Q. Can you explain the precise definition of the word 'munafiq' and to what extent its normal Arabic meaning differs from the Qur'anic connotations of the term. Also, do you have any information on the etymology of the word (e.g., its root)? And what about riya? Have people who indulge in riya ever been seen or classified as munafiqoon? Is there an overlap in meaning?

A. The term munafiq is a really difficult one to apply in Islam, and we have to be very careful as to how we use it -- the guideline being that only God can see into the heart of anyone. This, of course, does not deny that certain cases might be blatant, but even so, unless it is a matter of community security or wherein someone's safety and well-being might be compromised by lack of disclosure, we feel that there is no such thing as an absolutely verifiable verdict on such cases.

Riya is basically doing things for show. While a munafiq will certainly do this, we do not feel that everyone who commits riya is a munafiq. The human psyche is as such that sometimes people do things to be seen, probably because they simply want to be appreciated or whatever -- and not in every instance is this a case of hypocrisy. One might truly believe in God, truly believe in sadaqah, and give it openly so that s/he might be appreciated. That person's case is with God, but in no way can we claim it is part of nifaq.

The word comes from the third form of nafaqa, and means to mislead. Some say that it takes the name from the gerboa -- which has several entrances to its burrow. If you chase it in through one, it can leave through any of the other exits. The name applies because the munafiq comes into Islam, and misleads us into thinking s/he is one thing or doing one thing when s/he is not. The meaning is explained several times in the Qur'an, such as in Sura 3 where the munafiqoon are described as saying with their lips what is not in their hearts.

Posted August 21, 2009