Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

The Non-Believer’s Role in the Qur’an: Deena Zaki

The ethical systems of the Qur’an are extensive and many of these systems coincide with the act of  unbelief (kufr). Ethical systems, such as role-ethics, character/virtue based ethics, and intention ethics, all play a part in kufr.  The unbeliever is mentioned numerously in the Qur’an in different references. It is important to note that there is a large range of meaning to kufr and it is not a one-dimensional topic. To be an unbeliever is to be ungrateful, arrogant, and contentious; indeed, the farther one strays from the truth, evil becomes more susceptible. This is explained in Rahman’s reading, “On the topic of role-ethics, a large part of this tradition is following in the principles and morals of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). One can learn a lesson in ethics from the prophet’s early followers. When he makes his quest to Medina, a few of his tribesman go against him and his message; these are the hypocrites (munafiqun). These followers that were supposed to protect this truth went against it, and therefore, defied the message of God, thus going astray, which follows one of the elements of kufr. Even before the mission of the Prophet, God says “And those who were given the book did not separate.” In other words, the Prophet’s followers made an agreement that they would not separate from the truth, yet the munafiqun defy this.
An epic example of the beginning of kufr would be Satan’s discourse with God. When the angels prostrated before God in honor of Him, the jinn and Satan defy this.  Satan believes he is superior. He is made of fire, and fire is superior to clay, in the opinion of Satan. Satan is not only condemned for this, but for his hopelessness and despair for those who reject truth and they are described as “the hallmark of the unbelievers”. The Qur’an says “Do not despair of God’s mercy for none despair of God’s mercy except unbelievers (12: 87) This contention that Satan has with God causes Him to curse Satan. Satan is okay with this, and makes a deal with God: to steer humans away from good. The Qur’an says “Indeed, My servants- no authority will you have over them, except those who follow you of the deviators.” (15:42) Why might God allow this exchange to happen? Perhaps it is because for the believer, it should not be as easy to be steered into the path of evil. This is not to say that there is a moral struggle even for the most pious followers of God. However, even prophets were capable of committing sin. All human beings are capable of evil, however, the idea is that those who believe and practice God’s message, God is with them, “provided they make the necessary effort.” Man is unique in the sense that they are God’s vicegerent and are given free will. It is a strong relationship in which God puts His trust in man, “to create a moral social order on earth.”
The element of ingratitude in kufr, the ingrate or kafur, is also mentioned in the Qur’an. Izutzu talks about how this ingratitude presents itself the most in times of distress, where man is forgetful of all that he is given and only retains the times he is hurt. In Surah Al-Isra, the Qur’an says, “It is your Lord who drives the ship for you through the sea that you may seek of His bounty, so merciful he is towards you. But when he delivers you to the land, you turn away And ever is man ungrateful.” Rahman describes this as man’s weakness and unstable character, how they go from one extreme to another. These extremes being living daily life without God in mind, and only thanking and being grateful for God when good arrives. This can also go the other way. When man is burdened, they blame God and then remember him that way. The web-like structure of the Qur’an moral system can be seen here seen here as well. Ingratitude of man can evolve into arrogance and contention, such is the case with the example of Satin in the Qur’an. He is ungrateful of God’s creation, and argues with his message, thus his lack of trust, kufr, turns into arrogance and finally, contention.
Izutsu goes as far as separating this arrogance into two sections: mocking and contention. The Jahiliyyah, or “Age of Ignorance” is an example of this mockery of God’s message. When the Prophet Muhammad(PBUH) presents the Qur’an to the Arabs, they mock his message and dismiss it. These are know as the arrogant ones, or mutakabbir. Contention is much more serious because not only are you mocking God, but directly rebutting his commands. The Qur’an says, “Those who wrangle concerning the signs of God, without any warrant given them- this is greatly hateful in the sight of God and those who believe. Thus does God put a seal on every insolent and arrogant heart.”


Izutsu, T. Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Quran. Montréal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2014.

Rahman, Fazlur. Major Themes of the Qur’an. Accessed March 16, 2018.

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