Qur'an / Tafsir

Tafsir of surat al-Kafirun

TAFSIR

of

SURAT AL-KAFIRUN[1]

Abbreviations:

  1. swt (سبحانه و تعالى).
  2. saw (صلى الله عليه وسلم)
  3. as (عليه السلام).

Context:

  • The Meccan Arabs used to believe in Allah (swt) but had lost the significance of that name (hence making Him a dues otiosus).[2]
  • The Meccan Arabs knew of and acknowledged Allah (swt) and even claimed to be adhering to the original teaching of Ibrahim (as) but had incorporated Allah into a pantheon of deities (lesser ‘gods’ which were primarily al-Lat[3], al-`Uzza[4] and Manat[5]).
  • They even believed to be better guided than the Christians and Jews inhabiting Mecca and the surrounding localities who preached Jesus was the son of God whereas the Arabs believed that Angels and Jinn were His offspring. This was the paradox of their polytheism.
  • When the Messenger of Allah (saw) presented Islam to them, they quarrelled and disputed with him on the premise that they were on the religious path set down of Ibrahim (as) and hence had no reason to forsake their understanding.
  • The Meccan polytheist leaders (Walid b. Mughira, al-`As b. Wa’il and al-Aswad b. `Abd al-Muttalib) then proposed a compromise with the Messenger of Allah (saw) to cease denouncing their pantheon of deities and come to a common term of reciprocal worship and acknowledgement: They worship Muhammad’s Lord and Muhammad worships and acknowledges their deities. The Qur’anic response was an outright unequivocal rejection.

Tafsir summary:

يقول تعالى ذكره لنبيه محمد صلى الله عليه وسلم، وكان المشركون من قومه فيما ذُكر عرضوا عليه أن يعبدوا الله سنة، على أن يعبد نبيُّ الله صلى الله عليه وسلم آلهتهم سنة، فأنزل الله مُعَرِّفه جوابهم في ذلك: { قُلْ } يا محمد لهؤلاء المشركين الذين سألوك عبادة آلهتهم سنة، على أن يعبدوا إلهك سنة { يا أيُّها الكافِرُونَ } بالله { لا أعْبُدُ ما تَعْبُدُونَ } من الآلهة والأوثان الآن { وَلا أنْتُمْ عابِدُونَ ما أعْبُدُ } الآن { وَلا أنا عابِدٌ } فيما أستقبل { ما عَبَدْتُمْ } فيما مضى { وَلا أنْتُمْ عابِدُونَ } فيما تستقبلون أبداً { ما أعْبُدُ } أنا الآن، وفيما أستقبل. وإنما قيل ذلك كذلك، لأن الخطاب من الله كان لرسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم في أشخاص بأعيانهم من المشركين، قد علم أنهم لا يؤمنون أبداً، وسبق لهم ذلك في السابق من علمه، فأمر نبيه صلى الله عليه وسلم أن يُؤَيِّسَهم من الذي طمعوا فيه، وحدّثوا به أنفسهم، وأن ذلك غير كائن منه ولا منهم، في وقت من الأوقات، وآيسَ نبيَّ الله صلى الله عليه وسلم من الطمع في إيمانهم، ومن أن يفلحوا أبداً، فكانوا كذلك لم يفلحوا ولم ينجحوا، إلى أن قُتِل بعضُهم يوم بدر بالسيف، وهلك بعض قبل ذلك كافراً

“Allah may his Name be Exalted informs his Prophet Muhammad (saw) that the polytheists from his people wanted to worship Allah for a year in exchange for the Prophet of Allah to worship their deities for a year. Allah sent reply to them with {say} o Muhammad to those Meccan polytheists that asked you to worship their deities for a year in exchange for them worshipping your Lord for a year that {O disbelievers} in Allah {I do not worship what you worship} i.e. your deities and idols at this moment in time {you do not worship what I worship} at present {and I will not worship} in the future {what you worshipped} in the past (and you will not ever worship) in the future (what i worship) now or in the future. The reason why the verses have addressed the matter in this style is to inform the Prophet that the senior leaders of the Quraysh will never ever have belief (iman) and this was already in the Knowledge of Allah […].”[6]

Tafsir breakdown:

v.1: {‘Say’}: ‘tell them’, ‘inform them’, ‘declare’; grammatically the imperative form (sighat al-amr) addressed to the Messenger of Allah (saw). This indicates that the Message of Islam is from Allah and that Allah alone determines the conditions, premise and pretext on how it should be conveyed, delivered, propagated and accepted.

{disbelievers…}: ‘nonbelievers’, ‘unbelievers’, ‘rejectors of the faith’; referring generally to all non-believers but specifically to the Quraysh leaders or the Meccan polytheist audience. The harsh address is only after repeated contact by the Prophet (saw) and their stubborn denial of the Truth.

Imam al-Zamakhshari’s comments:

} لاَ أَعْبُدُ } أريدت به العبادة فيما يستقبل، لأنّ «لا» لا تدخل إلاّ على مضارع في معنى الاستقبال، كما أن «ما» لا تدخل إلاّ على مضارع في معنى الحال، ألا ترى أن «لن» تأكيد فيما تنفيه «لا». وقال الخليل في «لن»: أنّ أصله «لا أن» والمعنى: لا أفعل في المستقبل ما تطلبونه مني من عبادة آلهتكم، ولا أنتم فاعلون فيه ما أطلب منكم من عبادة إلٰهي

v.2: “{I will never worship} which means ‘I won’t worship in the future’ because the particle ‘la-’ is only prefaced with the present tense giving the meaning of the future tense in the same way as the particle ‘ma-’ is only prefaced with the present tense to give the present tense meaning. Moreover, the particle ‘lan-’ emphasises the negation made by ‘la-’ […] the meaning then of the verse is: ‘I will never worship your deities that you want me to and neither will you ever worship my Lord Whom I want you to’…”[7]

Points:

  • The Prophet will never ever follow, submit or adhere to what the Meccan polytheists follow and adhere to.
  • The emphatic negation as well as unequivocal language of the sura is in order to underscore the impossibility of there ever being any prospect of monotheism (tawhid) and polytheism (shirk) co-existing on a common term.
  • From the outset, Allah makes clear the rejection of any theological concession or settlement, i.e. a compromise in belief.
  • Allah is informing his beloved that the Meccan polytheists will never come to correct belief and hence it is a ruse or political manoeuvre in order to halt the Prophet’s relentless assault on their paganism.

{ وَلا أَنَا عَابِدٌ مَّا عَبَدتُّمْ } أي: وما كنت قطّ عابداً فيما سلف ما عبدتم فيه يعني: لم تعهد مني عبادة صنم في الجاهلية، فكيف ترجى مني في الإسلام

v.4: “{I have never been someone who worships what you worship}: meaning ‘I was never in the past someone who worshipped what you do’, i.e. ‘even in the time of jahiliyya I never worshiped idols so how can you ever expect me to do so having brought Islam?’…”[8]

{ وَلاَ أَنتُمْ عَـٰبِدُونَ مَا أَعْبُدُ } أي: وما عبدتم في وقت ما أنا على عبادته

v.5: “{Nor have you ever worshipped He Whom I worship}: meaning: ‘you have never at any time worshipped He Whom I worship’…”[9]

Points:

  • What is a compromise? Arriving at some settlement or agreement through forfeiting some aspect of a demand. The parties in a compromise often assume some validity in the opposing party’s position or the subject-matter. However, here in the sura, the Prophet did not assume any validity in the Meccan position from the beginning. He rejected their pantheon of gods even in the jahiliyya period (‘pre-Islamic time’) and so there is not even a prior premise or foundation on which to build a compromise. Thus, the Meccan proposal of compromise is made to appear illogical, absurd and contradictory.

 فإن قلت: فلم جاء على «ما» دون «من»؟ قلت: لأن المراد الصفة، كأنه قال: لا أعبد الباطل، ولا تعبدون الحق

“If it is asked: why has it come with the particle ‘ma-’ and not ‘man-’? The reply will be: what is intended here in the verse is designation of a description or characteristic (sifa) [s: and not necessarily a being or entity] as if to say: ‘I do not worship falsehood’ (batil) and neither do you worship the Truth (al-haqq).”[10]

Points:

  • The immediate Meccan opponents mentioned in the verse are not presented with a personal ad hominem attack, it is not about names and persons, but about beliefs (hence the unspecified term ‘kafirun’ in order to retain generality of all types of disbelief not just polytheism).
  • The broader context is a theme of Truth vs. falsehood, Guidance vs. Misguidance, Islam vs. non-Islam…

v.6: “{To you is your way of life and to me mine}: i.e. to you is your shirk and to me my tawhid…”[11]

Points:

  • Some argue this to be a premise for Qur’anic tolerance and mutual acceptance of different faiths. This however is incorrect. The entire context and tone of the sura is one of rebuke, rejection and disassociation from non-Islam (kufr).
  • The disjunction and disassociation of The Prophet from the Meccan Quraysh is to finalise the point that disbelief and belief cannot be bridged together on a compromise. They mutually exclude each other.

Broader points:

  • There should be no compromise in the da`wa (e.g. abandoning it, relinquishing it, curbing it, changing it from its objectives, etc.).
  • There should be no bargaining with the Truth (e.g. adopting universalism, theological pluralism, hiding it, restricting it, accepting kufr, acquiescing to the demands that are unislamic, etc.).
  • There should be no forfeiting of the underlying precepts for the correct presentation and propagation of Islam even if it is unpopular such as:

1. Denying Islam as a comprehensive viewpoint about life that is rational with a defined set of systems (e.g. no concept of khilafah, Islam is spiritual only, Islam is about morals, etc.);

2. Explaining away defining Islamic legal injunctions (e.g. hudud, social laws, jihad, etc…), and

3. Adopting non-Islamic concepts and ideas (e.g. secularism, democracy, western human rights, liberal values, freedoms, etc).

[End]

Peace and blessings upon our beloved,

The Messenger of Allah,

His Companions, family and all who follow them.

Amin.

s.z.c.

London, 2007.


[1] Cf. also the commentaries by S. `A. `A. Mawdudi, Tafhimul Quran (‘Understanding the Qur’an’) s.v. 109 at http://www.searchtruth.com/tafsir/Quran/109/index.html; S. Qutb, Fi Zilal al-Qur’an (‘In the Shade of the Qur’an’) “Surah 109 – The Disbelievers” at http://web.youngmuslims.ca/online_library/tafsir/syed_qutb/surah_109.htm and A. A. Islahi, Tadabbur-i-Quran (‘Pondering on the Qur’an’), “Surah Kafiroon (109)” at http://www.amin-ahsan-islahi.com/?=133

[2] D. S. Margoliouth, art. “God (Arabian-Pre-Islamic)” in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics Part 11, ed. by J. Hastings and J. Selbie, pp.245-250 and G. R. Hawting, The Idea of Idolatry and the Emergence of Islam, pp.130-149.

[3] T. Fahd, Le Panthéon de l’Arabie centrale à la veille de l’Hégire, pp.114-120.

[4] Ibid, pp.163-178.

[5] Ibid, pp.123-126.

[6] al-Tabari, al-Jami` al-Bayan, 24:660-661.

[7] al-Zamakhshari, al-Kashshaf, 4:807.

[8] al-Zamakhshari, al-Kashshaf, 4:807. Imam Ibn Kathir in his tafsir writes:

 } وَلاَ أَنَآ عَابِدٌ مَّا عَبَدتُّمْ وَلاَ أَنتُمْ عَـٰبِدُونَ مَآ أَعْبُدُ } أي: ولا أعبد عبادتكم، أي: لا أسلكها، ولا أقتدي بها، وإنما أعبد الله على الوجه الذي يحبه ويرضاه

“{And I shall not worship that which you are worshipping. Nor will you worship whom I worship) meaning: ‘I do not worship according to your worship’, i.e. ‘I do not go along with it or follow it. I only worship Allah in the manner in which He loves and is pleased with.” Tafsir al-Qur’an al-`Azim, 4:599.

[9] al-Zamakhshari, al-Kashshaf, 4.807-808.

[10] al-Zamakhshari, al-Kashshaf, 4:808.

[11] al-Zamakhshari, al-Kashshaf, 4:808.

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