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What Is Kufr And Who Is A Kafir In The Quran? (Full and Revised Text of the New Age Islam Series on the Subject)

By Naseer Ahmed, New Age Islam

5 August 2015

[Full and revised text of the series of articles on the subject of Kufr and Kafir in the Holy Quran that appeared on New Age Islam in early 2015]


Who is a Kafir in the Quran? 3

Abstract:        3

1.        Kafir, Mushrik and idol worshipper are not synonyms       4

1.1 People who are described as Kafir in the Quran?        5

1.1.1 Moses (pbuh) is called kafir by Pharaoh!      5

1.1.2 Muslims/believers displaying certain characteristics or behavior are referred to as having the characteristics or the behavior of kafir   and are warned against adopting such behavior.           5

1.1.3 For the hypocrites among those who claimed to be Muslims          7

1.1.4 For the Jews/people of the Book       8

1.1.5 For Iblis or Satan         9

1.1.6   Characteristics of the Kafirin among the non-Muslims       9 Those who insolently dispute, reject, ridicule the Signs of Allah            9 Those who hinder believers from the path of Allah         10 Those who wage war with the believers    10

1.2 Those who are not kafir 11

1.3 The Polytheists or the Mushrikin           12

1.4 Idol Worship        12

1.5 Summary 13

2.        Muslim non-Muslim relationship       15

2.1 Muslim – Kafir relationship         15

2.2 Muslim Non-Muslim relationship            16

2.2.1 Marriage with Mushrikin         16

2.2.2 Marriage with Ahle Kitab        16

2.2.3 Relationship with non-Muslims who are not Kafirin 17

2.3 Verses that ask Muslims to fight            17

The Verses of Surah 9           19

2.4 Summary of section 2     21

3.        Why Kufr is a relative concept while shirk, idol worship etc. have fixed meanings            22

3.1 Kufr - a relative concept            22

3.2 What was Kufr for the Meccan pagans?            23

3.3 When does rejection of the `Truth’ brought by the Messenger become Kufr?         24

3.4 How will God judge earlier generations to whom no messenger was sent?   25

4.        Who is a kafir in the Quran? Defining Kufr.            26

4.1 Dimensions of Kufr         26

Kufr relating to the temporal dimension     26

Kufr relating to God or the spiritual dimension      26

4.2 Punishment for Kufr       27

4.3 Human Rights      27

4.3.1 The right to freedom of religion and conscience      27

4.3.2 Fairplay, justice and non-aggression            28

4.4 Rules for proselytizing   29

4.5 Historical development of the concept of Kufr/kafir in Sunni theology         29

4.5.1 The ultimate question: Muslim or Kafir?       29

4.6 The problem with Sunni theology         32

4.7 Serious implications of Sunni theology 34


In the name of Allah, the Beneficent the Merciful.

(39:32) Who, then, doth more wrong than one who utters a lie concerning Allah, and rejects the Truth when it comes to him; is there not in Hell an abode for blasphemers?

(33) And he who brings the Truth and he who confirms (and supports) it - such are the men who do right.

(34) They shall have all that they wish for, in the presence of their Lord: such is the reward of those who do good:

(35) So that Allah will turn off from them (even) the worst in their deeds and give them their reward according to the best of what they have done.

May Allah guide us and give us the strength to bring out the Truth and support it. May Allah also reward us as promised for our efforts and save us from blaspheming the word of Allah, by attributing to Allah, what is not said by Allah.Amin.

Abstract: The topic is both important and relevant in the context of escalating Islamic extremism. The definition of “kafir”, (loosely translated in English as infidel) sets the tone of a Muslim’s relationship with the outside world. In Sunni theology, the word is loosely defined, but is commonly understood to include all those who are not the followers of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The Qu’ran forbids friendship with a kafir but there are other verses which enjoin treating those who are not enemies of the Muslims with kindness and justice. It is therefore, the choice that a Muslim makes, of either treating non-Muslims as kafir and therefore ‘enemy’ or as ‘not enemy’ that sets apart an extremist from a moderate. For the same reason, it is difficult for a moderate to refute the extremist ideology.

The Qu’ran has been mined to understand how the words Kafir and Kufr (Kufr is what makes a kafir or what a kafir does) have been used. It turns out that Sunni theology has erred grievously in treating all non-Muslim as kafir because the Quran does not do so. In verses that deal with the temporal dimension or this World, the Quran uses the word in a faith-neutral way. For example, miserliness is a form of Kufr which clearly is a characteristic independent of one’s faith. There are “Muslims” who are niggardly and there are non-Muslims who spend freely in charity.

The verse that uses the term Kafaru also describes the Kufr and in such verses, the kafaru must be understood as those people with the behaviour described by the verse and not just any people. The verses that deal with faith or belief use the term in a faith relative manner. Violating the Sabbath is/was Kufr for a Jew for which Allah punished the Jews but this is not Kufr for the non-Jews. A correct understanding of the manner in which the terms Kafir, Kufr and their grammatical variants are used in the Quran, would make these terms inapplicable based on the other persons faith or belief system. The effect is to render the rest of the world as ‘not enemy’ unless proved otherwise. For enemy also, the Quran advises utmost restraint. This paper provides the necessary theological argument against treating ‘non-Muslims’ as enemy or as Kafir, which can end theological support to extremism.


Kafir, Mushrik and idol worshipper are not synonyms

It is the majesty of the Quran, that a proof of the thesis of this section is contained in a short Surah that most of us have memorized! And yet, Muslims think that the terms kafir, Mushrik and idol worshipper are synonyms!

Surah 109 Al-Kafirun:

(1) Say : O ye Kafirun!

(2) I worship not that which ye worship,

(3) Nor will ye worship that which I worship.

(4) And I will not worship that which ye have been wont to worship,

(5) Nor will ye worship that which I worship.

(6) To you be your Way, and to me mine.

This is an early Meccan Surah which was revealed 8 to 9 years before Hijra or the migration of the Prophet (pbuh) to Medina. We know that hostile opposition to Muhammad (pbuh) and his mission started early by the likes of Abu Jahal, Abu Lahab, Walid ibn Mughiyrah etc. It is to such Kafirun who openly rejected Islam and opposed it physically that the surah is addressed and not to the Mushrikun of Mecca. Now substitute Mushrikun  in place of Kafirun and see the effect! It can only be said about those against whom Kufr is proved that they will not worship what the Muslims worship. The same could not be said about the Mushrikun many of whom accepted Islam in later years. Else, what was left for the Prophet (pbuh) to preach to the Mushrikin for the remaining 8 to 9 years before Hijra after having said “To you be your Way and to me mine”? The enemies of Islam would have pointed out to the apparent falsehood in “To you be your Way, and to me mine”, if this verse was understood as meant for all the Mushrikin and not just for the Kafir among the Mushrikin.

This Surah is also proof that there is no scope to war against the peaceful rejecters of the "Truth" or the peaceful Kafirun. It is a simple “To you be your Way and to me mine” And this has nothing to do with this being a Meccan period Surah. There is no contradiction between any two verses of the Quran.

Now to understand the manner in which the Quran uses the terms, this paper considers every occurrence of Kafir. Mushrik (polytheist), idol worshiper and their grammatical variants in the Quran.

1.1 People who are described as Kafir in the Quran?

1.1.1 Moses (pbuh)is called kafir by Pharaoh!

The word kafir is used by Pharaoh for Moses.

قَالَ أَلَمْ نُرَبِّكَ فِينَا وَلِيدًا وَلَبِثْتَ فِينَا مِنْ عُمُرِكَ سِنِينَ

وَفَعَلْتَ فَعْلَتَكَ الَّتِي فَعَلْتَ وَأَنتَ مِنَ الْكَافِرِينَ

(26:18) (Pharaoh) said: "Did we not cherish thee as a child among us, and didst thou not stay in our midst many years of thy life? (19) "And thou didst a deed of thine which (thou knowest) thou didst, and thou art an ungrateful wretch (min-al-Kafirin)!"

The word Kafirin this verse denotes the trait of ingratitude, rebellion, active opposition and has nothing to do with faith.

1.1.2 Muslims/believers displaying certain characteristics or behaviour are referred to as having the characteristics or the behaviour of kafir and are warned against adopting such behaviour.

ِلْكَ الرُّسُلُ فَضَّلْنَا بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَى بَعْضٍ مِّنْهُم مَّن كَلَّمَ اللّهُ وَرَفَعَ بَعْضَهُمْ دَرَجَاتٍ وَآتَيْنَا عِيسَى ابْنَ مَرْيَمَ الْبَيِّنَاتِ وَأَيَّدْنَاهُ بِرُوحِ الْقُدُسِ وَلَوْ شَاء اللّهُ مَا اقْتَتَلَ الَّذِينَ مِن بَعْدِهِم مِّن بَعْدِ مَا جَاءتْهُمُ الْبَيِّنَاتُ وَلَـكِنِ اخْتَلَفُواْ فَمِنْهُم مَّنْ آمَنَ وَمِنْهُم مَّن كَفَرَ وَلَوْ شَاء اللّهُ مَا اقْتَتَلُواْ وَلَـكِنَّ اللّهَ يَفْعَلُ مَا يُرِيدُ

(2:253) Those messengers We endowed with gifts, some above others: To one of them Allah spoke; others He raised to degrees (of honour); to Jesus the son of Mary We gave clear (Signs), and strengthened him with the holy spirit. If Allah had so willed, succeeding generations would not have fought among each other, after clear (Signs) had come to them, but they (chose) to wrangle, some believing and others rejecting (kafara). If Allah had so willed, they would not have fought each other; but Allah Fulfilleth His plan.

َا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ أَنفِقُواْ مِمَّا رَزَقْنَاكُم مِّن قَبْلِ أَن يَأْتِيَ يَوْمٌ لاَّ بَيْعٌ فِيهِ وَلاَ خُلَّةٌ وَلاَ شَفَاعَةٌ وَالْكَافِرُونَ هُمُ الظَّالِمُونَ

 (2:254)  O ye who believe! Spend out of (the bounties) We have provided for you, before the Day comes when no bargaining (Will avail), nor friendship nor intercession. Those who reject Faith (kafirun) they are the wrong-doers.

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ لاَ تُبْطِلُواْ صَدَقَاتِكُم بِالْمَنِّ وَالأذَى كَالَّذِي يُنفِقُ مَالَهُ رِئَاء النَّاسِ وَلاَ يُؤْمِنُ بِاللّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الآخِرِ فَمَثَلُهُ كَمَثَلِ صَفْوَانٍ عَلَيْهِ تُرَابٌ فَأَصَابَهُ وَابِلٌ فَتَرَكَهُ صَلْدًا لاَّ يَقْدِرُونَ عَلَى شَيْءٍ مِّمَّا كَسَبُواْ وَاللّهُ لاَ يَهْدِي الْقَوْمَ الْكَافِرِينَ

 (2:264) O ye who believe! cancel not your charity by reminders of your generosity or by injury,- like those who spend their substance to be seen of men, but believe neither in Allah nor in the Last Day. They are in parable like a hard, barren rock, on which is a little soil: on it falls heavy rain, which leaves it (Just) a bare stone. They will be able to do nothing with aught they have earned. And Allah guideth not the Kafirin.

الَّذِينَ يَبْخَلُونَ وَيَأْمُرُونَ النَّاسَ بِالْبُخْلِ وَيَكْتُمُونَ مَا آتَاهُمُ اللّهُ مِن فَضْلِهِ وَأَعْتَدْنَا لِلْكَافِرِينَ عَذَابًا مُّهِينًا

(4:37) (Nor) those who are niggardly or enjoin niggardliness on others, or hide the bounties which Allah hath bestowed on them; for We have prepared, for the Kafirin, a punishment that steeps them in contempt;-

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ لاَ تَأْكُلُواْ الرِّبَا أَضْعَافًا مُّضَاعَفَةً وَاتَّقُواْ اللّهَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ

وَاتَّقُواْ النَّارَ الَّتِي أُعِدَّتْ لِلْكَافِرِينَ

(3:130) O ye who believe! Devour not usury, doubled and multiplied; but fear Allah; that ye may (really) prosper.(131) Fear the Fire, which is repaired for the Kafirin:

قُلْ أَطِيعُواْ اللّهَ وَالرَّسُولَ فإِن تَوَلَّوْاْ فَإِنَّ اللّهَ لاَ يُحِبُّ الْكَافِرِينَ

(3:32) Say: "Obey Allah and His Messenger": But if they turn back, Allah loveth not such Kafirin.

From behavioural psychology, we know that the easiest to change is our behaviour. Changed behaviour over a period leads to changed attitudes and a changed attitude leads to change in belief or faith. Faith is not a simple profession of faith as the Quran says:

(49:14) The desert Arabs say, "We believe." Say, "Ye have no faith; but ye (only) say, ´We have submitted our wills to Allah,´ For not yet has Faith entered your hearts. But if ye obey Allah and His Messenger, He will not belittle aught of your deeds: for Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful."

There are therefore certain behaviours that indicate a lack of faith or of Kufr which is found among all people irrespective of what faith they profess with their mouth. These behaviours or characteristics are completely faith neutral because these are found among those who call themselves “Muslims” and those who do not call themselves “Muslims”. The believers are warned against behaviour that would bring upon them the punishment meant for the disbelievers which is the same as saying that although they profess faith with their mouth, they provide proof of their lack of faith in their behaviour.

 1.1.3 For the hypocrites among those who claimed to be Muslims

وَإِذَا لَقُواْ الَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ قَالُواْ آمَنَّا وَإِذَا خَلَوْاْ إِلَى شَيَاطِينِهِمْ قَالُواْ إِنَّا مَعَكْمْ إِنَّمَا نَحْنُ مُسْتَهْزِؤُونَ

اللّهُ يَسْتَهْزِىءُ بِهِمْ وَيَمُدُّهُمْ فِي طُغْيَانِهِمْ يَعْمَهُونَ

أُوْلَـئِكَ الَّذِينَ اشْتَرُوُاْ الضَّلاَلَةَ بِالْهُدَى فَمَا رَبِحَت تِّجَارَتُهُمْ وَمَا كَانُواْ مُهْتَدِينَ

مَثَلُهُمْ كَمَثَلِ الَّذِي اسْتَوْقَدَ نَاراً فَلَمَّا أَضَاءتْ مَا حَوْلَهُ ذَهَبَ اللّهُ بِنُورِهِمْ وَتَرَكَهُمْ فِي ظُلُمَاتٍ لاَّ يُبْصِرُونَ

صُمٌّ بُكْمٌ عُمْيٌ فَهُمْ لاَ يَرْجِعُونَ

أَوْ كَصَيِّبٍ مِّنَ السَّمَاء فِيهِ ظُلُمَاتٌ وَرَعْدٌ وَبَرْقٌ يَجْعَلُونَ أَصْابِعَهُمْ فِي آذَانِهِم مِّنَ الصَّوَاعِقِ حَذَرَ الْمَوْتِ واللّهُ مُحِيطٌ بِالْكافِرِينَ

 (2:14) When they meet those who believe, they say: "We believe;" but when they are alone with their evil ones, they say: "We are really with you: We (were) only jesting."

(15) Allah will throw back their mockery on them, and give them rope in their trespasses; so they will wander like blind ones (To and fro).

(16) These are they who have bartered Guidance for error: But their traffic is profitless, and they have lost true direction,

(17) Their similitude is that of a man who kindled a fire; when it lighted all around him, Allah took away their light and left them in utter darkness. So they could not see.

(18) Deaf, dumb, and blind, they will not return (to the path).

(19) Or (another similitude) is that of a rain-laden cloud from the sky: In it are zones of darkness, and thunder and lightning: They press their fingers in their ears to keep out the stunning thunder-clap, the while they are in terror of death. But Allah is ever round the Kafirin!

1.1.4 For the Jews/people of the Book

وَلَمَّا جَاءهُمْ كِتَابٌ مِّنْ عِندِ اللّهِ مُصَدِّقٌ لِّمَا مَعَهُمْ وَكَانُواْ مِن قَبْلُ يَسْتَفْتِحُونَ عَلَى الَّذِينَ كَفَرُواْ فَلَمَّا جَاءهُم مَّا عَرَفُواْ كَفَرُواْ بِهِ فَلَعْنَةُ اللَّه عَلَى الْكَافِرِينَ

(2:89) And when there comes to them a Book from Allah, confirming what is with them,- although from of old they had prayed for victory against those without Faith,- when there comes to them that which they (should) have recognised, they refuse to believe in it but the curse of Allah is on those Kafirin.

إِنَّ الَّذِينَ يَكْفُرُونَ بِاللّهِ وَرُسُلِهِ وَيُرِيدُونَ أَن يُفَرِّقُواْ بَيْنَ اللّهِ وَرُسُلِهِ وَيقُولُونَ نُؤْمِنُ بِبَعْضٍ وَنَكْفُرُ بِبَعْضٍ وَيُرِيدُونَ أَن يَتَّخِذُواْ بَيْنَ ذَلِكَ سَبِيلاً

أُوْلَـئِكَ هُمُ الْكَافِرُونَ حَقًّا وَأَعْتَدْنَا لِلْكَافِرِينَ عَذَابًا مُّهِينًا

 (4:150) Those who deny (Yakfuruna) Allah and His messengers, and (those who) wish to separate Allah from His messengers, saying: "We believe in some but reject (nakfuru) others": And (those who) wish to take a course midway,-(151) They are in truth (equally) unbelievers (kafiruna); and we have prepared for unbelievers (Kafirina) a humiliating punishment.

وَأَخْذِهِمُ الرِّبَا وَقَدْ نُهُواْ عَنْهُ وَأَكْلِهِمْ أَمْوَالَ النَّاسِ بِالْبَاطِلِ وَأَعْتَدْنَا لِلْكَافِرِينَ مِنْهُمْ عَذَابًا أَلِيمًا

 (4:161) That they took usury, though they were forbidden; and that they devoured men´s substance wrongfully;- we have prepared for those among them who reject faith a grievous punishment.

إِنَّا أَنزَلْنَا التَّوْرَاةَ فِيهَا هُدًى وَنُورٌ يَحْكُمُ بِهَا النَّبِيُّونَ الَّذِينَ أَسْلَمُواْ لِلَّذِينَ هَادُواْ وَالرَّبَّانِيُّونَ وَالأَحْبَارُ بِمَا اسْتُحْفِظُواْ مِن كِتَابِ اللّهِ وَكَانُواْ عَلَيْهِ شُهَدَاء فَلاَ تَخْشَوُاْ النَّاسَ وَاخْشَوْنِ وَلاَ تَشْتَرُواْ بِآيَاتِي ثَمَنًا قَلِيلاً وَمَن لَّمْ يَحْكُم بِمَا أَنزَلَ اللّهُ فَأُوْلَـئِكَ هُمُ الْكَافِرُونَ

(5:44) It was We who revealed the law (to Moses): therein was guidance and light. By its standard have been judged the Jews, by the prophets who bowed (as in Islam) to Allah´s will, by the rabbis and the doctors of law: for to them was entrusted the protection of Allah´s book, and they were witnesses thereto: therefore fear not men, but fear me, and sell not my signs for a miserable price. If any do fail to judge by (the light of) what Allah hath revealed, they are (no better than) the Kafirin.

1.1.5 For Iblis or Satan

وَإِذْ قُلْنَا لِلْمَلاَئِكَةِ اسْجُدُواْ لآدَمَ فَسَجَدُواْ إِلاَّ إِبْلِيسَ أَبَى وَاسْتَكْبَرَ وَكَانَ مِنَ الْكَافِرِينَ

(2:34) And behold, We said to the angels: "Bow down to Adam" and they bowed down. Not so Iblis: he refused and was haughty: He became among the Kafirin.

Characteristics of the Kafirin among the non-Muslims Those who insolently dispute, reject, ridicule the Signs of Allah

وَإِن كُنتُمْ فِي رَيْبٍ مِّمَّا نَزَّلْنَا عَلَى عَبْدِنَا فَأْتُواْ بِسُورَةٍ مِّن مِّثْلِهِ وَادْعُواْ شُهَدَاءكُم مِّن دُونِ اللّهِ إِنْ كُنْتُمْ صَادِقِينَ

فَإِن لَّمْ تَفْعَلُواْ وَلَن تَفْعَلُواْ فَاتَّقُواْ النَّارَ الَّتِي وَقُودُهَا النَّاسُ وَالْحِجَارَةُ أُعِدَّتْ لِلْكَافِرِينَ

(2:23) And if ye are in doubt as to what We have revealed from time to time to Our servant, then produce a Sura like thereunto; and call your witnesses or helpers (If there are any) besides Allah, if your (doubts) are true.(24) But if ye cannot- and of a surety ye cannot- then fear the Fire whose fuel is men and stones,- which is prepared for those who reject Faith.

وَقَدْ نَزَّلَ عَلَيْكُمْ فِي الْكِتَابِ أَنْ إِذَا سَمِعْتُمْ آيَاتِ اللّهِ يُكَفَرُ بِهَا وَيُسْتَهْزَأُ بِهَا فَلاَ تَقْعُدُواْ مَعَهُمْ حَتَّى يَخُوضُواْ فِي حَدِيثٍ غَيْرِهِ إِنَّكُمْ إِذًا مِّثْلُهُمْ إِنَّ اللّهَ جَامِعُ الْمُنَافِقِينَ وَالْكَافِرِينَ فِي جَهَنَّمَ جَمِيعًا

(4: 140) Already has He sent you Word in the Book, that when ye hear the signs of Allah held in defiance and ridicule, ye are not to sit with them unless they turn to a different theme: if ye did, ye would be like them. For Allah will collect the hypocrites and the Kafirin- all in Hell:-

فَمَنْ أَظْلَمُ مِمَّنِ افْتَرَى عَلَى اللّهِ كَذِبًا أَوْ كَذَّبَ بِآيَاتِهِ أُوْلَـئِكَ يَنَالُهُمْ نَصِيبُهُم مِّنَ الْكِتَابِ حَتَّى إِذَا جَاءتْهُمْ رُسُلُنَا يَتَوَفَّوْنَهُمْ قَالُواْ أَيْنَ مَا كُنتُمْ تَدْعُونَ مِن دُونِ اللّهِ قَالُواْ ضَلُّواْ عَنَّا وَشَهِدُواْ عَلَى أَنفُسِهِمْ أَنَّهُمْ كَانُواْ كَافِرِينَ

(7:37) Who is more unjust than one who invents a lie against Allah or rejects His Signs? For such, their portion appointed must reach them from the Book (of decrees): until, when our messengers (of death) arrive and take their souls, they say: "Where are the things that ye used to invoke besides Allah?" They will reply, "They have left us in the lurch," And they will bear witness against themselves, that they had rejected Allah. Those Who Hinder Believers From The Path Of Allah

الَّذِينَ يَصُدُّونَ عَن سَبِيلِ اللّهِ وَيَبْغُونَهَا عِوَجًا وَهُم بِالآخِرَةِ كَافِرُونَ

(7:45) "Those who would hinder (men) from the path of Allah and would seek in it something crooked: they were those who denied (kafirun) the Hereafter." Those who wage war with the believers

وَاقْتُلُوهُمْ حَيْثُ ثَقِفْتُمُوهُمْ وَأَخْرِجُوهُم مِّنْ حَيْثُ أَخْرَجُوكُمْ وَالْفِتْنَةُ أَشَدُّ مِنَ الْقَتْلِ وَلاَ تُقَاتِلُوهُمْ عِندَ الْمَسْجِدِ الْحَرَامِ حَتَّى يُقَاتِلُوكُمْ فِيهِ فَإِن قَاتَلُوكُمْ فَاقْتُلُوهُمْ كَذَلِكَ جَزَاء الْكَافِرِينَ

(2:191) And slay them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have Turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they (first) fight you there; but if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of the Kafirin.

وَلَمَّا بَرَزُواْ لِجَالُوتَ وَجُنُودِهِ قَالُواْ رَبَّنَا أَفْرِغْ عَلَيْنَا صَبْرًا وَثَبِّتْ أَقْدَامَنَا وَانصُرْنَا عَلَى الْقَوْمِ الْكَافِرِينَ

(2:250) When they advanced to meet Goliath and his forces, they prayed: "Our Lord! Pour out constancy on us and make our steps firm: Help us against the Kafirin."

أَنتَ مَوْلاَنَا فَانصُرْنَا عَلَى الْقَوْمِ الْكَافِرِينَ

2:286 ….Thou art our Protector; Help us against those the Kafirin.

وَمَا كَانَ قَوْلَهُمْ إِلاَّ أَن قَالُواْ ربَّنَا اغْفِرْ لَنَا ذُنُوبَنَا وَإِسْرَافَنَا فِي أَمْرِنَا وَثَبِّتْ أَقْدَامَنَا وانصُرْنَا عَلَى الْقَوْمِ الْكَافِرِينَ

(3:147) All that they said was: "Our Lord! Forgive us our sins and anything We may have done that transgressed our duty: Establish our feet firmly, and help us against the Kafirin."

إِن يَمْسَسْكُمْ قَرْحٌ فَقَدْ مَسَّ الْقَوْمَ قَرْحٌ مِّثْلُهُ وَتِلْكَ الأيَّامُ نُدَاوِلُهَا بَيْنَ النَّاسِ وَلِيَعْلَمَ اللّهُ الَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ وَيَتَّخِذَ مِنكُمْ شُهَدَاء وَاللّهُ لاَ يُحِبُّ الظَّالِمِينَ

وَلِيُمَحِّصَ اللّهُ الَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ وَيَمْحَقَ الْكَافِرِينَ

(3:140) If a wound hath touched you, be sure a similar wound hath touched the others. Such days (of varying fortunes) We give to men and men by turns: that Allah may know those that believe, and that He may take to Himself from your ranks Martyr-witnesses (to Truth). And Allah loveth not those that do wrong.(141) Allah´s object also is to purge those that are true in Faith and to deprive of blessing the Kafirin.

The point may be noted that there is no verse that mentions fighting with the Mushrikin, Christians or Jews but only against the Kafirin among these people.

1.2 Those who are not Kafir

 (3:113) Not all of them are alike: Of the People of the Book are a portion that stand (For the right): They rehearse the Signs of Allah all night long, and they prostrate themselves in adoration. (114) They believe in Allah and the Last Day; they enjoin what is right, and forbid what is wrong; and they hasten (in emulation) in (all) good works: They are in the ranks of the righteous. (115) Of the good that they do, nothing will be rejected of them; for Allah knoweth well those that do right.

(3:199) And there are, certainly, among the People of the Book, those who believe in Allah, in the revelation to you, and in the revelation to them, bowing in humility to Allah: They will not sell the Signs of Allah for a miserable gain! For them is a reward with their Lord, and Allah is swift in account.

(4:162) But those among them who are well-grounded in knowledge, and the believers, believe in what hath been revealed to thee and what was revealed before thee: And (especially) those who establish regular prayer and practise regular charity and believe in Allah and in the Last Day: To them shall We soon give a great reward.

(5:69) Those who believe (in the Qur´an), those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Sabians and the Christians,- any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness,- on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.

وَمِنهُم مَّن يُؤْمِنُ بِهِ وَمِنْهُم مَّن لاَّ يُؤْمِنُ بِهِ وَرَبُّكَ أَعْلَمُ بِالْمُفْسِدِينَ

(10:40) Of them (applies to all non-Muslims) there are some who believe therein, and some who do not: and thy Lord knoweth best those who are out for mischief.

1.3 The Polytheists or the Mushrikin

While polytheism is described as an unforgivable sin in verses 4:48 and 4:116, and there are many verses which stress the point that the Prophets were not among those who associate others with God, there is not a single verse directed against any identifiable community of people of any faith in including the Jews, Christians and the Polytheists unless they are also Kafir or indulge in acts of Kufr. The act of Kufr is precisely stated. In the following verses a section of the knowledgeable people are guilty of the Kufr of envy, hate and rejection of the Clear signs when earlier they appeared to eagerly await the arrival of a Prophet.

مَّا يَوَدُّ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُواْ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْكِتَابِ وَلاَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ أَن يُنَزَّلَ عَلَيْكُم مِّنْ خَيْرٍ مِّن رَّبِّكُمْ وَاللّهُ يَخْتَصُّ بِرَحْمَتِهِ مَن يَشَاء وَاللّهُ ذُو الْفَضْلِ الْعَظِيمِ

(2:105) It is never the wish of those kafaru among the People of the Book, nor of the Pagans (Mushrikin), that anything good should come down to you from your Lord. But Allah will choose for His special Mercy whom He will - for Allah is Lord of grace abounding.

لَمْ يَكُنِ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا مِنْ أَهْلِ الْكِتَابِ وَالْمُشْرِكِينَ مُنفَكِّينَ حَتَّى تَأْتِيَهُمُ الْبَيِّنَةُ

(98:1) The Kafaru, among the People of the Book and among the Polytheists, were not going to depart (from their ways) until there should come to them Clear Evidence,-

إِنَّ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا مِنْ أَهْلِ الْكِتَابِ وَالْمُشْرِكِينَ فِي نَارِ جَهَنَّمَ خَالِدِينَ فِيهَا أُوْلَئِكَ هُمْ شَرُّ الْبَرِيَّةِ

(98:6) The Kafaru, among the People of the Book and among the Polytheists, will be in Hell-Fire, to dwell therein (for aye). They are the worst of creatures.

Very clearly not all Polytheists, Jews or Christian or non-Muslims are kafir in the Quran which is why the verses specifically refer to only the kafaru among these people.  While the remaining may not also be believers, they become kafir only by an act of active opposition to Islam or by rejecting the truth after the truth became plain to them. We know that almost all of the Mushrikin accepted Islam over a period.

1.4 Idol Worship

The number of references to idol worship is not many in the Quran. Except for one stand-alone verse, every other reference to idol worship is only when the subject is specifically idols, such as the idols in the house of Ibrahim's (pbuh) father.

There isn't a single verse in the Quran that speaks about idols in Ka’ba or the Meccan pagans as idol worshippers. That there were 360 idols in Kaaba and the Meccans were idol worshippers is what we learn from the secondary sources and not from the Quran.

The reference to idols and idol worship in the Quran:

1. In connection with Ibrahim (pbuh) and the idols in his father’s house (5 references) and in a prayer of Ibrahim 14:35 "O my Lord! make this city one of peace and security: and preserve me and my sons from worshipping idols”.

2. The story of Moses and Bani Israel (7:138) We took the Children of Israel (with safety) across the sea. They came upon a people devoted entirely to some idols they had. They said: "O Moses! fashion for us a god like unto the gods they have." He said: "Surely ye are a people without knowledge.

3. Surah 20 Ta Ha. Bani Israel making a golden cow and worshipping it in the absence of Moses under the influence of Samiri

4. And a solitary stand-alone reference (22:30) Such (is the Pilgrimage): whoever honours the sacred rites of Allah, for him it is good in the Sight of his Lord. Lawful to you (for food in Pilgrimage) are cattle, except those mentioned to you (as exception): but shun the abomination of idols, and shun the word that is false,-

While references to idol worship are not many in the Quran, translators such as Yusuf Ali have freely translated the Arabic Mushrikin as Idolater.

1.5 Summary

To summarize, the Quran does not identify kafir by his/her belief system or faith but by certain specific characteristics of Kufr displayed by each group of people.

For the Muslims, the acts of Kufr are those unbecoming of a Muslim, such as niggardliness, consuming usury, ill-treating or humiliating others, disobedience of Allah or the Messenger or hypocrisy.

For the people of the Book it is not keeping the covenants in their Book, consuming usury, knowingly and wrongfully rejecting the Messenger, making differences between the Messengers and Allah, not judging by their scriptures or flouting the injunctions in their scriptures.

For the Musrikin, it is obstinate disputing, rejection and ridicule of the message, actively hindering men from the path of Allah or waging war against the believers. Non-believers who do not obstinately dispute the “Truth”, reject, ridicule or hinder the path of the believers or  fight with the believers who are not guilty of Kufr.

Clearly, Kufr is a relative term and people are judged by their Book. Those without a Book and to whom no messenger had come before are judged by standards of their society or by self-evident moral and ethical standards of society.

Muslim non-Muslim relationship

In section 1 of the paper, we have seen that kafir is a term that the Quran does not associate with any faith or belief system but uses it only for people who indulge in active and identifiable acts of Kufr. These acts of Kufr have been detailed in the previous part.

2.1 Muslim – Kafir relationship

Muslims are asked not to befriend the Kafirin.

لاَّ يَتَّخِذِ الْمُؤْمِنُونَ الْكَافِرِينَ أَوْلِيَاء مِن دُوْنِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ وَمَن يَفْعَلْ ذَلِكَ فَلَيْسَ مِنَ اللّهِ فِي شَيْءٍ إِلاَّ أَن تَتَّقُواْ مِنْهُمْ تُقَاةً وَيُحَذِّرُكُمُ اللّهُ نَفْسَهُ وَإِلَى اللّهِ الْمَصِيرُ

(3:28) Let not the believers Take for friends or helpers Unbelievers (Kafirin) rather than believers (Mominin): if any do that, in nothing will there be help from Allah: except by way of precaution, that ye may Guard yourselves from them. But Allah cautions you (To remember) Himself; for the final goal is to Allah.

الَّذِينَ يَتَّخِذُونَ الْكَافِرِينَ أَوْلِيَاء مِن دُونِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ أَيَبْتَغُونَ عِندَهُمُ الْعِزَّةَ فَإِنَّ العِزَّةَ لِلّهِ جَمِيعًا

(4:139) Yea, to those who take for friends Kafirin rather than believers: is it honour they seek among them?

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ لاَ تَتَّخِذُواْ الْكَافِرِينَ أَوْلِيَاء مِن دُونِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ أَتُرِيدُونَ أَن تَجْعَلُواْ لِلّهِ عَلَيْكُمْ سُلْطَانًا مُّبِينًا

(4:144) O ye who believe! Take not for friends Kafirin rather than believers: Do ye wish to offer Allah an open proof against yourselves?

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ لاَ تَتَّخِذُواْ الَّذِينَ اتَّخَذُواْ دِينَكُمْ هُزُوًا وَلَعِبًا مِّنَ الَّذِينَ أُوتُواْ الْكِتَابَ مِن قَبْلِكُمْ وَالْكُفَّارَ أَوْلِيَاء وَاتَّقُواْ اللّهَ إِن كُنتُم مُّؤْمِنِينَ

(5:57) O ye who believe! take not for friends and protectors those who take your religion for a mockery or sport,- whether among those who received the Scripture before you, or among the kufaru; but fear ye Allah, if ye have faith (indeed).

لَتَجِدَنَّ أَشَدَّ النَّاسِ عَدَاوَةً لِّلَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ الْيَهُودَ وَالَّذِينَ أَشْرَكُواْ وَلَتَجِدَنَّ أَقْرَبَهُمْ مَّوَدَّةً لِّلَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ الَّذِينَ قَالُوَاْ إِنَّا نَصَارَى ذَلِكَ بِأَنَّ مِنْهُمْ قِسِّيسِينَ وَرُهْبَانًا وَأَنَّهُمْ لاَ يَسْتَكْبِرُونَ

(5:82) Strongest among men in enmity to the believers wilt thou find the Jews and Pagans; and nearest among them in love to the believers wilt thou find those who say, "We are Christians": because amongst these are men devoted to learning and men who have renounced the world, and they are not arrogant.

Apart from the warning in verse 5:82, there is no verse prohibiting friendship with the Mushrikin. The prohibition for taking of friends is from among the kafir alone. Since the verses 3:28, 4:139, and 4:144 make no exceptions, this means that a kafir by definition is one who is an open enemy of the Muslims and Islam and does not include those Mushrikin, Jews and Christians who do not fight with the Muslims and who keep their treaties. These are to be treated as per verse 60:8 and 9 discussed in the next section.

2.2 Muslim Non-Muslim relationship

2.2.1 Marriage with Mushrikin

While friendship with the kafir is prohibited, verse 2:221 prohibits marriage with the Mushrikin or the polytheists. Prohibiting marriage to a kafir would have been impractical since a Muslim could be guilty of Kufr and not all Mushrikin are Kafirin.

وَلاَ تَنكِحُواْ الْمُشْرِكَاتِ حَتَّى يُؤْمِنَّ وَلأَمَةٌ مُّؤْمِنَةٌ خَيْرٌ مِّن مُّشْرِكَةٍ وَلَوْ أَعْجَبَتْكُمْ وَلاَ تُنكِحُواْ الْمُشِرِكِينَ حَتَّى يُؤْمِنُواْ وَلَعَبْدٌ مُّؤْمِنٌ خَيْرٌ مِّن مُّشْرِكٍ وَلَوْ أَعْجَبَكُمْ أُوْلَـئِكَ يَدْعُونَ إِلَى النَّارِ وَاللّهُ يَدْعُوَ إِلَى الْجَنَّةِ وَالْمَغْفِرَةِ بِإِذْنِهِ وَيُبَيِّنُ آيَاتِهِ لِلنَّاسِ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَتَذَكَّرُونَ

(2: 21) Do not marry polytheist women (Mushrikat), until they believe: A slave woman who believes is better than a polytheist woman (Mushrikati), even though she allures you. Nor marry (your girls) to polytheist men (Mushrikin) until they believe: A man slave who believes is better than a polytheist (Mushrik), even though he allures you. Polytheists do (but) beckon you to the Fire. But Allah beckons by His Grace to the Garden (of bliss) and forgiveness, and makes His Signs clear to mankind: That they may celebrate His praise.

2.2.2 Marriage with Ahl-e-Kitab

The food of Ahle-Kitab is made lawful and marriage to their women is made lawful.

الْيَوْمَ أُحِلَّ لَكُمُ الطَّيِّبَاتُ وَطَعَامُ الَّذِينَ أُوتُواْ الْكِتَابَ حِلٌّ لَّكُمْ وَطَعَامُكُمْ حِلُّ لَّهُمْ وَالْمُحْصَنَاتُ مِنَ الْمُؤْمِنَاتِ وَالْمُحْصَنَاتُ مِنَ الَّذِينَ أُوتُواْ الْكِتَابَ مِن قَبْلِكُمْ إِذَا آتَيْتُمُوهُنَّ أُجُورَهُنَّ مُحْصِنِينَ غَيْرَ مُسَافِحِينَ وَلاَ مُتَّخِذِي أَخْدَانٍ وَمَن يَكْفُرْ بِالإِيمَانِ فَقَدْ حَبِطَ عَمَلُهُ وَهُوَ فِي الآخِرَةِ مِنَ الْخَاسِرِينَ

(5:5) This day are (all) things good and pure made lawful unto you. The food of the People of the Book is lawful unto you and yours is lawful unto them. (Lawful unto you in marriage) are (not only) chaste women who are believers, but chaste women among the People of the Book, revealed before your time,- when ye give them their due dowers, and desire chastity, not lewdness, nor secret intrigues if any one rejects faith, fruitless is his work, and in the Hereafter he will be in the ranks of those who have lost (all spiritual good).

2.2.3 Relationship with non-Muslims who are not Kafirin

The following is a clear verse enjoining treating the non-kafir among the non-Muslims (Jews, Christians, Polytheists) with kindness and justice.

لَا يَنْهَاكُمُ اللَّهُ عَنِ الَّذِينَ لَمْ يُقَاتِلُوكُمْ فِي الدِّينِ وَلَمْ يُخْرِجُوكُم مِّن دِيَارِكُمْ أَن تَبَرُّوهُمْ وَتُقْسِطُوا إِلَيْهِمْ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الْمُقْسِطِينَ

إِنَّمَا يَنْهَاكُمُ اللَّهُ عَنِ الَّذِينَ قَاتَلُوكُمْ فِي الدِّينِ وَأَخْرَجُوكُم مِّن دِيَارِكُمْ وَظَاهَرُوا عَلَى إِخْرَاجِكُمْ أَن تَوَلَّوْهُمْ وَمَن يَتَوَلَّهُمْ فَأُوْلَئِكَ هُمُ الظَّالِمُونَ

(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.

Very clearly, only those who “fight you for (your) Faith, and drive you out of your homes, and support (others) in driving you out” are considered as the Kafirin among the Mushrikin whose friendship should be shunned as per 3:28, 4:139 and 144 discussed above. 

The call for justice and fairness in dealing with non-Muslims who are not at war with hostile to Muslims is the recommended golden rule. The verse clearly states the normal state for a relationship between Muslims and Non-Muslims should be based on the best morals and justice with those who declare peace and do not fight them.

The Quran uses the word, “Bir,” which is typically used to describe the highest relationship one could have with parents. The Quran also uses “Bir” to describe the type of relationship we should have with Non-Muslims. “Bir” includes all the good things that a relationship should have, and excludes all the bad aspects of a relationship. For that reason, Muslim scholars said that “Bir” is the foundation of the relationship between Muslims and Non-Muslims.

2.3 Verses That Ask Muslims To Fight

2.3.1 Generally Applicable

Except for Surah 9 which will be discussed separately, none of the verses regarding fighting mention the enemy that the Muslims are called upon to fight by their faith but by what they do or by the term kafir.

وَقَاتِلُواْ فِي سَبِيلِ اللّهِ الَّذِينَ يُقَاتِلُونَكُمْ وَلاَ تَعْتَدُواْ إِنَّ اللّهَ لاَ يُحِبِّ الْمُعْتَدِينَ

وَاقْتُلُوهُمْ حَيْثُ ثَقِفْتُمُوهُمْ وَأَخْرِجُوهُم مِّنْ حَيْثُ أَخْرَجُوكُمْ وَالْفِتْنَةُ أَشَدُّ مِنَ الْقَتْلِ وَلاَ تُقَاتِلُوهُمْ عِندَ الْمَسْجِدِ الْحَرَامِ حَتَّى يُقَاتِلُوكُمْ فِيهِ فَإِن قَاتَلُوكُمْ فَاقْتُلُوهُمْ كَذَلِكَ جَزَاء الْكَافِرِينَ

(2:190) Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors.

(191) And slay them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have Turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they (first) fight you there; but if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of the Kafirin.

أَنتَ مَوْلاَنَا فَانصُرْنَا عَلَى الْقَوْمِ الْكَافِرِينَ

2:286 ….Thou art our Protector, Help us against the Kafirin.

وَلَن يَجْعَلَ اللّهُ لِلْكَافِرِينَ عَلَى الْمُؤْمِنِينَ سَبِيلاً

(4:141) ….And never will Allah grant to the Kafirin a way (to triumph) over the Mominin.

Many armies have since triumphed over the armies of those who call themselves Muslim. We have to accept that these “non-Muslim” armies including those of the “Mushrikin” were not the armies of the “Kafirin” or the “Muslims” were not Mominin or Allah forbid, the verse is not true.

قَدْ كَانَ لَكُمْ آيَةٌ فِي فِئَتَيْنِ الْتَقَتَا فِئَةٌ تُقَاتِلُ فِي سَبِيلِ اللّهِ وَأُخْرَى كَافِرَةٌ يَرَوْنَهُم مِّثْلَيْهِمْ رَأْيَ الْعَيْنِ وَاللّهُ يُؤَيِّدُ بِنَصْرِهِ مَن يَشَاء إِنَّ فِي ذَلِكَ لَعِبْرَةً لَّأُوْلِي الأَبْصَارِ

(3:13) "There has already been for you a Sign in the two armies that met (in combat): One was fighting in the cause of Allah, the other (Kafiratun) resisting Allah; these saw with their own eyes twice their number. But Allah doth support with His aid whom He pleaseth. In this is a warning for such as have eyes to see."

قُل لِلَّذِينَ كَفَرُواْ إِن يَنتَهُواْ يُغَفَرْ لَهُم مَّا قَدْ سَلَفَ وَإِنْ يَعُودُواْ فَقَدْ مَضَتْ سُنَّةُ الأَوَّلِينِ

وَقَاتِلُوهُمْ حَتَّى لاَ تَكُونَ فِتْنَةٌ وَيَكُونَ الدِّينُ كُلُّهُ لِلّه فَإِنِ انتَهَوْاْ فَإِنَّ اللّهَ بِمَا يَعْمَلُونَ بَصِيرٌ

(8:38) Say to the kafaru (the people who fought the Muslims in the battle of Badr), if (now) they desist (from practicing oppression), their past would be forgiven them; but if they persist, the punishment of those before them is already (a matter of warning for them).(39) And fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah altogether and everywhere; but if they cease, verily Allah doth see all that they do.

Verse 8:38 is proof, that the battle (Badr) was to end the Kufr of persecution and oppression of the Muslims and not for putting an end to the Kufr of belief by forcing the Meccans to accept Islam. If the Meccans had heeded and given up practicing oppression against those who were accepting Islam, there would have been no more fighting after this verse was revealed and peaceful preaching would have resumed in Mecca.

The following verses are further proof that the cause for fighting is not for the Kufr of faith or belief which is known only to Allah, but for the Kufr of violating oaths and covenants, for having plotted to expel the Messenger, and for being the first to assault the Muslims :

وَإِن نَّكَثُواْ أَيْمَانَهُم مِّن بَعْدِ عَهْدِهِمْ وَطَعَنُواْ فِي دِينِكُمْ فَقَاتِلُواْ أَئِمَّةَ الْكُفْرِ إِنَّهُمْ لاَ أَيْمَانَ لَهُمْ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَنتَهُونَ

أَلاَ تُقَاتِلُونَ قَوْمًا نَّكَثُواْ أَيْمَانَهُمْ وَهَمُّواْ بِإِخْرَاجِ الرَّسُولِ وَهُم بَدَؤُوكُمْ أَوَّلَ مَرَّةٍ أَتَخْشَوْنَهُمْ فَاللّهُ أَحَقُّ أَن تَخْشَوْهُ إِن كُنتُم مُّؤُمِنِينَ

(9:12) But if they violate their oaths after their covenant, and taunt you for your Faith,- fight ye the chiefs of Unfaith ( a-immat-al-Kufri) : for their oaths are nothing to them: that thus they may be restrained.(13) Will ye not fight people who violated their oaths, plotted to expel the Messenger, and took the aggressive by being the first (to assault) you?

The Verses of Surah 9 (Sura Taubah)

2.3.1 Applicable after the conquest of Mecca to the direct addressees of the Prophet’s mission

The verses of Surah Taubah from 9:1 to 9:15 pronounce judgment on the vanquished Meccans after Mecca was conquered by the Muslims and are only a historical record of what that judgment was. These are not verses relating to fighting but of judgment. These could be used as a guide for pronouncing similar judgment after vanquishing the oppressors. The war was mostly with the Meccans and their allies and the Meccans were all Mushrikin. Please make a note of when Mushrik is used and when kafir is used in these verses.

بَرَاءةٌ مِّنَ اللّهِ وَرَسُولِهِ إِلَى الَّذِينَ عَاهَدتُّم مِّنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ

فَسِيحُواْ فِي الأَرْضِ أَرْبَعَةَ أَشْهُرٍ وَاعْلَمُواْ أَنَّكُمْ غَيْرُ مُعْجِزِي اللّهِ وَأَنَّ اللّهَ مُخْزِي الْكَافِرِينَ

Verses 9:1 and 9:2 declare amnesty of four months to all Mushrikin but with a warning that the kafirun (not Mushrikin) among them will be covered with shame at the end of the period.

وَأَذَانٌ مِّنَ اللّهِ وَرَسُولِهِ إِلَى النَّاسِ يَوْمَ الْحَجِّ الأَكْبَرِ أَنَّ اللّهَ بَرِيءٌ مِّنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ وَرَسُولُهُ فَإِن تُبْتُمْ فَهُوَ خَيْرٌ لَّكُمْ وَإِن تَوَلَّيْتُمْ فَاعْلَمُواْ أَنَّكُمْ غَيْرُ مُعْجِزِي اللّهِ وَبَشِّرِ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُواْ بِعَذَابٍ أَلِيمٍ

إِلاَّ الَّذِينَ عَاهَدتُّم مِّنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ ثُمَّ لَمْ يَنقُصُوكُمْ شَيْئًا وَلَمْ يُظَاهِرُواْ عَلَيْكُمْ أَحَدًا فَأَتِمُّواْ إِلَيْهِمْ عَهْدَهُمْ إِلَى مُدَّتِهِمْ إِنَّ اللّهَ يُحِبُّ الْمُتَّقِينَ

9:3 and 9:4 announces dissolution of all treaties with the Mushrikin except with those who never broke their treaty and warns the kafirun (not Mushrikin) of a grievous penalty.

فَإِذَا انسَلَخَ الأَشْهُرُ الْحُرُمُ فَاقْتُلُواْ الْمُشْرِكِينَ حَيْثُ وَجَدتُّمُوهُمْ وَخُذُوهُمْ وَاحْصُرُوهُمْ وَاقْعُدُواْ لَهُمْ كُلَّ مَرْصَدٍ فَإِن تَابُواْ وَأَقَامُواْ الصَّلاَةَ وَآتَوُاْ الزَّكَاةَ فَخَلُّواْ سَبِيلَهُمْ إِنَّ اللّهَ غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ

وَإِنْ أَحَدٌ مِّنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ اسْتَجَارَكَ فَأَجِرْهُ حَتَّى يَسْمَعَ كَلاَمَ اللّهِ ثُمَّ أَبْلِغْهُ مَأْمَنَهُ ذَلِكَ بِأَنَّهُمْ قَوْمٌ لاَّ يَعْلَمُونَ

Verse 9:5 is a command to kill all Mushrikin at the end of the four month period with the exception of:

1.         Those who never broke their treaty or never fought the Muslims (9:4)

2.         Those who accept Islam offer prayers and pay zakat (9:5)

3.         Those who seek asylum (9:6)

If the command was to kill only the Kafirin, then the problem would have been how to identify them since there was no longer an enemy standing in battle. The verse identifies the non-kafir among the Mushrikin through the exceptions listed above. Verse 9:5 read together with 9:4 and 9:6 then becomes a command to kill only the Kafirin among the Mushrikin. Asylum seekers are not defiant and therefore not kafir even though they may have fought with the Muslims earlier.

2.4 Summary of section 2

Very clearly, even under the most trying conditions of war spread over nine years meant to annihilate Islam, the Quran makes a clear distinction between the `kafir’ among the non-Muslims and others.

There is not a single verse in the entire Quran that directs the Muslims to treat people of other faiths with anything other than kindness and justice. The war is only against the kafir among them for the exclusive Kufr of:

Those who fight the Muslims for their faith and drive them out of their homes.

Those who break their treaties and fight or aid other enemies of the Muslims

There is no verse in the Quran that asks the Muslims to fight with the kafir for any other form of Kufr such as: Blasphemy, ridicule, rejecting faith etc. Surah 109 Al-Kafirun is explicit about living in peace with the peaceful Kafirun and ends with “(109:6) To you be your Way/religion, and to me mine.

 Why Kufr is a relative concept while shirk, idol worship etc. have fixed meanings

The Muslims display a glaring lack of insight of their holy Book, when they judge others who are not followers of the Quran, by the yardstick in the Quran applicable only to the Muslims. This is in direct contradiction to the message of the Quran. In this section, we explore how the Quran shows without any ambiguity, that Kufr is a relative concept even as it concerns faith and belief, and conduct that would render a Muslim Kafir, may not render even an ahle-kitab (Jew or Christian) Kafir,  let alone a polytheist.

3.1 Kufr - A Relative Concept

(33:72) We did indeed offer the Trust to the Heavens and the Earth and the Mountains; but they refused to undertake it, being afraid thereof: but man undertook it;- He was indeed unjust and foolish;-

(73) (With the result) that Allah has to punish the Hypocrites, men and women, and the Unbelievers, men and women, and Allah turns in Mercy to the Believers, men and women: for Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.

The implication of verse 33:73 is that once God has sent His messengers and His revelations, it becomes incumbent upon God then to punish/reward man by judging his deeds in the light of the guidance provided through the revelations. Without the revelations, there is no believer, unbeliever, or hypocrite or punishment for the sins of Kufr, shirk, nifaq etc.

It is easy to understand now, that Kufr is relative to the message received. For example, observing the Sabbath was prescribed to the followers of Moses and not to other people. For Muslims, since there is no Sabbath, there cannot be Kufr through violation of the Sabbath and punishment for it. We know from the Quran, that the Jews were punished in a very exemplary manner in this world itself for violating their Sabbath.

For a Christian, certain beliefs of later generations in violation of what Prophet Jesus (pbuh) taught them, or what was revealed in the Bible become Kufr. The Quran says that there is no authority from their books or from the teachings of Jesus (pbuh) for them to believe in the concept of Trinity or of Jesus as divinity. Such beliefs that are in contradiction of the teachings of Jesus (pbuh) are therefore Kufr. It is only incidental that such beliefs dilute Tauheed and are a form of shirk. From this example, it cannot be deduced that shirk is Kufr for all people just like we cannot deduce that violation of the Sabbath is Kufr for all people. Although it is the Kufr of shirk for the Christians to have such beliefs, they cannot be judged by the standards applicable to the Muslims. Indeed, except for considering Christ as God Himself, which the Christians do not, the Quran treats the other forms of shirk relatively lightly by avoiding mention of punishment for these in the hereafter. The Quran however, does not dilute the expressions of horror at the `blasphemy’ of shirk committed by these people.

Consuming intoxicants is prohibited for a Muslim and a violation by him is Kufr but not for the Jews or the Christians or not to the same degree. According to the covenant of the Prophets, the Christians and the Jews are expected to be guided by the Quran and therefore it is not entirely true that what is Kufr for a Muslim is not necessarily true for them. (3:81) Behold! Allah took the covenant of the prophets, saying: "I give you a Book and Wisdom; then comes to you a messenger, confirming what is with you; do ye believe in him and render him help." Allah said: "Do ye agree, and take this my Covenant as binding on you?" They said: "We agree." He said: "Then bear witness, and I am with you among the witnesses." Those who reject verse 3:81 and its implications after accepting it as true, become Kafir but not otherwise.

3.2 What Was Kufr For The Meccan Pagans?

The Meccan pagans we are told by the Quran were not a people to whom a messenger was sent before, nor did they have a Book of revelation like the Christians or the Jews. The Quran describes them as an Ummi nation and their state as of Jahiliya or ignorance. Ignorance of the law is not an excuse but there was no divine law for them at all. For these people therefore, shirk, idol worship, adultery was not Kufr.

(36:6) In order that thou mayest admonish a people, whose fathers had received no admonition, and who therefore remain heedless (of the Signs of Allah).

The above verse not only confirms that the Meccan Polytheists’ fathers had received no admonition but accepts that as a reason for their remaining heedless.

 (20:134) And if We had inflicted on them a penalty before this, they would have said: "Our Lord! If only Thou hadst sent us a messenger, we should certainly have followed Thy Signs before we were humbled and put to shame."

The above verse makes the point clearer. If no penalty could be inflicted in this world for the Kufr of Shirk on the earlier people, how can they be punished for it in the hereafter?

What was Kufr for them was solely violating self-evident truths or what was accepted by their own society as a serious crime. The only deeds for which the Quran treats the Meccan pagans as kafir are for:

1.         Persecuting the Muslims for no other reason other than for their faith

2.         Fighting the Muslims for their faith and driving them out of their homes. Breaking peace treaties and aiding the enemy.

The Meccan pagans are uniformly referred to as the Mushrikin except those standing against the Muslims in battle, those that practiced persecution, or those who broke their treaties with the Muslims. These exceptions, who were the enemies of the new faith of Islam, are referred to as the Kafaru among the Mushrikin, clearly implying that not all the Mushrikin are Kafirin.

Every sin is a violation of divine guidance and therefore an act of Kufr. Committing an act of Kufr does not necessarily mean that a person has become a kafir. By that reasoning, every Muslim would become a kafir and indeed every person in the world! The Quran does not describe the Jews or the Christians of any denomination as either Kafir or Mushrik for their beliefs, even though it describes their beliefs that contradict their scriptures as Kufr. The only Christians referred to as the Kafaru in the Quran are those who were guilty of specific acts of Kufr described in the verses listed in section 1 of this paper. These are necessarily the people of the Prophet’s times and none of the verses in the Quran which refer to the kafaru among the Christians, Jews or Polytheists apply to the people of today unless they are guilty of the same Kufr.

3.3 When Does Rejection Of The `Truth’ Brought By The Messenger Become Kufr?

The earlier Prophets such as Noah, Moses, Lut, Shoeb, Saleh and Hud also preached to the Mushrikin of their times. At the end of the mission, the disbelievers were totally destroyed by an act of God. The persons who had become kafir by virtue of rejecting the “truth” were not known even to the Prophets, unless Allah informed them about it. For example, Jonah (pbuh)  (verses 37:139 to 142) assumed that Kufr of belief was proven against the people to whom he was sent. He therefore left them and this is described as an act worthy of blame. He was swallowed by a fish, repented and went back to the people who then accepted belief.

Another example is Noah (pbuh) who is informed by Allah in verse 11:36 that "None of thy people will believe except those who have believed already!....”. This verse confirms the guilt of Kufr of belief on the remaining people. Noah is asked to build an ark and take the believers with him and the rest are drowned in a flood.

Also Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), towards the end of his prophetic mission, is given the command in verse 9:5 to kill all the Mushrikin after the four month amnesty period with certain exceptions. The rules of fighting change after this command is given and no distinction is made between man/woman/child as far as the Mushrikin of Hejaz are concerned who were the people, as per verse 36:6 “… whose fathers had received no admonition, and who therefore remain heedless” and who were the direct addressees of the Prophet’s mission. This command of Allah, is similar to the destruction wrought by Allah on the disbelievers after the end of the Prophetic mission in the case of the Prophets Noah, Moses, Saleh, Shoeb, Hud and Lut (PBUT). In the case of the other people, the destruction was by an act of Allah but in the case of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) it was through the believers. The Mushrikin of Hejaz destroyed were guilty of both the obvious Kufr of waging war against the Muslims and for the hidden Kufr of disbelief or rejection of the “truth”.

It may also be noted that in the case of every other Prophet, since the destruction was by an act of God, we do not know whether the people were destroyed for the Kufr of belief or for the Kufr of persecuting the believers or for both. In the case of Muhammad (pbuh) however, the command to kill was only those who had committed the Kufr of persecution, or waging war or breaking their treaty and remaining defiant after the 4 month amnesty period. The remaining people were spared and these people eventually accepted Islam as Allah Himself says in verse 8:23, if Allah finds any good in the people, he makes them listen to the message.

The following verses further elaborate the point beyond which a Mushrik becomes a kafir for not accepting belief.

(41:53) Soon will We show them our Signs in the (furthest) regions (of the earth), and in their own souls, until it becomes manifest to them that this is the Truth. Is it not enough that thy Lord doth witness all things?


27:14 "And they rejected those Signs in iniquity and arrogance, though their souls were convinced thereof: so see what the end of those who acted corruptly was!

Whether the truth has become manifest in their own souls, God alone can say. A Mushrik does not become a kafir for rejection of the message until the truth has become manifest in his own soul.

Again regarding the Meccan pagans, after the conquest of Mecca, the Quran says:

(9:6) "If one amongst the Pagans ask thee for asylum, grant it to him, so that he may hear the word of Allah; and then escort him to where he can be secure. That is because they are men without knowledge."

This is proof that those Meccans who had not accepted Islam despite the Prophet preaching in Mecca for 13 years and for another 8 years in Medina,  were to be treated as merely “those without knowledge” and not as kafir, even if they had fought against the Muslims earlier. The mere act of seeking asylum was to be treated as a sign of non-defiance or of not being a kafir.

3.4 How will God judge earlier generations to whom no messenger was sent?

As a corollary of this discussion, it should be clear as to how God will judge people of earlier generations who had received no guidance. They will be judged by the standards of their own society. In general, a Mushrik who dies a Mushrik without receiving guidance until the truth becomes manifest to him and his heart and mind have acknowledged it, will not die a kafir and will be judged by standards appropriate to him. A Mushrik becomes a kafir only when his soul will testify against him that he rejected the “truth” or if he rejected Allah for any reason (with or without knowing the “truth”) and hindered men from the Path of Allah and died rejecting Allah.

(47:34) Those who reject Allah, and hinder (men) from the Path of Allah, then die rejecting Allah,- Allah will not forgive them.

Who is a kafir in the Quran? Defining Kufr

We are now in a position to define the term Kufr as used in the Quran based on the discussions in the previous 3 sections of this paper. This definition varies from the definition we find in Sunni theology which is also discussed.

4.1 Dimensions of Kufr

From the discussion so far, we see that there are two dimensions to Kufr:

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

Kufr relating to God or the spiritual dimension

Kufr relating to the temporal dimension

The Quran recognizes certain human rights:

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

Sanctity of life and property

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

A violation of the rights of man is Kufr

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

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

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.

Kufr is therefore a violation of the rights of man or of God and a Kafir is one who deliberately and wilfully goes against what he believes and knows to be the truth without rejecting any new truth that becomes clear to him.

4.2 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.

An apostate who turns hostile and carries on activities harmful to a section of the society or the state 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 will only be Kufr in the spiritual dimension if it does not contravene the laws of the land. Through legislation, usury could be made a punishable offence since it is injurious to the society as well but it is not hadd. Legislating punishments for Kufr related to the spiritual dimension alone (beliefs of a person), violate the freedom of religion and conscience granted to man by the Quran and such interference with the freedom granted to man by Allah is Kufr.

قُل لِّلَّذِينَ آمَنُوا يَغْفِرُوا لِلَّذِينَ لا يَرْجُون أَيَّامَ اللَّهِ لِيَجْزِيَ قَوْمًا بِما كَانُوا يَكْسِبُونَ

(45:14) Tell those who believe, to forgive those who do not look forward to the Days of Allah: It is for Him to recompense (for good or ill) each People according to what they have earned.

Takfir against sects also goes against the Quran.

(6:159) As for those who divide their religion and break up into sects, thou hast no part in them in the least: their affair is with Allah: He will in the end tell them the truth of all that they did.

 (23:53) But people have cut off their affair (of unity), between them, into sects: each party rejoices in that which is with itself.(54) But leave them in their confused ignorance for a time.

4.3 Human Rights

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

4.3.1 The right to freedom of religion and conscience

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

(50:45) We know best what they say; and thou art not one to overawe them by force. So admonish with the Qur´an such as fear My Warning!

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;

(109:1) Say : O ye that reject Faith!

(2) I worship not that which ye worship,

(3) Nor will ye worship that which I worship.

(4) And I will not worship that which ye have been wont to worship,

(5) Nor will ye worship that which I worship.

(6) To you be your Way, and to me mine.

4.3.2 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.

4.4 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)."

4.5 Historical Development Of The Concept Of Kufr/Kafir In Sunni Theology

The following is an excerpt from the book `The Muslim Brotherhood: Hasan al-Hudaybi and ideology (Routledge Studies in Political Islam)’ by Barbara H. E. Zollner.

4.5.1 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 earliest movement that defined Kufr by the sword was the Khawarij. The movement stood out through its fanaticism and egalitarianism. The Khawarij was the first movement to turn the concept of unbelief against fellow Muslims; they thus widened its application. It was part of Khawarij 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, 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 Khawarij positions on belief and unbelief sets the tone for Sunni theology. The first theological movement to reject the application of Takfir was the Murji’iyya. 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 Khawarij. 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 protégé theological movement laid the fundamental building blocks for later theological discussions.

Not entirely endorsing the misdemeanour of a sinner, the mu’tazila took an intermediate position 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. Since the idea of the intermediate position 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. The Mu’tazila was eventually superseded by an orthodox countertrend.

The orthodox traditionalism of the Ash’ariyya and the Maturidiyya 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 Maturidiyya. Their theology clearly had its impact on arguments of the major schools of law.

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 Imanand 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. Thus 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 Fiqh elaborations, Kufr was an umbrella concept which contained a number of more specific offences. Under its shade, there 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, ie 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 a hadd. 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 not 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 Khawarij 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.

4.6 The problem with Sunni theology

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 Imanand Kafir as the antonym of Muslim. This is treated as a self-evident truth or an axiom.

The Quran gives little scope for many of the assumptions that are made in Sunni theology such as:

 1. Those Who Do Not Affirm The Prophethood Of Muhammad (Pbuh) Are Kafir.

(The Quran does not treat the Christians, Jews and polytheists as Kafir unless they reject the prophethood of Muhammad. Non-acceptance for lack of knowledge or conviction is not treated as rejection).

 2. Islam Is Today The Religion Of Only The Followers Of Muhammad (Pbuh)

(According to the Quran, Islam is the religion of all those who submit to Allah following what they know and believe to be the truth).

 The views of Sunni theology do a great disservice to the Quran and as a matter of fact blaspheme the Quran. They render it a book full of discrepancies and contradictions when the Quran says that 'if it were a book from other than Allah, you would have found in it many discrepancies and contradictions'. The book is from Allah without a single discrepancy and without a single contradiction but the understanding of it is human which has made it a book of contradictions. What good is preserving it in Loh-e-Mahfooz when the people have corrupted its understanding?

Any person who denies the truth of Islam is a kafir but to assume that all those who do not accept are the deniers and rejecters is unwarranted and the Quran gives absolutely no scope to jump to such conclusions.

 Sunni theology takes a 'Muslim= only followers of Muhammad' centric view. We learn from the Quran that the Jews and Christians did the same in the past for which they are chided. Instead of taking a lesson from this, the Muslims follow their example!

 On the face of it, and especially since for a Muslim it is true, it does not strike anyone as odd, that Kufr and Iman are not antonyms. The problem arises when Iman is understood in a very narrow sense of only someone who affirms the prophethood of Muhammad (pbuh). If Iman is understood in its broadest sense, then there would have been no problem. Can any Ulema say with authority that those who are not followers of Muhammad (pbuh) are without Iman? If niggardliness is a sign of Kufr, then spending freely in charity is a sign of Imanand this trait is independent of the faith one professes with his mouth. How can all non-Muslims then be called kafir? The Quran does not refer to the Mushrikin as the Kafirin except those guilty of obvious Kufr in the temporal dimension alone. The Messengers of Allah did not treat the Mushrikin as the Kafirin. If they did that, where was the scope for any preaching?  If we treat the non-Muslims as the Kafirin, where is the scope for any Tabligh? We should shun them as per verses 3:28, 4:139 and 4:144.

 And what do we then make of verses 60:8, 9 which enjoin treating people who do not fight with the Muslims with kindness (taburruhum) and justice (tuqsitu)? Either these verses contradict the verses 3:28, 4:139 and 144 or all Mushrikin are not Kafirin. The conclusion is clearly that only those who are open enemies of the Muslims and of Islam are to be treated as the Kafirin.

Unsurprisingly, a defect in the definition leads to many contradictions that are evident from the excerpt from Barbara’s book. The words Kufr and kafir are like the words sin and sinner or crime and criminal. Unless the sin or crime is described or known, the sinner or criminal is not fully defined.

The verses of the Quran always describe the Kufr of the kafir and this varies from verse to verse as there is great variety in the types of Kufr. Giving a fixed meaning to kafir as “those who reject faith” is problematic because many of the types of Kufr are practiced by people of all faiths such as miserliness, oppression, injustice etc.

When Kufr means rejecting the truth after the truth has become plain, it should cover all kinds of truth. There are many Muslims who reject the truth or support falsehood. Only when the subject is rejection of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) or the message of the Quran that the verse is dealing with faith but even then this covers only rejection after the truth has become manifest. It does not cover non-acceptance because of lack of knowledge or conviction.  How are we to know who has rejected the truth of Islam after the truth became manifest to him/her? There is no way that we can apply the term kafir to a group of people based on the faith professed by the group be they Christians, Jews, Polytheists or Agnostics. Sunni theology appears to have moved far away from the message of the Quran.

4.7 Serious implications of Sunni theology

It is easy to see now, why it is difficult to say that the ideology of extremists is not Islamic.

In Sunni theology Kafir is antonym of Muslim and the terms Mushrik, Kafir and idol worshipper are synonyms. Christians and Jews are also Mushrikin and therefore practice Kufr.

The Kharijites have further included sects of Muslims in the definition of kafir. Every sect practices Takfir against other sects and are Kharijites to some extent.

As per verse 3:28, 4:139 and 4:144 a Muslim cannot befriend a Kafir. The rest of the World is therefore enemy of a Takfiri Muslim except those who belong to his sect. He is therefore at war with the rest of the world and in a war "everything is fair" (not according to the Quran but yet generally accepted).

The beliefs of a moderate are no different except that they ignore verse 3:28, 4:139 and 4:144 and heed verse 60:8 and 9 which enjoin a Muslim to treat those who do not fight with them with justice and kindness and other verses of a similar nature which call for living in peace etc.

What should be evident however is that the meaning of Kufr in Sunni theology makes verse 3:28, 4:139 and 4:144 contradict verse 60:8 and 9 and the belligerent verses dealing with the Kafirin contradict the peaceful verses dealing with non-Muslims. So who can say with any authority which choice that a Sunni makes is the correct one?

This paper shows, based on the evidence of the Quran that:

The terms kafir, Mushrik, and idol worshipper are not synonyms. A kafir is not a term that the Quran associates with people based on their faith and the term is used in a faith neutral manner in many verses and in a faith relative manner in other verses.

The battles were only against the Kafirin from amongst the Christians, Jews and the Mushrikin and never against the Christians, Jews and the Mushrikin

There Is No Contradiction In Any Of The Verses Of The Quran.

The Quran does not prescribe any punishment for Kufr in the spiritual dimension and grants explicit right to freedom of religion and conscience.

The definition of Kufr in this paper is derived from the usage of the various terms in the Quran considering every verse that uses these terms and is therefore consistent with every verse of the Quran besides being logically consistent.

The Sunni definition is neither consistent logically, nor consistent with the verses of the Quran and makes many of the verses contradict other verses if their definition of Kufr is applied.

Unless Sunni theology is reformed and the definition of Kufr as given in this paper is accepted, the extremist ideology cannot be defeated because it is based on the ideology of every Sunni and the only difference between a moderate and an extremist is only his personal choice and both choices are equally justifiable based on the loose definition of Kufr in Sunni theology.

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. A frequent contributor to, he has spent years studying Quran.


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