1. Kāfir

Kāfir (plural: Kāfirūna, kuffār or kafarah; feminine 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 according to the teachings of the Islamic prophet Muhammad (), and denies the dominion and authority of the Islamic God, and thus is often translated as "infidel".

Some scholars held "infidels" to be an erroneous translation of "Kāfir" made by several scholars and western Quran translations, since it is not synonymous with "non-Muslim"; thus, someone who does good deeds without expectation of worldly rewards would not be a Kāfir.

At the same time, Kāfir is sometimes used as a derogatory term, particularly by members of political Islam movements.

2. Unbelief is called kufr.

Kāfir is sometimes used interchangeably with Mushrik (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 Kāfir is known as Takfīr.

The person who denies the existence of a creator is called Dahriyyah.

3. Etymology

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 Kāfir, 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.

4. Usage

The practice of declaring another Muslim as a Kāfir is Takfīr. Kufr (unbelief) and shirk (polytheism) are used throughout the Quran and sometimes used interchangeably by Muslims.

According to Salafi scholars, 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 God" or "the worship of idols and other created beings".

So a Mushrik may worship other things while also "acknowledging God".

5. 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:

Kāfir, and its plural kuffār, is used directly 134 times in Quran, its verbal noun "kufr" is used 37 times, and the verbal cognates of Kāfir are used about 250 times.

By extension of the basic meaning of the root, "to cover", the term is used in the Quran in the senses of ignore/fail to acknowledge and to spurn/be ungrateful.

The meaning of "disbelief", which has come to be regarded as primary, retains all of these connotations in the Quranic usage. In the Quranic discourse, the term typifies all things that are unacceptable and offensive to God.

Some scholars write that the most fundamental sense of kufr in the Quran is "ingratitude", the wilful refusal to acknowledge or appreciate the benefits that God bestows on humankind, including clear signs and revealed scriptures.

It is believed the term was first applied in the Quran to unbelieving Meccans, who endeavoured "to refute and revile the Prophet".

A waiting attitude towards the Kāfir was recommended at first for Muslims; later, Muslims were ordered to keep apart from unbelievers and defend themselves against their attacks and even 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.

Scholars say, as the Quran "progresses" (as the reader goes from the verses revealed first to later ones), the meaning behind the term Kāfir does not change but "progresses", i.e. "accumulates meaning over time".

As the Islamic Prophet Muhammad ()'s views of his opponents change, his use of Kāfir "undergoes a development". Kāfir moves from being one description of Muhammad ()'s opponents to the primary one.

Later in the Quran, Kāfir becomes more and more connected with shirk. Finally, towards the end of the Quran, Kāfir begins to also signify the group of people to be fought by the mū'minīn (believers).

6. Types of unbelievers

7. People of the Book

The status of the People of the Book (ahl al-Kitāb), particularly Jews and Christians, with respect to the Islamic notions of unbelief is not clear-cut:

Some believe that the Quran reproach the People of the Book with kufr for rejecting Muhammad ()'s message when they should have been the first to accept it as possessors of earlier revelations, and point to Christians for disregarding the evidence of God's unity:

The Quranic verse 5:73 ("Certainly they disbelieve [kafara] who say: Allah is the third of three "), among other verses, has been traditionally understood in Islam as rejection of the Christian Trinity doctrine, though modern scholarship has suggested alternative interpretations.

Other Quranic verses strongly deny the deity of Jesus Christ, son of Mary and reproach the people who treat Jesus as equal with God as disbelievers who will be doomed to eternal punishment in Hell.

Quran also does not recognize the attribute of Jesus as the Son of God or God himself; it respects Jesus as a prophet and messenger of God sent to children of Israel.

Some Muslim thinkers have viewed the most extreme Quranic presentations of the dogmas of the Trinity and divinity of Jesus (5:19, 5:75-76, 5:119) as non-Christian formulas that were rejected by the Church.

Some criticize the use of Kāfirūn [pl. of Kāfir to describe Christians as "loose usage".

According to the Encyclopaedia of Islam, in traditional Islamic jurisprudence, ahl al-Kitāb are "usually regarded more leniently than other kuffār [pl. of Kāfir]..." and "in theory" a Muslim commits a punishable offense if he says to a Jew or a Christian: "Thou unbeliever".

Historically, People of the Book permanently residing under Islamic rule were entitled to a special status known as dhimmī, while those visiting Muslim lands received a different status known as musta'mīn.

8. Mushrikūn

Mushrikūn (pl. of mushrik) are those who practice shirk, which literally means "association" and refers to accepting other gods and divinities alongside the god of the Muslims - Allah (as God's "associates"). The term is often translated as polytheism.

The Quran distinguishes between Mushrikūn and People of the Book,

reserving the former term for idol worshipers, although some classical commentators considered Christian doctrine to be a form of shirk.

Shirk is held to be the worst form of disbelief, and it is identified in the Quran as the only sin that God cannot pardon (4:48, 4:116).

Accusations of shirk have been common in religious polemics within Islam:

Thus, in the early Islamic debates on free will and theodicy, Sunni theologians charged their Mu’tazila adversaries with shirk, accusing them of attributing to man creative powers comparable to those of God in both originating and executing his own actions.

Mu'tazila theologians, in turn, charged the Sunnis with shirk on the grounds that under their doctrine a voluntary human act would result from an "association" between God, who creates the act, and the individual who appropriates it by carrying it out.

In classical jurisprudence, Islamic religious tolerance applied only to the People of the Book, while Mushrikūn, based on the Sword Verse, faced a choice between conversion to Islam and fight to the death, which may be substituted by enslavement.

In practice, the designation of People of the Book and the dhimmī status was extended even to non-monotheistic religions of conquered peoples, such as Hinduism.

Following destruction of major Hindu temples during the Muslim conquests in South Asia, Hindus and Muslims on the subcontinent came to share a number of popular religious practices and beliefs, such as veneration of Sufi saints and worship at Hindu shrines.

9. Sinners

Whether a Muslim could commit a sin great enough to become a Kāfir was disputed by jurists in the early centuries of Islam:

The most tolerant view was that even those who had committed a major sin were still believers and "their fate was left to God".

 The strictest view was that every Muslim who dies having not repented of his sins was considered a Kāfir.

In between these two positions, the Mu'tazila believed that there was a status between believer and unbeliever called "disobedient" or Fāsiq.

10. Takfīr

The Khārijites 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 Kāfir";

(a practice known as takfīr) was considered so extreme by the Sunni majority that they in turn declared the Khārijites Kāfir, following the hadith that declared,

"If a Muslim charges a fellow Muslim with kufr, he is himself a Kāfir if the accusation should prove untrue".

Nevertheless, in Islamic theological polemics Kāfir was "a frequent term for the Muslim protagonist" holding the opposite view, according to Brill's Islamic Encyclopaedia.

11. Murtad

Another group that are "distinguished from the mass of Kāfirūn" are the Murtad, or apostate ex-Muslims, who are considered renegades and traitors, the concept of freedom of religion not being accepted.

Their traditional punishment is death, even, according to some scholars, if they recant their abandonment of Islam.

12, Mu'ahid / dhimmī

Dhimmī are Non-Muslims living under the protection of an Islamic state.

Mu'ahid is the One who enters into covenant (‘ahd) with another. An infidel who is permitted by a Muslim Government to enter its towns and carry on traffic.

13. Types of disbelief

Sunni Muslim belief/doctrine is often summarized in "the 6 Articles of Faith", (the first 5 are mentioned together in the Qur'an 2:285).

1. God
2. His angels
3. His Messengers
4. His Revealed Books,
5. The Day of Resurrection
6. Al-Qadar, Divine Preordainments, i.e. whatever God has ordained must come to pass.

The Twelver Shia Muslims are expected to believe in the Principles of Religion (Usul al-Dīn) which outline the essential beliefs in accordance with the Qur’an and the teachings of the Twelve Imams:

The Principles of the Religion according to Twelver Shi’a Islam are:

1. Belief in Oneness and Unity of God: Al-Tawhīd
2. Belief in Divine Justice: al-Adl
3. Belief in Prophethood: al-Nubuwwah
4. Belief in Imams: al-Imāmah
5. Belief in Day of Resurrection: al-Qiyāmah

1) The Oneness and Unity of God:

The belief that God is the Creator of the universe; He is One and does not have partners.

2) Divine Justice:

The belief that God does not oppress anybody and He is just.

3) Prophethood:

The belief that God sent messengers and prophets to guide humankind to the right path and that the last prophet sent to mankind was Prophet Muhammad ().

4) Imamate:

The Prophet Muhammad () was commanded by God to appoint 12 successors, or Imams, after him. The Imams are Infallible (like the Prophet) i.e. they do not make errors.

5) Day of Resurrection:

The belief that there will be a Day of Judgement where all will be judged according to their actions and this will determine who enters heaven and who goes to hell.

14. History of usage

15. In proper sense

When the Islamic empire expanded, the word "Kāfir" was used broadly for all pagans and anyone who disbelieved in Islam.

Historically, the attitude toward unbelievers in Islam was determined more by socio-political conditions than by religious doctrine:

A tolerance toward unbelievers "impossible to imagine in contemporary Christendom" prevailed even to the time of the Crusades, particularly with respect to the People of the Book.

However, animosity was nourished by repeated wars with unbelievers, and warfare between Safavid Persia and Ottoman Turkey brought about application of the term Kāfir even to Persians in Turkish fatwas.

During the era of European colonialism, the political decline of Islam impeded organized state action against the pressure from Western nations,

and the resulting feeling of impotence contributed to a rise of hatred against unbelievers and its periodic manifestations, such as massacres.

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 Kāfir for Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains. 

Raziuddin Aquil states that "non-Muslims were often condemned as Kāfirs, 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 "Kāfir" were equally as complex, and over the last century, issues regarding "Kāfir" have arisen over the conflict in Israel and Palestine.

16. Muhammad’s parents

A hadith in which Muhammad () states that his father was in hell has become a source of disagreement about the status of Muhammad's parents:

Over the centuries, Sunni scholars have dismissed this hadith despite its appearance in the authoritative Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim collection:

It passed through a single chain of transmission for 3 generations, so that its authenticity was not considered certain enough to supersede a theological consensus -

which stated that people who died before a prophetic message reached them—as Muhammad ()'s father had done—could not be held accountable for not embracing it.

Shia Muslims scholars likewise consider Muhammad ()'s parents to be in Paradise.

In contrast, the Salafites argues that Islamic tradition teaches that Muhammad ()'s parents were kuffār (disbelievers) who are in Hell.

17. Other uses

By the 15th century, the word Kaffir was used by Muslims in Africa to refer to the non-Muslim African natives:

Many of those Kāfirs 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.

By the late 19th century the word was in use in English-language newspapers and books. One of the Union-Castle Line ships operating off the South African coast was named SS Kāfir.

In the early 20th century, in his book The Essential Kāfir, Dudley Kidd writes that the word "Kāfir" had come to be used for all dark-skinned South African tribes:

Thus, in many parts of South Africa, "Kāfir" became synonymous with the word, "native".

Currently in South Africa, however, the word Kāfir is regarded as a racial slur, applied pejoratively or offensively to blacks.