"Islam never refers to Christians as infidels," announced Mohammed Fahmy, professor of industrial technology at the University of Northern Iowa, at the three-day annual Iowa Conference on Islam sponsored in part by Iowa State University's Muslim Student Association and the university's Office of Multicultural Student Affairs. Among others in the audience was Ted Tedesco, mayor of ISU's hometown, Ames, who thanked the group for its efforts to educate and correct misconceptions about Islam.
All very friendly. But is it true? The English word infidel is the standard translation for the Arabic word kafir (Arabic pl. kuffar), which Hans Wehr, Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic (Beirut: Librarie du Liban, 1974), p. 833, defines (among other things) as "unbeliever, infidel, atheist."
In fact, the word has historically been regularly applied to Christians. Muhammad Al-Mukhtar Al-Shinqiti, director of the Islamic Center of South Plains, Lubbock, Texas, recently explained the matter this way at an Islamist website where learned sheikhs answer questions. To the inquiry, "Are we allowed to call a Christian person kafir?" he replied:
Kafir in Arabic has two meanings: 1) a non-Muslim, a person who denies Allah or Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him); 2) ungrateful, a person who is not thankful to the favors of Allah. The second meaning can be also used for Muslims who do not show gratitude to Allah. Kafir in this meaning is the opposite of "shakir" (thankful). Christians and Jews are kuffar because they rejected the Prophethood of Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). …
However, kafir is now a derogatory term, and that is why I would encourage Muslims to use the term "non-Muslims" when referring to people of different faiths.
What Al-Shinqiti writes is correct: Christians are technically speaking kafirs and it is, to put it mildly, an impolite term.
Comment: It does no good, as Mohammed Fahmy tries, to dissimulate and pretend that the kafir does not mean what it plainly does. Fahmy's brand of apologetics is sadly all too common, affecting the understanding of such key concepts as warfare, women, and slavery. It is my view that the Muslim world cannot modernize until it deals with historical realities, rather than gush and pretence such as Fahmy articulated. (March 21, 2005)