During our extensive conversation about the relationship of a Muslim with non-Muslims, the issue of who exactly is a kafir, or one who “denies the truth” (frequently translated as “infidel”), came up. Yet, when I delved deeper into the meaning of the words kufr and kafir in the Qur’an, I learned that these words have a much deeper, more profound meaning. And it has nothing to do with “being infidels.”
The late Muhammad Asad (God’s Mercy be upon him) eloquently defined the meaning of kufr and kafir in the Qur’an:
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.
In the last part of Asad’s statement lies my rediscovery of the meaning of kufr. A kafir can refuse to acknowledge the favors given to him or her, i.e., be ungrateful. In fact, the opposite of the word shukr, or “gratitude,” in Arabic is none other than kufr. The Qur’an explicitly uses the word kufr to mean “ingratitude”:
And [remember the time] when your Sustainer made [this promise] known: “If you are grateful [to Me], I shall most certainly give you more and more; but if you are ungrateful, verily, My chastisement will be severe indeed!” (14:7)
The literal Arabic text denoting “but if you are ungrateful” reads: wa la’in kafartum. Thus, the Qur’an uses both renderings of the word kufr, namely, denial of truth and ingratitude. Yet, when I think of it more deeply, kufr is truly ingratitude and nothing else. I remember hearing at a spiritual conference that all aspects of worship are nothing more than acts of shukr or “gratitude” to God. Thus, the kuffar are all those who are ungrateful to God.
Yet, for what are we to be grateful to God? For His love for us. But, how do we know that God love us? There is no statement in the Qur’an that says flat out “God loves you.” There does not need to be such a statement. I have written previously that the paradigm of the relationship between God and humanity in the Qur’an is one of love, because the Qur’an is full of references to God’s Soothing Mercy. Yet, there is a deeper, more profound manifestation of God’s love.
God’s love is manifested by our living and breathing on this earth. We were nothing before God gave us life, before God brought us into existence. If it were not for God, we would not be here. We would not have existed. With each breath we take, with each step we take, with each action and movement on earth, we live out the love of God in bringing us into existence. What did we do to deserve His bringing us to life? What could we possibly offer the Lord to recompense His infinite grace?
Moreover, once He gives us this precious gift of life, His favors do not stop there. As a physician, I have been blessed with the opportunity to witness the awesome spectacle of the human machinery at work. It is so finely tuned, so meticulously controlled that it is a miracle we don’t drop dead at any moment. What’s more, if someone is afflicted with disease, the symptoms manifest themselves long after the disease process has started because of the redundancy built in the system. For instance, people with lung disease typically develop symptoms after more than 50% of lung function has already been lost. It is amazing how the human body runs, with several very complex systems working seamlessly together to allow us to go about our daily business without difficulty. All of this is nothing but a manifestation of God’s love for us.
With this understanding in mind, this verse in surah Al Baqarah makes so much more sense:
How could you deny the truth of God when you were dead and He gave you life? After which He will cause you to die, then He will bring you back to life, then to Him shall you return (2:28)
The literal Arabic term is takfirun billah. Thus, the verse could be translated to mean: “How could you be ungrateful to God after the fact that you were dead and He gave you life?” How can we be anything but grateful to God for the most precious gift of all: our life?
This understanding is easily extrapolated to the other kuffar in the Qur’an. For instance, the Qur’an says: “Indeed, those who say, ‘Behold, God is the Christ, son of Mary’ deny the truth…” (5:17), with the Arabic text reading: laqad kafara alatheena qalu… Yet, this can easily be understood to mean: “Indeed, those who say ‘Behold God is the Christ, son of Mary’ are ungrateful [to God for this claim].” The word kafara here does not fit with the word “disbelieve,” because Christians do not disbelieve in God.
On the contrary, they wholehearted believe in and worship the God of Abraham. To this, however, they add the claim that God is Triune and Jesus Christ is divine. Given the fact that God has given so much to humanity, for human beings to claim that Christ is God is being ungrateful for God’s favors – in the Qur’anic worldview – because God is too transcendent to beget offspring like human beings.
The same is true for the pagans at the time of the Prophet (pbuh). Did they “disbelieve” in God? Were they atheists? Absolutely not. The Qur’an plainly states this:
Is it not to God alone that all sincere faith is due? And yet, they who take for their protectors aught beside Him [are wont to say], “We worship them for no other reason than that they bring us nearer to God.” Behold, God will judge between them [on Resur rection Day] with regard to all wherein they differ [from the truth]: for, verily, God does not grace with His guidance anyone who is bent on lying [to himself and is] stubbornly ingrate! (39:3)
Yet, to ascribe divinity to anything besides God – in the Qur’anic worldview – is to be utterly ungrateful to all the favors God bestows on the person who claims thus. In fact, the Arabic word for “stubbornly ingrate” at the end of 39:3 is kaffar, which is derived from kufr and kafara.
This passage of the Qur’an even further bolsters the view that kufr is essentially ingratitude:
And so, when they embark on a ship [and find themselves in danger], they call unto God, [at that moment] sincere in their faith in Him alone; but as soon as He has brought them safe ashore, they [begin to] ascribe to imaginary powers a share in His divinity: and thus they show utter ingratitude for all that We have vouchsafed them, and go on [thoughtlessly] enjoying their worldly life. (29:65-66)
Again, the word for “ingratitude” is liyakfuru, derived from the root word kafara. Any other iteration of the word kufr does not work.
This is truly amazing. For so many years of my life, I had always thought a kafir was an “unbeliever.” I realize now how primitive and naive such a belief truly is. The Qur’an is such a profound book, with so many layers of understanding that are waiting to be discovered. The more I delve into the Qur’an, the more I want to keep swimming in its words and meanings. And the more I understand why God asks the question, ” Will they not, then, ponder over this Qur’an? – or are there locks upon their hearts?” (47:24).
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 godfaithpen.com.