Whenever I lecture on Islam or even on communalism and secularism participants usually ask me about kufr, jihad. Dar al-Islam and Dar al-harb and position of cow slaughter. There is widespread misunderstanding about these terms not only among non-Muslims but also among Muslims themselves. It is therefore necessary to throw light on these terms in Islam. It is highly necessary to remove misunderstandings about these terms in the interest of peace and harmonious co-existence with Non-Muslims both in Islamic and non-Islamic countries.

It is important to note that every new ideology, religion or movement gives birth to its own terminology. The French revolution gave birth to terms like fraternity, equality and justice. The communist revolution gave birth to terms like bourgeoisie, petit bourgeois, proletariat, class struggle, revisionism etc. These movements were political in nature. Religious movements too gave birth to new terms. Buddhism, for example gave the term dhamma, dukkha, Jainism anuvrata and siyadwad or anekantwad. Christians used terms like heretics, pagans and heathens for non-Christians.

Some terms are used by the text material of the religious or ideological texts and some are coined later by followers of these religions and ideologies. The terms used by religious texts tend to be more precise and rigorous and also have well defined context. But these terms when used by the followers, tend to be used rather loosely and develop personal motives and agendas.

These terms are used not only for non-believers but also for believers themselves when differences among the followers arise. Sometimes these terms are freely used to denounce those who differ in interpretation of the text or try to apply the text in changing circumstances and absorb new developments. Such free use of these terms for denunciation of opponents can and does create serious misunderstandings among others who lack proper knowledge of these terms and their context.

The communists, for example, used terms like running dog of imperialism, petit bourgeois and revisionists and so on against those who differed from official line as prevalent or those who formed another party as against official party. Similarly when religions split into different sects such negative terms were used against those who split from the mainstream. Thus Catholics will denounce Protestants and Protestants Catholics and so on.

Islam too split into several sects and each sect usually denounces the other as kafirs, zindiqs and so on. Each sect considered the other as either heretic or kafir deviating from the 'truth' of religion. Each sect thought it has the monopoly of truth and the other sect is deviant or committing kufr. These terms are also often used for personal animosity as well. Thus such terms create great misunderstanding.

Also, certain terms though not in original religious or ideological text, are coined later to suit new circumstances. But due to frequent use, these terms acquire originality and are thought to be part of original texts. The non-experts, due to lack of knowledge, think it to be part of original text. Terms like Dar al-Islam and Dar al-harb came into existence much later due to spread of Islam in other parts of the world. Their context has to be properly understood.


Islam arose in a tribal society, which functioned on oral customs and traditions and had no written laws or had no prophet or scripture. Muhammad (PBUH) was first prophet among Arabs and he brought the first scripture - Qur'an - in the history of Arabia. There were several problems in the Arab society of the Prophet's time, which Islam tried to address. Mecca was fast turning into an international financial and commercial hub and yet lacked any written laws.

Because of commercialisation of Meccan society tribal traditions were being ignored and gross injustices were taking place causing social tensions. The institutions of private property, usually absent in tribal societies had come into existence and conspicuous pattern of consumption was developing. The weaker sections of society like the poor, orphans, widows and slaves were being neglected and women were treated as chattels.

On the other pole of the society there were powerful vested interests who had enriched themselves through international trade between China through India and Yemen to borders of Roman Empire to the North. Thus Meccan society was on the threshold of transformation into a developed commercial society and yet lacked any written law or higher religious and social institutions.

Islam tries to fulfil this vacuum through Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The Prophet gave higher values to the Arab society most fundamental of which were equity and justice along with the concepts of universal humanity. Meccan society badly needed these higher values and the concept of universal humanity. For that the Qur'an, revealed to the Prophet, attacked local, divisive, superstitious practices of tribal gods and goddesses and gave the concept of unifying and universal concept of one God - Allah. This could transform the Meccan tribal society into a higher form of universal society.

However, this was not acceptable to tribal chiefs who had formed inter-tribal commercial corporations and were highly proud of their achievements of wealth and prestige. They were highly status conscious and were not prepared to accept claim of prophet hood and revelation by a poor orphan boy though he came from a clan of Hashim highly regarded in Meccan tribal order.

The Qur'an, revealed to Muhammad (PBUH) brought new truth to Arab society, which did not possess any higher truth so far. Thus those who accepted this higher truth were called either Muslim or Mu'min. It is important to note here that there is definite difference between these two terms - Muslim and Mu'min. Qur'an itself differentiate between the two. Those who simply accepted Islam without deeper understanding as it was a rising religion and surrendered to prophet's message were termed as 'Muslims (i.e. those who surrender). But those who believed from depth of their heart and developed higher conviction in the prophet's message, were termed as 'Mu'min' (i.e. those who sincerely believed and committed themselves).

Thus we find in the Qur'an, "The dwellers of the desert say: We believe. Say: You believe not, but say, We submit; and faith has yet not entered into your hearts. And if you obey Allah and His Messenger, He will not diminish aught of your deeds. Surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful," (49:14)

Thus there were two stages - submitting and believing. Those who understood higher mission of Islam and its universalising mission and developed deep faith into it were called 'Mu'min'. It is these Mu'mins who were ever ready to sacrifice everything including their own life for the success of the mission. Others, Muslims, just joined in for one or the other reason.

It is also to be born in mind that Qur'an gave Arabs concepts of higher values, which did not exist in their society. The best values among Arabs were chivalry and generosity summed up in the word muru'ah (literally 'manlike'). However, the Qur'an gave values like truth, justice, equality, benevolence, compassion, peace, forgiveness, humility which were not known to Arabs.

Thus those wealthy Arabs who accumulated wealth were too arrogant to believe in these universal values and higher morality. Thus because they rejected truth of these universal values and continued to believe in tribal gods and goddesses with accompanying superstitions and denial of human reason and higher morality, they were termed as kafir i.e. unbeliever.

The word kafir literally means one who hides. According to Imam Raghib al-Asfahani, who compiled the dictionary of Qur'an, the word kafara means to hide. Night is also called kafir as it hides everything. A cultivator is also called kafir as he hides seeds below soil for it to grow. (see Imam Raghib Asfahani Mufradat al-Qur'an, pp-916-17, Lahore,1971).

Thus anyone who hides is called kafir and since those Arabs of Mecca who refused to accept higher truth revealed from Allah and hid it were called kafirs. It is important to note that only those who hide higher truth and morality based on this truth are called kafirs (plural kuffar). However, it does not mean all those who are not Muslims are kafirs as they can also possess truth, though in different form or through other prophets.

The Qur'an makes it quite clear that Allah has sent several prophets and all are not mentioned in the Qur'an. Only few have been who came with the message from Allah in and around Arab region like Abraham, Moses and Christ. Only Adam and Noah were not from that region. The Qur'an says Allah has sent His messengers to all the nations (13:7). Thus Allah has sent His messengers, guides to all the people and they possess truth. Thus all non-Muslims cannot be dubbed as kafirs, only those who hide truth in any form. The Qur'an also creates a category of ahl al-kitab (people of the book). All those to whom Allah sent His messenger and a book were called people of the Book. The Qur'an mentions Christians, Jews and Sabaens in this category.

But does not exclude those who have not been mentioned in this category by the Qur'an. Many others like Zoroastrians were included in this category. The Sufi saints like Mazhar Jan-I-Janan also included the Hindus in this category arguing that how Allah can forget to send His Messengers to India as He has promised to send His Messengers to all the nations. He accepts Vedas as revealed scriptures. He also feels Hindus are monotheists as they believe in God who is nirgun and nirakar (i.e. without attributes and shape), which is highest form of tawhid (monotheism). (see Mazhar Jan-I-Janan's Letters tr. in Urdu by Khaliq Anjum, Delhi..)

It is also important to note that Qur'an also emphasises freedom of conscience and rejects any compulsion in matters of religion (2:256) and even accepts right of kafirs to believe in what they believe (see chapter 109) and pronounces the doctrine for you is your religion and for me is mine. Those kafirs who do not fight with Muslims and live and let live can be befriended. Qur'an permits fighting only with those kafirs who fight Muslims and attack them. See verses 2:190 -191.

Thus kafirs have been divided into two categories harbi and non-harbi kafirs i.e. those who fight Muslims and those who do not. One can enter into pact with non-harbi kafirs. All those verses in the Qur'an, which refer to fighting or killing kafirs do not apply to all the kafirs but to those who broke friendship treaty or attacked Muslims. Qur'an does not even permit abusing other gods lest they abuse Allah (6:109), let alone killing those believing in other gods.

Thus one should not read Qur'anic verses about kafirs piecemeal but in conjunction with all other verses in so that one can understand overall approach of the Qur'an. The word kafir has been used very loosely in the history of Islam and not in keeping with the text of the Qur'an. There are several reasons for such misuse of the word. Of course it is not only particularly so in the history of Islam but as pointed out above, it happens with all ideological and religious movements.

Any disagreement on theological doctrines also results in dubbing the other as kafir. Thus one sect of Muslims denounced the other sect as kafir. It was more out of intolerance than theological error. Even individuals who fell out of grace of powerful 'ulama were denounced as kafirs. Persons like Sir Syed Ahmad Khan who advocated modern secular education was described as kafir and fatwas were issued against him and fatwa obtained from 'ulama in Madina to that effect.

In dubbing someone as kafir various motives are at work including ones disagreement and personal ego or even vested interest. Thus a true Muslim who follows the spirit of the Qur'an would refrain from using such terms. It should be left to Allah to decide. A human being should only express his/her disagreement. Qur'an exhorts believers to accept disagreements and leave rest to Allah and excel each other in good deeds (see verses like 5:48, 2:148).

Some people out of ignorance describe Hindus as kafirs. They neither know Qur'an properly nor Hindu religion. Many Sufi saints who knew Hindu religion even accepted them as people of the book, as pointed out above. And Qur'an also exhorts Muslims not to denounce others loosely but to argue with them in best possible manner so as to persuade them rather than alienate them (see verses 16:125 and 3:63). It is great lie perpetrated by some hostile or ignorant people that Qur'an requires Muslims to convert people at the point of sword. There is not a single verse in the Qur'an to this effect. Qur'an emphatically rejects coercion and promotes persuasion. It believes in excluding other not on theological but only on moral rounds. On moral grounds it includes all.

Thus kafir is one who denies all morality and moral truth and denies freedom of conscience and human dignity and believes in exploiting others, indulges in wrong doings and injustice, lies to serve his own interests and persecutes others to pursue his own interests and is arrogant of his wealth and power and denies existence of higher power. One who is humble, just, truthful, compassionate and benevolent to others cannot be called kafir whatever his/her theological belief. Qur'an is very universal in approach and emphasises what it puts as ''vie one with another in virtuous deeds."

Dar al-Islam and Dar al-harb

The concept of Dar al-Islam (abode of Islam or Islamic country) and Dar al-harb i.e. abode of war or non-Islamic country is not found in the Qur'an as Islam had not spread to other countries when the Qur'an was being revealed. Islam spread to other areas after the death of the Prophet (PBUH). This concept was thus developed by later jurists who were confronted with the reality of Muslims living in minority in some countries.

Where Muslims were in overwhelming majority were thus described by jurists as Dar al-Islam and where Muslims were living as persecuted minority were called Dar al-harb or abodes of war. But also there were countries where Muslims lived as minority but were free to pursue their religion in peace like India. The jurists distinguished such areas as Dar al-aman i.e. abode of peace.

Whichever country where Muslims can live in peace and pursue their religion freely should be described as abode of peace. In fact in modern times freedom of conscience (which Qur'an accepted fourteen hundred years ago) is universally recognised in contemporary world, at least theoretically, and so there is no question of any part of the world being Dar al-harb today. Still many people hostile to Islam or totally ignorant of development of such concepts keep on repeating these concepts to defame Islam. No serious scholar or jurist describes India as Dar al-harb.

Thus it should be clearly understood that these concepts were developed by the jurists in keeping with the past realities and have nothing to do with any Qur'anic doctrine. India and most other countries where Muslims live in minority today accept the right to freedom of religion and hence they cannot be described as Dar al-harb but as Dar al-aman. However, there may be practical problems and even a degree of persecution of Muslims but that would not be a good enough reason to declare it as Dar al-harb. Any region can be described as Dar al-harb, if at all, only if Muslims are not allowed to practice their religion constitutionally or by law. There is no such country in the world today. India is a secular democratic country and all are free to profess, practice and propagate their religion. How can it then be described as Dar al-harb. Anyone who invokes such doctrine does so either out of ignorance or out of deliberate mischief.


Much has been written on this since the events of 9/11. Jihad is utmost effort to achieve something using ones utmost efforts (see Raghib Asfahani op.cit. 199-200). It may include fighting with weapons as a last resort but also includes fighting against oneself and ones desires which one hadith describes as jihad-I-akbar i.e. greatest jihad. Jihad, if one goes to the literal meaning of the word, does not mean war but only utmost efforts and its other derivative juhud means according to ones capacity.

Many Muslims out of ignorance use it only in the sense of war, which is not correct. Qur'an uses other words like harb and qital for war but uses word jihad for moral struggle. It is every Muslims duty to continue struggle for moral excellence, of his own and also of society he lives in. To fight against corruption, against environmental pollution, for human rights, for justice for weaker sections of society and such other noble causes is part of jihad. Anything, which brings relief to suffering humanity is part of jihad in the way of Allah.

The Prophet (PBUH) basically devoted himself to fight for justice for weaker sections of society in Mecca and hence Qur'an's repeated emphasis on helping orphans, widows, poor, women and slaves. The prophet (PBUH) had declared jihad against all forms of injustices in Meccan society and was opposed in his efforts by powerful vested interests as pointed out above. It is this passion for social justice, which needs to be emulated today by Muslims and become precursors of social justice. There is so much injustice all around and vested interests in our times are much more powerful than in Prophet's time. That will be real jihad. There is so much poverty and exploitation in the world.

Cow Slaughter

Qur'an no where makes it obligatory on Muslims to slaughter cow. It is totally a wrong notion that Muslims should slaughter cow particularly on Eid al-adha i.e. Baqar Eid. There is absolutely no such injunction in the Qur'an. Babar had written in his will to Humayun not to permit slaughter of cow to win over hearts and minds of Hindus. Some Nawabs of Bengal used to give death sentence for slaughtering cows. Recently Darul 'Ulum, Deoband, the premier seminary of Islam in Asia advised Muslims not to slaughter cows on Eid al-Adha to avoid communal trouble. To respect others religious sentiments is part of higher morality. Islam teaches to respect others' religious sentiments and live in peace and harmony.

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