What is a Kafir?

The Arabic term Kāfir (كافِر) is probably the most controversial and dan­gerous word in Islam. It is the op­posite of believer – in Arabic: Mu’min (مُؤْمِن).

A sura (109) is even named The Disbelievers – in Arabic: al-Kāfirūn (سُورة الْكافِرُون).

The so-called “disbelievers” are the enemies of the Muslims and they will be punished heavily by Allah. Sadly enough, some Muslims think that they are obliged to carry out Allah’s work in this life. Most victims are Christians living in Islamic countries, minorities like the Yazīdi people in Iraq and Syria, but also Shia Muslims living in Sunni dom­inated countries.

They are all denounced as unbelievers.

The Arabic root k-f-r (كَفَرَ) is tricky. It helps us to get closer to the Islamic concept of disbe­lieve. Of this root, 17 forms occur 510 (!) times in the Qur’an. The root has several meanings and most of them have to do with: to veil or to cover. It is an old Semitic root that is found in Hebrew as well, some say also in Nabataean.

 

Let us have a look at some examples of how the root is used:

He covered the sown seed with earth.

كَفَرَ الْبَذْرَ الْمَبْذُورَ

The clouds covered the sky.

كَفَرَ السُّحابُ السَّماءَ

A dark night. (“lail kāfir” is a classical Arabic term.)

لَيْل كافِر

Mukaffar is the passive participle of كَفَّرَ and used to describe a bird covered with feathers.

مُكَفَّر

Since its original meaning is to cover, the term Kāfir (كافِر), in pre-Is­lamic times, was also used to denote a sower or a tiller of the ground – because he covers the seed with earth.

This is important when Muslims want to fully understand the Qur’an. Sadly enough, many Muslims, also native Arabic speakers, think that the word Kāfir only means unbeliever, and therefore could misinterpret several verses in the Qur’an.

Let’s have a look at a verse of sura 57 The Iron – in Arabic: al-Hadīd (سُورة الْحَدِيد) – in which Kāfir does not mean unbeliever, but tiller/sower:

57:20

Bear in mind that the present life is just a game, a diversion, an attraction, a cause of boasting among you, of rivalry in wealth and children. It is like plants that spring up after the rain: their growth at first delights the sowers, but then you see them wither away, turn yellow, and become stubble. There is ter­rible punishment in the next life as well as for­giveness and approval from God; the life of this world is only an illusory pleasure.

اعْلَمُوا أَنَّمَا الْحَيَاةُ الدُّنْيَا لَعِبٌ وَلَهْوٌ وَزِينَةٌ وَتَفَاخُرٌ بَيْنَكُمْ وَتَكَاثُرٌ فِي الْأَمْوَالِ وَالْأَوْلَادِ كَمَثَلِ غَيْثٍ أَعْجَبَ الْكُفَّارَ نَبَاتُهُ ثُمَّ يَهِيجُ فَتَرَاهُ مُصْفَرًّا ثُمَّ يَكُونُ حُطَامًا وَفِي الْآخِرَةِ عَذَابٌ شَدِيدٌ وَمَغْفِرَةٌ مِّنَ اللَّهِ وَرِضْوَانٌ وَمَا الْحَيَاةُ الدُّنْيَا إِلَّا مَتَاعُ الْغُرُورِ.

The root can also express to be ungrateful, that someone is ungrate­ful for the benefits which he received. This too is found in the Qur’an. Let’s look at sura 16 The Bee – in Arabic: al-Nahl (سُورة النَّحْل):

16:72

And it is God who has given you spouses from among yourselves and through them He has given you children and grandchildren and provided you with good things. How can they believe in falsehood and deny God’s blessings?

وَاللَّهُ جَعَلَ لَكُم مِّنْ أَنفُسِكُمْ أَزْوَاجًا وَجَعَلَ لَكُم مِّنْ أَزْوَاجِكُم بَنِينَ وَحَفَدَةً وَرَزَقَكُم مِّنَ الطَّيِّبَاتِ أَفَبِالْبَاطِلِ يُؤْمِنُونَ وَبِنِعْمَتِ اللَّهِ هُمْ يَكْفُرُونَ

So how can to cover also mean to disbelieve?

The sentence he disbelieved in Allah (كَفَرَ بِاللّهِ) can be inter­preted as follows: Someone disbelieves because he conceals or covers the truth of Allah. Even in the Qur’an, a metaphorical meaning of to cover in the sense of to disbelieve is found.

It is a verse in sura 5 The Feast/The Table Spread – in Arabic: al-Mā’ida (سُورة الْمائِدة) – which talks about the Christians. Christians belong to the People of the Book – in Arabic: ’Ahl al-Kitāb (أَهْل الْكِتاب). Muslims use this term for Jews and Christi­ans. From an Islamic perspective, Christians literally cover the knowledge that a prophet (= Muhammad) will come after Jesus.

Let’s look at the verse:

5:17

Those who say, ‘God is the Messiah, the son of Mary’, are defying the truth (= have disbe­lieved).

لَّقَدْ كَفَرَ الَّذِينَ قَالُوا إِنَّ اللَّهَ هُوَ الْمَسِيحُ ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ

 

Some more remarks:

  • The Arabic word Kafr (كَفْر) can also mean village. It is a Syr­ian word and mostly used in Syria and Egypt.

  • The English word Kaffir has Arabic roots. Kaffir (Kaffer in Afrikaans) is an insulting term for a black African used in South Africa. The history of this word most probably goes back to the Islamic conquest of East Africa.

    Some native peoples there believed in several gods, and therefore the Muslims called them Kāfir. Eng­lish missionaries picked it up to denounce the Bantu people in South Africa. This happened possibly in the middle of the 18th century.

    Later, the expression was generally used in English and Dutch (Afrikaans) for South African blacks. It is a racist term.

 

5 thoughts on “What is a Kafir?

  1. It is all well and nice to discuss the linguistic/etymological implications of Arabic, but please don’t forget that when it occurs in Islam, Arabic words come with legal/jurisprudential meanings and connotations that are NOT equivalent to their linguistic uses.

    Kaafir means “unbeliever”/”disbeliever”, i.e. non-Muslim, in clear-cut Islamic legal terms. Whether it’s insulting/oppressive depends on the situation/culture/etc. Though, it’s usually used to speak in general terms, not at a particular person or people. You’ll find that most Muslims don’t generally call non-Muslims “kaafir”/kuffaar” unless it’s someone they hate for good reason (like Trump lol)

    Extremists bombing innocent people while calling them kuffaar is another problem altogether. It’s not a problem of the word or its usage in Islamic jurisprudence. It’s them interpreting our sacred texts wrong, to their own whims, reading only half of the texts (the Qur’an DOES repeatedly call for fighting against “unbelievers” but it also reiterates not transgressing the limits AND commands us to deal justly and with kindness with non-Muslims who don’t oppress us; funny how extremists don’t read these verses and ignore Prophetic instructions NOT TO HARM non-combatants), and cherrypicking which scholars’ words they’ll use to justify their atrocities.

  2. In Spanish we also have the term “cafre”. According to the Dictionary of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language:

    “cafre.- From Portuguese “cáfer” and this one from classical Arabic “kāfir” = Pagan.
    1. Inhabitant of “Cafrería”, an old English colony in South Africa.
    2. Relative to Cafrería or its inhabitants.
    3. Barbarian and cruel.
    4. Silly and primitive.”

  3. I have heard that kufr has the meaning of covering over the truth. I was wondering how that squares with the following ayat:

    (لَا إِكْرَاهَ فِي الدِّينِ ۖ قَدْ تَبَيَّنَ الرُّشْدُ مِنَ الْغَيِّ ۚ فَمَنْ يَكْفُرْ بِالطَّاغُوتِ وَيُؤْمِنْ بِاللَّهِ فَقَدِ اسْتَمْسَكَ بِالْعُرْوَةِ الْوُثْقَىٰ لَا انْفِصَامَ لَهَا ۗ وَاللَّهُ سَمِيعٌ عَلِيمٌ)
    [Surat Al-Baqarah 256]

    via @QuranAndroid

    1. That’s an interesting point. I guess we could talk for hours about the various meanings of كفر as this is indeed a very interesting Arabic root.

      If I am not mistaken, the sura 2:256 could be translated as:

      “There is no compulsion in religion: true guidance has become distinct from error, so whoever rejects false gods and believes in Allah has grasped the firmest handhold, one that will never break. Allah is all hearing and all knowing.”

      Many scholars translated the verb كفر in this particular sentence as “to reject”. I guess this is perfectly fine, and it also makes sense. If we take the basic meaning of كفر, which is “to cover”, we could probably say that the expression كفر ب may mean: to cover the thing [as to destroy it]. In other words, we could probably say, that it means here: “to quit”, hence: to negate or disbelieve – or simply: to reject someone.

      What do you think?

    2. Whoever rejected/disobeyed Thaghut they believe in Allah….it is used in a linguistic meaning of kafir.

      For me the lowest meaning of kafir is “lain syakartum laazidannakum, walain kafartum inna azabi lasyadidi”

      The highest meaning of kafir is “aba was tak bar waka na minal kafirin”.

      Al syirk/associatisnism is one of the form’s of being Kafir.

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