The popular Egyptian daily newspaper and website al-Masry al-Youm (“the Egyptian Today”) recently published a fatwa titled “What Is the Ruling on Selling Food to Infidels during the Daylight [Hours] of Ramadan?” The fatwa concluded that, no, it is not permissible for Muslims to sell food, even if the purchaser and consumer is a non-Muslim.
As discussed here, because the daily newspaper that published this fatwa, al-Masry al-Youm, has long been seen as a progressive, reformist newspaper—one that thrives on exposing and combatting Islamist intolerance—its readership, which includes not a few Coptic Christians, responded in uproar. Hours later, the online version of the paper deleted the fatwa, suspended its editor, and issued an apology.
Most instructive of this entire episode—especially for non-Muslims unfamiliar with the minutia of Islam—was the focus of the apology. No one was upset at, and the newspaper did not apologize for, the fatwa’s conclusion (many Egyptian Christians, out of “consideration,” already know to refrain from handling food in public during Ramadan). Rather, the point of contention was that the fatwa utilized—and, worse, the paper published—the word kafir (usually translated into English as “infidel”) to refer to all non-Muslims.
As the daily explained in its apology, “This fatwa applied the term kafir to those who are of a different religion. This is a term that al-Masry al-Youm never uses and completely rejects, as this term draws upon a negative framework that has long afflicted many in Egyptian society.”
Some context is needed to appreciate the significance of all this. In the Koran, the Arabic word for those who disbelieve its message and messenger (Muhammad)—that is, all non-Muslims—is kafir (in the singular; kuffar or kafara in the plural). Accordingly, all throughout history and in their writings, whenever Muslims referred to non-Muslims, they referred to them as kuffar. This remains evident in the fact that many older English translations of the Koran rendered the words kafir/kuffar as non-Muslim(s) or disbeliever(s).
The problem, however, and what few apologists for Islam want to admit openly, is that the word kafir is chock-full of decidedly negative associations. To Muslim ears, it connotes “enemies,” “evil-doers,” and every vile human attribute.
In short, Islam’s sacred scriptures present the kuffar—meaning all non-Muslims—in the most negative terms possible.
Thus the Koran refers to kuffar as inherently “guilty” and “unjust” (10:17, 45:31, 68:35); terror is to be cast into their hearts (3:151); they are the “vilest of beasts” (8:55, 98:6), comparable to “cattle,” and “devoid of understanding” (47:12, 8:65); they are natural-born “enemies” to Muslims (4:101), “disliked” and “accursed” by Allah (2:89, 3:32, 33:64), who further declares himself their implacable “enemy” (2:98).
Again, this is how the Koran describes non-Muslims, even if they have never once spoken against or harmed Islam.
Unsurprisingly, then, sharia mandates hostility for the kuffar—unremitting jihad, with all the attendant death and destruction that has always entailed, when Muhammad’s followers are strong; deception and smooth-talk, when they are weak and in need of biding time for a more opportune moment.
Thus, according to Koran 9:5, Muslims must “slay” those non-Muslims who reject Islam’s political authority, “wherever you find them—seize them, besiege them, and make ready to ambush them!”
What about ahl al-kitab, the so-called “people of the book,” a phrase the Koran sometimes applies to Jews and Christians. Are they kuffar or not? Although Islam’s apologists regularly argue for the latter, ahl al-kitab is ultimately a subcategory of kafir.
Certainly, the rules governing them are less severe: instead of being enslaved or killed outright, Christians and Jews, on payment of tribute (jizya), were allowed to live, but only as second class citizens (who, according to Koran 9:29, must feel themselves subdued and humbled). That said, any Jew or Christian who refused to pay monetary tribute and/or refused to submit to being treated as a second class citizen, instantly defaulted back to their status as kuffar—meaning, they too became existential enemies to be warred on, enslaved, or killed (see the Conditions of Omar).
From here one begins to understand the scandal that the popular and supposedly “progressive” newspaper al-Masry al-Youm created by publishing a fatwa that referred to non-Muslims—of whom there are at least ten million in Egypt, known as Coptic Christians, many of whom subscribe to the daily—as kuffar.
(For more on this topic, including as it pertains to Egypt, see my 2011 exchange with Sheikh Ali Gomaa, back when he was Grand Mufti of Egypt.)