The much-belated revelation about a meeting, held a month ago, between Mohan Bhagwat, the Sarsanghchalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and five Muslims, “a motley group of friends”, has generated a great deal of excitement in the media — print, electronic, digital and, most importantly, social. Much has been said about the representative character of the Muslim members and the details of the conversation they saw fit to share with the public. While the “concerns about the insecurity of the Muslim community” and how best they be allayed have been thoroughly discussed, the concerns of the Hindus, as usual, have received little attention.
In the said meeting, Bhagwat expressed his deep concern about two issues and how hurtful they are to the Hindu psyche: One, cow slaughter, and two, the ‘kafir’ appellation. The first one has already been dealt with by others, so I will focus on the second.
The apologia proffered by the Muslim members was that kafir was the word for non-believers, that is, non-Muslims, and so, the Hindus were amiss in taking offence at that. They explained that in Abrahamic religions, there are such words for those beyond the pale. Wrong. Kafir is not the word for a mere non-Muslim, and it is not an Abrahamic problem. The oldest Abrahamic religion, Judaism, does have a word for a non-Jew — gentile. But it is not a slur. At least, no longer, and certainly not in popular usage. There is no corresponding word for a non-Christian either. Pagan, heathen or infidel, etc., are not the exact opposite of a Christian, like kafir is considered to be of a Muslim. Similarly, non-Abrahamic religions don’t have opposites either. Neither in the Indic religions is there a word for a non-Hindu, non-Buddhist, non-Jain, or non-Sikh.
People are best identified by the names they give themselves. Names given by others are seldom palatable to the individual. Religions can co-exist with one another, in peace and on equal terms, without identifying others as opposites and enemies. This is the crux of pluralism — a modus vivendi in which Indian Muslims have a greater stake than others.
A product of Islamic high noon
The kafir of Islamic theology and the one mentioned in the Quran bear no resemblance to each other. Islamic theology is a product of the imperial high noon of the religion and reflects its imperialist and supremacist ethos to the tee. Islam acquired an empire before its formative phase was over. Inevitably, it became politicised at the outset and set out to conquer all that it could and developed concepts and categories that would further its supremacist and imperial agenda.
Kafir is one such concept. No word has wounded the Indian psyche like it. If nearly 300 years after the Muslim rule, Hindus still feel so hurt at being called kafir, it shouldn’t be hard to imagine how deep their sense of injury must be. Historical memories, passed on from generation to generation, in oral traditions and through folklores, resonate more with collective consciousness than the curated facts and ideological interpretations in history books. To dismiss this concern of Hindus by telling them that if they knew the lexical meaning of the word, they wouldn’t mind this appellation, is both facetious and cavalier. Irrespective of its dictionary meaning, what is important is how the word was employed and understood.
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Exclude, insult, humiliate
In Indian history, kafir has been a word of insult, exclusion, hostile othering, xenophobia and, above all, dehumanisation and disenfranchisement. During the Muslim rule, the State was governed by Islamic principles. A non-Muslim — a Hindu, a kafir — couldn’t legitimately have a share in power. A kafir had no original rights and lived on sufferance.
The Muslim-kafir binary is a recast of the Arab tribal system on a large scale in which someone excommunicated from the tribe had no rights, not even to life. The ethos of Arab tribalism has deeply informed the Islamic norms.
Even today, this practice of excommunication by declaring someone a kafir is rampant in the Muslim community in India and globally. It could be done over a most arcane quibble on a minor dogmatic dispute. There is no bigger humiliation and danger than being declared a kafir. The person not only loses all his rights but forfeits his life too. If this could happen to someone from within the fold, one could only imagine the plight of a vanquished community. It is this generational memory of subjugation and humiliation that continues to haunt Hindus. The least that Muslims can do is to show some empathy towards their biradran-e-watan, their compatriots, and shun the usage of this offensive word.
If they did so, they would be standing on a solid theoretical foundation as they would be nearer to the Quran even as they break away from the imperial Islamic theology.
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Unearthing ‘kafir’ roots
The root verb of kafir, and of the infinitive noun kufr, is the trilateral K-F-R (kafara), which means, “he covered (a thing)”. Originally, it described farmers burying seeds in the ground. In surah 57, verse 20, the Quran uses the word kafir for a farmer as he covers the sown seed with earth. Arabic poets personify the darkness of night as kafir. Ideologically, it implies a person who hides or covers the truth. This is the connotation that the Quran employs to describe those who evinced active hostility towards its message. Another connotative usage of this word in the Quran is of a thankless person who shows ingratitude towards God’s grace. The Quran depicts how Fir’awn fulminated against Moosa for challenging his authority, called him a kafir, an ingrate, for the latter was brought up in his own royal household (surah 26, verse 18-19).
Besides these two meanings, the Quran identifies as kufr some behavioural traits such as the N-word (4:37, et al), exorbitant usury or high rate of interest (3:130), vulgar display of charity (2:264), using religion for material gains (5:44), and haughtiness (2:34). However, howsoever sinful being parsimonious or usurious might be, it doesn’t, ipso facto, make a person Kafir. These characteristics of kufr are universal, regardless of faith and community.
No verse of the Quran describes a mere non-Muslim as kafir. One doesn’t become a kafir by default for not belonging to the Muslim community. What does make one is the persecution and oppression of Muslims; attempt to stop them from practising their religion; driving them out of their homes; and waging war against them (2:190, 217; 47:1). Hindus never stopped Muslims from practising their religion or drove them from their homes and made them refugees, or waged religious war against them. So, how do they become a kafir?
Hindus were designated as kafirs because, on a bad analogy, they were likened to the mushrikeen (associationists, that is, those who associate other ‘imaginary beings’ with God’s unicity and thereby practise shirk) of Arabia. The mushrikeen were a primitive people living in the Jahiliyyah (ignorance) era before Prophet Muhammad. They were ummi — illiterate and uncivilised. A people without a book. The Hindus, on the other hand, had an advanced civilisation, profound spirituality and sophisticated philosophical systems. To liken them to the mushrikeen on the wrong equation between their respective modes of idol worship was a thoughtless analogy. By the way, even the mushrikeen were not kafir per se as is clear from the Quran 98:1 and 6, which mention kafirs from among the mushrikeen and the ‘people of the book’, implying that all of them were not kafirs. Abu Talib, Prophet Muhammad’s uncle, has never been called a kafir though he didn’t become a Muslim.
Yet the Hindus wrongly continue to be called kafir. It’s time to correct the wrong. In South Africa, the word kaffir, as the blacks were pejoratively called, has been outlawed. Kaffir was a legacy of the slave trade in which Muslim slave traders captured the blacks. It was considered legitimate since they were not Muslim. In America, the N-word has as good as been eliminated from usage, and in India, using caste name for the Scheduled Castes is a punishable offence. It’s time that the word kafir for Hindus and other non-Muslims in India should also be outlawed.
Ibn Khaldun Bharati is student of Islam, and looks at Islamic history from an Indian perspective. He tweets at @IbnKhaldunIndic. Views are personal.
Editor’s Note: We know the writer well and only allow pseudonyms when we do so.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)