The Surah takes its name from the word al-kafiroon occurring in the first verse.
Period of Revelation
Abdullah bin Mas’ud, Hasan Basri and Ikrimah, say that this Surah, is Makki, while Abdullah bin Zubair says that it is Madani. Two different views have been reported from Abdullah bin Abbas and Qatadah, first that it is Makki, and second that it is Madani. However, according to the majority of commentators, it is a Makki Surah, and the subject matter itself points to its being a Makki revelation.
There was a time in Makkah when although a storm of opposition had arisen in the pagan society of Quraysh against the message of Islam, yet the Quraysh chiefs had not yet lost hope that they would reach some sort of a compromise with him.
Therefore, from time to time they would visit him with different proposals of compromise so that he accepted one of them and the dispute between them was brought to an end. In this connection, different traditions have been related in the Hadith.
According to Abdullah bin Abbas radhiAllahu ‘anhu, the Quraysh proposed to the Prophet; “We shall give you so much of wealth that you will become the richest man of Makkah. We shall give you whichever woman you like in marriage. We are prepared to follow and obey you as our leader, only on the condition that you will not speak ill of our gods. If you do not agree to this, we present another proposal which is to your as well as to our advantage.”
When the Prophet salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam asked what it was, they said that if he would worship their gods, Lat and Uzza, for a year, they would worship his God for the same space of time. The Prophet salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam replied, “Wait awhile; let me see what my Lord commands in this regard.”
Thereupon the revelation came down: Qul ya-ayyuhal– kafiroon… and: Qul afa-ghair Allahi… (Az-Zumar 39: 64): “Say to them: ignorant people, do you bid me to worship others than Allah?” (Ibn Jarir, Ibn Abi Hatim, Tabarani). According to another tradition from Ibn Abbas radhiAllahu ‘anhu, the Quraysh said to the Prophet salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, “O Muhammad, if you kiss our gods, the idols, we shall worship your God. Thereupon, this Surah was sent down. (Abd bin Humaid).
Sa’eed bin Mina (the freed slave of Abul Bakhtari) has related that Waleed bin Mughirah, As bin Wail, Aswad bin al-Muttalib and Umayyah bin Khalaf met the Prophet salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam and said to him, “O Muhammad, let us agree that we would worship your God and you would worship our gods, and we would make you a partner in all our works. If what you have brought was better than what we possess, we would be partners in it with you, and have our share in it, and if what we possess is better than what you have brought, you would be partner in it with us and have your share of it.” At this Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala sent down: Qul ya-ayyuhal-kafiroon (Ibn Jarir, Ibn Abi Hatim, Ibn Hisham also related this incident).
Wahb bin Munabbih has related that the people of Quraysh said to Allah’s’ Messenger salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, “If you like we would enter your faith for a year and you would enter our faith for a year.” (Abd bin Humaid, Ibn Abi Hatim).
These traditions show that the Quraysh made proposal to Rasoolullah salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam not once, but several times at different occasions. Therefore, there was a need that they should be given a definite answer, a decisive reply. So that all their hopes that the Prophet salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam will accept their ‘give and take’ proposals will perish forever.
Theme and Subject Matter
The Surah expresses Muslims’ total disgust and unconcern towards the rites of worship of the disbelievers. It communicates that Islam and Kufr have nothing in common and there is no possibility of their combined and mixed into one entity.
Although it was addressed in the beginning to the disbelieving Quraysh in response to their proposals of compromise, yet it is not confined to them only, but having made it a part of the Quran, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala gave the Muslims the eternal teaching that they should exonerate themselves by word and deed from the creed of Kufr wherever and in whatever form it be, and should declare without any reservation that they cannot make any compromise with the disbelievers in the matter of Faith.
That is why this Surah continued to be recited when the people to whom it was addressed as a rejoinder, had died and been forgotten, and those Muslims also continued to recite it who were disbelievers at the time it was revealed, and the Muslims still recite it centuries after they have passed away.