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People of the Book

By:
Fareeha Khan
Source:
The [Oxford] Encyclopedia of Islam and Law What is This? An English-language legal reference for scholars of Islamic studies and Western engaged readers presenting the history and development of Islamic Law.

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People of the Book

Anyone not professing Islam is considered, for legal purposes, to be in a state of unbelief, or kufr. The jurists further divide unbelievers into three categories: 1) the People of the Book (Ahl al-Kitāb), which generally refers to the Jews and the Christians; 2) those with a semblance of a book (shibhat kitāb), which refers to the Zoroastrians; and 3) all other religious groups, who fall under the category of pagans or idolators (mushrikūn). All three of these groups fall under the category of kuffār (sing. kāfir), or unbelievers, including the People of the Book, the latter simply being a subset of the former. Historically some other groups had also been included by jurists to be among the People of the Book, such as the Samaritans and Sabians, as long as their religions did not contradict the fundamental bases of Judaism and Christianity. The Ḥanafī school in particular held an expansive view of who could qualify as People of the Book.

Muslim theologians and jurists sometimes ranked the various groups of unbelievers according to religious superiority. Of all unbelievers the People of the Book are considered “closer” to belief and Islam because of their monotheism and belief in numerous divine prophets and books (since belief in figures such as Noah, Moses, and Jesus, as well as in books such as the Torah and Gospels, are required for Muslims to believe in as a matter of faith). As for ranking between Jews and Christians, there is a difference of opinion, with Muslim scholarly opinion falling into three separate positions.

The first position holds that the two groups are of equal standing, since they have parity in the exceptions made for them by the Sharīʿah (e.g., Muslims can eat the meat of and marry among both Jews and Christians, as we shall see below). Another position holds that the Jews are better than the Christians in terms of religious belief, since the former group contradicts Islam only at the level of prophecy (by not accepting the Prophethood of Muḥammad), while the latter group contradicts Islam at the level of divinity (by associating partners with God through the doctrine of the Trinity). For the scholars who hold to this second position, in terms of practice the Jews are considered to be better, too, since they practice ritual slaughter of meat, while the Christians were not careful to slaughter according to religious law, and their meat therefore often fell under the category of “carrion.” Ḥanafī scholars like Ibn Nujaym (d. 1562) and Ibn ʿĀbidīn (d. 1836) held to this second position of Jewish superiority, and thus felt that if a Jew and a Christian married and had a child, the child should be encouraged to stay on the religion of his Jewish parent. The third and final position held by some Muslim scholars is that the Christians are superior in rank to the Jews. This is because while the Christians only deny the prophethood of one Islamic prophet (Muḥammad), the Jews deny the prophethood of two (Jesus and Muḥammad). Certain texts from the Qurʾān and sunnah also indicate that the Jews are stronger in their enmity toward the Muslims than Christians, and that the Christians are more gentle-natured (alyan ʿarikatan), therefore closer to the Muslims than the Jews.

Legally speaking, however, differentiating between the Jews and Christians was of little or no consequence, as any exceptions made for the People of the Book applied equally to Jews and Christians. The main categories of concern to the Muslim jurists were the three mentioned earlier (People of the Book, those with a semblance of a Book, and the pagans). When dealing with unbelievers, Muslim jurists were most concerned with upholding justice while differentiating Muslim religious identity in a way that would preserve and encourage Islamic belief and practice. In order to accomplish the latter, rulings related to matters such as marriage, food, and social coexistence separated between Muslims and non-Muslims. However, in many of these areas, special exceptions were made for the People of the Book, such that Muslims were allowed to eat their meat, marry their women, and grant them permission to live unmolested in Muslim lands (by giving them protection, or dhimmah, in return for payment of the poll tax).

[See also DHIMMīS and KUFR.]

Bibliography

  • Ahl al-Kitab.” feqh.al-islam.com/Page.aspx?pageid=278&BookID=510&TOCID=5636.
  • Maghnisawi, Abu al-Muntaha, al-. Imam Abu Hanifa’s al-Fiqh al-Akbar Explained. Trans. Abdur-Rahman ibn Yusuf. Santa Barbara, Calif.: White Thread Press, 2007.
  • Misri, Ahmad ibn Naqib, al-. Reliance of the Traveller: A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law. Trans. Nuh Ha Mim Keller. Beltsville, Md.: Amana Publications, 1994.
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