Who is a ‘kafir’?


Pope Francis and NU General Secretary KH. Yahya Cholil Staquf discuss the foundational texts of the Humanitarian Islam movement, following a general audience at St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican PHOTO/Bayt Ar-Rahmah

At the magnificent St Peter’s Square in Rome recently, Pope Francis welcomed a group of unusual guests: members of Nahdlatul Ulema (NU) from the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, Indonesia. The head of the delegation, Sheikh Yahya Cholil Staquf, gave the pontiff documents outlining the vision of a “humanitarian Islam” his organisation has been promoting.

The tenets of this vision reject Islamism — the politicised version of Islam that aims to establish the caliphate as a political system, and to make Sharia the law of the land, despite the diversity in modern societies. It also includes a proposal that is quite new and ambitious: that Muslims should stop calling non-Muslims ‘kafirs’. This is necessary, the Indonesian Sheikh Staquf said, so that Muslims can “view others as a fellow human beings, fellow brothers in humanity”.

‘Kafir’ is an Arabic word that comes from the root K-F-R, which means to ‘cover’ something. The implied meaning is that a kafir sees the truth of Islam, but still ‘covers’ it. Moreover, kafirs are seen as the sworn enemies of Islam and Muslims. That is why God will punish them by putting them into eternal hellfire.

All these themes can be found in the Quran, but we should not miss that there was a context to these verses. The Quran’s kafirs were mainly polytheists who persecuted early Muslims and came close to assassinating the Prophet (PBUH) as well. While condemning these kafirs the Quran urged Muslims to see nuances between them and other non-Muslims that are not hostile. “God does not forbid you to deal kindly and justly with anyone who has not fought you for your faith or driven you out of your homes,” a verse notes.

What is at stake is not just social harmony, but also sensible theology.

Other verses honoured Jews and Christians as fellow monotheists — the “People of the Book” — and even promised salvation for them in the afterlife. The Quran also embraces some religious pluralism, noting, “If God had so willed, He would have made you one community.”

As Muslims built empires, the tolerant verses of the Quran were ignored, kafirs became the common term for all non-Muslims and the rest of humanity was seen as in sheer darkness.

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