Q. I'm writing to you today because I have two questions for you. One is based on a post on your website from 1999, and the other is unrelated.
1) I have been told that if one doesn't follow the rulings of the hadith, they are considered to be kafir. Can you explain why this is the case, and if this belief holds any substance? It seems hard to believe that one must follow the customs of the 7th – 9th century while living in the 21st century.
2) I'm confused regarding your answer to the question of whether or not Jews and Christians are considered kaffirs. From my understanding, Jews and Christians are People of the Book (ahl al Kitab), and Muslims are allowed to marry them. I was under the impression, and correct me if I'm wrong, that Muslims are not allowed to marry kafirs -- those who reject God. Should we then not distinguish between ahl al Kitab, mushrikeen, or kafir?
A. Most, if not all, religions have "creeds," that, if established by the founder of the faith itself, may be said to legitimately dictate who is or is not an adherent. When such creeds, however, are established by later members of the religion, they indicate schisms, as occur in EVERY religion. In Islam, it is no different. The idea of the "hadith" came up much later, as can be evidenced by the arguments for and against it. The theoretical / philosophical bases for classification of hadith indicate an interesting point. Hadith specialists speak of "mutawatir" and "ahad." Mutawatir is that which is reported by such a large number of people in all the different levels of the transmission that it is impossible for them to lie, and also, their familiarity, at least the first tier, must have been by direct presence and awareness. That definition actually is for ANY type of news. Having come up with this theoretical type of hadith, the scholars now had to FIND such hadith. They could not, as they had further decided to break down the mutawatir into two types: lafzi (i.e., verbatim) and ma'nawi (by meaning). For obvious reasons they could not find the former, and then claimed the latter. But even in that, there is disagreement, apart from the fact that one may question the quantity that constitutes "a large enough number to preclude lying." There is NO mutawatir hadith that is accepted by ALL Muslims. Ahad is that hadith which does not meet the level of mutawatir. This means then that an ahad hadith does NOT carry the aura of certainty. Creed cannot be established by such hadith, hence the statement about kufr is baseless.
As for the second part of your question, in later Islam we DO differentiate between ahl al Kitab, kafir, and mushrik. The problem is that the differentiations are not always accurate. Ahl al Kitab does NOT mean only Christians and Jews, but rather any group claiming to have divine revelation. This is a murky definition nonetheless, and so scholars are very careful about examining the beliefs and looking for commonalities. Generally, they go for faiths that are older than Islam. In the case of later faiths, that is a matter of perception on the part of the researcher. Mushrik too is problematic and some theorists say that the mushriks of the Qur'an are specific to those of the Prophet's time and place. Kafir, as we have shown, from the very post you mentioned, has evolved in meaning. We ought to be very circumspect about using kafir and mushrik as these are terms that indicate alterity and exclusivism. If someone says that s/he believes in God, then we ought to leave it at that.
Posted April 4, 2016