Imām an-Nawawī’s رحمه الله Explanation of Aḥādīth #116-117 in Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim

From one of the most discussed Aḥādīth is the statement narrated by ibn ʿUmar رضي الله عنه of The Prophet ﷺ:

If a man calls his brother a disbeliever, it applies to one of them.

Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim #116

In another wording, also narrated by ibn ʿUmar رضي الله عنه:

Whoever says to his brother, “O disbeliever!”, then it applies to one of them; it is either as he said or it rebounds back to him.

Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim #117

al-Muḥaddith & Faqīh Imām an-Nawawī رحمه الله (d. 676 AH/1277 CE) commentated: “Some scholars consider this Ḥadīth problematic, as it’s apparent meaning is not intended because the right view is that a Muslim is not labelled a disbeliever for comitting major sins, such as murder and adultery. When he does not consider the Islāmic faith to be false, the same applies to calling his brother a disbeliver. Therefore, several explanations of this Ḥadīth are given:

  1. It applies to one who considers this (apparent meaning) legitimate. Such a person is an disbeliever as a result. This is the meaning of ‘it rebounds back to him’, meaning the word ‘disbeliever’ rebounds back to him.
  2. What rebounds on him is his abuse of his brother and his sinful action of calling him a disbliever.
  3. This applies to the Khawārij, who consider other Muslims disbelievers. This explanation is quoted by Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ from Imām Mālik, but it is questionable because the correct view agreed by majority of eminent scholars is that the Khawārij are not disbelievers like the followers of other deviant creeds.
  4. His action (of calling his brother a disbeliever) will eventually lead him to disbelief, as it is said that sins pave the way to disbelief; whoever indulges in them may end up in such a woeful state of disbelief. This is endorsed in a version related by Abū ʿAwānah al-Isfarāyīnī in his book al-Mukharraj ʿala Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, ‘It is either as he said it or he himself gets the rebound of disbelief.’ In another report, ‘If one says to one’s brother, ‘You disbeliever!’, disbelief inevitably applies to one of them.’
  5. What rebounds on him is his action of calling another believer a disbliever. In other words, what rebounds is not disbelief itself but the accusation of disbelief levelled at a believer. It is as if he describes himself as a disbeliever by describing someone like himself as such, or because he gave such a description to one who is considered a disbeliever only by disbelievers who reject the Islāmic faith.

And Allāh knows best.”

Now after having gone through the explanation of the Ḥadīth & it’s various possible meanings, one should completely avoid & abstain from calling another Muslim a disbeliever so as to be safe from all of the consequences that one could potentially fall into by doing so.

May Allāh have abundant mercy upon Imām an-Nawawī & reward him for his great contributions to the religion of Islām.

All praise is due to Allāh, may His peace & blessings be upon our final Prophet Muḥammad, his family, his companions, & all those who follow him in guidance.

al-Minhāj bi Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim (المنهاج بشرح صحيح مسلم) by Imām an-Nawawī | Volume 2, Pages 51-52

Ṣafīullāh Labīb ibn Salīm ʿAbd al-Malik
13th of Ṣafar 1444