Will Dresser — Relationship between Kufr and Salih

The Qur’an is a text that encompasses the whole of human endeavor and seeks to guide humanity on a path toward God. At the center of this pathway for human progress exists two powerful and dueling concepts: Salih and Kufr. At there most fundamental levels these two concepts could be said to represent good and evil respectively, but as with all things in the Qur’an there is a necessity for a more complex and complete reading to glean their true gravity. As Izutsu says each form the “pivot” around which the broad nature of “righteousness” and “faithlessness” in Islam turn.

As touched on above, the concept of Kufr can be roughly translated as ‘to cover’, indicating a refusal or rejection of God’s blessings even in the face of them. It is applicable however to many more forms as a descriptor of lost virtue, and can even be considered “the exact antonym of iman(belief)1.” Kufr also derives uniqueness from the fact that it is only capable for man to take toward God, but “impossible” for God to feel toward man2. Therefore, it is a creation of God that is not part of Him for he will always reward good deeds and “is aware of everything3.”

          Salih can be considered to broadly represent ‘righteous’ or ‘good’, and generally describes methods of conduct, but also types of men. Tied intimately with iman, Salih deals with the concept of ‘good works’ that must be coupled with belief for true faith4. Several key elements are given plainly such as ‘worship none save God’, but many other positive elements which are vaguer fall under the umbrella of Salih. It has synonymous concepts as well as a variety of opposing ideals that helps build up the complexity of understanding in much the same way as Kufr.

Within Kufr there are particular aspects of humanity that are associated with ingratitude and disbelief. Of particular note are the traits of ‘arrogance’ or ‘haughtiness’, which Izutsu goes so far as to describe as the “most typical character of a Kafir5.” Arrogance inherently signals a notion that one is incapable of registering something above oneself, which is critical in any true belief of God, “there is nothing in their hearts save a pride they can never satisfy6.” The connection of arrogance to pre-Islamic nomadic society where one’s ability was a deciding factor in their fate and position should not be overlooked7. In emphasizing a move away from such arrogance, six different terms are used in describing six different, negative connotations of arrogance.

The concept of ‘going astray’ from the path of God or dalla is also central in the scope of Kufr. Just as Kufr generally refers to a degree of ungratefulness, this ungratefulness generally manifests in a departure from the path of God. However, the nature of going astray is further explored through the use of amiha (to wander astray blindly) and a more sever descriptor, ghaflah (to remain utterly heedless of)8. Taking these various levels into account creates a more complex relationship to the departure from the path of God, which more accurately reflects the actual human experience. Even Muhammad is said to have been in a state of ghaflah before the revelation came to him, “And yet before it you were heedless9.” Creating this complex nature around disbelief is not only more honest and telling then a black and white distinction, but elevates the ideal of faith as a difficult goal that cannot be reached through a mindless doctrine.

The nature of Salih reinforces this complexity of faith through various levels and distinctions among itself. One of the most telling and interesting aspects of Salih is the idea of Ma’ruf, the ‘known’. This virtue emphasizes the need and inherent goodness of what is in essence familiar or “socially acceptable10.” Izutsu draws a parallel between this aspect of Salih and the traditional nomadic virtue from which the concept originates. As a consequence of this becoming a virtue, the notion of Munkar (the unknown) takes on a negative connotation. This divide is made fairly explicit in the text, “Let there be among you a group who call to virtue, who command the good(ma’ruf) and forbid vice(munkar)11.” Once faith has been established, this seems to be a very firm way in which to discourage believers to stray from it for some new belief.

Just as the notions under Salih draw stark contrasts with notions under Kufr, they retain similar broad scopes. Khayar for example seems to occupy a very broad definition of ‘good’ and is applicable under multiple descriptors on different aspects of faith. When paired with its antithesis sharr(misfortune) it creates the test by which God judges’ humans, “We put you to the test, with evil(sharr) and good(khayar), as an ordeal, and to Us you shall return12.”  Again duality at multiple levels forces contemplation on actions/virtues individual worth. This difficulty of interpretation is felt not only by individual believers, but can also create difficulty in wider theological debate on reconciling sometimes competing notions13.

Qualifying the general concepts of disbelief and faith within a religion requires a broad scope. The notions of Kufr and Salih are central in establishing that vision of what faith should be. They work together to reveal the many facets of belief around every seeming occurrence, and are broad enough to give the issue the complexity it deserves. The ability to ground actions in specific areas of belief or disbelief, but then bring them out into a greater context and see how they might relate is a powerful and necessary tool for religious belief.

 

 

1.Izutsu, Toshihiko. Ethico-religious Concepts in the Quran. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002. (120)

  1. Izutsu, Toshihiko. Ethico-religious Concepts in the Quran. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002. (120)
  1. Khalidi, Tarif. The Qur’an: A New Translation. New York: Viking, 2008. (2,158)
  2. Izutsu, Toshihiko. Ethico-religious Concepts in the Quran. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002. (204)
  3. Izutsu, Toshihiko. Ethico-religious Concepts in the Quran. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002. (142)
  4. Khalidi, Tarif. The Qur’an: A New Translation. New York: Viking, 2008. (40,55)
  5. Izutsu, Toshihiko. Ethico-religious Concepts in the Quran. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002. (143)
  6. Izutsu, Toshihiko. Ethico-religious Concepts in the Quran. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002. (138)
  7. Khalidi, Tarif. The Qur’an: A New Translation. New York: Viking, 2008. (12.3)
  8. Izutsu, Toshihiko. Ethico-religious Concepts in the Quran. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002. (213)
  9. Khalidi, Tarif. The Qur’an: A New Translation. New York: Viking, 2008. (3,103)
  10. Khalidi, Tarif. The Qur’an: A New Translation. New York: Viking, 2008. (21,35)
  11. Izutsu, Toshihiko. Ethico-religious Concepts in the Quran. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002. (227)