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Any society with a more or less coherent cultural boundary tends to have an exclusionary notion of the outside and hence of otherness; the more inclusive the notion of membership, the more intense the notion of an outside.

With the collapse of the ancient world, the problem of otherness became closely associated with the development of the monotheistic and prophetic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Because Yahweh was a jealous God, there was a sacred covenant between God and the tribes of Israel, which excluded those who worshipped idols and false gods. In Islam, there is a clear division between the household of the faithful (dar al-islam ) and the sphere of war (dar al-harb ). The notion of an external world of infidels is captured in al-Kafirun, the title of the 109th sura (chapter) of the Qur$an, which opens with, Say, oh infidels. This Meccan chapter expresses the idea that religion should be freely chosen, stressing the devotion of the Prophet Muhammad (c. 570-632). This division between believers and infidels has, if anything, been reinforced by twentieth-century interpretations of a struggle (jihad ) against unbelieversan interpretation fully articulated in the writings of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), a radical member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Qutb called Muslims to struggle against the darkness or barbarism of the West (jahiliya ) and to reestablish the true Islam of the early community. Islam also has a definite notion of the dangers of apostasy (Ridda ). When the Prophet died, many tribesmen assumed that their contract with the Prophet was concluded, but the Apostasy War was fought to maintain the coalition of tribes that formed the political basis of early Islam.

In Christianity, a universalistic orientation that recognized the other was contained in Pauls letters to the Galatians and Romans, which rejected circumcision as a condition of salvation. Because the uncircumcised were among the righteous, the message of Jesus had, at least in Pauline theology, a universal significance. However, the church developed a body of theology dealing with the problem of infidelity, making a clear division between the faithful who are baptized and follow the teaching of the church and those who are outside the faith. The term pagan connotes both the uncivilized and illiterate who live outside the city (the heathens) and those who live outside the church. Paganus stood for civilian as opposed to miles, soldier, and hence the Christians of Roman times came to call themselves the milites or soldiers of Christ who struggle against sin and evil. The modern Salvation Army continues this notion of soldiers of Christ. The idea of an infidel is somewhat different, signifying a distinction between somebody who for whatever reason is ignorant of the Christian message and somebody who has actively rejected the promise of salvation in the life and teaching of Jesus. This notion of infidelity did not become well established in English until the early sixteenth century, when it described active opposition to Christianity on the part of Jews or Mohammedans, as Muslims were mistakenly called. As a result, infidel became a term of opprobrium. The infidel in Catholic doctrine is to be distinguished from heretic. While the infidel is somebody who does not believe in the doctrine at all, a heretic is somebody who falls astray from true doctrine by, for example, denying the divinity of Jesus. The problem of the heretic is not one of unbelief so much as rival belief.

Judaism also has a notion of heathens (specifically pagan gentiles) who are called acum (an acronym of Ovdei Cohavim u-Mazzaloth ) or, literally, those who are star-and-constellation worshippers, or idolaters. Heretical Jews are minim or sectarian people, such as the early Christians. The Hebrew term kofer, which is cognate with the Arabic kafir, is applied to apostate Jews. The various attempts to reform Judaism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as the Conservative and Orthodox movements, have revived Jewish culture, once more giving greater emphasis to orthodox piety and to the separation of Jews from gentile culture.

The conception of infidelity as a theological condition is therefore peculiar to the Abrahamic religions, which specifically, as a result of strict conformity to monotheism, reject the worship of idols and condemn pagan rites that are designed to placate the gods. Because they claim to be based on a unique revelation and promise of redemption, they have logically and necessarily an exclusive view of the truth. These religions, especially Christianity and Islam, developed as a result of a strong commitment to evangelism and the conversion of pagans to the true religion. Both Christianity and Islam recognized in their formal teaching that conversion has to be voluntary. In Islam, for example, in verse 256 of Surat al Baqara, the Quran states, There is no compulsion in religion. Roman Catholic doctrine similarly recognizes that conversion must be voluntary, and even the baptism of children cannot take place without consent unless they are in imminent danger of death.

The idea of paganism and infidelity is largely absent from the so-called Asian religions of Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Shintoism, which either reject the idea of a single high God or tolerate various forms of polytheism and animism. A division between the moral and rational faith of Protestant Christianity and the popular rituals of the non-Christian world, which attempt to placate the gods to secure human prosperity, was developed in Western philosophy in Immanuel Kants (17241804) Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason (1793). The Enlightenment substituted rational/irrational for the original true believer/infidel distinction. However, this distinction also raises the question as to whether monotheistic traditions are inherently more intolerant of diversity than other religious traditions, and hence legitimize violence against infidels. The New Testament sense that the Jews rejected their savior and crucified him has been regarded as the foundation of anti-Semitism in the medieval and (to a lesser extent) the modern world. Christian and Muslim notions of infidelity are assumed to be the cultural context for crusades and holy wars. In the twenty-first century, religious fundamentalism, dividing the world into true believers and the rest, is associated with the growth of religious nationalism, violence, and terrorism.

SEE ALSO Animism; Anti-Semitism; Buddhism; Christianity; Heaven; Hell; Islam, Shia and Sunni; Judaism; Monotheism; Polytheism; Religion; Rituals; Supreme Being


Johnson, James Turner. 1997. The Holy War Idea in Western and Islamic Traditions. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Kant, Immanuel. [1793] 1998. Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. Trans. and eds. Allen Wood and George Di Giovanni. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Matar, Nabil I. 1998. Islam in Britain, 1558-1685. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Vries, Hent de. 2002. Religion and Violence: Philosophical Perspectives from Kant to Derrida. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Watt, William Montgomery. 1969. Islamic Revelation in the Modern World. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Bryan S. Turner

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