After affirming the Holy Qur'an as the Book of Guidance and as being beyond all doubt, the first five verses of the present Surah refer to those who derive full benefit from this Book and whom the Holy Qur'an has named as Mu'minun مؤمنون (true Muslims) or Muttaqun مُتَّقون (the God-fearing), and also delineate their characteristic qualities which distinguish them from others. The next fifteen verses speak of those who refuse to accept this guidance, and even oppose it out of sheer spite and blind malice. In the time of the Holy Prophet , ﷺ there were two distinct groups of such people. On the one hand were those who came out in open hostility and rejection, and whom the Holy Qur'an has termed as kafirun کافرون (disbelievers); on the other hand were those who did not, on account of their moral depravity and greed, had even the courage to speak out their minds and to express their disbelief clearly, but adopted the way of deceit and duplicity. They tried to convince the Muslims that they had faith in the Holy Qur'an and its teachings, that they were as good a Muslim as any and would support the Muslims against the disbelievers. But they nursed denial and rejection in their hearts, and would, in the company of disbelievers, assure them that they had nothing to do with Islam, but mixed with Muslims in order to deceive them and to spy on them. The Holy Qur'an has given them the title of Munafiqun مُنافقون (hypocrites). Thus, these fifteen verses deal with those who refuse to believe in the Holy Qur'an - the first two are concerned with open disbelievers, and the other thirteen with hypocrites, their signs and characteristics and their ultimate end.
Taking the first twenty verses of this Surah together in all their detail, one can see that the Holy Qur'an has, on the one hand, pointed out to us the source of guidance which is the Book itself, and, on the other, divided mankind into two distinct groups on the basis of their acceptance or rejection of this guidance - on the one side are those who have chosen to follow and to receive guidance, and are hence called Mu'minun (true Muslims) or Muttaqun مُتَّقون (the God-fearing); on the other side are those who reject the guidance or deviate from it, and are hence called Kafirun (disbelievers) or Munafiqun مُنافقون (hypocrites). People of the first kind are those whose path is the object of the prayer at the end of the Surah Al-Fatihah, صِرَاطَ الَّذِينَ أَنْعَمْتَ عَلَيْهِمْ : the path of those on whom You have bestowed Your grace", and people of the second kind are those against whose path refuge has been sought
غَيْرِ الْمَغْضُوبِ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلَا الضَّالِّي
Not of those who have incurred Your wrath, nor of those who have gone astray.
This teaching of the Holy Qur'an provides us with a fundamental principle. A division of mankind into different groups must, in order to be meaningful, be based on differences in _principle, not on considerations of birth, race, colour, geography or language. The Holy Qur'an has given a clear verdict in this respect:
خَلَقَكُمْ فَمِنْكُمْ كَافِرٌ وَّمِنْكُمْ مُّؤْمِنٌ
"It was He that created you: yet some of you are disbelievers and some of you are believers" (64:2).
As we have said, the first two verses of this Surah speak of those disbelievers who had become so stubborn and obstinate in their denial and disbelief that they were not prepared to hear the truth or to consider a clear argument. In the case of such depraved people, the usual way of Allah has always been, and is, that they are given a certain kind of punishment even in this world - that is to say, their hearts are sealed and their eyes and ears stopped against the truth, and in so far as truth is concerned they become as if they have no mind to think, no eyes to see and no ears to listen. The last phrase of the second verse speaks of the grievous punishment that is reserved for them in the other world. It may be observed that the prediction that: لَا يُؤْمِنُونَ they shall not believe" is specifically related to those disbelievers who refused to listen to the Holy Prophet ﷺ and who, as Allah knew, were going to die as disbelievers. This does not apply to disbelievers in general, for there were many who later accepted Islam.
What is Kufr کفر ? (Infidelity)
As for the definition of kufr کفر (disbelief), we may point out that lexically the word means to hide, to conceal. Ingratitude is also called kufr کفر ، because it involves the concealing or the covering up of the beneficence shown by someone. In the terminology of the Shari` ah, kufr کفر signifies the denial of any of those things in which it is obligatory to believe. For example, the quintessence of Iman ایمان as well as the very basis of the Islamic creed is the requirement that one should confirm with one's heart and believe with certitude everything that the Holy Prophet tl has brought down to us from Allah and which has been established by definite and conclusive proof; therefore, a man who has the temerity to question or disregard even a single teaching of this kind will be described as a kafir کافر (disbeliever or infidel).
The meaning of 'Indhar' انذار (warning) by a Prophet ﷺ
In translating the first of these two verses, we have used the English verb to warn' for the Arabic word Indhar. This word actually signifies bringing news which should cause alarm or concern, while Ibshar ابشار signifies bringing good news which should make people rejoice. Moreover, Indhar is not the ordinary kind of warning meant to frighten people, but one which is motivated by compassion and love, just as one warns one's children against fire or snakes or beasts. Hence a thief or a bandit or an aggressor who warns or threatens others cannot be called a Nadhir نذیر (warner). The latter is a title specially reserved for the prophets (علیہم السلام) for they warn people against the pains and punishments of the other world out of their compassion and love for their fellow men. In choosing this title for the prophets, the Holy Qur'an has made the subtle suggestion that for those who go out to reform others it is not enough merely to convey a message, but that they must speak to their listeners with sympathy, understanding and a genuine regard for their good.
In order to comfort the Holy Prophet ﷺ the first of these verses tells him that some of the disbelievers are so vain, arrogant and opinionated that they, in spite of recognizing the truth, stubbornly persist in their refusal and are not prepared to hear the truth or to see obvious proofs, so that all the efforts he makes for reforming and converting them will bear no fruit, and for them it is all one whether he tries or not.
The next verse explains the reason, that is, Allah has set a seal on their hearts and ears, there is a covering on their eyes, all the avenues of knowing and understanding are thus closed, and now it would be futile to expect any change in them. A thing is sealed so that nothing may enter it from outside; the setting of a seal on their hearts and ears also means that they have altogether lost the capacity for accepting the truth.
The Holy Qur'an describes .the condition of these disbelievers in terms of their hearts and ears having been sealed, but in the case of the eyes it refers to a covering. The subtle distinction arises from the fact that an idea can enter the heart from all possible directions and not from one particular direction alone, and so can a sound enter the ears; an idea or a sound can be blocked only by sealing the heart and the ears. On the contrary, the eyes work only in one direction, and can see only the things which lie in front of them; if there is a covering on them, they cease to function. (See Mazhari)