A blistering sophomore effort from new contributor ‘YAK’!
Kaffir (n.), from Arabic Kaffir “unbeliever, infidel, impious wretch,” with a literal sense of “one who does not admit the blessings of God,” from kafara “to cover up, conceal, deny, blot out.” Technically, “non-Muslim,” but in Ottoman times it came to be used almost exclusively for “Christian.” Early English missionaries used it as an equivalent of “heathen” to refer to Bantus in South Africa (1792), from which use it came generally to mean “South African black” regardless of ethnicity, and to be a term of abuse since at least 1934.
Douglas Harper. Online etymology dictionary
The above quote is reflective of the evolution of the word ‘Kaffir’ – to show the use of the word in the past. Below is a commentary to show how it used today as a divisive tool by some sectors of the Muslim community.
This is a very hefty and sensitive subject matter for some people. So I’d like to start off with the premise of my belief. The prism through which I write is this very simple point. The Quran is the final word of the divine speaking directly to humanity and it is a word from the Almighty that is more tender than a beloved’s whisper and as merciful as a mother to her sick offspring. The connotation of each Chapter starting with the words “The most merciful and the most kind’’ is what we call a precedent. i.e. we must view the whole surah (chapter) through the context and prism of mercy and kindness. The Quran is for all time, but we have left it alone, reciting the Arabic verbatim, opening the book only to use it as magic potion to ward off demons, without even understanding what we’re reading. The Quran is for all time, yet it lies in dust. If it is for all time, then we must accept that the Almighty does not miss out things, he does not make distinctions between words for no reason, logically this means that time, place, and people are in a state of flux; this cultural and intellectual diaspora is in the very spirit of the Quran. The words don’t change, but our understanding does. There are verses we still don’t understand, but I know one day we will. Also, through that same lens, the beloved Prophet ﷺ is a mercy to the worlds, a man of quietness, tenderness, and a true elegance that the world had not seen before him. If anything contradicts that belief system, it should be scrutinised before it’s rejected as it would be in non-compliance with the tone and all-encompassing, liberating force that we call Islam, free of power driven interpretations and free of people turning this great faith into a cult, which they have. This is the premise I begin the article with. All mistakes are mine, all perfection belongs to the vastness of the ever expanding Universe’s creator. As the universe expands, may our hearts and minds also expand to a greater understanding of what we have in front of us. Theologically, I follow the Hanafi way of understanding Islam.
I vividly remember after the 7/7 bombings ‘Sir’ Iqbal Sacranie from the Muslim Council of Britain being on television and being cross-questioned by two reporters on the term ‘kaffir’. The reporters were annoyed by the connotation of the term Kaffir. Our liege and master, Iqbal Sacranie, Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, mumbled in the most excruciating and embarrassingly worded explanation behind the term. In effect, he was apologising. It was at that moment I realised two things. Firstly, we don’t have a spokesperson for Islam in the UK. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, a person who is speaking on my behalf cannot answer a simple question on the basics of Islamic text. This memory has been stuck with me for a long time. This was not someone I wanted to represent my faith. I was perturbed and many years of introspection occurred within me about my faith. I flirted with many aspects of Islam: Wahhabi, HT, Shia and many, many others. Restlessly, I left Islam for a very short period in my life to introspect, which has led to ponder what it means to be a kaffir. I am a believer, and very comfortable and unchallenged in my faith today; I will not let those who hijack my faith dictate what it means to be a Muslim today.
However, like many Islamic issues in the West today, this journey got even more interesting. The word became synonymous as a derogatory term with the new Salafist interlopers. They colloquially say ‘kuf’. More recently, the loony that conspired to blow up a shopping centre in London said on Twitter, ‘these dirty kufs are dumb.’ This mental tribalism is effectively a technique employed by criminal gang members across the world: an ‘us versus them’ attitude. As isolated as these interlopers might be, the Salafist ideology has succeeded in creating a superiority complex within the new Muslim youth. The idea that you’re Muslim shouldn’t give you an advantage over somebody non-Muslim. I remember as a 12-year-old telling myself, “I am a Muslim, therefore I am better.” We are also taught this by our parents, and some of us still teach our children this strange segregation process. It’s wrong because it teaches us that we’re somehow saved from damnation. Quite the contrary: we shall be judged according to our deeds, not simply being born due to a lottery at birth. I was born a Muslim and many an anguished night I sat up not thinking as I was told, ‘you’re so lucky to be a Muslim.’ Instead, I was cross-examining my faith and my identity. After all, your identity is only a veil stopping you from realising your interconnectedness to ‘tawhid’ (oneness) with all of creation, including your neighbours and those you disregard. None of us chose our names, race or religion. The most important of part of the automated declaration of faith we repeat every day is a denial ‘la ilaha’ (there is no deity) and then affirmation ‘illallah’ (but the deity alone). This juxtaposition of the Kalima is vast in its understanding and has more than one meaning. Yin Yang, Light and Dark. Nothing and everything. How do you attest and declare there is a creator without first going through the process of denial? You have to. To reach true faith, you must unlearn. Do not take for granted that being born a Muslim, gives you some sort of head start. By that logic, so does being a born anything else.
This article will explore the term kaffir as a key driver, but also bring in complimenting ideas such as takfir (a Muslim who accuses another Muslim of apostasy) and apostasy very briefly as they themselves are vast topics onto themselves, as these go hand in hand with the term Kaffir.
The root Arabic of the word;
Kaf-Fa-Ra = to conceal, to cover, to reject, to disbelieve, to be thankless, unthankful, ungrateful, to disown, deny, faithless, black horse.
Its primary meaning is to cover/conceal with active/conscious intent. From this is born rejection or disbelief because that is a conscious decision made by a person. (Please note: one can only reject something after hearing/seeing/experiencing it, not before.)
Simply put, he is one who does not accept the truth, but chooses to deny it. A Kaffir is someone who knows the truth with conviction and proofs (spiritually or rationally), yet still denies it openly and might conspire against you. This is a very explicit statement, and not a broad statement like some of our scholars have redefined. Allow me to give you a crass example. Many of you should have seen the film, The Matrix. There is a character called Cypher who chooses to betray his friends and accept the false luxury of a made up world. He says:
“Cypher: You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize?
[Takes a bite of steak]
Cypher: Ignorance is bliss”
Hence, a ‘kaffir’.
The freedom to choose your belief system is entirely yours. You may not be convinced of the arguments Islam has given you. That’s your prerogative. That does not make you a Kaffir. That makes you a non-Muslim. But if you say to me you do believe, but refuse out of political bias or ideological bias, then that is concealing the truth within you. People cannot be blamed for their ignorance if they’ve been uninformed or ignored. Just to tell a non-Muslim to go and read the Quran is not the equivalent of giving them the truth. The ‘truth’ is something we cannot compel onto others. I cannot compel you to love me, the same way the Almighty cannot make you love him. That is a realisation based upon something far more complicated than just reading a book.
Now that we’ve defined the word ‘Kaffir’ – we must realise the power of the word when it is mentioned by the ‘Most Merciful and Most Kind‘.
Today, this word is used especially incorrectly in my opinion. Many of us, who will be reading this, have been born in the West. So we’re presented with a new dilemma. We juxtapose the historical and maligned image the West has had of the ‘Moor’, the lecherous Arab, the bloodthirsty ‘Mohammadan’. We are also guilty of equal suspicion. We have also vilified the ‘crusader’ very successfully with distrust and maligned him of being dirty, untrustworthy and shameless. The doomsday Muslims would have you believe otherwise – unfortunately for them, this is empirically not true. It is an oversimplification of our differences. The onus is on us to change this mindset. We cannot rely on others to change themselves for us. If we truly, believe in an all-encompassing, all merciful Islam, then the responsibility is on us to show who we really are. Nothing will bring people closer to the ever elusive quest of the ‘truth’ than a true representation of Islam within yourself. If you segregate yourself from the dirty ‘kuffar’ you are only creating a self-fulfilling prophecy to victimise yourself. Hearts and minds can only be won through interaction and dialogue. Although, ‘dawah man’ and his accomplices will have you believe otherwise. They’re busy creating a drone army of homogenous Muslims who drivel at the very sight of the word ‘kaffir‘. Had God wanted we would all be Muslim. Had the beloved Prophet ﷺ wanted, he would have cursed all of Taiba and all those who fought him.
On a more topical subject of hailing people ‘kaffir’ – the Mumtaz Qadri and Salman Taseer debate has crystalised this debate to a timely discourse. A brief history – Last week, to those who don’t know, Mumtaz Qadri, a special forces officer in Pakistan who took the law into his own hands, by murdering a politician called Salman Taseer, this politician was gunned down in the most ruthless manner because he was deemed to be insulting the Prophet ﷺ. Mumtaz Qadri was hailed a martyr by Brevlis across the globe and especially in Pakistan. This has prompted adulation for Mumtaz, but ultimately it has exposed the double standards of many of our scholars. In the worst kind of irony, it takes bloodshed to have millions out on the funeral of Mumtaz Qadri. This corruption of religion united Wahhabis, Deobandis, Brevlis for once, at raising this murderer on a pedestal. Upon further discovery, it had turned out this politician had not committed any form of insult to the Prophet ﷺ or committed any blasphemy. Salman Taseer merely called the current Pakistani blasphemy laws a ‘black law’. He was defending a Christian woman, called Asia Bibi, who he deemed to be exempt from prosecution. On a more imperative note, he merely wanted the current law to be re-evaluated, as he did not deem it divine law, he saw it as a law that was misinterpreted and constructed by scholars. For many scholars, who much like gangsters, are out to protect their hegemony over the uneducated masses, deemed this as an act of aggression and apostasy. They declared Taseer was a Gustakh e Rasool (insulting the Prophet) Henceforth, decrying Taseer as someone who had committed apostasy and he has now become a Kaffir. Therefore, according to these bloodthirsty Ulema (scholars of Islam) he was liable for death, by any member of the public. A free for all ‘ kaffir purge‘ if you like.
The hanging of Mumtaz Qadri in Pakistan has caused a social media storm. This has caused two polarities within the social strata of the Muslims across the globe. Those who have venerated Mumtaz Qadri as a martyr, and those who have condemned his act of murder.
This is sheer madness. Killing someone for the “love” of the beloved Prophet ﷺ is a contradiction of love itself. These are the same Ulema who will gladly believe in the terribly embarrassing narrations of the Prophet’s sexual prowess, or the Prophet being affected by black magic. But will cry for blood if someone dares to question their rulings. They really have the gall to shout heresy when they themselves will popularise such denigrating narrations on the character of the Prophet ﷺ?
On a disturbing note, this has caused a dichotomy of epic proportions on the Islamic community in the UK. Our youth will leave Islam by the droves, if we do not tackle these issues, as it makes us look like a cult. Which it seems we are. A rather gigantic, insecure cult who are afraid if someone leaves Islam, or criticises Islam.
The killing of Salman Taseer wasn’t in defense of the Almighty or the Prophet ﷺ (as if an Almighty creator and the blessed Prophet need defending?). It was to protect the scholars. They propelled Mumtaz Qadri to commit murder for their own interests and mechanisms. It is an act of wanton destruction and bloodshed, which has now split the Muslim community into further disarray.
These were the same scholars who condemned the Charlie Hebdo killings and other forms of terrorism. However, when it’s their terrorists, they’re fine with it. It is a contradiction of very disturbing proportions, because it begs the conclusion – that taking a human life is only correct when they say so.
Prior to this, we could all safely say the Brelvis stood for a form of passive Sufism, which although had academic problems, we really didn’t need to confront, as the Salafist/Wahhabis overtly stood for extremism in every sense of the word. The dichotomy is now more acute. It is now between those who stand for peace and those who do not. Nobody is safe from Takfir. We truly live in dangerous times, when people we deem as brothers and sisters will declare us fit for extra-judicial killing for simply not agreeing with their rulings.
Takfir is also a favourite pastime of ours. We love excommunicating fellow Muslims; as if, just by declaring one Kaffir, it will excommunicate them. We don’t have the capacity to do that in a court of law for anyone who claims they are Muslim. Imam Ahmed once famously said, ‘a fatwa by Abu Hanifa is worse than camel dung’ and a host of other Imams declared Imam Abu Hanifa a Kaffir. As a thought exercise – does this make Imam Ahmed a Kaffir for disagreeing with a fatwa of Imam Abu Hanifa? Because Salman Taseer disagreed with the current law in Pakistan and was by de facto a kaffir according to the same thought process?
Apostasy and blasphemy – is a subject we have greatly misunderstood. Not just for lack of common sense, but it is a protectionist racket invented by many scholars due to their insecurities about their logic. It is a vast topic I cannot go into my commentary fully. The above topic from a legal exegesis point of view has been tackled here by Sheikh Sulaiman Ahmed. It is a much more comprehensive ruling on the case of Taseer and Mumtaz.
In addition to this, the seminal book by Sheikh Atabek and Sulaiman Ahmed covers this topic as well as hadith methodology in the book ‘Hanafi Principles of Testing Hadith’. I truly do think this is one of the greatest books on Islam to date and a must to understand scholarly discourse at a rational level. It cleared up things for me and has made me reclaim my faith. Many subjects such as apostasy rulings, stoning, niqab are covered in that book comprehensively.
The imperative question remains unanswered though.
Do you honestly with your hearts and minds believe that it is perfectly reasonable to kill a person who leaves a religion – at the same time as calling the Prophet ﷺ a ‘mercy to the world’ and Islam a ‘religion of peace’? I implore you: please do not make a mockery of the faith and the beloved Prophet ﷺ. No reasonable and free-thinking individual can truly believe this.
A counter-narrative must be louder than the narrative we hear from the Salafis and Deo-Brevlis. Instead, rational thought, intellect and a common sense approach is muted at the slightest questioning of a ruling that does not make sense.
Today, the problem is much more acute. We have people calling each other Kaffir simply for celebrating Mawlid (birthday of the Muhammad ﷺ) or for trivial matters that really don’t concern the core of the faith. I recall being called a Kaffir for stating to my fledgling Salafi friend that you cannot contain the Divine in a physical manifestation as he claimed. He does not have hands or feet. I was labeled a Kaffir, as this was apparently a key foundation in their belief.
The sheer disgust I feel from fellow Muslims when I hear them in groups espousing their own insecurities when calling people ‘kufs’. It’s disgusting because it’s a form of mental tribalism which gives a false sense of self-esteem. An ‘us and them’ attitude. It is tantamount to a form of reverse gangsterism. Often that is the case: these Salafis who go around self-adulating their belief system to others are more often than not uneducated, ex-gangsters. They’ve gone from one extreme to another.
It’s not just the Salafis, who use this word Kaffir as a tool to denigrate others. There are many cases where the manipulation of someone being a Kaffir has encouraged a dehumanisation of the ‘other’. It’s simply a tactic of power and is used effectively in warfare today and in the past. We’ve already mentioned the Salman Taseer case, but there are more examples by Daesh and their treatment of the Yazidis, Boko Haram and their treatment of Christians. More pressingly, they are getting their proofs to do their raping, pillaging and murder from a hijacked version of ‘Islam’. Sadly, it’s not just being propagated by the thobe wearing, unkempt beard, Bedouin ‘oil sheikhs’. We have scholars like Jonathan Brown who are also justifying ‘rape’ and ‘sex slavery’ through intellectual dishonesty. If this is the truth, then this is not my religion. If it is, I will say it loud and clear: I will leave today. Perhaps I have misunderstood the wisdoms behind these rulings? Perhaps my mind is not capable of such unethical behaviours. It is a disgrace to think the intellectual disparity we’ve come to, where we have to explain the constructs and rulings of past scholars about things that are profoundly oppressive to the mind and body, such as stoning, apostasy and slavery. We do not have to defend them. We are allowed to say, they made errors. We do not need to continue this sadistic behavior of trying to justify everything irrational or erroneous.
It’s no longer good enough saying they’ve misinterpreted texts or rulings. They are proponents of an intellectual tyranny that does not allow us think. It shouldn’t have to be explained to a grown adult, with some form of intelligence, that murder, stoning, throwing people of buildings and burning people is simply inhuman. It cannot be the ‘religion of peace’ they claim it is.
Ultimately, these matters are best handled by those have spent their lives in this quest. But we must have a pragmatic approach. Nothing can be set in stone. That is the very nature of rational truth. If we accept the Quran’s message absolutely, then we have to accept that as time goes by, the application of a legislation changes. Unfortunately, we have become stagnant in our research and intellectual discovery as Muslims. We are consistently told by our peers that all our research is done and all opinions are set in stone. The dynamic nature of the Quran as truth dictates to us rationally that we must revisit rulings according to time and place. The sheer stagnation of intellectual discourse and discovery in our faith today simply reminisces to a bygone era. The previous rulings and relevance of them apply today, the same way Isaac Newton’s works apply today. The baton has not been passed on. If scholars are truly the inheritors of the Prophets, then in today’s age, we’ve inherited nothing but a parrot’s speech. We have to be in a constant state of flux. For example, just to say something is Ijma of the scholars (consensus) does not make it right.
We have the machinations of Deobandis, Brelvis and those crazy Salafis all defending their particular version of Islam. As if they were to be honest with themselves and their ‘aql they would lose everything overnight. That is when they’re not busy with their notepads declaring takfir on everyone else who’s not on their puritanical fire-path.
In conclusion, we can see throughout our history and especially today, the word Kaffir has been used extensively for derogatory purposes. It is clear when pondering on the scripture that our purpose is to come together and recognise each other in our various facets of knowledge, tribes and cultures. We are meant to learn and evolve from each other, regardless of religion or creed. That is part of the divine plan. The critics of Islam who claim we are a barbaric death cult, are sadly proved to be correct if carry we progress through ill-thought rulings, rationale and remain uneducated. A paradigm shift in our thought process is much needed.
The word Kaffir has been hijacked through the ages and especially today – to divide and rule us for power hungry leaders. In the past to appease the sultans court, and today to appease land grabbing, oil rich ideologies for greater hegemony over gulf states. It’s not stretch of the imagination that we are propagated this myth that Shi’a Iran is all Kaffir and is the Muslims greatest enemy. It’s not a coincidence that America and Israel are on the side of Saudi Arabia when it comes to Iran. Our use of the word Kaffir has huge political ramifications. Many of our youth are not even aware they are pawns in this game, when they declare everyone else Kaffir. Those youth from Europe fighting for the Daesh have a firm belief that they’re protecting Islam from the ‘dirty Kuf’, not realising in their ‘holy’ quest, that they’re fighting a proxy war for hegemony and land, for a power that has no care for what religion you belong to.
Our religion has been hijacked. Not just by the usual suspects – the Wahhabis/Salafis. Instead, it is being held hostage by many of those who turned this great religion into an automated ritualistic ‘point based’ system of salvation. We must free ourselves from those people who stop us from thinking clearly, who stop us from questioning. Who have invented made up rules to protect themselves. We are busy calling each other kaffir, whilst making no progress intellectually, in matters of science or of broad worldly knowledge. We seem to be following this homogenous ‘Islam’. A distorted Islam, tainted by men who have mixed it with their politics, sects, histories and personal desires, not the Islam of the Almighty. The very people who condemn terrorism will find in their sources, their history of prominent figures and authorities, the Islam of a certain people’s idea of Islam which contradicts their condemnations and vilifications. Dishonest academic scholarship can be a tool to justify hegemonic control over people.
So what is the solution? Quite simply, to be sensible and accepting of all ideas that shout for peace. Anything else that is destructive, perverted or inhumane can never be part of your faith. I’m merely calling for this strange interpretation that has seeped into our faith to be removed by just thinking for moment. Stop for a second and ask – what is the motive behind this ruling? It’s a virus so dangerous that it has changed the shape of our thought process. It is intellectual tyranny. This abject notion must stop today; otherwise we will be driven out or leave this religion tomorrow.
All truth remains in sujood (prostration) and all else is conjecture. If the same coolness of prayer you feel in prayer encompasses you, then extend that same breath of mercy to all of mankind. When you denigrate other religions you are not elevating your own religion; you are succumbing to denigrating your own. That is not the religion of peace you claim to follow.
There are more fake gurus and false teachers in this world than the number of stars in the visible universe. Don’t confuse power-driven, self-centred people with true mentors. A genuine spiritual master will not divert your attention to himself or herself and will not expect absolute obedience or utter admiration from you, but instead will help you to appreciate and admire your inner self. True mentors are as transparent as glass. They let the Light of God pass through them. – Shams of Tabriz