What is Kufr?
There has been a recent trend among quasi-traditionalist writers and speakers that promotes an ideology that undermines the very foundation of Islam—namely, an ideology that attempts to erase the distinction between Iman (Faith or Belief) and kufr (disbelief)—that is, to confuse the distinction between the Muslims and the disbelievers. The Believers (i.e., the Muslims) are clearly defined in the Qur’an. Al-Hujarat, 15 means:
The Believers are only those who believe in Allah and His Messenger [Prophet Muhammad] and have no doubt.
Abu Hanifah said: “Iman [Faith or Belief] and Islam are inseparable. Every Muslim is a Believer, and every Believer is a Muslim.” Faith (Iman) is to believe correctly in Allah, and to believe correctly in the Messenger of Allah (Prophet Muhammad). Believing correctly in Allah entails believing in One Perfect Beginningless Creator, Who is the Creator of everything, and absolutely does not need anything. Allah is Incomparable. Allah is unimaginable. Allah is not a material or spiritual being. Allah is Eternal and not subject to development or change. Allah existed before time, direction, or space. Allah is the Creator of time, direction, and space; hence, Allah is not in time, direction, or space.
Believing in Prophet Muhammad entails believing he was truthful in everything he conveyed from Allah, whether it be the matters of the unseen (such as, the Angelic realm), the previous Prophets and Messengers, the (authentic) Divine Books, the events of the Afterlife, such as, the Judgment Day and the ultimate dwelling in Paradise or Hell. Also, one must accept the superiority of the Sacred Law that was revealed to Prophet Muhammad.
Furthermore, one must also believe that all the Prophets were men of outstanding character and righteousness. All the Prophets were Muslims; they were truthful, honorable, virtuous, handsome, courageous, intelligent, and wise men who called people to the correct belief in the Creator. Allah supported the Prophets with miracles to demonstrate their truthfulness in what they conveyed. Never did any of the Prophets commit disbelief, enormities, or sins that would indicate baseness of character. Allah has informed us of their truthfulness; hence, we must believe in all of them.
Kufr (disbelief) is the opposite of Iman (Faith). Linguistically, kufr is derived from the verbal root k-f-r, which literally means “to conceal or cover.” However, in the terminology of Islamic Doctrine, anyone who does not have Iman (Faith) commits kufr (disbelief). The person who commits disbelief is called a kafir (pl. kafirun, kafirin, kuffar). Hence, every non-Muslim, whether atheist, agnostic, Jew, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Zoroastrian, or the like is a kafir. This is mentioned in the Qur’an:
Whoever does not believe in Allah and His Messenger [Muhammad], then certainly Allah has prepared for the disbelievers (kafirin) a raging fire. (Al-Fath, 13)
There are three general categories of disbelief:
A) Ta`til: the denial of Allah’s Attributes, such as, for one to claim that Allah does not know everything, or to claim that Allah is not the Creator of everything.
B) Tashbih: the resembling of Allah to the creations in one way or another, such as, claiming (or believing) that Allah is an idol, the sun, the moon, a human, a light, or that Allah has a form, or that Allah exists in a direction, location, or time.
C) Takdhib: the belying or rejecting what is well-established and commonly known in the Religion, such as, the obligation of the five daily prayers, fasting during Ramadan, the hijab for the woman, and the prohibition of alcohol, stealing, murder, fornication, and homosexuality. (It is important to note that simply doing a prohibition or neglecting an obligation does not constitute disbelief (kufr) unless one deems the sin permissible, for deeming the sins permissible is, in essence, rejecting what Allah revealed, and the one who rejects what Allah has revealed can’t be considered a Muslim.)
Other examples of disbelief (kufr) would be for a person to mock the Sunnah of the Prophet, to intentionally throw the Qur’an or other religious material in the trash, or to assist another to commit disbelief.
The disbelievers are of two general categories: those who are legally accountable (mukallaf) and those who are not. Any non-Muslim who is sane, pubescent, and has heard the Shahadah (Declaration of Faith) in a language he understands is considered an accountable kafir, and is obligated to immediately embrace Islam. On the other hand, if the non-Muslim was prepubescent, insane, or never heard the Declaration of Faith, then he is not accountable.
As for the accountable disbeliever (kafir), if he dies in such a state, he will have no reward in the Hereafter. Al `Imran, 85 means:
Whoever elects for himself a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted from him, and he will be among the losers in the Hereafter.
Furthermore, the Qur’an promises the (accountable) disbelievers everlasting torture in Hell. Al-Baqarah, 161-162 means:
Surely, those who disbelieve and die while they are disbelievers (kuffar), upon them is the curse of Allah and the angels and men; condemned therein forever, their punishment shall not be lessened.
Because some extremists have made takfir (deemed others kafir) without justification, does not mean that Muslims should become apologists and abandon making a distinction between Believers (i.e., Muslims) and disbelievers (i.e., kuffar). Nonetheless, in making this distinction, it does not justify acts of terror and murder in the name of “Islam.” To the contrary, Muslims must be moderate and learn their Religion according to the genuine traditional methodology of Sunni Islamic scholarship. Muslims in the West should work diligently to invite non-Muslims to Islam with good manners and by demonstrating the truthfulness of the Islamic doctrine. Furthermore, Muslims should be magnanimous and forbearing in their dealings with other members of the society–but without distorting or compromising their Faith.