People Of The Book

People of the Book or People of the Scripture (أهل الكتاب‎ ′Ahl al-Kitāb) is an Islamic term which refers to Jews, Christians and Sabians and is sometimes applied to members of other religions such as Zoroastrians. 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 the community of faith between those who possess monotheistic scriptures. The term was later extended to other religious communities that fell under Muslim rule, including 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) has come to refer to both the Jewish people and the Torah.

Members of some Christian denominations, such as the Baptists, Methodists, Seventh-day Adventist Church, as well as Puritans and Shakers, have embraced the term “People of the Book” in reference to themselves.

In the Quran

In the Quran the term “people of the book” refers to Jews, Christians, and Sabians. The scriptures referred to in the Quran are the Torah (at-tawraat), the Psalms (az-zabur) and the Gospel (al-injiil).

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. 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. The People of the Book are also referenced in the jizya verse (9:29), which has received varied interpretations.

Saint Catherine's Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt.

Saint Catherine’s Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt.

Later Islamic usage

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

Islamic scholars differ on whether Hindus are People of the Book. 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, and from Muhammad bin Qasim to Aurangzeb, Muslim rulers were willing to consider Hindus as people of the book. Many Muslims did not treat Hindus as pagans or idol-worshipers.


Main article: Dhimmi

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

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, 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.

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. Moderate Muslims generally reject the dhimma system as inappropriate for the age of nation-states and democracies.


Thirty-one times in the Quran, Jews are referred to as “people of the book.” However before the rise of Islam, during Biblical times, Levitical scribes redacted and canonized the book of books. In the transition from what has been called “text to tradition,” Efforts are made to try to reconstruct the archival repositories for these ancient textual collections in addition to sifrei Yichusin (genealogical texts). The Babylonian Talmud Baba Batra 14b-14b describes the order of biblical books. Indeed Rashi himself comments on the mishnaic statement, “Moses received the Torah from Sinai” by noting since the text does not say “ha-torah” (the written torah) but Torah (in general) this refers to both the written torah (24 books of the Old Testament) and the oral torah, which in Rabbinic theology are co-terminous, as suggested by Soloveitchik who notes a recent trend in the Artscroll generation to eclipse oral transmission with written translations. Scholars of antiquity and the early middle ages do know about the canonization process of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) and the redaction processes of the Talmudim and Midrashim. Thus the interplay between written text and orality is essential in trying to reconstruct the textual collections of Jewish texts in the middle ages and modernity.

Rabbinic tradition has demonstrated a reverence, respect, and love for sacred divinely revealed “text,” both written and oral in the process of the chain of transmission (the masorah). Indeed the metaphor of the book is marshaled in Talmudic Tractate Rosh Hashanah, that on Rosh Hashanah the fate of each person for the year is written, on Yom Kippur sealed, and on Hoshanah Rabbah the angels of the heavenly court deliver the verdict to God’s archive.

The Hai Gaon in 998 in Pumbeditah comments, “Three possessions should you prize- a field, a friend, and a book.” However the Hai Gaon mentions that a book is more reliable than even friends for sacred books span across time, indeed can express external ideas, that transcend time itself.

The Spanish philosopher, physician, and poet Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi writes of the importance of books by commenting, “My pen is my harp and my lyre, my library is my garden and orchard.”

The Provencal scholar Rabbi Yehudah ibn Tibbon (Adler recension) further elaborates on the importance of his library by commenting, “Make books your companions; let your bookshelves be your gardens: bask in their beauty, gather their fruit, pluck their roses, take their spices and myrrh. And when your soul be wary, change form one garden to garden, and from one prospect to prospect.”

The Spanish statesman Rabbi Shmuel ha-Nagid writes, “the wise of heart will abandon ease and pleasures for in his library he will find treasures.” Rabbi Abraham ibn Daud writes in his sefer ha-qabbala about rabbi Shmuel ha-Nagid that he had sofrim who copied Mishnah and Talmudim, and he used to donated these commissioned core texts to students who could not afford to purchase them.”

Rabbi Yitzchak ben Yosef of Corbeil (ca 1280, France) in his Sefer Mitzvot Qatan composed in 1276 outlines a detailed strategy for the dissemination of his texts by asserting that every community should finance a copy of his halkhic code and keep it for public consultation.

Rabbi Shimon ben Zemach Duran (Tashbaz) in his introduction to his halakhic code, Zohar HaRakiah, writes, “When the wise man lies down with his fathers he leaves behind him a treasured and organized blessing: books that enlighten like the brilliance of the firmament (Daniel 12:3) and that extend peace like an eternal flowing river (ISa 66:12).”

The love and reverence for Jewish books is seen in Jewish law. It is not permissible for a sacred Jewish text to lie on the ground and if by accident a book is dropped to the floor it should be picked up and given a kiss. A Jewish book is not to be left open unless it is being read, nor is it to be held upside down. It is not permitted to place a book of lesser sanctity on top of a book of higher holiness, so for example one must never place any book on top of the Tanakh. If one says to someone, “Please hand me this book,” the book should be given with the right hand and not with the left hand.” If two men are walking and one who is carrying a sacred books should be given the courtesy of entering and leaving the room first, as the second is enjoined to pursue knowledge.” Rabbi David ibn Zimra of the 16th century comments that “if one buys a new book he should recite the benediction of the She-Heheyanu.”

Christian usage

Main article: The Prophet Muhammad’s Covenants of Protection to Christians

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

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

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. 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. 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. The work of organizations such as the Wycliffe Bible Translators and the United Bible Societies has resulted in Bibles being available in 2,100 languages. This fact has further promoted an identification with the phrase among Christians themselves. 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. Many denominations, such as Baptists and the Methodist Church, which are notable for their mission work, have therefore embraced the term “People of the Book“.

As stated on its official world website, the Seventh-day Adventist Church (SDA) also embraces the term People of the Book. 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 Quran’s true People of the Book.

The Catholic church teaches that the Bible is “one book” in a dual sense: the Old and New Testaments are the word of God,and Jesus Christ is the word of God incarnate. Hence the church teaches that Christianity “is not a ‘religion of the book.’…[but] the religion of the ‘Word’ of God,” and that this Word is Christ himself.

See also

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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