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Kufr and Shirk
By Abbas Ali Baig

‘Kufr’ means ‘to deny’ and ‘Shirk’ means ‘to associate.’ But in Islamic Shari'ah these two terms have special meanings. ‘Kufr’ means denial of the existence of God, and ‘Shirk’ means to associate partners with the All Powerful Allah. And so, a Kafir is one who denies the existence of God Who is not only Almighty and Omnipotent, but the Creator and the only Sustainer of this entire Cosmos. Similarly, a Mushrik is one who, although, believes in the existence of God,[If you ask them who created the heavens and the earth, they will surely say Allah. (31:25)] but side by side also believes in various other forces whom, he thinks, not only help the Creator, but also have some share in the kingdom of God, and who can also help the people besides the only and All Powerful Allah. In other words, they have a share of their own in the Kingdom of God.

Islam does not use any harsh word for them except stating facts. Thus to address someone as Kafir or Mushrik is not an abuse. These are, in fact, the words of Arabic language which describe a special kind of people who possess certain beliefs of their own. Islam does not prevent them from holding such types of beliefs. Everyone is free to have one’s own belief. One may believe or may not believe in the existence of God. Islam does not force anybody to believe in its ideology. Qur'an unequivocally states: ‘There is no compulsion in religion’ (2:256). At another place, Qur'an categorically states: ‘And say: ‘The truth is from your Lord; then whoever likes, can believe; and whoever likes, can deny.’ (18:29)

Thus the word, Kafir or Mushrik should not be construed as derogatory or abusive as some people consider. Because if someone does not believe in God, he cannot be called a Mu’min (believer). It will be factually incorrect to call such a person as believer, who does not believe in God. There are people who feel proud in declaring themselves as atheist or non-believer, and they might feel offended if someone calls them believer, because they are simply not believers. So if Qur'an calls such people who deny the existence of a Creator Who has created this entire Universe, as Kafir; what’s wrong? It is simply stating a matter of fact. One should not feel offended by being addressed as Kafir or Mushrik, in the same way as one does not feel offended by being addressed by one’s profession like lawyer, doctor or engineer, or by one’s nationality like Indian, European or American.

But the problem does not end here. Qur'an does not only call them as Kafir or Mushrik but also forewarns them of the consequences of their disbelief and polytheism. Qur'an unhesitatingly informs such people that their end will be disastrous if they persist on their disbelief and polytheism.Qur'an unhesitatingly states:

‘And if you are in doubt concerning that which We have sent down to Our slave (Muhammad), then produce a chapter (Surah) of the like thereof, and call your witnesses besides Allah, if you are truthful. But if you do not do it, and you can never do it, then fear the Fire whose fuel is men and stones, prepared for the disbelievers.’ (2:23-24) 

If we reflect upon the above verse rather unbiasedly, we shall find that, here, disbelief is equated with falsehood. A disbeliever is not truthful. So usually a person who denies the existence of God, is, at the same time, telling a lie also. Now if a person starts his life with falsehood, what good can be expected of him? So Kufr means falsehood, and falsehood is such an evil that can never be appreciated by any sensible person.

Islam, therefore, invites mankind towards the truth, and forbids people from following untruth or falsehood, because it has lots of drawbacks. If a person is truthful, he will play a positive role in constructing the society around him. He will be honest and sincere. He will be fearless, bold and brave. A truthful person will not fear anyone except his own Creator. This consciousness of the Most Powerful Creator Who is always present everywhere, and is fully aware of even of the minutest details, prevents mankind from committing any error, because he knows that he is under constant vigil, so he should behave properly. But this consciousness can develop only if one really believes in an Omnipresent God Who is always watchful of even one’s most hidden secrets. It is like as if a person is closetted in a room which is fitted with video cameras taking pictures of each and every action of that man and relaying them to his superiors. Obviously in such a situation, he would avoid even the minor lapses lest these might be noticed. So if a person really believes in an Omnipresent Allah, he or she can’t commit any error, because committing error implies that our belief in an Omnipresent Allah is not perfect. This can be elucidated by an example from the Qur'an that when Zulaikha tried to seduce Yusuf (A), he abstained from her seduction solely because he knew that his Lord was watching him.

Qur'an describes this incidence in the following words:’And indeed she seduced him, and he would have also inclined to her desire, had he not been seeing the evidence of his Lord.’ (12:24)It means if one is pretty sure of the consequences of one’s action, one cannot commit an error. This fact can be explained even from the modern point of view.
Suppose if a person is invited by a most beautiful woman in the same way as Yusuf (A) was being invited by Zulaikha, but that person is also fully aware of the fact that this woman, at the same time, is suffering from the obnoxious disease of AIDS, would he respond to her advances or ignore her? Obviously if he is even least bothered about the dreadful consequences of such an alliance, he would positively ignore her. Therefore, it proves the fact beyond doubt that if a person were fully aware of the consequences of one’s action, one would tread the path more carefully, and will try one’s best to avoid the harmful consequences.So those who believe that whatever Allah has revealed to His Messengers is the truth, they certainly try to avoid the harmful consequences of disbelief and polytheism.

Islam, by stressing the belief in the existence of an Omnipresent God, wants mankind to develop the noble qualities of justice, truth, sincerity, loyalty and sacrifice, so that man could live peacefully and enjoy the unbounded bounties of this beautiful nature, which is made subservient to him.So Kufr is the denial of the truth, and denial of the truth is an offence, which God does not want us to commit, because the moment we commit an offence, we become the offenders, and offenders cannot escape punishment. Thus punishment is the natural consequence of Kufr which can be avoided only by true Iman i.e. belief in the existence of Allah.Shirk is bigger than Kufr, so it is more offensive. Allah states in Qur'an that He can forgive anything but Shirk:’Verily! Allah forgives not setting up partners with Him, but He forgives whom He wills sins other than that, and whoever sets up partners in worship with Allah, has indeed strayed far away’ (4:116).

It means Shirk is the biggest offence. It is bigger than even murder, rape or arson, because there is likelihood that these offences, though grievous enough, can be pardoned but not Shirk.

What is so great about it? And why is it so grievous an offence that it cannot be pardoned? Shirk means to associate partners with God, and Mushrikun (the polytheists) are those who knowingly commit this offence. Naturally, if a person 
knowingly commits an error, his offence is more grievous than the one who unknowingly commits an error. Allah states in the Qur'an: ‘If you ask them (pagans) who created the Heavens and the earth, they will surely say, ‘Allah.’’ (31:25)

But nevertheless, they associate partners with Allah. They invent false gods according to their own whims and fancies, and worship them like the real and the only Allah Who alone is worthy of worship. This is a grievous mistake, because they are not following the truth but their own whims and fancies. And following one’s own whims and fancies is tantamount to utter chaos and confusion, to which Qur'an refers in the following words:
‘And if the truth had been in accordance with their desires, verily, the heavens and the earth, and whatsoever is therein would have been corrupted.’ (23:71)

Definitely, if everyone tries to follow one’s own desires, there will be nothing but chaos and corruption, for each one’s desires will conflict with the desires of others. And when there will be conflict, there cannot be peace and tranquility in the world. This was the reason that Allah describes Shirk as the biggest crimes.’Verily Shirk is the biggest crime.’ (31:13) Shirk does not mean merely worshipping idols. God cannot be so narrow that He would feel offended by merely prostrating before inanimate objects like pieces of stone and bronze. God is much more above these petty considerations. In fact, He is against the mean mentality that works behind worshipping these inanimate objects.

Some people had made it a profession of selling religion by fabricating false stories related with these false gods and goddess. They were not only making innocent people fool but at the same time were exploiting them by telling that if they made such and such offerings to these gods, they would bring them luck. Poor and innocent people used to offer expensive gifts to these false and fabricated gods and goddess at the cost of their own sufferings. Often precious animals and even human beings used to be sacrificed at the altar of these false and fabricated gods and goddess. 

All Merciful and the Most Gracious Allah could never have tolerated it that a handful of people should exploit the vast majority of innocent people. So He raised a Messenger in that area where such practices were being carried out at their peak.

This was the Last Messenger, Muhammad (S), the son of Abdullah, the progeny of Ibrahim (A) who built the first House for the worship of one God. It was he who told the ignorant Arabs to believe in one God Who is the Most Merciful and the Most Gracious. The Arabs were surprised to hear about a God with these attributes. They said they didn’t know a God with these attributes, for they knew that their gods were always in need of valuable offerings and precious sacrifices, even human. Thus polytheism had stupefied their minds. The Most Compassionate and the Gracious Almighty Allah Who had created them could not have accepted this state of affairs to continue. Thus He resolved to eradicate polytheism by declaring it as the biggest crime, because it hampered the best creation of Allah i.e. the human mind.

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