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.
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”.
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
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.
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.”
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
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”.
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
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
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
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.
Akyol is a Turkish scholar the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.
Meaning of Kafir
Is A Kafir In The Quran? (Part 1): 'Kafir,' 'Mushrik' And 'Idolater' Are Not
Is A Kafir In The Quran? (Part 2): Muslim– Non-Muslim Relationship
Is A Kafir In The Quran? (Part 3): Why Kufr Is A Relative Concept While Shirk,
Idol Worship Etc. Have Fixed Meanings
is a Kafir in the Quran? (Part 4) Defining Kufr
Headline: Who is a ‘kafir’?
Source: The Dawn, Pakistan