Kafir – A Word Reexamined

If there is one primary characteristic that Modernity spells out to me, it is in the way in which certain schools of thought or groups of people, who deemed antagonistic or undesirable, are cast, part and parcel, as barbaric and backwards. The underlined point in this type of casting is that the target group has always been so. Modernity, in all of its technological advancements, falls short in analytical thinking. Islam, as an example, a highly sophisticated entity (no different than any other religious tradition) is reduced to simple barbarism (as if it has always been so). Ironically, many Muslims have fallen pray to this line of thinking as well. Recently, I was reflecting on the user of the word, kafir, and how it is used and understood now, in this Modern context, and then how it was used and understood in contexts prior. And while I do not subscribe to the apologists’ theory that the word some how does not have any application for Modern Muslims, I do think there is a sincere and important need to revisit the history of this word in the Muslim tradition. Sample if you will, as articulated by Dr. Sherman Jackson:

“Premodern and even early modern jurists spoke quite casually of the “non-Muslim wife” [al-zawjah al-kafirah], the “non-Muslim mother” [al-umm al-kafirah], and “non-Muslim parents” [al-walidan al-kafiran] as human beings worthy of respect as such. For example, in Bulgat al-salik li agrab al-masalik ila madhhab al-imam Malik 2 vols. [Cairo: Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi, n.d.] — an authoritative Maliki text still used on the graduate level at al-Azhar seminary today — after indicating that a Muslim must be good to his parents regardless of their religion, al-Dardir [d. 1201/1786] writes, “and he should guide the blind parent, even if he or she is a kafir, to church, and deliver him or her thereto and provide him or her with money to spend during their holidays” [2: 523]. Also, the Maliki and Hanafi schools unanimously agreed that a non-Muslim mother [umm kafirah] had a primary right to custody of her Muslim children in cases of divorce from a Muslim husband, assuming that she would not attempt to steer the children away from Islam. […] It should be noted that the Maliki school bore the brunt of the atrocities inflicted by the Christians upon their expulsion of the Muslims from Spain and Sicily and the Hanafi school bore the brunt of the Mongol invasions. Still, these views on the non-Muslim relatives remain standard in the Maliki and Hanafi schools right down to the present day.

Essentially, in the Modern context, both used by Muslims and understood by non-Muslims, kafir has come to no longer be a religious term for those who are outside the belief-fold of Islam but rather a subset of humanity, unworthy of respect, completely devoid of value. In the Modern context, the kafir is someone who is rejected, not on moral or religious grounds, but some deeper, innate characteristic that is wholly incompatible with Islam. Sadly, this philosophy was common in much of the rejectionist rhetoric I heard as a young Muslim in the Blackamerican community as well as the need-to-dominate propaganda I head from immigrant Muslims. This is completely inconsistent with the view of many of the jurists and great personalities from Islam’s past that Modern Muslims evoke! When one examines this, the [hostile and unfortunate] nature of relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims becomes more clear. Does this mean that the word kafir has no place in Islam today? I would argue it certainly does have a place but it should have nothing to due with placing or determining “human value”. Instead, as it has been understood in times past, it is merely a demarcation, signifying someone who is outside the religious fold of Islam. And as in a recent conversation with a non-Muslim, who stated, “this is the problem with Islam”, in that as long as Muslims see the world in a Muslim/non-Muslim dichotomy, then we will inevitably have this issue. My rebuttal to her was to quite frankly, “grow up”. There is no reason why I should be forced to not recognize those who are outside of my religious fold whilst still keeping good relationships with them. To claim that I have to make up my mind, to either jettison the word [and join the rest of the “reformist” Muslims who would just as soon sell the religion for a chance to gain the approving nod of the dominant culture] or use the word in its current state, dehumanizing all those who fall outside the classification as Muslims, is erroneous and childish. Life is not a true or false exam – I will make my own choices and operate by my own rationals, thank you very much. In truth, this classification, kafir, would apply in my case with many members of my family and even friends – it is no way a classification of their worth as human beings.

And God knows best.

Also see Mu’min and Kafir – Negotiating Shared Space.

7 Comments Kafir – A Word Reexamined

  1. malik_ryan@yahoo.com'Abu Noor Al-Irlandee

    As salaamu ‘alaykum,

    Jazzak Allaahu Khayr for your thoughts. I find this to be an interesting issue.

    Indeed, the term kaffir has a different connotation and even a different, although of course related denotation depending on the context. Toshihiko Izutsu, in his beneficial work “Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qur’an explores the way in which this term is used in the Qur’an and the way the sahaba understood it.

    Obviously, you refer primarily to the use of the term by the Jurists, which is a different matter from the use of the word by Allaah (swt) in the Qur’an. The jurists, as is necessary for juristic discussion, have to strip the word of its most important inward aspects and leave it with only its purely outward manifestations.

    There can be little doubt that when Allaah (swt) uses derivations from the root k-f-r in the Qur’an that almost all of the time it does have a highly negative connotation and implication, often with extreme consequences of kufr mentioned. Both in its meaning as being one who ‘covers the truth’ or is ‘ungrateful’ or the related but different use of ‘someone who denies the true deen’ or lacks emaan or correct belief.

    Izutsu draws our attention to the companions’ understanding of both aspects of the term by referring to one of the narrations of the famous hadith in which the Prophet (saw) mentioned the inhabitants of the hellfire and the fact that there were women there because of their kufr. The companions asked the Prophet (saw) do you mean that they do kufr with regard to Allaah? (meaning they do not believe in Allaah, but also that they are ungrateful to Allaah) and the Prophet (saw) said they show kufr (ungratefulness) towards their husbands and for the favors and the good done toward them.

    So I agree with you that the modern everyday usage of kaffir in some environments in which it becomes an insult-word designed to dehumanize people often based on the circumstances of which religious community they were born into should be rejected.

    However, I don’t think the word, other than in some of the fiqh discussions you mentioned above, will or should ever be simply a translation for non-Muslim with no value positive or negative attached to that.

    Necessarily for those who do not speak Arabic in our daily lives, there can be no higher source of looking to the deepest meanings of words than their use by Allaah (swt) in the Qur’an and in the Qur’an the word has far from a neutral connotation.

    So, we should let the word means what it means and in this circumstance I am actually happy with simply referring to people as non-Muslims for identification purposes and NOT using a necessarily value laden word such as kaffir for any specific individuals or even specific groups of people.

    Allaah knows best.

  2. theblog@manrilla.net'Marc

    Abu Noor Al-Irlandee, Salaams and thank you for your comments,

    I think you have missed the gist of my post. Instead of seeing that I was getting to a humanistic angle, an angle that the Prophet himself took, you took my words to connote some sort of capitulation into Modernist or Reformist rhetoric. I believe I clearly stated that the term does indeed refer to those outside of the fold is Islam [in terms of belief!], but never was kafir used as a means of dehumanizing people. Even with clear revelation in suwrah al-Kafirun[Qur’an 109]. Rather, the focus of my post was to address the erroneous way in which the term, kafir, is used to justify putting groups of people down, even people from one’s own family. Again, as I stated in my post, I heard people when I was younger [and still hear them today!] talking about their “kafir mother”, not in the meaning that she hasn’t accepted the Message of the Prophet Muhammad but in how she is something “totally other than Muslim! [and never could be]”.

    I found your initial statement a little baffling and loose ended:

    Indeed, the term kaffir has a different connotation and even a different, although of course related denotation depending on the context.

    What “other” context are you referring to? You continued with:

    Obviously, you refer primarily to the use of the term by the Jurists, which is a different matter from the use of the word by Allaah (swt) in the Qur’an. The jurists, as is necessary for juristic discussion, have to strip the word of its most important inward aspects and leave it with only its purely outward manifestations.

    Your implications are quite clear here, in that there is one and only one way to interpret the text [as well as implicating that I am not following the Word of God]. I am curious how you justify your statement, “…jurists […] have to strip the word of its most important inward aspects and leave it with only its purely outward manifestations…” What is this “inward” aspect you speak of? And what is the “pure” outward manifestation of the work “kafir“? You have all the smacking of someone who was trained, either directly or indirectly, by Salafis/neofundamentalists. The idea that I have somehow gone a route that is “impure” baffles me. You cited that the understanding of the Sahaba was an important linchpin to your argument, yet to you fail to acknowledge the great amount of diversity in the various opinions held by the Pious Ancestors. Moreover, your suggestion that my using of Imam Malik as a source is somehow corrupted, in him being a “jurist”. Imam Malik lived from 93AH to 179AH – meaning that his sources would have been either Tabiyiyn or Tabiyiyn Tabiyiyn! This would make his sources exceeding close to those who shared their lives with the Prophet. But in-lieu of the Prophet coming back and saying X is right and Y is wrong, there is no other course of system but to have juridical debate on determining actions and rulings. But I will push my point one step further, cementing it in the time of the Prophet himself.

    Never once during his lifetime, during his prophethood did God’s Messenger ever rebuke the aid and help that his kafir, non-believing clansmen offered him. He loved his uncle dearly, and despite conflicting reports [as only Allah knows the testimony of men’s hearts], his uncle, Abu Talib, died a kafir. The Prophet’s love of his uncle was in no way inhibited by Abu Talib’s refusal to acknowledge his prophethood, publicly or privately. To continue, when Quraysh boycotted the Prophet, Banu Hashim endured this with the Prophet, despite many of them not having accepted Islam. Did the Prophet tell them, “look, ya’ll. This is a Muslim thing so just back the hell off.” No! In fact, the Prophet relied upon their aid! In one of the most famous and oft-told stories of the Qur’an, is the Prophet’s escape from Makkah to Madinah, the man who helped lead them out of town was a boding idolator! Nonetheless, the Prophet accepted his help. In fact, one could go to the lengths to say that the Prophet’s prophethood would have never plaid out as it did or succeeded without the help and cooperation of kafirs! And while this isn’t to say that God cannot manifest His Message in any way that is suitable to Him, He obviously chose for it to be carried out this way.

    Continuing, you said:

    There can be little doubt that when Allaah (swt) uses derivations from the root k-f-r in the Qur’an that almost all of the time it does have a highly negative connotation and implication, often with extreme consequences of kufr mentioned.

    I am not sure what you are getting at with an attempt to at-Tasriyf [othewise known as ‘ilm as-Sarf]. I taught Arabic for over two years and am well versed in its various inflections. In this part of your statement your sentiments are only half on target. In stating, “often with extreme consequences of kufr mentioned”, yes, there is an extreme consequence, and that is Hell-fire. And that brings me precisely to my point again! The consequence of kufr is in the Hereafter, not in this life. Allah may choose to punish certain individuals or whole groups of people [Fir’awn or the people of ‘Ad/Thamuwd] in this life but that is the prerogative of God! God and God Alone is able to deal in absolutes because God is All-Seeing, All-Knowing, Just, Free From All Want, and Infinitely Merciful. Men have to deal with conditions, specificities, and to use a legal term, precedents. Why else do you think the advent of usul al-fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence] developed within the first 100 years or so after the Hijrah? Do you think that Imam Malik and the rest of the Muslims of his time had nothing better to do in the desert? The death of the Prophet [may God grant him Peace] hailed a new era in which Muslims would have to develop an open-ended system of interpretation for issues and precedents for which the Qur’an and Sunnah did not have explicit experience with!

    The other aspect of your argument is that you compact all unbelievers [kafiruwn] into the same box. This may seem unduly sophisticated but the kafiruwn of the Prophet’s time are not the kafiruwn of ours [or any other time outside of Revelation]. What I am trying to get at here yes, the Arabs of the Prophet’s time were indeed covering the truth. They understood the Message in terms of its linguistic aspects. They were cognizant of their tie to the tradition of Abraham and as the Message progressed, as their understanding of it progressed, they grew arrogant, hostile and impetuous. The objections of the Quraysh was that Muhammad was breaking the bond between father and son, mother and daughter and so on. And moreover, the Prophet was one of them, a point God clearly illustrates for the exact point of further driving home the point that they did indeed understand the Revelation. The same cannot be said for every person who simply might not even know what Islam is or have ever heard of the Prophet! So for someone who is ignorant of the existence of Muhammad of Arabia or the Revelation of the Qur’an, are they “covering the truth”? I am not making any claim to the nature of their salvation in the Hereafter, but it seems that your wanting to brand the word kafir seems more ideological than ontological.

    Continuing:

    Necessarily for those who do not speak Arabic in our daily lives, there can be no higher source of looking to the deepest meanings of words than their use by Allaah (swt) in the Qur’an and in the Qur’an the word has far from a neutral connotation.

    I am not sure what the use or even implied importance of Arabic is in one’s daily life in this context. On one hand, this would mean that those who do use Arabic on a daily, communicative level would somehow grasp the notion of kufr [Disbelief] to a greater extent than non-Arabic speaking peoples [despite the fact that most Arabs are woefully ignorant of balaghah or Qur’anic Arabic]. I find this statement disturbing in [a] how you can make such a determinant, in that I highly doubt you possess the requisite Arabic to stake such a claim, and [b] anyone outside the fold of the quotidian use of Arabic is immediately limited in their capacity to understand God’s concepts of Belief/Disbelief. Again, this resonates of a false-utopia, a time gone, a place gone, or perhaps just not God’s chosen people, in that one can aim to achieve but any such attainable goals have limits, the highest beyond reach.

    So, we should let the word means what it means…

    Again, this insinuates that I am not “letting it mean what it means”. By making such remarks, you demonstrate that only by my subscription to your line of thinking can I possess the “pure and unadulterated” understanding of Islam. Anything else is just contaminated water.

    And God knows best.

  3. theblog@manrilla.net'Marc

    Say what?

    Again, it is you who want to call people kaffir.

    My whole point is that kafir is tossed around to dehumanize people vs. simply classifying them as outside of the belief-fold of Islam. I have nothing personal against you but you do use some open-ended terms, that perhaps you intended as harmless but they do have a negative connotation:

    Obviously, you refer primarily to the use of the term by the Jurists, which is a different matter from the use of the word by Allaah (swt) in the Qur’an.

    I don’t know what was “obvious” but your statement here tacitly insinuates that some how what I am saying “is not in line with how Allah uses the word”. I have nothing personal against you. If it were time for prayer I would gladly pray behind you. I am only addressing the manner in which you write. If my words seem unduly harsh, well you have my apologies. Perhaps if you were to re-read what you wrote and reexamin the tonality of those words, perhaps you might see where I had issue. I also directly quote your words – I do not simply come back with some loose conjecture.

    My whole family is non-Muslim and I love them and would assist them and let them assist me with anything!

    Here here! I would say that you and I have more in common that you may initially think. I am in the same boat as you, and despite us having [what I thought was] a healthy, albeit, charged dialog, I do not think ill of you.

    All I was saying was that the way the word is used in the Qur’an is not the way it is used by the jurists that you refer to.

    Again, I will have to rebuke this statement. I do not know how you feel you have the audacity and wherewithal to claim that Imam Malik, with his requisite knowledge and close proximity to those who lived with the Prophet, is not using the word in the same way that Allah is! I would proclaim that Imam Malik understood more about Qur’an and Sunnah than you or I combined. And this is not to say that the knowledge of the Book of Allah or His Messenger is locked away in antiquity, no longer accessible because we’re somehow “contaminated” – I just think that Imam Malik is a pretty smart dude and his sources are meticulous [hence “Muwatta'” – i.e., a well-traveled path].

    I was just suggesting that the Qur’anic meaning would seem to have more relevance to those of us who are Muslims who read the Qur’an but are not jurists.

    Again, I just don’t see how you justify these claims.

    I give up bro. I didn’t want to leave a bad feeling between us from the last discussion and purposely tried to speak on a topic where I thought we fundamentally agreed but there was still room to learn from each other.

    Don’t give up, akhi! You mistake my firm stance as a berating one. But you are mistaken. No matter how ensconced I am in my opinion, I still believe that I am right, with the possibility that I am wrong, and that you are wrong, with the possibility that I am right. I hope you will not loose heart in the heat of discussion. I appreciate your words and your feedback. We may not agree on finer points but as you said, “fundamentally” we do agree: Laa ilaaha illa Allah, Muhammad rasuwlu Allah.

    And God knows best, brother.

  4. malik_ryan@yahoo.com'Abu Noor Al-Irlandee

    As salaamu ‘alaykum Marc,

    Brother I do not understand what your issue with me is. You continue to impute commments and sentiments to me that I do not have and have not stated. I explicitly argued that we should not use kafir for any individual person, while it was you who argued that we should use the term for every non-Muslim.

    You are determined to launch into debates and continue to assume that you know me and what I think — I do not know what you base these assumptions on.

    My whole family is non-Muslim and I love them and would assist them and let them assist me with anything! I have never looked at people as anything less because of their faith. For you to accuse me of such is bizarre. Again, it is you who want to call people kaffir. I explicitly stated that I am one of the people who does not speak Arabic, so regardless of how much I have or have not studied it, there is no need for you to assert your superiority over me in knowledge. I will concede that since you obviously know everything I think even better than I do, you must be an amazing scholar. It does take any outstanding knowledge of sarf, simply go through the Qur’an and look at how words from that root are used.

    All I was saying was that the way the word is used in the Qur’an is not the way it is used by the jurists that you refer to. I was just suggesting that the Qur’anic meaning would seem to have more relevance to those of us who are Muslims who read the Qur’an but are not jurists. That’s it…

    Anyways, I give up bro. I didn’t want to leave a bad feeling between us from the last discussion and purposely tried to speak on a topic where I thought we fundamentally agreed but there was still room to learn from each other. The impression I get is that you are not interested in learning anything from me but you seem interested in arguing with me. I do not think you understand me because I know who I am and I know it is not what you apparently think I am. Maybe you can find that funny like you did last time. Anyways I give up. I don’t think it will serve a purpose to respond to what you have said point by point because reading what you wrote just hurts me, it is so far from what I am about.

    May Allaah (swt) bless you and family.

  5. theblog@manrilla.net'Marc

    Dynamite Soul,

    Yeah, kinda my point. I was trying to foist a stance that neither attempted to remove the word from our pantheon because some are uncomfortable with it as well as address the abusive way it is used.

    P.S. – Dynamite Soul is a neat sounding name! Seems like you should have a cape and fly around, saving the day!

  6. ummqasim@gmail.com'Dynamite Soul

    As salaamu alaikum bro,

    I didn’t get a chance to read all of the responses, but here is my take on your post:

    A. Don’t use the word kafir in the manner in which many bigots in America used the N-word.

    B. There is a proper use of the term, however several individuals have decided to demoralize it.

    C. One should be careful about who and how they call someone a kafir.

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