Kafir (Arabic: كافر kāfir; plural كفّارkuffār; feminine كافرة kāfirah) is an Arabic term (from the root K-F-R “to cover”) meaning “unbeliever”, or “disbeliever”.   The term alludes to a person who rejects or disbelieves in God and the teachings of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad, and denies the dominion and authority of God; or otherwise does not heed the beliefs and prescriptions held by the religion of Islam. Unbelief is called kufr. Kafir is sometimes used interchangeably with mushrik (مشرك, those who commit polytheism), another type of religious wrongdoer mentioned frequently in the Quran and Islamic works. The practice of declaring another self-professed Muslim a kafir is known as takfir.
The word kāfir is the active participle of the root K-F-R. As a pre-Islamic term it described farmers burying seeds in the ground. One of its applications in the Quran is also the same meaning as farmer. Since farmers cover the seeds with soil while planting, the word kāfir implies a person who hides or covers. Ideologically, it implies a person who hides or covers the truth. Poets personify the darkness of night as kâfir, perhaps as a survival of pre-Islamic religious or mythological usage. The noun for disbelief, “blasphemy”, “impiety” rather than the person who disbelieves, is kufr.
The Hebrew words “kipper” and “kofer” share the same root as “kafir” כִּפֵּר, or K-F-R. “Kipper” has many meanings including, to “deny”, “atone for”, “cover”, “purge”, “represent”, or “transfer”. The last two meanings involve “kofer” that mean “ransom”. “Kipper” and “kofer” are mostly likely used together in the Jewish faith to indicate God’s transfer of guilt from innocent parties using guilty parties as “ransom”.
The practice of declaring another Muslim as a kafir is takfir. Kufr unbelief and shirk (polytheism) are used throughout the Quran and sometimes used interchangeably by Muslims.  However Kufr is the “denial of the Truth” (truth in the form of articles of faith in Islam), and shirk means devoting “acts of worship to anything beside Allah” or “the worship of idols and other created beings”. So a mushrik may worship other things while also “acknowledging Allah”. In the structure of Islamic thought, kufr represents all things unacceptable and offensive to God (Allāh).
In the Quran
The distinction between those who believe in Islam and those who do not is an essential one in the Quran, the book of Islam. Kafir, and its plural kafirun, is used directly 134 times in Quran, its verbal noun “kufr” is used 37 times, and the verbal cognates of kafir are used about 250 times.
According to the E. J. Brill’s First Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1913-1936, Volume 4, the term first applied in the Quran to unbelieving Meccans, who endeavoured “to refute and revile the Prophet”. A waiting attitude towards the kafir was recommended at first for Muslims, later Muslims were ordered to keep apart from unbelievers and defend themselves against their attacks, and finally to take the offensive. Most passages in the Quran referring to unbelievers in general talk about their fate on the day of judgement and destination in hell.
According to scholar Marilyn Waldman, as the Quran “progresses” (as the reader goes from the verses revealed first to later ones), the meaning behind the term kafir doesn’t change but “progresses”, i.e. “accumulates meaning over time”. As the Islamic Prophet Muhammad‘s views of his opponents change, his use of kafir “undergoes a development”. Kafir moves from being one description of Muhammad’s opponents to the primary one. Later in the Quran, kafir becomes more and more connected with shirk. Finally, towards the end of the Quran, kafir begins to also signify the group of people to be fought by the mu’minīn (believers).
Types of unbelievers
People of the Book
Whether Jews or Christians (Ahl al-Kitab, or People of the Book) are kafir is disputed. Scholar Cyril Glasse criticizes the use of kafirun [pl. of kafir] to describe Christians as “loose usage”, while salafist Islamic scholar Muhammad Saalih al-Munajjid states “Jews and Christians are both kaafirs and mushrikeen”. According to the Brill First Encyclopedia of Islam, the Ahl al-kitab are “usually regarded more leniently than other kuffar [pl. of kafir]…”
Traditionally People of the Book conquered by Muslims were entitled to a special status known as dhimmi by paying a tax known as jizya and observing other restrictions on their rights (see for example the Pact of Umar).
Musta’min (protected ones) are people who come to an Islamic country as messengers, merchants, visitors, or students wanting to learn about Islam. Musta’min are under the protection of the Muslim state and not obliged to pay Jizya, but must not wage war against Muslims and are encouraged to embrace Islam.
Traditionally, anyone conquered or captured by Muslims who was not a Muslim, a Christian or a Jew (kafirun al-Asliyun) had the “choice of conversion or death, which later might be remitted to slavery”. [Quran 9:5]   Over time, religions that might otherwise be considered shirk were also granted dhimmi status. As Islam spread east into India it was found the Hindu polytheists were “too numerous to put to the sword”, and eventually achieved “de facto status as dhimmis”.
Whether a Muslim could commit a sin great enough to become a kafir was disputed by jurists in the early centuries of Islam. The most tolerant view (that of the Murdji’a) was that even those who had committed a major sin (kabira) were still believers and “their fate was left to God”. The most strict view (that of Kharidji Ibadis, descended from the Kharijites) was that every Muslim who dies having not repented of his sins was considered a kafir. In between these two positions, the Mu’tazila believed that there was a status between believer and unbeliever called “rejected” or fasiq.
The Kharijites view that the self-proclaimed Muslim who had sinned and “failed to repent had ipso facto excluded himself from the community, and was hence a kafir” (a practice known as takfir) was considered so extreme by the Sunni majority that they in turn declared the Kharijites kafir, following the hadith that declared, “If a Muslim charges a fellow Muslim with kufr, he is himself a kafir if the accusation should prove untrue”.
Nevertheless, in Islamic theological polemics kafir was “a frequent term for the Muslim protagonist” holding the opposite view, according to Brill’s Islamic Encyclopedia.
Another group that was “distinguished from the mass of kafirun” were the murtad, or apostate ex-Muslims, which were considered renegades and traitors, the concept of freedom of religion not being accepted. Their traditional punishment was death, even, according to some scholars, if they recanted their abandonment of Islam.
Types of disbelief
Muslim belief/doctrine is often summarized in “the Six Articles of Faith“, (the first five are mentioned together in the Qur’an 2:285 ).
- His angels,
- His Messengers,
- His Revealed Books,
- The Day of Resurrection,
- Al-Qadar, Divine Preordainments, i.e. whatever Allah has ordained must come to pass
According to Dr Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din al-Hilali, “kufr is basically disbelief in any of the articles of faith. He also lists several different types of major disbelief, (disbelief so severe it excludes those who practice it completely from the fold of Islam):
- Kufr-at-Takdhib: disbelief in divine truth or the denial of any of the articles of Faith (quran 39:32)
- Kufr-al-iba wat-takabbur ma’at-Tasdiq: refusing to submit to Allah’s Commandments after conviction of their truth (quran 2:34)
- Kufr-ash-Shakk waz-Zann: doubting or lacking conviction in the six articles of Faith. (quran 18:35-38)
- Kufr-al-I’raadh: turning away from the truth knowingly or deviating from the obvious signs which Allah has revealed. (quran 46:3)
- Kufr-an-Nifaaq: hypocritical disbelief (quran 63:2-3)
Minor disbelief or Kufran-Ni’mah indicates “ungratefulness of Allah’s Blessings or Favours”.
According to another source, the Tafsir Ibn Kathir, there are eight kinds of Al-Kufr al-Akbar (major unbelief), some are the same as those described by Al-Hilali (Kufr-al-I’rad, Kufr-an-Nifaaq) and some different.
- Kufrul-‘Inaad: Disbelief out of stubbornness. This applies to someone who knows the Truth and admits to knowing the Truth, and knowing it with his tongue, but refuses to accept it and refrains from making a declaration. Allah says: Throw into Hell every stubborn disbeliever.
- Kufrul-Inkaar: Disbelief out of denial. This applies to someone who denies with both heart and tongue. Allah says: They recognize the favors of Allah, yet they deny them. Most of them are disbelievers.
- Kufrul-Juhood: Disbelief out of rejection. This applies to someone who acknowledges the truth in his heart, but rejects it with his tongue. This type of kufr is applicable to those who call themselves Muslims but who reject any necessary and accepted norms of Islam such as Salaat and Zakat. Allah says: They denied them (our signs) even though their hearts believed in them, out of spite and arrogance.
- Kufrul-Nifaaq: Disbelief out of hypocrisy. This applies to someone who pretends to be a believer but conceals his disbelief. Such a person is called a munafiq or hypocrite. Allah says: Verily the hypocrites will be in the lowest depths of Hell. You will find no one to help them.
- Kufrul-Kurh: Disbelief out of detesting any of Allah’s commands. Allah says: Perdition (destruction) has been consigned to those who disbelieve and He will render their actions void. This is because they are averse to that which Allah has revealed so He has made their actions fruitless.
- Kufrul-Istihzaha: Disbelief due to mockery and derision. Allah says: Say: Was it at Allah, His signs and His apostles that you were mocking? Make no excuses. You have disbelieved after you have believed.
- Kufrul-I’raadh: Disbelief due to avoidance. This applies to those who turn away and avoid the truth. Allah says: And who is more unjust than he who is reminded of his Lord’s signs but then turns away from them. Then he forgets what he has sent forward (for the Day of Judgement).
- Kufrul-Istibdaal: Disbelief because of trying to substitute Allah’s Laws with man-made laws. Allah says: Or have they partners with Allah who have instituted for them a religion that Allah has not allowed. Allah says: Say not concerning that which your tongues put forth falsely (that) is lawful and this is forbidden so as to invent a lie against Allah. Verily, those who invent a lie against Allah will never prosper.
History of usage
Historical relations between Muslims and non-Muslims
When the Islamic empire expanded, the word “kafir” was used broadly for all pagans and anyone who disbelieved in Islam.  According to the Brill’s First Encyclopedia of Islam, Muslim tolerance towards unbelievers has waxed and waned, with religious fanaticism unheard of and Christians holding high official offices early in Muslim history, but hatred and massacres of kafir appearing as Islam declined politically in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
However, there was extensive religious violence in India between Muslims and non-Muslims during the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal Empire (before the political decline of Islam).   In their memoirs on Muslim invasions, enslavement and plunder of this period, many Muslim historians in South Asia used the term Kafir for Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains.    Raziuddin Aquil states that “non-Muslims were often condemned as kafirs, in medieval Indian Islamic literature, including court chronicles, Sufi texts and literary compositions” and fatwas were issued that justified persecution of the non-Muslims.
Relations between Jews and Muslims in the Arab world and use of the word “kafir” were equally as complex, and over the last century, issues regarding “kafir” have arisen over the conflict in Israel and Palestine. Calling the Jews of Israel, “the usurping kafir”, Yasser Arafat turned on the Muslim resistance and “allegedly set a precedent for preventing Muslims from mobilizing against ‘aggressor disbelievers’ in other Muslim lands, and enabled ‘the cowardly, alien kafir’ to achieve new levels of intervention in Muslim affairs.”
Use outside Islam
By the 15th century, the word Kaffir was used by Muslims in Africa to refer to the non-Muslim African natives. Many of those kufari were enslaved and sold by their Muslims captors to European and Asian merchants, mainly from Portugal, who by that time had established trading outposts along the coast of West Africa. These European traders adopted that Arabic word and its derivatives.
Some of the earliest records of European usage of the word can be found in The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation by Hakluyt, Richard, 1552–1616. In volume 4, Hakluyt writes: “calling them Cafars and Gawars, which is, infidels or disbelievers. Volume 9 refers to the slaves (slaves called Cafari) and inhabitants of Ethiopia (and they use to go in small shippes, and trade with the Cafars) by two different but similar names. The word is also used in reference to the coast of Africa as land of Cafraria.
By the late 19th century the word was in common use throughout Europe and its colonies, often appeared in the newspapers and other written works of the time.    One of the Union-Castle Line ships operating off the South African coast was named SS Kafir.
In the early twentieth century, in his book The Essential Kafir, Dudley Kidd writes that the word “kafir” has come to be used for all dark-skinned South African tribes. Thus, in many parts of South Africa, “kafir” has become synonymous with the word, “native”. Currently in South Africa, however, the word kaffir is often used as a racial slur, applied pejoratively or offensively to African blacks.
The song “Kafir” by American technical death metal band Nile from their sixth album Those Whom the Gods Detest uses as subject matter the violent attitudes that Muslim extremists have toward Kafirs.
The Nuristani people were formally known as Kaffirs of Kafiristan before the Afghan Islamization of the region. Moreover, their native name was Kapir, due to the lack of a “P” in Arabic, they coincidentally were called Kafirs, which was incorrect but again correct since they were polytheists, moreover Henotheists.
The Kalash people located in the Hindu Kush mountain range south west of Chitral are known as Kafirs by the Muslim population of Chitral.
In modern Spanish, the word cafre, derived from the Arabic kafir by way of Portuguese, also means “uncouth” or “savage”.
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