Kuffar – the non-Muslim ‘other’
What does it mean to be described with a word that you have not chosen for yourself?
It allows you momentarily to see yourself as others see you – not as an individual with human dignity, nor as someone who belongs to a family or community of others who have a name for their family or community – Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Black, Asian, Atheist, Gay, Lesbian, or French, Scottish, Indian or American.
When you see yourself, however momentarily, as others see you, it can be disconcerting, and being referred to by a name that you have not chosen for yourself, or that you happily accept for yourself, can even be dehumanising.
Words like "Nigger" or "Paki" or "Kike" or "Chink" are dehumanising, and are used with the intent to dehumanise. Those people who are the object of such hateful articulation did not choose that word. Such a word not only demonises, but also asserts the power of the speaker to categorise the other.
Naming yourself is an act of human dignity. Being named by others can be a denial of your human dignity.
One word that is used to describe many people who have not chosen to be described with it is the word ‘Kafir’. It is a word actually used by some people to describe the majority of humanity.
It's one thing to have a bigoted descriptor for a demonised minority. History and our present world are full of deplorable examples of that.
The curious thing about ‘kafir’ is that it is actually used as a pejorative term for the overwhelming majority of humankind, who are non-Muslim, and even some who identify as Muslim.
Kafir (Arabic: كافر kāfir, plural كفّار kuffār) is the word used in the Qur'an to describe non-Muslims. It means someone who denies or covers up the truth – the ‘truth’ presumed to be Islam. Anyone who is not Muslim is a kafir, a disbeliever, an infidel.
The word is saturated with calumny, demonisation and contempt.
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World states that the Qur'an contains 482 derivations of the word Kafir, each one lengthening the meaning in negative and demonising ways – extending the attributes to include the qualities of being ‘Grievous’ ‘Odious’, ‘Evil’ , ‘Punished’, ‘Mocked’, ‘Slain’ and even ‘Crucified’ – the list is extensive.
"(Such) as dispute about the signs of God, without any authority that hath reached them. Grievous and odious (is such conduct) in the sight of God and of the Believers." [40: 35]
"Say thou: 'Yea, and ye shall then be humiliated (on account of your evil)." [37: 18]
But ye have indeed rejected (Him), and soon will come the inevitable (punishment)!" [25: 77]
"But on this Day the Believers will laugh at the Unbelievers." [83: 34]
"Seize them and slay them wherever ye get them: in their case we have provided you with a clear argument against them." [4: 91]
Ibn Kathir’s Tafsir expands on this. He states that there are many different types of ‘kufr’ – which is the state of disbelief that the ‘Kafir’ exists in.
1. Kufr ul-'Inad: Disbelief out of stubborness.
This applies to someone who knows the truth and admits to knowing the truth and admits to knowing it with his tongue, but refuses to accept it and refrains from making a declaration. Allah, subhanahu wa ta'ala, says, "Throw into Hell every stubborn disbeliever." [Surah Qaf (50), ayah 24]
2. Kufr ul-Inkar: Disbelief out of denial.
This applies to someone who denies with both heart and tongue. Allah, subhanahu wa ta'ala, says,"They recognize the favors of Allah, yet they deny them. Most of them are disbelievers." [Surah Nahl (16), ayah 83]
3. Kufr ul-Kibr: Disbelief out of arrogance and pride
The disbelief by the devils (e.g. Iblis) is an example of this type of kufr.4. Kufr ul-Juhud: Disbelief out of rejection.
This applies to someone who aknowledges the truth in his heart, but rejects it with his tongue. This types of kufr is applicable to those who calls themselves Muslims but who reject any necessary and accepted norms of Islam such as salatand zakat. Allah, subhanahu wa ta'ala, says, "They denied them (i.e. the signs) even though their hearts believed in them, out of spite and arrogance." [Surah Naml (27), ayah 14]5. Kufr ul-Nifaq: Disbelief out of hypocrisy.
This applies to someone who pretends to be a believer but conceals his disbelief. Such a person is called a munafiq or hypocrite. Allah, subhanahu wa ta'ala, says, "Verily the hypocrites will be in the lowest depths of Hell. You will find no one to help them." [SurahAn-Nisa (4), ayah 145]6. Kufr ul-Istihal: Disbelief out of trying to make haram into halal.
This applies to someone who accepts as lawful (halal) that which Allah has made unlawful (haram) like alcohol or adultery. Only Allah, subhanahu wa ta'ala, has the prerogative to make things halal andharam and those who seek to interfere with His right are like rivals to Him and therefore fall outside the boundries of faith.7. Kufr ul-Kurh: Disbelief out of detesting any of Allah's Commands.
Allah, subhanahu wa ta'ala, says, "Perdition (destruction) has been consigned to those who disbelieve and He will render their actions void. This is because they are averse to that which Allah has revealed so He has made their actions fruitless." [Surah Muhammad (47), ayah 8-9]8. Kufr ul-Istihzaha: Disbelief due to mockery and derision.
Allah, subhanahu wa ta'ala, says, "Say: Was it at Allah, His signs and His apostles that you were mocking? Make no excuses. You have disbelieved after you have believed." [Surah Taubah (9), ayah 65-66]9. Kufr ul-I'radh: Disbelief due to avoidance.
This applies to those who turn away and avoid the truth. Allah, subhanahu wa ta'ala, says,"And who is more unjust than he who is reminded of his Lord's Signs but then turns away from them. Then he forgets what he has sent forward (for the Day of Judgment)." [Surah Kahf (18), ayah 57]10. Kufr ul-Istibdal: Disbelief because of trying to substitute Allah's Laws.
This could take the form of (a) rejection of Allah's Law (shari'ah) without denying it, (b) denial of Allah's law and therefore rejecting it, or (c) substituting Allah's laws with man-made laws. Allah, subhanahu wa ta'ala, says, "Or have they partners with Allah who have instituted for them a religion which Allah has not allowed." [SurahShura (42), ayah 8] Allah, subhanahu wa ta'ala, says, "Say not concerning that which your tongues put forth falsely (that) is lawful and this is forbidden so as to invent a lie against Allah. Verily, those who invent a lie against Allah will never prosper." [SurahNahl (16), ayah 116]http://sunnahonline.com/library/beliefs-and-methodology/87-types-of-kufr-disbelief
So we can see how saturated with demonisation, hatefulness, and dehumanisation the word ‘Kafir’ and its derivatives can be.
The Quran is truly obsessed with the Kuffar – it tends to present humanity in simplistic, binary, Manichean terms, in which the struggle against disbelief is played out between the righteous believers in Islam, and the loathsome, immoral, innately evil and devious Kuffar.
How does this influence the way literalist Muslims view non-Muslims? How does it influence the way that they see the world?
Does this binary thinking inculcate feelings of peacefulness, tolerance, acceptance, pluralism, compassion towards those who are different? It seems that it might be quite the opposite, when the derision of non-Muslims - their cultures, religions, belief systems and status - is presented as a positive virtue .
The rhetoric of dehumanisation and demonization of the ‘kafir’ can be used unquestioningly even by the most educated people.
Mehdi Hasan is a British journalist. He is a graduate of Oxford University and formerly a political editor of Left wing The New Statesman. He has written for the Guardian and appears on the BBC regularly. And yet, he has given speeches in which he has said:
“The kaffar, the disbelievers, the atheists who remain deaf and stubborn to the teachings of Islam, the rational message of the Quran; they are described in the Quran as, quote, “a people of no intelligence”, Allah describes them as; not of no morality, not as people of no belief – people of “no intelligence” – because they’re incapable of the intellectual effort it requires to shake off those blind prejudices, to shake off those easy assumptions about this world, about the existence of God.”
“We know that keeping the moral high-ground is key. Once we lose the moral high-ground we are no different from the rest of the non-Muslims; from the rest of those human beings who live their lives as animals, bending any rule to fulfil any desire.”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=APAPqT3QdFUhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=__31LOVIR-M
Mehdi Hasan stated it unequivocally: to be a Kafir is more than just all the things that the Quran states. He describes how all non Muslim Kuffar are actually suffering from a mental disease, a disorder of the human mind – simply because they do not believe in Islam.
To not be a Muslim is not only to be a deviant, it is to be suffering from a disease of the brain.
It is a tragic state of affairs when an Oxford educated mind could be embroiled in such dehumanising, demonising contempt for girls, boys, women and men, five billion of them, simply because they do not follow the same religion as him.
This speaks of how entrenched this attitude of demonising the non-Muslim ‘other’ is – and how this demonization and dehumanisation is rooted in the Qur'an.
In fact, non-Muslims are not the hateful caricature of sub-humanity that the word ‘Kafir’ in all its variations implies. Non-Muslims are just humans with all the flaws and wonders that we all possess. They are born, they grow old, they fall in love, they get confused, they fail, they succeed. They have children, whom they love.
They try to be happy, and they suffer, as all of us will.
They laugh, cry, become jealous, angry, and yet are capable of compassion and tenderness. They contain contradictions, because they are humans, and humans contradict themselves. They dream of happiness, they dream of raising families, of finding soul mates, and one day they die, with the desire to leave the world surrounded by those who love them.
They are not ‘the Kuffar’ – they are human beings – gloriously, beautifully flawed – just as all Muslims are.
In the twenty first century, hasn’t the time come for Muslims to re-evaluate what the Qur'an says about non-Muslims?
How can Muslims truly accept the idea of the equality of all human beings, if they consider those different from them to be a kind of mentally diseased, bestial, evil, lying, devious inferiors, whose only worth is as fodder for evangelising Islam to? People who have no dignity or existence outside of the cruel value judgement of the prism of ‘kuffar’?
How can Muslims see non-Muslims as equals if they are only valuable or can have any dignity or worth if they convert to Islam?
Humanity is capable of great cruelty and great love – capable of great horror and great beauty.
Humanity is capable of oppression, and of striving to end poverty and emancipate the oppressed.
The only hope for humanity is that it chooses the path of compassion, tenderness and creativity – of advancement through art, science and seeking pluralism and coexistence.
How can those Muslims who believe that most of humanity is engaged in a secret conspiracy against them, or engaged in a competition to deny Islam its dominion on earth, promote pluralism, peace and harmony?
The Kafir is not a Kafir – she is the same as every Muslim and non-Muslim – a human – full of love, tenderness, beauty, hope, flaws and an individual dignity.
The demonization of "the Kafir" has to stop. Muslims who believe in peaceful coexistence would do well to speak up against the dehumanisation of non-Muslims with as much determination as they confront anti-Muslim bigotry.
We share the same planet, the same countries, the same cities, towns and streets. Our children inter-mingle, we are increasingly familiar with each other. The only way that we can coexist peacefully is by accepting our shared humanity and innate dignity.
However if the idea goes unquestioned that those who do not believe in one particular God are akin to bestial, mentally diseased, conspiring and evil deviants, to be demonised and dehumanised, achieving true harmony and progressive integration and advancement for Muslims and non Muslims will be more difficult than it should be.
We can only believe in a common humanity if you believe that those who do not belong to your religion are a part of humanity, not if you only define humanity as those who submit to your religion.