On Being Kafir

Asghar Ali Engineer

Posted Aug 17, 2010      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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by Asghar Ali Engineer

In recent plane crash in Pakistan a Hindu youth who was a member of Youth Parliament, Pakistan died and someone wrote on his coffin ‘kafir’ which ignited a controversy and many Pakistanis condemned such an approach and instead wrote ‘we love you’, a very humane thing to do. Nevertheless it shows how many Muslims think and treat non-Muslims as kafirs. It is, therefore, necessary to throw some light on this issue.

It is necessary to understand the word kafir etymologically, historically as well as theologically. First let us understand its meaning. ‘Kafara’ literally means he hid and therefore, according to Imam Raghib in his classic work Mufradat al-Qur’an he says that a peasant is also called kafir as he hides seeds below soil for growing crop and night is also called kafir as it hides light.

And theologically it came to mean those who hide truth are kafirs. Every prophet brings truth from Allah, those accept it, are called believers and those who do not, are called kafirs as they refuse to accept truth and hide it. But according to the Qur’an those who believe in previous prophets sent by Allah are also believers as those prophets also came with truth from Allah. Since the truth from Allah was contained in the book given them they were also called ahl al-kitab (people of the book)

Some of them have been mentioned in the Qur’an but many others have not been named. According to the Qur’an itself the list of the prophets named is illustrative, not exhaustive. Muslims believe there came 124,000 prophets and the Qur’an says Allah has sent a guide (haad) for every nation. Thus, if there is no mention of a nation or the book it should not automatically mean people of that nation or community have hidden truth and so are kafirs.

Mazher Jan-i-Janan, an eminent sufi saint of 18th century, Delhi, was asked by one of his disciples since Hindus worship idols should we condemn as ‘kafirs’? Jan-i-Janan wrote back to him a well studied and well though out reply. He said that Hindus, according to their Shashtras (holy books) believe in God who is nirankar and nirgun (i.e. without form and attributes) and this is highest form of tawhid (i.e. unity of God) Their holy books do not mention idol worship.

Then he refers to Qur’anic verse that every nation has been sent a guide and he argues how can Allah forget a great nation like Hindustan and not send His guide there. May be Ram and Krishna who are highly respected by Hindus were such guides. He maintains that we cannot say that Hindus do not believe in truth as they also call Ishwar as Satyam (Truth). As Dara Shikoh also points out in his Majma’ al-Bahrayn (Co-mingling of Two Oceans) Hindus call Ishwar as Satyam, Shivam and Sundaram (Truth, Almighty and Beautiful) and all three names of Allah are in Qur’an i.e. Haq, Jabbar and Jamil.

Thus Jan-i-Janan also argues theologically Hindus are believer in one God and cannot be called hiders of Truth or kafirs. As for idol worship, he gives very interesting explanation. He maintains that it is a popular practice as common people find it difficult to imagine a god who is formless and without attributes and they need some concrete object for worship and hence they carve out some shape and see reflection of one Ishwara in it. What they worship, according to Jan-i-Janan, is not piece of stone but one Ishwara through it.

Then he gives example of Sufis who need help of a master (a sheikh) whose help is needed to reach Allah. Without the intervention of a Sheikh a sufi disciple cannot reach Allah. Thus for a common Hindu an idol becomes a sheikh, an intervener. Also, Muslims go and pray at graves of sufi saints and seek their intervention.

It is important to note is that Mazhar Jan-i-Janan does not take rigid position that Hindus are kafirs but tries to understand their religious faith and common Hindu psychology as to why they worship idols. All this is available in the letter written by Jan-i-Janan to his disciple. The letter makes very interesting reading. Also, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad has quoted several passages from Vedas in his volume on Wahdat-i-Din of Tarjuman al-Qur’an to show essential unity of all religions. Shah Waliyullah too, in his classic work Hujjatl-Allah al-Balighah treats comprehensively the doctrine of unity of religion (wahdat-i-din).

Historically speaking Qur’an applied this term to those in Mecca who not only rejected his prophet hood and mission but also actively opposed him, persecuted him and his followers. Among them was Prophet’s Uncle Abu Lahab who was leading the camping against the Prophet. However, there were those who were neutral and Muslims entered into covenant with them and sought their cooperation.

Thus the term kafir must be applied with great sense of responsibility and not for every non-believer in Islam. Every human being must be treated with dignity whatever way he/she believes in truth. Truth has different manifestation in different cultures. 


Centre for Study of Society and Secularism