Conversation Guide #11: Al-walā’ w’ al-barā’ (Loyalty and Disavowal) – by Yaser Ellethy

The notion of al-walā’ w’ al-barā’ is entrenched in some classical and modern Muslim discourses as one of the tenets of creed that ordains a Muslim’s view and attitude toward ‘disbelievers’. The proponents of a doctrinal position of this notion in Islam utilise a certain reading of scriptural sources maintaining them as explicit and unequivocal enough to justify the coherence of this ‘creed’. Nonetheless, a thorough investigation of these scriptural justifications could reconstruct the credibility of this claim. In modern times, the “doctrine” of al-walā’ and al-barā’ was, and still is, enthusiastically used among militant groups to justify warfare activities, not only against non-Muslims but also against Muslims who are not in line with their “islam”. The question is whether this ‘theory’ can be established on explicit and unequivocal scriptural grounds and whether it can justify hate speech and practices against the “other”. This study is an attempt to find an answer to this question by examining Islamic sources as embodied in the Quran, the Sunnah and some classical and modern exegetic and legal works. It also tackles the issue of apostasy (ridda) and its possible liaison with disloyalty, which historically marked the question of freedom of religion in Islam, and still inspires contemporary writings and debates on Islamic exclusivism.


According to classical Arabic lexicons (Ibn Manzour, Ibn Faris), the term walā’ linguistically denotes proximity (qurb, from the stem w-l-y, among many other derivations and meanings), whether physically or emotionally, including being content with and following others as if one belongs to them (Q. 5:51; “who among you take them as awliā’ [allies, friends; pl. of walīy] is one of them”), support and help (nuṣra), love (maḥabba/mawadda)  and the derivative muwālā (alliance, friendship) which is to be seen as opposite to enmity (mu‘ādā). Technically walā’ means support, help, love and showing honour and respect to those in proximity or to likeminded people both inwardly and/or outwardly. In this respect, it concerns God, his messenger and the believers. On the other hand, barā’ means, in the context of our discussion, abandoning, severance, distancing oneself from, disavowal and denial of something/someone. Technically it denotes getting rid of and disavowal of, distancing and disassociating oneself from, and showing enmity to something/someone. Again, in this respect, it concerns the enemies of God, his messenger and the believers.

Does it belong to ‘aqīda (creed/doctrine)?

There is an established opinion among several mainstream Muslim scholars that the issue of walā’ towards believers and barā’ towards unbelievers and enemies of Islam belongs to the fundamentals of Islamic creed (‘aqīda). It is distinguished in the relevant literature as “the doctrine of loyalty and disavowal” (‘aqīdat al-walā’ w’al-barā’). The paradox of this take on the issue as part of ‘aqīda lies in the epistemological and methodological justifications and ethical scope of this doctrine. It is established in the legal Islamic theory of uṣūl alfiqh that its realm of research is strictly related to ‘practical rules’ (aḥkām ‘amaliyya) and does not include issues of ‘aqīda. However, in this case, the supporters of the ‘aqīda nature of the notion start with practical rules for dealing with certain groups and ideas considered to be anti-Islamic and incorporate them to the tenets of Islamic creed legitimised by scriptural texts. The question is whether this is a traditionally justified practice of the prophetic era and the following generations of righteous predecessors (salaf), which these supporters cherish as the pristine and pure source of Islam. Since the establishment of the first Muslim geopolitical entity in 622 C.E. the Medina Charter stated a strong bond of loyalty to the new established ‘state’ under the leadership of the prophet, including Jewish tribes and anyone else who joined the people of this Charter. This constitutional document refers to Jews and other partners as forming one umma with the Muslim believers. The same document stipulated that Muslims have their own religion and Jews have theirs, both parties are committed to defend or contribute to the defence of Medina and should not keep alliance with or help enemies of the people of the document. This meant that ‘loyalty’ can be a trans-religious bond based on values of social coherence, political consolidation and protection of national integrity beyond (non)denominational affiliations. In today’s national-state democratic constitutionalism, where citizenship shapes loyalties and disloyalties, Muslims and non-Muslims stand together in defence of their national integrity regardless of their different religious belongings. It is true that loyalty and disloyalty can entail a core notion in each faith system that distinguishes between belief and unbelief. However, the pluralistic Islamic view draws clear borderlines between credo and tractatio.

Scriptural justifications contextualized

Examining the scriptural texts (Q. 3:28, 118-119; 4:89, 139, 144; 5:51, 57, 8:72-73; 9:23; 58:22 and 60:1, 4, 8-9) and exegetic traditions shows how the relevant verses relate to situations of antagonism and enmity between believers and disbelievers and making right and wrong alliances in exceptional war and conflict contexts, as some Sunnah narrations on the reasons for revelation report. It is prohibited for Muslims in these cases to disclose their strategic confidential plans and/or seek support from disbelievers at the cost of their belief and co-believers thinking they will be protected. The Quranic narrative on the issue of loyalty and disavowal is thus, almost in all cases, related to situations of interreligious conflicts, competing coalitions and menacing amities with enemies where belongings and loyalties cannot be negotiable. The reasons for revelation clarify how hypocrites or in other cases some Muslims, deliberately or unintentionally, put the security of their state and the integrity of their faith at risk. This includes choosing the side of enemies, showing them amity and support and disclosing strategic secrets for the sake of protection, honour or power. The Quranic discourse stresses the obligations a) not to jeopardize public interests in times of wars and conflicts, b) not to take enemies as allies at the cost of religious and political loyalties, c) to stand firm in faith issues, d) to avoid hypocritical attitudes, and e) to be loyal to one’s religious category (Islam) which demands a Muslim deal kindly and justly with every ‘other’ beyond these exceptional cases. In this perspective, independently of faith affiliations, loyalties can converge for a ‘common good’, but disloyalties cannot be tolerated in cases of ‘common risk’.

Ridda (apostasy) as disloyalty

The jurisprudential evidences for apostasy in Islamic theology, unlike that of loyalty and disavowal, are extracted from the Sunnah and its narrated reports; the hadiths. The Quran affirms freedom of belief in more than two hundred verses. Several modern scholars have reconstructed the juristic reasoning on apostasy and have posed serious questions, partly on the authenticity and authority of the hadiths and partly on the ratio legis behind the punishment against it. Through the latter, they reflect on whether apostasy involves mere renunciation of religious belief, or has further implications for the Muslim community and state. In fact, the liaison between apostasy and disloyalty lies in the fact that ridda, in a premodern context, included disengagement from the community, change of allegiance and therefore enmity with the former socio-political context. It is the case, though, that the number of scholars who support the death punishment for every unrepentant apostate remains influential. The burden lies on the official fiqh and collective fatwa-councils to establish a politically binding theological substantiation of these controversial issues, especially when existing modern and classical authoritative reasoning forms a solid ground to build on.



  1. How are walā’ and barā’ defined in the Muslim tradition and how do these notions relate to the Muslim view of the ‘other’?
  2. To what extent does loyalty and disloyalty in Islamic tradition justify exclusivist attitudes?
  3. Which aspects of this view of the ‘other’ are comparable to Christian exclusivism?
  4. How is this view to be reconstructed in light of Quran and Hadith hermeneutics?
  5. What is the link between the loyalty-disloyalty theory and apostasy?
  6. How can the contextualisation of the interpretation of walā’and barā’ as suggested in this article be of help for those who are (considered as) apostates?



This summary belongs to a more extensive article of Yaser Ellethy, which can be found here: Al-walā’ w’ al-barā’ (Loyalty and Disavowal): Reconstructing a ‘Creed’ in the Muslim Hermeneutics of ‘Otherness’.
Last year, we published the book Religious Exclusivism and Social Inclusion? A Religious Response, which is available Open Access (for free). People asked for an additional discussion guide to bring the outcomes of this research to a wider audience. We agreed to that, and are happy to present a discussion guide which offers you summaries of all contributions, accompanied by questions for discussion. We hope this stimulates people, in all different contexts, to discuss these matters thoroughly and make them actual and relevant for their own situations. Every week we publish another summary of a chapter of the book, and questions for discussion.  If you want to use the whole conversation guide at once, it can be downloaded here: Conversation guide.