Defining a Kafir-An Object of Hatred for Fanatics

On October 25, a leader of a NATO member nation openly incited violence against non-Muslims.  On that day, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended the Friday prayers at the Great Çamlıca Mosque in Istanbul. He was accompanied by Istanbul’s governor Ali Yerlikaya, mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu, Istanbul’s chief of police Mustafa Çalışkan and the head of the Istanbul branch of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Bayram Şenocak.  

After the prayers, the hafiz of the mosque recited the Koranic Verse Al-Fath, which means “victory, triumph, conquest” in English. Then Erdogan took the microphone, reciting a part of the verse in Arabic and then in Turkish. He told the congregants:

“Our God commands us to be violent towards the kuffar (infidels). Who are we? The ummah [nation] of Mohammed. So [God] also commands us to be merciful to each other. So we will be merciful to each other. And we will be violent to the kuffar. Like in Syria.

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”.

But coming back to Erdogan what is Kafi.‘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.

Islam divides the world into Muslims and unbelievers, kafirs. Political Islam always has two different ways to treat kafirs—dualistic ethics. Kafirs can be abused in the worst ways or they can be treated like a good neighbor. Kafirs must submit to Islam in all politics and public life. Every aspect of kafir civilization must submit to political Islam.

Political Islam is the doctrine that relates to the unbeliever, the kafir….The Trilogy [The Koran, Sira (Mohammed’s biography) and Hadith (the traditions of Mohammed)] not only advocates a religious superiority over the kafir—the kafirs go to Hell whereas Muslims go to Paradise—but also its doctrine demands that Muslims dominate the kafir in all politics and culture. This domination is political, not religious.

The language of Islam is dualistic. As an example, there is never any reference to humanity as a unified whole. Instead there is a division into believer and kafir (unbeliever). Humanity is not seen as one body, but is divided into whether the person believes Mohammed is the prophet of Allah or not.

The Koran defines the kafir and says that the kafir is hated (40:35), mocked (83:34), punished (25:77), beheaded (47:4), confused (6:25), plotted against (86:15), terrorized (8:12), annihilated (6:45), killed (4:91), crucified (5:33), made war on (9:29), ignorant (6:111), evil (23:97), disgraced (37:18), cursed (33:60), stolen from (Bukhari 5,59,537), raped (Ishaq 759) and a Muslim is not the friend of a kafir (3:28). 

Christians and Jews are infidels, but infidels are kafirs, too. Polytheists are Hindus, but they are also kafirs. The terms infidel and polytheist are religious words. Only the word “kafir” shows the common political treatment of Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, animist, atheist and humanist.

“The word kafir should be used instead of ‘unbeliever’, the standard word. Unbeliever is a neutral term. The Koran defines the kafir and kafir is not a neutral word. A kafir is not merely someone who does not agree with Islam, but a kafir is evil, disgusting, the lowest form of life. Kafirs can be tortured, killed, lied to and cheated. So the usual word ‘unbeliever’ does not reflect the political reality of Islam.

It appears that one major reason behind the continued, severe persecution against and – in many cases – the complete destruction of non-Muslim lives and civilizations in what is today called “the Muslim world” is this intense hatred for and dehumanization of the kafir.

As noted above, 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.

This worldview is still influential in Muslim societies. Aan Anshori, a coordinator of the Islamic Network against Discrimination in Indonesia, and a supporter of NU’s call to disuse the term ‘kafir’, says “we are taught that non-Muslims are different from us and also aim to put Muslims worldwide in misery. Their appearance as upstanding individuals, we are taught, masks their actual desire to conquer Islam and Muslims”.

When non-Muslims are seen in such terrible light, a Muslim who joins them is seen as an unforgivable traitor. That is why such murtads, (apostates) are given the death penalty in classical Islamic law — although it has no basis in the Quran. Meanwhile, terrorist groups like IS or Al Qaeda target fellow Muslims by using these labels.

Such enmity towards kafirs or murtads is a serious obstacle to human rights in Muslim-majority societies. They are also an obstacle to cordial, egalitarian relations between Muslims and others. The problem was noted as early as the mid-19th century by the Ottoman Empire, the seat of the Sunni caliphate. Hence came the famous 1856 Reform Edict, declared by Sultan Abdul Mejid I. It abolished “every distinction or designation tending to make any class whatever of the subjects of my Empire inferior to another class, on account of their religion, language, or race”. One of the banned terms was ‘gavur’, which is a Turkish equivalent of ‘kafir’.

What is at stake here is not just social harmony, but also sensible theology. Non-Muslims are non-Muslim for the very same reason that most Muslims are Muslim: they are following the tradition of the families and communities into which they were born. To say that God has cursed them for this is to postulate an unjust God. This really would not be the compassionate God of humanity that the Quran introduces.

Indonesia’s NU, whose very name means “the awakening of scholars”, deserves praise for addressing this deep-seated problem in the Muslim tradition. Their notion of a ‘humanitarian Islam’ reminds of ‘Christian humanism’ — the intellectual movement that underpinned the European Renaissance. Its proponents, such as the 14th-century Italian poet Francesco Petrarca, argued that moral virtue could be attained “not only by Christians … but rather by all humans and all nations”. A very novel idea then, it allowed the rise of free and pluralist societies of the West.

When that humanist idea is challenged at the expense of Muslims, we Muslims rightly complain about ‘Islamophobia’. But we should also challenge the non-Muslimophobia in our ranks. The NU deserves praise for addressing this deep-seated problem in the Muslim tradition.

Authoritative Koranic commentaries—classical and modern—as well as canonical hadith, traditions of Islam’s prophet Muhammad, support Erdogan’s hateful and predatory views toward non-Muslims. Thus, not only do Erdogan’s Koranic invocations sanctioning harshness towards non-Muslims and their jihad conquest, comport with their authoritative glosses, the Turkish President himself is revered by the mainstream. Global Muslim Umma.

Despite all great work done by NU,the fact that these words were uttered by the president of a nation that is an ostensible NATO ally and a candidate for the European Union membership is a major warning to all non-Muslim nations as well as to Muslims who disagree with Erdogan’s worldview. 

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