Debate between Imaams Ahmad and Ash-Shaafi‘i about unbelief and leaving prayer
Fatwa No: 285928

Question

Shaykh, is this story true: ''There is a debate between Imams Shafi’i and Ahmad which Ibn al-Subki documented in Tabaqat al-Shafiyyah al-Kubra 2/61. Imam Ahmad debated Imam Shafi’i on the point of one who abandons the prayer for no reason. The account is as follows: Shafi’i said to Imam Ahmad, “Do you say that he disbelieves?” Imam Ahmad replied, “Yes.” Imam Shafi’i again questioned him, “If he became a disbeliever, with what does he become a Muslim?” Imam Ahmad replied, “He says, ‘La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammad Rasul Allah.” Imam Shafi’i then asked, “The individual remained with this statement, he never left it?” Imam Ahmad then said, “He returns to Islam by praying.” Imam Shafi’i replied, “The disbeliever’s prayer is invalid and he is not judged with Islam by it.” Then, Imam Ahmad gave up and remained silent.''May Allah reward you.

Answer

All perfect praise be to Allaah, The Lord of the Worlds. I testify that there is none worthy of worship except Allaah, and that Muhammad, sallallaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, is His slave and Messenger.

Neither the historical transmission nor the content of this debate is correct. In regard to its chain of transmission, Shaykh Al-Albaani said after quoting it: “The story is not authentic and As-Subki  may  Allaah  have  mercy  upon  him pointed out to this fact, as he mentioned at the beginning of it, "It was related that…", which means that it is disconnected (i.e. there is interruption in the chain of its narrators).” [End of quote]

As regards unsoundness of the content, Imaam Ash-Shaafi‘i  may  Allaah  have  mercy  upon  him was too knowledgeable to have made these statements, and Imaam Ahmad  may  Allaah  have  mercy  upon  him is too knowledgeable to have been unable to respond to him. It is known that if someone apostatizes for any reason, he re-embraces Islam by declaring of the Two Testimonies of Faith along with repenting from what caused his apostasy. Hence, those who are of the view that a person who abandons the prayer becomes an unbeliever say that he does not become a Muslim again unless he prays and utters the Two Testimonies of Faith at the same time. This is very clear.

Addressing this story and considering it weak, the prominent scholar Shaykh Ibn ‘Uthaymeen  may  Allaah  have  mercy  upon  him said:

The expressions mentioned in the story are crude and it is very unlikely that Imaam Ash-Shaafi‘i said such things to Imaam Ahmad, as he was known to have high esteem befitting the position of Imaam Ahmad and the position of Imaam Ash-Shaafi‘i. Moreover, this debate contradicts what is well-known about Imaam Ahmad's School, because according to his School, a person who goes out of the fold of Islam due to abandoning the prayer does not become a Muslim again unless he performs the prayer, and if he performs the prayer, he is ruled to be a Muslim. This is what is known from his School.

Hence, it should be known that if someone goes out of the fold of Islam due to committing any act (whereby he becomes an unbeliever), he does not become a Muslim just by uttering the Two Testimonies of Faith – that nothing has the right to be worshipped but Allaah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allaah – until he rectifies what led to his apostasy. For example, if we assume that he says, I bear witness that nothing has the right to be worshipped but Allaah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allaah but he denies the obligation of Zakah, or fasting, or Hajj, then he does not become a Muslim just by saying, 'I bear witness that None has the right to be worshipped but Allaah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allaah', unless he affirms the obligatoriness of whichever of these fundamental rites whose obligatoriness he denied.

In any case, the principle regarding an apostate is that if he apostatizes by committing any act of disbelief, then it is not sufficient for him just to testify that nothing has the right to be worshipped but Allaah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allaah, unless he rectifies what we ruled to be disbelief.

Based on this, we say that a person who abandons the prayer is an unbeliever even if he testifies that nothing has the right to be worshipped but Allaah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allaah, and he does not become a Muslim unless he performs the prayer. We consider him an unbeliever for a reason, so this reason for which we considered him an unbeliever must cease to exist in order for us to consider him a Muslim. If the reason for us considering him an unbeliever ceases to exist, then we will rule that he is a Muslim. It is on this basis that there is a difference between one who is an unbeliever by origin, who embraces Islam by testifying that nothing has the right to be worshipped but Allaah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allaah, and between an apostate who apostatizes by committing any act of apostasy, who cannot be ruled as a Muslim unless the matter for which we considered him an unbeliever ceases to exist.

The issue is based on this. In our view about this debate, first, it is unlikely that it actually occurred between the two prominent and honorable Imaams as it was known that they revered and honored each other, and these harsh words could not have been used by Imaam Ash-Shaafi’i to address Imaam Ahmad as we know that they revered and honored each other. Second, the fact that this story is found in the book At-Tabaqaat Ash-Shaafi‘iyyah does not mean that it is authentic; rather, any statement that is attributed to a particular person must have a chain of narrators that goes back to him. Some statements have no chains of transmission, and some could be unsoundly attributed to someone and is therefore not taken into account. Third, this debate contradicts the well-known opinion of Imaam Ahmad  may  Allaah  have  mercy  upon  him that if someone apostatizes due to him abandoning the prayer, he does not become a Muslim unless he performs the prayer even if he testifies that nothing has the right to be worshipped but Allaah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allaah.” [End of quote]

Allaah Knows best.

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