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Who are ‘People of the Book’?

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The following is taken from “Ahl al Kitab in the Quran
An Analysis of Selected Classical and Modem Exegesis” by Jarot Wahyudi pg. 26-37:

The basic question ofwho the People ofthe Book are, is a subject that has
been debated by Muslim scholars throughout Islamic history. Sorne scholars state
that People ofthe Book are Jews and Christians as recipients of earlier revealed
books, the Torah and the Gospel;43 while others prefer to extend ahl af-kitab to
include the $ibFün 44 and the Nfajüs,45 as weiL A clue suggesting the inclusion of

the Sabeans as ah! aJ-fdtab can be found in sÜTat aJ-ijajj (22): 17, where people are
divided into the foLlowing six groups: those who believe (aJ-ladhina amaniï), those
who foLlow the Jewish faith (aJ-ladhlna hadU), the Sabean (a$-$abi’iinj, the
Christians (an-Na.sara), the Magians (al-Majus), and those who adhere to
polytheism (aJ/adhlna ashrakiï).46 Sorne commentators have interpreted a/-Majus
simply to be another reference to those who adhere to polytheism. But this is an

obvious error, considering that the two expressions are separated by the words
wa 1-ladhIna, which shows that Magians are clearly distinct from the polytheists,
The phrasing also suggests that, when God examines the various forms offaith on
the Day of Judgment, they will be on an equal footing with the previously
mentioned groups.

Most Qur’anic exegetes commenting on siirat a/-Ma’idah (5):6 identify
the People ofthe Book as those with whom Muslims could consume food or from
among whom Muslims could choose a bride. Muslims’ opinions regarding this
verse’s depiction of the People of the Book may be divided into tbree main
approaches. Imâm al-Shafi’I, for example, states that the verse denotes only the
descendants of Israelite Jews and Christians, because Moses and Jesus were sent
only to their own nations and not to others. This argument is supported by the use
of the term min qablikum (“those who received Scripture before you”) to denote
those nations whose WOIllen could be taken in marriage by Muslims.49 Al-Shafi’1’s
opinion, however, differs from that of Imam Abü I:Ian1fah as well as that of the
majority of Islamic jurists who say that whoever believes in a prophet or a Book
revealed by God is înc1uded among the People of the Book, and not just Jews and
Christians. It follows then that a group ofpeople who believe only in the Suhuf of

Ibrahim, or the Zabur revealed to Dawûd, may logically be regarded as People of
the Book.

A third view is put forward by a minority of classical Muslim scholars
who insist that any community which one supposes to possess
scripture can be regarded as People of the Book — for example the Majüs.51 This
third argument is, according ta al-Mawdudi, expanded by sorne modern Muslim
scholars, to the point where the adherents of Buddhism and Hinduism can he
regarded as People ofthe Book. Ibn KathIT informs us that Abu Thawr IbrahIm b.
Khiilid ai-Kalbi (d.860), the loyal follower of Shiifi’1 and Atunad b. Ijfanbal, states
that the meat slaughtered by the Majüs may lawfully be consumed and that
Muslims are permitted to marry their women.

The most detailed treatment ofthis matter is found in Rashid Rida’s TafSir
al-Manar. According to Muhammad Quraish Shihab, Rida was asked by a
Javanese (Indonesian) Muslim what the law was concerning marriage ta the pagan
women of China, as weIl as the permissibility of eating the meat of animals

slaughtered by Chinese butchers. To answer these questions, Rida examined
many transmissions (riwayat) on the authority of the Prophet’s Campanions and
those who followed, the rules of Islamic jurisprudence, the linguistic
construction ofthe Qur’anic verses and the previous opinions of Muslim scholars.
He came to the conclusion that Muslim men are not allowed to marry women who
are unbelievers, as stated in sUrat al-Baqarah (2):221.56 Nevertheless, he
explains, the Majus, Sabians and the Indian idolaters, Chinese and others like
them, may be regarded as People of the Book. Rashid Rida further explains that
ahl al kitab is not a term limited to Jews and Christians, but includes Sabi’iin and
Majus, Hindus, Buddhists and Confucianists. He argues that the Qur’an mentions
the Sabi’iin and Majus, but not the Brahmans (Hindus), Buddhists and Confucians,
because the former were known to the Arabs of Iraq and of Bahrayn. The latter
were far from Arab lands. The Arabs themselves had not yet traveled to India,
Japan or China. In the interest of avoiding a strange statement (ighrab), this verse
does not mention those religions ofwhich the Arabs were not yet aware.

Historically, the Muslims levied a poll-tax on the ahl al-kitiïb
including the Majus of Bahrrayn, Hajar and Persia, as stated in the hadith
collection of Bukhari and Muslim. Imam Ahmad, al-Bukhari, Abü Dawüd, and alTirmidhi inform us that the Prophet collected jizyah from the Majus of Hajar.This is affirmed in a hadith related by ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn ‘Auf (in the presence
of ‘Umar) and recorded by both Malik and al-Shafi: ” testify that the Prophet,
peace be upon him, said: (treat them as
People of the Book). However, there is a debate among the muuhaddithiïn on the
validity of this hadith; some stating that its transmission (sanad) was
discontinuous which is why sorne muuhaddithiïn do not
consider the Majus as ahl kitab. However, Rida argues that this interpretation
is weak, since the popular association of the term ahl al-kitab with Jews and
Christians has its origins in their traditional proximity to Arabs. It cannot be
assumed, therefore, that there exist no other ahl al-kitab in the world. Indeed,
there is every reason to assume that others do exist, as Islamic teachings tell us
that God sends His messengers to every community to deliver both glad tidings
and unhappy news, and to reveal at the same time
(scripture and just teachings) that they may do what is right.

Furthennore, argues Rida, this interpretation is analogous to the usage of
the word ‘ulamiï: a tenn which signifies people who have a specialized knowledge
(in religion) exceeding that of the common Muslim people, but which does not
preclude the possibility that knowledge can aiso be acquired by others.

Rida’s contention is legitimized by Ibn Taymiyyah who held that the
Prophet granted the Majus the status of ahl- kitab after which he signed a peace
treaty with the people ofBahrrayn where sorne Majus lived. Ibn Taymiyyah added
that aIl the caliphs and Muslim scholars were unanimous in their agreement on
this matter. Rashad Salim commented on Ibn Taymiyyah’s statement that in alMuwattta’ (1:278, in the part on zakat, jizyah of the People of the Book, and
Majus), hadith number 41, related by Ibn Shihab, stated: ‘News came to me that
the Prophet took jizyah from the Majus of Bahrayn, and ‘Umar took jizyah from
the Majus of Persia, and ‘Uthman b. ‘A.fIan took jïzyah frorn the Berbers.” It is
further recorded in Hadith number 42 that ‘Umar b. ai-Kha.t.tab in discussing the
Majus said, “I don’t know what I should do for them.” ‘Abd al-Rahman b. ‘Auf
answered, “I testify that the Prophet said: Treat them as ahl kitaab. It is also
told in Bukhâri’s Sahih 4:96, in the part on jizyah and muwaddah to the ahl harb, that ‘Umar did not take jizyah from the Majus, but then ‘Abd al-Rahman b.
,Auf testified that the Prophet had taken it from the Majus of Hajar. In the same

passage, from ‘Amr b. ‘Auf al-Ansari cornes the tradition that the Prophet sent
Abü ‘Ubaydah to Bayan to collect the jizyah. ‘Ali b. Abu Talib is
aiso reported as having referred to the Majus as ahl al-kitab.

From the above passage, it is clear that the tenn ahl al-kitab included Jews,
Christians, Majus and Sabiuin, and couid even be extended, as Rida proposed, to
Confucians, Hindus and Buddhists. In the contemporary world, Muslims are
exposed to all of these faiths and it is, therefore, incumbent upon schoiars to
anticipate this phenomenon and, according1y, refonnulate their injunctions on the
basis of the Qur’an. l believe that Qur’anïc injunctions will retain their relevance
throughout the ages, as long as Muslims are courageous enough to reinterpret every Qur’anic concept contextually, including
that of the ahl kitab in a practical and appropriate manner, as will be examined
in the next chapter.

Certain verses of the Qur’an c1early confirm the status of oider
monotheistic religions and command the faithfu1 not to discriminate against them,
as they aiso have been promised God’s grace and mercy. But other verses state an
opposite sentiment, making it difficuit to reconcile their content with the principie
oftolerance. The contradiction is glaring that sorne commentators have, by way
of explanation, invoked the Qur’anïc concept of abrogation to conclude that one
group ofverses must necessarily abrogate the other as the following examples:
Surat al-Baqarah (2):62.

Those who believe (in the Qur’an) and those who follow the Jewish
(scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians, any who believe in God
and the Last Day, and work righteousness shaH have their reward with
their Lord: on them shaH be no fear, nor shaH they grieve.

surat Ali ‘Imran (3):85.
If anyone desires a religion other than Islam (submission to God), never
will it be accepted of hirn; and in the Hereafter he will be in the ranks of
those who have lost (aH spiritual good).

surat al-Maidah (5):72.
Those who believe (in the Qur’an), those who follow the Jewish
(scriptures), and the Sabians and the Christians, any who believe in God
and the Last Day, and work righteousness, on them shaH he no fear, nor
shall they grieve.
surat al-hajj (22): 17.

Those who believe (in the Qur’an), those who follow the Jewish
(scriptures), and the Sabians, Christians, Magians and polytheists, God will
judge between thern on the Day of Judgement: for God is witness of all
things.

Ibn ‘Abbas who is joined by the traditionai exegetes insists that the first of these
verses, sUrat al-Baqarah (2):62 should be abrogated by the second, sUrat AI “Imran
(3):85. In his rebuttal of Ibn ‘Abbas’s theory of abrogation, al-Taban argues that
God would not single out sorne of his creatures to the exclusion of others when
rewarding those who had lived in faith and acted rightly. In support
of al-Taban’s argument, al-Tiis1 convincingly refutes the possible abrogation of

this verse on the simple grounds that God’s promise cannot be abrogated. In other words, “once God has promised something, He will not subsequently
withdraw His promise.It is thus reasonable to assume that God’s promise is
not abrogated in this case, and that the believers — the Christians, the Jews, the
Sabeans, who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds are
redeemed in the Qur’an. Nevertheless, other verses would seem to contradict this
conclusion, as will be seen later.

In Tabatabai’s commentary on sürat al-Ma’idah (5):72, the custodians of
the Gate of Bliss will attach no importance to titles, whether a group be called
believers, Jews, Sabeans or Christians. The determining factors are held to be
an upright life and belief in God and the Last Day

Fazlur Rahman, a modern Musslim scholar, critiques the traditional
exegesis upon the said verses in the foUowing words:

The vast majority of Muslim commentators exercise themselves fruitlessly
to avoid having to admit the obvious meaning: that those–from any
section of humankind–who believe in God and the Last Day and do good
deeds are saved. They either say that by Jews, Christians, and Sabeans here
are meant those who have aetually become “Muslims”–whieh
interpretation is clearly belied by the fact that “Muslims” constitute only
the frrst ofthe four groups of “those who believen
–or that they were those
good Jews, Christians, and Sabeans who lived before the advent of the
Prophet Mullammad–which is an even worse tour de force. Even when
replying to Jewish and Christian claims that the hereafter was theirs alone,
the Qur’an says, “On the contrary, whosoever surrenders himself to God
while he does good deeds as well, he shaH fmd his reward with his Lord,
shall have no fear, nor shall he come ta grief.”

According ta Rahman, the logie behind a recognition of universal goodness, which
commands a belief in one God and the Last Day as pre-requisites, necessarily
entails that Muslims be ranked as one community among many. Srrat alMaidah (5):51 appears to yield a final judgement on the problems of a religiously
plural world:

To thee We sent the Scripture in truth, confirming the scripture that came
before it, and guarding it in safety: so judge between them by what Gad
hath revealed, and follow not their vain desires, diverging from the truth
that hath come to thee. To each among you have We prescribed a Law and
an Open Way. If God so wiIled, He would have made you a single People,
but (His plan is) to test you in what He hath given you: 50 strive as in a
race in aIl vïrtues. The goal of you all is to Gad; it is He that will show you
the truth ofthe matters in which ye dispute

The positive value of diverse religions and communities, then, is that they
may compete with each other in goodness. Professor Issa J. Boullata remarks that
the mere existence of various religious communities in the world points to a
religious pluralism intended by God to create competition between them in a race
to attain all virtues. It should be noticed that khayrât is
expressed in a plural form, meaning that there are many types of goodness in the
world, including values in religions, for the attainment of which we as human
beings must compete with each others in a proper manner. This is, I believe, the
élan vital ofthe Qur’aruc concept of ahl al-kitab in the contemporary world.

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