We know that we cannot call the present day non-Muslims kāfir since the truth of Islam is not presented to them the way it was done by the Prophet (sws) through itmām al-hujjah (conveying the truth conclusively). My question is how did the companions of the Prophet (sws) refer to the people when they conquered far and wide beyond Arabia. Since those people (common civilians) did not witness itmām al-hujjah could they be called kāfir? Did the Companions also call them kāfir or non-Muslims or something else? Is there any authentic record where we see the Companions making distinction between a kāfir and a non-Muslim? A friend of mine told me that there is a consensus on calling non-Muslims as kāfir throughout 14 centuries. Only in the last decade people started avoiding the term kāfir for non Muslims. Please explain.
Answer: We can call the present day non-Muslims kafirs if we take into consideration the fact that the Qur’an has used the word kafir in two senses.
1. People who have denied the truth regardless of the fact that this denial is deliberate or because of some other reason. Example of this usage can be seen in the following verses of Surah Qaf, a Makkan sūrah:
ق وَالْقُرْآنِ الْمَجِيدِ بَلْ عَجِبُوا أَن جَاءهُمْ مُنذِرٌ مِّنْهُمْ فَقَالَ الْكَافِرُونَ هَذَا شَيْءٌ عَجِيبٌ (٥٠: ١-٢)
This is Surah Qaf. By the glorious Qur’ān! In fact, they were confounded by the fact that a warner from amongst themselves had come to them. So these kafirs had said: “It is a very strange thing.” (50:1-2)
2. People who have denied the truth deliberately and have thereby become worthy of God’s punishment and condemnation. Example of this usage can be seen in Sūrah Kafirun, a Madinan surah:
قُلْ يَاأَيُّهَا الْكَافِرُونَ لَا أَعْبُدُ مَا تَعْبُدُونَ (١٠٧: ١-٢)
Say: “O Kafirs! I shall worship not that which you worship. (107:1-2)
It is when used in the latter sense that the Qur’an gives many directives of punishment for them. When used in this sense, the alif lām of ‘ahad (specification) appended to the word kafir points to this specific category of non-Muslims. It is such non-Muslims against whom Muslims were required to sever ties of friendship and not mutually receive inheritance and asked to wage war. This category of non-Muslims comes into being in the time of the messengers of God since only in their times their deliberate denial can be ascertained through God.
If today we call non-Muslims kafirs. then it has to be in the first sense since we can never know after the termination of the institution of wahi whether this denial is deliberate or due to some other reason. In other words, if we use the word kāfir for them today, then we must realize that this does not refer to a condemned kafir; it only means the kafirs who have rejected Islam for any reason.
As far as the kafirs of the time of the Companions were concerned against whom they waged war, they belonged to the second category. True they did not witness the itmam al-hujjah of the Prophet (sws); however, they witnessed the result of the itmam al-hujjah in Arabia. About its initiation in Arabia they had been informed through the epistles of the Prophet (sws). Coming about of itmam al-hujjah in itself becomes an itmam al-hujjah for the onlookers. When the sun comes out you do not need to substantiate its appearance through reasoning. It is a witness on its own existence.
Thus when the Companions attacked the adjacent territories, news of the beginning of itmām al-hujjah on Arabia had already been communicated to their rulers through the letters of the Prophet (sws). As far as the masses were concerned, they were to be spared the fate of being attacked if they had questions or wanted clarification as was the case of the polytheists (mushrikun) in the times of the Prophet (sws).