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'Kafir' - meaning and implications of a Qur’anic term
By Zafarul-Islam Khan

The issue of Kafir in the light of Islam, and whether or why Hindus are called ‘kafir,’has been raised again and again in the Indian press, particularly in the media controlled or influenced by the Hindutva movement. I have responded to it earlier.

Some time back this issue was raised by Mr Deena Nath Mishra, a BJP MP and a former editor of the RSS Hindi mouthpiece, Panchjanya, during a ‘round-table’ discussion convened by Mr OP Shah of the Calcutta-based Centre for Peace & Progress at the India International Centre, New Delhi on 26 July 1998. The question was taken up by Maulana Shafi Munis, vice president of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, who explained that it simply means a ‘rejecter’ of Islam and that it is not an abusive term.

I have lived for 13 years in Arab countries and have never come across anyone using the word ‘kafir’ as an abuse. As far as I know, only the Pathans in the Frontier area use a corruption of this term, kafar or kafar ka bachcha, as an abusive term for both Muslims and non-Muslims.
I told Mr Deena Nath Mishra, who had raised the issue of Hindus being termed as ‘kafir,’ that if he gave me time I am willing to visit him and explain the term to him in detail in the light of the Qur’an. He ignored my request and went on to speak about other matters and I have never heard from him again.

Here I will try to address this oft-repeated issue for the benefit of a wider public so that a serious misgiving is placed to rest if there is trust and willingness to listen to reason and facts. You can convince only those who are ready to listen and think about an issue without preloaded bias.

I must add here that this is not a rejoinder to the concocted thesis presented by Mr Arun Shourie (aptly rewarded later with a Rajya Sabha seat and membership of the central cabinet) during the last few years in newspaper articles which later evolved into books published by publishers of a certain colour and leaning. I have compared some of Mr Shourie’s writings with the original references he quotes so abundantly and directly (although he does not know the language of these references, i.e., Arabic) and found him grossly off the mark because he more often than not misquotes or quotes only selective portions out of context. Both these practices, i.e., direct quotes from sources one cannot read, and misquoting, are serious methodological errors).

Although various derivatives of the Arabic root k - f - r have been used in the Qur’an, we will confine ourselves to the word ‘kafir’ and will try to understand its meaning in this context. The Qur’an is the supreme scripture of Islam and supersedes everything else. In the Muslim belief it contains the direct and exact words of God as revealed to Prophet Muhammad.

The exact word kafir has been used five times in the Qur’an as follows [the translation1 of the exact word kafir in the verse is underlined]::
1. ‘And believe in what I reveal, Confirming the revelation which is with you, And be not the first to reject faith therein, Nor sell My signs for a small price, and fear me and me alone’ [2 : 41].
2. ‘And if any of you turns back from his faith and die in disbelief, Their works will bear no fruit in this life and the Hereafter’ [2 : 217].
3. ‘The Misbeliever is a helper (of evil) against his own Lord’ [25 : 55].
4. ‘It is He who has created you; and of you are some that are unbelievers, and some that are believers; and Allah sees well all that ye do’ [64 : 2].
5. ‘Verily, We have warned you of a Chastisement near-The Day when man will see (the deeds) which his hands have sent forth;and the Unbeliever will say, ‘Woe unto me! Would that I were (mere) dust!’ [78 : 40].

In the light of the above verses the word kafir has been used in the Qur’an for two meanings:
1. Rejecter of the faith [verses 1-3-4-5]. The fourth verse [2:64] is very meaningful - in that it tells us that it is part of Allah’s pattern and tradition, sunnah, that some people are ‘believers’ and some are ‘rejecters.’ It is the some Godly-sunnah everywhere else - there are plains against mountains, rivers against dry land, flowers against thorns, good against bad, sick against healthy, black against white, and so on. This is Allah’s scheme of things so that people and things are distinguished from one another but the best are the most pious and fearful of their Creator Who alone knows and judges their piety from false pretence.
2. Apostate - a Muslim who renounces his faith and dies in that state [verse 2].
Kafir is a descriptive term used for someone who rejects something. Hence even a Muslim who rejects some other religion may be termed kafir as a rejecter of that faith.

Kafir in Urdu is one of the attributes of the beloved, e.g., Ghalib’s verse: main hua kafir to woh kafir musalman hogaya..

It is clearly held by the scholars of Islam that a non-Muslim may be termed ‘kafir’ only if he rejects Islam after properly knowing it. Since most non-Muslims simply do not have any clear idea about the teachings of Islam, they cannot be termed ‘kafir.’. Indeed, Muslims are sinners for failing to convey the teachings of Islam to others. No Muslim court or authority has any power whatsoever to penalize a non-Muslim for not accepting Islam. Indeed history has recorded that Muslim rulers used to discourage non-Muslims from entering the fold of Islam as happened in Egypt during the time of the Umayyad caliph, ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-’Aziz, who is recorded to have sternly admonished his governor for doing so fearing loss in tax-collection. The caliph declared that ‘Allah sent His prophet as a guide, not as a tax-collector.’ In India, too, the so-called Muslim nobility used to discourage local people from embracing Islam lest they demand a share of the political and economic pie. Islam spread in these lands inspite of the rulers and as a result of the selfless endeavours of preachers and sufis whose aim was to free human beings from the clutches of an oppressive social order.

There never was any coercion in the issue of religion throughout the history of Islam, with the sole exception of war criminals and prisoners of war captured during actual fighting against the Muslim state. The Qur’an is very clear about this, e.g., 2:109, 2:256 109:6. As a measure of magnanimity, prisoners of war were forgiven if they embraced Islam. Indeed, Muslims are forbidden to have good relations only with those who fight them in matters of religion (60:8).
Polytheists, Jews and Christians continued to live in Muslim state during the times of the Prophet and the first caliph Abu Bakr. It was only during the time of the second caliph, ‘Umar, that non-Muslims were forbidden from residing in the Haramain (the two sacred precincts of Makkah and Madinah) as a precaution to keep these two areas forever under Muslim control and occupancy. Even in these two areas, non-Muslims are allowed to enter for short visits without taking up permanent residence as a consequence. Elsewhere in Muslim states non-Muslims continued to live and even today there are non-Muslim communities in various Arab and Muslim countries which trace their roots to pre-Islam like the Zorastrians in Iran, Jews in Yemen, Sabeans and Christians in Iraq, Christians in Syria and Egypt and the like. This is in sharp contrast with the European practice of coercing minorities into accepting Christianity and killing or expelling those who refused to do so. There is no trace today of the large Muslim communities in Spain, Portugal, France, Sicily, Malta, Rhodes, Pantelleria, Canary Islands, Majorca, Manorca, Greece etc. Except very small minorities in some areas previously ruled by Turkey, all present European minorities are the result of recent migrations during and after the colonial era.

English translations of the verses above are from Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur’an - English translation of the meanings and
commentary, Madina, 1413H

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