK census?

Some ask whether it was legitimate for the UK to ask citizens about their religious belief in the census of 2001 and 2011. I believe it was, for several reasons:

  1. Unlike the other census questions, this question was clearly stated to be optional.
  2. If citizens decided to answer, they were free to choose any religion they wished. The state made no attempt to assess the validity of the answer. Indeed, if the citizen did not wish to select from any of the pre-printed answers (one of which was “No religion”), they had space to write in the name of their religion.

    The Wikipedia article “Religion in the United Kingdom” tells us that “In the 2001 census, 390,127 individuals (0.7 per cent of total respondents) in England and Wales self-identified as followers of the Jedi faith.” This is a set of beliefs from the Star Wars movies.
  3. Muslim groups had asked for the question because getting a more accurate estimate of the number of Muslims in the UK was relevant for some of the services provided by national and local government.

Employers and service providers

Such bodies have a legitimate interest in asking employees and service users about their religious beliefs, provided:

See my page “In praise of ethnic monitoring.”

It is also legitimate for an employer to ask job applicants about their religion in one very specific circumstance.

Equality Act 2010 section 39 (1) states:

“(1) An employer (A) must not discriminate against a person (B)—

(a) in the arrangements A makes for deciding to whom to offer employment;

(b) as to the terms on which A offers B employment;

(c) by not offering B employment.”

However this is overridden by EA 2010 schedule 19 paragraph (2)(1) in certain cases:

“2 (1) A person (A) does not contravene a provision mentioned in sub-paragraph (2) by applying in relation to employment a requirement to which subparagraph (4) applies if A shows that—

(a) the employment is for the purposes of an organised religion,

(b) the application of the requirement engages the compliance or non-conflict
principle, and

(c) the person to whom A applies the requirement does not meet it (or A has reasonable grounds for not being satisfied that the person meets it).”

The compliance principle and the non-conflict principle are defined in Schedule 9 paragraphs 2(5) and 2(6):

“(5) The application of a requirement engages the compliance principle if the requirement is applied so as to comply with the doctrines of the religion.

(6) The application of a requirement engages the non-conflict principle if, because of the nature or context of the employment, the requirement is applied so as to avoid conflicting with the strongly held religious convictions of a significant number of the religion’s followers.”

As a simple example, it is the above legal provisions that enable a mosque which wishes to hire an imam to require any candidate for that position to be a Muslim, and indeed a Muslim belonging to the precise Muslim sub-group that the mosque may be aligned with.

The above exemption permitting, for certain limited purposes, employers to take an interest in the religion of employees applies both to private-sector employers and to public sector ones ultimately controlled by the state.

In my opinion, that is the only acceptable exception to the general principle that the state has no legitimate interest in the religious beliefs of its citizens.

Individuals for purely private purposes

The limitation to “purely private purposes” is to allow for the fact that individuals are often also employers. As employers, individuals are subject to the same rules all other employers.

In your personal life, you are free to make your own decisions.

For example, most people wish to marry someone who shares their religious beliefs.

(This is not universally true, but I believe that it applies to most people. I share this view myself because it makes it easier for the married couple to decide how to bring up their children.)

Accordingly, if you wish to marry a Muslim, you are entitled to determine whether any potential spouse is a Muslim, using whatever criteria you consider appropriate.

What does Islam teach about deciding who is a Muslim?

As with the followers of all major religions, Muslims hold a very broad range of beliefs. This includes diversity regarding how one decides whether someone is a Muslim.

Some Muslims require many conditions to be satisfied before classifying a person as a Muslim. Other Muslims require few conditions.

Obviously, the more conditions you require to be satisfied, the smaller the number of people you will classify as Muslims. I call this the “narrow” approach.

The fewer the number of conditions you require, the greater the number of people you will classify as a Muslim. I call this the “broad” approach.

An example of the narrow approach

The document “50 Essential Islamic Beliefs – Quick Reference from Bājūrī’s Epistle” is widely distributed by Muslim organisations. Describing all of these beliefs as “essential” means that the author considers that not holding any single one of them would disqualify the individual from being a Muslim. (Otherwise they would not be "essential.")

That narrow approach is similar to views of the “well-known British Muslim politician” I mentioned in my review of "A Textbook of Hadith Studies: Authenticity, Compilation, Classification and Criticism of Hadith" by Mohammad Hashim Kamali.” This individual considered that “to doubt the authenticity of a single Hadith is to place yourself outside the boundary of Islam.”

The narrow approach underlies the thinking of ISIS. It allows them to conclude that all Iraqis or Syrians who do not support them are not Muslims and can therefore be legitimately killed, as ISIS's beliefs justify killing non-Muslims.

The broadest approach

The broadest approach would be to look at everyone who well informed non-Muslims (Non-Muslims because they have no personal stake in the Muslim classification question) categorise as Muslims and then ask “What is the minimum set of beliefs that all these people share?”

I consider that this minimum set of shared beliefs comprises:

Consequences of the broadest approach

As mentioned above, the broadest approach produces the largest set of Muslims.

Requiring only a minimal list of beliefs obviously means that the set will include many people who would be rejected as being Muslims by those who use narrower approaches.

I give just three examples below:


Quranists believe in the divinity of the Quran but reject all Hadith.

Obviously, the British Muslim politician who considered that disbelieving a single Hadith puts you outside Islam would never accept Quranists as Muslims.

Shia Muslims

Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab whose religious legacy is the branch of Islam practised by the rulers of Saudi Arabia did not consider Shias to be Muslims. He believed that it was legitimate for them to be killed. However approving of killing Shias is not the official religious ideology of the Saudi Arabia today.

Many terrorist organisations such as ISIS do not regard Shias as Muslims, which is why they have no compunction about killing them.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community

The founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, “claimed to be The Promised Messiah and Mahdi.”

Many Muslims believe that the above claim contradicts the Quran, which uses the phrase “Khatam an-Nabiyyin” to describe the Prophet Muhammad. (The phrase is discussed in the linked article.) Accordingly, those Muslims do not consider members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community to be Muslims.

Where do I stand?

I consider that religious belief and practice are for every individual to decide for themselves. That is what Christians learned after centuries of religious wars.

The widespread religious intolerance in many Muslim majority countries comes from refusal to accept that.

In my opinion, such religious intolerance is itself a violation of God’s teachings in the Quran, most famously in Quran 2:256 & 257:

“THERE SHALL BE no coercion in matters of faith. Distinct has now become the right way from [the way of] error: hence, he who rejects the powers of evil and believes in God has indeed taken hold of a support most unfailing, which shall never give way: for God is all-hearing, all-knowing.

God is near unto those who have faith, taking them out of deep darkness into the light – whereas near unto those who are bent on denying the truth are the powers of evil that take them out of the light into darkness deep: it is they who are destined for the fire, therein to abide.”

Muhammad Asad translation

Verse 256 sets out the principle of “No coercion in matters of faith” while Verse 257 makes it clear that the penalty of denying God’s truth lies in the afterlife (as opposed to being punished by other humans claiming to act in the name of God.)

Accordingly, I believe that anyone who wishes to call themselves a Muslim is free to do so.

For those rare occasions when I need to express a view about whether someone is a Muslim, I use the broadest definition, as set out above. For example, an individual may have grown up inside a Muslim family but may state that now they do not believe in the existence of God. In my opinion, applying even the broadest definition, such a person is not a Muslim, because they are an atheist.

Pakistan: a case study in religious persecution

Pakistan provides a textbook example of what happens when the state decides to determine which of its citizens are Muslims.

It has led to members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community being unable to apply for a passport without violating their own religious beliefs because on the Pakistani passport application form they are required to either:

As a Muslim, even though I am not an Ahmadiyya, I consider it outrageous for the state to require any Muslim to sign up to the above declaration. This requirement is a clear infringement of the applicant's freedom to think and believe as they wish.

Although I do not regard Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiani as a "nabi", it infringes my liberty for a passport application form to require me to state this. Furthermore, I disagree with the second half of the mandatory declaration, since my use of the broadest approach means that I do regard his followers as Muslims.

For more background, I recommend reading the report “Suffocation of the Faithful: The Persecution of Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan and the Rise of International Extremism” which was published in July 2020 by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Ahmadi Muslim Community UK. The report also explains how anti-Ahmadiyya hatred is exported from Pakistan to the UK.


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