Kaafir, the New F-word

“While there are certainly real extremists and bigots who call themselves Muslim and set out to harm and mistreat those who live a different life path, you should not waste your energy trying to convince the world that you are not amongst them. Yes, whenever you get the opportunity, clarify the real teachings of your faith, most specifically the prohibitions against harming the innocent and using force or violence to compel someone to become Muslim, but do not make this back-and-forth your focus. And most importantly, do not allow the culture of anti-Muslim bigotry to dictate the narrative of your faith that you share with the world. The truth of Islam stands on its own, and trust that anyone who sincerely wants guidance will accept it, with or without your help.”

excerpt of I Almost Left Islam: How I Reclaimed My Faith by Umm Zakiyyah

It was something I learned very young: Never say the word kaafir. I didn’t know Arabic at the time, but I knew it was worse than a curse word. It was the most evil word you could possibly utter. Call a person anything you want, but never this.

A kaafir was evil.

A kaafir was a monster.

A kaafir was doomed to Hell forever.

These ideas floated around in my mind whenever I heard the word, and the sensation I felt upon even thinking of it was like the repulsion one would feel upon having a jinn-like beast sharing a single cover with you at night.

So naturally, in my world, a kaafir didn’t exist. People who believed a kaafir did exist—and who had the audacity to use the term in connection to an actual human being—were shunned, whispered about, and referred to as “misguided” and their thinking reprehensible.

As for how my friends and I dealt with Muslims who used the word, we didn’t associate with “those” Muslims. We didn’t go to the masjid with “those” Muslims. We were better than “those” Muslims…

Because we didn’t use profanity.

They did.

We didn’t say horrible words like kaafir.

They did.

As I grew older and eventually befriended some of “those” Muslims, I was surprised that they weren’t revolting or evil, as I’d once thought. And I was even more surprised that they didn’t seem angry or spiteful when they used the word kaafir. In fact, if anything, my friends and I were more obviously spiteful when we talked about “those” Muslims for using the word at all.

Nevertheless, like my jolt upon hearing for the first time a dog groomer use the word bitch in its appropriate context, I was a bit taken aback when I first heard the word kaafir used in the Islamic context by some of my new friends. And as was the case with my understanding bitch as simply meaning “a female dog”, I began to understand that—at least to these Muslims—the word kaafir simply meant non-Muslim.

The Qur’an as the Judge

Allah doesn’t use profanity. That was probably my first epiphany that the word kaafir couldn’t possibly be the unutterable, monstrous curse word that I’d thought it to be. Moreover, if the word did in fact occur in the Qur’an, then certainly it applied to someone. And Allah obviously wanted us to know who. Otherwise, why mention it at all?

Allah says what has been translated to mean:

“Verily, those who disbelieve in Allah and His Messengers and wish to make a distinction between Allah and His Messengers, saying, ‘We believe in some but reject others’ and wish to adopt a way in between. They are in truth disbelievers…” Al-Nisaa, 4:150-151

“Surely, disbelievers are those who say ‘Allah is the third of three [in a Trinity]…’”Al-Maa’idah, 5:73

“Those who disbelieve from among the People of the Book [Jews and Christians] and among the pagans were not going to leave [their disbelief] until their came to them clear evidence, a Messenger from Allah…” Al-Bayyinah, 98:1-2

Of the believers and Islam itself, Allah says:

“Only those are the believers who have believed in Allah and His Messenger, and afterward doubt not…”Al-Hujuraat, 49:15

“Anyone who seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter, he will be one of the losers.” Ali’Imraan, 3:85

Hadith As Further Clarification

In the famous “hadith of Jibreel” recorded by Imam Muslim, the Angel Gabriel (Jibreel) came to Prophet Muhammad in the form of a man and said, “O Muhammad, tell me about Islam.” The Messenger of Allah (sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam) said, “Islam is to testify that there is none worthy of worship except Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, to establish the prayers, to pay the zakat, to fast [the month of] Ramadan, and to make pilgrimage to the House if you have the means to do so.”

The Angel Jibreel said further, “Tell me about emaan (belief or faith).” He [the Messenger of Allah] responded, “It is to believe in Allah, His angels, His books, His messengers, the Last Day and to believe in the divine decree, [both] the good and the evil thereof.”

In another hadith recorded by Imam Muslim, the Messenger of Allah (sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam) said: “By Him in Whose Hand is the soul of Muhammad, any person of this Community, any Jew, or any Christian who hears of me and dies without believing in what I have been sent with will be an inhabitant of hell.”

Are Non-Muslims Going to Paradise?

It is well-known that all who believe in Allah while joining no partners with Him and while not disbelieving in any of His prophets or revelations—and while believing in every aspect of religious truth that comes to them during their lifetime—are Muslims and will thus enter Paradise. It is also well-known that the believers of previous generations who believed in and followed their respective messengers are Muslims and will thus enter Paradise.

Allah says:

“Indeed, those who believed and those who were Jews or Christians or Sabians, those who believed in Allah and the Last Day and worked righteousness, will have their reward with their Lord, and no fear will there be concerning them, nor will they grieve.” Al-Baqarah, 2:62

There has been much discussion by religious scholars and laypeople surrounding who these believers are specifically, some Muslims going as far as to openly claim that many non-Muslims of today are of these groups such that many open non-Muslims are overpraised and given the rights that belong only to believers, such as our praying for their forgiveness and openly hoping for their entry into Paradise.

However, regardless of who these believers are as individuals, whether in the past or present (or both), one undeniable fact remains: not a single one of us knows who they are by name, as this knowledge rests with Allah alone; thus it is impossible to speak of these people specifically.

Furthermore, given that Allah’s Book contains no contradictions and that our entire faith is based on complete belief in Allah’s revelations, without exception, there are only two possibilities concerning this group of believers amongst the Jews, Christians, and Sabians, as discussed in the Qur’an:

  1. They are the Muslims of earlier times who believed in their respective prophets and messengers while making no exceptions regarding their belief in what Allah revealed. (It is a fundamental part of the Islamic faith that the message of Islamic monotheism began with our father Adam, peace be upon him, and that Prophet Muhammad did not bring a new faith; he was merely the seal of a long line of prophets and messengers before him.)
  2. They are people of both the past and present who believed in Allah and all they knew of His prophets and revelations, but the knowledge of certain aspects of faith (such as the specific teachings of Prophet Muhammad) never reached them during their lifetime.

In other words, these people are not an exception to the requirement of being Muslim; they are merely further proof of it.

Thus, it is inconceivable for any Muslim to claim that any descendent of Adam, whether in the past or present, can hear of any of Allah’s Books or prophets and reject a single one of them and still retain the label as “believer” in front of Allah, as rejecting any divine book or prophet is tantamount to disbelief and is the very essence of kufr itself—regardless of which time period a person lived.

You Can Be Muslim Too…If We Like You

One of the most amazing things that is occurring today is many Muslims proclaiming, at leisure, that some non-Muslims are “Muslims in their heart” or that they embody “the spirit of Islam” while openly praying for Allah’s mercy, blessings, and forgiveness for people who did not accept Islam.

We can use conjecture and dabble in the possibility that the non-Muslims we happen to like or admire—whether because they are our family or friends, or because they are worldly renowned for their stances on justice and freedom—could be of the group of believers referred to in the above ayah. However, the fact remains that it is not our place or right to make such a claim, let alone act upon it through speaking of a non-Muslim’s “Muslim heart” or praying for their blessings or forgiveness. And if we proceed to do so, we will be called to account for openly violating the guidelines of our religion.

In Islam, it is forbidden to pray for Allah’s mercy or forgiveness for disbelievers, and this is well-known, so much so that the Prophet himself was not allowed to pray for his own parents—and they died before He received revelation. Moreover, logically-speaking, if there are any non-Muslims who deserve our praise and admiration such that we could pray for their souls, the ones foremost in this right would be the ones who lived alongside the Prophet himself and sacrificed their personal safety and risked their very lives in protecting Allah’s Messenger from harm while ensuring that the message of Islam was spread unobstructed throughout the world. How can we claim any act of goodness by a non-Muslim that is greater than this? Yet the one foremost in this very act of goodness, namely the Prophet’s uncle Abu Talib, the believers are not allowed to pray for. In fact, Abu Talib, despite this undeniably great act, will never enter Paradise, as Prophet Muhammad informed us.

Who then are we to raise a non-Muslim—based on our own whims and desires—to a status that even Abu Talib did not deserve?

Be Careful with the New F-word

The Qur’an is quite unambiguous regarding who is a mu’min (believer) and who is a kaafir (disbeliever), and this is clear to anyone who has read Allah’s Book in full. Nevertheless, it is not our job to carelessly toss around the label kaafir when we know little to nothing about someone. Just as it is against Islam to label non-Muslims believers and give them the rights reserved only for Muslims, it is also against Islam to claim knowledge of the Unseen and carelessly label people kaafir based solely on a hunch or an assumption. Caution is this regard is especially crucial when speaking in reference to the state of someone’s soul at death.

A person can live his or her life as a disbeliever then accept Islam in private before death. A person can also live his or her life as a believer then reject Islam in private before death. Thus, ultimately, we don’t know the state of anyone’s soul—even that of professed Muslims.

Therefore, it is possible to act upon only one thing in this life: that which is apparent. So if a person professes belief in Islam, we treat them as a believer; and we pray for their soul and hope Allah grants them Paradise after death (as the Prophet showed us during his lifetime). However, if a person does not profess belief in Islam, we treat them as a disbeliever; and we do not pray for their souls or openly hope Allah grants them Paradise after death (as the Prophet clearly showed us with his parents and his uncle Abu Talib). As for whether or not certain people lived secretly as Muslims or whether or not they heard the message of Islam before death, these are matters of the Unseen, and we should not delve into them.

As for the word kaafir itself, it is not an unspeakable, evil curse word; and if we think of it as such, we are accusing our Lord of profanity and of Him asking us to recite profanity, as Allah’s Book is replete with ayaat discussing disbelievers.

Rather, what is required of us regarding the meaning of the word kaafir is the same that is required of us regarding everything mentioned in the Qur’an, and that is this:

“We believe in it. All [of it] is from our Lord.” Ali’Imraan, 3:7

All Belief Has Conditions

In closing, I leave you with these words from my book Pain. From the Journal of Umm Zakiyyah:

Neither your love for someone nor their apparent kindness or goodness cancels out their shirk or disbelief. Allah says, “Only those are believers who believe in Allah and His Messenger then doubt not…” (49:15).

Even if you wish to interpret the ayaat in the Qur’an about the believers amongst the People of the Book as referring to religious people today, their belief would be subject to the same conditions as any believer. A professed Muslim falls outside the fold of Islam if he or she disbelieves in anything from the Qur’an. How much more a person who disbelieves in all of it?

And what of a person who has heard of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) yet has not even uttered belief in him? Allah says, “And whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he will be one of the losers” (3:85).

But perhaps you wish to make these people Muslim due to your love for them, especially if they die and you want to pray for them? Yet Allah says, “Verily, you guide not whom you love, but Allah guides whom He wills. And He knows best those who are guided“ (28:56).


Original version published via muslimmatters.org


Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, His Other Wife and the self-help book for Muslim survivors of abuse: Reverencing the Wombs That Broke You. Her latest novel His Other Wife is now a short film.

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