The Distinction between Doing an Action of Disbelief and Being a Disbeliever
Shaikhul-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah said: ‘A certain saying may be kufr (disbelief) and so it is declared, unrestrictedly, that the doer is a kafir (disbeliever) and it is said: ‘He who says this, then he is a kafir.’ But a particular person who says that is not judged to be a kafir until the proof – whose denier is a kafir – is established against him; and this is like the textual threat since Allah says: #”Verily, those who unjustly eat up the property of orphans, they eat up only fire into their bellies, and they will be burnt in the blazing Fire!”# [Sura An-Nisa’ 4 :10]
So this and its like from the textual threats are true, but we do not bear witness that a specific individual will receive that which has been threatened. Therefore, we do not bear witness that any person in particular from the people of the Qiblah will enter the Fire, because that threat may not be carried out on him due to the absence of one of its conditions or the presence of something to prevent it. Perhaps its forbiddance never reached him, and perhaps he will repent from it, or perhaps he has great good deeds sufficient to wipe it out, or perhaps trials befall him which expiate it, or perhaps an acceptable intercessor will intercede on his behalf (on the Day of Resurrection).
Likewise, for that who makes the utterances of kufr, it could be possible that the texts which convey the truth did not reach him, or maybe they did, but he did not regard them as authentic or did not understand them. It is also a possibility that he had a doubt for which Allah will excuse him. So if a believer strives to arrive at the truth but makes a mistake, then Allah forgives his mistake whether in matters of belief or action. This is the position of the Companions of the Messenger (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam) and the great majority of scholars of Islam. [Majmoo` ul-Fatawa (3/345)]
Al-Qasimi says, quoting Shaikhul-Islam: ‘What is meant is that the position of the scholars is built upon the distinction between the position of action (i.e. it being an action of kufr) and the person in particular (who does the action). Indeed there is no difference reported about this issue from Imam Ahmad or the rest of the scholars of Islam such as: Malik, Abu Hanifah and ash-Shafi`e, that they do not declare the Murji`ah as disbelievers – those who say that eman (faith) is saying without action, and their texts are replete with the fact that the Khawarij and Qadariyyah and others are not declared to be kafirun (disbelievers).
‘When Imam ash-Shafi`e spoke with Hafs al-Fard, one of the heads of the Mu`attilah (deniers of Allah’s attributes), with regard to the question of the creation or otherwise of the Qur’an, he (ash-Shafi`e) said to him: ‘You have disbelieved in Allah, the Most Great.’ – declaring him to have done kufr, but he did not judge him to be an apostate because of that. Had he regarded him as an apostate and kafir, he would have hastened to ask for his execution.
‘However, a fatwa (religious verdict) was given that the callers to innovation such as Ghulatul-Qadariyya (deniers of pre-destination), al-Ja`d ibn Dirham and Jahm ibn Safwan, the leader of the Jahmiyyah (deniers of Allah’s names and attributes), and others were to be executed, but people prayed over them and they were buried with Muslims. So their execution was like that of the brigand. This was done in order to put an end to the harm they caused, not due to apostasy, and if they were disbelievers, the Muslims would have treated them as such.’ [Mahasinut-Ta’wel 5/1313-1314]
Adapted from: “Excusing out of Ignorance” By Ahmed Fareed