Terminology: In search of the kuffar (“infidels”)

Terminology: In search of the kuffar (“infidels”) March 20, 2006
He went that-a-way

Time and again, I have heard – from Muslims and non-Muslims alike – that Islam calls on Muslims are to hate non-Muslims (Jews, Christians, Hindus, etc). I have even seen scripture being quoted to that effect, and I have even listened as Muslims – deeply devout ones – have said to me, while keeping a straight face, that I am supposed to hate all those who are not Muslim.

I do not buy it one bit. I do not buy it no matter how many “Ulema,” or religious scholars, are quoted as saying so. Yet, this begs the question: exactly who is a kafir? Many Muslims may understand that a kafir is anyone who is not Muslim, a so-called “infidel.” It is not that simple.

The Arabic word kafir itself comes from the word kafara, which means “to cover up.” In fact, farmers in Arabic are called kuffar because they “cover up” their seeds with dirt (such a usage is found in the Qur’an, in verse 57:20). Another meaning of kufr is ingratitude; it is the opposite of shukr, or gratitude. In fact, grammatically, kafir is an active verb, meaning that a kafir is actively “covering up” something. Thus, when the word kafir is used in the Qur’an, it is a voluntary action on the part of the person committing the kufr. Muhammad Asad (may God have mercy on him) explained the meaning of kafir best, which first occurred in the Qur’an in verse 74:10:

Since this is the earliest Quranic occurrence of the expression kafir (the above surah having been preceded only by the first five verses of surah 96), its use here – and, by implication, in the whole of the Quran – is obviously determined by the meaning which it had in the speech of the Arabs before the advent of the Prophet Muhammad: in other words, the term kafir cannot be simply be equated, as many Muslim theologians of post-classical times and practically all Western translators of the Quran have done, with “unbeliever” or “infidel” in the specific, restricted sense of one who rejects the system of doctrine and law promulgated in the Quran and amplified by the teachings of the Prophet – but must have a wider, more general meaning.

This meaning is easily grasped when we bear in mind that the root verb of the participial noun kafir (and of the infinitive noun kufr) is kafara, “he (or “it”) covered (a thing)”: thus, in 57:20 the tiller of the soil is called (without any pejorative implication) kafir, “one who covers”, i.e., the sown seed with earth, just as the night is spoken of as having “covered” (kafara) the earth with darkness. In their abstract sense, both the verb and the nouns derived from it have a connotation of “concealing” something that exists or “denying” something that is true. Hence, in the usage of the Quran – with the exception of the one instance (in 57:20) where this participial noun signifies a “tiller of the soil” – a kafir is one who denies (or “refuses to acknowledge”) the truth” in the widest, spiritual sense of this latter term: that is, irrespective of whether it relates to a cognition of the supreme truth – namely, the existence of God – or to a doctrine or ordinance enunciated in the divine writ, or to a self-evident moral proposition, or to an acknowledgment of, and therefore gratitude for, favours received.

This is the proper understanding of the word kafir, namely someone who actively denies the truth. This necessitates that he or she comprehends what the truth is in order to deny it. If someone does not know the truth, how can he or she be called a kafir ? How can someone deny something which he or she does not know? This is extremely important.

Now, it is true that the Qur’an does identify groups of people who are kuffar, or people who actively deny the truth. For instance, those who believe that Jesus is God have committed kufr, or denial of the truth: “Indeed, those who say, ‘Behold, God is the Christ, son of Mary’ deny the truth…” (5:17). Later in the same chapter God says: “Indeed, those who say, ‘Behold, God is the Christ, son of Mary’ deny the truth…” (5:72). The very next verse reiterates the same message: “Indeed, those who say, ‘God is the third of a trinity’ deny the truth…” (5:73).

But again, to be a kafir, one has to know the truth about Jesus’ being no more than a messenger of God and still insist on his being God Himself. If someone has never heard and comprehended the truth about Jesus Christ (from a Muslim perspective), how can he or she be called a kafir, or one who actively denies the truth according to Islam? Furthermore, the Qur’an does not address Jews and Christians as “O kuffar.” Rather, the Qur’an addresses them as ahl al kitab , or “People of the Book.”

What’s more, the Qur’an clearly delineates the nature of a true kafir: “God has set forth as a parable for those who are bent on denying the truth [the stories of] Noah’s and Lot’s wife: they were wedded to two of Our righteous servants, and each one [spiritually] betrayed her husband; and neither of the two [husbands] will be of any avail to these two women when they are told [on Judgment Day]: ‘Enter the fire with all those [other sinners] who enter it!'” (66:10).

What more intimate relationship can there be besides husband and wife? The wife of a Prophet would be a first-hand witness to the revelation from God and its truth. She would see the proof of its veracity in the life of her husband. Noah’s and Lot’s wives, despite their closeness to Prophets of God, still denied the truth and joined the ranks of the unbelievers. This is truly what a kafir is. You can not equate someone like this with someone who has never heard or comprehended the truth and call the latter a kafir.

What does this mean for Muslims? For one thing, I do not think it is proper to call every person who is not a Muslim a kafir. We do not know the status of their hearts. Only God does, and it is God and God alone Who will take everyone to account for their beliefs and actions. In fact, many Muslims use the term kafir in a derogatory sense, maligning and looking down upon those who are not Muslim. This is neither right nor proper. Muslims are supposed to be a positive force in the world, the “best nation put forth for humanity.” Spewing forth anger and hatred is wholly antithetical to what it means to be a Muslim.

Yet, the fact remains: the world will always be full of people who are not Muslim, be they kuffar or not. In fact, God has willed it to be so. So, what are we as Muslims supposed to do about this? Are we supposed to kill them? Hell no. Are we supposed to “invade their countries, kill their leaders,” and convert them to Islam? Umm, no. Are we supposed to hate them with all of our hearts? Wrong again. Rather, we are supposed to “invite to the way of [our] Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation” and leave the rest to God. He knows what He is doing.

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is at

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