This chapter instructs the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) to inform the disbelievers that the worship of false deities and the worship of One God are not, and can never be, compatible. It takes its name from “the disbelievers” (al-kafirun) mentioned in the first verse.
It is authentically narrated from the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) that he would recite this chapter in the Sunnah prayers of Fajr and Maghrib as well as in the two rak’ahs after the tawaf around the ka’ba.
Why It Was Revealed
The chapter was a response to some of the nobles among the Qurayshi idolaters that suggested to the Prophet (pbuh) as a compromise that he should worship their gods for a year and they will worship his God for a year in return. In addition, they wanted him to stop criticizing their gods and calling them false. So Allah responded to them by sending down this chapter of the Qur’an to His final prophet. Ibn Abbas, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), said that the following verses were also revealed in addition to this chapter in response to the Quraysh’s request:
“Say, [O Muhammad], “Is it other than Allah that you order me to worship, O ignorant ones?” And it was already revealed to you and to those before you that if you should associate [anything] with Allah, your work would surely become worthless, and you would surely be among the losers.” Rather, worship [only] Allah and be among the grateful.” [Qur’an 39:64-66]
Some modernists have misunderstood this chapter and believe it encourages perennialism, the belief that all religions are true. This is completely false and has no basis. In fact, it is the complete opposite. We know why these verses came down, as mentioned above, and it had nothing to do with perennial philosophy. It was a form of refusal to worship the false idols of the Quraysh and to not compromise the most fundamental principle of Islam: worship of only One God without any partners. Also, there are numerous verses in the Qur’an that criticize idol worship, the divinity of Jesus, trinity, rejection of Islam, refusal to believe in Muhammad (pbuh) as a messenger of God, etc. Not to mention the Qur’an explicitly stating that Muhammad (pbuh) was given the true religion to manifest over other religions:
It is He who has sent His Messenger with guidance and the religion of truth to manifest it over all [other] religion, although they who associate others with Allah dislike it. [Qur’an 9:33]
Therefore, to suggest that this chapter proves all religions are equal and true is being dishonest and divorcing the chapter from it’s historical and textual context.
Explanation of the Verses
Say, “O disbelievers,
Say O Messenger to those who disbelieve in Allah and His Messenger: “O disbelievers in Allah!”
I do not worship what you worship.
I do not worship idols and false gods.
Nor are you worshippers of what I worship.
You do not worship what I worship of One God. He is the Lord of the all the Worlds and deserves to be worshiped alone.
Nor will I be a worshipper of what you worship.
I will not worship idols and false gods.
Nor will you be worshippers of what I worship.
You will not worship in the future what I worship. This verse came down for the nobles among the idolaters whom Allah knew would never believe no matter what.
For you is your religion, and for me is my religion.”
For you be your religion which you are insisting to follow and for me be mine, which is the only one that I desire.
Source: Tafsir Al-Muyassar