The first group of scholars did not differentiate between the usul and furu (core and branches) of creed.
They adopted the opinion of kufr nu'a wa kufr ain which means the rejection of authentic belief established on certain (mutawatir) evidences leads to kufr in principle; in practice, it depends on the reasons why an individual rejects or disputes the belief.
For someone to deny such beliefs is akin to the one who accuses the Prophet (saw) of lying and could be seen as a kafir. However if after much research someone concludes the evidences are not decisive or open to interpretation, such a label would not be applied.
Ibn Taymiyyah, a Hanbali jurist, held this perspective:
وتَقْسِيمُ الْمَسَائِلِ إِلَى مَسَائِلِ أَصُولٍ يَكْفُرُ بِإِنْكارِهَا وَمَسَائِلُ فُرُوعٍ لَا يُكَفِّرْ بِإِنْكارِهَا لَيْسَ لَهُ أَصْلً لَا عَنِ الصَّحَابَةِ وَلَا عَنِ التَّابِعِينَ وَلَا عَنِ ائمة الاسلام وَإِنَّمَا هُوَ مَأْخُوذ عَنِ الْمُعْتَزِلَةِ وَنَحْوَهُمْ مِنْ أئِمَّةِ الْبِدْعَةِ ... وَحَقِيقَةُ الْأَمْرِ فِي ذَلِكً : أَنَّ الْقَوْلَ قَدْ يَكُونُ كُفْرًا فَيُطْلَقُ الْقَوْلُ بِتَكْفيرِ صَاحِبِهِ وَيُقَالُ مِنْ قَالٍ كَذَا فَهُوَ كَافِرٌ لَكِنَّ الشَّخْصَ الْمُعَيَّنَ الَّذِي قَالَهُ لَا ي حَكُمَ بِكَفْرِهِ حَتَّى تَقُومَ عَلِيُّهُ الْحُجَّةِ الَّتِي يُكَفَّرَ تارِكُهَا
"The division of subjects into usul, their rejection leads to kufr, and furu', their rejection does not lead to kufr, has no basis in (shari'a) nor cited by the companions (ra), nor the tabi'in (their successors), nor the (early) scholars of Islam. But this notion is taken from the Mu'tazila and their likes of heretics … The reality is: the belief could be kufr and so its adherant is a kafir. So we say: whoever says so and so (a kufr belief) is a kafir (in principle) but the person who said it is not a kafir until the true belief, that its rejection leads to kufr, is presented to him." (Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu' al-Fatawa, Vol.2, p. 196)
As did Abu Hanifa:
"من قال لا اعرف عذاب القبر فهو من الجهمية الهالكة لأنه أنكر قوله تعالى:" سنعذبهم مرتين
"Whoever says that he does not believe in punishment of the grave, he is one of the astray sects of al-Jahmiyah because he rejects what Allah says 'We will punish them twice.' (Qur'an 9:101)" (Abu Hanifa, Alfiqh al-Awsatt, p. 137)
And Ibn al-Mulaqan:
من أنكر عذاب القبر أو نعيمه فهو كافر، لأنه كذّب الله تعالى ورسوله في خبرهما.
"Whoever rejects the punishment and bliss of the grave is kafir because he accused Allah (swt) and His Prophet (saw) of lying." (Ibn al-Mulaqan, al-I'lam bi Fawa'id 'Umdat al-Ahkam, Vol. 1, p. 516)
Another group of scholars rejected the notion of kufr being applyied to those who rejected punishment of the grave because it is not one of the principles ('usul) of faith, rather a subsidiary (far') and bid'ah that doesn't lead to kufr.
Ibn al-Mu'aqatt al-Hanafi said the established position in the Hanafi school was this:
مسألة إنكار حكم الإجماع القطعي كإجماع الصحابة بصريح القول أو الفعل المنقول بالتواتر يكفر متعاطيه عند الحنفية وطائفة؛ لأن إنكاره يتضمن إنكار سند قاطع وهو يتضمن إنكار صدق الرسول صلى الله عليه وسلم وهو كفر، غير أن نسبة هذا إلى الحنفية ليس على العموم فيهم ... فالصحيح من المذهب أنه لا يكفر
"The notion of rejecting the definite consensus, such as the consensus of the companions (ra), by an action or a statement, its adherent is kafir according to Hanafis and other schools. Because his rejection implies the rejection of definite transmission that also leads to the rejection of the trustfulness of the Prophet (saw) which is kufr. But not all Hanafis adhere to this view … as the approved view is that such a person is not a kafir." (Ibn al-Mu'aqatt al-Hanafi, at-Taqrir wa at-Tahbir, Vol. 5, p. 136)
Imam Ahmed, the founder of the Hanbali madhhab, argued something similar:
عذاب القبر حق، لا يُنكِرُه إلا ضالٌّ مضلٌّ
"The punishment of the grave true and it is only rejected by those who are misled or misleaders (daall)." (Ibn al-Qayym, ar-Ruh, p. 77)
There are two scholarly views concerning the kufr of those who reject the punishment of the grave.
The first group of scholars say that rejection of the belief itself is kufr but its denier is not necessarily a kafir, that being determined by considering his arguments and circumstances.
The other group of scholars argue rejection fo the belief itself is not kufr, rather a heresy and sinful, and does not lead to kufr.
Allah knows best.
Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu' al-Fatawa, Vol.2, p. 196.
Abu Hanifa, Alfiqh al-Awsatt, p. 137.
Ibn al-Mulaqan, al-I'lam bi Fawa'id 'Umdat al-Ahkam, Vol. 1, p. 516.
Ibn al-Mu'aqatt al-Hanafi, at-Taqrir wa at-Tahbir, Vol. 5, p. 136.
Ibn al-Qayym, ar-Ruh.
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