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KUFR. A key concept in Islamic tradition is denoted by the Arabic term Kufr, “disbelief.” It derives from the root k-f-r, whose basic sense is “to cover,” “to conceal,” or by extension “to ignore” or “to fail to acknowledge,” “to reject,” hence “to be thankless,” “to disbelieve.” In a religious context the latter meanings are more relevant, especially in relationship to the signs and benefits that God has extended to human beings. Kafir (pl., kuffar or kafirun), an active participial form, signifies one who does or exercises kufr, while kafur and kaffar both refer to one who goes to extremes in kufr. Takfir, an infinitive or verbal noun, indicates the action of judging or pronouncing someone to be a kdfir. Kaffdrah refers to expiation for wrongdoing, hence atonement. All these words occur frequently in Islamic religious texts, beginning with the Qur’anic revelations.

Qur’Anic Concepts. The very high frequency at which words derived from k-f-r in the sense of unbelief (482 forms) occur in the Qur’an testifies to the importance of the concept of kufr. In the structure of Qur’anic thought it typifies all things that are unacceptable and offensive to God. It is, in fact, one of the pivotal ideas of the Qur’an; around it clusters a group of concepts signifying negative qualities, all of which help to define the precise nature of kufr. Kufr is, as it were, the negative pole of Qur’anic thought, diametrically opposed to imam or faith.

In its most fundamental sense in the Qur’an kufr means “ingratitude,” the willful refusal to acknowledge or appreciate the many benefits that God has bestowed on humans. At many places (e. g., 26.18-19) the context compels this meaning because no other would yield sense. More important from a religious perspective are those verses that set kufr against shukr (thankfulness) as its antonym (e.g., 16.112-114, 2.52). Gratitude toward God is incumbent upon all humans for the divine benevolence and mercy offered them. Not only the bounties of nature and other material things but even the very existence of the race are owed to God. After enumerating the favors of God, the Qur’an says in Surah 16.83, “They recognize the favors of God, and yet they deny them, for most men are kafiran.” God has the strong expectation that people should be grateful for his blessings: “Be thankful to Me, and be not ungrateful” (takfuruna, a verbal form; 2.152).

The appropriate response to God’s beneficence is joyful gratitude and submission to the divine will, not harsh and unheeding rejection. Kufr is precisely this refusal and the haughtiness or presumptuous arrogance it implies. It is at once the antithesis of thankfulness toward God and of the humility the true Muslim should bear toward God. All who are guilty of kufr are deserving of eternal punishment in Hell.

The concept of kufr also has a related but somewhat different dimension in the Qur’an, that of unbelief, a meaning that dominated in later Islamic thought and continues as the primary sense of the term today. Among God’s blessings are signs given to men, scriptures and revelations sent in previous times through prophets, and evidences of his mercy in the order of nature. These signs were powerfully renewed with the appearance of Muhammad and the revelations collected in the Qur’an. Despite their unequalled value, the signs were not accepted by many as being truly from God; instead Muhammad’s opponents mocked his claims, impugned his sincerity, and attributed his declarations to his own invention. By rejecting the prophetic message they offered an affront to its divine originator. Thus kufr also meant refusal to give credence to the prophetic mission and refusal to perform the religious duties the Prophet’s teachings demanded. The harshest and most offensive expression of disbelief was the accusation against Muhammad (and implicitly against God) that he was lying, and consequently those who “give the lie” (takdhib) to God and his Prophet are the objects of special opprobrium.

One group in particular whom the Qur’an reproaches for their kufr is the people of the book (Jews and Christians) (9.30-31), to whom revelations had come before and who should have been the first to embrace Muhammad’s message: “Oh, People of the Book, why do you disbelieve (takfuruna) in the signs of God when you yourselves bear witness to them? Oh, People of the Book, why do you confound the truth with falsehood and knowingly conceal the truth?” (3.70-71). These stubborn unbelievers had not only themselves gone astray, but they endeavored also to lead the believers after them and were, therefore, a threat to the community (5.149). Christians especially are singled out for their acceptance of the Trinity: “They surely disbelieve (kafara, verbal form) who say: `God is the third of Three.’ Nay, there is no God save one God. If they do not desist from saying so, a painful doom will befall those of them who disbelieve” (5.73). Jesus himself is made to testify to the unity of God; and the Qur’an, in addition to denying his divine sonship (1o.68) indicates that he was but a messenger like others before him, a man who subsisted on earthly sustenance (5.72, 75).

The great fault of the Christians is the same as that of the polytheists: they ascribe associates to God and thus are guilty of the capital sin of shirk. In the Qur’an God alone is held to be worthy of worship and without comparison. He does not have offspring, nor does he have partners, neither the jinn (5.100), the angels, the pagan deities, nor any other. To worship these beings or ascribe power to them is to disbelieve in the uniqueness of God, and that is shirk. Shirk is kufr of the most heinous kind.

The aspect of prophetic teachings that evoked the greatest scorn in Muhammad’s contemporaries was the doctrine of the resurrection, which the pagan Arabs considered absurd: ” `What! after we have become dust? Shall we then be created afresh?’ These are they who disbelieve in their Lord. . . . And these are they who shall be the fellows of the Fire, therein to dwell forever” (3.5). This skepticism is one of the most characteristic manifestations of kufr, according to the Qur’an.

There are further concepts inseparable from the idea of kufr and to some degree synonymous with it. Verses 44, 45, and 47 of surah 5 afford an excellent example:

Whoso judges not by what God has sent down: such are kafirun.

Whoso judges not by what God has sent down: such are zalimun (wrongdoers).

Whoso judges not by what God has sent down; such are fasiqun (those who persist in extreme kufr).

From the above it appears that the concepts of kufr, zulm, and fisq overlap if they are not simply equivalent. Elsewhere in the Qur’an a similar relation obtains between kufr and concepts such as immorality, transgression of the limits set by God, excessive behavior, rebellion against God, attachment to worldly life, and hypocrisy. As indicated above, kufr is the polar idea around which these many negative qualities cluster and to which they are ultimately reducible.

Traditional Interpretations. The concept of kufr also figures prominently in the great collections of hadith which with the Qur’an serve as the fundamental authority in Islamic tradition. Here the punishments to be endured by the kafirin in Hell are set out in vivid detail. There is also much interest in the relationship of the believers to the kafirin, a matter that was taken up also by the schools of law. A major issue arose from the Qur’an’s characterization of unbelievers as unclean (9.28) and their prohibition from visiting the sacred shrine in Makkah (Mecca). Although the people of the book are called kuffar in the Qur’an, some later thinkers made a distinction between them and the polytheists (mushrikin, those who commit shirk), who were unbelievers in the strictest sense. In fact, in return for payment of special taxes a high degree of tolerance has been extended to the people of the book, who for much of Muslim history have been guaranteed protection and allowed to practice their own religions, to follow their own laws within their own communities, and to hold important positions in government and society. In some parts of the Muslim world, for example India, similar tolerance has also been extended to polytheists. The range of Muslim attitudes extends from quite lenient to very strict, depending on the school of thought and the perspective of a particular thinker.

There was also a question of the relationship of Muslims to kuffar living outside Muslim-controlled territory. In this connection there arose the distinction between the ddr al-Islam (abode of Islam) and the ddr al-barb (abode of war). Their relationship was assumed normally to be hostile, as it was the duty of a Muslim ruler to subject the kuffar to the control of the Muslim ummah. In consequence the hadith and the schools of law have much to say on the matter of jihad, the rules that should govern it, and the consequences for anyone taken prisoner.

In the development of kalam or scholastic theology, discussions of kufr have a place in the controversies concerning the effects of sin upon the religious and legal status of a Muslim. Has a Muslim who commits a grave sin become a kafir? Does failure to perform the prayers or other ritual duties render a person no longer a Muslim? Has such a one cut himself off from the ummah and all its rights and privileges? In this context and in many others the notion of the kafir bears the sense of “outsider,” one who is excluded or has excluded himself from the righteous community. Such questions had social and political as well as religious implications, especially in the early period. As parties contended for power, the debates over iman and islam (faith and works), big and little sins, and other questions were eventually thrashed out. Again the opinions ranged from the very lenient-represented by the Murji’ah, who would leave the decision about who is a Muslim to God since only God can know the heart-to the severe, represented by the Khawarij, for whom the unrepentant sinner was an apostate (murtadd, a particularly heinous type of kafir) and therefore deserving of death. Much of the evidence for the contending views is found in hadith included in the Sahih collections.

According to hadith, it is unacceptable for one Muslim to declare another a kafir. Nevertheless, takfir (the declaration of a judgment of kufr) by Muslims against their coreligionists has been and continues to be a regular feature of Islamic history. The concept has been a formidable weapon against those of opposing views, even when the opponents have been pious, wellintentioned Muslims. It was used, for example, to justify the murderous excesses of the Khawarij and the Qaramitah. The destructive impact of takfir was such that al-Ghazali felt compelled to pen a rational and balanced definition of kufr to moderate its effects. [See Takfir.]

In the treatises that deal with kufr there exists a number of classifications of unbelief. The modern Indian figure Abu al-A’la Mawdfidl, for example, in his commentary on the Qur’an, indicates that kufr may be of four kinds: the general state of being without faith, the denial of faith, ingratitude towards God, or failure to carry out those duties required by faith in God. The lawyers and theologians of later times, he charges, have simplified the term and lost its multidimensionality. Thomas Hughes in his Dictionary of Islam cites five classes of kafirin from a classical source: those who do not believe in the First Cause; those who do not believe in the unity of God, such as people who accept two eternal principles like light and darkness; those who believe in the unity of God but do not believe in a revelation; those who are idolaters; and those who believe in God and in revelation but do not accept that Muhammad’s mission was for all mankind, such as Christians and Jews (p. 260). In its definition of kufr the dictionary Lisan al-‘Arab describes the following types of unbelief: neither recognizing nor acknowledging God; recognizing God but not acknowledging Him with words, that is, remaining an unbeliever in spite of knowing better; recognizing God and acknowledging Him but obdurately refusing to submit; and outwardly acknowledging though not recognizing God at heart, thus being a hypocrite. (Encyclopedia of Islam, new ed., Leiden, 196o-, vol. 4, P. 4o8).

Premodern and Modern Interpretations. In the immediately premodern and modern periods of Islamic history kufr has taken on a new significance in the thought of reform and revivalist movements. These movements have seen the conditions prevailing among Muslims, including their religious beliefs and practices, to be so far removed from true Islam as to constitute kufr, or shirk, or jahiliyah (the situation before the advent of Islam)-concepts effectively equivalent, though some thinkers prefer one or another.

For the reformers of the premodern period, the community’s lapse into kufr or shirk was seen most readily in the practice of popular religion, especially the veneration of saints associated with the Sufi orders. Sufism dominated the religious life of the majority of Muslims in the premodern period, but in the eyes of the reformers many of its expressions were no more than forms of idolatry and innovation from which Islam urgently required to be purged. Some reforming movements adopted reformed modes of Sufism, but others sought to eliminate its influence completely.

The best-known premodern movement is that of the Wahhabis. They looked upon themselves as the only upholders of tawhid (the unity of God), considering all other Muslims to be mushrikin. According to them shirk took many forms: the attribution to prophets, saints, astrologers and soothsayers of knowledge of the unseen world which only God possesses and can grant; the attribution of power to any being except God, including the power of intercession; reverence given in any way to any created thing, even to the tomb of the Prophet; such superstitious customs as belief in omens and in auspicious and inauspicious days; and swearing by the names of the Prophet, `All, the ShIN imams, or the saints. Thus the Wahhabis acted even to destroy the cemetery where many of the Prophet’s most notable companions were buried on the ground that it was a center of idolatry. The Wahhabis were by no means alone; the same concerns were reflected in the teachings of Shah Isma`il Shahid and Sayyid Ahmad Barelwi (Barell), leaders of the Mujahidin movement on the northwest frontier of India in the early nineteenth century, and among similar movements elsewhere. [See Tawhid; Wahhabiyah; and the biography of Barelwi.]

In more recent times the notion of jahiliyah featured in the voluminous writings of Abu al-A’la Mawdudi. His central concern was the massive influence of the western world, which seduced Muslim peoples into adopting ideas, institutions, and values from outside the Islamic tradition. The community had thereby destroyed the basis of its strength and had actually become part of the anti-Islamic jahili system. All people face one basic choice: either to follow the jahili system of life or the Islamic system-that is, to five in accord with God’s will or contrary to it. The purpose of the Islamic movement that Mawdudi founded was to do away with jahiliyah and replace it with a government, social structure, and way of life based on the Qur’an, the sunnah, and the life of the early community. To this end he insisted that Muslims must enter the political arena, seize power, and establish an Islamic polity. These ideas, which are among the defining concepts of Islamic fundamentalism, were highly influential in the thinking of Sayyid Qutb, the ideologist of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was executed in 1966 for his call to overthrow the Egyptian “jahili” government. [See the biographies of Mawdudi and Qutb.]

The same ideas found radical expression in the manifesto of the group responsible for the assassination of Anwar el-Sadat: the manifesto is entitled The Neglected Duty, referring to jihdd or the religious obligation to take up arms for the propagation of Islam. Basing itself on the Qur’anic verse that says: “Whoso judges not (or rules not) by what God has sent down is a kafir,” the manifesto condemns all governments in the Muslim world as kafir governments, and no kafir has the right to rule. It is the solemn, inescapable duty of true Muslims to fight against them by any means, including assassination and open warfare. Essentially the same ideas are held by other groups in the radical wing of Islamic fundamentalism, for instance the Shabab Muhammad of Egypt.


The best source for concise and authoritative information on any aspect of Islam is the Encyclopaedia of Islam in both its old and new editions (Leiden, 1913-1936, 1960-), along with the Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam (Leiden, 1953). In addition to the article on kafir, those on shirk, dhimmi, djihdd, dar al-Islam, dar al-barb, and others are relevant to this subject. Each article is followed by a bibliography. The Structure of the Ethical Terms in the Koran by Toshihiko Izutsu (Tokyo, 1959) and its revised edition, entitled Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qur’an (Montreal, 1966), offer a detailed, in-depth analysis of kufr in relation to other key Qur’anic ideas, using a method of semantic analysis. It is the most thorough study of the concept in a European language. Another book by Toshihiko Izutsu, The Concept of Belief in Islamic Theology (Tokyo, 1965), also deals in extenso with the concept of kufr, but goes on to consider the opposing concept of iman in equal detail. The work is especially important for its analysis of the understanding of kufr among the early Muslim sects. W. Montgomery Watt’s The Formative Period of Islamic Thought (Edinburgh, 1973) is the mature summation of many years of work devoted to the early development of the Muslim community. It traces the controversy about the status of a Muslim sinner and indicates the positions on the matter of the sectarian groups involved. Also of great value for theological developments in the early period is the classic study by Louis Gardet and Georges C. Anawati, Introduction a la thiologie musulmane (Paris, 1948), which remains the best account of the historical development of theological thought among the Muslims, in spite of its age. John L. Esposito, in his Islam and Politics (Syracuse, N.Y., 1984), presents a readable and clear analysis of Islamic movements in the premodern and modern periods. Islam, Continuity, and Change in the Modern World, by John Obert Voll, sets modern developments into a broad historical framework, while also giving information on particular movements and thinkers. J. J. G. Jansen has translated the manifesto of Sadat’s assassins under the title The Neglected Duty (New York, 1986). In addition to his own analysis of the document, Jansen sets out the reaction to it of other religious groups in Egypt, providing information that is seldom available to those who do not read Arabic.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/kufr/

  • writerPosted On: July 27, 2014
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