Concept of People of the Book in Islam

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

Definition and origin

Ahl al-Kitab ‘People of the Book is an Islamic term, which frequently occurs in the Qur’an 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 Qur’an.[1]

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 }. (Aal-`Imran 3: 199. See other verses commending People of the Book in Al-Ma’idah 5: 82, 182).

Conversely, the Qur’an clearly rejects particular doctrines of Christianity, such as Trinity (Al-Nisa’ 4: 171), Crucifixion (Al-Nisa’ 4: 157) and the claim that Jesus is the 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 wish that any blessing should be bestowed upon you by your Lord}. (Al-Baqarah 2: 105. Cf. Al-Imran 3: 186; Al-Bayyinah 98: 1).

[1] See Al-Zayn, Muhammad Bassam Rushdi. Al-Mu’jam al-Mufahras li Ma’ani al-Qur’an al-Kareem. (Damascus: Dar al-Fikr, 1995). 1: 167-17. For the term “Outou al-kitab” and similar derivatives see, ‘Abd al-Baqi, Muhammad Foad. Al-Mu’jam al-Mufahras li AlFaz al-Qur’an al-Kareem. (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 1364 AH).pp 8-11.Al-Zuhayli, Wahbah. “Ahl al-Kitab” in the Arab Encyclopedia. (Hay’at al-Mawsou’ah, The Syrian Arab Republic, 2002). 4: 111.

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About Bashar Bakkour
Bashar Bakkour is a Syrian researcher in Islamic Studies. He holds BA in Sharī‘a, BA in Arabic (al-Azhar University) and MA in Islamic Studies (Loughborough University, UK). Currently, he is doing PhD in religion and politics at the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC), International Islamic University Malaysia, (IIUM). His books include: Islam and the West between the Myth of Confrontation and the Reality of Cooperation; A Dictionary of Islamic Terms (A-E); A Dictionary of Islamic Terms (A-F);The Prophet Muhammad: The Perfect Example.