A few days ago, an article from Salon popped up in my Facebook newsfeed. It was all about shiksa, a Yiddish word to used refer to non-Jewish women, and how it’s gone from having a mostly pejorative connotation amongst Jews to becoming almost a badge of honor amongst non-Jewish women (remember that episode of Seinfeld where they talked about Elaine’s “shiksa appeal”?). And it got me thinking.
So, there is this word. I hear it mentioned all the time in relation to Muslims and Islam. And I think we need to discuss it, because despite the word’s seemingly unshakeable connection to Islam, I’ve always been kind of confused as to how this association came about, due to the fact that I’ve never actually ever heard a Muslim use it. And after some research, I have discovered that…
Or, perhaps I am an infidel and so are you. Either one will work, really.
Yes, the word is infidel. I hear people use it all the time, because duh, Muslims hate infidels, right? I have even seen a couple of pickup trucks in the States with stickers in their back windows proclaiming that the owner of said truck is a “proud infidel,” because an infidel is supposed to be a mortal enemy of Islam or something. Like shiksa, I think the term infidel has become something of a badge of honor amongst some non-Muslims.
But as I already mentioned, I have literally never heard a Muslim use this word, even in translation. So I got really curious about the etymology of this word, because I was confused as to how it somehow got so closely associated with Muslims. So I paid a visit to my good friend, the online Oxford English Dictionary, the most exhaustive catalogue of words in the English language (their meanings, uses, and origins), an encyclopedic collection of volumes once regarded as the crown jewel of the bookshelf of the English-speaking linguistics nerd. If I had been born twenty or so years earlier, I probably would have acquired an entire set of the Oxford English Dictionary at this point. However, as a child of the dawning internet age, I’ve always had the OED at my fingertips.
But I digress.
Anyway, so I looked it up, and here’s what I found:
The definition continues from there, but it basically continues to elaborate on the ways the word exists in current usage–i.e., primarily from a “Jewish or Muslim” viewpoint, according to the OED. So really, depending on your perspective (i.e., religion or lack thereof), anyone could be an infidel. Even Muslims. Especially Muslims.
Because do you see where the earliest English usages of this word show up? In the Bible. And the etymology of the word comes from French and Latin…Arabs didn’t have anything to do with that business. (Spanish is another story, though. The Spanish and Arabic languages are closely related.)
Now, I don’t make this clarification with the intention of saying, “Nah-nah-nah, see, the Christians are the ones who hate infidels, not the Muslims!” Rather, I think it’s an important thing to discuss because the word is so infrequently used among Muslims, but in Western media, it is frequently represented as an essential term in the Muslim lexicon (much like “veil,” which is also frequently used in Western media to refer to various headcoverings that Muslim women may or may not wear, but is actually hardly ever used among Muslims, unless they’re writing for non-Muslims…at least, as far as I’ve heard up to this point).
There is an Arabic word that some Muslims use to describe non-Muslims–it’s kaafir (plural: kuffar), and among Muslims, that word is most generally translated as “unbeliever.” But mostly, people just use the word “kaafir” when speaking English, the same way they use other Islamic words interspersed within English conversation, such as Qur’an, hajj, jihad, etc.
In context, kaafir can take on lots of different meanings. Sometimes it can have a sort of neutral meaning, and it just refers to anyone who is not a Muslim. Other times it can be thrown around as more of an insult–I’ve heard Saudis refer to someone as a “kaafir,” even a fellow Saudi, when that person is being rude, uncouth, or otherwise offensive. I’ve heard this term used most frequently among American Muslims who have moved to Saudi Arabia for religious reasons–i.e., in expressing relief or gratitude that they’ve managed to leave “the land of the kuffar” (i.e., America, or Britain, or Australia, or any other country in which Muslims are not the majority). Meanwhile, others consider only one group to be (or rather, to have been) kuffar: people in the time of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) who did not follow him and become Muslims. (Hence, when I once mentioned to my brother-in-law that many Western Muslims make hijrah to Saudi Arabia in order to leave the land of the kuffar, he joked, “Where did they live before, the Roman Empire?”)
Once Mr. Mostafa and I were discussing the infidel/kaafir issue, he mentioned that when he was little and learning about the history Prophet Muhammad in a Saudi school, he got it into his head that all kuffar, including the ones who lived during the time of Prophet Muhammad, were white, blonde, blue-eyed, and spoke English. I find this really interesting, considering that so many of my own American countrymen grow up believing that Muslims all have dark skin and speak Arabic…which, of course, is just as untrue as the idea that all non-Muslims are blonde, blue-eyed English-speakers.
Anyway, Mr. Mostafa told me, “I remember thinking, ‘But if they only spoke English, how did Prophet Muhammad communicate with them?'” He never asked that question in class, though. I’m wondering what his teacher’s answer would have been if he had.