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.