Andrew Seligson: The Concept of Kufr and Salih in Muslim Practice

The words Kufr and Salih point towards the notion of idea-actions. As we have discussed in class, intention plays a crucial role in Islamic theology. The “idea” or “intent” behind an action is almost as important as the action and its consequences: “Morality in Islam had its origin in religion and developed exclusively within its eschatological framework”.[1] In other words, morality and ones actions are always oriented towards the eschatological goals of Islam; namely, the day of judgment, the belief in the afterlife, and the creation of an ordered society based on the ethical teachings of the Prophet.

The word Salih refers to actions done for the sake of furthering the cause of Islam. These deeds are for all intents and purposes “good”, but to simplify them to just being a good deed would miss a few key components. Salih has a component of right belief that makes the pious and righteous. It is for this reason that salih is also linked to the iman (belief): “Faith, in other words, cannot be perfect if it is not accompanied by good works. This is, in short, the doctrine of Khawarij”.[2] In my view, this raises the problem of how faith and good works live in a dialectical tension. Good works without the right intention are empty, whereas faith and right intention without doing good works as a result of that faith makes that faith essentially meaningless. The question becomes: What is the criterion for good works and right intention? The Izutsu reading builds upon and summarizes verse Surah verses 77-83 to create a compelling case for the basics of good works: “To worship none save God; to be good to parents, near kinsmen, orphans, and the needy; to speak kindly to everyone; to perform the prayer; and to pay the alms”.[3]

In terms of what the criterion for intention is, this can be found in the concept of Birr. The concept of birr very much involves the component of will and motivation behind any action. As we noted in class, the love of God is often linked and even necessitates a love of neighbor. This is a classically religious concept, and as the Isutzu points out, was in many ways derived from and expanded upon pre-Islamic Arab virtues: “The difference lies in this, that Islam denied all value to acts of generosity originating in the desire to make a show”.[4] This is further spelled out in Surah 2, verse 266: “O believers, you must not make your charity van by grudging and making disagreeable remarks, as one who expends of his wealth simply for the pleasure of an ostentatious display, and not from his belief in God and the Last Day”.[5] Lastly, The Isutzu reading makes the critical point that “piety, in other words, cannot be piety unless it manifests itself in various works motivated by the will to practice justice and love towards others”[6]. What this entails is that there is a key link between the love of God, love of Neighbor, and the motivation to create a more just society. These all form the structure of Salih.

Kufr, on the other hand, is a concept with multifarious meanings and sub-strands. On a basic level, Kufr means to be lead astray, and thus to be unthankful to Allah for sustenance, grace, and the capacity for doing good: “The word naturally comes to mean ‘to cover’, i.e. to ignore knowingly the benefits which one has received, and thence, to be ‘unthankful’”.[7] This raises the problem of what goes into leading astray, and how this going astray affects others. In my mind, one of the key responsibilities of religious practice in any tradition is the capacity to help lead and guide others in their Jihad. While the Qur’an words that each person must ‘carry their own cross’, to borrow a term from the Gospels, in practice, failing to be a spiritual helper or even leading others astray in their faith is one of the key components of Kufr. This is summarized in one of the sub-concepts of Kufr; namely, Dalal. Dalal essentially means turning away from the right path, which is against one’s own interests as well as of the interests of the community.

In general, the unwillingness to accept revelation was a state of the pre-Islamic tribal society. When the Prophet Muhammad received the revelation from God, each person was asked to take on this new social structure and belief system that reflected an acceptance of that revelation. The old ways of the tribal society could be summarized by the concept of istankafu or the nomadic virtue of muruwah:

The concept, as we saw, is based on an exceedingly high opinion of human power. It was considered most natural in Jahiliyah that he who was conscious of the inherence of power in his soul should manifest it in all his behavior, that should act with pride and haughtiness. . . From the standpoint of Islam, however, such an attitude of man was nothing less than a titanic rebellion against the supreme authority of God[8]


This distinction between the old ways of the tribal society and the new ways purported by Islam became a defining feature of the juxtaposed concepts of Kufr and Salih. While it was clearly not a direct supersession of completely new Islamic virtues into a completely tribal and immoral society. Rather, these concepts were directly linked to monotheistic and eschatological beliefs that ultimately defined intention and motivation as being on an equal footing with good works.

[1] Toshihiko Izutsu, “Good and Bad” in Ethico-religious Concepts in the Qurʹān, (Montreal: McGill University, Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University Press, 1966), 203

[2] ibid, 204

[3] ibid, 205

[4] Toshihiko Izutsu, “The Islamization of Arab Virtues” in Ethico-religious Concepts in the Qurʹān, 77

[5] Surah 2:264-266

[6] Toshihikio Izutsu, “Good and Bad”, in Ethico-religious Concepts in the Qur’an, 207

[7] Toshihiko Izutsu, “The Inner structure of the Concept of Kufr” in Ethico-religious Concepts in the Qurʹān, 120

[8] ibid, 143