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Kufr

By:
Charles Adams, A. Kevin Reinhart
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Kufr

A key concept in Islamic tradition is denoted by the Arabic term kufr, “rejection” or “repudiation.” 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 deny,” hence “to be thankless,” “to be faithless.” 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. Hence the common translation of “kufr” as “unbelief” is mistaken for all but the most theological writings and obscures the sentiments that the term inspires among Muslims. Kāfir (pl., kuffār or kāfirūn), an active participial form, signifies one who does or exercises kufr, while kafūr and kuffār both refer to one who goes to extremes in kufr. Takfīr, an infinitive or verbal noun, indicates the action of judging or pronouncing someone to be a kāfir. All these words occur frequently in Islamic religious texts, beginning with the Qurʿānic revelations.

Qurʿānic Concepts.

The high frequency with which words derived from k-f-r in the sense of unbelief (482 forms) occur in the Qurʿān testifies to the importance of the concept of kufr. In the structure of Qurʿānic thought it typifies all things that are unacceptable and offensive to God. It is, in fact, one of the pivotal ideas of the Qurʿān; 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 Qurʿānic thought, diametrically opposed to īmān or faith.

In its most fundamental sense in the Qurʿān, kufr means “ingratitude,” the willful refusal to acknowledge or appreciate the many benefits that God has bestowed on humans. In many places (e.g., 26:18–19) the context compels this meaning because no other would yield sense. Particularly notable is, “And he who rejects (yakfuru) the pre-Islamic gods (al-taghūṭ), and has faith in God has a firm handhold” (2:256), which establishes that the the concept of kufr involves not “disbelieving” but rejecting. More important from a religious perspective are those verses that set kufr against shukr (thankfulness) as its antonym (e.g., 16:112–114, and 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 Qurʿān says in one sūrah, “They recognize the favors of God, and yet they deny them, for most men are kāfirūn” (16:83). God has the strong expectation that people should be grateful for His blessings: “Be thankful to Me, and be not ungrateful” (takfurūna, a verbal form; 2:152).

The appropriate response to God 's beneficence is joyful gratitude and commitment to obey God, not impertinent 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 the humility that the true Muslim should bear toward God. All who are guilty of kufr deserve eternal punishment in Hell.

The concept of kufr also has a related but somewhat different dimension in the Qurʿān, that of willful rejection of the obvious signs of God 's bounty and claim over humankind, 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 evidence of His mercy in the order of nature. These signs were powerfully renewed with the appearance of Muḥammad and the revelations collected in the Qurʿān. Despite their clarity, these signs were not accepted by many as being truly from God; instead Muḥammad '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 Muḥammad (and implicitly against God) that he was lying, and consequently those who “give the lie” (takdhīb) to God and his Prophet are the objects of special opprobrium.

One group in particular whom the Qurʿān 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 Muḥammad 's message: “Oh, People of the Book, why do you reject (takfurūna) 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 rejectors had not only gone astray themselves, but they also endeavored to lead the faithful 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 reject God (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 reject God” (5:73). Jesus himself is made to testify to the unity of God; and the Qurʿān, in addition to denying his divine sonship (10:68) indicates that he was but a messenger like others before him, a man who subsisted on earthly sustenance (5:72, 75).

In rejecting the obvious evidence of God 's single nature, the Qurʿānic Christians share the same fault as the polytheists: they ascribe associates to God and thus are guilty of the sin of shirk. In the Qurʿān God is without comparison and He alone is worthy of worship. 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 the most heinous kind of kufr.

The prophetic teachings that evoked the greatest scorn in Muḥammad '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 repudiate their Lord…. And these are they who shall be the fellows of the Fire, therein to dwell forever” (3:5). This skepticism of central Qurʿānic themes is one of the most characteristic manifestations of kufr, according to the Qurʿān.

There are further concepts inseparable from the idea of kufr and to some degree synonymous with it. These verses afford an excellent example:

"Whoso judges not by what God has sent down: such are kāfirūn (5:44). Whoso judges not by what God has sent down: such are ẓālimūn (wrongdoers) (5:45). Whoso judges not by what God has sent down; such are fāsiqūn (the corrupt) (5:47)."

From these passages it appears that the concepts of kufr, ẓulm, and fisq overlap if they are not simply equivalent. Elsewhere in the Qurʿān 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 concept around which these many conceptual vices cluster and to which they are ultimately reducible.

Traditional Interpretations.

In its definition of kufr the dictionary Lisān al-ʿArab describes the following types of unbelief: neither recognizing nor acknowledging God; recognizing God but not acknowledging Him with words, that is, remaining outside the faith in spite of knowing better; recognizing God and acknowledging Him but obdurately refusing to submit; and outwardly acknowledging though not recognizing God at heart, that is, being a hypocrite (Encyclopedia of Islam, vol. 4, p. 408).

The concept of kufr also figures prominently in the great collections of ḥadīth which, with the Qurʿān, serve as the fundamental authority in Islamic tradition. Here the punishments to be endured by the kāfirīn in Hell are set out in vivid detail. These eschatological stories have homiletic value, but also reflect the desire of Muslims to clarify their relations to the kuffār, and to categorize different degrees and kinds of kufr.

The Qurʿān (9:28) declares the kuffār to be najas, or ritually impure. Yet the Qurʿān (in sūrah20) also declares that Muslims may eat the food of the People of the Book. Eventually Sunnī jurists decided that the latter verse abrogated the other, and Christians and Jews could be bakers, butchers, and cooks for Muslims. Their impurity was an accidental feature of their failure to perform ritual ablutions. The Imāmī Shīʿī, on the other hand, came to believe that the impurity of the People of the Book was intrinsic and essential, and that no amount of cleansing could rid them of their contaminant nature, except conversion to Islam. Hence in the Shīʿī world, Jews and Christians were excluded from professions that included food preparation.

According to ḥadīth, it is unacceptable for one Muslim to declare another a kāfir. Nevertheless, takf īr (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, well-intentioned Muslims. The Khārijīs asserted that faith was obedience, so every act of disobedience to God—in effect every sin—was kufr and that made the sinner a kāfir. For the Khārijīs that meant even a Muslim 's blood might be shed since he was outside the community of Islam by his disobedience. The opposite of this judgmental rigorism was the position attributed to the Murjʿah; they asserted that anyone who faced the Muslim qiblah and performed a bare minimum of the ritual requirements was a Muslim and so could not be a kāfir. In the development of kalām 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 kāfir? Does failure to perform the prayers or other ritual duties render a person no longer a Muslim? Has such a person cut himself off from the ummah and all its rights and privileges? In this context and in many others the notion of the kāfir 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 īmān and islām (faith and membership in the community), major and minor sins, and other questions were eventually thrashed out. On these matters the opinions ranged from the very lenient—represented by the Murjiʿah, 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 Khawārij, for whom the unrepentant sinner was an apostate (murtadd, a particularly heinous type of kāfir) and therefore deserved death. Evidence for the contending views is found in ḥadīth included in the Ṣaḥīḥ collections, but heresiographers and theologians also sought to assert and define persuasive positions. Theologians disputed the definition of kufr, though there was general agreement that all kuffār were, in a sense, similar; they constituted “a single millah (community).” Any denial (takdhīb) of the Qurʿān or the message of the Prophet was deemed kufr; anything contrary to faith (īmān) was kufr. Yet given the controversies over the nature of faith, and the exact meaning of the Qurʿān and content of the Prophet 's message, it is not surprising that within the category of kufr, the theologians disagreed on what exactly constituted kufr and sought to particularize the degree of heinousness of the kāfir. For example, those who said that faith was a kind of knowledge, said, then, that kufr was a kind of ignorance. Those like the Basran Muʿtazilah who said that faith is obedience, said that kufr was disobedience, and some of these distinguished between disobedience that constituted kufr, and disobedience that was corrupt but not kufr, and disobedience that entailed being outside a state of faith, but was still not kufr, such as adultery. Others still defined faith as “knowing in the mind (   janān, lit.,  ‘heart ’), stating with the tongue, and performing with the limbs,” and defined kufr as “failing in one of these areas.” One can deny the prophethood of Muḥammad, which is kufr, but not be a mushrik; or deny a creedal point and be a hypocrite but not a kāfir. It was eventually agreed by most that mere corruption did not make one a kāfir, nor, according to some, could one be “a person of [the Muslim] qiblah” and be a kāfir. Though ordinarily Muslims are enjoined to conceal each other 's faults, kufr is a fault that must be exposed. In this latter view, errant Muslim sectarians are astray (ḍāll), not faithless. Along these lines, it was argued also that those who are mistaken because of faulty Qurʿānic interpretation (taʿwīl) were not kuffār; their citation of Qurʿān, however mistaken, established their faith (Abū al-Baqāʿ, al-Kulliyāt4:111–117).

Practical Implications.

Although the People of the Book are called kuffār in the Qurʿān, later thinkers distinguished between them and the polytheists (mushrikīn, those who commit shirk), who were repudiators 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 in India, similar tolerance has also been extended even 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 kuffār living outside Muslim-controlled territory. In this connection there arose the distinction between the dār al-Islām (abode of Islam) and the dār al-ḥarb (abode of war). Their relationship was assumed normally to be hostile, as it was the duty of a Muslim ruler to subject the kuffār to the control of the Muslim ummah. In consequence the ḥadīth and the schools of law have much to say on the matter of jihād, the rules that should govern it, and the consequences for anyone taken prisoner.

Socio-religious Applications of the Term.

In the period immediately before the modern perioed, and in the modern period 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 jāhilīyah (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 Ṣūfī 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 that Islam urgently required be purged. Some reforming movements adopted reformed modes of Sufism, but others sought to eliminate its influence completely.

The best-known premodern sectarian movement is that of the Wahhābīs. They looked upon themselves as the only upholders of tawḥīd (the unity of God), and considered all other Muslims to be mushrikīn. 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, ʿAlī, the Shīʿī imams, or the saints. Thus the Wahhābīs acted even to destroy the cemetery where many of the Prophet 's most notable companions were buried, on the grounds that it was a center of idolatry. The Wahhābīs were by no means alone; the same concerns were reflected in the teachings of Shāh Ismāʿīl Shahīd and Sayyid Aḥmad Barelwī, leaders of the Mujāhidīn movement on the North-West frontier of India in the early nineteenth century, and among similar movements elsewhere. See BARELWīS; TAWHīD; and WAHHāBīYAH.

In more recent times the notion of jāhilīyah featured in the voluminous writings of Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī. 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 jāhilī system. All people face one basic choice: either to follow the jāhilī system of life or the Islamic system—that is, to live in accord with God 's will or contrary to it. The purpose of the Islamic movement that Mawdūdī founded was to do away with jāhilīyah and replace it with a government, social structure, and way of life based on the Qurʿān, 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 Quṭb, the ideologist of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was executed in 1966 for his call to overthrow the Egyptian “jāhilī” government. See MAWDūDī, SAYYID ABū AL-AʿLā; and QUTB, SAYYID.

Contemporary Significance.

It was in the late 1970s and thereafter that the concept of kufr, and particularly takfīr have come once more to the fore—this time in Islamist discourse. In the 1970s, various ideologues, particularly in Egypt, articulated the concept of al-takfīr wa al-hijrah, “anathema and migration.” The adherents of these movements believed that mainstream Muslims, and particularly the state apparatus, including compromised religious institutions, were so complicit in immorality and the weakening of Islamdom that they were no longer Muslims. Accordingly, the duty of the few “true” Muslims was to withdraw into conclaves, and from there mount attacks to bring about the end of the jāhilī state to prepare for the restoration of “true” Islam. These radical ideas found expression in the manifesto of the group responsible for the assassination of Anwar el-Sadat; the manifesto is entitled The Neglected Duty, referring to jihād or the religious obligation to take up arms for the propagation of Islam. Basing itself on the Qurʿānic verse that says: “Whoso judges not (or rules not) by what God has sent down is a kāfir,” the manifesto condemns all governments in the Muslim world as kāfir governments, and no kāfir 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. Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s these al-takfīr wa al-hijrah groups waged war on the governments of various Muslim countries including Algeria, Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia. It has been argued that the ultimate failure of their efforts led adherents of these movements to leave their home countries, set up in anarchic regions, and turn their attention not to the Muslim kāfir states, but to the West—Europe and America.

See also APOSTASY.

Bibliography

  • Abū al-Baqāʿ, Ayyūb b.Mūsā al-Ḥusaynī al-Kufawī. Al-Kulliyāt: Muʿjam fī al-muṣṭalaḥāt wa al-furūq al-lughawīyah. Edited by ʿAdnān Darwīsh and Muḥammad al-Miṣrī. 5 vols. Damascus, 1974. S.v. “kufr.”
  • Encyclopaedia of Islam. New ed.Leiden, 2002. In addition to the article on kāfir, those on shirk, dhimmī, djihād, dār al-Islām, dār al-ḥarb, and others are relevant to this subject. Each article is followed by a bibliography.
  • Ess, Josef van. Theologie und Gesellschaft im 2. und 3. Jahrhundert Hidschra: eine Geschichte des religiösen Denkens im frühen Islam. 6 vols. Berlin, 1991.
  • Izutsu, Toshihiko. The Concept of Belief in Islamic Theology. Tokyo, 1965. This work also deals in extenso with the concept of kufr, but goes on to consider the opposing concept of īmān in equal detail.
  • Izutsu, Toshihiko. The Structure of the Ethical Terms in the Koran. Tokyo, 1959. See its revised edition, entitled Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qurʿān. Montreal, 1966. This offers a detailed, in-depth analysis of kufr in relation to other key Qurʿānic ideas, using a method of semantic analysis. It is the most thorough study of the concept in a European language.
  • Jansen, Johannes J. G., and Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj. The Neglected Duty: The Creed of Sadat 's Assassins and Islamic Resurgence in the Middle East. New York and London, 1986.
  • Kepel, Gilles. Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. Cambridge, Mass., 2002.
  • Kepel, Gilles. Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and Pharaoh. Berkeley, 1986. On takfīr movements and the move of takfīr groups in the Middle East.
  • McAuliffe, Jane Dammen. Encyclopaedia of the Qurʿān. 6 vols. Leiden, 2001. s.v. “Belief and unbelief,” “ethics,” and index of Arabic terms: k-f-r.
  • Roy, Olivier. The Failure of Political Islam. Cambridge, Mass.1994.
  • Roy, Olivier. Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah. New York, 2004.
  • Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. Belief and History. CharlottesvilleVirginia, 1977. Of particular value in clarifying the concept of faith and its opposite.
  • Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. Faith and Belief. Princeton, N.J., 1979.
  • Tahānawī, Muḥammad ʿAlī b. ʿAlī al-. Kashshāf iṣṭilāḥāt al-funūn. Edited by Muḥammad Wajīh and A. Sprenger. Istanbul: Kahraman Yayınlarī, 1984/1404, 2:1251.
  • Watt, W. Montgomery. The Formative Period of Islamic Thought. Edinburgh, 1973. A 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.
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