Academic journal article Islamic Studies

The People of the Book in the Qur'an

Academic journal article Islamic Studies

The People of the Book in the Qur'an

Article excerpt


The Qur'an's understanding by Muslims has shaped their communal interfaith perceptions. This article selects the various Qur'anic verses that have influenced Muslims in relating to people of faiths other than their own. The prime concern of this paper is to show how even the Qur'anic verses that might sound harsh to the ears of other faith groups can be read with sensitivity and understanding in the modern world. To accomplish this, the article provides an historical analysis of the relevant Qur'anic verses together with some current discussions on the issue. The Qur'an, speaking generally, seems more germane to cultural and social plurality than to theological pluralism or dogmatic syncretism. In addition, the Qur'an considers doing good - or competing in doing good - as vital in the life of people of different faith groups. Nonetheless, the Qur'an accepts the People of the Book as they are and does not close the door to their exercise of religious freedom.


This paper deals with two issues: How does the Qur'an present the People of the Book in both the Makkan and the Madinan surahs and how have the Muslims understood the relevant passages in contemporary and precontemporary times. Although it is difficult to do full justice to this important and complex subject within the confines of an article, I will start by studying the attitude of the pre-Islamic Arabs towards those whom the Qur'an calls the People of the Book the attitude as reflected in the Qur'an, in the pre-contemporary tafsir works, and finally in the writings of Muslim scholars in our own time. This will be followed by a general reappraisal of the subject.

To start with, it is important to note that the concept of Ahl al-Kitab (the People of the Book) in the Qur'an is characterised by a degree of lack of rigidity and an overall attitude of amity and even a degree of respect. Generally speaking, the expression began to be used in the late Makkan and continued to be used in the Madinan surahs and occurs thirty-one times in the Qur'an as a whole. Besides this expression, there are also other expressions by which the Qur'an refers to the People of the Book, such as alladhina utu 'l-kitab (those who have received the Book),1 ataynahum al-kitab (those unto whom We have given the Book),2 utu nasiban min al-kitab (those who were given a portion of the Book),3 wa awrathna 'l-kitab/alladhina urithu 'l-kitab (We gave the Book as inheritance unto those/those who were made to inherit the Book),4 wa man 'indahu 'ilm al-kitab (whosoever has [true] knowledge of the Book),5 alladhina yaqra'un al-kitab (those who read the Book),6 fa'salu ahl al-dhikr (ask the followers of the Remembrance).7 Since a special status has been conferred on the People of the Book in the Qur'an, they are also addressed in it by other titles. The Qur'an names the Jewish people as yahud,8 hudan,9 alladhina hadu10 and banu Isra'il.11 The term nasara, which refers exclusively to Christians in the Qur'an, is mentioned fourteen times.12 This term regularly occurs together with the expression yahud and its derivates in the Qur'an. Besides this common term, an interesting expression is used to address the Christians, namely ahl al-Injil (the People of the Gospel).13 The name hawariyyun is mentioned five times in the Qur'an, for the followers of Jesus (peace be on him) during his lifetime, all of them occurring in the Madinan surahs.14

Furthermore, the Qur'an mentions two other groups, the Sabeans15 in three places and the Zoroastrians (Majus) in one place.16 Although the Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) had no personal contact with the Sabeans, there is a hadith that the Zoroastrians should be accorded the status of the People of the Book.17 However, most scholars have regarded both Sabeans and Zoroastrians as dhimmis of the Muslim state. In brief, the boundaries of ahl al-kitab in the Qur'an are not clearly defined but it is safe to assume that a distinct status is generally given to the Jews and Christians due to their religious beliefs. …

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