Disbelief in Islam

The Koran on non-Muslims Part 1a: Kafir

By Jon MC


That Islamic belief and attitudes are grounded by the Islamic canon is a given, but neither does the canon dictate belief itself, the individual may always believe or not believe (at least in private), in part or total, as they choose – which is a point made in the Koran itself.
Further even the Koran is subject to interpretation, hence the Islamic ‘science’ of Tafseer which ranges from the literalistic to the (frankly) fanciful in some Sufi traditions.
So let me make it clear what this article is not about.
It is not about the beliefs of any individual Muslim, most of whom are as good, kind and decent as any other group; ethnic, religious or otherwise, of people.

In this article I intend to “get behind” the translations and consider various words used within the Koran to describe people who are not Muslim. In one sense I will still be using translations to ascertain meanings, but we will delve deeper, by considering the meanings attached to various words and the linkages between them.
I am not claiming this is a complete list – I’ve probably missed something obscure.
My starting point is to use the Hilali-Khan translation of the Koran since this gives “definitions” of many “technical” words and the Quranic Arabic Corpus website. I have also used a number of English translations in order to see how various translators approach the use of language.
In order to save a lot of typing I will use the following to identify translations: A – Arberry, E – Kanz ul-Eeman, HK – Hilali-Khan, I – Irving, M – Malik, MA – Mohamed Asad, P -Pickthall, Q – Quran Corpus, S – Shakir, SD – Stephens-Darwish, SI – Sahih International, Y – Yousaf Ali.

This article may be rather heavy going, at least it is thorough-going (I hope). Feel free to skip to the summary at the end of each section if you wish to avoid the “heavy lifting”.



The word “kafir” or “kaffir” literally means “to cover” or “to conceal (the truth)”. In its original meaning it was used of tilling the soil: K.57:20 (Malik, part of): “ …Its similitude is that of vegetation that flourish after rain: the growth of which delights the tillers[Arabic: kufara] ….”.

Exactly the same word (“Kufara”) is used elsewhere for “those that do not believe”.
Within the meaning of “kaffir” as applied to non-Muslims is the implication that they have “covered”, “hidden”, “concealed” in themselves the ‘truth’ of Islam that has been revealed to them.
According to the Quran Corpus, the word “kaffir”, from the tri-consonental root “kfr”, occurs 289 times in the Koran as a verb “kafaru” meaning “to disbelieve”, 129 times as the participle “kaffirun” meaning “(the) disbelievers”, 27 times as the noun “Kaffir” meaning “non-believer”, 4 times as the adjective “disbeliever” and once as the participle “kafirat” also meaning “non-believers”. Also, once as the verb “akfara” meaning “to be ungrateful” (but see below), once as an adjective meaning ungrateful, 37 times as the noun “khufr” meaning “disbelief”, 3 times as the noun “kufur” meaning “disbelief”, once as “kawaffir” meaning “disbelieving women”, 14 times as the verb “kaffara” meaning “to remove”, 12 times in the form “kafur” meaning “ungrateful” (again see below), 4 times as the noun “kaffarat” meaning expiation (here something that “covers” sin, another case of the original meaning of the root), once as the noun “kufrana” meaning “rejected”.
Note: whilst the Quran Corpus uses the word “disbeliever” for “kaffir” etc, this is, linguistically, poor translation and it is more accurately translated as “non-believer” or (simply) non-Muslim (although as we will see, such translations cover up much of the meaning of “kaffir”).

Note: “Disbeliever” is, linguistically, a mistranslation of “Kaffir” since in strict (British) English grammar a “disbeliever” would be “one who has ceased to believe” – i.e. an apostate. The Koran generally refers to apostates [Murtadd] as “hypocrites” [Munifiq] and groups them with those who  don’t fully hold to Islamic teaching – i.e. “heretics”. The phrase “those who reject faith” is little better than “disbeliever” due to its ambiguity: I can “reject faith” both by leaving a faith or by refusing to accept it in the first place.
Thus the Koran uses “kaffir” words mostly about non-believers about 450 times in 6236 verses. That means that about 7% of all verses in the Koran contain the “kfr” words as applied to non-believers! The total number of verses related to kaffirs is much greater, some sources placing it as high as 64% of the entire text.
A second meaning is that of “removal” (for example see 39:5, 47:2, 48:5, 64:9, 65:5). Thus implicit in the use of the word “kaffir” to describe non-Muslims is the idea that they have also “removed” themselves from Allah and Islam since they neither believe nor, if they are Harbis (i.e. a non-Muslim who lives in the Daru-ul-Harb or “world [or: house] of war”), are they under Sharia law.
The term “Kaffir” applies to a person who practices non-belief (‘khufr’), a person who is active in their non-belief in that it is the result of a choice. Thus, it would be inappropriate to apply the term to a new-born infant (even though some Muslims do) since such a one has had no opportunity to make a choice in the matter.

Note: If the use of these words (disbeliever / rejector) is claimed to limit the meaning of “kaffir” to “apostate” this is not supported by the Koran text. An apostate, a “murtadd”, is indeed a kaffir, but not all kaffirs are apostates – at least unless we take the Koran’s claim that everybody is born a Muslim (K7:172) literally and deny that people are incapable of preventing themselves being “led astray” by their parents. Such an interpretation of kaffir would be truly vicious because the penalty for apostasy is death and so this would mean that all non-Muslims, even the new-born, deserve to be killed out of hand under – at least under some Sharia law formulations.

However, for most – if not all – adults in the world today, we have all been exposed to Islam’s message to some extent or another and thus those of us who choose to “hide from the ‘truth’ of Islam” in non-belief are indeed Kaffirs.
The Koran on many occasions says something along the lines of “… told them about Islam/Monotheism but they did not believe”. This is “khufr”. The act of choosing not to believe and practising this non-belief (by remaining non-Muslim) makes one a Kaffir.
Kaffir is variously translated as either “deny” – as in the truth of Islam, the hereafter(MA,Y), “infidel” (E), “unbeliever” (A), “disbeliever” (HK, P, Q, SD, SI), “those who reject faith” (M, Y), “those without faith” (Y) “deny (the revelation)” (S,Y), “reject Allah” (Y) to render the meaning of “one/those who does not believe”.
Yousaf Ali also extends the meaning to include “blaspheme” in reference to Jesus (see for example 5:72-73), but this is, I think, his own biases coming to the fore in an over-contextualised interpretation.
For general examples of the use of “kaffir”, See for example: 2:6, 2:19, 2:24, 2:89, 2:90, (here the word is used in its first instance for those who did not believe in Judaism), 2:102, 2:104, 2:105, 2:126, 2:161, 2:171, 2:191, 2:212, 2:217, 2:250 (here again the reference is to non-belief in Judaism), 2:253, 2:254, 2:257, 2:258, 2:264, 2:286; to list only those verses occurring in Surah 2.
I should also point out that many translators are not consistent in how they translate “kaffir” words.
An interesting translation of “kaffarin” occurs at 2:276. In the translations of E, M, MA, P, Q, S, SD,Y but not HK, I or SI; the word “kaffarin” is translated as “ingrate” (A,MA) or “impious”(P),“ungrateful”(E,M,S,Y), whereas HK, I and SI use “disbeliever”.
2:276 (Shakir): “Allah does not bless usury, and He causes charitable deeds to prosper, and Allah does not love any ungrateful [kaffarin] sinner.” This word occurs exactly twice in the Koran, the second being at 50:24, which Shakir renders as “Do cast into hell every ungrateful [kaffirin], rebellious[anadin] one”. Yousaf Ali uses “…every contumacious [anadin] rejecter [kaffarin]”. Shakir is followed by E,P, whereas YousafAli is followed by A, HK, I, M, MA, SI, SD. What is interesting is that in the second occurrence only E, P and S translate “kaffarin” consistently with their usage in 2:276, all the others ( M, MA, Q, SD,Y) swap to variants of “disbeliever”, consistent with “kaffir” words in general and HK, I and SI throughout.
A variant on this, “Kafoorun” appears nine times: 11:9, 14:44, 17:27, 17:67, 22:38, 22:66, 39:3, 42:48, 43:15. All the translations consistently translate this as “ingrate”, “thankless” ,”ungrateful”, or “bereft of gratitude” towards Allah. As “Kafoora” it appears in 34:17, 76:3, 76:24, where it is used similarly, as is “Kafoorin” in 25:26.

Note: In K76:5, “kafooran” is rendered as follows: “the righteous shall drink of a cup whereof the mixture is of Kafur (Shakir decides this is camphor!). This exact same word is rendered as “ungrateful” in 76:3. I can understand why no translator wants to suggest that the “cup of paradise” is mixed with ingratitude and/or non-belief, but this is surely taking a liberty with the text.

“Kaffartum” is found in 3:106, 9:66, 14:7, 17:69, 40:12, 41:52, 46:10, 73:17. It is usually rendered as “ungrateful” or similar in 14:7 and by some translators in 17:69. In all other verses the usual rendering is “disbelieved” or “rejected” or “denied”.
Another interesting case is 16:83. Here the word “kaffiroona” is usually rendered “unbelievers” etc., as it is on most other occasions, but a few translators (P,S,Y) use “ungrateful”. Malik uses both “ …ungrateful disbelievers.” Similarly in 16:112, translators use either “became ungrateful for” or similar or “disbelieved in” or similar. In 26:19 we get a similar mix in the translations, see also 31:12, and compare to 31:23 (the same word “kaffara” is used in both) and 34:17, In 28:82 Shakir alone uses “ungrateful” all others “unbelievers” or similar.
34:17 shows a similar uncertainty about whether to use “ingrates” or un/dis-believers.

Thus, it is clear that within the meaning of “kaffir” is the idea the Kaffirs are ungrateful and thankless to Allah/Mohammed because they have not accepted the “light” of Islam and converted and/or they have no gratitude to Allah for the bounty of nature.
Not all translators agree with how to translate the Arabic words (this is no surprise, of course) but it does point up the difficulties inherent in deciding when a “Kaffir” is a non-believer, an ingrate, a rebel, or has (somehow) “removed” him/herself from Islam.

Note: On one level this hardly matters. According to some Islamic teaching, the failure to uphold correct islamic orthodoxy is enough to render the “transgressor” a murtadd-kaffir. Thus an “ungrateful” Muslim may be deemed a Kaffir. This attitude is also the basis of “Takfur” – the declaration that those “not-Muslim-enough” are apostates. I should also note that such declarations are generally frowned upon in most Islamic Theology, which is one reason why so many Al-Azhar did not disavow Islamic state, but did criticise ISIL for practising Takfur.

39:59 links the rejection of Islam “khufr” to pride: “Thou waste haughty(Y) / scornful(P) / proud(S)”, as does 45:31.
3:151 (part). “We shall cast terror in the hearts of the Kaffir, because they associated partners with Allah…” If this verse is taken literally it means that all Kaffirs have “associated partners with Allah”, thus all Kaffirs are also “Mushrikoon” [=’associators’] (see below). Alternatively, it can be taken as a reference to one “section” of Kaffirs – the “associators”.
4:89. “they wish that you [Mohammed/Muslims] should disbelieve [takfuroona] as they disbelieve [kafaroo]…”. “takfuroona” is the intent to become a Kaffir – in this context to apostatise and return to a state of non-belief. Implicit in this is the idea that apostates form a sub-group within the Kaffirs. See also 5:12.


  • The word “Kaffir” is best understood as meaning “those who do not believe” or, more succinctly, non-Muslims.


  • “Kfr” words occur in some 7% of the Koran verses. Passages dealing with kaffirs account for a much higher percentage of the Koran.
  • The term “al-kaffiroon” (the non-believers) is an umbrella term for all types and classes of non-believer.
  • A “kaffir” is someone who has rejected Islam, generally in the sense of refusing to convert, though an apostate (“Murtadd”) is also a “Kaffir” since they are literally “disbelievers”. This rejection should be understood as an act of will, the person has chosen non-belief. Thus a Kaffir is a practitioner of “khufr” – the act of non-belief.
  • As well as the concept of non-belief, the word carries within its meaning several other ideas:
  1. That the “kaffir” has somehow “buried”, “concealed” or “hidden” his/her true knowledge of the “beauty and truth” of Islam – thus it implies lying or deceit, since the implication is that the Kaffir “really knows” that Islam is right. (See K.45:7-9)
  2. That the kaffir has “removed” him/herself from the influence of and obedience to Islam, a sort of quasi-apostasy,
  3. That the kaffir is an ingrate – s/he does not show to Allah the respect and worship due for his “beneficence” (if they did they would become Muslim – obviously) and thus impious also.
  4. That the Kaffir is in rebellion and opposition to Allah and Mohammed.
  5. That all of the above is linked to the kaffir’s proud, haughty nature.

Thus to put it in a sentence: “Islam says that “the Kaffir” are haughty, lying, deceitful, ungrateful, impious, quasi-apostate, non-believing rebels against Allah and Mohammed, too proud to admit the truth of Islam.”