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Fareeha Khan
The [Oxford] Encyclopedia of Islam and Law What is This? An English-language legal reference for scholars of Islamic studies and Western engaged readers presenting the history and development of Islamic Law.

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Kufr is being in a state of religious unbelief, with the result that the active participle kāfir (pl. kuffār or kāfirūn) has been the primary designation for unbelievers in Islamic thought. Its semantic roots in the earliest Arabic sources denote a notion of “covering up” and “ingratitude,” with the Qurʾān using the term kuffār in one instance (57:20) to mean tillers of the soil and the concept of kufr al-niʿmah (ingratitude to God) surviving in Islamic theological discourse. In Islamic law and theology, kufr came to be defined in opposition to faith (īmān) as an ignorance of God and one of the qualities that is the opposite of “the knowledge of God.” One Sunnī scholar, Abū al-Baqāʾ al-Kafāwī (d.1528), a Ḥanafī jurist and man of letters, defines it as “a single system of belief opposed to the undoubtedly true sacred law of Muḥammad.” He further explains that those who reject Islam (kāfirūn), comprise one group even if they differ among themselves. They thus mirror the Muslims, who are divided into sects but remain within the single fold of Islam.

According to the Islamic tradition, belief (īmān) and unbelief (kufr) have existed since the creation of humankind, and the religion of Muḥammad is only a continuation and culmination of the true monotheistic belief system that was brought by every divinely inspired prophet. The Qurʾān states that “every (human) community was sent a guide” (13:7). While the exact number of prophets sent by God is believed to be unknown, some ḥadīth state the number to be 125,000, with many scholars interpreting this figuratively as meaning that a great number have been sent over human history.

All of these prophets taught the same doctrine, most importantly the unitary existence of God (tawḥīd), while the sacred law given to each prophet was not always the same. Those who believed in the prophet of their time (be he Adam, Noah, Moses, Jesus, or Muḥammad) were the believers of their time, and those who rejected the message of the prophet sent to them were the unbelievers of their time. Thus, the Jews were the believers of their time, but those of them who rejected the message of Christ after his coming became unbelievers (as Jesus is considered a prophet according to the Islamic tradition), and the band of followers who had been with Jesus became the believers. According to the Islamic tradition, the doctrine and laws sent with Jesus were not preserved, thus warranting the coming of the Prophet Muḥammad, whose teachings are believed to retain divine protection till the end of time. He is thus the final prophet of God, whose message continues to be valid for all time and who was sent to all peoples. Those who exist on earth after his coming and do not accept his message are considered to be unbelievers in a state of kufr.

Non-Muslims and Exposure to Islam

Anyone not professing Islam is considered, for legal purposes, to be in a state of kufr. Muslim jurists further divided unbelievers into three categories: 1) the People of the Book (Ahl al-Kitāb), a Qurʾānic concept that encompasses Jews, Christians, and a much disputed group called Sabaeans; 2) those communities which preserve some elements of a revealed scripture (shibhat kitāb), including Zoroastrians and, according to the Ḥanafī school, Hindus and Buddhists; and 3) all other religious groups, who fall under the category of pagans or idolaters (mushrikūn). All three of these groups are considered to be kāfirs, or unbelievers, including the People of the Book, the latter simply being a subset of the former.

This application of the term kufr and the definitions of belief/unbelief do not correspond directly with salvation/damnation, however. Islamic doctrine teaches that, in general, those who believed in the prophet of their time and performed good deeds are destined for heaven, and those who rejected him are destined for hell. But those human beings who were not reached by the message of a prophet or who did not receive it in a clear and reliable form fall under the special category of ahl al-fatrah, or the People of the Attenuation of Prophecy, whom God will judge independent of prophecy. These are communities or individuals who lived in times and places when God’s message was not delivered.

The ahl al-fatrah concept emerged in ninth-century theological discourse along with the question of the salvational fate of the unbelievers who died as children (see Kitāb al-Ibānah of al-Ashʿarī). It was based on Qurʾān 5:19 and a number of rare ḥadīths explaining that those living in such circumstances were one of the four groups of people who will be spared the punishments of hellfire even though they died as non-Muslims (the other groups being the deaf, the developmentally disabled, and the senile; see Musnad Ibn Ḥanbal 16559). The ahl al-fatrah will be tested by God on the Day of Judgment to determine their fate, with one of the above ḥadīths explaining that God will kindle a fire on the Day of Judgment for the ahl al-fatrah to leap over as a test of their worth (Musnad of Abū Yaʿlā al-Mawṣilī). Later theologians such as al-Suyūṭī (d. 1505) noted that not all the ahl al-fatrah could expect salvation, since those who had flagrantly broken with God’s will and common morality would no doubt be punished for their iniquity. Al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) described a further subset of the ahl al-fatrah: those who were reached by a distorted version of the message of the Prophet. They would also not be accountable, since they did not hear the true version of his message, and their rejection would not count as the kufr that leads to hell.

The concept of ahl al-fatrah has received renewed attention among Muslim theologians in the modern period. Some, like the British Muslim scholar T. J. Winter, emphasize the capacity of the Prophet to intercede on behalf of an unbeliever provided he or she has “a grain of faith” in God (Winter, pp. 137–140). Even the arch-conservative Salafī scholar of Yemen, Muqbil al-Wādiʿī (d. 2001), stated that the populations of Europe and the United States are generally to be classified as ahl al-fatrah due to their ignorance of Islam’s true teachings. At the same time, the contemporary Shāfiʿī jurist and Sufi Nuh Keller warns of a possible outcome of such assertions, namely confessional complacency. With the aim of encouraging non-Muslims to continue their study of Islam, he states that even if non-Muslims have the possibility of eventual salvation, “this does not entail that someone given amnesty for his ignorance of the true revelation of his time, no matter how virtuous he may be, can attain to the felicity [in Paradise] of someone who believes in that revelation” (Keller, p. 309).

Some modern Muslim scholarship has posited the “universality of all religions,” by asserting that the religious texts of Islam indicate the possibility of salvation for any human being who believes in God. They utilize ḥadīths describing monotheists exiting the hellfire after their sins are expiated (e.g., “Whoever says ‘No god but God’ enters Heaven”), as well as the following verse of the Qurʾān: “Verily those who believe, the Jewry, the Christians, the Sabaeans, whoever shall believe in God and the Last Day and work righteousness, they shall have their wage with their Lord, no fear need they have neither shall they grieve” (2:62).

This verse has traditionally been interpreted by Muslim exegetes as a rejoinder to Jewish and Christian parochialism, since the latter groups believe themselves to have exclusive right to salvation and chosen status before God. In contrast, as discussed above, Muslim scholarship has never held that the followers of Muḥammad are the only ones destined for heaven. Instead, they have unanimously asserted a level of universalism in that anyone who submitted to God and followed the religious law as dictated to the prophet of their time was to be considered a believer. At the same time, classical Muslim scholarship held that universalist soteriological acceptance does not apply to those who come after Muhammad and knowingly reject his message (since according to the logic above, he is considered “the prophet of the time”). This belief is clear from the conclusion of the Shāfiʿī jurist al-Nawawī (d. 1277), who declared, “Someone who does not believe that whoever follows another religion besides Islam is an unbeliever (such as Christians), or doubts that such a person is an unbeliever, or considers their sect to be valid, is himself an unbeliever (kāfir) even if he manifests Islam and believes in it.”

Legal vs. Soteriological Distinctions

The category of belief and unbelief must also be understood on the two planes of law and salvation. As early as the tenth century, Muslim theologians had articulated a distinction between “legal faith” (īmān sharʿī) and “faith of innate nature” (īmān fiṭrī). Though revelation and the teachings of the Sharīʿah made it clear that certain beliefs were heretical or constituted denial of God, the actual fate of individuals in the Afterlife was known only to God. In this earthly life, however, people had to fit into confessional categories that had real legal and social implications. Islamic primary sources assert that non-Muslims could not marry Muslim women, bequeath to Muslims, or inherit from them (Maghnisāwī, p. 67). The need to determine who does and does not retain such rights led Muslim jurists to define kufr from a legal perspective.

Thus, in general, according to Muslim jurists, a Muslim cannot marry a kāfir, eat meat they slaughter, inherit from them, or coexist with them without restriction under Muslim rule, except according to the following conditions and exceptions.


According to all schools of Islamic law, under no circumstances is a Muslim woman allowed to marry a non-Muslim. Muslim men are also prohibited to marry non-Muslim women, except if the non-Muslim woman is from the People of the Book, that is, she is a Christian or a Jew. This permission does not extend to Zoroastrians, whom the Sharīʿah treats as People of the Book only on issues such as freedom of religious practice. The permissibility of marrying women from the People of the Book, mentioned explicitly in the Qurʾān (5:5), had further restrictions placed on it by some jurists. In the Shāfiʿī school, some jurists held that both parents of the non-Muslim woman must be of the People of the Book as well for a Muslim man to marry her. One position of the Shāfiʿī school expanded this further, stating that the non-Muslim woman’s Christian or Jewish lineage had to extend back to before the advent of Muḥammad. Many contemporary jurists hold that it is prohibitively disliked (makrūh taḥrīman) for a Muslim man to marry a non-Muslim woman, even if she be from the People of the Book, if he does not have reasonable surety that he will be able to raise their children as Muslims. In the case that a Muslim man does lawfully marry a non-Muslim woman, she is entitled to full marital rights of support and good treatment, to the extent that if a man were to engage in polygamy and have one Muslim and one non-Muslim wife, both wives would be entitled through the Sharīʿah to equal treatment.

An interesting scenario arises when a married non-Muslim converts to Islam. Muslim jurists have held that if a non-Muslim man becomes Muslim, his marriage to a Christian or Jewish woman stands, while a marriage to a woman of any other religion is automatically dissolved. In the case of a non-Muslim woman, however, if she becomes Muslim, her marriage (assuming she was married to a non-Muslim) is dissolved without exception. On a case-by-case basis, Muslim scholars have not always strictly enforced this legal ruling, with the hope of helping the woman and eventually her non-Muslim husband to come “fully into Islam” on their own. Some have tried to legalize this leniency in the modern period, drawing on a diversity of classical opinion on this issue (such as those of Ibn Qayyim al-Jawzīyah). For instance, contemporary scholars such as Yūsuf al-Qaraḍāwī and Ṭāhā al-ʿAlwānī have issued fatwās that such a woman can remain married to a husband from the People of the Book provided she is allowed to practice her religion freely, though the majority of Muslim jurists, Sunnī and Shīʿī alike, continue to hold to the classical view.

Slaughtered Meat

The consumption of meat is considered unlawful in Islamic law, except in the case where the animal undergoes ritual slaughter (dhibḥ). The one doing the slaughter must be a Muslim, a Jew, or a Christian (thus, again, like in marriage, a major exception is made for the People of the Book). Other conditions apply as well, such as that the animal must be alive at the time of slaughter, that it not be an animal specifically prohibited by the Qurʾān and sunnah (like pigs), and that it be killed with a sharp knife in a way that quickly severs the neck arteries of the animal (thus inflicting the least amount of pain). The majority of Muslim jurists (excluding Shāfiʿīs) also require that the name of God be pronounced at the time of slaughter, with the Ḥanafīs requiring it to be mentioned over each animal. Thus, as far as contemporary application of these rules are concerned, Muslims are permitted to eat kosher meat, as follows: the Shāfiʿīs can eat kosher meat that follows the Islamic rules of slaughter (as mentioned above), even if the name of God is not pronounced at the time of slaughter. Ḥanbalīs required only one blessing per slaughter session. For Ḥanafīs, kosher meat would only be considered permissible if it could be ascertained that the name of God was pronounced over the specific animal being consumed (and not merely at the start of a series of slaughters, where one blessing is used for multiple animals).


Muslim jurists divide a deceased person’s wealth according to two main categories: bequests (waṣiyyah) and apportioned heirs to the estate. Muslims are permitted according to Islamic law to designate up to one-third of their wealth at the time of death in the form of a bequest, while the rest must be divided according to rules of estate division specified in the Qurʾān and ḥadīths. Muslims are allowed to designate all of their bequest to a non-Muslim, regardless of their religious identity, and may also accept the bequest of a non-Muslim. But a Muslim is not allowed to inherit from a non-Muslim via estate division, nor does Islamic law permit a non-Muslim relative to inherit from a Muslim’s estate division. Imami Shiʿite jurists, however, hold that a Muslim may inherit from the estate division of a non-Muslim. Some contemporary Sunnī scholars, mainly those who do not adhere to a legal school, also hold this latter position.


In order to accommodate non-Muslim subjects within the Islamic state, Muslim jurists developed a set of laws for Ahl al-Dhimmah, or “those granted protection” (see Dhimmīs). Non-Muslim men who acquiesced to Muslim conquest were allowed to retain their religion and apply their own laws in personal and communal legal matters provided they paid the poll tax. The Qurʾān initially allowed this status for the People of the Book, but the Prophet extended this ruling to Zoroastrians, and Muslims later extended it to Hindus and Buddhists.

All the sets of legal rulings discussed in this entry show the underlying concern of the jurists and scholars regarding unrestricted social coexistence, and the necessary link between social identity and religiosity. They also reflect a pre-modern worldview in which political and religious identity were linked. The following discussion of a modern Ḥanafī jurist reflects this understanding:

"Intimate and heartfelt friendship is not allowed with [non-Muslims]…On the basis of this juristic principle, Mazhari has ruled that justice, equity, and fairness are necessary even with the hostile disbelievers who are at war with Muslims. Prohibition applies only in the case of cordial and friendly intimacy, not in the case of courteous attitude and kindness. This shows that it is permissible to be polite and courteous to those hostile enemies who are at war with Muslims. However, treating them with tenderness and courtesy should not cause danger, threat, harm or loss to Muslims. Wherever courtesy or tenderness might pose such a danger, it is not permitted to be tender or courteous towards them. Of course, justice and equity in all cases and under all circumstances are necessary and imperative" (Shāfiʿi, 8:420).

Thus, close, intimate relations are only permitted among co-religionists, due to the understanding that it is such close interaction that nurtures faith and religious practice. Such an understanding also helps explain why apostasy is treated so severely by Islamic law. Private confessions of unbelief by a formerly practicing Muslim are to be dealt with through counseling and encouragement. But public, hostile confessions were seen by pre-modern Muslim jurists to not only be treasonous but also a mass call to religious doubt.

At the same time, the quote above also shows that even in periods of hostility, according to the Sharīʿah ethical and just treatment of non-Muslims must be upheld at all times. In the modern period, as more Muslims have found themselves living under non-Muslim rule, jurists have sought to clarify how to maintain a balance between working with non-Muslims in creating a harmonious society, while still preserving a distinct sense of religious identity. Thus, while we find contemporary jurists discouraging practices like celebrating Christmas and even birthdays or Halloween, if they are practices associated with the cultural or religious identity of unbelievers, some of these same jurists saw the value of participating in A Common Word in 2007, which was a high profile call for mutual understanding and cooperation on points of theology and practice between Muslims and Christians. In an age of globalization and democracy, where it is more and more difficult to draw the line between Muslim and kāfir/non-Muslim culture, the ability to use religious law to create boundaries between Muslim and non-Muslim cultural practice has become an increasingly complex and difficult endeavor.



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