(kāfirūn, kuffār)

Muzaffar Iqbal and Csaba Okvath

Kāfir, the Qurʾānic term usually translated as unbeliever or disbeliever, is an active participle (ism fāʿil) of the trilateral root k-f-r, lexically denoting anyone or anything that “hides”; it is used for both the animate and the inanimate (Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān). In Sacred Law (iṣṭilāḥ sharʿī), kāfir denotes a person who does not believe in Allah Most High, or associates with Him other dieties, or does not believe in any of the other articles of belief (Angels, Prophets and prophethood, Divinely revealed Books, the Day of Resurrection, and the Divine Decree; see Belief).

Definitions and Usage

According to Abū Manṣūr Muḥammad b. Aḥmad Al-Azharī al-Harwī (d. 369/980), one of the most influential linguist from Khurāsān, when a disbeliever is invited by Allah Most High to His Oneness (tawḥīdihi), He actually invites him to His blessings, but when he rejects the invitation, he covers up the blessings by his rejection, and thus he conceals the blessings and is, therefore, called a kāfir. Ibn al-Sikkīt (d. 244/858) said, “the blessings concealed by the kāfir are signs that unmistakably elucidate for people of discernment the Oneness of their Creator, Who has no partner (lā sharīka lahu), and that, He has sent Messengers with miraculous and inimitable signs, revealed Books (al-kutub al-munazzala) and clear proofs (al-barāhīn al-wāḍiḥa)” (Tahdhīb, sub k-f-r).

After explaining the above-mentioned linguistic meaning of kufr, Abū al-Ḥusayn al-Qāsim b. Muḥammad b. al-Mufaḍḍal Al-Rāghib al-Aṣfahānī (d. ca.502/1108) says:

Concealment of blessings is through lack of gratitude… and the greatest kufr is the denial of the Unicity of Allah (juḥūd al-waḥdāniyya), the Sacred Law (al-Sharīʿa), and the prophethood (al-nubuwwa). In customary usage, kufrān is used to denote ingratitude, kufr for denial of religion, and kufūr for both, thus its usage in Q 17:99, but the unjust refuse [everything] except disbelief; and in Q 25:50, but most people accept nothing but disbelief…. In Q 2:41,…and be not the first disbeliever (awwala kāfir), kāfir is used in the meaning of denier and concealer (jāḥid lahu wa sātir), at times, kafara is used for anyone who contests a Legal precept (man akhalla bil-sharīʿa) or who discards what is obligatory for him from being grateful to Allah, as in Q 30:44, whoever did kufr, upon him is the consequence of his kufr, as attested to by [the remainder of the] verse, and whoever does righteousness—they are making provisions for themselves…In  Q 24:55,…whosoever disbelieves (man kafara) after this, they are the fāsiqūn, whosoever disbelieves” refers to him who conceals the truth (al-sātiru lil-ḥaqq), and for this reason He described him by the adjective fāsiq (rebellious, disobedient, wrongdoers) and it is known that absolute disbelief is more severe than fisq… (Mufradāt; also see Samīn al-Ḥalabī, ʿUmda, sub k-f-r for a similar definition).

525 occurrences of the derivatives of the trilateral root k-f-r occur in 14 derived froms:

  • masculine singular kāfir (x27);
  • its sound plural kāfirūn (x129, very often in the accusative-genitive case kāfirīn);
  • its broken plural (al-jamʿu-l-mukassar) kuffār (x21);
  • plural form kafaratun once (Q 80:42);
  • emphatic forms kafūr (x12) and kaffār (x5);
  • the singular feminine form kāfira, which appears once as a reference to a disbelieving army (Q 3:13), and its broken plural form kawāfir used once (Q 60:10) in the context of prohibition regarding marrying a woman who is a disbeliever.

Unlike the eighty-nine instances of direct Divine address to the believers (yā ayyuhā al-ladhīna āmanū, O you who believe), disbelievers are not deemed worthy of direct address by Allah Most High, although the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, is ordered to address them just once, in Sūrat al-Kāfirūn (“The Disbelievers”, Q 109)—the sura “that is most infuriating for Iblīs (ashaddu ghayẓan li-iblīs)”, as per Ibn ʿAbbās (3bh-68/619-688), “because it contains [proofs of] monotheism and a clear repudiation of polytheism (barāʾatun min al-shirk)” (Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, Ibn ʿĀdil, Lubāb; see below section on this sura.) The disbelievers will be addressed, however, on the Day of Resurrection with the words: O you who disbelieved, make no excuses for yourselves this day. You are only being repaid for what you used to do (Q 66:7).

In addition to the nominal forms, the Qurʾān refers to disbelievers in a variety of other ways:

  1. through verbal constructions such as “those who disbelieve” (alladhīna kafarū), which appears 130 times, often in conjunction with prepositional phrases, such as “bi-Llāhi” (in Allah) and “bi-Llāhi wa bi-rasūlihi” (in Allah and His Messenger), and “bi-āyāti-Llāhi” (in the Signs of Allah);
  2. as “those who do not believe” (alladhīna lā yuʾminūna), which appears 43 times, often accompanied by prepositional phrases, such as “in Allah” (bi-Llāhi) and “in Allah and in the Last Day” (bi-Llāhi wa bil-yawmil ākhiri);
  3. through the phrase those who denied Our signs (kadhdhabū bi-āyātinā);
  4. as those who deny the meeting with their Lord (Q 6:154; 13:2; 30:8, 32);
  5. as those who deny the meeting with Allah (Q 6:31; 10:45);
  6. as those who deny the meeting of the Hereafter (Q 23:33);
  7. as those who deny the Message of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace (Q 3:184; 6:147; 10:41; 22:42; 35:4, 25);
  8. as those who turn away, generally expressed by tawallā—the fifth form of the stem (w-l-y), sometimes followed by mudbirīn (turning the back, retreating, Q 40:33) and muʿriḍūn, the active participle of the root ʿ-r-ḍ (Q 6:4; 15:81; 21:1, 24, 42; 23:71; 46:31; 74:49). 
  9. as those who deny the Divine origin of the Qurʾān, by calling it legends of the earlier nations (asāṭīru-l-awwalīn) (Q 6:25; 8:31; 16:24; 23:83; 25:5; 27:68; 46:17; 68:15; 83:13);
  10. those who consider lawful what Allah and His Messenger has declared unlawful (Q 9:29);
  11. out of all the disbelievers who were contemporaneous to the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, the Qurʾān mentions only one by name—Abū Lahab; his wife, the carrier of firewood, is mentioned but not named (Q 111; see below).



Specific types of disbelievers mentioned in the Qurʾān include:

  1. Idolaters (al-mushrikūn): A significant portion of the Qurʾānic references to disbelievers are concerning polytheists (see Idols and Idolators). Polytheism took various forms. Some worshipped carved statues (tamāthīl, sing., timthāl)—as was the case of Ibrāhīm’s (q.v.) father and his people (cf. Q 21:52); others had idols (aṣnām, awthān), made of stone, silver, copper, or wood, ostensibly to approach Allah Most High (Q 22:30; 29:17, 25). Another form of association (shirk) was through ascribing equals (andād) to Allah Most High. The noun nidd (pl. andād; lit., equal, similar, alike) denotes anything “that shares the essential nature of something else; this is a sub-category of similarity (al-mumāthaltu), for the [adjective] “similar” (al-mithl) is used in connection with anything that shares something with the other, consequently every nidd is mithl but not every mithl is nidd” (Rāghib, Mufradāt, sub n-d-d). References to this type of disbelieve appears six times (Q 2:22, 165; 14:30; 34:33; 39:8, 41:9). Q 2:165, Yet of mankind are those who take other than Allah as equals [to Him]. They love them as they [should] love Allah, was explained by the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, when he was asked by ʿAbdullāh b. Masʿūd, “What is the greatest sin in the sight of Allah?” He said, “That you set up a rival equal (niddan) unto Allah, though He [alone] created you” (Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ, Kitāb al-Tafsīr, Qawluhu Taʿālā Fa-lā tajʿalū li-Llāhi andādan). Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (543-606/1148-1209) says, “There is no one in this world who could set a rival equal to Allah that might be similar to Him in existence, power, knowledge and wisdom…Yet, those who worship others besides Allah are numerous; one group consists of the worshippers of the stars (ʿabadatu-l-kawākib) claiming, ‘we must worship the stars’; although the stars worship Allah; another group is from among the Christians who worship al-Masīḥ [ʿĪsā], and a third group is the worshippers of the idols (ʿabadatu-l-awthān)” (Tafsīr, sub Q 2:22). In addition to the wilfull act of setting others as equal to Allah Most High, such association can also happen through faulty understanding, mistake, and thoughtlessness, as Ibn Abī Ḥātim (d. 327/938) explains on the authority of Ibn ʿAbbās (3-68/619-688): “Al-andād (equals) is association (shirk) and it is more obscure than the crawling of an ant (dabīb al-naml) on a black stone (ʿalā ṣafātin sawdāʾ) in the darkness of the night (fī ẓulmati-l-layl). It is when someone says, ‘By Allah and by your life (wa-ḥayātik) and by my life (wa-ḥayātī). Or when someone says, ‘If the dog had not been [with us], thieves would have come’…or when someone says to his companion, ‘What Allah wills and you’ (mā shāʾa-Llāhu wa shiʾta)’…in all these words there appears association” (Tafsīr, sub Q 2:22). Abū-l-Ḥasan ʿAlī b. Aḥmad al-Wāḥidī al-Naysābūrī (d. 468/1075), quotes Ibn Zayd [that is, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Zayd b. Aslam al-ʿAdawī al-ʿUmarī al-Madanī, d. 182/798, known for his excellence in the Sciences of the Qurʾān, author of a commentary and a book on abrogation (cf. Dhahabī, Siyar, Juzʾ 9, No. 94)], who said, “al-andād are those deities whom they made objects of worship along with Him” (Wasīṭ sub Q 2:22).
  2. Dahriyya (in modern term: Atheists): Q 45:24 referes to disbelievers in this category: And they say: there is not but our worldly life; we die and live, and nothing destroys us except al-dahr. And they have of that no knowledge; they are only assuming. Originally, al-dahr meant “the entire period (mudda) of the world’s existence (ismun li-muddati-l-ʿālam), from its beginning until its termination (inqiḍāʾihi), and on this [meaning] is based Q 76:1, has there [not] come upon man a period of time. Then, its usage came to denote any long duration; it is the opposite of al-zamān (time), for zamān can be used either for short and long periods…in Q 45:24, it probably means al-zamān (Mufradāt, sub d-h-r). This group is not identified by the title dahriyyūn in the Qurʾān, but later works assign this denomination to them (see: al-Shahrastānī, Milal, passim; Ibn Ḥazm, al-Faṣl fī-l-milal, passim). The noun al-dahr (literally, time), that gives them their denomination, is explained by exegetes as being synonymous with zamān (time), or more specifically, a very long period of time (ṭūlu-l-zamān). “The Arabs use the two nouns, dahr and zamān in one and the same meaning (bi-maʿnā wāḥid). Mujāhid explicitly says that the meaning of dahr in this verse is time” (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar). This meaning is fully attested by the variant reading of ʿAbdullāh [b. Masʿūd] “dahrun yamurru”, that is, passing of the time (ʿUmar and ʿAbd al-ʿĀli, Muʿjam al-Qirāʾāt). Jār Allāh Abū al-Qāsim Maḥmūd b. ʿUmar al-Zamakhsharī (467-538/ca.1074-1143) explains the intent of their belief: “They say there is only the life of this world, then death follows it; and there no  life after this (wa laysa warāʾa dhālika ḥayātun)…They thought that it is merely the mutual exchange of days and nights that influences the annihilation of the souls, by this they deny Allah’s power over death and His grasping of the souls; they ascribe every event to dahr and zamān” (Kashshāf). “On their part, this is the rejection of the Hereafter, the denial of the Resurrection and negation of the reward (ibṭāl al-jazāʾ)” (al-Qurṭubī, Tafsīr sub Q 45:24). Ibn ʿĀdil (d. 880/1475) repeats more or less the same idea, with greater emphasis: “[What they say is:] Nothing annihilates us (yufnīnā) except the passing of time (marru-l-zamān), the longevity (ṭūlu-l-ʿumr) and the mutual exchange of the night and the day” (Lubāb). Abū Hāmid Muḥammad b. Muḥammad b. Muḥammad b. Aḥmad al-Ghazālī (450-505/1058-1111) writes that their doctrine is based on the perennial existence (azaliyya) of this world and says “the first category (ṣinf) is the Dahriyyūn that is a group of the ancients, they denied the existence of the Maker who governs the worldly life (al-ṣāniʿu-l-mudabbir), the Knower and the Omnipotent. They thought that the world would exist eternally and it is what it has been of itself without a Creator and it will remain forever as it is now; this group is from the al-zanādiqa.” (Munqidh, Aṣnāf al-falsafa wa shumūl waṣmat al-kufr kāffatihim). A ḥadīth qudsī reminds believers not to curse time: “The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said, ‘Allah said: The offspring of Ādam abuses Time (yasubbu al-dahr), though I am dahr; in My Hand are the night and the day [in another version: Do not abuse time, for Allah is dahr]” (Muslim, Ṣaḥīḥ, Kitāb al-alfāẓ min al-adab wa ghayrihā, Bāb al-nahy ʿan sabb al-dahr). After mentioning the hadith, Ibn ʿAṭiyya says, “Indeed, Allah the Most High does what they ascribe to Time and thus this way they [actually] absue Him; and if you ponder on the similie of this statement, it will become apparent to you, God willing” (Muḥarrar).
  3. Disbelievers from among the People of the Book (ahl al-Kitāb) refers to those Jews and Christians who did not believe in the Prophethood of the Prophet Muḥammad, upon him blessings and peace, as well as those who distorted the true message. The phrase those who disbelieved from the People of the Book appears five times (Q 2:105; 59:2, 11; 98: 1, 6). For more details See People of the Book.

See also

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