Taking their inspiration from the Qur'an, Muslims refer to Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and a harder-to-define faith community, the Sabians, as "People of the Book." These monotheistic neighbors of Muhammad (c. 570-632) and the first Muslims struck pagan Arabs of the period as distinct not simply because of their monotheism, so sharply different from the polytheism of pre-Islamic Arabs, but because of their religious literacy.
That literacy took concrete form in Jewish synagogue liturgy and in the monastic office (qeryana) practiced by Syrian Christians that included reading and reciting "psalms, hymns, and inspired canticles" (Colossians 3:16). Muhammad received from God something like a monastic office that Arabs could read and recite in their own language, "a missive sent down from the One Filled with Mercy, the Ever Merciful, / detailed verses for a Recital in Arabic that people can understand" (Qur'an 41:2-3). This Quranic revelation put Arab Muslims on an equal liturgical footing with their monotheistic neighbors, especially Jews and Christians.
While Jews prefer to identify themselves as People of the Covenant struck between God and Abraham, and Christians embrace their self-definition as those baptized into the dying and rising of Jesus, Muslims think of themselves as people to whom God has spoken in the Qur'an, first disclosed to Muhammad. No matter how Torah-centered a Jew or Bible-believing a Christian, a Muslim's regard for the Qur'an proves even more central to his or her life.
Insight into the ways Jews, Christians, and Muslims all revere their sacred texts can be gained from the New York Public Library's stunning exhibit, "Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam." Viewable until February 27, 2011, both in the landmark main branch of the Library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and (partially) online …