Ayat 6 of Surah Al-Kafirun (لكم دينكم ولي دين), translated by Saheeh International as “for you is your religion, and for me is my religion”, is now often cited by many people as a basis for tolerance in Islam. Meaning, according to them, to show the respect and peace between Muslims and persons of other faiths. However, did the mufassirin understand this particular ayat to mean tolerance? In this post I share a short summary of what this ayat is about according to 12 tafsir works I have access to.
The Asbab al-Nuzul (cause of revelation) of this ayat
As a lot of the tafsir seem to be heavily related to the asbab al-nuzul of Surah Al-Kafirun, it is perhaps important to briefly mention
It appears that the asbab al-nuzul was reported by Ibn Ishaq who is a very problematic narrator according to some ahl al-rijal, but most if not all mufassirs that I have read have cited this narration and a portion of the tafsir of this surah is based on the hikmah of the narrated incident.
The narration goes that that a group of Makkan disbelievers offered a compromise: the Makkan disbelievers would worship like Prophet Muhammad ﷺ for a period of time, then the Prophet would worship like the disbelievers for another period of time, and they would keep taking turns like that. Also, the disbelievers offered to adopt some of the Prophet’s teachings that are good, but asked him to also adopt some of the disbeliever’s practices that are deemed good.
Surah Al-Kafirun was revealed as response to this offer, and all six ayats were revealed together in that moment.
The following are the summary of the mufassirin’s comments on Surah Al-Kafirun verse 6. I selected a combination of (mostly) classical and (a few) contemporary tafsirs on the subject, and focused on the interpretations that are relevant to the issue at hand. Meaning, I do not mention matters such as the sunnah of reciting Surah Al-Kafirun before sleeping etc.
Imam Muhammad ibn Jarir Al-Tabari (classical mufassir and mujtahid musta‘qil)
Imam Al-Tabari mentions first that this surah implies that the disbelievers making the offer to Prophet Muhammad ﷺ will die as disbelievers (i.e. never accepted Islam). Also, this surah shows that they do not have any hope from dissuading the Prophet ﷺ from his da‘wah because he will never leave what he believes (i.e. tawhid) in exchange for what the disbelievers do (i.e. shirk). That, too, is what Imam Al-Tabari mentions about ayat 6.
(taken from his Jami’ al-Bayan ‘an Ta’wil ay Al-Qur’an)
Imam Al-Husein Ibn Mas‘ud Al-Baghawi (classical Shafi‘i mufassir)
Imam Al-Baghawi mentions that this ayat means that Shirk is for the disbelievers, and tawhid is for the Muslims. Meaning, as Al-Baghawi explains, this ayat emphasizes the Prophet’s disavowal towards shirk and the offer made by the disbelievers (as per the asbab al-nuzul).
Imam Al-Baghawi adds that this verse is abrogated (Mansukh) by the verses of jihad, citing Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi.
(Taken from his Ma‘alim al-Tanzil)
Imam Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Al-Qurtubi (classical Maliki mufassir)
Imam Al-Qurtubi explains in his tafsir that this last ayat of Surah Al-Kafirun is a threat towards the disbelievers. He mentions that it means that the Muslims are pleased with their own diin (i.e. Islam) and the disbelievers are pleased with their own diin, and that each would be rewarded (or punished) for what they are pleased of respectively.
Al-Qurtubi opines that this verse is abrogated (Mansukh) by the verses of jihad, and he mentions that some scholars say that the whole surah is abrogated by the verses of jihad.
(taken from his Al-Jami li Ahkam al-Qur’an)
Imam Fakhr al-Din Al-Razi (classical Shafi’i mufassir)
This verse is a threat, because the disbelievers and Muslims would be recompensed for what each of them did (and the disbelievers will only receive disaster for their disbelief). He also adds that this verse emphasizes that those who choose to disbelieve should not attempt to convince the Prophet ﷺ to follow their path of disbelief.
(taken from his Mafatih al-Ghayb)
Imam ‘Ali ibn Muhammad Al-Mawardi (classical Shafi‘i jurist)
After he mentioned how this verse implies that the disbelievers and the Muslims will each be granted recompense for what they have done, he cited Ibn ‘Isa who said that this ayat means as a threat to the disbelievers. He further cites Ibn ‘Abbas who said that there is no surah that invokes the anger of Iblees than this surah that declares how tawhid is distinct and free from Shirk.
(taken from his Al-Nukat wa al-‘Uyun)
Imam Jalaludin Al-Suyuti (classical Shafi‘i muhaddith and jurist)
Imam Al-Suyuti explains, in short, that this verse is a strong emphasis of his disavowal towards the shirk committed by the mushriks.
(taken from his Al-Durr al-Manthur)
Imam Ibn Al-Qayyim Al-Jawziyah (classical Hanbali jurist)
Imam Ibn Al-Qayyim explains how Surah Al-Kafirun basically emphasizes how the language from ayat 2 onwards is nafi (disavowal) of one towards each other indicating how different, distinct, apart, far away, and free tawhid and shirk are from each other and how they will never meet.
As this meaning can be found in the ayats of this surah up to ayat 5, the Imam questions whether ayat 6 adds any new meaning other than what has been explained up to ayat 5 as it appears to contain the same message). The Imam answers his own question by saying that there is more meaning. While ayat 2-5 mentions what is for the Prophet ﷺ first, ayat 6 explains what is for the disbelievers first. He explains that this is an insult towards how bad the choice of the disbelievers is to persist in committing shirk.
It must be noted that Imam Ibn Al-Qayyim disagrees with the opinion of scholars who posit that this Surah is abrogated by the ayats of jihad.
(taken from Tafsir Al-Qayyim)
Imam Isma‘il ibn Kathir (classical Shafi‘i mufassir)
After emphasizing that the main point of the previous ayats of this surah is to disavow the shirk done by the disbelievers (especially in context of the asbab al-nuzul), Imam ibn Kathir said “Therefore…” and proceeded with the tafsir of the last verse.
The Imam explained that lakum diinukum waliyadiin is like Surah Yunus (10) ayat 41: And if they deny you, [O Muḥammad], then say, “For me are my deeds, and for you are your deeds. You are disassociated from what I do, and I am disassociated from what you do.”
(taken from his Tafsir Al-Qur’an Al-Adhim)
Prof. Dr. Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah, or Buya HAMKA (Indonesian-Malay mufassir and jurist)
Buya HAMKA explains that this verse means that the worship of tauhid and shirk cannot be mixed or combined. There cannot be a compromise between the two, especially in reference to the asbab al-nuzul (i.e. the previously mentioned offer of the disbelievers to take turns in worship to achieve ‘compromise’). According to Buya HAMKA, syncretism can therefore never be accepted in Islam.
Other than citing Imam Ibn Kathir, he cites Shaykh Muhammad Abduh who interprets the ayat similarly. He also cites Al-Qurtubi who has a similar interpretation, and emphasizes that this ayat highlights how very far different and separated are Islam and kufr/shirk.
(taken from his Tafsir Al-Azhar)
Shaykh ‘Abd al-Rahman Al-Sa‘di (Hanbali jurist)
Shaykh Al-Sa‘di explains that the last ayat of Surah Al-Kafirun emphasizes the distinguishment between the two groups. As he elaborates the previous verses, the whole surah is about how different and distinct tawhid/iman and shirk/kufr are and how the latter is disavowed.
(taken from his Taysir al-Karim al-Rahman)
Shaykh Al-‘Allamah Wahbah Al-Zuhayli (Syrian Shafi‘i jurist)
This ayat highlights and emphasizes the clear line that separates and distinguishment and animosity between iman and kufr that will last forever. He also mentions that this ayat is a threat towards disbelievers, and does not indicate satisfaction towards their disbelief.
He also cites some scholars using this ayat as basis for the legal ruling that non-Muslims and Muslims do not inherit from each other.
(taken from his Tafsir al-Munir)
Ministry for Religious Affairs, Republic of Indonesia.
The ministry’s tafsir begins the tafsir of Surah Al-Kafirun (after writing the name of the surah and bismillah) with the big heading of “Tidak Ada Toleransi Dalam Hal Keimanan dan Peribadatan”. In English: “There is no tolerance in matters of iman and ibadat.”
They further explain specifically that ayat 6 is a threat to the disbelievers, as it also indicates that the disbelievers will be punished for what they have committed (i.e. kufr) while the Muslims will be rewarded for what they have committed (i.e. iman).
They concluded their tafsir of Surah Al-Kafirun with three points. Points 1-2 emphasizes that the Muslims and the disbelievers do not worship the same deity and their ibadat are not the same. Point 3 is almost exactly as the heading: There is no tolerance in matters of iman and ibadat to Allah.”
As closing, the Ministry’s tafsir mentions that Surah Al-Kafirun implies how the disbelievers have lost all hope to dissuade Prophet Muhammad ﷺ from his da‘wah.
(they appointed a tafsir scholar committee to make a compilation of tafsir and was first published in 1975, but has been periodically revised and improved over the decades. The one I am referring to appears to be the most recent one, published in 2011 as revised by a committee headed by Dr. H. Ahsin Sakho Muhammad)
This ayat (and surah) does not show any content or even peace with disbelief and shirk, rather the opposite. From what the mufassiriin explain, shows a very strong stance against the aqīdah of the disbelievers. It is a threat towards the disbelievers, and highlights how the aqīdah of the Muslims and disbelievers are too far apart and cannot be reconciled. Therefore, the mufassirin (who consider the surah in its entirety, its asbab al-nuzul, and various aspects such as how it relates to other surahs or balaghah) do not seem to see this ayat or surah related to tolerance.
However, this does not mean that Islam does not teach tolerance. My point is that Surah Al-Kafirun ayat 6 is not the basis for that. There are other ayats that seem to be more relevant to the issue of tolerance include Surah Al-Baqarah (2) ayat 256 (the prohibition to coerce non-Muslims to accept Islam) and Surah Al-Mumtahanah (60) ayat 8-9 (the good treatment of non-Muslims who are not fighting against the Muslims).
Dedication: I thank Ustaz Khairul Amin for helping me especially with the tafsir of Al-Razi, Al-Suyuti, and Al-Baghawi