The Concept of the People of the Book

By Bachar Bakour

We tend to use expressions at a general level without paying attention to their religious, or social boundaries. As generality generates ambiguity, this article explores the meaning of the term ‘People of the Book’, highlighting its origins in the Quran and discussing, in brief, the usage and themes associated with it in Islamic literature.

Definition and Origin

Ahl al-Kitab ‘People of the Book is an Islamic term, which frequently occurs in the Quran and Prophetic hadith.

‘Ahl al-Kitab‘ means those who possess the scripture or the divine book. The term, along with another term outou al-kitab ‘those who were given the Book’, occurs more than 50 times in the Quran.

Both expressions denote the Jews, believers of the Torah and the Christians, believers of the Gospel (See Al-Baqarah 2: 113; Al-Imran 3: 64-65).

The Qur’an highlights the community of faith between followers of monotheistic religions (Jews, Christians and Muslims), and sometimes pays tribute to religious and moral virtues of communities that have received earlier revelations.

“There are indeed among the people of the Book some who believe in God and in what has been bestowed from on high upon you and in what has been bestowed upon them, humbling themselves before God. They do not barter away God’s revelations for a trifling price” (Ali-‘Imran 3: 199. See other verses commending People of the Book in Al-Ma’idah: 5: 82, 182).

Conversely, the Quran clearly rejects particular doctrines of Christianity, such as Trinity (Al-Nisa’ 4: 171), Crucifixion (Al-Nisa’ 4: 157) and Jesus is the only begotten Son of God (Al-Tawbah 9: 30). 

It is worth noting that the Qur’an uses ‘People of the Book’ in contrast to ‘heathens’ and ‘polytheists’ who do not possess a scripture. For example, Allah says, “Neither the unbelievers among the people of the Book nor the idolaters would like to see any blessing ever bestowed upon you by your Lord” (Al-Baqarah 2: 105. Cf. Ali-‘Imran 3: 186; Al-Bayyinah 98: 1).

What does ‘People of the Book’ stand for?

As we mentioned above, ‘People of the Book’ refers exclusively to Jews and Christians for several reasons: 

  1. Qur’anic verses containing this expression deal with issues, and discuss events related directly or indirectly to followers of the two faiths. 
  2. The following verse informs that, prior to the final revelation, a divine book was already sent to two groups. i.e.  Jews and Christians. “It has been given to you. Lest you should say: The Book was revealed only to two sects before us” (Al-An’am 6: 156).
  3. In Ali-‘Imran Chapter, the Qur’an calls the people of the Book to come to an equitable agreement stipulating that worship is to be addressed to Allah alone and that no partners may be associated with Him (Ali ‘Imran 3: 64). Then, the Quran castigates Jewish and Christian claims of affinity to the Prophet Abraham, who pre-dated both the Torah and the Gospel. “People of the Book! Why do you argue about Abraham when both the Torah and the Gospel were not revealed till after him? Have you no sense?” (Ali ‘Imran 3: 65). This indicates that ‘People of the Book’ (verse 64) is synonymous with ‘Jews and Christians’ (verse 65).

By contrast, some ‘ulama, in particular those of Hanafi school of thought, extend the term to groups who have any revealed book, like Books of Abraham, Sheth (Seth) and David’s Zabour (Psalms). Others further apply it to Magians and Sabians. 

This view does not seem to be reliable, for example, the Prophet (pbuh), speaking of Magians, gives orders to Muslims to treat them as the People of the Book in terms of accepting the poll tax (jizyah) from them. 

Yet, as for eating their slaughtered animals as well as marrying their women, the Prophet did not allow Muslims to do that. Since Magians do not have any divinely revealed book, they cannot be included within the ‘People of the Book’ category.  

Muslims’ Perception of the People of the Book

According to the Qur’an, the Message Muhammad (pbuh) received has a dual mission: to recapitulate the teachings of those prophets who had preceded him (Al-Ma’idah 5: 48), and, on the other hand, to reform erroneous thoughts and incorrect beliefs that infiltrated the texts, and thus altered and distorted the original, pure revelation (Al-Ma’idah 5: 15).

The Prophet (pbuh) is ordered to complete the journey of preceding Prophets. He said, “The parable of me and of previous Prophets is that of a man who built a house excellently and completely, apart from the space of one brick which he did not place. The people started to walk around the building, admiring it and saying, ‘If only that brick were put in its place.’ I have come to complete that brick, and I am the seal of the Prophets” (Al-Bukhari). This hadith raises a consciousness of the religious lineage between Muslims and People of the Book.

Freedom of belief is a basic Islamic principle. “There must be no coercion in matters of faith. The right way is henceforth distinct from error” (Al-Baqarah 2: 256). 

Throughout Muslim history, People of the Book, with various religious sects, were free to practice their own faith and follow their way of life in internal and domestic affairs. This tolerant treatment was based on the Prophet’s model.   

After the Prophet (pbuh) shortly settled in Madina, he drew up a constitutional document defining the obligations and responsibilities of every group within the Muslim community and outlined the nature of their relationship with the Jews.

According to Pandit Jawahar Nehru, “The Arabs, especially at the beginning of their awakening, were full of enthusiasm for their faith. Yet they were tolerant people and there were numerous instances of this tolerance in religion” (Imran, Muhammad. Spread of Islam: Islam or The Sword? (Lahore: Islamic Book Centre, n.d). p 29). ***

(Dr. Bachar Bakour is an academic at the AbdulHamid AbuSulayman Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences.)

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