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Infidel (literally "one without faith") is an English word meaning "a person who does not believe in religion or who adheres to a religion other than one's own"."infidel" The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. 2009. 1 Jul. 2009 />

Infidel is also an ecclesiastical term in Christianity, the term, traditionally used by the Roman Catholic Church to refer to one who did not believe in the divinity of Jesus, knowingly held beliefs that contradicted Catholic dogma, or one who had not been baptized, or by Christians in general to describe non-Christians or those perceived as enemies of Christianity. Current English speaking Catholic ecclesiastical usage however distinguishes between non-Christians and non-believers (persons without religious affiliations or beliefs).


Infidel was first used in Middle English circa 1460 (adjective, noun), from the Middle French infidèle, and from Latin infidelis "unfaithful," later "unbelieving", in the 15c. meaning "a non-Christian" (especially a Saracen); later "one who does not believe in religion" (1527).

In religious thought


Infidel was used by Christians to name the people outside their religious group, the ones who do not have faith. Theologically defined, an infidel is one who denies Christianity and the Scriptures. Nonbelievers however may not necessarily be infidels, if they still be inquiring after evidence to satisfy their mind. The term's definition has also been widened by some to include atheism and various forms of dogmatic disbelief. Various types of infidels exist such as:

  • a deist believes in one God and a divine providence, but rejects revelation
  • an atheist denies the being of God
  • a sceptic is one whose faith in the credibility of evidence is weakened or destroyed, so that religion, to the same extent, has no practical hold on his mind.
  • an agnostic is one in a state of suspended judgment, neither affirming nor denying the existence of a personal Deity.

In recent years, Christian thought has avoided the use of the term infidel, especially in reference to Muslims and Jews. Current English speaking ecclesiastical usage however distinguishes between non-Christians and non-believers (persons without religious affiliations or beliefs). The current preference for these terms over the pejorative "infidel" also reflects the modern Roman Catholic Church's commitment to engage in dialog with persons of other, or no faith.


Kafir, an Arabic word often translated as Infidel (literally, one who "covers", in the sense of hiding). In the Islamic doctrinal sense, the term refers to a person who does not recognize the one God (Allah) - which includes atheists and polytheists but not Christians, Jews and Zorastrians who are known instead as the "People of the Book (Ahl-e-kitab}". or who hides, denies, or covers the "truth". In common English usage, the term is also applied to Christians, especially in English fiction and poetry.

"Kafir" has also come to be regarded as offensive, thus Muslim scholars discourage its use due to the Quran's command to use kind words. It is even a punishable offense to use this term against a Jew or a Christian, under Islamic law. All Muslim extremists today however use the term in reference to all non-Muslims.

According to the Quran, Iblis (probably from diabolos) was one of the angels on the earth when Adam was placed here. Iblis was one of the unbelievers who did not make obeisance to Adam.


The Hebrew word Kofer is cognate to the Arabic kafir, but only designates apostates, i.e., those who rejected judaism. Non-jews are Goy.

Infidels under Canon Law

Right to rule

In Quid super his, Innocent IV, asked the question "[I]s it licit to invade a land that infidels possess or which belongs to them?" and held that while Infidels had a right to dominium (right to rule themselves and choose their own governments), however the pope, as the Vicar of Christ, de jure possessed the care of their souls and had the right to politically intervene in their affairs if their ruler violated or allowed his subjects to violate a Christian and Euro-centric normative conception of Natural law, such as sexual perversion or idolatry. Williams, p.48 He also held that he had an obligation to send missionaries to infidel lands, and that if they were prevented from entering or preaching, then the pope was justified in dispatching Christian forces accompanied with missionaries to invade those lands, as Innocent stated simply "If the infidels do not obey, they ought to be compelled by the secular arm and war may be declared upon them by the pope, and nobody else." This was however not a reciprocal right and non-Christian missionaries such as those of Muslims could not be allowed to preach in Europe "because they are in error and we are on a righteous path."

A long line of Papal hierocratic canonists, most notably those who adhered to Alanus Anglicus's influential arguments of the Crusading-era, denied Infidel dominium, and asserted Romemarker's universal jurisdictional authority over the earth, and the right to authorize pagan conquests solely on the basis of non-belief because of their rejection of the Christian god. In the extreme hierocractic canonical discourse of the mid-twelfth century such as that espoused by Bernard of Clairvaux, the mystic leader of the Cisertcians, legitimized German colonial expansion and practice of forceful Christianisation in the Slavic territories as a holy war against the Wends, arguing that infidels should be killed wherever they posed a menace to Christians. When Frederick the II unilaterally arrogated papal authority, he took on the mantle to "destroy convert, and subjugate all barbarian nations." A power in papal doctrine reserved for the pope. Hostiensis, a student of Innocent, in accord with Alanus, also asserted "... by law infidels should be subject to the faithful." and the heretical quasi-Donatist John Wyclif, regarded as the forefather of English Reformation, also held that valid dominium rested on a state of grace. Williams, pp. 61–64

The Teutonic Knights were one of the by-products of this papal hierocratic and German discourse. After the Crusades in the Levant, they moved to crusading activities in the infidel Baltics. Williams, pp. 64–67 Their crusades against the Lithuanians and Poles however precipitated the Lithuanian Controversy, and the Council of Constancemarker, following the condemnation of Wyclif, found Hostiensis's views no longer acceptable and ruled against the knights. Future Church doctrine was then firmly aligned with Innocents IV's position.

Colonization of the Americas

During the Age of discovery, the Papal Bulls such as Romanus Pontifex and more importantly inter caetera (1493), implicitly removed dominium from infidels and granted them to the Spanish Empire and Portugalmarker with the charter of guaranteeing the safety of missionaries. Subsequent English and French rejections of the bull refuted the Popes authority to exclude other Christian princes. As independent authorities such as the Head of the Church of England, they drew up charters for their own colonial mission based on the temporal right for care of infidel souls in language echoing the inter caetera. The charters and papal bulls would form the legal basis of future negotiations and consideration of claims as title deeds in the emerging Law of nations in the European colonization of the Americas.

The rights bestowed by Romanus Pontifex and inter caetera have never fallen from use, serving as the basis for legal arguments over the centuries. The U.S.marker Supreme Courtmarker ruled in the 1823 case Johnson v. M'Intosh that as a result of European discovery and assumption of ultimate dominion, Native Americans had only a right to occupancy of native lands, not the right of title. This decision was upheld in the 1831 case Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, giving Georgia authority to extend state laws over Cherokees within the state, and famously describing Native American tribes as "domestic dependent nations." This decision was modified in Worcester v. Georgia, which stated that the U.S. federal government, and not individual states, had authority in Indian affairs, but it maintained the loss of right to title upon discovery by Europeans.

In recent years, Native American groups including the Taíno and Onondaga have called on the Vatican to revoke the bulls of 1452, 1453, and 1493.


According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the church views Marriage as forbidden and null when conducted between the faithful (Christians) and infidels, unless a dispensation has been granted. This is because marriage is a sacrament of the Catholic Church, which infidels are deemed incapable of receiving.

Influence upon medieval civil law

Laws passed by the Catholic Church governed not just the laws between Christians and Infidels in matters of religious affairs, but also civil affairs. They were prohibited from participating or aiding in infidel religious rites, such as circumcisions or wearing images of non-Christian religious significance.

In the Early Middle Ages, based on the idea of the superiority of Christians to infidels, regulations came into place such as those against forbidding Jews from possessing Christian slaves; the laws of the decretals further forbade Christians from entering the service of Jews, for Christian women to act as their nurses or midwives; forbidding Christians from employing Jewish physicians when ill; restricting Jews to definite quarters of the towns into which they were admitted and to wear a dress by which they might be recognized.

These rules have now given way to modern legislation and Catholics, in civil life, are no longer governed by ecclesiastical law.

See also


  1. "Infidel" in An Introductory Dictionary of Theology and Religious Studies, p. 630
  2. Oxford University Press, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, 1996
  3. 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia [1]
  4. Russell B. Shaw, Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Our Sunday Visitor's Catholic Encyclopedia, Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 1998, ISBN 0879736690 p. 535.
  5. "Infidel denotes one who is not Christian or opposes Christianity; it is used by Christians especially to designate monotheists (as Muslim) who do not subscribe to the Judeo-Christian concept of God, and in such distinguishable from heathen or pagan." Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms, p. 71
  6. Weckman, pp. 64–65
  7. "From the Muhammadan point of view, especially as presented in English fiction and poetry, infidel often means a Christian". Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms, p. 71
  8. Bjorkman, W. "Kafir". Encyclopaedia of Islam. Brill, Brill Online.
  9. The scholar quotes Al-Baqarah 2: 83.
  10. Williams, p.14
  11. Williams, pp. 41, 61-64
  12. Christopher 31-40
  13. Christopher 31-40
  14. Christopher 31-40
  15. 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia [2]


  • Williams, Robert A. The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of Conquest, 1990, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0195080025
  • Tomlins, Christopher L.; Mann, Bruce H. The Many Legalities of Early America, 2001, UNC Press, ISBN 0807849642
  • Weckman, George. The Language of the Study of Religion: A Handbook, 2001, Xlibris Corporation ISBN 0738851051
  • Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms, Merriam-Webster Inc., 1984, ISBN 0877793417
  • Espin, Orlando O.; Nickoloff, James B. An Introductory Dictionary of Theology and Religious Studies, Liturgical Press, 2007, ISBN 0814658563

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