On the Terms Kafir and Kufr

Maulana Wahiduddin Khan (tr. Yoginder Sikand)

Posted Dec 6, 2008      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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On the Terms Kafir and Kufr

By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan

(Translated by Yoginder Sikand)

According to Marxism, as it is generally interpreted, human society is divided into basically two classes—the working class and the bourgeoisie. The word ‘bourgeoisie’ is of French origin. In the beginning it denoted the middle classes, but later, when it was employed as a key term in Marxist discourse, it came to be seen in a derogatory sense. Consequently, in Marxist analysis the bourgeoisie came to be regarded as the source of all social ills, while the working class was considered to be the epitome of virtue.

Somewhat the same thing has happened with the term kafir. In the beginning, the term simply meant what its dictionary meaning denotes—‘one who denies’. However, later it came to be used and seen in a derogatory sense, and today this latter sense in which the term is generally understood is the source of much conflict between Muslims and others.

Let me cite an instance to illustrate the possible consequences of the wrong use of the term kafir. The noted poet Muhammad Iqbal penned a Persian couplet in which he mentioned his Hindu Pandit origins, referring to himself as a brahmanzada or ‘descendant of a Brahmin’. Now, the term brahmanzada is not seen as offensive by anyone. But suppose it was replaced by the term kafirzada or ‘descendant of a kafir’, lovers of Iqbal’s poetry would react in horror. This is because the term kafir has come to be widely perceived and used in a very derogatory sense.

The general usage of the terms kafir and momin (‘believers’) by Muslims causes a great deal of anguish for many non-Muslims. So much so that some extremists opposed to Muslims and Islam have even demanded that the word kafir should be expunged from the Islamic lexicon, claiming that till this is done Muslims and non-Muslims can never live in amity with each other.

In actual fact, the misuse of the word kafir is not something that only extremists in other communities are vehemently opposed to. To be honest, it has become a major problem for many Muslims themselves. In today’s age, Muslims and non-Muslims live and work together, and in this context many educated Muslims feel that they cannot properly adjust to a pluralistic situation while continuing to uphold traditional understandings of the term kafir. Consciously or otherwise, many of them feel that many aspects of the sort of Islam that they have been reared on have lost their relevance in today’s age. They have no idea how they can live respectably in society today if they continue to cling to this sort of Islam.

I know of a certain very well-educated Muslim man who lives in Delhi, and who often meets me. He says that although he was born in a Muslim family he has lost faith in Islam. Democracy, he tells me, is his religion, not Islam, because, according to him, Islam sharply divides humankind into momins and kafirs, while democracy regards all human beings as equal [….]

So, as I just mentioned, this issue has become a very real and serious one for many Muslims today. It is imperative, therefore, to seriously address it. This is essential in order to answer the questions people are asking about the contemporary relevance of Islam as well as to help create a climate wherein Muslims and others can live together amicably.

If the issue is studied carefully and deeply, it emerges that the entire question is based on gross misunderstanding.  In the general Muslim understanding, the term kafir is seen as synonymous with non-Muslim. Consequently, most Muslims think that anyone who is not a Muslim is a kafir. However, this is a completely wrong notion. The word kafir is not synonymous with non-Muslim.

According to the shariah, the role of true Muslims is that of dais or those who invite others to the path of God. The status of non-Muslims, therefore, is that of madu, or those who are to be invited to God’s path. This relationship between dai and madu, between true Muslims and others, necessarily demands that true Muslims, as dais, must constantly seek to maintain good and friendly relations with people of other faiths. It is said that a shopkeeper must always be customer-friendly. Likewise, a true Muslim must always be madu-friendly.

A true dai must be inspired by a genuine sense of concern, love and welfare for the madu. If that is really the case, the dai would never tolerate using any term that might stir hatred in the heart of the madu. In addition, a true dai can never have hatred in his own heart for the madu.

The ancient Aryan invaders of India referred to the indigenous people of the country as Mlecchas. Likewise, medieval Christian scholars referred to Muslims as ‘infidels’. Both terms were used in a derogatory sense, and those whom these terms were used to refer to obviously did not approve of them.  The proper way in such cases is to use terms that do not have this derogatory implication. Unfortunately, the Muslim scholars have not adopted a proper approach in this regard. In their writings and their translations of the Quran they have indiscriminately used the term kafir to mean ‘infidels’. In the Indian context, this has led to much misunderstanding and conflict between Hindus and Muslims. And because the term kafir has been used by the ulema in this sense it has created a particular sort of mind-set among Muslims generally, as is reflected in the writings and speeches of many Muslim scholars. It has played a major role in fashioning an entirely negative approach in the Muslim community in general towards people of other faiths. It has built up a pronounced sense of ‘Muslims versus Others’, ‘We versus Them’, which is very unfortunate and lamentable.

My own reading of the Quran leads me to believe that when it says, ‘Say, ‘You who deny the Truth […]’ (Quran, 109:1), using the term kafirun for this, it refers only to the Qureish of Mecca of the Prophet’s time who, despite the Prophet having provided them all proof of his divine mission, rejected and opposed him.  It was then that God declared that they had become kafirs or deniers of the truth in His eyes. Nowhere else in the Quran has any other group been declared in such clear and specific terms as kafir. This way of addressing people does not, I believe, apply to other non-Muslims, who should be addressed as human beings, rather than as kafirs.

More on the Term Kafir

As I indicated earlier, the Arabic word kufr means ‘denial’, and the related term kafir denotes ‘one who denies’, that is ‘one who refuses to accept’. Thus, the word kafir denotes an individual character rather than being a label for a specific community or race. In many English translations of the Quran, the word has been translated as ‘unbelievers’, but this, I feel, is wrong. An unbeliever is someone who does not believe, but a kafir is a person who refuses to believe despite all the proofs of God having been presented to him in an appropriate way.

In the early part of the Prophet’s mission, as evidenced in the initial verses of the Quran, the people he addressed were not referred to as kafirs, but, rather, as people. For instance, addressing the Prophet the Quran says, ‘O Messenger, deliver whatever has been sent down to you by your Lord. If you do not do so, you will not have conveyed His message. God will defend you from mankind (al-nas). For God does not guide those who deny truth.’ (Quran: 5:67). In this verse, God says that He would protect the Prophet from ‘mankind’ (al-nas), and does not use the word al-kuffar or kafirs. There are numerous such verses in the Quran that indicate the use of the general word insan (‘people’) or related words to refer to all human communities […]

It was only after thirteen years of the Prophet’s struggling to present the Qureish of Mecca of his time all the required proofs of his mission while addressing them as ‘people’ that, after they deliberately denied him, the above-mentioned Quranic commandment ‘Say, ‘You who deny the Truth […]’ (Quran, 109:1) was revealed. And that too was an announcement from God Himself, and it was not the Prophet’s own statement.

The Difference Between Deeds and the Doer

Elsewhere in the Quran the words kufr and kafir have been employed in the sense of referring to certain deeds or acts that are tantamount to kufr, and the person who does this is a kafir in God’s eyes. However, other than with regard to the Qureish of Mecca, and that too only after the Prophet’s mission among them for thirteen long years which they rejected, there is no specific declaration in the Quran labeling any particular community as kafir. From this it appears that while a dai or an Islamic scholar can point out that a particular deed amounts to kufr he does not have the right to declare any particular community as kafirs.  As I mentioned above, the word kafir relates to a certain set of actions, and is not the name of or label for any community.

This point can be further clarified with the help of a hadith report attributed to the Prophet which talks about the sin of a Muslim deliberately abandoning his regular prayers and linking it with kufr. In this context, it is acceptable for someone to appeal to Muslims in general to regularly pray and also tell them about the grave implications of abandoning regular worship. But it would be totally incorrect if he were to prepare a list of Muslims in his area who do not regularly worship and then specifically name them as having turned kafirs for this sin.

In exactly the same way, a true Muslim who calls people to the path of God can, on the basis of Quranic teachings, point out the actions which lead people to be seen as kafirs in the eyes of God. But he would be exceeding his boundaries if he were to address non-Muslim individuals and communities by name and declare that so-and-so non-Muslims are kafirs.

Hence, on the matter of kufr and kafir it is crucial to make a distinction between an act or deed of kufr and the person who commits that act or deed. It is only God’s prerogative to make a specific declaration in this regard, and that He has done just once, with regard to the Qureish deniers and opponents of the Prophet in Mecca to whom the Prophet had provided complete proofs of God’s revelation. With regard to the rest of humanity, God will decide Himself, and this would be made known in the Hereafter. Hence, the task of a true Muslim is simply to invite others to the path of God, and not to declare people to be kafirs.

Consequently, in my opinion, from the Islamic point of view the status of non-Muslim communities all over the world, including of the Hindus of India, is simply that of being human beings (insan).  None of these communities can be branded as kafirs, because as of yet the essential conditions that characterized thirteen years of the Prophet’s preaching in Mecca among the Qureish have not been fulfilled, only after which the Qureish were declared as kafirs. Likewise, it is incorrect to term them as ‘deniers’ (munkir).

I believe that the many of the conflicts and complaints that characterize relations between Muslims and non-Muslims are essentially communal and economic. These are, at root, conflicts about worldly or material interests. These cannot be considered to be religious as such. Muslims must take the initiative to desist from these conflicts over worldly or material interests and focus all their intention on their real mission, which is to invite people to the path of surrender to God.

Investigating Kufr

When can it be established with regard to a particular person that he has become a ‘denier’ (munkir)? The Quran supplies an answer to this. The revelation of the Quran started in 610 C.E. in Mecca, and through the Quran the Prophet invited the Meccans to the path of worship of the one God. In this period, he never referred to his fellow Meccans as kafirs. Instead, as I mentioned before, he referred to them as ‘human beings’ or by similar terms, such as ‘Qureish’ or ‘my community’. He conveyed to them God’s message while considering them part of his own community (qaum). This, therefore, shows that the words kafir and kufr relate to a particular attribute and not to an entire community as such.

In his mission to invite the people of Mecca to God’s path, the Prophet was filled with a sense of deep concern for the welfare of those he was addressing, and even though they heaped all sorts of oppression on him he always beseeched God to guide them. And the Prophet continued to do this steadfastly throughout the thirteen long years after receiving his prophethood in Mecca. Even after that he did not refer to these people as kafirs on his own. It was only later that God revealed this commandment ‘Say, ‘You who deny the Truth […]’ (Quran, 109:1). From this it appears that only after these thirteen years of the Prophet’s dedicated mission in Mecca that God declared those whom he had addressed but who had rejected him as ‘deniers’, and it was then that God revealed this commandment. It is thus impermissible to declare anyone to be a ‘denier’ or kafir without having engaged in this sort of dedicated, sustained mission as the Prophet did in Mecca. To repeat what I have written earlier, it was only after thirteen years of the Prophet’s mission in Mecca that God declared certain people or be kafirs or deniers, and for ordinary Muslims like us to do so even a hundred and thirteen years of preaching work will not be adequate.

In some Quranic verses revealed while the Prophet was in Mecca there are certain references to non-Muslims living outside Arabia. For instance, the Quran mentions the Romans, who were Christians, over whom the Persians had secured a temporary victory. But here it refers to them as Romans, not as kafirs. Likewise, the Quran refers to the non-Muslim ruler of Yemen, Abraha, but it does not label him as a kafir ruler. In contrast, the Quran uses the terms kafir and kufr with regard to the Qureish of Mecca who denied the Prophet. It did not refer to all non-Muslims as kafirs. For instance, when the Prophet migrated to Medina, he did not refer to the people of Medina as kafirs, but, rather, as ‘people’. There were several non-Muslim tribes living around Medina at that time, but they, too, were not referred to as kafirs by the Prophet. Instead, he referred to them by their usual names, such as Ahl-e Saqif (‘the people of Saqif’), Ahl-e Najran (‘the people of Najran’), Ahl-e Bahrain (‘the people of Bahrain’), and so on.

In the same way, in the early Islamic period, soon after the Prophet’s demise when the Arab Muslims spread out of Arabia into other countries, they referred to the non-Muslim communities they encountered there by their own names, not as kafirs. For example, they called the Christians of Syria as ‘Christians’ (Masihi), the Jews of Palestine as ‘Jews’ (Yahud), the Magians of Iran as ‘Magians’ (Majus), the Buddhists of Afghanistan as ‘Buddhists’ (Bodh or Boza), and so on.

Likewise, when the first Muslims landed in India they did the same. They referred to the non-Muslims of India as ‘Hindus’, which is the Arab way of pronouncing the word ‘Sindhu’. One of the earliest Arab Muslim chroniclers of India, Abu al-Rehan al-Biruni, author of the well-known Kitab ul-Hind (‘Book of India’), referred to the non-Muslims of India as ‘Hindus’, not as kafirs.

Some Historical Instances

As I have repeatedly mentioned above, the form of address contained in the Quran ‘Say, ‘You who deny the Truth […]’ (Quran, 109:1) applies only to those Meccans who denied the Prophet even after he preached among them for thirteen years and provided them with all the necessary proofs. The Quran does not address anyone else in this specific manner besides these people of Mecca of the Prophet’s time. After the Prophet’s conquest of Mecca, several Arab tribes sent delegations to meet him. For instance, some people came to meet him from Yemen. He addressed them as ‘people of Yemen’ (Ahl-e Yaman), not as ‘kafirs from Yemen’. Similarly, the Prophet sent letters to the rulers of various lands near Arabia, inviting them to the path of God. He did not refer to them in these letters as kafirs [….]

To reiterate what I have said above, the investigation of kufr with regard to a particular person can happen only after all the necessary proofs of the faith have been presented before him, and the model of setting out the proofs (itmam-e hujjat) is just one—that is, the thirteen year preaching mission of the Prophet in Mecca. Further, even after one has properly and adequately set out the proofs of the faith it is only for God to specify, if He wishes, a particular person to be a kafir or ‘denier’ of the Truth. We cannot do this ourselves.

Heated Polemics

When the British ruled India, Muslim and Hindu preachers engaged in heated public polemical debates (munazara). This took the place of what rightly belonged to dawah or inviting, with love and concern, people to the path of God. These debates contributed in a major way to the rapid worsening of Hindu-Muslim relations across the country.

This is not the Islamic way of approaching others. The true Islamic way is through addressing others by being inspired by a spirit of love, compassion and concern for their welfare, even despite their opposition. On the other hand, polemical debates aim at defeating and demeaning others. Instead of love and understanding, they produce only more hate and conflict, thereby creating even more problems.

The Notion of Dar ud-Dawah (‘The Abode of Inviting People to the Path of God’)

The terms dar ul-kufr (‘the abode of infidelity’) and bilad al-kuffar (‘the land of the infidels’) are not found in the Quran. They are a later invention which emerged after the demise of the Prophet and date to the Abbasid period. They were not in use among Muslims before this. In my opinion these terms are not proper. Lands other than those that can, if at all, be called ‘Islamic’ countries, must be seen and termed as dar ud-dawah abodes of inviting others to the path of God, and these include even those countries that some Muslims might regard as opposed to them.

In the Quran, God addresses the Prophet and instructs him thus:

‘This is a blessed Book which We have revealed, confirming what came before it, so that you may warn the ‘Ummal-Quraa [Mother of Cities] and the people around it’ (Quran, 6:92).

The term ‘Ummal-Quraa in this verse refers to Mecca. When this verse was revealed, Mecca was in the control of non-Muslims, so much so that they had installed numerous idols inside the Kaaba. Yet, despite this, the Quran did not refer to the Mecca of this period as dar ul-kufr, but, rather, as ‘Ummal-Quraa or ‘Mother of Cities’, and asked the Prophet to engage in the work of dawah there. From this one can infer that all places that are under the control of non-Muslims can be considered as dar ud-dawah, thus indicating to Muslims their duty of dawah or inviting to God’s path the people of these lands. To refer to them with terms such as dar ul-kufr or bilad al-kuffar is not proper.


This is a translation of a chapter titled Kufr Aur Kafir Ka Masla (‘The Issue of Kufr and Kafir’), in Maulana Wahiduddin Khan’s Urdu book titled Hikmat-e Islam (Goodword Books, New Delhi, 2008) (pp.35-48).  For more information about Maulana Wahiduddin Khan and his writings, see http://www.alrisala.org, www.cpsglobal.org - http://www.islampeaceandjustice.blogspot.com and www.goodwordbooks.com

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