What is a Kafir? The Confusion in English Regarding the Quranic Use of the Word ‘Kafir’

One of the common confusions regarding the understanding of Islam in the English language, is namely the use of the Arabic word ‘Kafir’. The problem has arisen because some Muslims and (most) non-Muslims lack understanding of Quranic idiom and confuse and misunderstand how the Quran contains recurring Arabic words that have different meanings in different places despite being the same word.

Islamophobes like to capitalise on this by falsely accusing Muslims using the word ‘Kafir’ in its legal sense when referring to people who do not call themselves a Muslim, as ‘using derogatory words for non-Muslims’, and when Muslim theologians discuss the punishment for kufaar (plural of Kafir) in the hereafter, Islamophobes ignorantly accuse them of ‘condemning all non-Muslims on earth to hell’.

Additionally, some people who are not Arabic speakers nor educated in the nuances of Quranic Arabic get confused when those self same theologians discuss the punishment for ‘kufaar’ in the afterlife, but also explain in the same breath that merely being currently a ‘non-Muslim’ or ‘non-believer’ doesn’t mean someone will end up in hell. So what’s going on? The confusion lies in lacking an understanding of the Quranic terminology and its use of identical Arabic words to mean different meanings in different sentences.

Arabic Root of the Word Kafir

The word ‘Kafir’ comes from the root ‘KFR’ (to cover, something covered), and the root has 525 cognates in the Quran. The most common cognate of the the root KFR is the word ‘Kufr’, which has the literal meaning ‘to cover’. However, the context of how it is used in the Quran generally determines its meaning, and this is what the this article will attempt to show.

The Quran mostly uses the term Kufr to mean ‘disbelief, a rejection of true belief’ (as in: to ‘cover’ the truth). So for example, the Quran describes polytheism as ‘Kufr’, which means that belief in it, means a rejection of the reality that there is only One God. Of course a human cannot change reality simply by believing it isn’t what it is, so the Quranic term ‘kufr’, means that a rejector simply covers over the truth from their view.

Conversely, the Quran also uses the cognate of KFR, for the terms Kaffira, or Kaffara, to refer to forgiveness and the removing of sin (Quran 3:193), or expiation of sin (Quran 5:45). This would seem to be connected as a ‘covering’ up of Sin, by God blotting it out (hence removing it),or  by means of doing a good deed (hence an expiation of the sin).

The Quranic Uses of the Word Kafir

The word ‘kafir’, and its plural, occurs over 153 times in the Quran. The word literally means in Arabic ‘someone that covers’. Its literal meaning is therefore not ‘disbeliever’, but is used to convey a number of different meanings depending on the context of the Arabic sentence.

The word ‘Kafir’ is used at different times to mean different things in the Quran, here are some examples of its different usages below:

‘Kafir’ used in the literal sense in the Quran

The word Kafir refers to something that covers who physically covers something. This has been used in the Quran to refer to farmers, who cover seeds in the earth when they till (e.g. Quran 57:20).

agric03

Drawing of two “kufaar” (farmers), plowing a field

‘Kafir’ used in the Theological [1] sense in the Quran

The word Kafir can be used in a Theological [1] sense to refer to those who will be judged in the hereafter as disbelievers, who were insincere in their life and deliberately rejected the truth which they covered despite knowing it was true. This also includes those who refused to question what they were taught (i.e. blind followers) and did not search for the truth when they became aware of their beliefs uncertainty. This meaning includes any person guilty of such insincerity whether they label themselves as Muslim or non-Muslim on earth;

‘Kafir’ used in the Political/Legal/Social/Community sense in the Quran

The word Kafir can be used to describe a community, people or background of a person, without being a theological indictment against them. Here are two examples:

1) Kafir as a generic word for non-believer / unbeliever

This description refers to using the word ‘Kafir’ to mean all ‘non-believers’ in Islamic revelation. This is not the same as the english term ‘disbeliever’, since someone who is not a believer in revelation may be sincere and be willing to challenge their society’s assumptions, and search for and accept truth if they find it. Since they are not convinced yet or aware of Islam they do not label themselves as Muslim. They may come from a situation or society where the actual truth is unclear, unknown and therefore covered from them. The category is used in Quran 60:5 and tells Muslims of the prayer of Abraham (pbuh) that he did not want to be a trial or torment for those who are non-believers in his message. The verse then goes on to talk about showing kindness and being just to non-believers [Quran 60:8], except those who actively fight and unjustly expel believers from their homes due to their beliefs.

2) Kafir as a word for pagans/polytheists exclusively (and not ‘people of the Book’ i.e. those following Judaism and Christianity)

While the Quran can use ‘Kafir’ in a general sense to mean all non-believers of Islam (including people of other Abrahamic faiths), it sometimes uses the word ‘Kafir’ to describe (7th century Arabian) pagans exclusively. This usage does not include the people of the book, who are  are believers in the previous revelations from God, whereas the pagans and polytheists (in this example in Arabia) are believers in no revelation. So in this usage of the word ‘Kafir’, this case only refers to those pagans, and not Jews and Christians. One example of this specific usage and meaning is when the Quran prohibits Muslims from marrying ‘Kufaar’ (pagans [Quran 60:10]) whereas Muslims are not prohibited from marrying ‘people of the Book’ [Quran 5:5].

A Note on English Translation

Therefore in the English language, a distinction must be made when translating the word Kafir depending on the context of the Arabic sentence being translated. A theological usage [1] of the word should use the english word ‘disbeliever’, since until the day of judgement only God knows who has truly rejected the truth and disbelieved in it. This is different from the generic term for non-believers or unbelievers and should be used in english translations of the word Kafir if the context is purely a legal discussion about relations between people who are Muslim and those who are not.

The difference between disbeliever and unbeliever/non-believer in English, is the former involves actively rejecting of truth (or rejecting the search for truth i.e. being a blind follower), while the latter is a broader description meaning merely the absence of belief. The is same as the difference between the words disarmed and unarmed, or disabled and unable. To disarm is the remove a weapon from someone, but to be unarmed is merely to have no weapon.

The prefix dis- in English, comes from the Latin meaning “apart,” “asunder,” or having a negative, or reversing force. Whereas the prefix un- in English comes from Old English (and Germanic) which means “not”, and the prefix non- in English comes from Latin meaning “not” as well.

Therefore the English word ‘disbeliever’ is more accurate a translation for Kafir in the theological sense [1], where the individual rejects truth or the search for it, and ‘unbeliever’, or ‘non-believer’ is more accurate a translation for Kafir in the Legal/Social sense, to mean someone who simply is not a believer of Islam.

‘Hanif’ [Rightly Inclined] Non-Muslims will be saved in the hereafter

Like the Christian concept, no one except God can determine whether someone is ultimately saved or not, or a theological [1] ‘Kafir’, since sincerity can only truly be known by God, and only He judges the hereafter of anyone.

There will be people on the day of judgement that never labelled themselves a ‘Muslim’ and will not suffer perdition (i.e. a Hanif – rightly inclined). One famous example of this during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) is Zayd bin ‘Amr who never labelled himself a Muslim before he died. Likewise on the day of judgement the Quran explains that there will be Christians, Jews and others who will be saved. They are the ones who were sincere, rejected falsehood, accepted whatever of the truth they could find in their time:

‘Indeed, those who believed and those who were Jews or Christians or Sabeans who believed in God and the Last Day and did righteousness – will have their reward with their Lord, and no fear will there be concerning them, nor will they grieve’ [Quran 2:62]

In another verse about ‘People of the Book’ [Jews and Christians]:

‘They are not [all] the same; among the People of the Scripture is a community standing [in obedience], reciting the verses of Allah during periods of the night and prostrating [in prayer]’. [Quran 3:113]

Each soul will be judged in the hereafter according to their circumstances, choices, sincerity, access to revelation, awareness of truth and whether they questioned or followed blindly, by God’s superior wisdom and mercy.

Aside from the verse of Quran mentioned above [Quran 2:62] about non-believers who are saved, the classical Islamic scholar, Ibn Taymiyyah said that non-believers in Islam are saved if they are sincere to the truth. He discusses how calling such people Kafir does not mean they are disbelievers who will be punished in the hereafter:

“Takfir [the calling of a people as ‘Kafir’ in the Quran] is part of God’s warning (but not a promise [of punishment in the hereafter]), for even if a person denies something said by the Messenger [Muhammed] he might be a man who is new to the teachings of Islam, or perhaps he lived in a country far away or something else like that; this person does not become an disbeliever because of what he rejected until the proof is established upon him. Perhaps he has not heard the scriptural text, or he has heard of them but he has not firmly understood them, or they have been presented to him in a contradictory manner requiring an explanation, even though he is mistaken. I always mention the tradition in the two authentic books in which the man said: When I die, then burn me, cremate me and scatter my ashes into the sea, for indeed if God is able to punish me with a punishment unlike that received by anyone else among the worlds, He would surely do so. God asked him why he did that and he said: I feared You. So God forgave him. This man doubted the ability of God to resurrect him when he was turned to dust; rather, he believed God could not resurrect him and this is unbelief by the consensus of the Muslims but he was ignorant. He did not know that and he was a believer who feared that Allah would punish Him and so Allah forgave him for that.”

[in Majmu’ Al-Fatawa, Chapter: Al-Aqeedah]

‘Evil Inclined’ Muslims (Munafiqeen) Will Suffer Perdition in the Hereafter

Someone who labelled them self on earth as a Muslim can still suffer perdition in the hereafter and be revealed to be actually a theological [1] ‘Kafir’ (disbeliever).

About those who call themselves Muslim but are not saved in the hereafter, the Quran says:

‘When the hypocrites come to you, [O Muhammad], they say, “We testify that you are the Messenger of God” And God knows that you are His Messenger, and God testifies that the hypocrites are liars. They have taken their oaths as a cover, so they averted [people] from the way of Allah. Indeed, it was evil that they were doing’. [Quran 63:1-2)

In the hereafter, someone may have never been labelled a Muslim (i.e. a non-Muslim), but is not a disbeliever under the eyes of God, while someone maybe outwardly a Muslim, but is a disbeliever under the eyes of God. The label ‘non-Muslim’ is not coterminous with disbeliever (nor with ‘a tilling farmer’!), despite the Quranic word describing all three meanings being the same. This is just like the Arabic word ‘Dhann’ can be used in the Quran to mean certainty or its exact opposite, doubtfulness depending on context.

Therefore, it might sound confusing to a non-Muslim english speaker who is unfamiliar with semitic languages and the Quran, but one could say without any contradiction that all kufaar (pl. of kafir) will be punished by God for their insincerity, whether they called themselves Muslim or non-Muslim, while all hanif (rightly inclined) non-Muslims and Muslims will be saved by their sincerity.

God alone knows truly who the actual disbelievers are amongst those who call themselves Muslims and non-Muslims, and he alone knows who are the sincere seekers of truth amongst those who call themselves Muslims and non-Muslims.

Conclusion

In the West, many Islamophobes like to obscure nuances behind Islamic discourse and incite hatred against Muslims and Muslim theologians by falsely claiming to unknowing non-Muslim audiences that Muslims using the word ‘kafir’ are ‘condemning all non-Muslims to hellfire’, when this is not the case in reality.

In Judaism, the word used for non-Jews is ‘goyim’, literally ‘The nations’, which means people of the nations outside the tribes of Israel. A Goy can be righteous before God and be saved, it is not a derogatory term. In both cases of Kafir and Goyim are not related to the theological destination [1] of a person, but merely categories and identifications in Jewish (Halakha) and Islamic law. A word is derogatory only by the tone it is used, some can call someone ‘white’ or ‘black’ in either a descriptive tone or a derogatory tone. It is therefore the context which determines whether something is to be viewed derogatorily or not.

No Muslim or any other human can judge the destination of any other human being in the hereafter – as such judgement is only for God, nor can anyone know for certain if someone truly is a disbeliever in truth. It would be pointless for a Muslim to invite people to Islam if he/she considered them to be disbelievers, since disbelievers are by definition people who are insincere and will never accept the truth.

‘Verily, those who disbelieve, it is the same to them whether you warn them or do not warn them, they will not believe’ [Quran 2:06]

Therefore, it is better to say (in English), that a non-believer may accept truth, but a disbeliever would never do so. Muslims clearly understand that using the word ‘Kafir’ in theological [1] discussions as disbeliever, is quite different from discussing the word ‘Kafir’ in the everyday sense of simply a non-believer in Islam. The latter is used only to denote the meaning of ‘not being a Muslim’ for practical reasons under Islamic legal categories and identification, and is therefore not derogatory and should not be understood as such.


[1] Technically, this should be called the ‘Eschatological sense’ of the use of the word ‘Kafir’. Eschatology is the branch of theology dealing with death, the final end of the world, the final judgement and the hereafter. The word comes from the Greek word eskhatos which means ‘last’, ‘final’ and ‘at the end’. It parallels the Arabic word used for the hereafter Akhirah, which also derives from the meaning ‘Last’ (Akhir). 



Categories: ISLAM, Islamic Beliefs (Creed)

22 replies

  1. barakAllah akhy for this piece quite informative,however,sometime back I read a commentary on the word kafir by another brother and he was categorical that ONLY MUSLIMS will go to janna?It was titled “Salvic exclusivity”

  2. As per (Quran 2:62) Jews, Christian, sabains & Other (With Right Inclination but non-believer) will go Jannah, is this Ayah applicable for today also ?

    • The article, in general, is misleading. The Verse you quoted refers to the GENUINE followers of Prophets. Anyone who does not believe in Allah AND HIS MESSENGER [Muhammad] is a disbeliever (Al-Fath, 13).

      • You as well facetofloor Surah 48 (Al-Fath):13, “And if any believe not in Allah and His Messenger,
        We have prepared, for those who reject Allah,
        A Blazing Fire!”

        *please note the word used in the Qur’an is “reject” NOT disbelieve; the differences are grotesquely far apart and you should make note of Surah 2:59, “But the transgressors changed the word from that which was given them;
        So We sent on the transgressors, a plague from heaven, for that they infringed (Our command) repeatedly”

        In the Qur’an as with my Bible there are many warnings of knowingly preverting teachings from God (Allah) whether it be from Muhammad, Jesus or any of the other prophets (PBUH, to all) sent to teach the people.

        This is how the non-Muslim terrorists feed the fear in non-Islamic people, in return that fear, based on Ignorance, becomes hatred for all of Islam, not the terrorists and their news media cohorts

    • In my knowledge the answer is unequivocal; but it still saddens me that people NEVER present the whole verse when these discussions go on. It is no wonder non-Islamic people get false notions that the Western Media capitalize on to villify ALL OF ISLAM, not just the non-Muslim terrorists like ISIS and the Taliban.

      The whole verse 2:62 reads, “Those who believe (in the Qur’an),
      and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures),
      and the Christians and the Sabians–
      Any who believe in Allah *(God in Arabic) And the last day, and work righteousness,

      Shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor will they grieve.”

      ** Clearly the answer is absolutely because the Word of God (Allah), is the word of God (Allah) it was this way in the beginning, it is this way today & will be on the Last Day.

  3. I have reblogged it as well simply sweet the mention of 2:62, I have also been having trouble where the Prophet (PBUH) ordered the respect of the Tawrat, Zabur and Injil, the other books given by Allah to his Prophets, as well and us that live by them. Something I understood since elementary school (I had Muslim friends since then). There are a few places where he orders that mutual respect … and the true Christians know that; NOT the western religions

  4. This article is as suspect in it’s inferences.

    One would need to take a more comprehensive look at the Quran.

    Consider a direct and accurate translation into English, be surprised at the information you will discover though the whole issue of death to those that do not believe

    The Verse you quoted. Anyone who does not believe in Allah & his messenger [Muhammad] is a disbeliever (Al-Fath, 13). death is offered as the only solution or indeed a loads of taxes.. which would mean if not paid death will follow

  5. Thank you so much for this article. Reading this has enhanced my knowledge greatly. Thank you again.

  6. Confusing and wrong. The Quranic use of the word “Kufir” means “Unbeliever” and all the negative connotations put on the word relate to Unbelievers, i.e. non muslims.

    Nothing more to be said on the subject.

    • I don’t think you’ve read the article properly, and if you have, you certainly haven’t understood it

      • As-salaam ‘alaykum.

        I find the apparent motivation for writing this to be strange given that Muslims should have a particular hostility reserved for the kuffar. Al wala wal bara is an Islamic precept that was internalized and understood in the past without the need for elucidation. I think this article is similar to your appearance on BBC ‘Free Speech’ discussing homosexuality where you appear to be on the defensive, granted that also you conveyed the truth, but while minimizing what should be a natural Muslim hatred and abhorrence for homosexuality and homosexuals. Abdullah, honestly consider the audience you are appealing to by glancing at your comment section. They are still discontent with what they perceive as a lack of inclusivity and tolerance for non-muslims. Yet your concern is as great as theirs and motivated by the primary misunderstanding of how Da’wah works, and while it’s true one need not spit on and abuse others, Da’wah does require Hikmah and backbone without reservations and apologetics.

        Perhaps you haven’t read the Qur’an and if you have, you certainly haven’t understood it.

        I’d assume your being consumed by academic environments in the West has perverted your understanding of this foundational belief as being derived from ‘Wahhabism’ or Najdi Da’wah more broadly, so here are some older books that expound on the concept of al wala wal bara and how it’s understood, for your reference:

        “Asnā al-Matājir Fī Bayān Aḥkām Man Ghalaba ‘Alā Waṭanihi an-Naṣārā Wa Lam Yuhājir Wa Mā Yatarattaba ‘Alā Thālika Min al-’Uqūbāti Waz-Zawājir” by Aḥmad Ibn Yaḥyā al-Wansharīsī al-Mālikī (d. 914 H.)

        “Tartīb al-Madārik Wa Taqrīb al-Masālik Li-Ma’rifat A’lām Math’habi Malik” by Al-Qādhī ‘Iyādh al-Mālikī (d. 544 H.)

        “Iqtidhā’ aṣ-Ṣirāṭ al-Mustaqīm Mukhālafati Ahl al-Jaḥīm” by Shaykh al-Islām Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 728 H.)

        “Aḥkām Ahl ath-Thimmah” by Ibn al-Qayyim (d. 751 H.)

        “Al-Mi’yār al-Mu’rib Wal-Jāmi’ al-Mughrib ‘An Fatāwā Ahli Ifrīqiyah Wal-Andalus Wal-Maghrib” also by Al-Wansharīsī al-Mālikī.

      • Wa alaikum salam,

        Thank you for your comment brother. It’s fine to give me references to entire books, but what would be helpful is if you pointed out what specifically is wrong in any of this article.

        It seems that currently your only concern is the ‘tone’. Whereas the choice of tone should be based upon wisdom, like in the BBC programme you mentioned. As long as the Haqq is explained carefully (including the point where I refuted the use of the term homosexual as a non-Islamic term – something you still insist on using (stick to Islamic terms based upon our sources please).

        Please suggest where in the article, any of the points I’ve mentioned are incorrect.

        JazakAllah khairun in advance.

        Abdullah

    • Yes, Tony, the Koran is confused and confusing and ABROGATION of the ‘peaceful’, Meccan verses adds to the confusion. How can such a contradictory utterance be divine? It can’t. It’s the opportunistic convenient utterances of con artist. The author of this article is trying to smooth it all over and call anyone who doesn’t agree with him a ‘bigot’. Nice try. When you look at all the slurs and slanderous names used in the Koran, we find they are thrown around liberally and without much precision and often, they refer to the same people. KAFIR and MUNAFIQ are used indifferently for anyone who rejects the prophecy of Mohammed or thinks he is a false prophet.

  7. Much impressed with all what you wrote above but I have something to ask. I wanna translate one of my Urdu couplet into English and there I have used the word kaafir in a verse, in the sence of someone who covers or doesn’t acknowledge your sacrifices and loyalty. So tell me which English word should replace it so that the sence of the word in urdu isn’t harmed.

  8. Quite a comprehensive rationalization. The only useful explanation is if we ask everyday Muslims how they understand and use the word kafir, how would they define it? Pretty much like the “n” word in America.

  9. You love the word Islamophobic don’t you? It’s not a real word by the way. Someone as smart as you should be aware of this, yet you use it as it’s creator intended, to keep anyone disagreeing with Islam from speaking out. I have read the Koran, Hadith, Sura, and the Bible. I am a Kafir and you want me either dead or to be a slave or a dhimma. I know because Islam tells me so.

Trackbacks

  1. What is a Kafir? The Confusion in English Regarding the Quranic Use of the Word ‘Kafir’ | Food For Thought
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