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Who is a Kafir in the Quran-Part 4 - Defining Kufr


By Naseer Ahmed, New Age Islam

25 Feb, 2015

We are now in aposition to define the term kufr as used in the Quran based on the discussions in the previous 3 parts of this article. This definition varies from the definition we find in Sunni theology which is also discussed.

There are two dimensions to kufr:

1.         Kufr relating to man, society, the world or the temporal dimension

2.         Kufr relating to God or the spiritual dimension

Kufr relating to the temporal dimension

The Quran recognizes certain human rights:

1.         Right to belief and pursuit of one’s beliefs without obstruction or persecution

2.         Sanctity of life and property

3.         Mutual rights and responsibilities emanating from commonly accepted norms of civil society, agreements, contracts and the laws of the society in which one lives.

Kufr relating to God or the spiritual dimension

The Quran also recognizes the “Rights of God”

The spiritual dimension is covered by the scriptures which inform the believer about his covenants with God and the duties and responsibilities emanating from these.

The believer invites a nonbeliever to become a believer and accept these covenants and become the recipient of divine blessings and guidance, showing gratitude for the blessings of God and fulfilling his part of the covenant by conducting his affairs in accordance with the guidance provided in the scriptures.

Besides God’s blessings common to all, God is “shaa’ker” (giver of thanks) which God does through His rewards for the acts of man that are for pleasing God. Man is required to reciprocate with `Shukr’ (giving thanks) through worship and acts that please God such as spending on charity. For the sins of man against God, his reckoning is with God alone, who will punish him in the hereafter.

With reference to God, a non-believer

1.         Is guilty of kufr if he rejects the “truth” out of envy, insolence, arrogance rather than for lack of required evidence or conviction.

2.         He becomes a kafir after the truth becomes manifest to him where his mind and heart acknowledges the “truth” and yet he rejects it.

And a believer is guilty of kufr if he violates the prohibitions and injunctions in the scriptures.

Punishment for kufr

A violation of the rights of man and/or God is kufr.

The Quran prescribes hadd punishments only for kufr in the temporal dimension. Kufr in the temporal dimension is also kufr in the spiritual dimension but not vice versa.

Hadd punishments for kufr relating to God or the spiritual dimension are not prescribed in the Quran as that would violate the right of conscience that the Quran clearly grants to man.

Some forms of Kufr may appear to stride both the dimensions - for example, an apostate who turns hostile and carries on activities harmful to a section of the society or the state. Such a person can be punished for the harm that he has caused or can potentially cause but not for apostasy. Apostasy is merely incidental and irrelevant to the case as apostasy is not kufr in the temporal dimension.

Usury, if it does not contravene laws of the land, will only be kufr in the spiritual dimension. Through legislation, usury could be made a punishable offence since it is injurious to man as well but it is not hadd. Legislating punishments for kufr related to the spiritual dimension alone, violate the freedoms granted to man by the Quran and is kufr.

The verses of the Quran are eternally and at all times valid including the following:

The Right to Freedom of Religion and Conscience

(2:256) Let there be no compulsion in religion

2:272. It is not required of thee (O Messenger), to set them on the right path, but Allah sets on the right path whom He pleaseth.

28:56. It is true thou wilt not be able to guide every one, whom thou lovest; but Allah guides those whom He will and He knows best those who receive guidance.

29:18. "And if ye reject (the Message), so did generations before you: and the duty of the apostle is only to preach publicly (and clearly)."

10:19 Say All people (once) followed one belief. Then they began to follow different beliefs. Had not a word of your Lord (His decision to give every one time and free will) been decreed, God would already have settled their differences.

11:118 And if thy Lord had enforced HIS will, HE would have surely made mankind one people; but they would not cease to differ;

Fairplay, Justice and Non-Aggression

2:190 Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you,But do not transgress limits:

For, verily, Allah loveth not transgressors

(60:8) Allah forbids you not, with regard to those who fight you not for (your) Faith nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly (taburruhum) and justly (tuqsitu) with them: for Allah loveth those who are just. (9) Allah only forbids you, with regard to those who fight you for (your) Faith, and drive you out of your homes, and support (others) in driving you out, from turning to them (for friendship and protection). It is such as turn to them (in these circumstances), that do wrong.

(5:2)…. let not the hatred of some people in (once) shutting you out of the Sacred Mosque lead you to transgression (and hostility on your part). Help ye one another in righteousness and piety, but help ye not one another in sin and rancour: fear Allah: for Allah is strict in punishment.

(5:8) O ye who believe! stand out firmly for Allah, as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety: and fear Allah. For Allah is well-acquainted with all that ye do.

16:126. And if ye do catch them out, catch them out no worse than they catch you out: But if ye show patience, that is indeed the best (course) for those who are patient.

42:40. The recompense for an injury is an injury equal thereto (in degree): but if a person forgives and makes reconciliation, his reward is due from Allah. for ((Allah)) loveth not those who do wrong.

42:41. But indeed if any do help and defend themselves after a wrong (done) to them, against such there is no cause of blame.

42:42. The blame is only against those who oppress men and wrong-doing and insolently transgress beyond bounds through the land, defying right and justice: for such there will be a penalty grievous.

42:43. But indeed if any show patience and forgive, that would truly be an exercise of courageous will and resolution in the conduct of affairs.

Rules for Proselytizing

16:125. Invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for thy Lord knoweth best, who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance.

29: 46. And dispute ye not with the People of the Book, except with means better (than mere disputation), unless it be with those of them who inflict wrong (and injury): but say, "We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; Our Allah and your Allah is one; and it is to Him we bow (in Islam)."

Historical Development of the Concept Of Kufr/Kafirin Sunni Theology

The following is by Barbara Zollner, a  lecturer in Islamic studies, Department of Politics, Birkbeck College, University of London.

The Ultimate Question: Muslim or Kafir?

One of the central questions is the definition of Muslim and kafir (unbeliever). In order to fully appreciate the reasoning on this question a general understanding of these concepts is necessary.

If we agree for the moment that belief (iman) can only be defined through its opposite, it is essential to clarify the terminology related to unbelief. Without intending to go into any spiritual discussions, but rather remaining within the realm of Sunni theology, a simple definition of unbelief (Kufr) includes non-belief in the concept of monotheism, which constitutes the ultimate principle in Islam, and/or rejection of Muhammad's prophecy. A kafir is therefore a person "who takes the position that there is no God, that He is not one, or that Muhammad was not a prophet," This and similar variants of this broad definition set a useful working parameter for a further investigation, since it finds wide acceptance across Muslim religious tradition.

It needs to be said, however, that this definition sets a rather broad framework which leaves many possibilities as to how unbelief, in fact, manifests itself on an individual basis. One can immediately see that it leaves indeterminate, for example, whether a person does not recognise God, as for example atheists do, or whether the person believes in many gods, as polytheists do. The concept of Kufr also does not distinguish whether a person actually believes in a single God but rejects the revelation of the Quran or the position that Muhammad was a divinely inspired messenger. The working definition of Kufr therefore does contain a combination of some basic characteristics, i.e. Monotheism and prophethood. Yet it also shows that the idea of Kufr is an umbrella concept which provides a relative definition rather than a concrete one. The relativity of meaning can be explained through separate developments; one lies within the history of the Quran as a text and the second relates to the advance of Muslim theology.

As for the Quran,where the term is frequently used and in fact is part of the essential message, Waldman and Izutsu explained that the meaning of the term clearly changed during the process of revelation. Both point out that the term initially had the connotation of 'ingratitude to God'. In later Qur'anic verses however, it came to represent a negation of the concept of iman. While the meaning of the word varies within the chronology of the Quran, this transformation does not imply that the previous connotation was completely obliterated. Waldman therefore talks about an 'accumulation of meaning' and Izutsu calls the various semantic differences 'relational meaning’. What is important to note from this is that the Quran uses the term Kufr frequently, but that it does not define what is meant by it. Moreover, the actual connotation of the word changes to such an extent that there is fluidity in its Qur'anic meaning. This fluidity transpires subsequently in theological and juridical discussions and is as Saeed points out, the cause of much confusion today.

As the discussion above shows, the concepts of Kufr and Muslim are not exactly defined by the Quran. Hence it is necessary to return to Islamic history, where the concepts were further shaped. Given that questions such as 'what is Islam?' And 'who is a Muslim?' Were the most pressing issues of concern for the early community, the dispute surrounding Kufr was the initiating moment of Muslim theological thinking. The conflict of the early community was mainly fought out on battlefields rather than through scholarly disputation. The earliest movement that defined Kufr by the sword was the Khawarij. The movement stood out through its fanaticism and egalitarianism. The Khwarij was the first movement to turn the concept of unbelief against fellow Izutsu  suggested, they thus widened its application. It was part of Khwarij conviction that belief must manifest itself  through action ('Amal). It took the position that, in order to be considered Muslim, a person must actively engage in the community of the faithful. Rather than positively affirming who is Muslim, a person must actively engage in the community of the faithful. Rather than positively affirming who is Muslim it thus reversed the question, declaring anyone an unbeliever who did not belong to its particular community and share its zealous conviction. With a fanatical desire to establish an uncorrupted Muslim community, it applied Takfir, asking: 'who are those that must be driven out of the existing community, which is corrupted and impure? A shift in the meaning of Kufr thus took place which was extended to the idea of excommunication.

The reaction against Khwarij positions on belief and unbelief sets the tone for Sunni theology. The first theological movement to reject the application of Takfir was the Murjiyya. While their theology was directed against the fanaticism of the Khwarij, it also legitimised the political system of the 'Ummayad Caliphate', which again championed this development. The name Murji'iyya derives from the verb raja meaning 'to suspend or postpone judgement. On the question of Takfir, the Murji'iyya diametrically opposed the Khwarij. While the Murji'iyya deliberated on the idea of unbelief and sin, they developed the position that anyone who declares his/her belief as a Muslim must be recognised as such and will be ultimately judged by God. According to, this principle, sin does not affect belief. A person who obviously contravenes rules as set out in the Quran and Sunna and who has therefore sinned must still be considered a Muslim. Emphasis is thus placed on inner faith, and the Murji'iyya dismissed the idea of 'Amal as a defining characteristic of a Muslim. During the dominance of Murji'ite thought, these theological principles were further elaborated and led to the first theory of belief in Sunni Islam. Although the Ummayad dynasty was eventually replaced, its protege theological movement laid the fundamental building blocks for later theological discussions.

Not entirely endorsing the misdemeanor of a sinner, the mu’tazila took an intermediate position (manzilabaynamanzilatayn) arguing that this person is neither Muslim nor kafir. An important part of the Mu’tazilite theology is that the individual is responsible for his/her actions. It thus amended the view of the Murji’iyya insofar as it disposed of any deterministic connotations which could be read into the stance of the earlier school. Since the idea of the manzilabaynamanzilatayn does not leave the discussion on the status of sinners to the afterlife, it created an environment which furthered the development of jurisprudence and jurisdiction. Also, its emphasis on human free will allows the individual to reason consciously about good or bad; the objective is to comprehend divine law through reason.. It is on these grounds that Mu’tazila is called the movement of ‘free-thinkers of Islam’. Ultimately, though, the stress on reasoning over literalist reading of revelation led them to conclude that the Qu’ran as a textis created and that Hadith is not useful as a source of interpretation. As the leading school of theology during much of the rule of the `Abbasid dynasty, the Mu’tazila was eventually superseded by an orthodox countertrend. Yet, their interpretation on free will nevertheless left its mark on subsequent theological discussions on the nature of belief, sin and unbelief.

The orthodox traditionalism of the Ash’ariyya and the Maturdiyya constitutes the final and lasting theological development in Sunni discussions on the distinction between kufr and iman. Fairly similar in their overall approach, these two approaches represent the basis for the majority of works on Sunni ‘aqida (creed). Just how influential these theological schools are can be seen by the fact that their elaborations on essential practice and beliefs are considered to be dogma. This includes their descriptions  of the so-called five pillars of Islam or the six articles of faith, which were firmly set as framework by the Ash’ariyya and Maturdiyya. Their thelogy remains the underlying element of subsequent discussions and clearly had its impact on arguments of the major schools of law.

The impact of the traditionalists trend and its emphasis on Hadith and Sunna led the Ash’ariyya and the Maturdiyya to oppose the Mu’tazila, particularly with regard to its views on the created ness of the Quran and the use of Hadith as the primary source for interpretation. It is noteworthy, however that the Ash’ariyya and Maturdiyya took opposing positions on the issue of belief. Abu al-Hasan al-Ashari essentially argued that belief is uncreated, since there was ‘never a state in which there was no iman and tawhid, neither before not after the creation of the world. For him the position that iman is created would contradict the principle of divine universality. Proponents of the Maturidyya among the Abu Hanifa, held, however, that belief has its locus in the individual. In this respect, the Maturidiyya were closer to the reasoning of the Mu’tazila than to the Ash’ariyya. This said, it would be unfitting to claim that all aspects of Mu’tazilite thought were dismissed. It is thus interesting to think that the idea of free will was adapted by al-ashari. He suggested a doctrine of `acquisition’ which put forward a compromise whereby the orthodox concept of God’s omnipotence could be reconciled with the idea of human responsibility. He thus argued that all acts, good or bad, originate in God and humans acquire the choice of free will from God. It is then the believer’s choice to decide. The theological rationale that the sinner is not an unbeliever also found continuation. In fact, Abu Mansur al-Maturidi further elaborated on the Mur’jiite interest in whether and to what extent ‘amal is part of defining iman. Like the Murji’iyya, the Maturidiya saw belief expressed through inner faith. But while the Murji’iyya was divided as to whether belief increases through good work and, conversely, whether it decreases through sin, the Maturidiyyaclearly opted fro the concept of ‘degrees of faith’ (tafadul). This idea then became another constituting element of Sunni theology and was in detail discussed by a diverse scholarly body, among them IbnHazm, al-Ghazali and IbnTaymiyya.

Looking back on the various theological trends of early Sunni Islam, it is then fair to say that the definitions of kufr and iman took centre stage and in fact form the defining moment of Sunni theological thinking. The survey above also shows that the terms iman and kufr cannot be simply set down as clearly definable concepts. Although they are clearly antonyms, they are umbrella concepts, which were variously discussed in terms of the content of their meaning.

Juridical considerations of what constitutes kufr were directly informed by theology. Ash’ariyya and maturidiyya delineations of ‘aqida had a direct impact on juridical thinking. This not only was kufr discussed in theoretical terms of sin, but the various schools of law defined it as a punishable contravention of the law. In the fiq elaborations, kufr was an umbrella concept wich contained a number of more specific offences. Under its shade, the, are conceptions such as apostasy (ridda), polytheism (shirk), blasphemy, (sabb Allah or sabb al-rasul), heresy (zandaqa) and hypocrisy (nifaq). Each of these concepts represents specific forms of kufr, all of them of a punishable nature. Defining these transgressions as major sins, most jurists followed with a harsh verdict. There seems to be thus a general accord  that they justify the death penalty. The underlying justification for the reasoning of the classical jurists is that hypocrites, blasphemers, heretics, and apostates made the decision to turn against God and they therefore made a decision to turn their backs not only on faith, but also on the community of Muslims. Being outside law, these sinners’ lives are not considered to be protected by law. This logic not only is the common justification for the death penalty, but also permits any member of the community the right to act within the parameters of law to kill the assumed offender.

A thorough analysis of the relationship between sin and crime shows that not all jurists agree that major sins equate to hudud offences, i.e. offences which demand punishment because they are mentioned in the Quran. In fact, of all the sub-categories of kufr, only apostasy (ridda) is listed as ahadd. This then begs the question as to why and how Muslim jurists came to decide that other forms of kufr, such as heresy, blasphemy and hypocrisy, are liable to penalty. The issue is even more complicated by the fact that unbelief, per se, is not necessarily reprimanded, as the example of Christians and Jews illustrates. The rejection of Muhammad’s prophethood makes them kuffar even though their non-belief in itself is not a punishable crime. This sets the unbelief of Jews and Christians apart from Muslims who commit ridda, zandaqa or nifaq.

As we have seen, the debate about different conceptions of belief and the dispute about them go back to the constitutive period of Islamic theological and juridical reasoning. While the Khwarij defined their position through excommunication of Muslims, the counter movement of the Murji’iyya and then later of the Mu’tazila and finally of the Ash’ariyya and Maturidiyya, laid the foundation for Sunni theology. Leaving aside for the moment the fundamental objection that the faith cannot actually be proven or, for that matter, challenged, the framework for ‘aqida as suggested by the Ash’ariyya and Maturidiyya sets the tone for Sunni orthodoxy. It is then interesting to see that moderate Islamists are informed by this theological orthodoxy and its prevailing system of dogmas and practices. Considering that radical and extreme Islamists have indeed much in common with the theological position of the Khawarij, the reference to conventional and accepted tenets of belief in Du’at la Qudat makes its alliance to moderation pronounced. The basis of belief is the crucial topic of dispute between moderate interpretation and that of radical and/or extremist Islamism. In fact, it marks the difference between these two modes of thought within the Islamist discourse. End of  BarbaraZollner’s note.

As can be seen, the definition of kufr and kafir is not derived in Sunni theology from the Quran. The starting point of the definition is to treat kufr as the antonym of faith or iman and Kafir as the antonym of Muslim. This is treated as a self-evident truth or an axiom! I have shown that such an assumption is contrary to the Quran. Unsurprisingly, a defect in the definition leads to many contradictions that are evident in the note of Barbara. Kufr is treated as a relative term not in the sense as I have used it backed by direct Qur'anic evidence, but a word which changes meaning over time! My definition has none of these inconsistencies. It does not create any problem understanding any verse of the Quran nor leads to contradictions since the definition is derived from the way the word is used in the Quran. A poor definition can be easily recognized and so can a good definition. Sunni theology appears to have got mired and moved far away from the message of the Quran.

Naseer Ahmed is an Engineering graduate from IIT Kanpur and is an independent IT consultant after having served in both the Public and Private sector in responsible positions for over three decades. He is a frequent contributor to The author initially used a pseudonym "Observer" for this article.

URL of Part 1:,-new-age-islam/who-is-a-kafir-in-the-quran-part-1-–-kafir-and-mushrik-and-idolater-are-not-synonyms/d/101509

URL of Part 2:,-new-age-islam/who-is-a-kafir-in-the-quran-part-2---muslim–-non-muslim-relationship/d/101525

URL of Part 3:,-new-age-islam/who-is-a-kafir-in-the-quran-part-3---why-kufr-is-a-relative-concept-while-shirk-and-idol-worship-etc-have-fixed-meanings/d/101618