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People of the Book

By:
Ronald L. Nettler
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

People of the Book

Qurʿānic in origin, the term ahl al-kitāb refers mainly to Jews, Christians, and (less frequently) the Sabaeans as possessors of previous revealed books. It was sometimes applied to other communities. Zoroastrians were most prominent here, although even polytheists were sometimes thus categorized.

In the case of the Jews and Christians, there were known books associated with them: al-Tawrāh (the Torah), al-Zabūr (the Psalms), and al-Injīl (the Gospel). Though considered by the Qurʿān to have been abrogated and in parts superseded by the Qurʿān as well as being corrupted, these books retained for Islam an aura of sanctity. Islam's attitude toward them is inherently ambivalent, therefore. For in this view, however much a book may have been altered, it was once (and must remain in part) God's word.

Like their books, the Jews and Christians were also treated with some ambivalence in the Qurʿān. The polemic against the Jews was stronger than that against the Christians, no doubt in part reflecting tensions between Muḥammad's people and the Jewish tribes in Medina. The Jews are even said to be the worst enemies of the believers along with the idolators, while the Christians are described as the most benign in intent toward the Muslims. The worst transgressions of the Jews are corruption of their book, violation of the sabbath, persecution of their prophets, and defection from true monotheism. The Christians’ main fault is doctrinal: the trinitarian idea and the divinity of Jesus. This is tantamount to shirk, associating something else with God, and thereby violating the monotheistic principle. Both Jews and Christians are threatened with hell. At the same time, there is a countercurrent of a more positive portrayal of the two peoples and religions; even, in the case of the Jews, some notion of their special relationship with God. Although the polemical elements in the Qurʿān seem dominant, the more irenic motifs have a voice that is not without effect. All this must be seen against the background of Islam's early development as a “new monotheism,” possessing some of the themes of the older religions while striving to define itself as something truer to God's word than the others.

These ideas concerning the people of the book came into post-Qurʿānic Islamic thought and sources where they were explicated and developed, although remaining within the boundaries determined in the Qurʿān. In the modern period (from about the nineteenth century onward), the concept continued in the traditional form as part of Islam's religious and legal thought. But there was one great practical difference, which had a profound effect on the idea itself: the legal status of People of the Book as dhimmī (protected scriptural minorities), which Islam had designated for them and which had for centuries made possible a positive relationship between the parties, was either effaced or totally eliminated. This occurred as part of the disruption caused by Western presence or influence in Islam's Arab heartland, North Africa, Turkey, and Iran, where most of the ahl al-kitāb had lived for centuries. The Western powers themselves often had other notions of the proper status of minorities, which at times they attempted to impose; and the nation states inspired by the powers continued in the same line. Then with Israel's creation in 1948, the next twenty years saw an almost total emigration of the ancient Jewish communities of the Arab Middle East, with most of them going to the Jewish state.

The classical idea of ahl al-kitāb, though remaining the same, now became almost wholly theoretical, having little or no demographic or legal reality in most places. This loss has been acutely felt in some modern circles. Thus certain trends of modern Islamic thought that propose a return to an idealized Islamic past as a way of meeting modern challenges consider the ahl al-kitāb living once again as dhimmī to be an integral part of the true Islamic polity. And Islamic thought concerning the Palestine problem has sometimes envisaged the return of Middle Eastern Jews to their former places and status as a requirement in any solution to that conflict.

See also CHRISTIANITY AND ISLAM; DHIMMī; and JUDAISM AND ISLAM.

Bibliography

  • Armstrong, Karen. Islam: A Short History. Rev. ed.New York: Modern Library, 2002.
  • Esposito, John L.What Everyone Needs To Know About Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Griffith, Sidney H.The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007.
  • Lewis, Bernard. The Jews of Islam. Princeton, N.J., 1984. Good survey that includes a discussion of ahl al-kitāb and treats the modern period as well as earlier history.
  • Smith, Jane Idleman. Muslims, Christians and the Challenge of Interfaith Dialogue. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Tritton, A. S.The Caliphs and Their Non-Muslim Subjects: A Critical Study of the Covenant of ʿUmar (1930). London, 1970. Still a basic and valuable book on the subject.
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