By: Hesham Hassaballa
Hesham A. Hassaballa is a physician and writer based in Chicago.
He can be contacted at his website
He is also Co-Author of the book, The Beliefnet Guide to
Kafir is one who denies (or "refuses to acknowledge") the
truth" in the widest, spiritual sense of this latter term: that is,
irrespective of whether it relates to a cognition of the supreme
During an extensive conversation about the relationship of a
Muslim with non-Muslims, the issue of who exactly is a kafir , or
one who "denies the truth" (frequently translated as "infidel"),
came up. Yet, when I delved deeper into the meaning of the words
kufr and kafir in the Qur'an, I learned that these words
have a much deeper, more profound meaning. And it has nothing to do
with "being infidels."
The late Muhammad Asad (God's Mercy be upon him) eloquently defined
the meaning of kufr and kafir in the Qur'an:
This meaning is easily grasped when we bear in mind that the root
verb of the participial noun kafir (and of the infinitive noun kufr)
is kafara, "he (or "it") covered (a thing)": thus, in Quran 57:20
the tiller of the soil is called (without any pejorative
implication) kafir, "one who covers", i.e., the sown seed with
earth, just as the night is spoken of as having "covered" (kafara)
the earth with darkness. In their abstract sense, both the verb and
the nouns derived from it have a connotation of "concealing"
something that exists or "denying" something that is true. Hence, in
the usage of the Quran - with the exception of the one instance (Quran
57:20) where this participial noun signifies a "tiller of the soil"
- a kafir is one who denies (or "refuses to acknowledge") the truth"
in the widest, spiritual sense of this latter term: that is,
irrespective of whether it relates to a cognition of the supreme
truth - namely, the existence of God - or to a doctrine or ordinance
enunciated in the divine writ, or to a self-evident moral
proposition, or to an acknowledgment of, and therefore gratitude
for, favors received.
In the last part of Asad's statement lies my rediscovery of the
meaning of kufr. A kafir can refuse to acknowledge the
favors given to him or her, i.e., be ungrateful. In fact, the
opposite of the word shukr, or "gratitude," in Arabic is none
other than kufr. The Qur'an explicitly uses the word kufr
to mean "ingratitude":
And [remember the time] when your Sustainer made [this promise]
known: "If you are grateful [to Me], I shall most certainly give you
more and more; but if you are ungrateful, verily, My chastisement
will be severe indeed!" (Quran 14:7)
The literal Arabic text denoting "but if you are ungrateful" reads:
wa la'in kafartum. Thus, the Qur'an uses both renderings of
the word kufr, namely, denial of truth and ingratitude. Yet,
when I think of it more deeply, kufr is truly ingratitude and
nothing else. I remember hearing at a spiritual conference that all
aspects of worship are nothing more than acts of shukr or
"gratitude" to God. Thus, the kuffar are all those who are
ungrateful to God.
Yet, for what are we to be grateful to God? For His love for us.
But, how do we know that God love us? There is no statement in the
Qur'an that says flat out "God loves you." There does not need to be
such a statement. The paradigm of the relationship between God and
humanity in the Qur'an is one of love, because the Qur'an is full of
references to God's Soothing Mercy. Yet, there is a deeper, more
profound manifestation of God's love.
God's love is manifested by our living and breathing on this earth.
We were nothing before God gave us life, before God brought us into
existence. If it were not for God, we would not be here. We would
not have existed. With each breath we take, with each step we take,
with each action and movement on earth, we live out the love of God
in bringing us into existence. What did we do to deserve His
bringing us to life? What could we possibly offer the Lord to
recompense His infinite grace?
Moreover, once He gives us this precious gift of life, His favors do
not stop there. As a physician, I have been blessed with the
opportunity to witness the awesome spectacle of the human machinery
at work. It is so finely tuned, so meticulously controlled that it
is a miracle we don't drop dead at any moment. What's more, if
someone is afflicted with disease, the symptoms manifest themselves
long after the disease process has started because of the redundancy
built in the system. For instance, people with lung disease
typically develop symptoms after more than 50% of lung function has
already been lost. It is amazing how the human body runs, with
several very complex systems working seamlessly together to allow us
to go about our daily business without difficulty. All of this is
nothing but a manifestation of God's love for us.
With this understanding in mind, this verse in surah Al Baqarah
makes so much more sense:
How could you deny the truth of God when you were dead and He
gave you life? After which He will cause you to die, then He will
bring you back to life, then to Him shall you return (Quran
The literal Arabic term is takfirun billah. Thus, the
verse could be translated to mean: "How could you be ungrateful
to God after the fact that you were dead and He gave you life?"
How can we be anything but grateful to God for the most precious
gift of all: our life?
This understanding is easily extrapolated to the other kuffar
in the Qur'an. For instance, the Qur'an says: "Indeed, those who
say, 'Behold, God is the Christ, son of Mary' deny the truth..."
(Quran 5:17), with the Arabic text reading: laqad kafara
alatheena qalu... Yet, this can easily be understood to mean:
"Indeed, those who say 'Behold God is the Christ, son of Mary' are
ungrateful [to God for this claim]." The word kafara here
does not fit with the word "disbelieve," because Christians do not
disbelieve in God.
On the contrary, they wholehearted believe in and worship the God of
Abraham. To this, however, they add the claim that God is Triune and
Jesus Christ is divine. Given the fact that God has given so much to
humanity, for human beings to claim that Christ is God is being
ungrateful for God's favors - in the Qur'anic worldview - because
God is too transcendent to beget offspring like human beings.
The same is true for the pagans at the time of the Prophet . Did
they "disbelieve" in God? Were they atheists? Absolutely not. The
Qur'an plainly states this:
Is it not to God alone that all sincere faith is due? And yet, they
who take for their protectors aught beside Him [are wont to say],
"We worship them for no other reason than that they bring us nearer
to God." Behold, God will judge between them [on ResurÆrection
Day] with regard to all wherein they differ [from the truth]: for,
verily, God does not grace with His guidance anyone who is bent on
lying [to himself and is] stubbornly ingrate! (39:3)
Yet, to ascribe divinity to anything besides God - in the Qur'anic
worldview - is to be utterly ungrateful to all the favors God
bestows on the person who claims thus. In fact, the Arabic word for
"stubbornly ingrate" at the end of Quran 39:3 is kaffar,
which is derived from kufr and kafara.
This passage of the Qur'an even further bolsters the view that
kufr is essentially ingratitude:
And so, when they embark on a ship [and find themselves in danger],
they call unto God, [at that moment] sincere in their faith in Him
alone; but as soon as He has brought them safe ashore, they [begin
to] ascribe to imaginary powers a share in His divinity: and thus
they show utter ingratitude for all that We have vouchsafed them,
and go on [thoughtlessly] enjoying their worldly life. (Quran
Again, the word for "ingratitude" is liyakfuru, derived from
the root word kafara. Any other iteration of the word kufr
does not work.
This is truly amazing. For so many years of my life, I had always
thought a kafir was an "unbeliever." I realize now how
primitive and naive such a belief truly is. The Qur'an is such a
profound book, with so many layers of understanding that are waiting
to be discovered. The more I delve into the Qur'an, the more I want
to keep swimming in its words and meanings. And the more I
understand why God asks the question, " Will they not, then, ponder
over this Qur'an? - or are there locks upon their hearts?" (Quran