People of the Book

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This article is about the theological concept. For the novel by Geraldine Brooks, see People of the Book (novel).

People of the Book (Arabic: أهل الكتاب ‎‎ ′Ahl al-Kitāb) is an Islamic term referring to Jews, Christians, and Sabians and sometimes applied to members of other religions such as Zoroastrians.[1] It is also used in Judaism to refer to the Jewish people and by members of some Christian denominations to refer to themselves.

The Quran uses the term in reference to Jews, Christians and Sabians in a variety of contexts, from religious polemics to passages emphasizing community of faith between those who possess monotheistic scriptures. The term was later extended to other religious communities that fell under Muslim rule, including even polytheistic Indians. Historically, these communities were subject to the dhimma contract in an Islamic state.

In Judaism the term "People of the Book" (Hebrew: עם הספר, Am HaSefer)[2] has come to refer to the Jewish people and the Torah.[3]

Members of some Christian denominations, such as the Baptists, Methodists, Seventh-day Adventist Church,[4][5] as well as Puritans and Shakers, have embraced the term "People of the Book" in reference to themselves.[6][7]

In the Qur'an[edit]

In the Quran the term "people of the book" refers to Jews, Christians, and Sabians.[8] The scriptures referred to in the Quran are the Torah (al-tawrat), the Psalms (al-zabur) and the Gospel (al-injil).[8]

The Quran emphasises the community of faith between possessors of monotheistic scriptures, and occasionally pays tribute to the religious and moral virtues of communities that have received earlier revelations, calling on Muhammad to ask them for information.[8] More often, reflecting the refusal of Jews and Christians in Muhammad's environment to accept his message, the Quran stresses their inability to comprehend the message they possess but do not put into practice and to appreciate that Muhammad's teaching fulfills that message.[8] The People of the Book are also referenced in the jizya verse (9:29),[8] which has received varied interpretations.

Later Islamic usage[edit]

The use of the term was later extended to Zoroastrians, Samaritans, Mandeans, and even polytheistic Indians.[1][8]

Islamic scholars differ on whether Hindus are People of the Book.[9] The Islamic conquest of India necessitated that the definition be revised, as most India's inhabitants were followers of the Indian religions. Many of the Muslim clergy of India considered Hindus as people of the book,[9] and from Muhhammad-bin-Kasim to Aurangzib, Muslim rulers were willing to consider Hindus as people of the book.[10] Many Muslims did not treat Hindus as pagans or idol-worshippers,[9] although Hinduism does not include Adam, Eve, nor the various prophets of Abrahamic religions.

Buddhism does not explicitly recognize a monotheistic God or the concept of prophethood. Muslims however had at one point accorded them the status of "people of the Book", and Al-Biruni wrote of Buddha as the prophet "Burxan".[11]


Main article: Dhimmi

Dhimmi is a historical[12] term referring to the status accorded to People of the Book living in an Islamic state.[12] The word literally means "protected person."[13] According to scholars, dhimmis had their rights fully protected in their communities, but as citizens in the Islamic state, had certain restrictions,[14] and it was obligatory for them to pay the jizya tax, which complemented the zakat, or alms, paid by the Muslim subjects.[15] Dhimmis were excluded from specific duties assigned to Muslims, and did not enjoy certain political rights reserved for Muslims, but were otherwise equal under the laws of property, contract, and obligation.[16][17][18]

Under sharia, the dhimmi communities were usually subjected to their own special laws, rather than some of the laws which were applicable only to the Muslim community. For example, the Jewish community in Medina was allowed to have its own Halakhic courts,[19] and the Ottoman millet system allowed its various dhimmi communities to rule themselves under separate legal courts. These courts did not cover cases that involved religious groups outside of their own community, or capital offences. Dhimmi communities were also allowed to engage in certain practices that were usually forbidden for the Muslim community, such as the consumption of alcohol and pork.[20][21][22]

Historically, dhimmi status was originally applied to Jews, Christians, and Sabians. This status later also came to be applied to Zoroastrians, Hindus, Jains and Buddhists.[23][24][25] Moderate Muslims generally reject the dhimma system as inappropriate for the age of nation-states and democracies.[26]

Christian usage[edit]

In the early Christian experience the New Testament was added to the whole Old Testament, which after Jerome's translation tended more and more to be bound up as a single volume, and was accepted as a unified locus of authority: "the Book", as some contemporary authors refer to it.[7] Many Christian missionaries in Africa, Asia and in the New World, developed writing systems for indigenous people and then provided them with a written translation of the Bible.[27][28] As a result of this work, "People of the Book" became the usual vernacular locution to refer to Christians among many African, Asian, and Native American people of both hemispheres.[28] The work of organizations such as the Wycliffe Bible Translators and the United Bible Societies has resulted in Bible's being available in 2,100 languages. This fact has further promoted an identification with the phrase among Christians themselves.[7] Christian converts among evangelized cultures, in particular, have the strongest identification with the term "People of the Book". This arises because the first written text produced in their native language, as with the English-speaking peoples, has often been the Bible.[28] Many denominations, such as Baptists and the Methodist Church, which are notable for their mission work,[29] have therefore embraced the term "People of the Book".[6][7]

As stated on its official world website, the Seventh-day Adventist Church (SDA) also embraces the term People of the Book.[30] As also noted in its official flagship publication Adventist World (February 2010 edition), it is claimed that prominent Islamic leaders have endorsed Seventh-day Adventists as the Qur'an's true People of the Book.[4]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b John L. Esposito, ed. (2014). "Ahl al-Kitab". The Oxford Dictionary of Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  2. ^ Kerry M. Olitzky, Ronald H. Isaacs (1992). A Glossary of Jewish Life. Jason Aronson. p. 217. 
  3. ^ David Lyle Jeffrey. People of the Book: Christian Identity and Literary Culture. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Retrieved 2007-10-18. Though first intended pejoratively, "People of the Book" in Jewish tradition came to be accepted with pride as a legitimate reference to a culture and religious identity rooted fundamentally in Torah, the original book of the Law. 
  4. ^ a b
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b Dr. Andrea C. Paterson. Three Monotheistic Faiths - Judaism, Christianity, Islam: An Analysis And Brief History. Retrieved 2007-10-18. Baptists are "people of the Book". The Bible serves as a guide for faith and practice, instructing local churches and individual believers on faith, conduct, and polity. Scripture is also the final authority in determining faith and practice, and is the Word of God which is revealed to the Church in order that God's people may know God's will. 
  7. ^ a b c d David Lyle Jeffrey. People of the Book: Christian Identity and Literary Culture. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Retrieved 2007-10-18. Nor is it unusual that the badge should be worn proudly as one means of resisting further denigration: one need only think of Puritans, Methodists, Quakers, and Shakers. In fact, the first of these groups are foremost in the Christian tradition who claimed the term in question, proud themselves to be in their own way identified as "a People of the Book". In the early Christian experience the New Testament was added to the whole Jewish "Tanakh" (an acronym from Torah, the Law, Nebi'im, the prophets, and Kethubim, the other canonical writings). This larger anthology, which after St. Jerome's translation tended more and more to be bound up as a single volume, had for those to whom the Christian missionaries came bearing it all the import of a unified locus of authority: "the Book". 
  8. ^ a b c d e f Vajda, G (2012). "Ahl al-Kitāb". In P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs. Encyclopaedia of Islam. 1 (2nd ed.). Brill. p. 264. (subscription required (help)). 
  9. ^ a b c Nasr, Seyyed Hossein (1973). Sufi Essays. State University of New York Press. p. 139. ISBN 0-87395-233-2. 
  10. ^ Desika Char, S. V. (1997). Hinduism and Islam in India: Caste, Religion, and Society from Antiquity to Early Modern Times. Markus Wiener Publishers. p. 127. ISBN 1-55876-151-9. 
  11. ^ Alexander Berzin (2006). "The Historical Interaction between the Buddhist and Islamic Cultures before the Mongol Empire". 
  12. ^ a b Juan Eduardo Campo, ed. (2010-05-12). "dhimmi". Encyclopedia of Islam. Infobase Publishing. pp. 194–195. Dhimmis are non-Muslims who live within Islamdom and have a regulated and protected status. ... In the modern period, this term has generally has occasionally been resuscitated, but it is generally obsolete. 
  13. ^
  14. ^ Clinton Bennett (2005). Muslims and Modernity: An Introduction to the Issues and Debates. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 163. ISBN 082645481X. Retrieved 2012-07-07. 
  15. ^ Glenn, H. Patrick (2007). Legal Traditions of the World. Oxford University Press. pp. 218–219. A Dhimmi is a non-Muslim subject of a state governed in accordance to sharia law. The term connotes an obligation of the state to protect the individual, including the individual's life, property, and freedom of religion and worship, and required loyalty to the empire, and a poll tax known as the jizya, which complemented the Islamic tax paid by the Muslim subjects, called Zakat. 
  16. ^ H. Patrick Glenn, Legal Traditions of the World. Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 219.
  17. ^ The French scholar Gustave Le Bon (the author of La civilisation des Arabes) writes "that despite the fact that the incidence of taxation fell more heavily on a Muslim than a non-Muslim, the non-Muslim was free to enjoy equally well with every Muslim all the privileges afforded to the citizens of the state. The only privilege that was reserved for the Muslims was the seat of the caliphate, and this, because of certain religious functions attached to it, which could not naturally be discharged y a non-Muslim." Mun'im Sirry (2014), Scriptural Polemics: The Qur'an and Other Religions, p.179. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199359363.
  18. ^ Abou El Fadl, Khaled (2007). The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists. HarperOne. p. 204. ISBN 978-0061189036. According the dhimma status system, non-Muslims must pay a poll tax in return for Muslim protection and the privilege of living in Muslim territory. Per this system, non-Muslims are exempt from military service, but they are excluded from occupying high positions that involve dealing with high state interests, like being the president or prime minister of the country. In Islamic history, non-Muslims did occupy high positions, especially in matters that related to fiscal policies or tax collection. 
  19. ^ Cohen, Mark R. (1995). Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages. Princeton University Press. p. 74. ISBN 0-691-01082-X. Retrieved April 10, 2010. 
  20. ^ Al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveler (edited and translated by Nuh Ha Mim Keller), p. 608. Amana Publications, 1994.
  21. ^ Al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveler (ed. and trans. Nuh Ha Mim Keller), pp. 977, 986. Amana Publications, 1994.
  22. ^ Ghazi, Kalin & Kamali 2013, pp. 240–1.
  23. ^ Wael B. Hallaq (2009). Sharī'a: Theory, Practice, Transformations. Cambridge University Press (Kindle edition). p. 327. 
  24. ^ Annemarie Schimmel (2004). The Empire of the Great Mughals: History, Art and Culture. p. 107. ISBN 978-1861891853. The conqueror Muhammad Ibn Al Qasem gave both Hindus and Buddhists the same status as the Christians, Jews and Sabaeans the Middle East. They were all "dhimmi" ('protected people') 
  25. ^ Michael Bonner (2008). Jihad in Islamic History. Princeton University Press (Kindle edition). p. 89. 
  26. ^ "[…] the overwhelming majority of moderate Muslims reject the dhimma system as ahistorical, in the sense that it is inappropriate for the age of nation-states and democracies." Abou El Fadl, Khaled (January 23, 2007). The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists. HarperOne. p. 214. ISBN 978-0061189036. 
  27. ^ Perry, Marvin; Chase, Myrna; Jacob, Margaret; Jacob, James; Daly, Jonathan W.; Von Laue, Theodore H. (2014). Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, and Society. Volume II: Since 1600 (11th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning. p. 635. ISBN 978-1-305-09142-9. LCCN 2014943347. OCLC 898154349. Retrieved 2016-02-01. In the nineteenth century, in contrast to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Europeans, except for missionaries, rarely adopted the customs or learned the languages of local people. They had little sense that other cultures and other peoples deserved respect. Many Westerners believed that it was their Christian duty to set an example and to educate others. Missionaries were the first to meet and learn about many peoples and the first to develop writing for those without a written language. Christian missionaries were ardently opposed to slavery.... 
  28. ^ a b c David Lyle Jeffrey. People of the Book: Christian Identity and Literary Culture. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Retrieved 2007-10-18. "People of the Book" unsurprisingly translates many an early vernacular name for Christian missionaries among African, Asian, and Native American people of both hemispheres. The fact that these missionaries put enormous effort into reducing the language of these people to writing so as to provide a written translation of the Bible - an activity which, under such organizations as the Wycliffe Bible Translators and the United Bible Societies, has resulted in at least part of the Christian Bible now being available in 2,100 languages - has lent an identification with the phrase among evangelical Christians in particular as strong as pertains among Jews. This identity comprises the Christian converts among evangelized cultures, the more recently evangelized the more natural so, since for many of them, just as for the English-speaking people, the first written texts ever produced in their language have been a portion of the Bible. 
  29. ^ American Methodism. S.S. Scranton & Co. Retrieved 2007-10-18. But the most noticeable feature of British Methodism is its missionary spirit, and its organized, effective missionary work. It takes the lead of all other churches in missionary movements. From its origin, Methodism has been characterized for its zeal in propagandism. It has always been missionary. 
  30. ^

Further reading[edit]

  • Boekhoff-van der Voort, Nicolet, "Ahl al-Kitab (People of the Book)", in Muhammad in History, Thought, and Culture: An Encyclopedia of the Prophet of God (2 vols.), Edited by C. Fitzpatrick and A. Walker, Santa Barbara, ABC-CLIO, 2014, Vol I, pp. 9–11.
  • Yusuf al-Qaradawi has a book entitled "Non-Muslims in Muslim societies" detailing many issues including what a dhimmi is, jizyah, rights, responsibilities, and more.

External links[edit]