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.