What is the Arabic plural of “unbeliever”?

There are many possibilites. The most common are probably Kuffār and Kāfirūn. But do they mean the same? Before we get into the details, a short answer: yes.

This question might sound trivial, but unfortunately it became political in a way. Many Islamic preachers in the West prefer Kuffār (كُفّار) over Kāfirūn (كافِرُون) in their speeches, because the doubling of the consonant f, especially when combined with foreign languages – English or Ger­man – gives the word a spe­cial accentuation.

 

So, let’s have a look at the various plural forms of Kāfir, the Arabic word for unbeliever.

First of all, a Kāfir (كافِر) is a male person who denies or does not acknow­ledge the fa­vours or benefits of Allah. Kāfira (كافِرة) is the female form. Both forms are the act­ive participle of the verb kafara (كَفَرَ).

 

There are three possibilities to form the plural of Kāfir (كافِر):

  1. Masculine plural: Kāfirūn (كافِرُون) or Kuffār (كُفّار)
  2. Feminine plural: Kawāfir (كَوافِرُ) or Kāfirāt (كافِرات)
  3. Masculine OR feminine plural (same form!): Kafara (كَفَرة)

 

According to some scholars, the first two plural forms describe a disbeliever or someone who denies Allah whereas the last form (3) is used in the sense of being ungrateful to Allah.

There are forms which look almost the same and have only one dif­ferent vowel – but have a slightly different, mostly intensifying mean­ing.

 

Note: Not every unbeliever is just an unbeliever.

Arabic knows more possibilities than just the active participle (اِسْم فاعِل) to express this. In Arabic grammar, the following two forms are called an exag­gerated form (صِيغة مُبالَغة).

 

Form I. A  Kafūr (كَفُور) is an intensive epithet which expresses very ungrate­ful or un­thankful to Allah. It is found, for example, in a verse of sura 11 Hūd (سُورة هُود):

11:9 How desperate and ungrateful man becomes when We let him taste Our mercy and then withhold it!

(Alternative translation: And if We give man a taste of mercy from Us and then We withdraw it from him, indeed, he is despairing and ungrateful.)

وَلَئِنْ أَذَقْنَا الْإِنسَانَ مِنَّا رَحْمَةً ثُمَّ نَزَعْنَاهَا مِنْهُ إِنَّهُ لَيَئُوسٌ كَفُورٌ

Note that Kafūr (كَفُور), as mentioned before, can be feminine or masculine because they have the same form in both genders. Its plural form is Kufur (كُفُرٌ) for both masculine and femin­ine.

 

Form II. The word Kaffār (كَفّار) – NOT Kuffār, notice the vowel a (فَتْحة) at the beginning – has a more intensive signification than Kafūr (كَفُور) and expresses habitu­ally ungrateful. It is used in sura 14 ’Ibrāhīm (سُورة إِبْراهِيم):

14:34 …and given you some of everything you asked Him for. If you tried to count God’s favours you could never calculate them: man is truly unjust and ungrateful (= most unjust and un­grateful).

وَآتَاكُم مِّن كُلِّ مَا سَأَلْتُمُوهُ وَإِن تَعُدُّوا نِعْمَتَ اللَّهِ لَا تُحْصُوهَا إِنَّ الْإِنسَانَ لَظَلُومٌ كَفَّارٌ

 

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