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.
We didn't say horrible words like kaafir.
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
Allāh 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 Allāh obviously wanted us to know who. Otherwise, why mention it at all?
“Verily, those who disbelieve in Allāh and His Messengers and wish to make a distinction between Allāh 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; 150-151]
“Surely, disbelievers are those who say 'Allāh is the third of three [in a Trinity]…'” [Al-Maa'idah; 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 Allāh…” [Al-Bayyinah; 1-2]
Of the believers and Islam itself, Allāh says:
“Only those are the believers who have believed in Allāh and His Messenger, and afterward doubt not…” [Al-Hujuraat; 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; 85]
Hadith As Further Clarification
In the famous “hadith of Jibreel” recorded by imām Muslim, the Angel Gabriel (Jibreel) came to Prophet Muḥammad in the form of a man and said, “O Muḥammad, tell me about Islam.” The Messenger of Allāh said, “Islam is to testify that there is none worthy of worship except Allāh and that Muḥammad is the Messenger of Allāh, 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 Allāh] responded, “It is to believe in Allāh, 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 imām Muslim, the Messenger of Allāh said: “By Him in Whose Hand is the soul of Muḥammad, 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 Allāh 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.
“Indeed, those who believed and those who were Jews or Christians or Sabians, those who believed in Allāh 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; 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 over-praised 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 Allāh alone; thus it is impossible to speak of these people specifically.
Furthermore, given that Allāh's Book contains no contradictions and that our entire faith is based on complete belief in Allāh's revelations, without exception, there are only two possibilities concerning this group discussed in the Qur'an:
- They are the Muslims of earlier times who believed in their respective prophets and messengers while making no exceptions regarding their belief in what Allāh revealed. (It is a fundamental part of the Islamic faith that the message of Islamic monotheism began with our father Adam, and that Prophet Muḥammad did not bring a new faith; he was merely the seal of a long line of prophets and messengers before him.)
- They are people of both the past and present who believed in Allāh and all they knew of His prophets and revelations, but the knowledge of certain aspects of faith (such as the specific teachings of Prophet Muḥammad) 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 Allāh's Books or prophets and reject a single one of them and still retain the label as “believer” in front of Allāh, 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 Allāh's mercy, blessings, and forgiveness for people who did not accept Islam.
Though 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 āyah, 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 Allāh'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 Allāh'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 Muḥammad 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 Allāh's Book in full. Nevertheless, it is not our job to carelessly toss around the label kaafir. 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, especially in reference to someone's soul after 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 Allāh grants them Paradise after death (as the Prophet showed us during his lifetime). But 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 Allāh 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 His asking us to recite profanity, as Allāh'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; 7]
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of the If I Should Speak trilogy and the novels Realities of Submission and Hearts We Lost. To learn more about the author, visit themuslimauthor.com or join her Facebook page.
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