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