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Islam and Hinduism: Spiritual Symbiosis - Part 2: Who is a Kafir in Islam; Are Hindus Kafir or Ahl-e-Kitab?



By Sultan Shahin, Founder-Editor, New Age Islam

10 August 2014

Like any other living Faith, controversies abound in Islam. One of the most controversial issues is the relationship of a Muslim with people belonging to other religions. Since in India Muslims have always lived next to a very large non-Muslim community, this issue has created even deeper controversies. While there are Muslims who would insist on treating Hindus as Kafir, there are others who would insist that they should actually be treated as Ahl-e-Kitab, people bearing revealed books, a people who have a special place in Islamic theology and practice.

Disregarding the advice of some ulema of his time, the first Arab to conquer parts of India, Sind and Multan, had made a good beginning, giving the Hindus the same status as Ahl-e-Kitab, people with whom Muslims are supposed to have good social relations including marital relations. Since then, the Hindu-Muslim interaction has taken place constantly in a variety of ways. This is not the place to go into history, but we are all aware of the differences of approach between say an Akbar or Dara Shikoh and an Aurangzeb.

The question of the place of Hindus in Islamic theology has, however, persisted. There are Muslims who have no reservations whatsoever in considering Hindus as Ahl-e-Kitab. In fact anyone with any sense and understanding of spiritualism would see at a mere glance that Hindu scriptures are divine in origin. The question whether Sri Krishna, for instance, is an Avatar of God or a messenger of God is merely an issue of semantics, though, of course, there are complex ideological debates over the issue. It is even possible that the author of Mahabharat Vyas Muni is himself a prophet who is using allegorical stories to drive home the message of God. The important thing is that the message is certainly Divine.

The Hindu scriptures are indeed our Adigranth. It is only reasonable to think that they must have undergone any number of changes, accretions, deductions, fabrications, etc. during the millennia that they have been guiding the spiritual growth of Indians, particularly as in pre-historic times the literature was transmitted to succeeding generations orally and even when later written in a variety of ways they couldn’t be preserved very well.

A Muslim, therefore, cannot view every word of these holy books with the same amount of authenticity he attaches to Quran. The Quran is unique among all the scriptures in the world in the sense that it is the only holy book that has survived exactly as it came. Muslims do not attach the same amount of authenticity even to the Hadees, however, as most of these were compiled several generations and centuries after the demise of the Prophet. Indeed there is no doubt that the nefarious elements who captured Islam after killing Prophet’s grandsons and other family members, and turned it into an empire under the guise of Khilafat, interpolated into the Hadees ideas that suited their un-Islamic feudal, monarchical, exploitative and expansionist designs.

The Hindus therefore must be treated by the Muslims as Ahl-e-Kitab. This thought has been best expressed by Maulana Muhammad Ali in his monumental work, The Religion of Islam.  While discussing the issue of marital relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, for instance, he says: “As the Holy Quran states that revelation was granted to all nations of the world (35: 24), and that it was only with the Arab idolaters that marriage relations were prohibited, it is lawful for a Muslim to marry a woman belonging to any other nation of the world that follows a revealed religion.

“The Christians, the Jews, the Parsis, the Buddhists and the Hindus all fall within this category; and it would be seen that, though the Christian doctrine of calling Jesus Christ a god or son of God is denounced as ‘shirk’ [partnership with God], still the Christians are treated as followers of a revealed religion and not as Mushrekeen, and matrimonial relations with them are allowed. The case of all those people who were originally given a revealed religion, though at present they may be guilty of ‘shirk’, would be treated in like manner, and Parsi and Hindu women may be taken in marriage, as also may those who follow the religion of Confucius or of Buddha or of Tao.”

Important guidance on this issue comes from verses in the Holy Quran): “Mankind was one single nation, and God sent Messengers with glad tidings and warnings; and with them He sent the Book in truth, to judge between people in matters wherein they differed; but the People of the Book, after the clear Signs came to them, did not differ among themselves, except through selfish conduct and hatred of one another.” (Sura Al-Baqara - 2.21)

The doctrine of Kufr and rejection of co-existence with the so-called Kafir being spread by some obscurantist Mullahs is thus patently un-Islamic. Ignorant Muslims are being indoctrinated into the theory that it is a Muslim’s religious duty to fight and kill a kafir wherever he finds one. This leads to a general misunderstanding that in Islam a kafir is ‘unworthy of Allah’s mercy and compassion’. In point of fact, even if someone can be described as kafir in Islamic terminology, he or she would be as worthy of God’s compassion as anyone else. Islam has not authorised any one to judge who is a Kafir or a Munafiq (hypocrite), deserving God’s wrath or punishment. In fact a wrong accusation of Kufr reverts to the accuser himself, thus making him kafir.

The only people whom the Quran does describe as Kafir, i.e., the pre-Islamic Meccans, were beneficiaries of the highest act of God’s compassion and mercy. He sent to them His last Messenger who perfected the Message that He had been sending to people living in all parts of the world at various times through a galaxy of 124,000 prophets since the advent of the first Prophet, Hazrat Adam.

The reason pre-Islamic Meccans were described as Kafir seems to be that they were the only people on earth who had not been sent a Prophet before. But now that all peoples of the world have received prophets, and all the prophets brought revelations (according to the Quran), all the people following those prophets - no matter how imperfectly - are to be treated by Muslims as Ahl-e-Kitab. Some polytheistic practices of Hindus cannot be used as an excuse for calling them kafir as similar practices of Christians do not make them kafir. This, in a nutshell, is the correct Islamic position.

The only people who can be called kafir today with a clear Islamic conscience are the ones who have the temerity to call others Kafir. For, according to the Prophet, a wrong accusation of Kufr makes the accuser himself a kafir. In fact this places nearly all ulema belonging to different sects who routinely keep calling each other kafir in the list of the Kafiroon themselves. Also, these are the people who are concealing the truth about Islam, i.e. committing Kufr. If Islam is at all in danger today, the danger comes from these very people. This too makes them Kafir in one of the original senses of the word.

The Meaning of Kufr

Kufr is defined by most commentators of the Holy Quran as ‘denial of the truth’. Basically the word means to cover, to conceal. In Arabic language the word Kufr is used in a variety of ways. One meaning, for instance, is concealment or withholding of the means of subsistence, which God has created for the good of all mankind and which He wants to be freely available to all. According to this definition, hoarders of goods for the sake of business or hoarders of wealth would be considered kafir. In Egypt the word Kafir is used to describe the farmers as they conceal seeds in the ground and cover it up. In Urdu poetry the word kafir is used to describe the beloved, usually a beloved who spurns the poet’s advances. The beloved can be haqiqi or majazi, meaning spiritual or earthly, the object of love being either God or an earthling. Urdu’s greatest mystic poet Mirza Ghalib says:

Mohabbat mein nahin hai farq jeene aur marne ka;

Usi ko dekh kar Jeete hain jis kafir pe dam nikle.

Khuda ke waste parda na Kaabe se utha Zaalim;

Kahin aisa na ho yan bhi wohi Kafir sanam nikle.


[In love, there is no difference between life and death,

We live gazing at the same kafir [beloved] on whom we die.

For God’s sake, do not lift the veil from the face of Kaaba,

Who knows, maybe the idol of the same kafir [beloved] is installed there.]

The Prophet, too, used the word kafir in a variety of ways. Ingratitude, for instance, was equated with Kufr. Similarly excessive eating was considered by the Prophet one of the attributes of a kafir. This would place nearly all fundamentalist ulema, maulvis and so-called maulanas on the list of the Kafiroon. According to the Prophet, a Muslim killing another Muslim is a kafir. All the so-called ‘mujahedeen’ in Afghanistan or Kashmir are thus also placed on the list of kafiroon.

Most Muslims would dare not accuse others of kufr. But some theologians take a different view and do not mind calling even something as routine as neglect of prayer as kufr. Someone who confirms the obligations of prayer yet neglects it out of laziness or pretence of being too busy (without a valid legal excuse) would in their view attract the provisions of kufr.

Many ulema arrogate to themselves the right to judge others in a purely subjective fashion. And this is despite the clearly and repeatedly expressed view of the Prophet that Muslims should not call any one either a kafir or a Munafiq. In fact the Prophet’s motto was: “Whoever calls believers in One God kafir is himself nearer to kufr.” Indeed he continued to treat well-known munafeqeen in Madina as Muslims. Calling Ahmadiyas, and even Shias now, kafir thus makes many Indian and Pakistanis susceptible to the charge of being Kafir themselves.

Similarly, those Muslims who call Hindus, Christians, Jews, Buddhists or Parsis, etc. kafir may themselves be committing Kufr. In Islam, to believe in some prophets and reject others is condemned as kufr: “Those who say, we believe in some (prophets) and disbelieve in others,... these are truly non-believers (kafiroon)....Those who believe in Allah and his messengers and make no distinction between any of the messengers will be duly rewarded....”(4;150-152).

Maulana Muhammad Ali, whose ideas have contributed to the above analysis, thus rightly concludes: “A belief in all the prophets of the world is thus an essential principle of the religion of Islam, and though the faith of Islam is summed in two brief sentences, there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His apostle, yet the man who confesses belief in the prophethood of Muhammad, in so doing accepts all the prophets of the world, whether their names are mentioned in the Holy Quran or not. Islam claims universality and lays the foundation of a brotherhood as vast as humanity itself.”

Co-existence with other religions

In common parlance, the word ‘kafir’ is supposed to mean a non-believer in God. For many ignorant Muslims in the sub-continent, it is virtually synonymous with the word Hindu, even though several eminent theologians insist on giving Hindus the status of Ahl-e-Kitab (People who follow Divine Books brought by messengers of God before Prophet Mohammad), with whom Muslims are asked to have the best of social including marital relationship.

This debate could have remained innocuous and like most theological disputes interminable. Islam is very well known to believe in coexistence with the non-believers. Its quintessence being the Qur'anic verse that specifically addresses the kafiroon (plural of kafir) and asks the Muslims to say: Lakum Deenakum Waleya Deen (For you your religion and for me mine, The Holy Quran 109:5).  "Say, 'O ye disbelievers! I worship not that which you worship; nor worship you what I worship. And I am not going to worship that which you worship; nor will you worship what I worship. For you be your religion and for me mine." (Sura Alkafiroon, 109:2-7)

Islam’s holy book, the Holy Quran is absolutely clear that differences in colour and creed constitute a deliberate design of Allah with a divine purpose but confer no superiority to any one group over another: "Among His Signs is the creation of the Heavens and the Earth, and the diversity of your tongues and colours. In that surely are signs for those who possess knowledge." (30:23)

This message is repeated in the Quran in a variety of ways: "O mankind, We have created you from a male and a female; and We have made you into tribes and sub-tribes so that you may recognize one another. Verily, the most honourable among you, in the sight of Allah, is he who is the most righteous among you. Surely, Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware." (49:14). And righteousness is defined in the following words:

“It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces to the East and the West; but righteous is he who believeth in Allah and the Last Day and the angels and the Scripture and the Prophets; and giveth his wealth, for love of Him, to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask, and to set slaves free; and observeth proper worship, and payeth the poor-due. And those who keep their treaty when they make one, and the patient in tribulation and adversity and in times of stress. Such are they who are sincere. Such are the God-fearing.” (2:177)

Obviously, Islam does not attach as much importance to the worship of God as to the righteous conduct. Huqooq-ul-Ibad (rights of other creations of God over us or conversely our duties towards other creations of God) is thus given primacy in Islam over Huqooq-ul-lah (rights of Allah over us or our duties towards God).

In the matter of religion Islam allows man to follow his own dictate, so that many religions can exist at the same time. Indeed the Holy Quran could not be more explicit: "And if thy Lord had enforced His will, surely, all who are on earth would have believed together (in the same religion). Wilt thou, then, force them to become believers (in Islam)?" (10:100). Then there is the overriding instruction in the famous verse La Ikraha fid Deen (Let there be no compulsion in religion: 2:25).

Islam confirms validity of other religions

Some Mullahs have taken to issuing fatwas (religious edicts) against the people of other religions, giving expression to their medieval mindset of intolerance. They are clearly turning Islam that came as a blessing for the world into a tool for oppression. As Shivaji had pointed out to Aurangzeb in his famous letter: “The Holy Quran describes Allah as Rahmatul-lil-Aalemeen (Blessing for the Worlds) and not just Rahmatul-lil-Muslemeen (Blessing for the Muslims)”.

The main feature of the exclusivist view of Islam that is being extensively propagated today by fundamentalist Mullahs can thus be summarised in one word: intolerance. They are preaching and practising Islam as an intolerant religion.  This is a total negation of all that Islam stands for. Indeed the exclusivist view of Islam is the same as that of the Christian crusaders. This view was best refuted in the early 20th century by Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, an Englishman, and an orientalist, who had converted to Islam and is best known by his translation of the Holy Quran. (The meaning of Quran by Pickthall, first published in 1930)

Pickthall makes an interesting point that the Salafi-Wahhabi Mullahs would do well to ponder, if they really have any regard for Islam. He says: “It was not until the Western nations broke away from their religious law that they became more tolerant; and it was only when the Muslims fell away from their religious law that they declined in tolerance and other evidences of the highest culture... Of old, tolerance had existed here and there in the world, among enlightened individuals; but those individuals had always been against the prevalent religion. Tolerance was regarded of un-religious, if not irreligious. Before the coming of Islam it had never been preached as an essential part of religion.” (Tolerance in Islam, a lecture delivered by Pickthall in 1927)

Speaking from a Christian perspective and comparing Islam with Judaism and Christianity, Pickthall declares: “In Islam only is manifest the real nature of the Kingdom of God. The two verses of the Quran (2:255-256) are supplementary. Where there is that realization of the majesty and dominion of Allah, there is no compulsion in religion. Men choose their path - allegiance or opposition - and it is sufficient punishment for those who oppose that they draw further and further away from the light of truth.”

Further on in his famous lecture Pickthall explains the relationship between Islam and other religions in these words: “The Quran repeatedly claims to be the confirmation of the truth of all religions. The former Scriptures had become obscure, the former Prophets appeared mythical, so extravagant were the legends which were told concerning them, so that people doubted whether there was any truth in the old Scriptures, whether such people as the Prophets had ever really existed. Here - says the Quran - is a Scripture whereof there is no doubt: here is a Prophet actually living among you and preaching to you. If it were not for this Book and this Prophet, men might be excused for saying that Allah's guidance to mankind was all a fable. This book and this Prophet, therefore, confirm the truth of all that was revealed before them, and those who disbelieve in them to the point of opposing the existence of a Prophet and a revelation are really opposed to the idea of Allah's guidance - which is the truth of all revealed religions. The Kafirs, in the terms of the Quran, are the conscious evildoers of any race or creed or community.

“Instead of harping upon differences, Islam looks for a common ground for cooperation. The first meeting point is in humanity. The Prophet said, "Creation is the family of Allah, and the most beloved of all creation to Allah is he who does good to His family." In his Farewell Pilgrimage sermon, he said, "All men, whatever nation or tribe they may belong to, and whatever station in life they may hold, are equal."

 Once a funeral procession passed by and the holy Prophet (peace be upon him) stood up as a mark of respect to the dead. Someone pointed out that it was the funeral of a Jew. His reply was, "Was he not a human being?" In order to discourage prejudice that can arise from a variety of reasons, the tribal pride being very predominant at that time, the Prophet said, "Certainly Allah has removed from you haughtiness and family pride of the days of ignorance. Now there are two types of people; believers and pious as opposed to rebellious and sinners. You are the progeny of Adam and Adam was made of clay. People should give up national pride, because that is one of the coals of Hell. If not, Allah will treat them no better than a black beetle found on a dunghill which pushes dirt and filth with its nose."

The Prophet himself presented the most outstanding, perhaps unique example of religious tolerance when he allowed the delegation of Christians of Najran to pray in their own way in his mosque, which was the venue of the meeting, and in his very presence. Thus the Jihadi view of Islam does not correspond with the teachings of Islam as understood by the overwhelming majority of Muslims. It appears to be closer to the view of Islam propagated by its enemies down the ages. Islamic exclusivism and supremacism that has now resulted in Jihadism, therefore, may be considered a completely different religion, not recognisable to the mainstream followers of Islam. Mankind has  been  divided into myriad communities with different races, cultures, habits, faiths, etc., so that in spite of these barriers, we can ourselves reach  the  following  conclusion:

 "Mankind  is  but  one  single community"

 (The Holy Quran, 2:213 and 10:19).

(To be continued)

Courtesy: Asia Times Online and the Times of India. Full Text of this article was first published by Asia Times Online in December 2003. A short summary also appeared in the Times of India.


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