On Being Kafir

Category: Asia, Featured, Life & Society Topics: Hindus, Interfaith, Kafir Values: Pluralism, Tolerance Views: 6314

In a plane crash in July 2010 in Pakistan a Hindu youth who was a member of Youth Parliament, Pakistan died and someone wrote on his coffin 'kafir' which ignited 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-Quran, 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 the truth and hide it. But according to the Quran 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 to 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 thought 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 the highest form of tawhid (i.e. unity of God) Their holy books do not mention idol worship.

Then he refers to Quranic 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. Maybe 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 believers in one God and cannot be called hiders of Truth or kafirs. As for idol worship, he gives a 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 a reflection of one Ishwara in it. What they worship, according to Jan-i-Janan, is not a piece of stone but one Ishwara through it.

Then he gives examples of Sufis who need the help of a master (a shaikh) whose help is needed to reach Allah. Without the intervention of a shaikh, a Sufi disciple cannot reach Allah. Thus for a common Hindu, an idol becomes a shaikh, an intervenor. 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 a 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-Quran to show essential unity of all religions. Shah Waliyullah too, in his classic work Hujjatl-Allah al-Balighah treats comprehensively the doctrine of the unity of religion (wahdat-i-din).

Historically speaking Qur'an applied this term to those in Mecca who not only rejected his prophethood 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 a covenant with them and sought their cooperation.

Thus the term kafir must be applied with a 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 a different manifestation in different cultures.


Asghar Ali Engineer (10 March 1939 – 14 May 2013) was an Indian Muslim, reformist-writer and activist. The focus of his work was on (and action against) communalism and communal and ethnic violence in India and South Asia. He was an advocate of a culture of peace, non-violence and communal harmony. He served as the head of the 'Institute of Islamic Studies' and the 'Centre for Study of Society and Secularism.'


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  20 Comments   Comment

  1. Maryam from USA

    No passage in Qur'an or Sunna says that a believer must have a sheikh's assistance to reach Allah. This itself is blasphemy to me, and the reason I left the Catholic church. Allah made us and knows us intimately, and we do not need intercessors. We can access Allah's closeness at any time or place, but we have to believe that we can. I don't think anyone should call anyone else "kafir" since they don't know what is in the person's heart. I knew many Catholics who believed as I did, but would not leave their tradition.

  2. Shuja from Canada

    One thing I agree with the article that we should be extremely careful of calling Kafir or Kuffar. Kuffar are those who oppose us, persecute us, villify us, propagate against us et cetra. We should call the rest non-Muslims. I don't see any problem in that.

  3. KC James from USA

    Salaam and thank you, Mr. Ali, for this enlightening article. I believe it is good to be altruistic, kind and generous, no matter what your faith is. In the end, Allah is the one to judge!

  4. Fahad from US

    I agreed for the first part of the article and I think the author went to extreme on the second part. As Muslims, we are NOT supposed to label people kafirs which many people do these days since the Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) said that the person who calls another a kafir is taking a risk since if he is not correct in his judgment than he may be the one who is the kaafir or committing kufr by making that assertion.

    Second part was too extreme sayin and comparing Hindu idols to Allahs Attributes. If that was the case than Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) wouldn't have been sent to this world to eradicate idols but the whole gerth of his mission revolved around purity of worship to Allah alone. That is clear in the Quran. However that said, Muslims have no right to declare people as kaafirs because they do not know where there end may be in comparison to themselves.

  5. Miguel Anton from UK

    I am very disappointed with the article, not only is it poorly written but their are many inaccuracies. I would strongly recommend the brother to read 'who are the disbelievers by Hamza Yusuf. This is merely my opinion and I do apologise if it causes any offense as my intention is only to advise.

    JazakAllah

    Miguel

  6. Issa from USA

    It is really unfortunate that islamicity allows this kind article stands freely without examining the contents of it. When the purpose of the site is to educate muslims and non-muslims about the true Islam and specifically about not associating partners with ALLAH, this article proves counter-productive to the main objective of this site.

    May Allah guide us from all forms of Shirk.

  7. khawaja shahabuddin from india

    It is surprising to read such an article from a educated person like you. when in quran Allah(swt) clearly mentions he is the closest to you then why hell anyone needs a recomodation from any so called sufi/saint. The time a person says Allah-o-akbar and joins his hands for sallat n recites Surah Fatiha he is as if standing before his Almighty. When every common man has a accessibility to the Almighty almost 5 times a day why is there a need for a mediator. Its a shame that educated people like you creating such nusence in deen which our beloved prophet (pbuh) conved to us. Head of islamic studies shuldt write such nonsense. If u now think you are right please take my advise and understand Islam well any propogate it right.

  8. Lia Shamid from USA

    This is a sad article ! The writer has very poor understanding of "Iman-Ihsan", "Tawhid" and "Shirk". It is unfortunate that he is writing on a subject to spread his ignorance just like some of his examples did over the yeras! If his point was to draw attention to show respect to all departed human souls, it would have been better to suggest that a person should be labeled by name for proper burial, not by attributes because ultimately Allah knows who is a kafir or not. But to diverge from the issue and start talking about how idolators (Hindus) are worshipping one truth is grossly wrong. Yes, their book may say one truth, one God, but in practice they are worshipping their false dieties and gods. How are they different from Quraish of 1400 years back? What was the reason for last revealation and sending our last Prophet(PBUH)?

  9. Sayeed from Canada

    Without going into the subject matter of the topic, I seriously doubt about the writers understanding of Islam. Where does Allah says He is form less or without attributes? The writer brings about explanation of a sufi to support his point. Sufism is itself is a deviation from the true belief of Islam. Who basically worship graves. There is nothing required between a believer and Allah. Please check your own faith before preaching it.

  10. Ted Baxter from USA

    Some of us consider ourselves Biblical Christians and not kafir's. And as Biblical Christians we have the right to visit the Holy Land without interferrence from Muslims

  11. Richard Drake from USA

    Biblical Christianity is the only truth and is superior to islam.

  12. Diallo Mohamed Ali from Hong Kong

    Bro you are writing to please others. It seems that you are voluntarily not defining the concept clearly. I suggest you do more research before posting article like this

  13. Dino from US

    As-Salamu Alaikum, There are a few issues with this article because I understand his point on not labeling people kafirs because in the end only Allah knows. But to equate the Hindu belief by placing a stone idol in place of the Creator in order to reach him is no different then what the Meccans were doing in the time of the Prophet(saaws). This is shirk, plain and simple. The words of the sufi he used in this article should not be used because they are misguidance, Allah says to call on Him not on dead people.

  14. Sayed Ahmed from Saudi Arabia

    Very well written article, Keep it up, Mr. Engineer.

    It it worth to forward to all my relatives, friends and also my no-muslims friends for their knowledge.

    Thanks and regards

    Sayed

  15. Majid from US

    Afzal, you missed the point by miles. Kashmir is not a battle ground for Hindus or Muslims. It is a piece of land claim by multiple people. Why are Pakistanis killing pakistanis both Muslims? Get a life and understand the message of Islam as sent down to us through Prophet. Don't look at everything from the prism of hate. Take care and peace.

  16. Romesh Chander from USA

    I admire the honesty of Pakistani muslims for labelling 'Kaffir' of a Hindu's coffin; they certainly are no hypocrites. I wonder if they let their family cremate his body?.

  17. Afzal Shaheedi from Canada

    Very useless article. Can Mr. Engineer explain why Muslims in Kashmir are suffering ? Is it because of their faith?

  18. Kam from -

    It is unfortunate that the author simply wants to explain it away-a well known tactic. Pity he does not touch on the on the issue if this writing on the wooden coffin is an act of desecration, disgusting and shameful.