Recently, a series of high-profile comments by Western politicians on aspects of Islam have come under public scrutiny. These comments have been criticized because of their vague and sweeping nature and because of the likelihood that they will promote hatred or violence against Muslim minorities in the West while also complicating the work of combating terrorist groups like ISIS or Al-Qaeda.
All politicians, as a matter of course, deserve close scrutiny. And politicians certainly deserve criticism if they can’t tell the difference between Islam, Islamism, and jihadism, for example, or if they make generalized and confused accusations about complex issues like shari’a. But fuzzy, hateful, and even violent language about the Other is not something new, nor is it unique to the West. Indeed, the language of Western demagogues sometimes seems to get more attention than the quieter, humbler grassroots discourse of hate about the Other that happens in non-Western cultures. So it is with the issue of Kufr, the Arabic word for unbelief, and how it is commonly used in much of Muslim discourse as a seemingly divinely ordained label or tool to promote hatred and violence.
Just Who Are These Kuffar?
The root of this word is an ancient one, preceding the Qur’an, and means “to cover up” or “to hide.” It has a connection with farming (and is used once in this way in the Qur’an), and the same root can be found in the name of numerous villages in the Levant, such as in the Gospel’s famous Capernaum (Kfar Naoum or “Nahum’s Village”). Kufr, Kafir/Kuffar and Takfir (the process of declaring a Muslim to be a Kafir) all come from the same root, of course.
I remember 40 years ago, as a young Arabic language student, using the word Kafir to describe myself, a non-Muslim. My Arabic professor, a kindly and pious Egyptian Muslim, interrupted me to say, “no, Alberto, you are not a Kafir, you are one of the People of the Book.” This tolerant and humanistic Muslim worldview is not impossible to find today. One can find it in the commentary in the 2015 Sufi-influenced The Study Quran, a worldview which has been criticized by other Muslims as excessively tolerant.
Some Western Muslims have addressed the issue head on. You can even find it online in videos such as the one by Hamza Yusuf specifically on “Who are the Kuffar?” Chicago-based Muslim commentator Dr. Hassan Hassaballa in a passionate 2012 column titled “Who Are the “Infidels”?” noted that
One of the (many) misconceptions about Islam, brought out in some of the comments, is Islam’s attitude toward “non-believers.” Many people, including some Muslims, think that Islam demands that Muslims “hate” non-Muslims, or that Muslims should even “kill” non-Muslims. Although unfathomable to me, this view is held nonetheless. I do not buy it one bit. I do not buy it no matter how many “Ulema,” or religious scholars, are quoted as saying so. I don’t care how many terrorists say so, either. Yet, this begs the question: Exactly who is an “infidel”? Many Muslims may understand that an “infidel” (“kafir” in Arabic) is anyone who is not Muslim.
The issue of “who is an infidel” is a complicated one even within Islam, among Muslims talking about each other, let alone between Muslims and non-Muslims. And even more consequential to all, of course, is what should be the appropriate Muslim response to someone who judged to be an “infidel?” What are the temporal penalties for Major and Minor Kufr? The question of whether Kufr is a sin (to be judged by God), or a sin and a crime (to be judged by zealous Muslim rulers) goes to the heart of contemporary understandings of religion, politics, governance and terrorism. These are not actually new issues, but rather go back to the early decades of Islam and to the initial flourishing of jihadi groups in Egypt in the 1970s.
What To Do With The Kuffar?
For the Islamic State and similar terrorist groups, the designation is clear. Not only are “People of the Book” Kuffar, but so are many, if not most, Muslims. Although Christians may be called “Crusaders” or Mushrikeen (polytheists), their essential state is that of Kufr. Muslims too may be dubbed by these groups as belonging to one of the various subgroups commonly associated with types of Kufr: Murtadin (apostates), Tawaghit (tyrants), Mushrikeen (often used against Shi’a Muslims), and Rawafid (also commonly used against Shi’a Muslims).
Beyond ISIS and its ilk, there is a large subset of Salafi Muslims who believe more or less the same thing, but tempered by local political circumstances. This hateful discourse is often to be found in Saudi- or Qatari-funded enterprises, whether in skewed translations of the Qur’an or media and educational initiatives.One can still go to the official Saudi Fatwa Authority website and read the rulings of key establishment cleric Shaykh Abdul Aziz Ibn Baz (d. 1999) on Kufr. To be a Mushrik is Kufr, to be friends with a Kafir is Kufr, to consider a Kafir not to be a Kafir is Kufr.
Because he was an establishment figure loyal to the Saudi monarchy, one can also there find general rulings condemning “extremism” as defined by the official religious establishment, of course. But if there was any doubt, Ibn Baz is also on the record that the Kuffar referred to in Islamic Scripture are the Christians, Jews, and secularists of today. And like the Islamic State, Ibn Baz outlines three choices open to these infidels: conversion, paying the humiliating jizya tax, or death. He further underscores that offensive jihad against the infidel is obligatory for all Muslims today.
Although not as exalted as the late Ibn Baz, there are many other prolific, media-savvy Saudi establishment clerics who are alive and who basically say the same thing, such as Shaykh Salih Al-Fawzan, member of the Saudi Council of Senior Scholars and the Kingdom’s Fatwa Committee. Al-Fawzan’s material can be found on multiple Salafi sites, including Fawzan.co.uk, Manhaj.com, and Salafipublications.com. Again, clerics like Ibn Baz and Al-Fawzan are considered extreme conservatives, but they are not ISIS supporters but rather pillars of the Saudi religious infrastructure. Foreign governments and international media still tend to overemphasize Gulf states’ material support for actual terrorist groups, and focus less on their much more extensive ideological support for extremism. Because in these pillars of the Saudi religious establishment, we have a religious discourse which essentially says that this part of what the supposed ISIS “Kharijites” say is actually well-grounded in Islam.
One could, and should, certainly, dismiss the ravings of the Islamic State and other takfiri groups as representative of Islam. And one could possibly discount the rulings of Ibn Baz as the opinion of just one deceased, if once influential, Salafi Saudi cleric. After all, even with the billions invested by Salafis from the Gulf states over the past decades in education, media and Islamic missionary activity, this particularly intolerant version of Islam is still a minority view, albeit one with a loud voice.
The Battle Over Kufr Today
Certainly, other Muslims have pushed back on this intolerant and violent world view. One can find a plethora of statements promoting some sort of tolerance by official Islamic authorities controlled by regimes in the Middle East. There are various vague but high-profile inter-faith efforts to promote some sort of new and more tolerant worldview, such as the 2016 Marrakesh Declaration. There are eloquent Muslim liberals, like Iraqi philosopher Dr. Rashid al-Khayoun who noted recently that:
“Those religious texts are the problem. They are being used today, and taken out of the context in which the (Quranic verses) were revealed. When some raid took place, and the verse ‘kill them wherever you find them’ was revealed during the battle, these were (appropriate) circumstances, but these things should not continue. What should continue are the verses that pertain to peace and love. I blame the jurisprudents as well. They massacred the Quran, by doing away with over 70 verses that dealt with peace, with love, and with minding one’s own business. All of these were abrogated in favor of a single verse – the fifth verse of Surat Al-Tawbah, the verse of the sword.”
But if this issue was one of a level playing field of liberal scholars versus Islamists or modernists versus conservatives, it would be an important and interesting but largely academic issue. The rise of the Islamic State, of its jihadi rivals worldwide, and the rise of social media have all contributed to the broad growth of a dumbed down, toxic electronic Salafism, as shallow as it is slick, which promotes the most extreme narrative possible.
Such narratives are not always solely the images and memes seen in ISIS propaganda, or in the voices of radical London street preachers who upload their poison onto the Internet. The infrastructure of hate is much broader than this, and built up over time long before ISIS burst onto the general public’s view in 2014. This narrative of active hatred towards the infidel can also be seen in the religious guidance provided by popular religious sites such as Islamqa.com and the large Qatari Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs-owned Islamweb.net, which provides answers to religious questions in English, Arabic, German, French and Spanish.
On this heavily visited site, belonging to the country with the largest U.S. airbase in the Arab world, one can learn that it is religious impermissible for a Muslim to befriend a non-Muslim. The website makes clear that while Muslims “must hate” infidels and not be friends with them (let alone love them), this does not mean that Muslims should be unkind to them. Islamweb.net describes its mission as “to provide the viewing community substantial knowledge about Islam, particularly the non-Muslim who may need clarification of common distortions of the media and misrepresentations of ill-informed followers.”
This is part of a wider phenomenon which Peter Pomerantsev has dubbed a “flight into techno-fantasies.” In the virtual world, the intolerant Salafist narrative of the past – once the property of terrorist groups and extremist clerics – becomes part of a post-modern discourse where what was once the property of the guardians of divine authority is now repurposed by ill-educated and ignorant adolescents into an easy, shallow form of Islamic hate speech, this is the takfiri-jihadi wing of the alt-right movement. But, as we have seen, the shallow and the ignorant can easily find real scholars to confirm their hate, only a click away.
Kufr As The Key
Rather than often pointless and misguided broad statements about the essential nature of the beliefs of over a billion multi-faceted Muslims, a much better use of our time, and that of many Muslims of good will, would be a serious discussion on the nature of unbelief and its actual real-world penalties, a frank clarification of terminologies and an intense search for creative ways to make virtual the language of tolerance in the same way that this sub-world of intolerance has become virtual.
There is no reason why such an effort cannot also acknowledge and respect religious difference and sectarian distinctiveness. Respect for the Other should not mean conformity or conversion. Many belief systems, by their very nature – even non-religious ones like communism or liberalism – have beliefs that may be unpalatable or unpleasant to others. And many people of different faiths commit horrors either in the name of those faiths or in spite of them.
The problem is not so much that some Muslims believe others are infidels and may not like them (the same would be true of non-Muslims not liking Muslims) but what concrete actions the condition of being an infidel would seem to place upon believers. It is one thing to think that someone is going to hell, and another to try to work to actually send them there, either by individual violence or coercion.
People, both non-Muslims and Muslims, are being targeted and killed today because they are being labeled as Kuffar. Yes, the term originates in holy writ, but it is men, the jurists and the scholars, who have interpreted it and applied it. It is they who have drawn the fateful link between the Kuffar written about 14 centuries ago and the people of today.
In the wake of the ISIS bombing in the holy city of Medina in July 2016, there was much talk in the Muslim world of taking a harder line against takfiri groups.This is in and of itself not a bad thing. But still lacking was a serious look at unpacking a concept – takfir – which consists of essentially “treating a Muslim like an infidel so you can kill them.” Perhaps Kufr is the key.
Addressing the supposed nature of Muslims’ relations with whoever the Kuffar may be and what it actually means in practical areas today is one way to detoxify some of the fuzzy language of hate that is so easily spread online. Redefining words will not make jihadi terror go away, but it may help in unmasking them and isolating them in the public square. This delicate exchange is, however, a frank dialogue that is best done in low-key, face-to-face discussions by people who know what they are talking about, and not in the breathless sound-bites found on the 24-hour news cycle.
*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice-President of MEMRI.
 Jeffrey T. Kenney, Muslim Rebels: Kharijites and the Politics of Extremism in Egypt (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).
 MEMRI TV Clip No. 5561, Iraqi Author Rashid Khayoun: Islamic Scholars Have Massacred the Quran, June 3, 2016.