Major Nifaq and Minor Nifaq in the Qur’an: Tafsir ibn Kathir

In his explanation of the beginning of surah al-Baqarah, the great expert in hadith, history and tafsir al-haafidh Ismaa’eel ibn Kathir transitioned from the ayaat describing the disbelievers to the ayaat describing the munafiqoon by writing:

لما تقدم وصف المؤمنين في صدر السورة بأربع آيات ، ثم عرف حال الكافرين بهاتين الآيتين ، شرع تعالى في بيان حال المنافقين الذين يظهرون الإيمان ويبطنون الكفر ، ولما كان أمرهم يشتبه على كثير من الناس أطنب في ذكرهم بصفات متعددة ، كل منها نفاق ، كما أنزل سورة ” براءة ” فيهم ، وسورة ” المنافقين ” فيهم ، وذكرهم في سورة ” النور ” وغيرها من السور ، تعريفا لأحوالهم لتجتنب ، ويجتنب من تلبس بها. ـ

After beginning with four ayaat describing the believers at the opening of this surah [2:2-5] and then acquainting us with the disbelievers’ condition in these two ayaat [2:6-7], Allah then moves on to explaining the situation of the munafiqoon – those who outwardly display eemaan while inwardly harboring disbelief [2:8-20]. Because of the difficulty that many people have in identifying their condition, Allah goes into detail by mentioning a number of their characteristics, all of which are nifaq. He also sent down surah al-Baraa’ah [09] and surah al-Munafiqoon [63] regarding them, as well as mentioning them in surah al-Nur [24] and elsewhere in order to acquaint us with their ways so that we could avoid their qualities and those who are characterized by them.

النفاق : هو إظهار الخير وإسرار الشر ، وهو أنواع : اعتقادي ، وهو الذي يخلد صاحبه في النار ، وعملي وهو من أكبر الذنوب ، كما سيأتي تفصيله في موضعه ، إن شاء الله تعالى ، وهذا كما قال ابن جريج : المنافق يخالف قوله فعله ، وسره علانيته ، ومدخله مخرجه ، ومشهده مغيبه . ـ

al-Nifaq is: outwardly displaying good while secretly harboring evil. And there are different varieties of nifaq:

there is Nifaq of Creed, which is the type which causes its perpetrator to spend eternity in the Hellfire,

and there is Nifaq of Deed which is one of the gravest sins.

And we shall discuss this in detail in the appropriate place, inshaAllaah.

All of this is just as ibn Jurayj said, “The munafiq‘s words and actions are at odds, his secrets and public face are at odds, his entering and exiting are at odds, and his public life and private life are at odds.”

وإنما نزلت صفات المنافقين في السور المدنية ؛ لأن مكة لم يكن فيها نفاق ، بل كان خلافه ، من الناس من كان يظهر الكفر مستكرها ، وهو في الباطن مؤمن ، فلما هاجر رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم إلى المدينة ، وكان بها الأنصار من الأوس والخزرج ، وكانوا في جاهليتهم يعبدون الأصنام على طريقة مشركي العرب ، وبها اليهود من أهل الكتاب على طريقة أسلافهم ، وكانوا ثلاث قبائل : بنو قينقاع حلفاء الخزرج ، وبنو النضير ، وبنو قريظة حلفاء الأوس ، فلما قدم رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم المدينة ، وأسلم من أسلم من الأنصار من قبيلتي الأوس والخزرج ، وقل من أسلم من اليهود إلا عبد الله بن سلام – رضي الله عنه – ولم يكن إذ ذاك نفاق أيضا ؛ لأنه لم يكن للمسلمين بعد شوكة تخاف ، بل قد كان عليه الصلاة والسلام وادع اليهود وقبائل كثيرة من أحياء العرب حوالي المدينة ، فلما كانت وقعة بدر العظمى وأظهر الله كلمته ، وأعلى الإسلام وأهله ، قال عبد الله بن أبي بن سلول ، وكان رأسا في المدينة ، وهو من الخزرج ، وكان سيد الطائفتين في الجاهلية ، وكانوا قد عزموا على أن يملكوه عليهم ، فجاءهم الخير وأسلموا ، واشتغلوا عنه ، فبقي في نفسه من الإسلام وأهله ، فلما كانت وقعة بدر قال : هذا أمر قد توجه ، فأظهر الدخول في الإسلام ، ودخل معه طوائف ممن هو على طريقته ونحلته ، وآخرون من أهل الكتاب ، فمن ثم وجد النفاق في أهل المدينة ومن حولها من الأعراب ، فأما المهاجرون فلم يكن فيهم أحد ، لأنه لم يكن أحد يهاجر مكرها ، بل يهاجر ويترك ماله ، وولده ، وأرضه رغبة فيما عند الله في الدار الآخرة . ـ

The descriptions of the Munafiqoon were only sent down in the Madani surahs because there was no nifaq in Mecca. In fact it was quite the opposite; there were some people who used to outwardly display disbelief out of compulsion while inwardly being believers. Then the Messenger of Allah made hijrah to al-Madinah, where there were the Ansaar made up of the al-Aws and al-Khazraj tribes. Prior to their Islam they used to worship idols as was the practice of the Arab polytheists. Also in al-Madinah, out of the Ahl al-Kitab there were the Jews following in the ways of their forefathers, and they made up three tribes:

1) Banu Qaynuqaa’ who were allied with the Khazraj,

2) Banu al-Nadheer, and

3) Banu Quraythah who were allied with the Aws.

When the Messenger of Allah came to al-Madinah and those who embraced Islam from the Aws and Khazraj became Muslims and a small number of the Jews such as ‘Abdullah ibn Salaam became Muslims, there was still no nifaq there at that time. That was because the Muslims did not yet have any power to be feared. Instead, the Prophet wanted to have peace and amicable relations with the Jews and the many Arab tribes  surrounding al-Madinah. But then when the major battle of Badr happened and Allah give victory to His cause and raised up Islam and its followers, there was a change.

Prior to this, the people of al-Madinah had resolved to make ‘Abdullah ibn Ubay ibn Salool a king over them. He was already a leader of the people in al-Madinah and a member of the Khazraj tribe, and had been a leader of two factions prior to the arrival of the Islam. But then when this good came to the Muslims, the people of al-Madinah entered into Islam and lost interest in ‘Abdullah ibn Ubay al-Salool. He and his family did not immediately embrace Islam, but then after the Battle of Badr he said, “Perhaps this situation can be turned,” so he outwardly embraced Islam and several parties of people upon his same way and creed entered into Islam along with him, as did some others from the Ahl al-Kitab.

So it was only after this that nifaq became present among some of the people of al-Madinah and Bedouins of the surrounding areas. But as for the Muhajiroon, not a single one of them had any nifaq since none of them had made the hijrah against their own will. Quite the opposite; they had made hijrah leaving behind their wealth, children, and property out of a sincere desire for the rewards with Allah in the hereafter.

[Tafsir ibn Kathir 1/177]

After a detailed explanation of the descriptions of the munafiqoon [ayaat 8-16] and the parables regarding them in surah al-Baqarah [ayaat 17-20], ibn Kathir returned to the more general and overarching discussion of the munafiqoon that he had begun at the outset of the passage by writing:

فإذا تقرر هذا صار الناس أقساما : مؤمنون خلص ، وهم الموصوفون بالآيات الأربع في أول البقرة ، وكفار خلص ، وهم الموصوفون بالآيتين بعدها ، ومنافقون ، وهم قسمان : خلص ، وهم المضروب لهم المثل الناري ، ومنافقون يترددون ، تارة يظهر لهم لمع من الإيمان وتارة يخبو وهم أصحاب المثل المائي ، وهم أخف حالا من الذين قبلهم . ـ

So if you understand that, then mankind is divided into a number of groups:

1) the pure believers who are described in four ayaat at the beginning of surah al-Baqarah [2:2-5]

2) the absolute disbelievers who are described in two ayaat after that [2:6-7]

3) the munafiqoon who can be further divided into two groups:

3a) the absolute munafiqoon who are the subject of the parable of the fire [2:17-18]

3b) the wavering munafiqoon for whom the light of eemaan sometimes becomes clear to them and at other times it dies out. This second category are the people described in the parable of the storm [2:19-20], and their condition is less grave than that of the absolute munafiqoon.

وهذا المقام يشبه من بعض الوجوه ما ذكر في سورة النور ، من ضرب مثل المؤمن وما جعل الله في قلبه من الهدى والنور ، بالمصباح في الزجاجة التي كأنها كوكب دري ، وهي قلب المؤمن المفطور على الإيمان واستمداده من الشريعة الخالصة الصافية الواصلة إليه من غير كدر ولا تخليط ، كما سيأتي تقريره في موضعه إن شاء الله . ثم ضرب مثل العباد من الكفار ، الذين يعتقدون أنهم على شيء ، وليسوا على شيء ، وهم أصحاب الجهل المركب ، في قوله : ( والذين كفروا أعمالهم كسراب بقيعة يحسبه الظمآن ماء حتى إذا جاءه لم يجده شيئا ) الآية [ النور : 39 ] . ثم ضرب مثل الكفار الجهال الجهل البسيط ، وهم الذين قال [ الله ] فيهم : ( أو كظلمات في بحر لجي يغشاه موج من فوقه موج من فوقه سحاب ظلمات بعضها فوق بعض إذا أخرج يده لم يكد يراها ومن لم يجعل الله له نورا فما له من نور ) [ النور : 40 ] فقسم الكفار هاهنا إلى قسمين : داعية ومقلد ـ

This passage is similar to what has been mentioned in surah al-Nur in a number of ways. Specifically, where Allah strikes the parable of the believer and how He has placed guidance and light in his heart, comparing this to lamp inside of glass which is like a bright star. This is the heart of a believer which is naturally built to have eemaan and then reinforced by the pure and pristine sharee’ah which comes to him without any messiness or disorder, as we shall see in more detail when we reach that section, inshaAllaah.

Allah then struck a parable of His disbelieving slaves who believe that they are standing on firm foundation but actually have nothing to stand on and are in fact suffering from compound ignorance. This comes in Allah’s statement:

وَالَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا أَعْمَالُهُمْ كَسَرَابٍ بِقِيعَةٍ يَحْسَبُهُ الظَّمْآنُ مَاءً حَتَّىٰ إِذَا جَاءَهُ لَمْ يَجِدْهُ شَيْئًا وَوَجَدَ اللَّـهَ عِندَهُ فَوَفَّاهُ حِسَابَهُ ۗ وَاللَّـهُ سَرِيعُ الْحِسَابِ

As for those who disbelieve, their deeds are like a mirage in a desert. The thirsty one thinks it to be water, until he comes up to it, he finds it to be nothing, but he finds Allah with him, who will pay him his due. And Allah is Swift in taking account. [24:39]

Allah then struck a parable of those suffering from plain ignorance. Allah says about them:

أَوْ كَظُلُمَاتٍ فِي بَحْرٍ لُّجِّيٍّ يَغْشَاهُ مَوْجٌ مِّن فَوْقِهِ مَوْجٌ مِّن فَوْقِهِ سَحَابٌ ۚ ظُلُمَاتٌ بَعْضُهَا فَوْقَ بَعْضٍ إِذَا أَخْرَجَ يَدَهُ لَمْ يَكَدْ يَرَاهَا ۗ وَمَن لَّمْ يَجْعَلِ اللَّـهُ لَهُ نُورًا فَمَا لَهُ مِن نُّورٍ

Or like the darkness in a vast deep sea, overwhelmed with a great wave topped by a great wave, topped by dark clouds, darkness, one above another. If a man stretches out his hand, he can hardly see it! And he for whom Allah has not appointed light, for him there is no light. [24:40]

So in this passage Allah divided the disbelievers into two categories:

1) callers to disbelief, and

2) mere followers.

 كما ذكرهما في أول سورة الحج : ( ومن الناس من يجادل في الله بغير علم ويتبع كل شيطان مريد ) [ الحج : 3 ] وقال بعده : ( ومن الناس من يجادل في الله بغير علم ولا هدى ولا كتاب منير ) [ الحج : 8 ] وقد قسم الله المؤمنين في أول الواقعة وآخرها وفي سورة الإنسان ، إلى قسمين : سابقون وهم المقربون ، وأصحاب يمين وهم الأبرار . ـ

This is the same division that He had made in the beginning of surah al-Hajj:

وَمِنَ النَّاسِ مَن يُجَادِلُ فِي اللَّـهِ بِغَيْرِ عِلْمٍ وَيَتَّبِعُ كُلَّ شَيْطَانٍ مَّرِيدٍ

There are some people who argue about Allah without any knowledge and follow every rebellious shaytaan [22:3]

and then afterwards says:

وَمِنَ النَّاسِ مَن يُجَادِلُ فِي اللَّـهِ بِغَيْرِ عِلْمٍ وَلَا هُدًى وَلَا كِتَابٍ مُّنِيرٍ

There are some people who argue about Allah without any knowledge nor guidance nor any book giving light [22:8]

and Allah also divided the believers into two categories in the beginning and end of surah al-Waaqi’ah [56] and in surah al-Insaan [76], which were

1) The Forerunners who are those close to Allah, and

2) The People of the Right who are the righteous ones

فتلخص من مجموع هذه الآيات الكريمات : أن المؤمنين صنفان : مقربون وأبرار ، وأن الكافرين صنفان : دعاة ومقلدون ، وأن المنافقين – أيضا – صنفان : منافق خالص ، ومنافق فيه شعبة من نفاق ، كما جاء في الصحيحين ، عن عبد الله بن عمرو ، عن النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم : ثلاث من كن فيه كان منافقا خالصا ، ومن كانت فيه واحدة منهن كانت فيه خصلة من النفاق حتى يدعها : من إذا حدث كذب ، وإذا وعد أخلف ، وإذا اؤتمن خان . ـ

So to summarize all of these ayaat:

The believers are of two types: the close ones and the righteous

The disbelievers are of two types: those who call to disbelief and those who are merely followers

And the munafiqoon are also of two types: the absolute munafiq and the munafiq who merely has a branch of nifaq within him. This is just as comes in both al-Bukhari and Muslim, that ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Amr narrated that the Prophet said:

There are three qualities; whoever has them all is an absolute munafiq, and whoever has just one of them has a characteristic of nifaq until he abandons it. When he speaks he lies, when he makes a promise he breaks it, and when he is entrusted he betrays his trust.

استدلوا به على أن الإنسان قد تكون فيه شعبة من إيمان ، وشعبة من نفاق . إما عملي لهذا الحديث ، أو اعتقادي ، كما دلت عليه الآية ، كما ذهب إليه طائفة من السلف وبعض العلماء ، كما تقدم ، وكما سيأتي ، إن شاء الله . قال الإمام أحمد : حدثنا أبو النضر ، حدثنا أبو معاوية يعني شيبان ، عن ليث ، عن عمرو بن مرة ، عن أبي البختري ، عن أبي سعيد ، قال : قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم : القلوب أربعة : قلب أجرد ، فيه مثل السراج يزهر ، وقلب أغلف مربوط على غلافه ، وقلب منكوس ، وقلب مصفح ، فأما القلب الأجرد فقلب المؤمن ، سراجه فيه نوره ، وأما القلب الأغلف فقلب الكافر ، وأما القلب المنكوس فقلب المنافق الخالص ، عرف ثم أنكر ، وأما القلب المصفح فقلب فيه إيمان ونفاق ، ومثل الإيمان فيه كمثل البقلة ، يمدها الماء الطيب ، ومثل النفاق فيه كمثل القرحة يمدها القيح والدم ، فأي المدتين غلبت على الأخرى غلبت عليه . وهذا إسناد جيد حسن . ـ

From this, the scholars derive that a person can have a branch of eemaan within him while also having a branch of nifaq. This nifaq could be either a) in his deeds, as is the case in the above hadeeth, or b) in his creed. This is the position of a group of the salaf and a number of scholars as we have mentioned before and will come back to again, inshaAllaah.

Imam Ahmad narrated … that Abu Sa’eed said: The Messenger of Allah said:

There are four types of hearts: 1) the polished heart bright as a shining lamp; 2) the wrapped heart with a knot tied around it; 3) an inverted heart; and 4) an ironclad heart. As for the polished heart, that is the heart of a believer, and the lamp within it is his light. The wrapped heart is the heart of a disbeliever. The inverted heart is the heart of an absolute munafiq; he recognized the truth and then rejected it. And the ironclad heart is a heart which houses both eemaan and nifaq; the eemaan within it is like an herb which is sustained by pure water, while the nifaq in it is like an ulcer that thrives of puss and blood – whichever of the two receives more of its sustenance will overcome the other.

And this chain of narrated is fine and good.

[we have omitted a few lines here not directly related to the topic of this article]

ـ [ وذهب ابن جرير الطبري ومن تبعه من كثير من المفسرين أن هذين المثلين مضروبان لصنف واحد من المنافقين وتكون ” أو ” في قوله تعالى : ( أو كصيب من السماء ) بمعنى الواو ، كقوله تعالى : ( ولا تطع منهم آثما أو كفورا ) [ الإنسان : 24 ] ، أو تكون للتخيير ، أي : اضرب لهم مثلا بهذا وإن شئت بهذا ، قاله القرطبي . أو للتساوي مثل : جالس الحسن أو ابن سيرين ، على ما وجهه الزمخشري : أن كلا منهما مساو للآخر في إباحة الجلوس إليه ، ويكون معناه على قوله : سواء ضربت لهم مثلا بهذا أو بهذا فهو مطابق لحالهم . ـ

Ibn Jarir al-Tabari and the many mufassiroon who followed his lead held that these two parables [2:17-18 and 2:19-20] are both referring to just one type of munafiqoon and that the word “or” in Allah’s statement:

أَوْ كَصَيِّبٍ مِّنَ السَّمَاءِ

Or like a rainstorm from the sky …

actually carried the meaning of “and”, just as is the case in Allah’s statement:

وَلَا تُطِعْ مِنْهُمْ آثِمًا أَوْ كَفُورًا

… and do not obey neither a sinful person nor a disbeliever among them. [76:24]

Or that the word “or” is meant to give a choice, as if to say, “I have struck this parable for them, or, if they like, this parable.” That was mentioned by al-Qurtubi.

Or that the word “or” here indicates that these two parables are equivalent, like if one were to say, “Sit with al-Hasan or ibn Sireen”. According to how al-Zamakhshari explained this, “Each of these is equivalent to the other as far as giving permission to sit with him, so the meaning becomes: it is the same whether you strike this parable or that parable for them, for both accurately apply to their situation.”

قلت : وهذا يكون باعتبار جنس المنافقين ، فإنهم أصناف ولهم أحوال وصفات كما ذكرها الله تعالى في سورة ” براءة ” – ومنهم ، ومنهم ، ومنهم – يذكر أحوالهم وصفاتهم وما يعتمدونه من الأفعال والأقوال ، فجعل هذين المثلين لصنفين منهم أشد مطابقة لأحوالهم وصفاتهم ، والله أعلم ، كما ضرب المثلين في سورة النور لصنفي الكفار : الدعاة والمقلدين في قوله تعالى : ( والذين كفروا أعمالهم كسراب بقيعة ) إلى أن قال : ( أو كظلمات في بحر لجي يغشاه موج ) الآية [ النور : 39 ، 40 ] ، فالأول للدعاة الذين هم في جهل مركب ، والثاني لذوي الجهل البسيط من الأتباع المقلدين ، والله أعلم بالصواب ] . ـ

I say: Rather, the “or” here is in reference to the different types of munafiqoon, for there are multiple types of munafiqoon each with their own conditions and characteristics, just as Allah has mentioned in surah al-Baraa’ah when He repeatedly says “and among them are those who …”, “and among them are those who …”, “and among them are those who …”; mentioning their situations, their characteristics and the actions and statements that they resort to. So Allah made these two parables for these two types of munafiqoon, making each one tightly align with the specific conditions and characteristics of each. And Allah knows best. This would be like the two parables that He struck in surah al-Nur for the two types of disbelievers – that is, the callers to disbelief and the mere followers – in His statement:

وَالَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا أَعْمَالُهُمْ كَسَرَابٍ بِقِيعَةٍ يَحْسَبُهُ الظَّمْآنُ مَاءً حَتَّىٰ إِذَا جَاءَهُ لَمْ يَجِدْهُ شَيْئًا وَوَجَدَ اللَّـهَ عِندَهُ فَوَفَّاهُ حِسَابَهُ ۗ وَاللَّـهُ سَرِيعُ الْحِسَابِ * أَوْ كَظُلُمَاتٍ فِي بَحْرٍ لُّجِّيٍّ يَغْشَاهُ مَوْجٌ مِّن فَوْقِهِ مَوْجٌ مِّن فَوْقِهِ سَحَابٌ ۚ ظُلُمَاتٌ بَعْضُهَا فَوْقَ بَعْضٍ إِذَا أَخْرَجَ يَدَهُ لَمْ يَكَدْ يَرَاهَا ۗ وَمَن لَّمْ يَجْعَلِ اللَّـهُ لَهُ نُورًا فَمَا لَهُ مِن نُّورٍ

As for those who disbelieve, their deeds are like a mirage in a desert. The thirsty one thinks it to be water, until he comes up to it, he finds it to be nothing, but he finds Allah with him, Who will pay him his due. And Allah is Swift in taking account. * Or like the darkness in a vast deep sea, overwhelmed with a great wave topped by a great wave, topped by dark clouds, darkness, one above another, if a man stretches out his hand, he can hardly see it! And he for whom Allah has not appointed light, for him there is no light. [24:39-40]

So the first parable is of those who call others to disbelief, and they are suffering from compound ignorance, while the second parable is of those suffering from simple ignorance, and they are the blind followers. And Allah knows best what is correct.

[Tafsir ibn Kathir 1/192-194]

See also: Tafsir of Surah al-Baqarah 1-20: al-Tafsir al-Muyassar

See also: You Will See Them Looking Like One Overcome by Death: Tafsir al-Shinqitee

See also: Major Shirk and Minor Shirk: Imam al-Sa’di

2 thoughts on “Major Nifaq and Minor Nifaq in the Qur’an: Tafsir ibn Kathir

  1. Pingback: Tafsir of Surah al-Baqarah 1-20: al-Tafsir al-Muyassar | Tulayhah

  2. Pingback: Major Shirk and Minor Shirk: Imam al-Sa’di | Tulayhah

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