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Kaffārah

By:
Paul R. Powers
Source:
The [Oxford] Encyclopedia of Islam and Law What is This? An English-language legal reference for scholars of Islamic studies and Western engaged readers presenting the history and development of Islamic Law.

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Kaffārah

Widely translated as “expiation,” kaffārah literally means “covering,” from a root meaning to shield a thing from view. In the Qurʾān, related terms are common: as Chelhod (2006, vol. IV, p. 406) notes, “The renegade is called kāfir… because his heart is wrapped in blasphemy; the same word refers to the night, for then things are shrouded in shadow…. Thus the kaffārah is intended to cover wicked deeds with a veil so that they are concealed. From this point of view, fault and expiation are regarded in a material sense, the moral content developing rather later.”

In legal discourses, kaffārah combines notions of propitiation for offenses against divine will—implying that it mitigates divine punishment—and of amplification of worldly punishment. In fiqh rulebooks kaffārah occupies a place somewhere between law and religion as those are understood in the modern West. Kaffārah seems to have been a matter of conscience and social pressure, not of judicial consideration or enforcement. Jurists assign kaffārah for a range of offenses deemed sinful, but given that any violation of the Sharīʿah might be sinful, the distinction here is not entirely clear.

Kaffārah is assigned for various violations of ritual law. The Qurʾān says of fasting for Ramaḍān: “(Fast) a certain number of days; and (for) him who is sick among you, or on a journey, (the same) number of other days; and for those who can afford it there is a ransom (fidya): the feeding of a man in need” (2:184, Pickthall trans.). Jurists generally hold that those excused from fasting or those mistakenly breaking the fast do not owe expiation but only a makeup fast later. For Mālikīs and Ḥanafīs, any intentional breaking of the fast requires expiation, usually called kaffārah. Shāfiʿīs and Ḥanbalīs assign kaffāra only for breaking the fast intentionally through sexual intercourse. Drawing on both the Qurʾān and ḥadīth, jurists hold that the preferred form is emancipating a slave, if necessary to be substituted by fasting for two months consecutively or feeding sixty needy persons.

Certain violations of the ḥajj require expiation, though these complex rules can be only roughly summarized here. In short, wearing sewn garments, cutting one’s hair or nails, or killing game or harming plants while on ḥajj necessitates expiation, as does omitting required elements or performing them out of order. In most cases, jurists agree that atonement is achieved by ritually slaughtering an animal (usually a goat) “to be brought as an offering (hady) to the Kaʿba” (5:95); in some cases, jurists assign increments of feeding the poor or fasting (see 5:95 and 2:196).

Violating the terms of a valid oath necessitates kaffārah. The Qurʾān stipulates that “The expiation thereof [for oaths] is the feeding of ten of the needy with the average of that wherewith ye feed your own folk, or the clothing of them, or the liberation of a slave, and for him who findeth not (the wherewithal to do so) then a three days’ fast” (5:89). Following the Qurʾān, jurists also discuss a traditional oath called ẓihār, by which a man renounces his marriage. This is discouraged but deemed binding, and to retract the oath the man must perform kaffārah (see 58:3). Here and elsewhere when considering kaffārah, jurists deliberated on the quantity and quality of food or clothing, as well as other details of these matters.

Kaffārah is a complicated element of homicide law. The Qurʾān requires that one who accidentally kills a believer must “free a believing slave” or fast for two consecutive months (4:92-93); the Qurʾān uses the term tawbah (“repentance”) rather than kaffārah. Most jurists discuss this as a case of kaffārah, and all assign it for accidental killing. They disagree, however, about whether an intentional killing is too serious a sin to be expiated. Most schools require kaffārah for killings committed through negligence. The major exception to these generalizations is the Ḥanafīs, who do not interpret the Qurʾānic requirements as kaffārah but rather as a case of “thanking the benefactor” (shukr al-munʿim)—given that retaliatory killing is not allowed in cases of accidental homicide, the killer owes an offering of gratitude to God for this mercy. Some Ḥanafīs interpret the freeing of a believing slave as an act of replacing the victim in the community of free believers. The one place where the Qurʾān uses the term kaffārah in relation to homicide is 5:45 “whoso foregoeth [retaliatory killing] (in the way of charity) it shall be expiation for him (kaffārah lahu).” Here, however, kaffārah is a benefit for the victim’s kin, not a price to be paid by the offender.

Bibliography

  • Chelhod, J. “Kaffāra.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam. 2d ed., edited by P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, and W.P. Heinrichs. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2006. [www.brillonline.nl/subscriber/uid=3282/entry?entry=islam_title_islam]
  • Hawting, Gerald R. “Atonement.” In Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān, edited by Jane Dammen McAuliffe. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2001–2006.
  • Mongia Arfa Mensia, “L’Acte Expiatoire en Islam. ʿAl Kaffāra.” In Rituals and Ethics: Patterns of Repentance—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, edited by Adriana Destro and Mauro Pesce, pp. 125–140. Paris and Louvain: Peeters, 2004.
  • Powers, Paul R. “Offending Heaven and Earth: Sin and Expiation in Islamic Homicide Law.” Islamic Law and Society 14.1 (2007): 42–80.
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