A RELIGION OF THE BOOK?
GUY G. STROUMSA
Religion as we know it has been recently said to be an invention of early Christianity.1 While such a statement may be somewhat hyperbolic, one can hardly argue that Christianity did not transform, sometimes to a radical extent, perceptions of religion current in the Roman empire.2 The early Christians transformed the cultural memory they had inherited from both Jews and pagans, and which eventually became that of the nascent Europe. It is as a new kind of “textual community” that they were able to reach this major achievement. This was predicated upon new perceptions of the Holy Scriptures and their role in the self-definition of the community and its place in the complex web of relationships between late antique religious traditions. The following pages intend to clarify some aspects of this cultural and religious transformation.
The expression ahl al-kitab, “People of the Book,” is a cardinal feature of Qur’anic revelation, which would play a major role in medieval Islamic law and society. As such, it has been the object of many studies. Oddly enough, however, very little research seems to have been devoted to the origins of the expression as it appears in the Qur’an.3
1M. Sachot, L’invention du christianisme (Paris, 1999)
2See G. G. Stroumsa, Barbarian Philosophy: the Religious Revolution of Early Christianity (WUNT 112; Tubingen, 1999), introduction.
3 See G. Vajda, “Ahl al-kitab,” Encyclopedia of Islam (2nd. ed.), I, 264–266. The learned article, (as well as the appended bibliography) is mostly devoted to the concept in medieval Islam. Similarly disapapointing from our perspective is R. Paret, Kommentar und Konkordanz zum Koran (Stuttgart, 1971). For the occurences of the locution, see for instance R. Blachère, tr., Le Coran (Paris, 1966), Index, s.v. “Détenteurs de rEcriture.” According to him, there are twenty five mentions of the locution refering to Jews, two or three to Christians, and seven to both Jews