Commentary on Surah al-Kafirun – Part 1

This is a transcript of a commentary on Sūrah al-Kāfirūn given by Shaykh Haider Hobbollah over five lessons.1 Due to their length, I have split the posts into two parts (click here for part two). This first part consists of a discussion on the word qul in the Qurān and a commentary of the first verse.

Names and Reasons for Revelation

The chapter has been referred to in three ways in Islamic works:

  1. Surah al-Kāfirūn.
  2. Surah al-Juḥd – since Juḥd means rejection while knowing, this name was probably given due to the rejection that appears in the later verses.
  3. Surah al-Muqashqisha – some have called both this and Surah Ikhlās together as al-Muqashqishatān. Qashqasha means to sweep away and abandon something, and the chapter is given this name because of the rejection (barā’ah) mentioned in the verses.

A group of disbelievers in Makkah, including al-Ḥārith b. Qays al-Sahmī, al-‘Āṣ b. Wā’il, al-Walīd b. Mughīrah, Umayyah b. Khalaf and others came to the Prophet (p) and said to him, why do you not worship what we worship, and we will worship what you worship for a time period, after which we will see whose god and worship is better, who sees the results of their worship soon after. If your god and worship are better then that will be a moment of pride for the Quraysh and we will take a share of it, but if you (p) find that our gods and worship are better then you shall take a share of it. As per historical reports, the Prophet (p) rejected their offer. This chapter was revealed and the Prophet (p) left the Masjid al-Ḥarām and recited it in front of the people.

This is the popular report describing the reasons for the chapter’s revelation, both in Sunnī and Shī’ī texts, the latter works including traditions from the Ahl al-Bayt (a) as well.

Makkī or Medani and Merits of the Chapter

As per the contents of its verses only, there is nothing by which we can argue it is Makkī or Medanī, but as per historical reports on its reasons for revelation, the popular view has been that it is Makkī, and this is what is more probable and likely.

As far as the merits of the chapter are concerned, some reports say this chapter equals one-fourth of the Qurān. Some reports encourage its recitation before sleeping in order for a person to remain protected from polytheism.

This chapter is also discussed in jurisprudential discussions. The jurists opine – although some have given the verdict of obligatory precaution – that once a person begins reciting a chapter in the Ṣalāt, there are three scenarios:

1) They have not finished half of the chapter yet. For example, if you are reciting Surah al-Ḍuḥa, before reaching the half-way point, you decide to change the Surah and read another one, it is allowed.

2) They have finished half of it, but not one-third of it yet. Over here, jurists say you are not allowed to change the Surah.

3) The person has reached near the end of the chapter

Though there are some differences of opinions on the aforementioned scenarios, but, we are not concerned with them at the moment. The point is that the jurists say there are two Surahs that once you begin reading them, even if you are only on the first verse, you are not allowed to change it. Those two Surahs are al-Kāfirūn and al-Ikhlāṣ. This is the popular opinion amongst the jurists. The only exception some jurists make is for Ṣalāt al-Jumu’ah or the Ẓuhr prayers on Friday, given you had intended to recite Surah al-Jumu’ah in your prayers, but you forgot, then, in that case, you can even abandon these two Surahs and change to Surah al-Jumu’ah.

The Theme of the Chapter

Before beginning the actual commentary, we want to point towards the general theme of this chapter.

The popular opinion amongst scholars and what you will find in the works of Muslim scholars is that its theme is rejection and distancing (barā’ah and mufāṣalah) – meaning we do not accept any other religion, nor believe it, nor lean towards it – belief does not mix with disbelief. Therefore, the chapter was also called qashqasha and the historical report describing its reasons for revelation also corroborate this theme.

On the other hand, some scholars over the last century have argued that the theme of this chapter concerns freedom and religious plurality. This chapter indicates that all sides are free to follow their religion, you have your own religion that you are allowed to follow, and we have our own religion. Each of us follows our own paths and there is no compulsion on either sides to follow and believe in the other’s beliefs.

These are two perspectives on this chapter and over the course of our commentary we will evaluate which of these perspectives is correct: rejection and distancing one’s self from polytheism and disbelief, or granting legitimacy and recognition to polytheism and disbelief.

Verse 1 – Qul Yā Ayyuhā al-Kāfirūn

Say, O disbelievers

Let us first begin looking at the command tense ‘qul’ (say) which has been subject to various discussions, not the least of them being a critique against the Qurān and the Prophethood of the Prophet (p) himself. Some have said the Prophet (p) erred in conveying the Qurān because he recited the command tense as part of verses of the Qurān even though they are not part of the verses. The discussion concerns the command tense ‘qul’ anywhere in the Qurān, not just in this chapter.

If we take the root word qa-wa-la and all its conjugations [qāla, yaqūlu, taqūlu, qul, qīla and so on], we find it being used in the Qurān more than 1700 times. None of these conjugations are problematic; the challenge is only in the command tense conjugation of qul which appears 332 times in the Qurān. Why is this tense problematic? This is how the issue is described – they say:

Imagine I come to you – your name being Zayd – and say, “Say O Zayd, Islam demands you to be a righteous person.” You then leave the gathering and now want to transmit this message to a group of your friends. How will you transmit this message? Will you say to your friends, “Say O Zayd, Islam demands you to be a righteous person,” or will you say, “Islam demands you to be a righteous person.” Naturally, you will omit the beginning part “Say O Zayd”.

Or if I say, “Zayd, go to your friends and say to them that they must pray.” Will you then go and tell your friends, “Say to them they must pray,” or will you say, “you must pray”? Naturally, you will say the latter statement.

Now consider Jibra’īl comes with a revelation to the Prophet (p), and says to him, “Say, O disbelievers…”, “Say, Allah is One”, “Say, I seek refuge in the Lord of the Dawn” and so on. Now the Prophet (p) comes to the people, it would be expected that he says, “O disbelievers”, “Allah is One”, and “I seek refuge in the Lord of the Dawn.” Instead, we see that he says the statement include the command tense “say”. This was a mistake the Prophet (p) made in his transmission of the Qurān. The opponents will say, even if you do not want to acknowledge this was a mistake in transmission of the Qurān by the Prophet (p), then at the very least it was a mistake made in compilation and writing of the Qurān, and in conclusion we have 332 mistakes in the Qurān where the word qul is written.

It has been attributed to Muammar Gaddafi – the previous leader of Libya – that he wanted to remove the word qul from the Qurān, or at least from some of the chapters like Surah al-Ikhlāṣ.

These critics also say this is not something we have thought of today, rather we can find traces of this discussion from the early period of Islam on this very issue. They refer to recitals of the Qurān which are rare, in which the word qul is not mentioned – and one of the examples they will bring is one of the rare recitals of Surah al-Ikhlāṣ. They argue this is enough to prove our point and that this idea definitely existed in the minds of some early Muslims dating back to the first-century hijri.2

How do we address this critique and prove that this word is not a mistake, rather it is part of the Qurān itself? A number of responses have been given to this:

[1] One of the answers given is by the Qurānists, particularly Egyptian Qurānists such as Dr. Ahmed Subhy Mansour. Qurānists are those who deny any binding force of the ḥadīth and as well as the Sunnah of the Prophet (p), let alone the companions and the Ahl al-Bayt. They have said:

a) The word qul appears many times in the Qurān, and such a word does not exist in the Old or the New Testament. It is unique to the Qurān.

b) The word qul is used in verses where the audience is not the same. In some verses the word qul appears and the Prophet (p) is being asked to address the disbelievers, other times the believers, or the People of the Book, or all humans. There is variety in the audience.

c) The word qul appears multiple times in just one verse, and on other occasions it appears only once.

d) Consider the statements that appear after qul. For example:

[8:1] They ask you about the bounties [of war]. Say, “The bounties are for Allah and the Messenger.”

[2:220] And they ask you about orphans. Say, “Improvement for them is best.”

[2:219] They ask you about wine and gambling. Say, “In them is great sin and [yet, some] benefit for people. But their sin is greater than their benefit.” And they ask you what they should spend. Say, “The excess [beyond needs].” Thus, Allah makes clear to you the verses [of revelation] that you might give thought.

When it says, “Say, O disbelievers” in Surah al-Kāfirūn, this means that the Prophet (p) has already been asked something before and now is being told what to respond. Instead of the verse saying, “They ask you about worshiping their gods and they worship your god – Say, O disbelievers…”. The question is to be taken into consideration, and in fact, there is a question to be presumed before every qul that appears in the Qurān.

The Quranists also address the dilemma of accepting the Sunnah of the Prophet (p) by claiming his Sunnah is essentially all the statements he (p) is being asked to say in the Qurān. This is what constitutes his oral Sunnah. The oral Sunnah which exists in Ṣaḥīh al-Bukhārī or al-Muslim, or al-Kāfī of Shaykh Kulaynī or al-Tahdhīb of Shaykh Ṭūṣī has on value and is not binding, even if we know with certainty the Prophet (p) uttered those words.

Observations: Does this response really answer the challenge? We say, even if it is true that before every qul there is a question to be taken into consideration, it still does not resolve the problem. If the Prophet (p) is being asked a question, the revelation is still being delivered to him (p) beginning with qul and then the subsequent statement. When he goes and responds to the question, why does he have to say qul?

The original challenge posed by the critics was that this qul is pointless, while this response given by the Qurānists does not resolve this challenge one bit. Even their claim that the oral sunnah of the Prophet (p) are the statements that appear after qul is also just a play on words, because at the end of the day the text is part of the Qurān and in fact, it is the Qurān and Divine Revelation which the Qurānist themselves ascribe to.

Furthermore, even the claim that before every qul the statement “they ask you” which is to be taken into consideration is a mere claim without any evidence. Perhaps there was no question and no one asked the Prophet (p) anything, this is not something unreasonable or far-fetched. We are not saying it is not possible for there to have been a question before every qul, rather we are saying what the evidence is to argue that this is indeed the case.

Of course, we have a more fundamental problem with the Qurānists and their epistemology, but in our response here we are simply trying to address their attempt to respond to the critique.

[2] Before explaining the second response, there is a brief preliminary that needs to be explained so that the response has a bit more context. The Qurān and its verses are revealed upon the Prophet (p) – what was the nature of that which was revealed on the Prophet (p)? There are four major opinions amongst the Muslim scholars on the nature of revelation:

i) The words, the meanings, every letter, the vowels, the pronunciation, the style, was revealed to the Prophet (p). As the theologians have said, what was revealed to the Prophet (p) was exactly what we hear when one recites the Qurān to us. This is of course the most popular, accepted and a near consensus opinion amongst the Muslim scholars.

ii) When revelation would descend on the Prophet (p), it would create meanings and concepts in the mind of the Prophet (p). However, the Prophet (p) never heard any sounds, nor any words were revealed to him (p). He (p) simply took those meanings and conveyed them in his own words in the Arabic language. This opinion essentially believes that the meanings of the Qurān are Divine, but the words are Prophetic. The words of the Qurān are from the Prophet (p), not from Allah (swt) – if he (p) was an Indian the Qurān would have been in Hindī, if he (p) was British the Qurān would have been in English, if he (p) was Persian the Qurān would have been in Persian. We are not discussing anything about the Prophet (p) erring in this aspect or not, our discussion is not on the infallibility of this and it does not concern us in our discussion right now – we are simply talking about the nature of this revelation.

This view was popularized by Dr. Soroush over the last few decades and has been a subject to rigorous debate. ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī also refers to this opinion in his al-Mīzān but does not mention the proponent. This view is also attributed to Ibn ‘Arabī in al-Futūḥāt al-Makkīyah where he has an explicit statement saying that the Prophet (p) was a “translator” of the book of Allah (swt). Some have therefore said Ibn ‘Arabī also held this same view. Zarkashī in his exegesis quotes from Samarqandī that there were amongst the classical scholars who held this opinion – although I was unable to find the words of Samarqandī in his extant works after research. We do not have any clear names of who held this opinion in the past, but it appears there may have been some proponents.

iii) This is similar to the aforementioned view, but the words are constructed by Jibra’īl, not the Prophet (p). Jibra’īl would receive revelation from Allah (swt) and these would be meanings and concepts, he would construct the words, and then transmit them to the Prophet (p). Suyūṭī and Zarkashī attribute this view to some but they do not name anyone.

iv) ‘Āllāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī attributes a view in al-Mīzān to some who claim both the meanings and the words are Prophetic. Allah (swt) definitely assisted the Prophet (p) in this endeavor, but the words and meanings are not from Him (swt). Perhaps some mystics may have held a similar opinion, but this is in complete opposition to the first view. We cannot get into these views in too much depth, but if one notices, this last view seems to originate in the idea that the Prophetic miracles are produced by the Prophets (p) themselves due to their status as Perfect Humans. [3:49] I design for you from clay [that which is] like the form of a bird can be sighted as evidence to show how Prophet ‘Īsa (a) attributed the performance of a miracle to himself. Proponents of this fourth view on revelation may have held this opinion about miracles and may be wanting to apply it on the Qurān itself.

Those who hold the first opinion, in their attempt to refute proponents of the second opinion, they put forth a lot of different arguments. One of their arguments is the word qul. They say, the occurrence of qul in the Qurān itself demonstrates that the words and letters of the Qurān are from Allah (swt) and the Prophet (p) has been commanded to convey the Qurān exactly as it has been revealed to him word for word, letter for letter.

In other words, the value of qul in the Qurān is that it demonstrates that the Qurānic text is Divine and the Prophet (p) had no role to play in constructing its words, rather his only role was to convey what was revealed to him to others. In order to remain trustworthy in his transmission of the words of the Qurān, he (p) transmitted every single word as it was revealed to him, which included qul. In fact, if he had transmitted the meaning (naql bil ma’na) of what was revealed to him in his own words, he would not be considered trustworthy.

Observations: Even though we agree that the Qurān was revealed upon the Prophet (p) in words, but the above argument does not benefit in proving that claim. They presumed that if the Prophet (p) were to transmit the meanings of those words in his own words he would not be truthful and trustworthy. The problem is, transmitting the meanings of words in your own words does not constitute a lie, rather human life is based on this phenomenon. Consider you are in a court and the judge asks you to testify regarding what you heard from an accused, and you say, “I heard such and such.” Does your respond have to be an exact word for word transmission of what you heard, or else you will be considered untrustworthy and a liar? What is crucial is how precisely the meanings are being transferred, hence why the scholars of ḥadīth all allowed naql bil ma’na, rather we have traditions allowing it as long as it does not alter the meaning.

If the Prophet (p) constructed a statement after qul which conveyed the meanings revealed to him with the best precision possible, this would not be considered a lie, and neither would he be considered untrustworthy.

Secondly, if indeed transmission through meaning was deemed a lie and unethical, then what would they say about the Qurān doing this when quoting individuals on multiple occasions. Consider the example of Prophet Musa (a):

إِذْ قَالَ مُوسَىٰ لِأَهْلِهِ إِنِّي آنَسْتُ نَارًا سَآتِيكُم مِّنْهَا بِخَبَرٍ أَوْ آتِيكُم بِشِهَابٍ قَبَسٍ لَّعَلَّكُمْ تَصْطَلُونَ

[27:7] When Moses said to his family, “Indeed, I have perceived a fire. I will bring you from there information or will bring you a burning torch that you may warm yourselves.”

فَلَمَّا قَضَىٰ مُوسَى الْأَجَلَ وَسَارَ بِأَهْلِهِ آنَسَ مِن جَانِبِ الطُّورِ نَارًا قَالَ لِأَهْلِهِ امْكُثُوا إِنِّي آنَسْتُ نَارًا لَّعَلِّي آتِيكُم مِّنْهَا بِخَبَرٍ أَوْ جَذْوَةٍ مِّنَ النَّارِ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَصْطَلُونَ

[28:29] And when Moses had completed the term and was traveling with his family, he perceived from the direction of the mount a fire. He said to his family, “Stay here; indeed, I have perceived a fire. Perhaps I will bring you from there [some] information or burning wood from the fire that you may warm yourselves.”

Both of these verses are referring to the same incident and quoting Musa (a), yet the statements are both different. Will we now say that the Qurān cannot be trusted in what Musa (a) really said to his family in one of these verses? In other places of the Qurān where this occurs, some resorted to saying that the individual uttered these statements two different times on two different occasions.

There is a third instance in the Qurān where it says:

وَهَلْ أَتَاكَ حَدِيثُ مُوسَىٰ إِذْ رَأَىٰ نَارًا فَقَالَ لِأَهْلِهِ امْكُثُوا إِنِّي آنَسْتُ نَارًا لَّعَلِّي آتِيكُم مِّنْهَا بِقَبَسٍ أَوْ أَجِدُ عَلَى النَّارِ هُدًى

[20:9-10] And has the story of Moses reached you? – When he saw a fire and said to his family, “Stay here; indeed, I have perceived a fire; perhaps I can bring you a torch or find at the fire some guidance.”

This third quotation is even more different, but in all three verses the general meaning of what Musa (a) originally must have said has been conveyed to us.

Thirdly, even if we were to ignore our observations below, we will still ask, did the Prophets – Ibrahim, Hud, Adam, Nuh and so on – speak Arabic? They spoke very different languages, albeit Semitic, and the Qurān is translating what they said in their languages into Arabic. That itself is a transmission of meaning and not a transmission of words.

So, if the statements after qul happen to be transmission of meaning and not precise words, there is nothing wrong with that and it is not considered unethical and a lie.

[3] The word qul in the Qurān is for emphasis. We will expand on this near the end of our discussion when we analyze the repetition that occurs in the chapter.

[4] The word qul in the Qurān is symbolic of Allah (swt) delegating what He (swt) wants to say to the disbelievers to the Prophet (p) himself. Let us clarify this explanation with an example: imagine you get into a conflict with Zayd and are no longer on speaking terms. In a gathering you want to say something to him, but since you are so put off by the idea of speaking with him and believe it is against your repute, you tell your friend Bakr in the gathering, “Say to Zayd such and such” while Zayd himself is listening.

Thus, when Allah (swt) reveals to the Prophet (p), “Say [O Muhammad, to the disbelievers] O disbelievers,” He (swt) is doing so because it is beyond Allah’s (swt) repute and dignity to converse with the disbelievers directly – who hold no status and position in the eyes of Allah (swt). Although the proponents of this claim are saying this is the case in every qul used in the Qurān, as far as the first verse of Surah al-Kāfirūn is concerned, this view can be strengthened by the very use of “yā ayyuha” which is used to call on someone who is distant from you.

Observations: This response has five major issues:

i) Some verses where the word qul is used is addressing the believers. For example [14:31] is addressing the believers, does it mean that Allah (swt) finds the believers not worthy of being spoken to directly and that they are similar to the disbelievers? Verse [24:30] concerning the lowering of the gaze faces the same issue and so does [33:59] regarding the Jilbāb. Does Allah (swt) want to belittle the believing women and men in these verses?

Other verses include [39:10], [45:14], [39:53] – these do not reconcile with the idea that the audience is not worthy of being spoken to directly, since the believers are those who are loved by Allah (swt) and are close to Him (a).

ii) On the contrary, there were verses where Allah (swt) addresses people directly with yā ayyuhā al-nās and this include instances where they are being condemned. This is contrary to the claim that Allah (sw) employs qul and delegates the statement to the Prophet (p) in cases where He (swt) does not deem the audience worthy of being addressed directly.

For example [2:221] O mankind, worship your Lord, who created you and those before you, that you may become righteous; or [4:170] O Mankind, the Messenger has come to you with the truth from your Lord, so believe; it is better for you. But if you disbelieve – then indeed, to Allah belongs whatever is in the heavens and earth. And ever is Allah Knowing and Wise; or [4:174] O Mankind, the Messenger has come to you with the truth from your Lord, so believe; it is better for you. But if you disbelieve – then indeed, to Allah belongs whatever is in the heavens and earth. And ever is Allah Knowing and Wise.

iii) It was said that yā ayyuhā is further evidence of our claim because it is used for an audience that is distant and far. However, there are many verses in the Qurān where yā ayyuhā is used but the audience are the believers. As a matter of fact, the term yā ayyuhā is used even to address the Prophet (p) himself.

For example, [5:41] O Messenger, let them not grieve you who hasten into disbelief of those who say, “We believe” with their mouths, but their hearts believe not; or [5:67] O Messenger, announce that which has been revealed to you from your Lord, and if you do not, then you have not conveyed His message; or [8:64] O Prophet, sufficient for you is Allah and for whoever follows you of the believers; or [8:70] O Prophet, say to whoever is in your hands of the captives…; or [23:51] O messengers, eat from the good foods and work righteousness; and many other verses like this.

iv) There are a lot of verses where the command tense qul is used and there is no audience explicitly mentioned in it at all.

For example, [23:93-94] Say, “My Lord, if You should show me that which they are promised, My Lord, then do not place me among the wrongdoing people”; or [17:24] Say, “My Lord, have mercy upon them as they brought me up [when I was] small“; or [17:80] And say, “My Lord, cause me to enter a sound entrance and to exit a sound exit and grant me from Yourself a supporting authority”; or [20:114] Say, “My Lord, increase me in knowledge, [23:29] And say, ‘My Lord, let me land at a blessed landing place, and You are the best to accommodate [us],‘; or [23:97] And say, “My Lord, I seek refuge in You from the incitements of the devils”; or [23:118] And, [O Muhammad], say, “My Lord, forgive and have mercy, and You are the best of the merciful“; and more.

In all of these verses, Allah (swt) is not asking the sentence to be conveyed or transmitted to someone. Most of these statements are supplications and occur after the use of qul. There is no audience in these verses to even make sense of the explanation given in the fourth view.

v) If the fourth view, which claimed that Allah (swt) does not find the disbelievers worthy of being addressed directly and delegates the Prophet (p) to address them, then why does He (swt) address them directly in other verses of the Qurān?

For example, [4:171], [5:15], [4:47] where Allah (swt) is addressing the People of the Book directly.

In conclusion, this fourth view is simply not inclusive of all verses of the Qurān and as a matter of fact, it is not very convincing either for this very reason.

[5] Some contemporary exegetes have said that qul in the Qurān is used to encourage and increase his motivation to propagate the message of Islam. They have said it is similar to the first verse that was revealed upon him – as per popular opinion – which was also a command tense and said “iqra”, meaning read, or any other verse in the Qurān where the Prophet (p) is being given a command. In fact, qul is also very similar to balligh used in [5:67] which means to announce and convey, and these command tenses are used to psychologically and spiritually motivate the Prophet (p) to carry out his responsibility.

This view is very reasonable and good, but it does not resolve the initial challenge posed at us. We were never addressing the question why Allah (swt) used qul, rather we are addressing why the Prophet (p) said qul to us.

[6] This is a general solution given by some and that is by considering our outlook on the Qurān to begin with. The Qurān consists of wisdom, admonitions, informative statements, theological statements, legislative duties, and so on. The Qurān did not come to us in the form a book resembling a book of rulings of a jurist, where the verses would say:

  • Ṣalāt is obligatory
  • Allah is one
  • Fasting is obligatory
  • If a person does such and such, then it is obligatory on him to pay such and such amount
  • It is good if a person does such and such

This is not how the Qurān is written; it consists of various different types of sentences. For example, at times the Qurān speaks as if Allah (swt) Himself is speaking, such as when it says, ‘My servants’, ‘Fear me’ etc. while other times it is as if a person is speaking about Allah (swt), such as when it says, ‘Allah is one’ or ‘He (swt) is the Living and Self-subsisting’ and so on. At times there is a dialogue between Allah (swt) and people, like in [2:108] Or do you intend to ask your Messenger as Moses was asked before? where Allah is addressing the people excluding the Prophet (p). On other occasions He (swt) is conversing with the Prophet (p) about people, like in [6:147] So if they deny you, [O Muhammad], say, “Your Lord is the possessor of vast mercy”; or [66:1] O Prophet, why do you prohibit [yourself from] what Allah has made lawful for you, seeking the approval of your wives?

The verses are not of one nature and style, as is would be the case with books of different genres like philosophy or chemistry. The Qurān is an extremely unique work in this regard.

In this context, if one were to understand the Qurān to be like a letter that is given to a mailman whose job is to deliver it to its recipient, then in such a context the appearance of the word qul becomes reasonable. The idea that the Prophet (p) erred in saying qul and deeming it part of the Qurān, even if we were to deny the infallibility, we would still say the mistake and error could have occurred once or twice, or at most three times, but eventually Allah (swt) would and should have informed the Prophet (p) to not consider qul as part of the Qurān. Or else you would have to acknowledge that the Prophet (p) erred more than 300 times in the Qurān over the course of two decades by deeming qul as part of the text of the Qurān and Allah (swt) did not interfere even once and correct him (p).

In addition, we also do not find the word qul in the beginning of every chapter, or the beginning of a collection of verses that were revealed together or verses revealed independently, even though it is presumed that the Prophet (p) would have been commanded to recite these verses to people.

Hence, we have to acknowledge that qul is simply just one of various different styles employed throughout the Qurān, at times it is addressing the Prophet (p), at times addressing people excluding the Prophet (p), at times speaking about Allah (swt) in the third person, at times addressing Allah (swt) directly, at times it is a dialogue, and so on. When the word qul is employed in the Qurān it conveys that the Prophet (p) is simply a messenger, what he (p) is saying is not something from himself, rather it is from Allah, he (p) is a mere messenger.

As a disclaimer we want to say, we are not saying this is the most definite and correct answer. In order to refute the initial challenge posed by the critics, all we need to do is present a reasonable justification explaining the benefit of qul in the Qurān, after which the critique can be nullified – that suffices for us.

Qul In Surah al-Kāfirūn

What we discussed previously was concerning the qul as it appears in the Qurān anywhere. However, there is also an interpretative discussion concerning why qul appears in this chapter specifically. There are three major opinions:

1) Some scholars have said the word qul in the beginning of this chapter indicates that what the Prophet (p) is about to say is not from him, rather it is from Allah (swt). You – the disbelievers – asked me to worship your gods, and that you will worship my god, and this is what I have been informed to say to you from my Lord. The decision is not in the hands of the Prophet (p).

This explanation is of course plausible.

2) Some scholars have said, given the Prophet (p) was a lenient and empathic person, and this chapter is harsh in its tone, Allah (swt) wanted the harshness to be attributed to Him (swt) and not to the Prophet (p)

This explanation is also plausible and has been mentioned by scholars.

3) It is necessary for the word qul in al-Kāfirūn, al-Falaq and al-Nās has to exist, because if it did not then the rest of the statements would appear as if Allah (swt) Himself is speaking and the meaning will become problematic. For example, in al-Kāfirūn it would become, “O disbelievers, I do not worship that which you worship,” while Allah (swt) does not worship anyone or anything to begin with. Likewise, in al-Falaq or al-Nās it would give the meaning of Allah (swt) seeking refuge – that too in Himself.

Perhaps this is the most reasonable explanation for why qul is mentioned in this chapter.

An Exegetical Principle

There is one observation, however, that needs to be made on these two explanations and it pertains to a principle of exegesis. When we want to do a commentary of the Qurān, we have to differentiate between two things:

i) What meanings the text itself conveys to us, what information and concepts is the text giving to us, taking into consideration context and alibis which make its meaning clearer for us. This is something legitimate, and we can attribute our understanding of the Qurānic text to Allah (swt) Himself.

ii) At times we complete the conception that is understood from the text itself, it is an addition that we are bringing to the table to patch up holes in an understanding. Like is the case with the question, ‘why is qul used in the beginning of Surah al-Kāfirūn?’ We come up with an answer after contemplation and thought, but we cannot attribute this analysis to the text itself, because the text is not telling us this at all.

Many Qurānic commentators fall for this mistake where they are engaging in the latter process but end up attributing those conclusions to the text itself. This occurs even in our day to day conversations, if one were to ask about an event that took place, instead of informing them of exactly what series of events took place, we inform them of the series of events mixed with our thoughts, analysis and explanations.

To apply this on the explanations given above: where does it say in the text that the reason why qul is used in this chapter is because Allah (swt) wanted to attribute harshness of tone to Himself (swt) rather than the Prophet (p)? It does not say this in the text at all, rather the exegete has thought of reasons and they have preferred a reason which they found most reasonable.

This is not problematic, however it is crucial that such analysis is not attributed to the Qurānic text itself, because these are not derived from the Qurān itself. In our example, the first two possibilities mentioned are exactly that, speculative possibilities that were thought of by the scholars, however they are not derived from the text and hence cannot be attributed to it either.

Al-Kāfirūn – Who Are They?

What does the alif-lām used on the word kāfir in this specific chapter? There are two possibilities:

1) The alif-lām appears on the plural of kāfir, which indicates all disbelievers, living at all times, all places, of all races, backgrounds and political affiliations.

2) It refers to the specific group of disbelievers who presented the Prophet (p) with their proposal. One can generalize the message of the chapter to all disbelievers if you can, but the word al-kāfirūn in this chapter is specifically referring to those handful of individuals.

Why is this question even important? This question arose because of the subsequent verses that some scholars understood as implying that the Prophet (p) never did, and never will worship the gods of the disbelievers, and that the disbelievers never did, and never will worship and submit to Islam. If this is true, then the first meaning of alif-lām does not hold true because many disbelievers, even during the lifetime of the Prophet (p) converted to Islam and worshipped Allah (swt).

Therefore, it is necessary to restrict the number of disbelievers intended in this chapter so that it reconciles with historical facts. Those few individuals who put forth that proposal for the Prophet (p) had never worshipped one God and neither did they ever convert. In one sense, this chapter is also giving information about the unseen.

We believe the first opinion is more correct and we will respond to the second explanation later when we discuss the combination of the four subsequent verses of the chapter.

Why Call Them al-Kāfirūn?

Why does the chapter address them as kāfirūn and not as people who came with a proposal for the Prophet (p), or simply O people, or O Quraysh, or O polytheists (al-mushrikūn)? We can conceive of two possibilities here:

1) The word al-kāfirūn is a term employed to convey condemnation.

2) The individuals are described as al-kāfirūn, because this description relays a causal relation between what is being said to them and what they are being described as. Meaning, the reason why I do not want to accept your proposal and I will distance myself from you, is because you are a kāfir. Kufr (disbelief) is the reason for the Prophet’s (p) rejection.

What Does al-Kāfir Mean in the Qurān?

The Qurān uses he word kāfir and its conjugations plenty of times, but what does it mean? This is an extremely lengthy topic and requires extensive amounts of research, but nevertheless I will allude to two understandings that exist:

1) Kāfir is simply a non-Muslim. Anyone who does not testify to oneness of God and the prophethood of Muhammad (p) is a kāfir. This is the general legal understanding amongst all the Muslims. Many Qurānic verses and the traditions can be cited to prove this, in fact it is self-evident amongst the collective memory of the Muslims.

2) Kāfir is not every non-Muslim – the first definition is a construction of the jurists and pertains to legal matters, whereas when the word kāfir is used in the Qurān it means something else. Kāfir is any person who does not convert to Islam out of stubbornness, knowingly rejecting it, without any excuse. As for those who do not convert because they were not informed about the religion, or had an excuse, or their intellect has not been convinced of it, then such people are not called kāfir. In fact, the rulings of disbelievers should not be applied to them. They are not Muslims either and we are not saying one should apply the rulings of Muslims on them – every kāfir is not a Muslim, but not every non-Muslim is a kāfir.

The first view is easy to understand by most Muslims, but where did this second opinion originate from? Proponents say we have two justifications:

i) The Qurān and the Sunnah have explicitly said that the disbelievers will be punished in hellfire. However, an excused individual, who was not aware of the religion, cannot be punished in hellfire – hence such a person is not a kāfir. For example, there is a simple-minded woman who lives in some other part of the world with her community as per her culture, and not once in her lifetime does the thought cross her mind that her belief system may be wrong. She does not doubt her beliefs and has never come across any arguments for Islam – such a person cannot be punished in hellfire because that is unjust and detested and God is not unjust nor does He (swt) do anything detestable.

Since the Qurān and Sunnah state that a kāfir will be punished in hellfire, those who will not be punished in hellfire are therefore not kāfir.

ii) The second justification says, what does kāfir mean linguistically? Linguistically we see that the word kufr means to conceal. Hence the night is called kāfir at times, because it covers things up with its darkness, and a farmer is called a kāfir because it covers the seeds with soil, or a person who wears an armour is called a kāfir because he covers his clothing with it. The act of concealing is something you do, not something you do not do, hence a kāfir is someone who does something to cover the truth. If someone merely does not believe in the oneness of God or the prophethood of the Prophet (p), they will not be described a kāfir, unless they know of the truth of the matter and then try to cover it.

We see that the word kāfir is used to describe those who denied and rejected the miracles brought by the Prophets (p) and attempted to conceal the Prophetic message from the rest of the community. These were individuals who were living during the time of miracles, they were witnessing them, yet denying them. Imagine yourself living at a time where a mountain cracks open and a camel walks out from it and you realize this is something miraculous, yet you deny it and do not let the community become aware of it.

The Qurānic verses also corroborate this idea:

[2:75] Do you covet [the hope, O believers], that they would believe for you while a party of them used to hear the words of Allah and then distort the Torah after they had understood it while they were knowing?

[2:146] Those to whom We gave the Scripture know him as they know their own sons. But indeed, a party of them conceal the truth while they know [it].

[3:75] And among the People of the Scripture is he who, if you entrust him with a great amount [of wealth], he will return it to you. And among them is he who, if you entrust him with a [single] silver coin, he will not return it to you unless you are constantly standing over him [demanding it]. That is because they say, “There is no blame upon us concerning the unlearned.” And they speak untruth about Allah while they know [it].

[3:78] And indeed, there is among them a party who alter the Scripture with their tongues so you may think it is from the Scripture, but it is not from the Scripture. And they say, “This is from Allah,” but it is not from Allah. And they speak untruth about Allah while they know.

[6:114] [Say], “Then is it other than Allah I should seek as judge while it is He who has revealed to you the Book explained in detail?” And those to whom We [previously] gave the Scripture know that it is sent down from your Lord in truth, so never be among the doubters.

[2:22] [He] who made for you the earth a bed [spread out] and the sky a ceiling and sent down from the sky, rain and brought forth thereby fruits as provision for you. So do not attribute to Allah equals while you know.

[2:23-24] And if you are in doubt about what We have sent down upon Our Servant [Muhammad], then produce a surah the like thereof and call upon your witnesses other than Allah, if you should be truthful. But if you do not – and you will never be able to – then fear the Fire, whose fuel is men and stones, prepared for the disbelievers.

They were not able to bring anything like the Qurān and hence knew they were wrong, as such the verse describes them as disbelievers (kāfirīn).

[2:42] And do not mix the truth with falsehood or conceal the truth while you know [it].

[3:71] O People of the Scripture, why do you confuse the truth with falsehood and conceal the truth while you know [it]?

[61:5] And when Moses said to his people, “O my people, why do you harm me while you certainly know that I am the messenger of Allah to you?”

When you look at all these verses and others, it seems apparent that the Qurān refers to those as kāfir who knew of the truth and then concealed it, and rejected it. However, as I said, this is a very extensive topic and requires many lessons, but I just wanted to shed some light on it.

Click for Part 2.


  1. Source: Lesson 1 | Lesson 2 | Lesson 3 | Lesson 4 | Lesson 5
  2. Translator’s Note (TN): To see variant readings of Surah al-Ikhlās consider reading: Grammatically Understanding Surat al-Tawhid.

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