Addressing the saying that claims that the Qur’an refer to Jews and Christians as kuffar or infidels, we would to confirm that there is a big mistake with translation, one that is sometimes committed by Muslims, too. If you look at the English dictionary meaning of infidel, you would find that it means someone who does not have a faith or does not believe in Allah. Does the Qur’an say that the Jews and Christians do not believe in Allah? No. In Surat Al-`Ankabut (29:46), Allah says that the God of Christians, Jews, and Muslims is one and the same. The word infidel is an inaccurate translation of the word kafir in this case.

The term kafir, referring to a person, or kufr, referring to an act, is used in the Qur’an in a variety of contextual meanings. This is why I hesitate to use even the terms non-believer or disbeliever for the translation, as is it is not clear from these English terms what is the object of unbelief or disbelief, it is God, a particular prophet, or others?

I would prefer to use the term non-Muslim, as it applies to various categories of kufr, whether it refers to knowingly rejecting the message of Islam (disbelief) or being a non-Muslim due to the lack of awareness of the authentic message of Islam (unbelief). The following are examples of the varied contextual uses of the term kufr in the Qur’an as follows:

  • Kufr is sometimes used in a positive sense. A good believer can also be a kafir. How so? The Qur’an says [Faman yakfur bil taghut wayu’mim billah] (Whoever rejects (yakfur) taghut (oppression) and believes in Allah) (Al-Baqarah 2:56). Anyone who believes in one thing is a kafir (rejecter) of its opposite.
  • Kufr can be used in a neutral or benign sense, as the origin of kufr in the Arabic language means “to cover up.” A farmer who puts a seed in the ground and covers it up is performing kufr. Spiritually, deliberate deviation from the true and authentic prophets is a form of “covering-up” the truth.
  • The word kufr can also be applied to Muslims who do something wrong, although not necessarily something that would place them outside the state of belief in Islam. For example, a Muslim who is able to go for Hajj but does not go, without denying the need to go, would be committing an act of kufr in a sense of their being ungrateful to Allah (3:96-97).
  • Kufr is used in the Qur’an as the opposite of shukr (to be grateful) (Luqman 31:12).
  • Kafir is used in the Qur’an, not only to refer to Jews or Christians, but also those who rejected the prophets and denied the existence of God. It has been used to refer to the people of Noah and the people of Abraham. It has also been used to refer to those who denied prophethood and rejected the existence of Allah altogether, which obviously is not the case with Christians and Jews.
  • Kafir can also be used in a more serious sense, but with a variety of meanings. It refers to the rejection of Islam. It describes one who knows the truth, but rejects it out of pride or vanity. It describes a person who knows the truth in his or her heart and deliberately rejects it.

Nonetheless, we cannot clearly assess this situation. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) gave Muslims very clear instructions after one incident when people assumed to know why someone had professed belief in Islam. He asked them whether they had opened up his heart, and if they knew whether what was in his heart was sincere or not. The bottom line is that we have to leave judging people’s faith to Allah; only Allah knows the sincerity of a particular person’s acceptance. Allah is All-Knowing, and He is the only Judge of all of us.

*By Dr. Jamal Badawi