“Kafir” is one of the most stunning pieces of poetry, penned by Salman Haider. Kafir is a provocative and controversial term in Islam, meaning someone who knows the truth but rejects it; someone who covers up the truth. It is also a widely used term exploited to create division between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Haider was one of the missing dissident journalists abducted in Pakistan in early 2017 and returned three weeks later. The abductions are often acts of intimidation to silence these Muslim free thinkers.
Haider’s poem is translated into English below, unfortunately losing much of its impact in the translation. Powerfully, the poem invites a beautiful question: what is kafir?
I’m a kafir, you too are a kafir
The scent of flowers is also kafir
The majic of words is kafir
This here kafir, that there kafir
Faiz1 as well as Manto2 kafir
The song of Noor Jahan3 kafir
The food from McDonald kafir
Burgers kafir, as is Coca Cola kafir
Laughter, blasphemy, jesting kafir
The tabla4 kafir, the dhol5 too kafir
The spoken words of desire kafir
The rythm and beat of music kafir
Bhangra6, Atan7 and Dhamaal8 all kafir
Dhadra9, Thumri10 and Bhel11 kafir
Sufi poetry and reflection kafir
The ‘Heer’12 of Waris Shah13 kafir
The chains of devotion kafir
The living and dead Peers14 kafir
The kheer15 of nazar niaz16 kafir
A little boy’s schoolbag is kafir
A little girl’s doll also kafir
Laughing, weeping all acts of sin
Melancholy kafir, joy too is kafir
Your jeans and your guitar are kafir
And if the length is wrong then this shalwar17 of ours is kafir
All the arts and artists are kafir
For not printing my warnings
All those newspapers are kafir
Within the universities all are kafir
Our buddy Darwin’s ape a kafir
Those that teach Freud are kafir
The supporters of Marxism kafir
Fairs and carnivals trades of sin
Music and play like a noose of the neck
And whilst the temple has a graven image
The mosque is not so moral either
Some kafirs outside the mosque
Some kafirs within the mosque
There’s plenty kafirs in Muslim lands
Kafir kafir, I’m a kafir
Kafir kafir, you too are a kafir
1Faiz Ahmed Faiz was a revolutionary Urdu poet nominated for the Nobel Prize 4 times and was a Marxist, later sentenced to prison but remains influential.
2Saadat Hasan Manto was an Urdu novelist and playwright tried many times for obscenity but never convicted
3Noor Jehan was a very accomplished Indian/Pakistani singer also known as “the queen of melody”
4&5Types of traditional drums
6,7&8Types of traditional and celebratory dances typically performed at weddings specific to Punjabis, Pathans and Sufis respectively
9,10&11Forms of classical music specific to various regions of Pakistan
12&13Heer Ranjha is a tragic romantic tale originating in Southeast Asia and Waris Shah, a Punjabi Sufi poet is known to have authored Heer’s tale most eloquently.
14A Sufi master or spiritual guide. They were revered to the point of followers going to their tomb to cover with rose petals and pray for their deepest wishes. With the advent of Wahhabiism this was considered shirk (assigning power to one other than Allah)
15&16 Kheer is a form of rice pudding. Nazar and Niaz are meals that are blessed in the name of peers and thus considered unholy since food only ought to be blessed in Allah’s name. These meals were then distributed to the poor, family and friends but again with the rise of Wahhabiism the practice is frowned upon and slowly dying away.
17Shalwar is the loose baggy pants worn under the knee length shirt. Pious men (only) are supposed to have their shalwar fall above their ankles.