People of the Book

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People of the Book or Ahl al-kitāb (Arabic: أهل الكتاب) is an Islamic term referring to followers of those religions which Muslims regard as having been guided by previous revelations, generally in the form of a scripture.[1] In the Quran they are identified as the Jews, the Christians, the Sabians, and—according to some interpretations—the Zoroastrians.[2] Starting from the 8th century, some Muslims also recognized other religious groups such as the Samaritans,[3] and even Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains,[4] as People of the Book.

Historically, the religious communities recognized by Muslims as People of the Book were subject to the legal status known as dhimma ('protection'), meaning that they were allowed to practice their faith and to govern their community according to the rules and norms of their own religion, in return for paying a special head tax called the jizya.[5]

The Quran uses the term in a variety of contexts, from religious polemics to passages emphasizing the community of faith among those who possess monotheistic scriptures.[6]

In Islamic law, Muslim men are permitted to marry women who are People of the Book; however, Muslim women are prevented from marrying men who are People of the Book.[7] In the case of a Muslim-Christian marriage, which is to be contracted only after permission from the Christian party, the Christian woman should not be prevented from attending church for prayer and worship.[8][9]

The term 'People of the Book' has been reappropriated as a means of self-identification by Jews and by the members of certain Christian denominations.[10]

In the Quran[edit]

Meaning of the term[edit]

When used in conjunction with a person, the term ahl identifies the members of that person's household, including their fellow tribesmen, relatives and all those who share a family background with them. However, it may also be used with place names to refer to people living in a certain locality (e.g., ahl al-Madīna in Quran 9:101, 'the people of Medina'), or with more abstract nouns, as in ahl madhhab, 'the people of a certain madhhab or school of thought'.[11]

The word kitāb, meaning 'writing' or 'book', occurs very often in the Quran, generally in the sense of a divine rather than a human activity, which consists in writing down and recording everything that is created. More than just referring to a 'book', it conveys meanings of divine knowledge, divine authority, and divine revelation.[12]

The term ahl al-kitāb, then, refers to those who have been given access to such knowledge and revelation:[13] they are the people to whom God has 'sent down' (see tanzīl) his wisdom by means of a prophet, as an act of divine grace.[14] However, the revelations given to the People of the Book, taking the form of the Torah (al-Tawrāt), the Psalms (al-Zabūr), and the Gospel (al-Injīl),[6] were all partial, and it is precisely by already being familiar with the books (kutub) previously sent down that the People of the Book were expected to be able to recognize Muhammad as a prophet, and the Quran as the final and most complete revelation.[15]


Several verses in the Quran are commonly understood as identifying the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabians as People of the Book. Thus for example Sūrat al-Māʾida 5:68–69, which mentions these groups along with the Muslims ("the believers") as being safe from fear and grief:[16]

[68] Say, ˹O Prophet,˺ “O People of the Book! You have nothing to stand on unless you observe the Torah, the Gospel, and what has been revealed to you from your Lord.” And your Lord’s revelation to you ˹O Prophet˺ will only cause many of them to increase in wickedness and disbelief. So do not grieve for the people who disbelieve. [69] Indeed, the believers, Jews, Sabians and Christians—whoever ˹truly˺ believes in Allah and the Last Day and does good, there will be no fear for them, nor will they grieve.[17]

Sūrat al-Baqara 2:62 is similar to this,[18] but there is also a verse (Sūrat al-Ḥajj 22:17) which lists the same groups in another context, that of how God will judge them on the Day of Resurrection, but now adding two more groups to the list:[19]

Indeed, the believers, Jews, Sabians, Christians, Magi, and the polytheists—Allah will judge between them ˹all˺ on Judgment Day. Surely Allah is a Witness over all things.[20]

The last named group, "the polytheists" (the mushrikūn, lit.'those who associate'), are the opposite of the first named, "the believers" (the Muslims). What is less clear, however, is the status of the groups mentioned in between, who now also include the "Magi" (al-majūs), that is to say, the Zoroastrians (who are named only once in the Quran, in this verse). This was a matter of dispute among medieval Muslim scholars, who questioned whether the Zoroastrians had a clear prophet and scripture, as well as whether their doctrines on the nature of God and creation were in accordance with those of Islam and the other religions recognized as having received a revelation.[21] Ultimately though, most Islamic jurists granted the Zoroastrians partial status as a People of the Book,[22] while still disagreeing on the extent to which legal privileges such as intermarriage with Muslims should be allowed.[23]


The Quran emphasizes 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.[6] 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.[6]

The People of the Book are mentioned several times in the 98th chapter of the Quran, Sūrat al-Bayyina ('The Clear Proof'):

[1] The disbelievers from the People of the Book and the polytheists were not going to desist from disbelief until the clear proof came to them: [2] a messenger from Allah, reciting scrolls of utmost purity, [3] containing upright commandments. [4] It was not until this clear proof came to the People of the Book that they became divided about his prophethood— [5] even though they were only commanded to worship Allah alone with sincere devotion to Him in all uprightness, establish prayer, and pay alms-tax. That is the upright Way. [6] Indeed, those who disbelieve from the People of the Book and the polytheists will be in the Fire of Hell, to stay there forever. They are the worst of all beings. [7] Indeed, those who believe and do good—they are the best of all beings. [8] Their reward with their Lord will be Gardens of Eternity, under which rivers flow, to stay there for ever and ever. Allah is pleased with them and they are pleased with Him. This is only for those in awe of their Lord.[24]

According to Islamic studies scholar Yvonne Haddad, this short chapter condemns all those who reject the 'clear proof' (bayyina) of the Prophet to the eternal fire of hell, whether they are People of the Book or disbelievers (kuffār).[25]

The People of the Book are also referenced in the jizya verse (Q9:29),[6] which has received varied interpretations.

The Quran permits marriage between Muslim men and women who are People of the Book (Jews and Christians).[8]


Muhammad's era (610–632)[edit]

The Ashtiname of Muhammad, a treaty between Muslims and Christians, was purportedly recorded between Muhammad and Saint Catherine's Monastery, which is depicted in this icon.

The Ashtiname of Muhammad, a treaty purportedly made between the Muslims of Muhammad and the Christians of Saint Catherine's Monastery, stated that if a Muslim man wished to marry a Christian woman, marriage could only occur with her consent and she must be permitted to continue attending church to pray and worship.[9] The Ashtiname states that Christians cannot be forced to fight in wars and that Muslims should fight on their behalf; it also states that Christian churches are to be respected and forbids stealing from them.[9] The Ashtiname forbids Muslims to remove Christians from their jobs, including those who serve as judges or monks.[9] Muslims are bound until the Last Judgment to adhere to the treaty or "he would spoil God's covenant and disobey His Prophet."[9] The policy of the Ottoman Sultans abided by the Ashtiname.[9]

Rashidun Caliphate (634–661)[edit]

During the second caliph Umar's reign (r. 634–642), the Christian community of Najran and the Jewish community of Khaybar were deported to the newly conquered regions of Syria and Iraq.[26] Umar set aside the Christian ban on the Jews and allowed them to pray and reside in Jerusalem.[27] Umar signed a pact with the Christians of Jerusalem, which granted them safety in the region.[28] He also awarded the status of the People of the Book to the Zoroastrians, although some practices contrary to Islam were prohibited.[29]

At the beginning of the Muslim conquest of Mesopotamia in c. 640, the leader of the Mandaeans (one of the religious groups who historically claimed to be the Sabians mentioned in the Quran), Anush bar Danqa, is said to have traveled to Baghdad in order to appear before the Muslim authorities, showing them a copy of the Ginza Rabba (the Mandaean holy book), and proclaiming the chief Mandaean prophet to be John the Baptist (known to Muslims as Yahya ibn Zakariyya). Consequently, the Muslim authorities afforded them the status of People of the Book.[30] However, this account is likely apocryphal, and if it took place at all, it must have occurred after the founding of Baghdad in 762.[31] The earliest source to unambiguously apply the term 'Sabian' to the Mandaeans was al-Hasan ibn Bahlul (fl. 950–1000) citing the Abbasid vizier Abu Ali Muhammad ibn Muqla (c. 885–940).[32] However, it is not clear whether the Mandaeans of this period already identified themselves as Sabians or whether the claim originated with Ibn Muqla.[33]

Later Islamic usage[edit]

When the Umayyad general Muhammad ibn Qasim (c. 694–715) conquered Brahmanabad, he is said to have granted Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains the status of People of the Book.[34][better source needed]

Islamic scholars differ on whether Hindus are People of the Book.[35] The Islamic conquest of India necessitated 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,[35] and from Muhammad bin Qasim in the Umayyad era to the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb in the 17th century, Muslim rulers were willing to consider Hindus as People of the Book.[36]


Dhimmi is a historical[37] term referring to the status accorded to People of the Book living in an Islamic state.[37] The word literally means "protected person."[38] According to scholars, dhimmis had their rights fully protected in their communities, but as citizens in the Islamic state, had certain restrictions,[39] and it was obligatory for them to pay the jizya tax, which complemented the zakat, or alms, paid by the Muslim subjects.[40] 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.[41][42][43]

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,[44] 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.[45][46][47]

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.[48][49][50] Moderate Muslims generally reject the dhimma system as inappropriate for the age of nation-states and democracies.[51]

Usage by Jews and Christians[edit]

In Judaism, the term "People of the Book" (Hebrew: עם הספר, Am HaSefer)[52] has been reappropriated as a term to designate the Jewish people, in reference to the Torah or to the entire Hebrew Bible.[53] Members of some Christian denominations have also embraced the term "People of the Book" in reference to themselves, foremost among them the Puritans[54] as well as the Seventh-day Adventist Church[55][better source needed] and the Baptists.[56][better source needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sharon 2004; Madigan 2001.
  2. ^ On the Sabians, see De Blois 2004. On the Zoroastrians, see Darrow 2003; Nasr et al. 2015, p. 834 (verse 22:17).
  3. ^ Esposito 2003.
  4. ^ Kimball 2019, p. 195. On Hindus, see also Nasr 1972, p. 139.
  5. ^ Esposito 2003.
  6. ^ a b c d e Vajda 1960–2007.
  7. ^ Rahman, Fazlur (July 1980). "A Survey of Modernization of Muslim Family Law" (PDF). Retrieved 2 February 2022.
  8. ^ a b Ahmed, Akbar S. (11 January 2013). Postmodernism and Islam: Predicament and Promise. Routledge. p. 62. ISBN 978-1-134-92417-2. The Quran speaks favourably of the people of the Book. For example, Surah 3, verse 199, carries a universal message of goodwill and hope to all those who believe, the people of the Book irrespective of their religious label—Christian, Jew or Muslim. Muslims can marry with the people of the Book,
  9. ^ a b c d e f Timani, Hussam S.; Ashton, Loye Sekihata (29 November 2019). Post-Christian Interreligious Liberation Theology. Springer Nature. p. 196. ISBN 978-3-030-27308-8.
  10. ^ Jeffrey 1996, pp. xi–xiv.
  11. ^ Sharon 2004.
  12. ^ Madigan 2001.
  13. ^ Madigan 2001.
  14. ^ Sharon 2004.
  15. ^ Madigan 2001.
  16. ^ De Blois 2004.
  17. ^ Quran 5:68–69 (tr. Mustafa Khattab, The Clear Quran).
  18. ^ De Blois 2004. It reads: "Indeed, the believers, Jews, Christians, and Sabians —whoever ˹truly˺ believes in Allah and the Last Day and does good will have their reward with their Lord. And there will be no fear for them, nor will they grieve."Surah Al-Baqara 2:62 (tr. Mustafa Khattab, The Clear Quran).
  19. ^ Darrow 2003.
  20. ^ Surah Al-Hajj 22:17 (tr. Mustafa Khattab, The Clear Quran).
  21. ^ Darrow 2003.
  22. ^ Darrow 2003.
  23. ^ Nasr et al. 2015, p. 834 (verse 22:17).
  24. ^ Surah Al-Bayyina 98:1–8 (tr. Mustafa Khattab, The Clear Quran).
  25. ^ Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck (1977). "An Exegesis of Sura Ninety-Eight". Journal of the American Oriental Society. 97 (4): 519–530. doi:10.2307/598634. JSTOR 598634.
  26. ^ Madelung 1997, p. 74.
  27. ^ Dubnov 1980, p. 326.
  28. ^ Meri 2005, p. 205.
  29. ^ Gordon 2005, p. 28.
  30. ^ Buckley 2002, p. 5.
  31. ^ Van Bladel 2017, p. 14, cf. pp. 7–15.
  32. ^ Van Bladel 2017, p. 47; on the identification of al-Hasan ibn Bahlul's source (named merely "Abu Ali") as Abu Ali Muhammad ibn Muqla, see p. 58.
  33. ^ Van Bladel 2017, p. 54. On Ibn Muqla's possible motivations for applying the Quranic epithet to the Mandaeans rather than to the Harranian pagans (who were more commonly identified as 'Sabians' in the Baghdad of his time), see p. 66.
  34. ^ Kimball 2019, p. 195.
  35. ^ a b Nasr 1972, p. 139.
  36. ^ 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 978-1-55876-151-3.
  37. ^ a b Juan Eduardo Campo, ed. (12 May 2010). "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.
  38. ^ "Definition of DHIMMI". Archived from the original on 18 May 2015.
  39. ^ Clinton Bennett (2005). Muslims and Modernity: An Introduction to the Issues and Debates. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 163. ISBN 978-0826454812. Retrieved 7 July 2012.
  40. ^ 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.
  41. ^ H. Patrick Glenn, Legal Traditions of the World. Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 219.
  42. ^ 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.
  43. ^ Abou El Fadl, Khaled (2007). The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists. HarperOne. p. 204. ISBN 978-0061189036. According to 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.
  44. ^ Cohen, Mark R. (1995). Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages. Princeton University Press. p. 74. ISBN 978-0-691-01082-3. Retrieved 10 April 2010.
  45. ^ Al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveler (edited and translated by Nuh Ha Mim Keller), p. 608. Amana Publications, 1994.
  46. ^ Al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveler (ed. and trans. Nuh Ha Mim Keller), pp. 977, 986. Amana Publications, 1994.
  47. ^ Ghazi, Kalin & Kamali 2013, pp. 240–1.
  48. ^ Wael B. Hallaq (2009). Sharī'a: Theory, Practice, Transformations. Cambridge University Press (Kindle edition). p. 327.
  49. ^ Annemarie Schimmel (2004). The Empire of the Great Mughals: History, Art and Culture. Reaktion Books. 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')
  50. ^ Michael Bonner (2008). Jihad in Islamic History. Princeton University Press (Kindle edition). p. 89.
  51. ^ "[…] 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 (23 January 2007). The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists. HarperOne. p. 214. ISBN 978-0061189036.
  52. ^ Kerry M. Olitzky, Ronald H. Isaacs (1992). A Glossary of Jewish Life. Jason Aronson. p. 217. ISBN 9780876685471.
  53. ^ Jeffrey 1996, p. xiii.
  54. ^ Jeffrey 1996, pp. xiii–xiv.
  55. ^ Johnsson, William G. (February 2010). "Adventists and Muslims: Five Convictions – How to build on what we have in common". Adventist World Magazine. Archived from the original on 14 July 2014. Retrieved 14 June 2014. "Who we are". People of the Book Publications. Archived from the original on 28 June 2011. Retrieved 23 July 2011.
  56. ^ Dr. Andrea C. Paterson (21 May 2009). Three Monotheistic Faiths – Judaism, Christianity, Islam: An Analysis And Brief History. AuthorHouse. p. 78. ISBN 9781452030494. Retrieved 18 October 2007.


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.

External links[edit]