The terms kufr and shirk sometimes have the same meaning and sometimes aredifferent. The difference between kufr and shirk is that when a person commitskufr, he does an action that negates his iman, whereas shirk is worse than kufr as itinvolves associating somebody or something with Allah and negates his iman.The kafir is the one who denies and conceals the truth. The basic meaning of theword kufr in Arabic is concealment. Shirk means devoting worship to anyone oranything other than Allah. Kufr may take the form of denying and rejecting, but themushrik may also believe in Allah. This is the basic difference between the mushrikand the kafir.Each word may also carry the meaning of the other, so the word kufr may be usedin the sense of shirk, and the word shirk may be used in the sense of kufr.
Imam Nawawi (ra)
said: "Kufr and shirk may carry the same meaning, which isdisbelief in Allah (swt) or they may be used separately, whereby shirk refers to theworship of idols and other created beings, whilst also acknowledging Allah, as thekuffar of Quraysh did, and kufr may have a more general meaning than shirk."
(Sharh Sahih Muslim, 2/71)
Indeed anyone who rejects the religion of the prophet is a kafir. And one of theways in which a person rejects the message of the prophet is by committing an actof shirk. Therefore, every single act of major shirk is a type of kufr, but not everysingle act of kufr involves shirk. Thus, kufr is the general name given to any act,statement, or belief that might expel a person from the fold of Islam.Shirk is merely one type of kufr, albeit the most common and evil form. It ispossible for a person to reject Islam without necessarily falling into shirk, as is thecase with Iblis, and some orthodox Jews; since they worship only Allah, and followthe Tawrah, yet deny the prophet-hood of Isa (as) and Muhammad (saw), which iskufr.It is also possible to reject Islam by falling into shirk and kufr simultaneously, suchas the Christians; since they claim that Isa (as) is the son of Allah (swt) which iskufr; and give him divine powers, and direct acts of worship to him, which is shirk.Many acts have elements of both kufr and shirk in them, even though each actmight be more representative of one of these two matters.