The Muslim speaker Abdullah al-Andalusi discusses the issue quite well arguing there is often confusion regarding the understanding and use of the Arabic word 'Kafir'. The confusion lies in the Qur'an's use of identical Arabic words to mean different meanings in different contexts.
The word 'Kafir' comes from the root 'kfr' meaning to cover or something covered, having 525 cognates in the Qur'an. The word 'kafir' and its plural, occurs over 153 times in the Qur'an. The word literally means in Arabic 'someone that covers'. Its literal meaning is therefore not 'disbeliever', but is used to convey a number of different meanings depending on the context of the Arabic sentence.
The word 'Kafir' is used at different times to mean different things in the Qur'an, here are some examples of its different usages below.
'Kafir' used literally in the Qur'an
The word Kafir refers to something that covers who physically covers something. This has been used in the Qur'an to refer to farmers, who cover seeds in the earth when they till (e.g. Qur'an 57:20).
'Kafir' used theologically in the Qur'an
The word Kafir can be used in a theological sense to refer to those who will be judged in the hereafter as disbelievers, who were insincere in their life, deliberately rejecting the truth which they covered up, despite knowing it was true. This also includes those who refused to question what they were taught (i.e. blind followers) and did not search for the truth when they became aware of their belief's uncertainty. This meaning includes any person guilty of such insincerity whether they label themselves as Muslim or non-Muslim on earth;
'Kafir' used Socio-politically in the Qur'an
The word Kafir can be used to describe a community, people or background of a person, without being a theological indictment against them.
Here are two examples:
1) Kafir as a generic word for non-believer / unbeliever
This description refers to using the word 'Kafir' to mean all 'non-believers' in Islamic revelation. This is not the same as the english term 'disbeliever', since someone who is not a believer in revelation may be sincere and be willing to challenge their society's assumptions and search for and accept truth if they find it. Since they are not convinced yet or aware of Islam they do not label themselves as Muslim. They may come from a situation or society where the actual truth is unclear, unknown and therefore covered from them. The category is used in Qur'an 60:5 and tells Muslims of the prayer of Abraham (pbuh) that he did not want to be a trial or torment for those who are non-believers in his message. The verse then goes on to talk about showing kindness and being just to non-believers [Qur'an 60:8], except those who actively fight and unjustly expel believers from their homes due to their beliefs.
2) Kafir as a word for pagans/polytheists exclusively (and not 'people of the Book' i.e. those following Judaism and Christianity)While the Qur'an can use 'Kafir' in a general sense to mean all non-believers of Islam (including people of other Abrahamic faiths), it sometimes uses the word 'Kafir' to describe 7th century Arabian pagans exclusively. This usage does not include the people of the book, who are are believers in the previous revelations from God, whereas the pagans and polytheists (in this example in Arabia) are believers in no revelation. So in this usage of the word 'Kafir', this case only refers to those pagans and not Jews and Christians. One example of this specific usage and meaning is when the Qur'an prohibits Muslims from marrying 'Kufaar' (pagans) [Qur'an 60:10]) whereas Muslims are not prohibited from marrying 'people of the Book' [Qur'an 5:5].
In the English language, a distinction must be made when translating the word Kafir depending on the context of the Arabic sentence being translated.
A theological usage of the word should use the english word 'disbeliever', since until the day of judgement only God knows who has truly rejected the truth and disbelieved in it. This is different from the generic term for non-believers or unbelievers and should be used in english translations of the word Kafir if the context is purely a legal discussion about relations between people who are Muslim and those who are not.
The difference between disbeliever and unbeliever/non-believer in English, is the former involves actively rejecting of truth (or rejecting the search for truth), while the latter is a broader description meaning merely the absence of belief. The prefix dis- in English, comes from the Latin meaning "apart," "asunder," or having a negative, or reversing force. Whereas the prefix un- in English comes from Old English which means "not" and the prefix non- in English comes from Latin meaning "not" as well. Therefore the English word 'disbeliever' is more accurate a translation for Kafir in the theological sense, where the individual rejects truth or the search for it and 'unbeliever', or 'non-believer' is more accurate a translation for Kafir in the Legal/Social sense, to mean someone who simply is not a believer of Islam.
No Muslim or any other human can judge the destination of any other human being in the hereafter - as such judgement is only for God, nor can anyone know for certain if someone truly is a disbeliever in truth. It would be pointless for a Muslim to invite people to Islam if he/she considered them to be disbelievers, since disbelievers are by definition people who are insincere and will never accept the truth.
'Verily, those who disbelieve, it is the same to them whether you warn them or do not warn them, they will not believe' [Qur'an 2:06]
Therefore, it is better to say in English, that a non-believer may accept truth, but a disbeliever would never do so.
Muslims clearly understand that using the word 'Kafir' in theological discussions as disbeliever, is quite different from discussing the word 'Kafir' in the everyday sense of simply a non-believer in Islam. The latter is used only to denote the meaning of 'not being a Muslim' for practical reasons under Islamic legal categories and identification and is therefore not derogatory and should be understood as such.
The word 'Kafir' comes from the root 'kfr' meaning to cover or something covered, having 525 cognates in the Qur'an. The word 'kafir' and its plural, occurs over 153 times in the Qur'an. The word literally means in Arabic 'someone that covers'.
Its literal meaning is therefore not 'disbeliever', but is used to convey a number of different meanings depending on the context of the Arabic sentence.
The word 'Kafir' is used at different times to mean different things in the Qur'an, including unbeliever, disbeliever, polythiest and so on.
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