The people of Mecca are the first to hear the message delivered by the Prophet Muhammad. There is no confusion about what is being said since they are hearing the message first hand. They sit down in the presence of Muhammad and listen to his voice without a single person in between to alter the message, or mix it up with lies, or manipulate it to make it something else for personal gain. There is no confusion about the meaning of the words for it is delivered in the language that everybody understands in its context and time. If anyone is uncertain about the intention behind the verses they only have to look at the example of Muhammad in his daily life, since he has the reputation of being a trustworthy individual, always known for speaking the truth and living a life of honesty, without exception.
The propaganda against Muhammad is not yet a problem for the people of Mecca. However, some of the people who hear the message hate it, not so much because they disagree with the theology, but rather because it threatens their comfortable way of life founded on privilege. So the leaders of the powerful clans in Mecca meet to discuss what to tell the pilgrims to keep them away from his message - should they say he is a soothsayer or a madman perhaps? After some debate regarding strategy they decide that labelling him as a madman would not work since he clearly speaks sense, so instead they will spread the lie that Muhammad is a magician and they set about warning pilgrims not to listen to him. They say that if you listen to Muhammad he will surely bewitch you and break up your unity - and thus the very first propaganda against Islam, based on fear, is launched.
These people who tried to cover up this revelation of 'oneness' and equality with their lies and deception are described in the Quran as 'kafir' (also kaffar/kufar and other variations depending on grammar). They were people who perfectly understood the meaning of the message of 'One God' and its implications on society, where everyone would be treated with fairness and equal value, but realised that to accept such a message would be to give up their superior social statuses. The word kafir is usually translated into English as 'unbelievers' but in Arabic it has a deeper meaning. The root of the word 'kfr', which also exists in Jewish and Christian scripture since they share the same Semitic origins, literally means 'to cover up/cover over/conceal'. The same word was used at that time for farm labourers (tillers) whose job it was to cover up seeds with the earth after they had been sown, as is shown in the Quran:
"Know that the worldly life is play and amusement and beautification and competition to increase wealth and children, like the example of rain which pleases the 'kufara' (tillers) with crops that grow, then it dries up and you see the crops turning yellow then they are crushed." HQ 57:20The Quran compares those who put their trust in God against those who cover up the truth. In the following verse the Quran explains that the efforts of those who cover up will have their efforts go in vain, whereas the faithful will have their flaws covered up by God:
"Those who 'kafaru' (disbelieve/cover over truth) and turn away from the way of God, He will cause their work to go astray, and those who 'amanu' (believe/trust) and do good deeds (of peace and reconciliation), and 'ammanu' (believe/put their trust in) what is sent down to Muhammad and it is the truth from their Lord, he will 'kaffara' (cover over) their evil and improve their condition. That is because those who 'kafaru' (disbelieve/cover over truth) follow falsehood and those who are faithful follow the truth from their Lord. Thus God presents a comparison to mankind." HQ 47:1-3We know that over the lifetime of Muhammad the Muslims actually later came to make peace with those people in Mecca who initially tried to cover up the message with their lies and persecution. Most of the kafir who were initially trying to keep people away from the message through spreading their lies and later fighting the Muslims in an attempt to eliminate them from the land altogether, eventually came to either accept Islam of their own accord or came to an understanding of peaceful co-existence after Muhammad's peaceful conquest of Mecca, since Muhammad forgave everyone. Even those who killed some of the Prophet's closest friends and were forever plotting to get rid of the Muslims were forgiven and he insisted that no-one should be forced to accept Islam as their religion.
But for the Muslim today, how should we understand the meaning of 'kafir' when we read the Quran, so that we can apply the teachings in our modern day context? Who are the kafir?
Separating truth from distortion and lies is not a simple process. Regarding Islam there is much debate over what exactly Muhammad was preaching and how Muslims should be living today. Personally I used to reject Islam because all I knew about Islam through the media was that of an angry God and a religion built on violence and intolerance of people from other beliefs. It took me years of research and getting to know Muslims to separate fact from fiction to the point where I could start to understand the original message of peace, mercy and patience from Our Lord. Yet I was on a journey to uncover truth, rather then to bury those facts that did not suit me. I believe my submission God's truth started some years before I even knew about Islam.
I have some friends who don't believe in God, since they see so many wars apparently fought in the name of God - and yet my friends believe in humanity, which often seems far closer to the message which Muhammad delivered to mankind than do messages of intolerance that we sometimes hear promoted as part of religion today.
Everyone is on their own path, with God guiding those people who are searching for truth, unveiling what they search for in His perfect time. Other people are not looking for truth at all, but running from it or actively concealing it. When researching those who bury the truth I learnt that it's even a career choice today, with governments employing people to work out how best to bury their bad news and cover over their errors with 'spin' to make them look good.
Uncovering truth is not always a comfortable thing. It will at some point challenge our perceptions and perhaps cast a negative light on people, things or concepts that we once held dear to us. We may for example love our country, but there is hardly a nation in this world without its own dirty secrets of injustice that can be difficult for us to accept. If we choose the path of submission to God, we must have the courage to put our pride aside and face truth, however painful or difficult truth may be.
"Oh you who believe, be people who stand up for justice, witnesses for God, even if it is against yourselves or your parents or relatives, whether rich or poor, for God is nearer to both." HQ 4:135When considering the Quran in today's context, I consider the kafir to be the buriers of truth, those people who actively, knowingly cover up truth with lies for personal or political gain. It is such people who attempt to divide humanity and the message of our shared creation. But we draw hope from the clear message in the Quran that ultimately their attempts will go in vain and that God's plan for mankind will in no way be harmed.
"Indeed, those who covered up and averted from the way of God and opposed the messenger after the guidance was made clear to them, never will they harm God in anything and He will make worthless their deeds." HQ 47:32