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Back in apartheid-era South Africa and, in camera, probably even today, the word 'kaffir' is used in much the same way 'nigger' is used in the western world, ie. as a racist epithet directed at black people.

Recently I realised that Muslims use the word to indicate non-muslims or non-believers. Is there any connection between these two usages?

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See the folowing link: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaffir_(racial_term) –  nicholas ainsworth Jan 23 '12 at 10:32
@nicholasainsworth The link needs a slight editing to include the closing parenthesis. –  Kris Jan 23 '12 at 12:44
See the following (fixed) link: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaffir_(racial_term) –  Hugo Jan 23 '12 at 13:21
As far as I'm concerned it's an Arabic word that has entered the lexicon - so it is English, albeit a loanword. –  5arx Jan 23 '12 at 15:12
It's in at least one American English dictionary: macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/american/kafir –  MετάEd Jan 23 '12 at 15:40

4 Answers 4

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It (the pejorative usage from South Africa) comes from the Arabic word, see http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=kaffir

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Thanks - I guess it would have been too much of a coincidence if they'd come from different roots. Very ironic (or something). –  5arx Jan 23 '12 at 15:56

In Kipling's story 'A Sahib's War', a Sikh is caught up in the Boer War, and says

Kurban Sahib appointed me to the command (what a command for me!) of certain woolly ones--Hubshis--whose touch and shadow are pollution. They were enormous eaters; sleeping on their bellies; laughing without cause; wholly like animals. Some were called Fingoes, and some, I think, Red Kaffirs, but they were all Kaffirs --filth unspeakable.

(Elsewhere he says "Do not let him herd me with these black Kaffirs"; Hubshis are a tribe of Black Indians, presumably used here where a European would say Black.)

So evidently by the turn of the century Kaffir was used in South Africa as a term for non-believers, as a specific term ('Red Kaffirs') for tribes who were non-Muslim among Muslim neighbours (compare Kafiristan, the only Afghan province which was non-Muslim), and as a term of abuse; the descending slope is obvious.

PS Yes, he is fictional, but I have considerably more faith in Kipling's research into Indian use of language than in most historians'.

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Excellent answer. Kipling would have had first-hand experience of Indian soldiers in Africa. –  slim Jan 23 '12 at 16:40

The Arabic/Islamic kafir has more pejorative overtones than merely "non-believer". It's not just "someone who doesn't share our religious belief"; at least some of the time it's "someone with a different and inferior racial and cultural background to us".

Hence it's not difficult to imagine how white South Africans might have picked up the word and adopted it for their own purpose.

Note that there has been a sizeable Muslim presence in South Africa for as long as there has been a European presence. People of Indian and Middle Eastern origin were less segregated than blacks in Apartheid-era South Africa. Particularly in Cape Town, whites and Arab Muslims lived side by side.

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Arabs and Muslims were active in Africa with their slave trade long before the first Europeans arrived. Many Europeans referred to the indigenous population by many various terms eg. savage. As the Muslims had more experience with these people and their behaviours it's therefore not surprizing that their name for them viz. Kaffir, was borrowed by the Europeans. Note that all non Muslims were cruely treated by Muslims irrespective of race. Therefore it's quite possible that Kaffirs were not so much classed as such purely based on their race, but quite possibly also because of their habits and behaviour.

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