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What is the Meaning of ‘Kaafir’ in Islam?

What is the Meaning of ‘Kaafir’ in Islam? August 26, 2016

Kafir Arabic

Last time, after discussing whether the Quran claims to be the final revelation and finished form of religion, Kaveh and Farouk began to address the meaning of “kaafir” in Islam.

Kaveh Mousavi (atheist ex-Muslim blogger at On the Margin of Error): But beyond these verses, I have two qualms with your points. Firstly, yes, there are many references to the “signs” in Quran, and it seems everything from nature to the book itself are signs, however, where’s the indication that you are free to have your personal interpretation of them? It read to me that the signs mean that Allah is great, and any other interpretation is not allowed.

Secondly, isn’t there some contradiction in you not calling anyone “kaafir”, while the book itself refers to people by that moniker constantly and promises everlasting torment for them? If there are no “kaafirs”, why they are mentioned so many times?

Kaafir (alt. kafir): Arabic term used variously to mean unbeliever, non-Muslim, or concealer of signs. From the root K-F-R, ‘to cover.’

Farouk A. Peru (Muslim blogger at Person al Islam): My humble apologies but I don’t think you quoted Chapter 5 Verse 3 fully in the previous post. You quoted the middle bit of the verse. Here it is in full:

Forbidden to you are: dead meat, blood, the flesh of swine, and that on which hath been invoked the name of other than Allah; that which hath been killed by strangling, or by a violent blow, or by a headlong fall, or by being gored to death; that which hath been (partly) eaten by a wild animal; unless ye are able to slaughter it (in due form); that which is sacrificed on stone (altars); (forbidden) also is the division (of meat) by raffling with arrows: that is impiety. This day have those who reject faith given up all hope of your religion: yet fear them not but fear Me. This day have I perfected your religion for you, completed My favour upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion. But if any is forced by hunger, with no inclination to transgression, Allah is indeed Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.

I italicized the relevant part you quoted. The traditional understanding of the verse is that it began with food prohibitions. After the bit you quoted, the verse is talking about emergency situations when the food prohibitions are lifted. As such, I don’t think your understanding makes sense, although I don’t blame you for adopting this position given that it is the prevalent traditional understanding.

Furthermore, if we look at other verses, we would not be able to find any kind of concept of ‘gradual revelation’. It simply does not exist. In 2/213, the Quran mentions sending of the nabiyeen/prophets (in plural) who brought with them al-kitab/the writ or book (in singular). While I do not see this literally, I do see it as a statement that the divine teachings never changed. This is corroborated by 41/43 which tells us about the messenger that he was told nothing which has not been told before. The double negative in this verse (maa/nothing…illa/except) shows the emphasis of this verse. If you analyse the context (41/41-42), it is about the Quran which details these essential teachings.

In terms of ‘corrupted meanings’, I agree with you. As a Quranist, the majority of my work has been to question the traditional meanings which have been passed down to me as a Sunni. It is only through textual analysis and adopting a non-religious approach to the text that I came to formulate my understanding.

To answer your question regarding ‘signs’, we have to consider that signs are something which come to individuals and people (with the phraseology ‘laqad ja’aa …ayat’). Some people have not received particular signs and so they cannot be judged for those signs. Please see 41/53, signs appear in our horizons and souls and thereby link to the Quran. No two people share a horizon and each of us has a soul of our own. Therefore, the signs we receive are also personal.

A kaafir is one who rejects signs. How would I know that person experiences those signs? For all I know, I may be deluding myself into thinking I believe when in fact I am worshipping my own ego. It is entirely possible if I don’t engage in self-reflection. Yes, the Quran uses the word kaafir many times (over 600 times in fact), but it doesn’t mean God wants people to reject His signs. Rather He shows us how to manoeuvre ourselves so as not to conceal (the literal meaning of ‘kufr’) various positive things in our lives.

Kaveh: I think part of your answer rather serves to reaffirm the absolutist reading of the Quran. If there are multiple prophets, but there is a single book/message, but there are actual multiple books out there, then doesn’t that make all but one of them corrupted? And I don’t see how the greater context helps your case and not mine. Again, the book is frankly and straightforwardly warning against the other religions and other faiths. If it’s merely about foods, that’s even worse, because it shows how low the threshold for being considered a deviant is.

About your answers regarding kaafir, again, I find your reasoning very unconvincing. You might not know who is a kaafir at heart and who is not — although it’s very reasonable to assume all atheists are, because, for example, I openly reject that the signs point to Allah’s existence, let alone His greatness — but He certainly knows, as the omniscient and omnipotent deity, and He has repeated multiple times what fate awaits them.

Honestly, like all progressive Muslims who deal with Quran, it seems to me that you are trying to reconcile two inherently contradictory opinions: one that inclusiveness and avoiding absolutism is good, and second that Quran is true. To me, it sounds as if that there’s no possibility for you to assign any bad aspect to Quran, so you are made to come up with self-contradictory readings.

Do you think that’s an unfair judgment? Do you believe that your reading is objective and the text is not rendered through correcting lenses? And more importantly, do you feel if a third party, someone who’s neither for or against Quran, reads the book fairly and objectively, without faith or animus, they will reach the same conclusion that this book is an inclusive and non-absolutist text?

Farouk: That would be true if what you put forward as ‘scripture’ are in fact so. For all we know, they could be simply inspired writings. That would be something you would have to prove. As a non-believer, you would rather need reasoning to prove that, for example, the Quranic ‘at-tawraat’ is actually the ‘Torah’ which you put forward.

Sorry, but the Quran does not have the concept of ‘other religions and other faiths’. Can you please show me where you found these ideas? The Quran also does not penalize people for not observing food prohibitions. Again, can you please show me the punishment for doing so?

I think you are confusing the iconic belief in Allah and the practical belief in Allah. This is probably due to a traditional Islamic outlook which you may have absorbed. Indeed, in Traditional Islam, the icon of Allah is central. In other words, if you said, I don’t believe in Allah, then yes, you are a kaafir.

The Quran in my understanding does not iconize belief. Belief in Allah has practical ramifications. For example, if you believe in Allah, you must stand up for the rights of humankind (4/135 and 5/8). These are clear injunctions which most Muslim nations don’t follow fully. Ironically, Western nations are closer to following these injunctions. So practically speaking, they are following Islam more than the actual Muslim world!

Well, conversely, I can just easily say that you refuse to acknowledge clear indications that the Quran is not absolutist. I have already explained to you the ontology of signs and the fact that signs are experienced in the horizon and in the selves (41/53). How on earth can a text which acknowledges the reader’s subjective experience be absolutist? If you don’t experience my signs, how on earth can I judge you?

I fail to see any contradictions. When you show me that there is only one reading of the Quran and its author appoints someone to read it for me, then yes, it would be absolutist. Till then you will have to explain the verses on multiple paths (2/148, 5/48 and 29/69). It could be my personal bias yes, but it could just as easily be yours as well.

Yes I do believe it’s an unfair judgement. But as I have said before, I do not believe one needs a holy text to travel the path of evolution. I believe my reading is the best I can render at this point. If you can present me evidence to show me where I am wrong, I am happy to correct myself. Yes, I do believe an unbiased reading can reach my conclusion but again, I cannot verify this so-called objectivity. It is an internal state. It is not my business to elicit the objectivity of others. I can only strive to attain it myself.

Kaveh: Both the concepts which you ask me to show you are quoted from Quran by yourself, Farouk. The verses would make no sense unless “them” refers to religions and interpretations of the religion other than the one being offered in this verse. Also, in general, Quran likes to spend a lot of time describing Hell and multiple types of torture which will be used in it, and usually they consider minor transgressions, and the punishments include things like being fed molten metals (44-46), or boiling water. It obviously indicates that those who stray people away from the path of Allah will be punished. There are way too many verses describing burning people and torturing them for your reading to be convincing. The contradictions stem from this: ignoring the many violent passages which specify that people are being punished for straying from Allah’s path.

Now, you may say that “Allah’s path” is basically a moral path, as you did with your definition of kaafir. But the obvious question is this: why? If Allah didn’t mean to include atheists in kaafir and simply meant those who do injustice, why choose such an oblique word as kaafir?

Now, let’s look at those multiple paths verses you mentioned. This is one: “For each [religious following] is a direction toward which it faces. So race to [all that is] good. Wherever you may be, Allah will bring you forth [for judgement] all together. Indeed, Allah is over all things competent”. This verse seems to point toward the judgment day, it doesn’t say anything about all paths being equally right. But the next is even more damning for your argument, as I think it’s one of the most violent aspects of Quran:

And We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], the Book in truth, confirming that which preceded it of the Scripture and as a criterion over it. So judge between them by what Allah has revealed and do not follow their inclinations away from what has come to you of the truth. To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race to [all that is] good. To Allah is your return all together, and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ.

That is the most possible level of absolutism. Firstly, Mohammad is supposed to follow only what has been revealed to him, and others are simply misguided. But why didn’t Allah made everyone the same religion? To test real Muslims, obviously, so basically, the purpose of different paths is not that they are all valid, but because there should be invalid paths as tests.

I think the third one comes closest to your argument: “And those who strive for Us – We will surely guide them to Our ways. And indeed, Allah is with the doers of good.” This seems to endorse the reading of “if you do good, you will be guided”. But then again, you could easily read it as “if you do good, Allah will help you convert to His religion, so if you haven’t already, you haven’t done enough good”.

I think it’s interesting that both of us consider the same verses to be the evidence of our reading regarding the absolutism or lack thereof in Quran. However, this is my final point: what really finishes this debate for me is the context. Quran in general is filled with violent imagery, it was created by a violent culture, and it was written by someone who was in power for 10 years and participated in 35 wars during those years, and whose successors conquered half the known world. If Islam was not a religion in power today, we wouldn’t even have this discussion. No one debates whether Homer was absolutist or not, because that’s a given. So, if we’re talking about objectivity, I guess looking at the historical context can help with that. 

Farouk: Ah good good, I’m glad you said that. Now you mentioned, ‘Both the concepts which you ask me to show you are quoted from Quran by yourself, Farouk. The verses would make no sense unless “them” refers to religions and interpretations of the religion other than the one being offered in this verse.

Please may I see what I quoted which support the concepts of ‘other religions and other faiths’ ?

Kaveh: This day have those who reject faith given up all hope of your religion: yet fear them not but fear Me.  This part.

Farouk: Oh, okay. This is perhaps due to your reading of the word ‘deenakum’ as ‘your religion’. Again, I don’t blame you. You have adapted a Traditional understanding of the concept of ‘deen’ without actually checking other verses regarding it. The word ‘deen’ appears about 100 times in the Quran. It does not conform to the word religion. Certainly, there’s no concept of ‘other religions’ (al-adyaana ukhraa). One’s ‘deen’ is one’s power-based relationship (tadayyan) with an authority (rabb, ilah).

In the Quranic ontology as I understand it, all of us have a deen with God. Our deen’s quality (whether or not it is khaalis, pure) is determinant on our actions. So there is no ‘other religions’ in the Quran. The truth is not restricted to the supra-tribe we know in the world as ‘Islam’.

Kaveh: Ok. I think the traditional reading is right, but I have given all my reasons above. I’ll listen to the rest of your arguments.

Farouk: Sorry, I’m not sure why you find it correct. Can you point me to the reasons? I’m just checking to see if I’ve answered them.

Kaveh: Because of the concept of Hell, and because of mentioning that other paths are tests, and because of the historical context, I think it’s much more simple to believe that “deen” means “religion” in the traditional sense. However, if it wasn’t meant like that, it would make the text really opaque and difficult to understand, and that would be strange from an omniscient and omnipotent God. This is a summary of what I was trying to say above.

Farouk: Agreed, it would be simpler but would it be intellectually honest? Not to me. Simply because the resources you are unconsciously using came into formation about 200-250 years after Muhammad. That being the case, to prove it was Muhammad’s intended meaning by simply relying on those sources would not be academically sound.

I don’t feel the text is opaque. It is a matter of whether we do the required research or not. It took me time, but I went through each and every verse containing the terms rabb, ilah, ibadah and deen. These provided me a clear picture of what I think is the Quranic world view.

Kaveh: Perhaps we can further discuss the ‘hell issue’ next time.

Farouk: Good idea. See you then!

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