My new article is out in The Journal of the American Oriental Society about the meaning of the root k-f-r in the Qur’an, the Muslim scripture. We’ve all grown up hearing about the Qur’an’s condemnation of “infidels” or “unbelievers,” but I think that this is for the most part a mistranslation. I argue that the root does not mean “infidel” but “pagan” or “polytheist” (and I think with the connotation of hostile, impious and morally corrupt pagan). In fact, I think the Arabic may be a translation of the Latin paganus. The latter had connotations of “hick” or “rustic” but also of “polytheist” and the same is true in Qur’anic Arabic.
Juan Cole, “Infidel or Paganus? The Polysemy of kafara in the Quran,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 140, 3:(2020): 615-635:
I also find that the noun kāfir is never applied in the Qur’an to Jews and Christians in an unmodified way. The noun implies “pagan” or “scoundrel” or “ingrate.”
The Qur’an considers Jews and Christians to be monotheists or submitters to the one God (muslimun). This is the antonym of “pagan.” In The Cow 2:62, the Qur’an promises paradise to righteous Jews, Christians and other monotheists alongside the followers of Muhammad.
I write in the article, “A key attribute of the [pagan] kāfir, as we have seen, is that such a person is damned to hell. Dominion 67:6 reads: “And for those who denied (kafarū bi-) their Lord, there awaits the torment of hell, and a wretched destination!” In contrast, in speaking of Jews and Christians we find in The Spider 29: “Debate the scriptural communities only in the best of ways, except for those who do wrong. Say ‘We believe in the revelation sent down to us, and the revelation sent down to you; our God and your God is one, and to him we have submitted’.””
It is common in the contemporary Muslim world to refer to all non-Muslims as kuffār or unbelievers, but I believe this is contrary to the usage of the Qur’an itself.
I think virtually all Qur’an translations err in consistently translating kafir as “infidel” or “unbeliever” or “disbeliever,” since this rendering implies a larger group than just pagans.
I made some of these arguments very briefly in my book on the Prophet Muhammad, but since it is a rip-roaring historical narrative I could not stop and do word philosophy at length:
In the article, I also explore how the verb kafara can be used of anybody. It means to commit impiety, blasphemy, immorality, etc. It is like the verb “to sin.” Monotheists can commit impiety as a one-off or occasional act, but that does not cause them to be characterized as among the group of pagans or kafirun. Even Muhammad’s own followers can commit this sin, as I explain:
- “The verb kafara, however, is more fluid and is sometime applied to monotheists. The Family of Imran 3:167 complains about those of Muḥammad’s believers who declined to go out to defend the city (later commentators say the verse concerned the battle of Uḥud in 625): “They were told, ‘Come, fight in the path of God, or at least take a defensive position’. They replied, ‘If we knew how to fight, we would have followed you’. That day, they were closer to kufr than to faith, inasmuch as they said with their lips what was not in their hearts. God knows best what they are concealing.” The deverbal noun kufr here clearly means hypocrisy or dishonesty rather than disbelief.
Here are a few excerpts from the article, which I have modified slightly in an attempt to make them a bit more readable. The original is technical and written for specialists, but I think the findings are accessible and very important. Obviously, scholars should consult the full text for footnotes and for the larger argument about how the noun and verb could diverge from one another (and there really are two distinct verbs, only one of which means “to disbelieve” in a straightforward and consistent way).
From Juan Cole, “Infidel or Paganus? The Polysemy of kafara in the Quran,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 140, 3:(2020): 615-635:
The active participle kāfir . . . cannot be assumed necessarily to mean “rejecter of something” or “infidel.” Rather, it has a wide range of meanings that can be discerned contextually. In Iron 57:20 the broken plural refers to rustic farmers: “Know that the life of this nether world is a game, a sport, a trinket, a mutual boast among yourselves and a multiplication of your wealth and children. It resembles rain whose resultant vegetation pleases the peasants (kuffār), but then it withers and you see it yellowing into chaff.” As al-Khalīl mentioned [in his early dictionary], kafr means village, reinforcing the rural connotation of the root. It may be that a secondary meaning of polytheist or adherent of traditional religion emerged because the population in the countryside was more likely than its urban counterpart to have clung to the old gods and resisted accepting monotheism.
The root is also clearly associated in the Quran with polytheism. Al-Kāfirūn 109:1–6 opens with: “Say: kāfirūna! I do not worship what you worship. Nor are you worshipping what I worship. Nor am I worshipping what you have worshipped. Nor are you worshipping what I worship. To you your religion and to me my religion.” There is an admission that the pagans have a religion, but it is simply castigated as a false one, which makes translating kāfir as “infidel” seem odd. That the dispute was over Muḥammad’s monotheism versus Arabian polytheism is demonstrated by Ṣād 38:4–5, which says . . . “They marvel that a warner came to them from among them, and the [pagans] kāfirūna said, ‘This is a lying sorcerer. Has he made the gods into only one God? That is an astonishing thing’.” This and many other verses demonstrate that the Quran came out at least in part of a milieu where there were adherents of traditional religion . . .
The sense of “to worship the gods” for k-f-r is underlined in The Cow 2:257: “God is the patron of those who believe, bringing them out of darkness into the light. And those who kafarū, their patrons are Ṭāghūt, who bring them out of the light into darkness.” Ṭāghūt is a loan from [Ethiopian] Geʿez that means “new or alien god” or “idol,” and, interestingly, is treated as a plural in this quranic verse, corresponding to numerous patrons. Belief in polytheistic religion is not, properly speaking, disbelief but the wrong sort of belief, from the point of view of the Quran. It is not a charge of atheism. Not only are such believers committed polytheists but they are also militant: “Those who believed fight in the path of God, and the pagans (al-ladhīna kafarū) fight in the path of Ṭāghūt, so fight the associates of Satan, for the guile of Satan is feeble” (al-Nisāʾ 4:76) . . .
Elsewhere, it is admitted that they [the pagans] are believers in their own tradition; when they question the eschatological opening or grand success, the verse reads: “Say: On the Day of the Opening, the faith (īmānuhum) of those who kafarū will not benefit them, nor will they be granted a respite” (al-Sajda 32:29). Since it is allowed that they have faith, they are not unbelievers strictly speaking and translating this phrase as “the faith of the infidels will not benefit them” would be self-contradictory. While they are not accused of disbelieving, they are, however, liars and wrongdoers, dishonest and workers of evil (cf. The Women 4:167–68). As well as labeling them “wrongdoers” (sing. ẓālim), they are “morally dissolute” (fāsiqūna) for responding incorrectly to God’s proverbs (The Cow 2:26). Along the same lines, it is said of Muḥammad’s monotheistic followers: “God has caused you to love faith, rendering it beautiful in your hearts, and he has caused you to abhor impiety (kufr) and ungodly behavior (fusūq) and rebellion” (al-Ḥujurāt 49:7).
“Rebel” is one meaning of the root k-f-r. In the story of how Lucifer fell (The Cow 2:34) it is reported: “And when we said to the angels, ‘Bow down to Adam’, they prostrated them- selves, save the Devil; he refused, and grew haughty, and so he became one of the rebellious (kāfirīna).” The active participle here does not involve disbelief but disobedience. The Devil (Iblīs, Gk diabolos) is not accused of rejecting the existence or oneness of God but of refusing the divine order to bow down to the first human being. Indeed, in 2:30 the angels are depicted as arguing with God that creating Adam would lead to turmoil, and the implication is that Satan parted ways with God not because he disbelieved but because he had a positive if misguided motive -— he differed with him on the wisdom of opening Pandora’s box . . .
kufr is equated with impiety, which Grecophone Christians in their polemics against the pagans called asebeia. Likewise, in Prohibition 66:10 God had made the wives of Noah and Lot an object lesson for those who kafarū because of these women’s preference for pagan society over their husbands. The reason given in 2 Pet 2:6 for the calamity that befell the people of Sodom and Gomorrah is that they lived impious lives (asebesin), which seems roughly the meaning of kufr in Q 66:10.
A controversial passage in The Cow 2:102 provides a further sense of the verb. The Quran condemns those in the era of Solomon who followed demons… that taught magic. It goes out of its way to underline that Solomon himself did not commit kufr, even though in late antique folk tradition he was held to be able to control sprites and demons. The demons were guilty of putting otherwise inoffensive teachings to evil purposes, turning them into black magic, so that they kafarū (A. J. Arberry translates this as “disbelieved”). Of what, however, did this act consist? It does not appear to have been a denial of anything, but rather was a blasphemous activity. The humans were eager to have the teaching of the two angels of Babylon, Hārūt and Mārūt, which they then desecrated by turning it into dark arts so as to separate spouses from one another. The demons’ instruction harmed people rather than benefited them, and turning to the occult deprived these individuals of any portion of heaven.
Hārūt and Mārūt are two of the Zoroastrian celestial spirits, Haurvatāt and Ameretāt. These emanations of the supreme deity, Ahura Mazda, symbolize wholeness and immortality. For instance, in the Younger Avesta, Yasht 19.95–96, the last days during which the world will be renovated are described thus: “Evil thought will be overcome, good thought will overcome it . . . The celestial spirits Integrity (Haurvatāt) and Immortality (Ameretāt) will defeat the demons of Hunger (Shud) and Thirst (Tarshna).” The two celestial spirits associated with nemeses among the demons symbolizing bodily human cravings like hunger and thirst may have inspired the Quran’s motif that devils misused their teachings to satisfy lust. Moreover, Ameretāt is associated with plants, fertility, and the tree of life. The Quran could be projecting into the time of Solomon a contemporary set of Zoroastrian ideas. The retrofitting of this motif to the time of the Hebrew monarch may in turn have come about because of the association in late antiquity of Solomon with mastery of the sprites or demons, which is reflected in quranic passages.
In late antique Greek Christian authors, black magic was associated with blasphemy (which originally meant slandering [God]). In his “Homily 10 on 2 Timothy,” John Chrysostom (ca. 349–407 CE) wrote, “Let us then so live that the name of God be not blasphemed (blasphēmíesthai).” Among the many examples he gave of Christians blaspheming in failing to live up to their ideals were “your auguries, your omens, your superstitious observances . . . your incantations, your magic (mageías) arts.”
What if we translated The Cow 2:101 this way?
“They followed what the demons recited over the realm of Solomon. Solomon himself was not a blasphemer, but the demons were blasphemers, teaching the people magic and what was revealed to the two archangels of Babylon, Haurvatāt and Ameretāt. But these two had been careful not to teach anyone without warning them, ‘We are a potential disturbance of faith (fitna), so do not fall into blasphemy.’ From them they learned how they might divide a man and his wife [. . .].”
Here is a condemnation of warlocks and witches who engage in what is seen as necromancy, which apparently enables those who covet married persons to cast spells to separate them from their spouses. They are instructed by demons who pervert and misuse the teachings of divinely inspired Zoroastrian angels.
Later Muslim commentators on this text are divided over its meaning. Some saw the anecdote as concerning fallen angels. Others defended the angels as having been sinless, and held that while they performed licit miracles, the demons turned their teachings to the purposes of thaumaturgy. As I read the text, the teaching of the angels itself is not being condemned here. Solomon, the verse says, bore no blame for his mastery of the spirits. The Zoroastrian celestial spirits are spoken of with reverence, called angels rather than demons, and are depicted as having been given inspiration (unzila) by God. The angels act responsibly inasmuch as they give disciples an explicit warning that learning their esoteric teachings could tempt humans, if they are not careful, to the dark side. (Zoroastrianism is listed in Pilgrimage 22:17 with the monotheistic religions and distinguished from paganism.)
The Quran shows positive attitudes throughout to Christians and The Cow 2:62 admits Christians to heaven (“Those who believed, and the Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, and whoever has believed in God and the Last Day and performed good works, they shall have their reward with their Lord”). To underline the difference, the Quran shows God pledging to Jesus regarding future Christians in The Family of Imran 3:55: “God said, ‘Jesus, I will take you to me and will raise you to me and I will purify you of those who kafarū and will render those who follow you superior to those who kafarū until the judgment day’.” Likely it is distinguishing between the old pagan Romans, who had persecuted Jesus and his faithful, and the Christians themselves. There will always be, the Quran vows, a difference between followers of Jesus and the kāfirūn. This and other passages suggest to me that the deverbal noun kāfir is never used tout court for Jews and Christians.
[Takeaway: kafir as a noun is never used in the Qur’an to refer to Christians and Jews, only to pagans or rebels or blasphemers or the morally dissolute.]
In the Medinan period, the Quran uses the verb kafara when it begins speaking of an antagonistic group from among the other monotheists: “Neither those who kafarū from among the people of the Book, nor the polytheists (mushrikūna) themselves, desire that good from your lord descend upon you” (The Cow 2:105). Some groups from among the biblical communities had allied politically with the militant pagans. A hypernym — for instance, “tree”—is lexically superordinate to hyponyms, another set of nouns or phrases under its rubric (e.g., “juniper” and “acacia”). Here the phrase “people of the Book” functions as a phrasal hypernym, which is lexically superordinate to the hyponym “Those who kafarū from among the people of the Book.” Logically speaking, the need to identify this subset of believers in the Bible as those who kafarū proves that kāfir does not ordinarily refer to Jews and Christians. That is, if all Jews and Christians were always kāfirūn, it would be redundant to identify this group “from among the people of the Book” as “those who kafarū.” Moreover, if all Jews and Christians were always kāfirūn, it would make nonsense of God’s pledge to Jesus (Āl ʿImrām 3:55) that he “will render those who follow you superior to those who kafarū until the judgment day.” Christians are not kāfirūn under ordinary circumstances, just as they are not doomed to hell under ordinary circumstances. Still, just as they can commit mortal sins and so depart from righteousness into perdition, so they can throw in with bellicose polytheists against Muḥammad and his cause, and likewise join the damned . . .
It is suggestive that kāfir maps so closely onto the Latin paganus as it was used in late antiquity. Remus points to an imperial decree of 416 CE (16.10.21) that excludes from government service “those who are polluted by the profane error or crime of pagan rites, that is, gentiles (qui profano pagani ritus errore seu crimine polluntur, hoc est gentiles).” This principle was reaffirmed by Justinian (r. 527–565) in his Code (1.5.19), which body of law applied to Arabic speakers in the empire in Muḥammad’s own era. The Table 5:103 likewise denounces the pagan rites of sacrifice to idols practiced by those who kafarū and al-Jumʿa 62:2 speaks of “purifying” gentiles (ummiyūna) implying that paganism had polluted them.
The two words share a number of other meanings and connotations -— rural, polytheist, opponent, persecutor, enemy, blasphemer, potential convert, and interlocutor. K-f-r may at least in some instances be a loanshift from the Latin paganus. Whatever the etymology of the term paganus, by the late fourth century it had come to mean both “rustic” and “adherent of the old Roman religion.” It was often used satirically, to class the remaining pagan aristocracy with unlettered peasants.
Centuries of Roman rule had made Arabic speakers familiar with Latin vocabulary. The word for “path” in the phrase “straight path” of piety in the Quran, ṣirāṭ, is a loan from the Latin via strata or paved avenue.72 One route for Latin influence was the Arab mounted foederati who served as an auxiliary to the Roman army in Bostra and elsewhere, since Latin remained the language of the military. Another way Latin may have proved influential was through law, inasmuch as fourth- and fifth-century imperial decrees and even some of the sixth-century Code of Justinian were still issued in Latin as well as Greek in the sixth century.
I have argued that kāfir in the Quran for the most part does not mean “unbeliever” or “infidel.” In most of our examples, a lack of belief is not at stake. Rather, kāfir is a polysemous term that has a wide range of meanings, including “peasant,” “pagan,” “libertine,” “rebel,” and “blasphemer.” These are discernible if we look at the parallelisms, synonyms, and antonyms with which quranic verses surround this noun. I understand the impulse of translators to use “unbeliever” for kāfir, and, of course, the term sometimes does mean just that. Moreover, the condemnations of pagan belief and practice, while often made with other terms, could be seen to imply unbelief at some meta level. I argue, however, that limiting the meaning of the root so severely causes us to miss a rich set of other connotations that give us a rounder idea of the Quran’s intent…
I have suggested that the bilingual lives of many Arabic speakers in and on the fringes of the Roman empire over hundreds of years (Arabic-Aramaic and Arabic-Greek) contributed to this polysemy, through the phenomenon of the loanshift. The Latin paganus, which came to have the connotation both of “rustic” and “polytheist” in the fifth and sixth centuries, may well lie behind Iran 57:20, which refers to kuffār as peasants happy to see rain and greenery. At the same time, the quranic term is clearly also used to refer to polytheists. Ṣād 38:5 reports of the kāfirūn that they rejected the notion that the many gods could merge into only one, while The Cow 2:257 says that those who kafarū had taken the deity or idol Ṭāghūt for their patron instead of God. The Family of Imran 3:151 menaces these pagans with hellfire for having made God part of a pantheon (ashrakū). While it is not impossible that Arabic independently invented a connection between farmers and polytheists, Occam’s razor would suggest that we instead posit that Arabic was influenced by late antique Roman Christian usage, which was embedded in imperial laws applying to Arabophone citizens of the empire. In any case, far from being deniers or nihilists, the pagans are admitted to believe in their own religion (dīn) and to have faith (īmānuhum) in it. It is simply a false religion. Kafara thus has a positive valence that “to disbelieve” does not capture, even if the latter is not ultimately an incorrect characterization of the quranic view of the pagans.