What does Ahl al-Kitab (the People of the Book) Mean?

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What does Ahl al-Kitab (the People of the Book) Mean?
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Dear Brother / Sister,

The members of the divine religions like Judaism and Christianity are called "Ahl al-Kitab" (the People of the Book). The people of the Book are mentioned a lot in the Quran. The people of the Book are regarded as "unbelievers" because they do not accept the Prophet (pbuh) but they are not unbelievers in the sense of "deniers of Allah".

The Quran gives privileges to the people of the Book regarding some issues compared to the other unbelievers. For instance, it is permissible to marry the girls and women of the people of the Book and it is permissible to eat the meat of the animals slaughtered by them. (al-Maida, 5) This privilege is given to them because they are closer to belief compared to the other unbelievers. The Quran addresses them as follows:

"Say: 'O People of the Book! Come to common terms as between us and you: that we worship none but Allah; that we associate no partners with Him; that we erect not from among ourselves Lords and patrons other than Allah.'" (Aal-i Imran, 64) That is, let us not know each other as Lord, God. Let us evaluate all of our deeds based on the command of God and the consent of Allah. Let us be slaves of Allah. Let us know ourselves as His slaves. Let us be subject to one another based on this rule. (1)

The Quran states that the People of the Book take their scholars and priests to be their Lords. (at-Tawba, 31) When Adiy b. Hatam, who converted to Islam from Christianity, said, "O Messenger of Allah! We did not take them to be our Lords", the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) said,

"They rendered haram what Allah rendered halal and they rendered halal what Allah rendered haram. This means taking them to be their Lords." (2)

In fact, it is not necessary to call a person "Lord" in order to take him to be Lord. (3)

The following verse expresses the way to follow while dealing with the people of the Book:
 
"And dispute ye not with the People of the Book, except with means better (than mere disputation) unless it be with those of them who inflict wrong (and injury): but say "We believe in the Revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; Our God and your God is one; and it is to Him we bow (in Islam)." (al-Ankabut, 46)

In the verse, the People of the Book are dealt with in two groups:

1. The cruel ones.
2. The just ones.

We are ordered to deal with them in the best way. This approach will attract them to Islam and they will not have difficulty in adopting Islam because when they accept Islam they do not have to refuse Moses and Jesus. Thus, they will follow the religion of the last Prophet and they will be saved from being the members of a distorted religion.   
  The Quran states that Christians are closer to Islam than Jews:

"Strongest among men in enmity to the Believers wilt thou find the Jews and Pagans; and nearest among them in love to the Believers wilt thou find those who say: "We are Christians:" because amongst these are men devoted to learning and men who have renounced the world, and they are not arrogant." (al-Maida, 82)

History proves the verse above. The number of Jews that accepted Islam is very low. However, many Christians accepted Islam as a result of their research. The number of Christians that accepted Islam in Europe is more than hundreds of thousands. Many churches were transformed into mosques in Europe and they serve as Islamic centers now.   

The nice outcomes of Islamic activities in Christian countries are a reality; however, it is also a reality that the administrators in those countries have an attitude against Islam.  

God Almighty, who orders us to deal with the fair ones of the People of the Book in the best way, states the following about the cruel ones:

"Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger nor, acknowledge the Religion of Truth from among the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizyah with willing submission and feel themselves subdued.." (at-Tawba, 29)

The issue whether the characteristics mentioned in the verse“include all of the People of the Book or not?” is sometimes discussed. (4) It should not be ignored    that the verse does not say, "fight all of the People of the Book until they pay the Jizyah" but says, "fight those among the People of the Book with such and such characteristics." (5) The practices of the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) were like that.  During the Makkah period of Islam, the Prophet (pbuh) sent some Muslims to Ethiopia, which was a Christian country, and said that they would be safe there. During the Madinah period, the Prophet entered into dialog with Jews and Christians, informed them about the religion of Islam and tried to persuade them. Some of the People of the Book accepted Islam as a result of these practices.  

 As it is stated in the Quran, "Not all of them (the people of the Book) are alike " (Aal-i Imran, 113). It is against the Quran and the historical reality to regard all of them to be in the same category.
 
The following verse does not prevent entering into dialog with them and having human relationships with them. "O ye who believe!take not the Jews and the Christians for your friends and protectors: they are but friends and protectors to each other. And he amongst you that turns to them (for friendship) is of them. Verily Allah guideth not a people unjust."(al-Maida, 51) As a matter of fact, to marry the girls and women of the People of the Book is permitted in the Quran. (al-Maida, 5)

Hamdi Yazır states the following related to the above-mentioned verse: Believers are not prohibited from doing Jews and Christians favors, befriending them and administering them; they are prohibited from being their close friends and accomplices because they cannot be real friends of believers. (6)

It is possible to summarize the issue as follows: It is something to have human relations with them and it is something else to admire their religions, customs and traditions; the former is not prohibited by the Quran but the latter is prohibited.

References:
1. Yazır, II, 1132
2. Razi, XVI, 37
3. Yazır, IV, 2512
4. Riza, X, 333; Qutub, III, 1631-1634
5. Ateş, III, 1133-1134
6. Baydawi, II, 211

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