Who Are the "Infidels"?

The debate generated by my first post was very important, and I appreciated every comment made. One of the (many) misconceptions about Islam, brought out in some of the comments, is Islam’s attitude toward “non-believers.” Many people, including some Muslims, think that Islam demands that Muslims “hate” non-Muslims, or that Muslims should even “kill” non-Muslims. Although unfathomable to me, this view is held nonetheless.

I do not buy it one bit. I do not buy it no matter how many “Ulema,” or religious scholars, are quoted as saying so. I don’t care how many terrorists say so, either. Yet, this begs the question: exactly who is an “infidel”? Many Muslims may understand that an “infidel” (“kafir” in Arabic) is anyone who is not Muslim. It is not that at all.

The Arabic word kafir itself comes from the word kafara, which means “to cover up.” In fact, farmers in Arabic are called kuffar because they “cover up” their seeds with dirt (such a usage is found in the Qur’an, in verse 57:20). Another meaning of kufr is “ingratitude”; it is the opposite of shukr, or “gratitude.” In fact, grammatically, kafir is an active verb, meaning that a kafir is actively “covering up” something. Thus, when the word kafir is used in the Qur’an, it is a voluntary action on the part of the person committing the kufr. Muslim Qur’anic commentator Muhammad Asad explained the meaning of kafir best, which first occurred in the Qur’an in verse 74:10:

Since this is the earliest Quranic occurrence of the expression kafir (the above surah having been preceded only by the first five verses of surah 96), its use here – and, by implication, in the whole of the Quran – is obviously determined by the meaning which it had in the speech of the Arabs before the advent of the Prophet Muhammad: in other words, the term kafir cannot be simply be equated, as many Muslim theologians of post-classical times and practically all Western translators of the Quran have done, with “unbeliever” or “infidel” in the specific, restricted sense of one who rejects the system of doctrine and law promulgated in the Quran and amplified by the teachings of the Prophet – but must have a wider, more general meaning.

This meaning is easily grasped when we bear in mind that the root verb of the participial noun kafir (and of the infinitive noun kufr) is kafara, “he (or “it”) covered (a thing)”: thus, in 57:20 the tiller of the soil is called (without any pejorative implication) kafir, “one who covers”, i.e., the sown seed with earth, just as the night is spoken of as having “covered” (kafara) the earth with darkness. In their abstract sense, both the verb and the nouns derived from it have a connotation of “concealing” something that exists or “denying” something that is true. Hence, in the usage of the Quran – with the exception of the one instance (in 57:20) where this participial noun signifies a “tiller of the soil” – a kafir is one who denies (or “refuses to acknowledge”) the truth” in the widest, spiritual sense of this latter term: that is, irrespective of whether it relates to a cognition of the supreme truth – namely, the existence of God – or to a doctrine or ordinance enunciated in the divine writ, or to a self-evident moral proposition, or to an acknowledgment of, and therefore gratitude for, favours received.

This is the proper understanding of the word kafir, namely someone who actively denies the truth. Now, some people may think this is a “technicality,” and that Islam still considers all non-Muslims to be “infidels,” in a derogatory sense. But, it is not. This is a very important distinction because, simply calling all non-Muslims as kafir, or “infidel” is a dehumanizing act. It is akin to someone seeing a Muslim woman in a headscarf and calling her “terrorist,” or calling a person of color by any number of racial slurs.

I have screamed (literally) this exhortation from the pulpit during Friday prayer sermons: we should not call non-Muslims “kafirs” or “infidels,” because this puts up barriers between Muslims and their fellow Americans of other faiths, and this helps no one. The only judge of belief is God, and it is not our place to make such judgments.

In fact, the Qur’an states that it is part of God’s plan to have a multitude of faiths and religious traditions:

Unto every one of you have We appointed a [different] law and way of life.  And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but [He willed it otherwise] in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto, you. Compete, then, with one another in doing good works! Unto God you all must return; and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ. (5:48)

Moreover, the Qur’an itself says that most people will not believe in its message:

Yet – however strongly thou [O Muhammad] may desire it – most people will not believe [in this revelation]. (12:103)

But, the Qur’an doesn’t say that those people should be destroyed. Not at all. It says what verse 5:48 says: “compete, then, with one another in doing good works.” As commentator Muhammad Asad wrote:

Thus, the Qur’an impresses upon all who believe in God – Muslims and non-Muslims alike – that the differences in their religious practices should make them “vie with one another in doing good works” rather than lose themselves in mutual hostility

And I believe the same applies to those who do not believe in God at all: for they are also human beings worthy of respect and dignity. We must all learn to live and work together to make our world a better place.

Now, I am sure many of you are wondering about verse 9:5. You know, the one that says, “Slay the infidels wherever ye may find them…”

Stay tuned, my friends…stay tuned.



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  • My husband, daughter and I were having this conversation just the other day! Thanks for the clarity!

  • Well said. Keep up the good work.
    Chapter 9 talks about mushriq or idolaters.
    The Meccans attacked the Muslims in Medina on and off for a period of nine years after the Muslims left Mecca. Finally, in the ninth year after migrating from Mecca to Medina, the Holy Prophet was revealed the chapter Tauba, chapter 9. This is the chapter that contains verse 5 that so many people quote out of context. I will quote it here and then the verses before and after it and it will be clear what the context is.

    [9:5] And when the forbidden months have passed, kill the idolaters wherever you find them and take them prisoners, and beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they repent and observe Prayer and pay the Zakat, then leave their way free. Surely, Allah is Most Forgiving, Merciful.

    Now even this clearly does not say kill the Christians or the disbelievers, but kill the idolaters – the Meccans – who had been persecuting and killing the Muslims for more than 20 years in Mecca and Medina. And that's because they will not stop attacking the Muslims. Let's start with 9:3. . .

    [9:3] And this is a proclamation from Allah and His Messenger to the people on the day of the Greater Pilgrimage, that Allah is clear of the idolaters, and so is His Messenger. So if you repent, it will be better for you; but if you turn away, then know that you cannot frustrate the plan of Allah. And give tidings of a painful punishment to those who disbelieve,

    [9:4] Excepting those of the idolaters with whom you have entered into a treaty and who have not subsequently failed you in anything nor aided anyone against you. So fulfill to these the treaty you have made with them till their term. Surely, Allah loves those who are righteous.

    This clearly says that those idolaters with whom you have a treaty of peace and they have not broken that treaty or aided someone in violence against you, they are not the enemy of Muslims.

    [9:5] And when the forbidden months have passed, kill the idolaters wherever you find them and take them prisoners, and beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they repent and observe Prayer and pay the Zakat, then leave their way free. Surely, Allah is Most Forgiving, Merciful.

    The forbidden months refer to the period of time which coincided with four holy months in Arabia wherein the Holy Prophet (saw) gave his enemies the chance to go travel about in the land and see what the fate was of those who had opposed the Muslims and persecuted them – to see how these enemies had been defeated and all their evil plots to destroy Islam had failed. When, after these four months had passed and the enemies of Islam still would not leave the Muslims in peace, Muhammad was commanded by God to take the fight to them and meet them in battle to defend Muslims and the religion of Islam from extinction

    It would be as though terrorists were in America and were told them, you have four months to decide to be stop being terrorists, after which time, we will hunt you down and kill you because of your past evil deeds and the evil you are still intent on committing against us. Muhammad gave his enemies four months to think it over. How many months would – or should – America give to anyone who threatens to kill us?

  • In reply to jbdoc:

    It is a little more involved than that, but it is forthcoming in future posts, God willing. And thanks to all for commenting.

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