The term ahl al-kitab, or people of the book, refers to followers of scripture-possessing religions that predate the Qur_an, most often Jews and Christians. In some situations other religious groups, such as Zoroastrians and Hindus, have been considered to be people of the book. Some Qur_anic verses also reference the Sabeans, who are usually understood to be one of several gnostic Judeo-Christian sects such as the Mandeans, the Elchasaites, or Archontics. Muslims recognize the holy books possessed by the Jews (al-Tawrah: Torah; al-Zabur: Psalms) and Christians (al-Injil: Gospel) as legitimate revelations. However, they believe that some portions of these scriptures were abrogated and superceded by the Qur_an and the Christians and Jews corrupted others.
The Quran provides an ambivalent picture of the people of the book, sometimes praising and sometimes condemning them. Muslims are said to worship the same God as the people of the book, who were likewise honored with divine revelations (Q 2:62). However, the people of the book are also criticized for certain faults and sometimes referred to as unbelievers (Q 5:18, 9:29–35). These differences in tone seem to be connected with the circumstances in which Qur_anic revelations were delivered. In Mecca the Prophet’s message was directed against the idolaters who opposed him, and Muhammad believed that the Jews and Christians, as fellow monotheists, would recognize him as a prophet. After his arrival in Medina, however, it became apparent that most Jews and Christians were not going to submit to Islam. As a result, the Meccan suras generally express more favorable opinions of the people of the book, and the Medinan suras more negative images.
Muslim representations of ahl al-kitab in hadith and early juristic literature demonstrate an increased familiarity with Jewish and Christian beliefs and practices, because the people of the book initially represented the majority population in the expanded Muslim empire. On the whole, this literature presents ahl al-kitab in a negative light. Many hadiths seem concerned about their undue influence and warn Muslims not to imitate them. Hadith literature also lays the groundwork for the practice of assigning protected status (known as dhimmi status) to people of the book who submitted to Muslim political authority. This arrangement made it possible for Jews and Christians to practice their faiths while living in Muslim societies. Although treated as second-class citizens, non-Muslim communities were largely able to coexist peacefully with Muslims for centuries, without experiencing the active persecution that minority religious groups often encountered in Europe. Islamic literature from the eleventh through eighteenth centuries generally deals with ahl al-kitab within the context of their dhimmi status. Although dhimmis were understood to be inferior to Muslims, some Jews and Christians managed to attain high positions in Islamic states.
A few, such as John ofDamascus (d. c. 748), even engaged in theological discussions with Muslims. Islamic polemical literature associated with scholars such as Ibn Hazm of Córdoba (d. 1064), Ibn al- _Arabi (d. 1148), and al-Ghazali (d. 1111) repeated earlier criticisms of Jews and Christians, posited different theories to explain the corruption of their scriptures, and assigned blame for this calamity to well-known figures such as the Old Testament prophet Ezra, the Christian apostle Paul, and the Byzantine emperor Constantine. The people of the book were also accused of concealing biblical prophecies foretelling the coming of Muhammad and the triumph of Islam. Sufi works, such as the poetry of Jalal al-Din Rumi, look to Jesus and other biblical saints as models but contain similar criticisms of Jews and Christians. All these texts reflect a belief in Muhammad as the bearer of God’s crowning revelation, supplanting the partial revelations of the biblical Scriptures. During modern times, substantial changes in the relationship between the Islamic world and the West led to shifts in Muslim attitudes toward the people of the book. From the early 1800s, Islamic modernists acknowledged that Muslims could learn some things from the “Christian” West, but they continued to assert Islam’s superiority as a religious system. Colonizing European states attempted to impose Western values upon Islamic populations, but westernizing Muslim governments failed to achieve the promised prosperity. With the breakdown of the dhimmi system and the rise of nationalism, ethnic and religious violence has erupted throughout the Muslim world. This is most noticeable in the region of Palestine, where many Muslims see the establishment of Israel as a Western colonial project. During the late twentieth century, Islamic revivalists (or “Islamists”) increased their influence and largely rejected the “compromises” of the modernists. The Islamists advocate a return to the glorious Islamic civilization of the past, with its division of the world into dar al-islam and dar al-harb (“house of war”; i.e., that part of the world not ruled by Islamic government) and returning non-Muslim minorities to their former dhimmi status.