In Islam, kafir does not mean a disbeliever or a non-Muslim

(The following is from the paper presented at a seminar on Islamic humanism, organized in September 2017, by Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi)


Islam is Scriptures based religion and yet, it is the theology that determines the beliefs and practices of its followers. When the theology and the practice go awry, then the solution may be found by going back to the Scriptures.

The relationship of a community with the rest of the world is influenced by the concept of the “other” and the attitude to the other. In Islamic theology, the other is the non-Muslim, and Kafir, an odious word, has acquired the meaning of non-Muslim, which this paper, seeks to establish with evidence from the Quran, as demonstrably incorrect. Kafir does not even mean disbeliever, let alone non-Muslim. 

The leading lights of all sects of Islam also mistranslate and or misinterpret the verses of the Quran on fighting, and make it appear incorrectly, that the Prophet of Islam was waging battles against the disbelievers to end disbelief, when the Quran makes it clear, that the permission for fighting is only to end persecution or oppression. This paper also establishes that the Quran affirms that the freedom of conscience in Islam is absolute and without any restraints. “Let there be no compulsion in religion” and “To the peaceful disbeliever be his way and to me mine” are fundamental principles. These principles were never compromised by the Prophet in his battles against the religious persecutors.

The Twin Problems of Growing Extremism and Islamophobia
The false ideology of the traditionalists and the extremists
1.       Kafir means non-Muslim/disbeliever
2.      The Prophet was fighting battles against the disbelievers to end disbelief. It is our duty therefore to wage holy war until there is no more disbelief
Kafir is an odious word and means a conceited person whose haughtiness makes him an ingrate rebel against God, a rebel against his benefactors, one who is steeped in self-glory, and self-gratification. These personal failings are reflected in his behavior that makes him deny: the Hereafter, the prophets, scriptures and the Signs of God. It makes him an enemy of: the prophets, the good people and of God. A Kafir fights for evil causes, spreads mischief and disorder and is a high handed oppressor. The Kafir is in war with the good people and the good people are in war with the Kafir. The Prophet was therefore fighting the Kafir who were the religious persecutors to end religious persecution.  He was not fighting the disbelievers to end disbelief.
The Quran does not describe the disbelievers as Kafir in any verse of the Quran nor did the early Muslims have such an understanding which is why the Muslims were tolerant of other religious faiths. The false notion of “Kafir means the disbelievers”, developed only later in Islamic theology but lay dormant for much of the history of Islam which is why it did not become problematic earlier. It is in the post-colonial period and most recently on account of political developments that required a military response that the false ideas which lay dormant are surfacing and providing ideological support to the extremists and for raising armies of civilians to fight in several theaters of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya. The truth is that religious persecutors from among the disbelievers were the Kafir, and the war was against them only and not against the peaceful people who were never considered Kafir although they were disbelievers. Quran uses the word “la Yuminun” for the disbelievers and never Kafir.
The corresponding ideology of the Islamophobes and of those from among the extreme right and the neoconservatives:
1.        Terrorist means Muslim
2.       Since the terrorists are out to get us, we should get them before they get us.
The ideology of the traditionalists/extremists among the Muslims   and that of the Islamophobes are logically equivalent and equally false. Neither are all non-Muslims Kafir nor are all Muslims terrorists. Neither was there ever a war by Muslims against all disbelievers/non-Muslims nor are all non-Muslims at war with all Muslims.
It can be seen that the two ideologies based on falsehood provide justification to each other, and unless refuted and defeated, can get out of hand and result in extreme strife and distrust, and over a period isolate the Muslims and pitch them against the rest of the world. Islamophobia turns out to be not irrational phobia but rational fear considering the ideology of the extremists/traditionalists which remained suppressed for centuries, but in the current political climate is gaining strength.
The true Islamic ideology that we must proclaim to defeat the ideology of the extremists:
1.       Kafir does not mean disbeliever although there are some who are Kafir among the disbelievers.
2.      The Prophet was fighting battles against the religious persecutors and their allies and helpers to end religious persecution and establish the Deen of Allah in which there is no oppression but there is justice for all. The Prophet was not fighting against the disbelievers for their disbelief.
There is a correspondence in the stand of the liberal and peaceful Non-Muslims, who proclaim the following:
1. Terrorist does not mean Muslim although there are some who are terrorists among the Muslims.
2. We are fighting against terror to end terrorism and not against the Muslims to end Islam.
While there are numerous peaceful liberals among the non-Muslims who support the Muslims in their fight against Islamophobia, there are very few Muslims who are even aware of the authentic and true Islamic ideology, let alone proclaim the same boldly and fight extremism and the false ideology of the traditionalists. This paper seeks to fill the knowledge void with the authentic and clear meaning from the scriptures on the subject.

The rest of the paper covered what has been covered by me in several articles on this forum. The links to those articles are provided below:

What Is Kufr And Who Is A Kafir In The Quran? (Full and Revised Text of the New Age Islam Series on the Subject)
The Story of the Prophetic Mission of Muhammad (Pbuh) In the Qu’ran (Part 4): The Medinian Period
The Story of the Prophetic Mission of Muhammad (pbuh) in the Qu’ran (Concluding Part) Summary
The Much discussed and debated Medinian Verses Relating to Fighting

The paper ended with the following conclusion:

To Summarize:
The Quran, even among its very last revealed verses, makes a distinction between those who are Kafir among the Mushrikin and those who are not, although all the Mushrikin are considered disbelievers. Not all the Mushrikin are kafir and some among the Muslims and the People of the Book are also kafir. Logically therefore, all that we can say is that Kafir does not mean disbeliever, although there are some who are Kafir among the disbelievers.

Fighting is permitted against the oppressors to protect the weak and the oppressed and not for any other cause. The faith of the Oppressor and the Oppressed is immaterial. Those who fight to protect the weak and the oppressed, fight in the cause of Allah and are the Mominin. The oppressors are Kafir. The faith professed by those who fight in the cause of Allah, the Oppressor and the Oppressed are immaterial.

In Islam, the other is the Kafir, but they are not the non-Muslims but the unjust and the oppressors who could be professing any faith including Islam. The cause of Allah, identified from the Quran, is to end all injustice and oppression, and all those who stand up for justice and fight against oppression are from “the community of God” and the Muslims must form an “Ummat-e-Wahida” or a united front with all such people to end injustice and oppression in the world.

The God of Islam is the God of all the people and is not the parochial God of only the Muslims in our theology for Allah says:
“Nay,-whoever submits His whole self to Allah (by whatever name) and is a doer of good,- He will get his reward with his Lord; on such shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve” (2:112).

The Muslim of the Quran, is therefore simply anyone who submits to God (by whatever name), and is a doer of good deeds. There are therefore only two kinds of people – those who stand for justice and against oppression are the friends and helpers of God and the oppressors are the enemies of humanity and of God.

The finding of this paper needs to be leveraged to transform young minds to think in terms of objective attributes of people, rather than in terms of the narrow stereo types based on a person’s religious identity. Since our theology says otherwise, we need to work to change it according to the clear message of the Quran brought out in this paper to remove the ideological basis for extremism among the Muslims and to promote greater co-operation with all good people of other faiths.

The objective of a University is to provide thought leadership to the world to address the problems that beset humanity. This paper may have succeeded in finding a solution to the current malaise of growing radicalism among the young of one community. Radicalization infects all people to a greater or lesser degree and tackling it in one community reduces its appeal in other communities as well.
We need to follow-up on our finding by organizing focused talks on the subject to take the message to a wider audience within the University to start with, and then based on our experience, to the whole world.

Naseer Ahmed is an Engineering graduate from IIT Kanpur and is an independent IT consultant after having served in both the Public and Private sector in responsible positions for over three decades. He is a frequent contributor to

This article was first published on New Age Islam



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