On being ‘Kafir’

By Asghar Ali Engineer
Friday, 13 Aug, 2010

IN a recent plane crash in Pakistan, a Hindu youth who was a member of Youth Parliament, Pakistan, died and apparently someone wrote ‘
kafir’ on his coffin which ignited a controversy.
Many Pakistanis condemned the action and instead wrote ‘We love you’, a humane thing to do. Nevertheless it shows how many Muslims treat non-Muslims as kafir. It is, therefore, necessary to throw some light on the issue.

Prem Chand Pakistani

The need is to understand the word ‘kafir’ etymologically, historically as well as theologically. First let us understand its meaning. ‘Kafara’ literally means ‘he hid’ and therefore, according to Imam Raghib in his classic work Mufradat al-Quran, a peasant is also called kafir as he hides the seeds beneath the soil for growing crop; night is also called kafir as it hides light.
Theologically it came to mean those who hide the truth. Every prophet brought truth from Allah; those who accepted it were called believers and those who did not kafir as they hid the truth. But according to the Quran those who believe in previous prophets sent by Allah are also believers as those prophets also came with the truth from Allah. Since the truth from Allah was contained in the book given to them they were also called ahl al-kitab (people of the book).

Some of them have been mentioned in the Quran but many have not been named. According to the Quran, the list of the prophets named is illustrative, not exhaustive. Muslims believe there came some 124,000 prophets and the Quran says Allah has sent a guide (haad) for every nation. Thus, if there is no mention of a nation or the book they were given it should not automatically mean that the people of that faith have hidden the truth and so they are kafir.
Mazher Jan-i-Janan, an eminent Sufi saint of 18th century Delhi, was asked by one of his disciples if Hindus who worship idols should be condemned as kafir. Jan-i-Janan wrote back a well-thought-out reply. He said that Hindus, according to their Shashtras (holy books) believe in God who is nirankar and nirgun (i.e. without form and attributes) and this is the highest form of tauhid (i.e. unity of God). Their holy books do not mention idol worship.

Then he referred to the Quranic verse that every nation had been sent a guide; he argued as to how could Allah forget a great nation like Hindustan and not send His guide there. Maybe Ram and Krishna who are highly respected by Hindus were such guides. He maintained that we cannot say that Hindus do not believe in the truth, as they also call Ishwar (God) Satyam (Truth).
As Dara Shikoh also points out in his Majma al-Bahrayn (Confluence of Two Oceans) Hindus call Ishwar Satyam, Shivam and Sundaram (Truth, Almighty and Beautiful), and all these three names of Allah are in the Quran, i.e. Haq, Jabbar and Jamil.

Jan-i-Janan also argued theologically that Hindus are believers in one God and cannot be called hiders of the truth or kafir. As for idol worship, he gives a very interesting explanation. He maintains that it is a popular practice as common people find it difficult to imagine a god who is formless and without attributes and they need some concrete object for worship and hence they carve out some shape and see the reflection of Ishwar in it. What they worship, according to Jan-i-Janan, is not the piece of stone but Ishwar through it.
Then he gave the example of Sufis who needed help of a master (a sheikh) to reach Allah. Without the intervention of a sheikh, a Sufi disciple cannot reach Allah, they believe, unlike the more puritan Islamic creed. Thus, for a common Hindu an idol replaces a sheikh, an intervener. Also, many lay Muslims go and pray at graves of Sufi saints and seek their intervention.
It is important to note that Mazher Jan-i-Janan does not take the rigid position that Hindus are kafir but tries to understand their religious faith and the common Hindu psychology as to why they worship idols. All this is available in the letter written by Jan-i-Janan to one of his disciples.

Also, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad has quoted several passages from the Vedas in his volume on Wahdat-i-Din of Tarjuman al-Quran to argue for the essential unity of all religions. Shah Waliullah, too, in his classic work Hujjat Allah al-Balighah treats comprehensively the doctrine of unity of religion.
Historically speaking, the Quran applies the term ‘kafir’ to those in Makkah who not only rejected Muhammad’s (PBUH) prophethood and mission but also actively opposed him; they persecuted him and his followers, thus opposing and actively hiding the message he had brought. Among them was the Prophet’s uncle, Abu Lahab, who led the campaign against the Prophet. However, there were those who remained neutral, and Muslims entered into covenants with them and got their cooperation.

Thus, the term ‘kafir’ must be applied with much caution and not to every non-believer in Islam. Every human being must be treated with dignity whatever way he/she believes in the truth. The truth has different manifestations in different cultures, and Islam makes that allowance unequivocally.
The writer is an Islamic scholar who also heads the Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Mumbai.


One Response to “On being ‘Kafir’”

  1. hus sain Says:

    but i like Ghalibs interpretation

    le to lun sote men us ke paun ka bosa magar
    aisi baton se woh kafir badguman ho jae ga

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