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'Kafir' - meaning and implications of a
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
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).
KAFIR IN THE QUR’AN
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 :
3. ‘The Misbeliever is a helper (of evil) against his own Lord’ [25 :
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
2. Apostate - a Muslim who renounces his faith and dies in that state
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.
of the verses above are from Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur’an -
English translation of the meanings and
commentary, Madina, 1413H q